A STREETCAR NAMED SISU

REPORT TO MY INVESTORS, No. 11 (May 1, 2008)

I. Introduction–My just-completed, epic California-cum-Baltic odyssey–Things to come: Back-to-back photo shows on both sides of the Atlantic–Plus! My surprise “nomination” to Wikipedia’s list of Cornell University’s most notable alumni.

II. Napkin Notes: “A Streetcar Named Sisu,” or: Looking back at the alternately gratifying, eye-opening (and, on at least one Nathaniel West-like night in West Hollywood, crazed) “reunion tour” of California, while hanging out in Europe’s new self-described “capital of cool.”

III. Disjecta Membra, or: Good, Bad, Best and Worst Moments, Values, and other miscellaneous hallmarks and milestones of my bicontinental hegira.

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I. Back in The Zone

Greetings and welcome to the 11th of my woefully infrequent, but nevertheless deeply felt round-ups-cum-exhortations to my thousands of fans and friends around the globe — my investors, you might say, since without the time, love, interest, and energy (not necessarily in that order) that all of you wonderful people out there have invested in me over the years, Sander Media would not exist.

That said, it’s been an interesting year thus far. A good deal of 2008 — nearly two months — has been spent on the road in two back-to-back trips: first to California, then to my usual stomping grounds in the eastern Baltic region, culminating with my longest, and, in some ways, most enjoyable visit to Helsinki, which is rapidly becoming my favorite city in the world.

The following journal entry, which I wrote on March 30th at Helsinki’s Café Engel — as well as the accompanying gallery of 50 photos of “my Helsinki” in the Photography section, which my devoted, hyper-capable, and, as all of you who had dealings with her will no doubt agree, very nice assistant Carolyn posted herein (phew, this is getting to be a long sentence, isn’t it?) — ought to give you some notion of why I am so attached to the “Queen of the Baltic.”

I am especially proud of this 50-image essay-cum-photo documentary, entitled “Helsinki: Symphony of A City,” which are the basis of a photo show I will be having there in June, when I am back in Nokia-land to continue work on “The Hundred Day War: The Untold Story of the 1939-40 Soviet-Fenno War,” my book-in-progress about that fascinating, forgotten war-within-a-war. I also will be giving a reading from “The Frank Family That Survived” at the Helsinki synagogue at that time.

In short, as always, we’re barreling along on all cylinders here in Sander Land.

In the meantime, my munchkins on this side of the Atlantic are busy preparing for my next major stateside media event, a five-site photo show-cum-installation I will be having at Cornell and in Ithaca next month. The event kicks off on May 16th with “The Cornell Zone: 1968-2008,” my 32-image photographic celebration-cum-evocation of my four decade-long (yikes!) relationship with my alma mater, at the Fine Arts Library of the College of Art, Architecture and Planning, under whose capacious and inspiring dome I first began hitting the books when I entered Cornell as a freshman in AAP all the way back in September, 1968, and where I can still be found most days, doing my polymorphic thang.

At the same time, thanks to the vision and refined taste of my friend and “Epos” writing partner Nick Lambrou, director general of Lambrou Real Estate, I will be mounting yet another 40-odd timeless images of life at Cornell in four of Nick’s properties just off campus. (That was the only job spec: “Make ‘em timeless,” said Nick, who is always in a hurry, over lunch at Risley, before dashing off to take care of the next emergency in his sprawling off-campus fiefdom, reminding me of the hard-chomping movie producer in “Barton Fink” who urges, “Hit ‘em hard, Fink!”) All of which, to the best of my knowledge, makes this show, or installation, or whatever it is, the biggest, as well as the most audacious event of its kind in the history of the city, if not the region, if not the whole damn planet!

Okay, I’ll calm down now. But I am genuinely excited about this. I am actually thinking of hiring a skywriter to publicize the event.

No, I am not. (Gotya!)

Seriously, should be cool; please stop by the reception at Sibley from 5 – 7 p.m. if you happen to be in the ‘hood. My dear mother, Dorrit, a.k.a. The Queen Mother, will be gracing the vernissage with her presence.

And yes, if you see a dirigible hovering outside, it’s mine.

Meantime, while we’re talking about things Cornellian, I thought all of you wonderful people out there might like to know about a funny thing that happened to me the other day while I was Googling myself (in this case, while searching for backup material to send to someone interested in having me give a reading): I discovered that I had “made” Wikipedia’s list of 400-some-odd notable alumni.

Check it out, sports fans! Put “List of Cornell University” in search, scroll down to the Media category, and there is your favorite Man for All Media, “Gordon F. Sander (B.A., 1972): journalist, historian, photographer” under Journalism — nice that someone is keeping track! — alongside 30-some-odd media notables such as Charles Collingwood ’39, Margaret Bourke-White ’27 and Dick Schaap ’55, as well as cheek-by-jowl with the somewhat larger Literature section, where the names of E.B. White ’22, George Jean Nathan ’14, and other personal giants of mine are cyber-inscribed.

Mind you, this list is embarrassingly incomplete. Where, for example, are such inarguably distinguished and accomplished Cornell journalistic alumni as Sam Roberts ’66, the long-time urban affairs editor of The New York Times, or Ed Zuckerman ’71, former editor of The Cornell Daily Sun and one of the original writers of “Law and Order”? Not to mention the man who taught me journalism, John Marcham ’50, who edited The Cornell Alumni News for nearly 20 years?

Is Ann Coulter, my Media groupmate, a journalist? News to me.

Also, as my cousin Roger helpfully pointed out (thanks, Rog!), the list includes a half-dozen Big Red cads and criminals, including Cornell’s most infamous son, Clifford Irving ’57, as well as a murderer and an accused spy.

Still, particularly in light of my somewhat checkered (and then some) undergraduate career, which, at one point, included my suspension and subsequent enforced exile from the Hill after I achieved that still-breathtaking 0.0 cumulative average (as memorialized in “C-Town Blues,” my novel-in-progress about those hazy-crazy years), I have to say it was pretty neat.

And maybe I missed someone, but it looks like I am the only person from the star-crossed class of ’72 — the class that awoke one morning in April, 1969, trudged up the Hill from the barracks-like University Halls, and found that its beloved student union, Willard Straight Hall, had been occupied by the heavily armed members of the Afro-American Society, a.k.a. the beginning of the scariest week in the history of Cornell (etc., etc.) — who made the cut.

Anyway, thought you’d like to know.

And so it goes here at Sander Media.

Do keep those emails coming in!

Now, about that trip–

II. Napkin Notes: “A Streetcar Named Sisu” (from my journal entry of March 30, 2008)

And so here I am, once again back at the Café Engel, overlooking Senate Square in Helsinki, the focal point of this wonderfully designed city, with the statue of Alexander II in the foreground and the great Lutheran Church looming behind it, thinking backwards, thinking forwards….

I have been coming here on a regular basis since ever since the fall of 1990 — when I first returned to Finland after an absence of 14 years to cover the Bush-Gorbachev summit, back in the old perestroika days — quaffing the super-strong kahvi, followed by bites of the obscenely delicious (and expensive, as is just about everything here these days) house cheesecake and peering out at the snow-dusted square.

And now here’s a streetcar sliding past, silently, steadily, never wavering, sure of itself — fast, but not too fast. Just like Helsinki…a streetcar named sisu….

I was thinking, as I walked by the harbor, why I love this city so. I think it has to do with the fact that it is the only city I know where I can hear myself think, where I can wake up with a plan of action and block out the next 12 hours and just color it in. I don’t know what it is about this place — the quietude, the northernly latitude, the perfect grid of the centrum, or maybe just the super-strong kahvi — that helps me maintain my focus and clarity and blah blah blah. (Guess it’s the kahvi.)

But before I carry on anymore about Helsinki, it’s time to turn to my thoughts about my recent trip to California.

To recapitulate: Last month I embarked on a multi-mission trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco, said missions being to:

1. Consult with Sorrel, the talented producer-writer-actress (not necessarily in that order) who is carrying the ball for Hellas, as the screenplay about the Greek War of Independence I wrote with Nick Lambrou is now called, which has been garnering interest in various quarters of Hollywoodland;

2. Help my erstwhile protégée, the lovely, talented, self-described “wild child” actress Maria Arenlind, get “hooked up” with The Business;

3. Reconnect with some of the dozen-odd, fairly long-lost — and, in some cases very long lost — friends and family who have moved out West over the years, including and especially my old Stockholm archipelago buddy Louise Tornehave, my London journalistic comrade Bryan Alexander, and my former Risley College protégé Brad Wilson, all of whom now live in L.A.; as well as the equally sizable and beloved group of mishpocha ensconced in the San Francisco area, including and especially my cousin Harriet, my girlfriend Kari Holmes née Bjelland, my former PA Erin Geld, and former Risleyite Gaea Denkerman, who have, for various reasons, gone West;

4. To confirm that California is still…there.

Well, campers, I am happy to report, I accomplished all of the above.

I had an excellent consultation with Sorrel (who also, by the bye, did a wonderful job hosting my West Coast birthday party — thanks again for that, Sorrel!), complete with a wide-ranging discussion on the lost art of the war epic and the greatest tracking shots in cinematic history. I also made the acquaintance of her new dog, Baxter. So much for that mission.

Maria, my would-be Greta Garbo — who, it turns out, is much more of a party monster (or should I say Viking?) than I realized , is officially hooked up with The Business. In fact, the last time I saw the hard-working, hard-partying “wild child,” she was being driven to LAX in a Corvette convertible by the head of European MTV, who had happened to espy the vracka svenska flicka while she was walking back to our hotel, the groovy (maybe too groovy) Standard on Sunset Boulevard. The last I heard from the breathless Maria, as she ran off to her waiting phaeton, was that her new patron was interested in having her appear in a video. Skol, Maria — and Godspeed!

I saw the old friends I had hoped to see (or nearly everyone — next time, Jared!). In fact, I had so many reunions with so many friends — as well different phases and stages of my life via these friends — that at times, the two-and-a-half-week-long trip seemed like one long, kaleidoscopic trip. One moment, I was hanging out with my old London town friend, Bryan Alexander, whom I met at a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents’ Association on the Mall back in ’98, when I was an expatriate, being flooded by all the memories associated with that strange, wonderful, depressing, but ultimately triumphant time; the next, I was taking a long, meditative hike with Erin, my former research assistant and fellow Risley dharma bum, across “her” San Francisco, flashing back to the cozy little road trip the two of us took in the fall of ’04, to exotic nearby Owego, to “case” it for the group road trip I was planning for my Risley flock later that term.

And then — blink! — I was having lunch with my beloved ex, Kari, whom I haven’t seen in 15 years, and flashing back to New York in the early ’80s, when I was living (after a fashion) in a tiny third-floor studio apartment on the corner of 83rd Street and Third Avenue, and Kari (now happily married with two kids) was working as an art assistant at Vogue, and how we met while crossing the street and fell in love over the phone — over the phone! — when she played the bewitching soundtrack to “Diva” over the phone. (Of course, those were the days when I could still “do” phone.) Ah, yes, cue the Barbra Streisand: Misty water-colored memories of the way we wuz….

I also had a very copacetic reunion with my cousin, Harriet, whom I also hadn’t seen in 15 years, during which she told me about the wonderful work she and her husband Marty do as a volunteer husband-and-wife doctor-and-educator team at various Native American reservations out West (which, I have to say, also kind of put me to shame for the virtually zilch volunteer work I have done over the years — unless, of course, you include the considerable amount of mentoring I do here at Cornell in my capacity as polymorph-in-residence).

And I had a spontaneous reunion with Steve Birklund, the one-time late ’60s/early ’70s Collegetown “free spirit” and former roommate — if you can call someone that who once rented a closet from me for $5 a month — whom I hadn’t seen, well, since he walked-cum-stumbled out of my closet at 405 College Avenue one morning in February 1970 at 3 a.m., or thereabouts.

I had been in very sporadic touch with Steve several years back, when “C-Town Blues,” my novel-in-progress about my undergraduate days, was being serialized in The Cornell Daily Sun, and Steve had emailed me to complain that the character based on him was a stoner and not a drunk (sorry about that, Steve!). Nowadays, he works for an accounting firm by day and sends occasional, mass street-corner-type cyber-alerts to his friends and contacts about this, that, and the other by night.

And so there I was, checking my email in the lobby of the Red Vic, the funky, faux-Victorian hotel where I stayed during my Frisco sortie, when up popped one of Steve’s cyberalerts, which I responded to by alerting him to the fact that I was in the vicinity, and would he care to get together?

And there was Steve in front of the Red Vic a few hours later, looking fine and fit, and, except for the white locks (happens to the best of us), pretty much the same he did the last time I saw him. We repaired to a nearby bar for a brew and a chat, and soon enough we were exchanging boozy reminiscences about those weird old days — not that I necessarily wanted to go back there. (Hell, I’m glad I got out alive.)

And then, a sec later, I was on my way to the airport, and the first part of Hegira 2008 was a memory, too.

Post-napkin note: later that day, I went on to:

a) View the much talked-about new exhibit by the great Finnish artist, Pekka Halonen, at the Ateneum, the great museum devoted to Finnish art of the 19th and 20th centuries;

b) Lunch at Eliel, the excellent, if overpriced (but then again, everything in Europe these days seems overpriced to an American);

c) Check my email at Mars Bar, the Net café-cum-bar in the Latsipalatsi complex;

d) Stop by the brand new and much-needed international bookshop Arkadia, owned by my new friend, Ian Bourgeot, a Frenchman living in Helsinki for 20 years, who showed me a history of Soviet foreign policy published in 1970 with a fascinating section about the Winter War, containing a now-forgotten speech by former President Urho Kekkonen, in which Kekkonen purported to understand the bent Soviet reasoning behind Stalin’s invasion of Finland (Good catch! Thank you, Ian!);

e) Walk back to my hotel, the Klaus K, for a quick nap;

f) Repair to my friend Erkki’s restaurant, Tori, where the first “panel” of my forthcoming show about Helsinki comprising photos of the city during the early ’90s, i.e., before the (Nokia) money came, already hang, for a reunion with one of my oldest and most beloved Finnish friends, roving Nordic media mogul, Christian Moustgaard.

In short, pretty much the way I had blocked it out early that morning.

Viva Helsinki!

Now, on to Part III.

Waitress — could I have some more coffee?

III. Moments to Remember (and Forget) From Odyssey 2008

In no particular order: here are some moments, things, and people to remember — and forget — from my recent 50-day hegira to the West Coast (Feb. 14 — Feb. 26) and Finland and Estonia– and Finland and Estonia (Mar. 6 — Apr. 12).

Best party: My L.A. birthday party at the Mondriaan.

Second best party: The spontaneous after hours party my friend Erkki Kallunki, co-owner of Tori restaurant in Helsinki, threw for my friend Don and me our second night in Helsinki.

Scariest moment: The confrontation with the coked-up limo driver early in the morning at the Standard, in L.A. (Key life-and-limb lesson learned: think twice before you go to fetch a friend from a party at the Standard at 5:30 in the morning.)

Second scariest moment:
Having my ears plug up when my jet landed in Helsinki after making the mistake of flying with a cold — and not being able to hear for several hours.

Best inexpensive hotel/hostel (Estonia): The guesthouse at the magnificent (if somewhat dilapidated) Kolga manor, in Kolga, 60 km outside of Tallinn. Price: 600 Estonian crowns, or about $50 a night. Comes with breakfast, and — if you are nice — 24/7 access to the office computer, where you can watch Regina, the charming weekend hostess, do her ironing while watching bizarre Estonian game shows. Catch: the grand, if somewhat dilapidated main house, is reportedly haunted. (See Estonian Manor Houses.)

Best inexpensive hotel/hostel (Finland): The Lutheran Church hostel, on Vuormiehenkatu, in one of the best neighborhoods of Helsinki. Price: 46 euros a night. Comes with breakfast, communal television set, and the opportunity to meet interesting people like Janne, the young Finnish pastor who was about to depart on a mission to Namibia with his wife. Catch: egress to the hotel after 3 p.m. is via a doorcode thingamajig which doesn’t always work.

Best walk: The three-hour stroll I took with my friend and former assistant, Erin Geld, now residing in San Francisco, across the City by the Bay on a rare crystal-clear late February afternoon, as Erin showed me “her” San Francisco, from upper Haight through Buena Vista Park through the Castro, culminating with a ruminative slice of ‘za and Coke before going our respective ways.

Funniest moment: Seeing the video which Don had, unbeknownst to me, shot of me eating chicken legs in Helsinki (spitting out bones and all!).

Weirdest job feeler ever: From my friend Ami Hasan about whether I would be interested in writing the text for a coffee table book about flirting that his agency, the estimable Hasan & Partners, is putting together for an Italian clothier.

Most moving moment:
Visiting the extraordinary Winter War memorial at Suomussalmi, perhaps the best-known battle of the war — as well as the Finn’s most striking victory, where several regiments of Finnish ski soldiers isolated and methodically destroyed the better part of two Soviet divisions, which comprises thousands of stones, one (at least theoretically) for each of the estimated 20,000 Finnish and Soviet soldiers, laid helter-skelter over an area of three hectares, alone, in the driving snow.

Spookiest moment: Being told by a guide that the manor house at Kolga, in Estonia, was haunted, as my friend Anti and his partner Anna, were examining the generally closed upstairs premises of the vast 18th century edifice (the largest house I have ever been in!) — and instantaneously hearing a strange rustling in the next room.

Moment I would most like to put in a bottle: Near the end of my third week in Helsinki, when Sarah, the shy attendant at the Mars Bar in Helsinki with the beatific smile, worked up the courage to ask me, “So what brings you to Finland?”

Most dada moment:
Singing along (after a fashion) to old Finnish woodmen’s songs with the burly crowd at the karaoke bar at the hotel in Suomussalmi.

Nicest service person, California:
Tie: The beverage manager at the Standard, West Hollywood; Mary, the desk person at the Chateau Marmont.

Worst dinner course (U.S.):
The scrunched-up chicken salad sandwich on the American Airlines flight from San Francisco to New York.

Worst dinner course (Finland/Estonia): The frankfurter-like foreign matter served on the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki.

Best meal, California: The Mondriaan, Los Angeles (Okay, okay, it was my birthday — but it still tasted mighty fine!)

Best dinner course, Finland:
The reindeer meat, The Savoy.

Favorite restauranteur: Erkki “I don’t remember” Kallunki, a.k.a. “Lappish Boy,” the larger-than-life owner of Tori, the new in place for the Helsinki bohemian crowd.

Person I’d least like to run into again: The coked-up “limo driver” who was serving “refreshments” down the hall at the Standard.

Most pulchitrudinous “discovery”: Anna, the impossibly beautiful, black-haired barista at the…. (sorry, I’m not going to say, guys!)

Best meal, Estonia: Tied: Vanema Jures, Tallinn; Kolga Restoran, Kolga.

Most depressing three-day period: Easter weekend in all-but-deserted Helsinki.

Best in-country trip:
The eight-hour train from Helsinki to Kajaani, in the eastern central part of the country (also known as the middle of nowhere), through the heart of terra magica (magical land), as the Finns still rightly call their still relatively sparsely populated country, through forest after forest, over lake after lake, just as I did on my first trip to the north of Suomi 31 years ago.

To be continued!

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