Fifteen years ago, a colleague of mine arranged a visit to the Swedish state alcohol monopoly’s lab. She was a member of their language task force that aimed to come up just the perfect words to describe the wines on the shelves, to make sure the way the words matched the taste of the wines so that the nakedly elegant wine truly was that and that people intuitively understood what that meant.
We weren’t there to taste wines, we were there to see how difficult it was to put things like taste into words, but the thing I remember the best was our cinnamon test. Each one of us got a little cinnamon, maybe a half a tablespoon, while we held our noses, waited a while and then, at the instructor’s signal, let go of our noses.
I’m sure you know, or can guess, what happened, but I’ll tell you anyway.
These days, sports news travel at lightning speed on Twitter, but I have to believe that even in the era of Twitter, there still have to be rink rats, people who hang out at the hockey rinks and get close to the teams. They’re often either kids or people with special needs, and I think it’s because they seem harmless. And are harmless. And have the time.
I was one once. When I was a kid. I loved being at the rink, any rink actually, so I tagged along with Dad to his beer league and oldtimers’ games, and looked for pucks, and talked with the cafeteria people, and watched Dad and his buddies play.
The most famous rink rat in town was a man everybody knew as “Puti” and while he probably wasn’t homeless for real, that’s what we’d call him today. A homeless person. He was also special.
If you’ve seen “A Night at the Roxbury” you’ll surely remember the Butabi brothers’ funny moves to “What is love”, and if you’ve seen it a dozen times like Wife and I – it was the first movie we saw together – you’ll also remember the scene in which the brothers rush to the rich nightclub owner Benny Zadir’s office.
“We’ve got a meeting with Mr. Zadir,” says one of the brothers, played by Will Ferrell.
“Names?” asks the assistant.
“Doug and Steve Butabi.”
Then the assistant delivers the line that is one of the running jokes of the movie:
“Are you two brothers?”
Earlier in the movie, when Doug and Steve have tried to get into the Roxbury, the bouncer has asked them the same question and every time, they deliver their standard reply.
And then: “YEEEEES!”
But at Mr. Zadir’s office, Doug says something else: “Ma’am, I appreciate the setup but I don’t really have time for this.”
Sometimes, though, there has to be time, regardless of the setup. Here are my top 3 lines from our recent US road trip.
For sixteen years, the Golden Gate Bridge has been something of a secret code in our household. A symbol of unity, if you will, between Wife and me, a testament to our way of sticking together. Well, not the actual bridge – even though it is an impressive sight and an impressive piece of engineering as it is – but driving across it.
I love to drive. Ever since I was a baby, the car’s been my safe place, and my happy place. The backseat was my domain, back there, I’ve read comics and made scientific experiments – such as testing which brand of glue dries fastest. Back in the day, there were no seat belts, especially not in the back, and there were no boosters or baby seats, I’d just lie on the back seat and take a nap when we drove to Grandma’s place.
Looking back, it’s always easy to connect the dots and see how one thing led to another. That’s how we take out the randomness and turn in a nice and clean story, because in truth, you never know where the road’s going to take you. You just keep on going, and while you may know where you’re trying to get, sometimes you make a right turn or get off an exit you hadn’t planned on taking, only to find out you ended up exactly where you should.
Both literally and figuratively speaking.
I don’t think I ever wanted to be the president of Finland, and I certainly didn’t know what a president did. Just goes to show that while sixth-graders know a lot of stuff, there’s a lot of stuff they don’t know about the stuff they know. What I did know, though, was that it was the highest praise the school nurse could have given me, and that made me feel good.
The players on my table hockey game were made of steel. I think one of the teams was Team Finland, but I’m not sure anymore. I am sure, though, that even a 7-year-old kid could grab those flat tin players by the head and bend them into an S shape, if they, for example, wouldn’t shoot the puck right, or if the goalie let in a soft goal.
It was also easy to curve the blades on their sticks so they were exactly like the real players’ sticks.
The little metal guys did their best, and so did I. My Dad, however, probably didn’t bring his best game to the table, but even his second-best was a little too good for me.
I suppose it’s possible that Pekka was trying to get me off my game with his question, although I doubt it. I think it was just something that occurred to him in the heat of the moment. He was never one to focus on football all that much.
Anyway, we were on our home field, on the small lot of grass between Pekka’s house and mine, and it was my turn to be the goalie. I had made a couple of saves and kicked the ball back to Pekka. He stopped it, put his foot on the ball, his hands on his hips, and asked me: “Hey, how old are your parents?
I didn’t say anything.
Pekka asked me again.
I said nothing. Pekka looked at me, and then – to be helpful, I guess – he said, “Mine are 35. Or, Mom’s 35, Dad’s a little older.”
Two weeks ago, I was on the ferry between Stockholm and Helsinki, listening to an interview on my headphones when suddenly I saw a man standing in front of me, pointing at me with his index finger. I took off my headphones just in time to hear him say, “Risto, right?”
It was Lare. I recognized him right away, which was pretty impressive, considering that I had only seen him once since we lost touch after fourth grade (mine, Lare’s third) and even that was more than twenty years ago.
But there we were, sitting at the table by the window, talking like that was all we ever did. We talked about his Dad (who was the first person I remember dying), about his 98-year-old grandfather who had lost his driver’s license and was wondering how he’d get to the summer cottage now, about my kids, his kids, our old hood, my work, and his work as a bodyguard at the finest and most legendary hotel in Helsinki.
“Some of the celebrities are really nice,” he told me. “Like Springsteen, he’s been there a couple of times. He’s a good guy … except that he gave me a T-shirt that was way too small so I had to go back and give him some feedback,” Lare said with a laugh.
“So, no rökötys for him,” I said.
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.