Monday, May 07, 2007

The Book of Hope 25: Why a Swan?

The whole time I was in Finland I must of heard like dozens of bands and saw maybe 20 movies. I even thought of doing little thumbnail reviews or whatever of them here on the blog, but the problem was (aside from being way too busy), I just can't be positive enough about them. I mean it's not like Finns are unmusical, because they have actually produced a really amazing number of famous musicians for a country of only 5 million people. But, not to be mean or anything, Ireland has a million less people, so what's that about? Because everybody loves Irish music, even English people.

But let's face it, Finnish music only appeals to a narrow range of taste. Basically just Finns, pretty much, and Slavic metal-heads. I guess the deal with the arts in Finland is sort of the deal with everything else there: the Finnish language itself. It just isn't an easy language to sing in, and when Finns try to sing in English, instead of using their own heritage and, you know, distinctive vocal sound as a cultural advantage (like the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria did, for instance), they all just try to sound like American or English pop stars, so the results can be pretty pathetic. If you don't believe me, try listening to Kingston Wall or Lordi or Nightwish or Sons of Bodom online and check it out for yourself. As for Finnish movies, they can be really interesting and sharp-looking and professionally shot and all--the Finns are the best tecchies in Europe--but basically they're like HBO specials filmed in a former Soviet republic. Finnish is a big problem in them, too, even in the famous ones like Man Without a Past--strangely enough, the more supporting the role, the better the acting. Less dialogue, I guess. The best actor in Finland (that I saw anyway) weighs like 400 pounds--he's the guy who plays the police chief in Raid. And I'm not even gonna try to type his name. But really, they should consider hiring the BBC to dub everything into English for them.

Whatever, the big exception (this is just my opinion, so please don't hate me) to mediocre Finnish music is their folk music, which I really like. And the most interesting band I heard the whole time I was there, though I would describe their sound as more electro-rock-folk, was a group called Tenhi ( That's who was playing in the Paunanne main hall/rock garden at the top of the hill when we climbed up out of the gulch. One of the things I really love about the TV show Deadwood, by the way, is the way the mining town is sort of built during the course of the series, so that you watch it gradually spring to life. Paunanne reminded me of Deadwood in the way that everything was all rough-hewn and slapped together, with lots of little buildings and odd corners and twisting paths, though of course there weren't any gold mines. The only gold mines in Finland are cellphones and tourism, I guess. I never did find out who actually owned Pauanne, but I'm guessing it's some aging hippies like Ior Bock and his friends who were restoring and renting it out for a hobby--while prospecting for tourists in Kaustinen. Tonight they'd struck pay dirt.

Well silver, maybe, not gold, judging from their hair. Actually, the smallish mostly middle-aged crowd, who were mostly wearing jeans and T-shirts with slogans printed on them, kinda reminded me a little of the folks at very first "rock concert" I ever went to, which was in a park in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, when I was ten. And you will absolutely, totally never guess who was performing there. David Hasselhoff. You know, the American actor. He was like the most popular pop singer in Germany when I was a kid. That was a pretty far cry from Tenhi, who were playing a sort of dirge-like evocation of the winter forest accompanied by a dark chant when I first arrived. In other words, not danceable. Which was really just as well, in my case. Riita and Kimmo disappeared off somewhere together, so I was left to find a comfortable rock with Alex, who had thoughtfully brought along a blanket and some warmish Cokes and candy bars. "You'll never get through this circus tonight without some sort of sugar rush," he told me with a dramatic sigh. "I know I won't. I still have so many calls to make--the fat old sod lumbers me with all the details he can't be arsed with."

It was weird, but I still could get no sense of like who Alex really was. I mean, he was charming and even fun company to be around--especially compared to most of the other people there--but in terms of personal vibes, he seemed about as blank as the lenses of his designer glasses. I wasn't even sure whether he was gay or straight. Maybe neither. I got the feeling that deep down he was a sort of, you know, sad person--and usually that's a total turnoff for me. Well, makes sense, I guess after what I went through with Gene. But something about him, maybe his clever mind and curly hair and sharp-witted manner, made me want to find out more about him. So I just decided to save time and be like, "OK, so what's your story?"

But after he told me, I really didn't didn't feel any the wiser. Only child, father in the wine importing business, wanted to be a house music DJ and a journalist but instead got a degree in "accountancy" at Glasgow University, moved to London to work for an MP, then to Brussels when the "MP became an MEP", and now to Stockholm to work for Praetorius. There was absolutely no mention of a significant other or any personal life at all, and he recited it all impatiently, almost crossly, as if maybe he was ashamed of who he was or what he did or whatever. I thought to myself, damn girl, I do not want to ever sound like that about myself. Sort of accepting about being alone and bored with life and all emotionally blank, I mean, if that makes any sense. Maybe 'detached' is a better word? Whatever, I wanted to be happy, and I wanted it to show when I recited my resume to strangers. But realistically how can you ever guarantee that? Just by making your life as enjoyable as possible, I guess. I suddenly realized that what I really wanted was to be fed a diet of constant happiness, like chocolate. And that would take another person. And not just any person--only the right one. The candy man. In Sugartown.

I'm still not exactly clear where Sugartown is, but I know it exists somewhere. Because when I was a little girl, whenever I was really upset about something and couldn't sleep because I was sick or scared because we were moving or something, my mom would sing "Sugartown" to me as a lullaby. 'Cuz I'm in shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh-shh-Sugartown..." It's a great way to say 'Shhhh' a lot to a whiney kid, I guess.

I'm guessing Alex's mom never sang him any lullabies at all. He only perked up when he was being malicious about his employer: "Magician, indeed. This 'raising the dead' ceremony we're to witness tonight is just his latest load of wank."

"You don't believe in any of it, then?"

He snorted. "Magic? It's all just pants. I should know, since I've made the arrangements for it--including the blood sacrifice. It's all done with mirrors, like the guerilla theater tricks he used to perform when he was a street busker for tourists in Stockholm's Old Town. How he ever got rich doing that for a living is a bleeding mystery to me."

I was like, "Sacrifice???"

And he was like, "Chill, not a human sacrifice. A swan, which was actually even harder to come by. They're legally protected here--I had to bribe a vet to diagnose it with bird flu. Probably really has it--I'm not going anywhere near its cage."

"So Dr P is killing a swan onstage tonight in front of everyone as part of this stupid ceremony thingie???"

He smirked at me.

"He's killed plenty of doves in his busking act--they don't just miraculously disappear, you know, dearie--they get crushed in little spring traps. Real or fake, either way magic requires a lot of blood. I thought you knew that from your long intimate talks with the great man." Now he sounded like he was jealous! It was weird--deep down I believed the same things he did about Dr P, you know, that he was a phoney or whatever, but for some reason I felt defensive about him at the same time. I mean, he'd always treated me with respect and courtesy, and it seemed sort of gross for Alex to be dissing him constantly behind his back. From what I could see he was a pretty generous boss, too, even if he was totally tweaked. And I guess I also still felt sort of flattered--in a freaked-out kind of way--that he'd proposed to me. Of course, he couldn't possibly have really thought I'd take a proposal like that seriously, right? Or did he? Suddenly I had a sudden picture in my head of Dr P as a sly, manipulative puppet-master type just pulling people's strings. Maybe he proposed like that to every chick he met, just to sort of guilt them out or fascinate them or make them feel some kind of loyalty to him, like I was. Now I felt really confused. And why a swan?

"I totally don't understand you. You don't believe in magic. You act like you hate him and hate the job--you must be doing it for some reason, aside from just the money, I mean!" He looked cross again. "Unless you're planning to write a book about it or something," I added. Then I caught sight of the look on his face. "That's it, isn't it?"

He laughed. "OK, busted. That's actually why I took the job in the first place. Well, that and all the lovely money he pays me. I've been working on a book about the Neo-Heathen movement for two years, so when I saw Praetorius' job advertised online I couldn't believe my luck. Look, promise you won't tell anyone, right? The old wanker would probably feel flattered to have someone to be his Boswell, but the rest of this mob would likely lynch me or sacrifice me to Loki or something. Promise?"


Alex stared at me intensely. In the dim light his expression looked like that one you always see on statues of the Buddha. Smiling and blank. "And if you learn anything really deliciously interesting, you'll tell me first, right--I promise I won't quote you. It's not as if he doesn't deserve it," he went on, noticing my doubtful expression. "You've seen his website--almost everything on it from his so-called history is plagiarized word for word from the work of famous academics like Susannah Akermann and Anders Sandberg. Who I've met in person at an AI convention and, incidentally, thinks Praetorius is a charlatan and a hoaxster."

I was like, "You've read it in the original Swedish?" Yes, he said, he had--he'd learned Swedish in just a few weeks before he'd even taken the job. He spoke eight languages, David told me. The Finnish I'd heard him speaking on his cell phone just now he'd only picked up just in the last few days just to use on this trip. I totally couldn't believe it--his mad language skillz made me feel like a total dufus. I mean, I'd tried to learn Finnish for months, and I still had trouble just understanding what people said back when I said "Hello"! However, I was at least smart enough to recognize a good time to change the subject.

"How on earth do you manage to learn languages so fast?" I asked him with my best look of doggy-like admiration. "Is there like some kind of secret or whatever to it?"


"What do you mean?"

"The fastest way to learn a new language is in bed," he said and got back on his cell.

OK, so again I was no wiser. I still couldn't even figure out if he meant that in a figurative or in a gay way. Though as it turned out, he was totally right--and I'm finally picking up a lot of Finnish that way myself, now that it doesn't matter any more. And, let's face it--some bad habits, too. In bed I mean.

I like all of Tenhi's music, pretty much, although their latest CD, Airut: Aamujen is too much of a piano-y pity-party even for me. They were just about to record it in the studio, I guess, so they were playing a lot of cuts from it that night, with only a few from Vare, which is my favorite. Why do I like them so much? They don't literally play traditonal folk music in the way that some Finnish bands try to recreate the sound of the kantele from the era of the Kalevala (there is a lavish 2003 version of the Kalevala--a "Progressive Rock Epic"--available BTW, but it's not folk, and it's half in English), but somehow they manage to capture the feeling of how primitive Finnish music must have felt, if that makes any sense. They were playing the song 'Tenhi", which means "the voice of the shaman", when Jenn showed up to say hi--you remember, the heathen housewife from Columbia, Maryland? She had braided her dishwater blond hair and was wearing a tanktop and shorts. "Just went back and checked on the kids. He sounds like the guy from Coil," she said, or rather yelled, referring to Tyko Saarikko, the lead singer, who was growling into the mike up on the Flintstones rock-stage a few yards in front of us. High overhead, through the huge open wooden skylight, the sky was turning to a dark gold, as the sun blazed red through the round windows, burning through the swirling motes of dust to halo Dundrero's frizzy mane, to my left, like a giant Hairmax laser-comb.

One of the absolute worst things about me as a person is that I'm always noticing critical things about people--and one of the main things I always notice (which nobody else ever seems to) is how they walk. I think it goes back to my childhood, when I became really self-conscious about my gait, thanks to my mom. I guess I must have been in like third or fourth grade, maybe--we had just started having modern dance in PE, so one day when she was sitting on the patio having a gin and tonic or something I started dancing around the little back yard we had at that house. You know, to show off what I'd learned to her. But I guess she must have been having one of her "monthly migraines" or something, because suddenly she snapped at me, "Oh, for Heaven's sake, Hope, stop that galloping around!"

I was totally shocked, like she'd slapped me or something. I can still remember really clearly just standing there with my mouth open. I mean, I'd thought i was being so graceful! But instead Mom had made me feel like a great big clumsy horse or something. Anyway, after that I tried really hard to be conscious of how I moved and walk gracefully instead of galloping. In old-fashioned books young ladies are always taught 'deportment', which usually means stuff like manners and playing the piano or whatever, but also includes just learning how to walk properly. Especially because it must have been really hard navigating around in those huge stiff skirts they wore. Anyway, Jenn could have used some deportment classes, I thought. She had a sort of funny cartoon sailor's walk from side to side that made her hair flop back and forth like a spaniel's ears.

Although, come to think of it, the whole point of learning deportment was to attract a man, and Jenn already had one, being married and all. Plus she was a telephone-sex operator from home, which I guess meant she had a pretty different point of view on the whole subject of manners and stuff from Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, for instance. Deportment pretty much didn't matter in her line of work.

"He's the head of the OTO in England," she said, still talking about the lead singer from Coil. "That's how Robb and I met--on an OTO message board."

I was like, "Nice. Romantic." WTF do you say to something like that, anyway? Oh, the Devil introduced you at an orgy? Bitchin'. "You know your friends from Seattle, Arwen or whatever? They sort of came onto me tonight. As a couple."

Now it was her turn to fake being effusive. "Cool! He's a really excellent lover. And she's lots of fun too. She's a great cook. You are so lucky."

"I told them no!" We were both shouting over the music now.

"Oh," she said. She made a big pouty face. "Bummer you aren't into them, they have a great leather collection. See, I have to be really dominated because I'm such a sub. And I just never seem to come with Robb--that's why he sent me to Harvey for training. Harvey's really great--he's into tantric techniques and all. And that charisma of his...he makes you wet just looking at you. I didn't even mind reciting my Oath to him every morning."


"Yeah, that's the only part of submission I really hate. I have to wake up my Master every morning with, you know, this long speech full of promises about how good a slave I'll be all day and do everything he says and all. It's really unfair when you both have to work day jobs, you're just not in the mood half the time."

By now I should have been way past it, but I was still sort of shocked a little. "And you do all this like right in front of your kids???"

"Oh, the girls are too young to understand yet. They'll be free to make their own choices when they grow up--just so long as it isn't X'ian or anything super evil like that. Anyway, it wasn't just Harvey I served--Arwen's pretty dom, too. She was actually like the first woman I was ever with. To be honest, it was pretty boring down there, so I just played 'Alphabet Soup'. You know, I made vowels with my tongue, like 'A', 'E', 'I', 'O', 'U'..."

"Shut up, Jen, this is way too much information!" The band stopped playing just that sec, so suddenly everybody in the whole place could hear me screaming. A bunch of people turned to stare, including the middle-aged Finnish couple just behind us who were dressed like Goths but were severely tanned and groomed like aging fashion models, and I caught sight of Harvey and Arwen looking at me accusingly from between their stacks of coolers near the back of the hall.

"Oh--sorry," said Jenn. Then she brightened. "Maybe I'll see if they want to hook up with us tonight--if you're OK with that, I mean."

"Sure, it's none of my business," I told her. "I don't want to hook up with anybody tonight, thanks." But I was lying, cuz actually I really kinda did want to hook up with somebody quite a lot. They just hadn't shown up at Pauanne or introduced themselves to me yet, I guess. But there was definitely a feeling of orgy in the air, and it was starting to creep me out a little--maybe because I was starting to vibe it, too, and it made me feel all itchy and restless and, well, vulnerable. I wanted to wander out into the woods and go to sleep there and then fall in love with the first guy I saw when I woke up, like in a "Midsummer Night's Dream". But with my luck, I'd just get a sore bottom. I remember in my bros' old Playboy magazines there used to be a cartoon character called "Li'l Annie Fanny" or something who was always running around half-naked being chased by horny old dudes--and sometimes even horny old dudesses like Gunilla or Arwen. That's kind of how I felt right now with everyone hitting on me. I mean, it's not like I'm some kind of prude who's taken "The Purity Pledge" or whatever. If the right guy had shown up I'd have happily dropped my panties for him. I was on vacation, FFS! But let's face it--this was turning out to be a major freak convention. Riita had scored the only major hottie there, and even he was looking sorta gross at the moment. The two of them turned up all red-faced and covered in what looked like baby oil, with Kimmo stripped down to just his blue briefs and running shoes. Riita gave me a big kiss. She had woven a sort of garland of leaves and berries into her hair.

"Anssi is helping us to rehearse now," she said. "For the ceremony. Isn't it fun? We are having the most exciting holiday, even better than Ibiza."

"We were just in the sauna," said Anssi, squatting down beside me. I introduced him to Jenn. "Have you tried it? It is an authentic smoke sauna just as in our ancient Finnish traditions." Now that he mentioned it, I noticed he looked boiled-red all over too--and smelled like a side of ham.

"Is that the little brick building with the twisty chimney?" Jenn asked him. The band started playing again, and she and Anssi got into some long involved convo that I only half paid attention to--at least until he started talking about the ceremony, which was supposedly about to start any minute. Dr P's biggest worry, he told her, was that it would be somehow perverted or invaded by Tuuslar, the evil demon who secretly ruled Finland. Jenn said wow a few times, she was down with that, and nodded sympathetically while she gazed deep into his eyes through her thick glasses--maybe she was suddenly into him because she thought I was, I dunno. Or maybe she detected something Harveyishly dominant about Anssi that I'd stupidly overlooked. Whatever, after he'd been going on about Tuuslar for a few minutes, I interrupted her play.

"So you think Tuuslar is actually, you know, a real person--not just a symbol or whatever?"

And Anssi was like, "Oh no, he's a real person. He is the avatar of Vainomenen, who has come back to Finland, as he promised he would when he sailed to the Western Lands. He always takes the form of an old man with long grey hair and a beard, just like Odin," he added politely.

"Hail Odin," Jenn replied. She was starting to remind me of the chick on Tenacious D who clogged for Satan.

"But I thought Vainomenen was a good god," I said. "Why would he come back like all evil?"

"That is just Praetorius' opinion. Gods are neither good or evil--their ways cannot be understood by us. Vainomenen is not acting evil so much as...crazy. No Finn could believe he is evil. But he is perhaps insane now. You see, when Vainomenen began to be needed and believed in again, after independence when the Kalevala was taughtt in our schools, he came back to us. But his true native country was not just Finland--it was Karelia, too. And that part of our country is gone, stolen by the Russians and its Finnish people all driven out. For Vainomenen it felt like half his soul or his identity was missing. So he became like a schizophrenic. That is why he says crazy things and does crazy acts, but everything he does is for Finland. He is Finland, but the ancient and untamed part--that is why he is so dangerous."

I was like, um...ok...

Anssi wasn't done with the subject, though. "And even though he is perhaps the greatest magician in the world, Praetorius is making a stupid mistake to do this thing tonight, I think. He is very afraid of Vainomenen, but so far the god has not harmed him. But tonight Praetorius will invoke Ukko instead, Vainomenen's father. Ukko is like the Christian god, a creator, but he has vanished from this country, his powers are waning now, like Tapio the forest-god. But even if he does restore Lemminkainen back to life--and it will take someone of the blood of Lemminkainen's mother to actually do this, to make the magic salve from the honey of bees--then Vainomenen will be furious. He may be jealous of Lemminkainen and happy to have him stay in the land of the dead. Or he may be angry that he has been ignored and insulted in this way. It is my thought that he will take his revenge on all of us here tonight somehow."

"Well, duh! Why are you helping him do it then?" I said. "Aren't you afraid?"

He shook his head. "I have never seen any of the gods, even though I have studied them all my life. You have already met two of them just in the few days that you have been in Finland. You have even slept with one of them! I can only imagine to be in the presence of such power, of such a magical history. This is a thing I envy you very much--even if Vainomenen should find me, should kill me and steal my soul, then at least I will have been touched by a god. I will believe with not just my mind--but also with my inner spirit. You see, because Vainomenen is with us now, someday we Finnish people will have our Karelia back and become whole again. Already the Russians there are slowly becoming Finns. They read the Kalevala now there, too, you know--they even have Kalevala festivals and many publications about it. It is like a seed that is spreading there again, like a forest renewing after a great fire." Russians turning into Finns? Huh, how was that gonna work, by osmosis? You can see why I preferred hanging with Alex--he was the only other grownup there.

"I didn't sleep with him!" I said. "Well, technically I did, but we didn't--" Anssi was pursing his lips and shaking his head at me, while Jenn smirked.

He was like, "His mark is on you--you are like a celebrity for us tonight. Don't make it spoiled for everyone here by denying it."

Great. I mean, what could I possibly say to that? So I shut up. I didn't want to wreck anyone's little fantasies--I just hoped nobody was expecting me to have Likkanen's baby now. Tenhi came to the end of their set and after some applause, they were joined by their friends and girlfriends, who helped them move their equipment offstage. By now, the sun was starting to set behind the trees, and it was actually getting dark, something I hadn't seen before in Finland. "I must go to help Praetorius," Anssi said, getting up. "It's almost time for the ritual to begin."

I looked around, but Kimmo and Riita had disappeared again.

"OK, but why a swan?"

"The Swan of Tuonela," Anssi said. "It is the sacred Finnish symbol of death. After Lemminkainen killed it, his punishment was to be murdered himself and sent to the underworld."

"And tonight we're killing another one? How's that gonna work out?"

But he was gone. Something else he'd said stuck in my head, though. What was it--that I'd already met two of the gods of Finland? OK, assuming that Likkanen really had been Lemminkainen or whatever, then who was the second? The crazy bum in the park who'd taken a dump in the street in Helsinki? That was Vainomenen-Tuuslar? He hadn't seemed so scary to me. Smelly and disgusting maybe, but not exactly terrifying. I decided Anssi was just as looney as the rest of them, after all, if that was his idea of a god. Or Safe-T-Man, for that matter--I can personally guarantee you there was absolutely nothing divine about him.

But I'm sure L. Ron Hubbard got that a lot, too. Before he died, I mean.

Continued here...


Anonymous Ben Garrison said...

I thought Lemminkainen was killed because he didn't kill the swan as assigned. That's what Sibelius' music was about. The Finnish folk hero became so moved by the swan's sad song that he couldn't kill it. As a result he was cut into pieces and tossed into the river by an angry Finnish god. (His mother later sewed him back together and still yet another Finnish god sent down a magic dollop of honey to help bring him back to life).

I could be wrong--it's confusing. I've also seen the swan depicted as black, red and white. More research is necessary...

Anyway, I enjoyed your essay.

7:24 PM  

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