Thursday, September 30, 2010

What is a Finnish Man concludes with what the Ari's said

still from the Finnish documentary The Living Room of the Nation by Jukka Kȁrkkȁinen, which films ordinary folks in their everyday lives, filmed entirely in living rooms. Find a short review here.

Is humour perhaps another constant that lies behind every Finnish man, no matter how subterranean it is?

"Finnish men abound in humour? Now I understand what all the laughing was about." FB post from Ari Lahdekorpi.

Now, that made me laugh! How perfect is that for a response to my FB query about what is a Finnish man in one sentence? A Finnish man using humour to dispute that Finnish men abound in humour! This is a classic Finnish male retort: witty, funny, to the point, and oh, so true. Unfortunately, I received Ari Lahdekorpi's one-liner about Finnish men after we (my sisters and I) had sent our article to New World Finn for publishing....

Among his many talents and jobs, Ari Lahdekorpi is a jazz, blues, and folk musician. He used to live here in Thunder Bay but is now on Canada's west coast; when he was here, Ari was also active in the local Finnish community and his positive energies and visionary thinking are sorely missed! Ari also writes music reviews regularly for NWF; on his MySpace page you can find a review of "Haunted" the latest disc by Janita, a Finnish singer now living in the US.

In his review of Janita's Haunted, Ari states this about the psychic nature of Finns:

"One of the knocks against Finns is the somber, stoic, often depressed nature that we have a tendency toward. Perhaps it’s in our genes. Researchers have discovered that the tissue around our genes, known as epi-genetic material, actually has a type of genetic memory that stores traumas within a given life span that can be transmitted as a tendency to subsequent generations. This epi-genetic material can even impact on how the DNA sequence forms. Evolutionary biologists suggest that this is why Giraffes developed long necks in a relatively short period of time. So, perhaps this natural tendency among Finns toward depression is an unwelcome gift from our Suomalainen forefathers....."

Well, I have a long neck and I'm a Finlander, so, oh, boy! does that mean I may be genetically related to giraffes, too?

Of course, like any other culture, the Finnish community is internally divided, so there are lots of different perspectives on an issue. The title of Aki Kaurismaki's dark comedy suggests that without a past we may be either a) lost; b) free to make a new life; or c) both lost and free, i.e. confused. Unmoored. Rootless. Ungrounded.

While it was too late for me to include Ari Lahdekorpi's wit, it was not too late for me to include the wit of another Ari, my cousin who lives in Finland. While my cousin Ari is definitely skilled in the arts of the famous Finnish one-line humorous/sarcastic retort, this time he had a few things to say:

I leave the last word to a Finnish man, my cousin, Ari, who reminded me in a recent email that a Finnish man is defined in relation to the idiosyncrasies of Finnish women. He says that a Finnish man is who he is because he has to put up with Finnish women who are impossible!

Ari explains: "A finnman is the most patient creature of the whole world, he can manage even with finnish women. That is the biggest thing a man can achieve. A finnish man can also think what he is going to do, he can for instance buy cameras that last over 50 years.* The time schedule is too long for finnish women… finnish men have perseverance but finnish women are very short tempered.”

[*note: this is a reference to my dad's camera, that my sister, Katja, blogged about.]

Great music! a must watch: Ari Lahdekorpi jams with Jukka Tolonen at The Outpost, the student pub at Lakehead University. 2006

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What is a Finnish Man? 5

I have not seen Sweat of Life yet, but I hope that it is available in my city soon. I think it is the kind of film that provokes a lot of discussion. The stereotype is that Finns are reserved and don't show their emotions, yet I wonder how many other men would be willing to expose themselves, both emotionally and physically, to the camera? To the world? How many men are willing to lose control of how they get interpreted? Put their lives on the big screen for audiences to watch? And by men I mean your average, everyday guy, not some celebrity, star, or reality show wanna-be. From the trailers, I think this film shows how different masculinity is in Finland and Finnish culture than other masculinities elsewhere, particularly those of North America where ego-driven, celebrity-focused, buff-bodied, hegemonic masculinities that promote aggressiveness, competition, drive, physical strength, success, and self-reliance inundate the cultural landscape.

I hope to see this film one day soon! It may bring me one step closer to understanding the Finnish male psyche. Exposing one's emotions and vulnerability is not easy, yet here are these Finnish men, a mix of ordinary guys, sharing their personal lives with you and me, baring body and soul. Does the anonymity of the eye of the camera, like the web, free one to reveal secrets one normally can’t say aloud?

image source

The sauna seems to be a key place where Finnish male identity is forged…

or softened.

Outside of the sauna, are we any closer to understanding Finnish masculinity? Looking up from her morning coffee, my Ȁiti (mother) stated with conviction: “Jaa, ja Suomalainen mies on rehellinen.” (Yes, and a Finnish man is honest).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What is a Finnish Man? 4

still from Steam of Life / Miesten Vuoro. image source

Twenty eight characters from Philip, one of my male respondents: “Have you seen Steam of Life?” sent me out into the web to find some answers.

Steam of Life is a new documentary (March 2010) directed by Mika Hotakainen and Joonas Berghȁll. Its Finnish title, Miesten Vuoro (The Men’s Turn), speaks more literally about it as a film about Finnish men’s turn to explain themselves in their own words. The filmmakers travelled across Finland filming men in saunas (one in a converted telephone booth!) baring not only their bodies but their souls. The men speak from the heart about deeply personal issues that they may not so easily share in everyday life with women or other relatives.

In a Finnish language trailer I found online on MeFeedia, Hotakainen explains that they set out to explore Finnish men’s landscape of the soul. The men talk about family, fatherhood, love, pain and other deep even dark topics (addictions, death). Although touching on difficult areas, Hotakainen explains that the film is hopeful.

Hotakainen believes the sauna is a democratizing place free of hierarchies where men enter on equal ground.

I’m not sure if I completely agree with him on the last point as I am sure young Finnish men today have not escaped the social compulsion for six-pack abs and buff bodies, and do not leave body (or class) differences behind the sauna door anymore than we leave them behind when we enter the web, but I do agree that the steam of the sauna can do magic and heal divisions and fissures, both within and without.

Hotakainen tells the viewer to listen, just listen to people telling you about their lives.

The fall edition of New World Finn also has two short write-ups of Steam of Life taken from the web. It was interesting for me to learn one of the strategies used to equalize the power relations of the filmed and the filmer, enabling a better rapport and intimacy: the film crew were naked too. In some excerpts below, one of the filmmakers explains in Finding My Way in the 'Steam of Life' why he set out to make the film and the methods used to film inside hot saunas:

"My reason for making this movie was very simple: I never met my father. Because I've never had a father as a role model of a man, I thought that, through this movie, there was the possibility to find a “Finnish man,” my father, and also myself.

I got this idea in 2005. I was a little depressed, and my girlfriend told me I should do something about it. She pointed out that one thing always makes me happy — sauna. Especially one specific sauna, which is the oldest public sauna in Finland. Whenever I went there, it always made me feel better.

So I went there every Friday and started to listen to the men’s stories.


I think it was the right time for Finnish men to speak openly about their emotions. They didn't even need any help or persuasion, just a chance to talk knowing that somebody really wanted to listen. They were ready to open up their hearts to us.


Also, what helped our characters to talk was being naked. Of course they were nude in saunas, as our tradition is, but so was the whole filming crew working naked as well. We were like one big family supporting each other. When there was a film-loading break, we directors went to take sauna with our characters. And when the camera was ready, we continued shooting.

It was necessary to prepare carefully for filming. The movie was shot on s16 mm Kodak stock; digital cameras wouldn't have worked in the saunas’ 75–85 degrees Celsius. First, camera equipment with lenses was warmed up on a lower bench of the sauna. After 20
minutes, when the equipment was heated up enough, we put it on the upper bench till the camera and lenses were as warm as the sauna itself, about 85 degrees Celsius (185 degrees Fahrenheit). After that, we were ready to start filming. We had to heat the camera and lenses to the temperature of the sauna to avoid mist condensing on to the lenses.

Sometimes, we would film for four hours in the hot sauna. It was tough — our cinematographer almost fainted twice because of the heat, for example — but it was also a great experience."

Monday, September 27, 2010

What is a Finnish Man? part 3

In my last post, I concluded with the thought that Finnish men think over their thoughts rather than blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. At least that is the experience I had growing up and which I still find true for the Finnish Canadian men I know. Sometimes it can even be a bit unnerving to have that wall of silence confront you....but then again this may be more a Finnish thing and not restricted to Finnish men as my husband has certainly been confounded by my non-answering at times.

Mies joka on kaiken tehnyt itse / Man who`s done it all by himself Puppet animation short by Leevi Lankinen. A touching tale of a Finnish man who has done it all by himself from start to finish.
In our society of instant gratification and rapid turnover, this strength of weighing one's words may be a disadvantage as in the talk culture of North America we have been socialized to talk talk talk and talk. We venerate talkers. However, if reality shows, talk shows, and popular tv series are any indication, much of that nonstop talking is blather, stupid, superficial, and incessantly and irritatingly navel-gazing.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone is doing any listening.

back to my article excerpt:

...then again, many Finnish men today are Tweeting and texting. Does this mean they are able to express themselves in 140 characters or less? Isn’t the quick, witty use of language and humour an age-old trait of Finnish men? Perhaps it’s finding new life on social media.

The many different ways that Finnish men are using social media, however, may add to our inability to figure them out:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What is a Finnish Man part 2

Heavy metal band Terasbetoni rock out to Missa Miehet Ratsastaa  [Where the Men Ride]
"Biog: Terasbetoni - Finnish for Steel Reinforced Concrete - say they don't take themselves too seriously, but are fired by 'new quests to overcome'. Songs advocate a Pagan warrior lifestyle and a 'brotherhood of metal'."

I think my father could relate to  that "brotherhood of metal" although his concept of metal stemmed more from the construction industry than the heavy metal music industry. He would have also shared the masculine drive of "new quests to overcome." Indeed, my father Kalevi took up the quest of crossing the Atlantic ocean by ship in the mid 1950s, leaving behind his inheritance and shop keeper status, and with his wife and two young children (my sister, Katja, and me) emigrated to Canada to start a new life in blue collar work.
Continuing with my article (please see my last post), to my query, I also received this response:

Anna wrote: I think Finnish men are quite complex—on one hand, there is this tradition of being the head of the family—being strong, hiding emotion, not admitting weakness, and defining themselves through their work; on the other, there is a paradigm shift happening—men are fighting for their rights to stay at home with their children, for example, as well as fighting the above-mentioned stereotype in various ways.”

Interestingly, the later posts got longer and more complex, suggesting it may not be easy to wrap up a Finnish man in a short 

sentence. The last three posts, by 20 and 30 somethings who live in Finland, make clear that being a Finnish man means complexities, rather than simple stereotypes. Their comments suggest that Finnish masculinity is constantly changing, dependent on the particular people, context, and social environment around a man, yet also steeped in a particular history, from the culture of the sauna to the family, work, the military and the politics of war. 

Indeed, Visa and Anna’s well-thought out responses remind me that the Finnish men I knew growing up were more likely to think over their response carefully than rattle one off the top of their head. 

to be continued....

Friday, September 24, 2010

What is a Finnish Man?

For the fall issue of the New World Finn, my sisters and I co-wrote an article that explores the question: what is a Finnish man? Della wrote about Finnish men's humour and told a very funny story about our father, Kalevi, and his brother, our uncle, Leo, when he came to Canada in the late '60s. Katja wrote a poem about our father's camera and included some amazing images that she created. 

Below is a short excerpt from my section; for the whole article you will have to buy yourself a copy of the NWF! (soon the journal will be available online as a downloadable pdf, so stay posted as their website is currently being revised). 
Mieskuoro Huutajat [Men's Choir: The Shouters]
Finnish men are a beleaguered bunch. They have to put up with all sorts of stereotypes being thrown at them like a bucket of cold water in the sauna.  

Silent. Shy. Stubborn. Stoic. Hard-working. Handyman. Hen-pecked. Non-communicative. Brooding. Pensive. Bottles up emotions. Drunk. Spews off-color obscenities. Refuses to ask for help. Refuses to give up. Refuses to acknowledge illness. 

We may all know a Finnish man who fits one or more of the stereotypes, but then again there are men who don’t fit any of them….
Helsinki's saunas: full steam ahead

that is, after you get to know them. 

Our Isȁ fit about nine of the fourteen characteristics above, but that doesn’t mean he was a stereotype. Far from it. 


Do Finnish men (including men of Finnish descent) share similar traits? Is there a definitive statement to capture their masculine characteristics? 

After your sister, what better place to look for answers than the web? 

I posted a query on my Facebook page, asking my friends to define a Finnish man in one sentence. I know, it seems as impossible a task as building a house on your own, and there may have been some silences out there stemming from incredulity, but some fish jumped to the bait. 

 Here's one of the answers I received [note: in the article I cite more]: 

Visa wrote: "Sorry, my sentence is not a direct definition, but rather a suggestion of what seems… important when considering Finnish men. The suggestion is slightly melancholic from my part:

Although not every Finnish man has experienced sauna or military service, they are the two things with which he has to deal with in one way or another, and they are places where bonds with strangers, friends and family are made and maintained in very particular, Finnish ways."

to be continued....