He coulda bin a contender. His words, not mine. Actually, that’s not true, they were my words because his words were, “Coulda been an A-list celebrity”, but the idea was the same. Had he got his break, the one he thought he had deserved, things would have been different. Very different.
The first time I saw him, I heard him first. I heard the sound of a skipping rope hitting the floor, but not the sound of his sneakers softly landing on the same floor. There was only a centimeter, at most, between his shoes and the wooden surface that had once been blue, and it was almost as if he’d just but now had black scuff marks from all the skipping and other training that took place in the small workout area.
This may look like just another small plastic bag. Just another plastic bag with a plastic bracelet inside. And to most people, that’s exactly what it is. Just another plastic bag, just another plastic bracelet, except that at second glance, you may notice that the bracelet is a Fitbit, one of those activity trackers, workout buddies that count steps and calories, and track sleep.
Yet, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a while.
And I’m going to tell you why.
Twelve years ago, Wife and I shook hands in the little kitchen of our little apartment in downtown Helsinki, on a closed deal. She’d start up a Swedish-language site and a discussion forum for expecting and new parents, and I would start up a Finnish-language site and a discussion forum for … hockey fans.
Wife’s site was up and running a few weeks later, and it turned into a big success.
Meanwhile, I was still working at my day job, while trying to get my writer friends to contribute to my new magazine that was going to come out that fall, still six months away. I wrote several articles myself, translated the ones my buddies – and brother-in-law – had written in English and Swedish, traveled to Sweden to meet with the designer who donated his time for my cause, negotiated with the printers, and the distribution channels, while trying to be a father and a boyfriend.
There’s a circus in town. The trucks and caravans rolled in late the night before, and by morning the big red tent has taken over the parking area of the town’s sports grounds. The entrance is set up, along with the popcorn stands, the candy store, and the ticket booth.
That same night, a bit before 7pm, the band starts to play. As soon as the audience find their seats inside the tent, the ushers close the doors, and with every beat the anticipation rises.
Then a tall man in shoes and pants that are several sizes too big stomps in with a big smile on his face, waving his hands like a conductor. The first laughs echo inside the tent – and the big man hasn’t done anything yet except show up.
“Caps, T-shirts, and sneakers, that’s what we need,” Wife told me the other day. I was a little surprised because that’s basically the contents of my entire wardrobe, but happy, because if you ask me, everybody needs caps, T-shirts, and sneakers.
Turned out that she wasn’t looking to add more caps, T-shirts, and sneakers into my wardrobe, but to take some out of there so she could send them to the refugees on Lesbos, Greece. Her office works with an organization that delivers clothes and other items to Greece to help the people who have nothing.
Like so many others, we wanted to help, simply because we want to help. Also, I’d like to see our kids become better people than I am and I’d like to see them become human beings who feel empathy, and sympathy, and who act. No, I’m not a sociopath, of course I feel empathy, and sympathy. It’s the last part that’s my weakness, which is why Wife is my hero. She’s a doer.
Anyway, we wanted to show Son and Daughter that everybody can do something.
Believe it or not, I do remember the moment I read the April 1997 issue of the Rolling Stone magazine. I was traveling on business – if you consider government employees’ travel as business – in Newfoundland in Canada. I had just checked in at my hotel in St. John’s and hadn’t had time to finish reading the article on the plane so fighting off the jetlag, I picked up the magazine again.
And this is what I remember: MTV’s trend watchers said that the next big thing would be “good”. Not just a good thing, but that being good, instead of bad, would be the next megatrend in pop. They said they could see signs of the pendulum going from the dangerous Madonnas, and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” towards artists and movies that represented goodness.
I remember it because it surprised me and because I hoped it to be true. Because I considered myself a good guy, a nice guy, and for once, I also wanted that to mean that I was cool as well.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany. I was in the kitchen making a cappuccino when a theory started to form in my brain. A Theory of Cool, to be exact. The part of the theory that was most unclear was its name, because while it is a theory, it might be best formulated as a law instead. The Law of Cool.
But in short, this is my epiphany:
“The things you think are cool by the time you turn 17 will always be cool to you.”
It doesn’t mean that you want to wear the same clothes and listen to the same music or try to walk just like your favorite Phys Ed teacher – who does that? – your entire life, it just means that deep down, your definition of cool doesn’t change that much after you turn 18.
I am one of those people who like lyrics in songs. I listen to the text, and for me to like a song, the text has to make sense. Well, the exception that confirms the rules is “Scatman” but I’m not sure if that even counts.
I think it’s partly because my brain’s just wired to play with words and twist and shout them, and love the words, and partly because I wouldn’t want to get caught pushing a message I don’t understand. It hasn’t always been easy, especially since Mom used to play Harry Belafonte and Edith Piaf at home when I was a preschooler, and as much as I’d love to say I was fluent in French at the age of five, well, I just can’t.
And “Je ne regrette rien” may even have been be easier to understand than “Day-o, day-o, Daylight come and me wan’ go home, day, me say day, me say day, me say day”.
“Hej på dig,” he said.
While “hej på dig” [hey-poh day] is not an uncommon way to say hello in Swedish, it’s one that always cracks me up because “Hej på dig” was the name of my first Swedish book in seventh grade. I – and probably thousands of Finns of my generation – can still recite the entire first chapter of the book by heart, or at least the last line, in which a dog barks in Swedish: “Vov, vov”
SOLLENTUNA, Sweden – About 35 years ago, a fair-haired boy got off bus 520 at the Sollentunavallen stop, walked through the gate and down the stone stairs to the outdoor rink, to attend Edsbergs IF’s hockey school.
Even if he had given it any thought, maybe he would have seen himself come back to the rink as an adult, and maybe a child could even imagine an indoor rink where the old outdoor rink was, and a practice rink next to it, and a full-size bandy rink next to that one, but he most likely didn’t think he’d be back at “Vallen” to unveil an image of himself on the wall of fame of the new rink.