I don’t remember my twentieth birthday, and that’s not me trying to be funny and imply I had a wild birthday party. I most probably didn’t have a party at all.
It was a Tuesday, so I probably took the subway to the university, had a few classes before taking the subway back to my tiny apartment. In the afternoon, I’d guess I drove my Nissan Sunny to hockey practice and home, and then watched the Invisible Man on Sky Channel – and waited for Monsters of Rock to begin at 1am.
A good day, in other words.
Risto at 20.
“Are you Finnish?” the man asked me, wasting no time with niceties.
Now, he asked the question with a smile on his face, but his tattooed knuckles told me I’d better answer him, and answer him truthfully.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“I could tell. Finnish genes are strong,” he said and raised his finger to indicate he was about to take a pause in the conversation.
We both did a set of bicep curls.
“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something very Finnish about you. My ex-wife was Finnish so I can tell,” he went on and wiped some sweat off his brow.
I did, too.
“Yeah, well, I don’t really know what it is, but sure, I’ve seen an image of the genetic map of Europe and we’re way out here when the rest of Europe is here,” I said, pointing holes in the air.
“Where in Finland are you from?” he asked me then.
You know, Helsinki in November is not heaven on Earth. It’s dark most of the day and even when the sun is supposed to get up, you’d never know because you’ll never see it. It’s probably cold, too. And windy. It rains … unless it’s snowing, but these days, it’ll probably rain. Unless it rained yesterday and then it got cold overnight and the sidewalks turned into skating rinks.
Well, you’ve seen it.
And the worst part of it all is that before it gets better, things get worse. The days get even shorter and the weather even colder so that by the 22nd, with another month to go until the winter solstice, you’re just about ready to go into hibernation.
And yet, one of those late November days in Helsinki changed my life, made everything better, and brought sunshine into our life. Mine and Mom’s.
You were born. In the middle of the night, on this day, eighteen years ago.
Every time I tell Son and Daughter that they spend too much time staring at a screen, I get a guilty conscience because I can also see a photo of myself, aged about 3, standing 50cm from a bulky, black-and-white television set, staring it, completely mesmerized.
To be honest, even the first words I learned to read were words in a TV advertisement.
But that’s probably not a surprise, considering that when I was old enough to sit by myself, when my hard-working mother needed some me-time so she could concentrate on her studies, she tied me up in a chair with a scarf (so that I wouldn’t fall down) and put me in front of a TV. Especially when the Thunderbirds were on.
In short, I was raised on TV.
It’s not easy to keep ta bird’s eye view when you’re 15. If anything, it’s hard. Time doesn’t really matter, because, what’s another year – to quote the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest song I remember falling asleep to the night Johnny Logan won the whole thing – because so much can happen in a year. Ten years seems like an eternity and yet, you’re in such a hurry at the same time.
So, when I was fifteen, I found it hard to really see the consequences of my decisions, although, I have to say that had I sat down and thought about it, I probably would’ve understood it. I probably even did sit down and think about things, and thought I understood it, but didn’t.
Or, even if I did, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t feel it.
In my defense, life’s not a straight line and even if you do make good decisions at fifteen, you still have to make new decisions at twenty, and twenty-three, and fourty-two, and some of them may be polar opposites of the ones you made at fifteen.
When Liverpool won the Premier League championship a few weeks ago, the first thing I thought of was a Kevin Keegan interview I had taped up on my wall when I was 14. Dad had cut it out because he knew Keegan was my idol and because he liked the message the headline sent: “I always keep my promises”.
But that’s not all I keep.
Earlier this week, Wife, Son and I sat on warm concrete on the sidelines of a soccer field in Gothenburg and ate lunch as we waited for our favorite player’s, Daughter’s game to begin. Her team was on a West Coast tour, with five games in four days.
I loved it.
Not because I’m one of those crazy soccer (hockey) Dads because I don’t think I am but because going to the sports field or hockey rink is my idea of having fun.
I don’t know why I’m wired that way but it fascinates me.
It must have been something on the table that triggered the flashback. Or, it was a combination of a flashback, and the feeling of having forgot something, I’m sure you know it.
I had just carried a table out of our garage for our garage sale and was thinking whether it was too early to leave, but stayed there, my mind wandering. It must have been that dream stage that made my brain dig up old memories, or maybe it was the fact hat we had been cleaning up our basement and all that old stuff on the table made m go back in time.
Or maybe it was the combination of things.
Anyway, there I stood, minding my own business when I suddenly remembered a sofa.
There was a lot of snow that year. So much so that it came halfway up my bedroom window, blocking the little sunlight that we had in Finland during the Christmas holidays.
I didn’t mind it, though.
To be honest, I barely noticed it because it was also the the year I got ZX Spectrum.
I spent the Christmas Eve night setting it up, connecting the tiny plastic box with the rubber keys to the 14-inch TV set on my desk, and to the tape recorder – the mass storage unit – next to it.
I only had one tape, and it was a collection of programs that came with the computer. To call it a computer makes me smile, because I think there’s more computing power in our fridge than in that Spectrum. The programs on the introduction tape were chosen to have something for everybody.
Diagonally across the street from Helsinki’s first indoor hockey rink parking lot, there’s a low, one-storey yellow stone building with a red roof. In the winter, it’s visible from the street, but in the summer, it sits in the shadow of the birches, elms, and maples that line street in front of it.
Behind the small building, there are several bigger and slightly Gothing-looking buildings – designed by Magnus Schjerfbeck, brother of painter Helene Schjerfbeck – and originally built in 1910 as Helsinki’s first epidemic hospital but by the 1970s, they were home to a children’s hospital. Aurora, it was called.
What the one-storey building was built for meant for, I don’t know, but I do know that when I spent about a month in the children’s hospital, a measles epidemic broke out and to spare me, the doctors put me in quarantine.
I was five years old.