Citizen Tapi


Tapi is an American citizen now — and he’s proud of it!

He came here as an AFS exchange student, from Finland, in July of 1972. He brought corduroy pants and thick flannel shirts.

He was my AFS brother. He had had years of English in school, but it was limited in those early weeks. It was my job, in those first weeks after his arrival, to figure out what he was saying and teach him some American customs and wait for his English to kick in.

I got to name ordinary things as if they were new and discover my world. He would point at something and say, “How do you say?” Learning to enunciate slowly with perfect diction, I’d say “hot fudge sundae” or “touchdown” or “flat tire” or whatever it was, and he would repeat it a few times, inviting me to correct his pronunciation. Naming old things anew. It was like being a real time poet.

I was 16 and had had my driver’s license a whole week, so I showed him around. And he taught me quite a bit also — like what it was like to discover my own life and surroundings newly, through another’s eyes. The world was actually a much bigger place back then, before cable and VCRs and internet.

The second week he was here, he played in a tennis tournament in Wilmington, NC. The mid-summer heat and humidity was a shock to his Finnish system.

He graduated from Salisbury High School, returned to Finland for another year of high school, and then returned the following year on a tennis scholarship at Wake Forest. I also went to Wake Forest, so we roomed together most of those years. He returned to Finland mid-college for one year to serve a year in the Finnish army.

After graduating, he got an awesome job as tennis director for the City of Winston-Salem, but he wasn’t able to work out the legal stuff and stay in this country. He returned to Europe taught tennis in Austria and Germany for 20 years, and then came here again.

He’s now married, living on Hilton Head, and teaching a lot of tennis.

And a few days ago he became an American citizen.

He called me, proud and excited.

He had aced the exam and won praise for his answers.

Having come from a small country that had to play its cards exactly right to stay neutral and make its way in the world anyway, Tapi had an interest in politics (Finns don’t have much of a choice) — and he had a bit of an American civics lesson many years ago.

He arrived in time to witness the Nixon-McGovern campaign. In fact, I remember the two of us standing at a strip mall in the heart of Kannapolis, the Saturday before that election, handing out brochures for McGovern. Imagine that. Long hair. Foreign accents (mine from Salisbury, his from Finland). I doubt we did good Senator McGovern any favors.

He had Marie Miller, the queen of political talk at Salisbury High in those days, for two classes a day (as I did), and rode to school each morning with me and another save-the-world guy, Boyd Gilman.

Because he was an exchange student, Sonny Allen, our mayor, invited us to go with him to the inauguration of Governor Jim Holshouser in Raleigh.

And Earl Ruth, our Congressman, got us excellent tickets for Nixon’s inauguration and had us into his office beforehand.

All of those gracious folks were Republicans, and we were way left Democrats.  And yet, back in those days, Democrats and Republicans were not enemies. They were not objects to be scorned and ridiculed. They were still human beings who could vote and think differently — publicly — and be friends with each other.

So the citizenship questions had been so easy for Tapi that he requested from the examiner something more challenging.

“Ask me another question,” he said.

She asked if he could name the original 13 colonies.

He could — and she told him he was the first to do that.

My grandparents — all four of them — were immigrants who achieved citizenship. It was automatic for me, and most of us, and isn’t really something I think about enough to be proud of — but for many people it takes something — and it’s a profound blessing. My parents had soft spots in their hearts for immigrants and what their parents had gone through to be here. They were Tapi’s American parents and would have been so proud to know about this.

Congratulations, Tapi.

Four years ago today

My father passed away on this day, February 28, four years ago.  Those kinds of days get frozen in memory.

I didn’t visit him the day he died.  It was the day we started Coffee News, and I was out delivering our first papers.  I did go by his house that day and looked in on him.  He was asleep.

Dad and Ikeybird

I did visit twice the day before.

Once, at lunch.  I was in the kitchen, eating some of his food, and talking with Tammy, his caregiver.  He walked in there, without the walker or wheelchair.  I looked up from the kitchen table and he was sitting across from me, breathing hard.

“You’re paying for that,” Tammy said.

Pulling for air, he nodded.

Later that night, I was at Port City Java, buying a cup of coffee for me and a piece of cheesecake for him.  He liked cheesecake enough to take a bite or two of it, towards the end, when he barely ate anything at all.

He called my cell phone to tell me that somebody good was on Larry King.  I wish I could remember who it was, but can’t.  I do remember it was somebody he knew was of special interest to me.  I went over and we watched the show together – something we did many nights.

After that, we watched a basketball game.

As I was leaving, he asked me if I would be back the following night to watch Wake Forest play.  He was a Carolina fan first, but he also loved Wake Forest out of sympathy for me (and because sending me there cost him a lot of money!)

Wake had a pretty bad team that year, and I think they were up against a much better team from Florida State.  I said, almost cruelly, that they were going to get killed and I didn’t want to see it.  Instead, I told him, I would watch American Idol with my daughter – and then visit after the show.

He died during American Idol (and he was a real one).

The picture here is from about 2003 or 2004, I think.  Taken in our house with an early PDA camera (fancy tech at the time).  Not great resolution, but a fun picture that I enjoy often.

[Thanks to the generosity and superior searching skills of Crystal Holmberg, I now remember Larry’s guest that night.  I had already tried, but Crystal successfully located that night’s transcript.  Larry’s guest on Feb. 27, 2006, was Jon Stewart — certainly my very favorite, as Dad knew].

Two things I avoid: haircuts and new shoes

Two things I avoid: haircuts and new shoes.

Today I got a new pair of shoes.

I’ve had this pair for about a year and a half. Wore them every day for a year, until they were completely worn out.

old shoes
old shoes

Then, in January — I got a new pair. I wore those everyday, walking a minimum of 10,000 steps a day.

About a month ago, this old worn out pair started looking newer than the January pair on my feet (these are better quality; I only paid $14 for the January pair) — so I went back to this pair again.

Today, with sore feet that were crying for more support and padding, I sprung for the new ones — vowing not to go this long again.

There are certainly many more things I avoid. Shoes and haircuts happen to the be ones that come to mind.

new shoes
new shoes

I’m pretty sure I’ve been this way my whole life, even though my father was in the shoe business and I didn’t have to pay for them when I was growing up. There’s probably a psychological connection there somewhere.

Both pair pictured here are New Balance.  I like New Balance because they come in wide widths, they’re reasonably priced, and they’re good shoes.

I used to like the fact that they were manufactured in America. The company website still gives the impression that they are made in this country.

They’re not. The label inside clearly says Made in China.

Nothing lasts forever.  Not shoes.  And not the domestic manufacturing of a shoe that seemed, for years, to defy the market’s pressure for cheap, Asian labor.

I don’t know where the $14 shoes were made, but they weren’t bad at all, really — especially for that price.

In this economy, it’s nice to buy local when possible.

There’s nothing more local than a haircut.  Don’t know why I avoid those.