what really happened at the arvo pärt concert

If you are in Carnegie Hall, you are somebody, even if nobody knows who you are.

If you are in Carnegie Hall, you are somebody, even if nobody knows who you are.

ARVO PÄRT, ARVO PÄRT. Mr. Arvo Pärt. I’ve encountered you here and there and again and again. Such as that time at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport at the cafe counter where you were surveying some Karelian carrot pies and trying to determine which would sate your mystical appetite. You brushed by me and I turned to my eldest daughter and whispered, “There goes Arvo Pärt,” and she whispered back, with a bit more volume, “Who the heck is Arvo Pärt?” You turned around and looked at us and we pretended that we hadn’t said anything. Then you went through the rest of the day thinking you were hearing voices.

And yet at last we met in the flesh on the second floor of Carnegie Hall. “We’ve shared about five plane rides together,” I told you, shaking your composer’s hand. “Have we?” you answered, staring out into a crowd of bearded Orthodox priests. “Yes,” I said. “Oh, wow.” “So, I guess it’s time I finally introduced myself. I’m a writer and journalist…” “Oh, really.” Yes. But a writer of what? Funny tales about your homeland Estonia? Consumer genomics? No matter. If you are in Carnegie Hall, you are somebody, even if nobody knows who you are. The two hands continued to shake and then they were released and you were free of me. Mr. Pärt does not have a firm grip, but it’s not a fishy one either. There is something different about the frame, the movement of the ligaments that makes me wonder if he really is all human. How could he be? For I have shared much of the same human existence as him and have not produced anything as eternal or profound. How does it happen? Two babies. One matures into a wannabe Tintin, the other crystallizes into Arvo Pärt and invents his own minimalist style called Tintinnabuli.

It’s a miracle though that we met at all. In the weeks leading up the idea of attending the concert and special reception danced about us like light gusts of late spring wind. Then I heard that celebrities were coming in from the West Coast and that the Icelandic pop singer Björk would be there. My resolve was instantly stiffened. Two tickets were reserved, one for me and her, but what of our third party, a gently slumbering sometimes rumbling gnome. “Can you bring a two year old to Carnegie Hall?” The query went out to friends who had been there before. The cryptic answer came back, “Are you joking?” Were we? She was sleeping now but what if the child’s shriek would pierce the sublime sonic of Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten?”

We’d never be let into another Arvo Pärt concert at Carnegie Hall again.

It was settled. They would head back to the hotel to recline and leaf through the books harvested from the booths of Book Expo America. I would remain to mingle and co-mingle. But to whom should we give our extra ticket? An older gentleman stood on the street corner with a handmade cardboard sign. “Need 1 Ticket for Arvo Pärt Concert.” Problem solved. “But the thing is,” he confessed to us with his somber urban humility. “I can’t afford to pay you for it.” “That’s fine,” we told him. “Today, we are your angels. You seem like you deserve it. ” “Oh, thank you, thank you, ” he gushed. “I have always loved Arvo Pärt’s music. Always. I can’t believe this is really coming true.”

In the back row of the orchestra, he told me his story. A nuclear physicist well acquainted with the strategic placement of ICBMs. Names were dropped. Henry Kissinger. Zbigniew Brzezinski. The more I looked at him and his white beard, the more I thought of Walt Whitman. And yet our conversation was pure Dr. Strangelove. He said he planned to go to Estonia in the summer, to visit the provenance of that little country’s greatest living national treasure. I imagined him strolling the cobblestone ways of the Old Town humming his music. And even when he dozed off beside me half way through the concert, I knew that Mr. Pärt had no truer a fan.

All the while I scouted the audience for famous heads. They said it was a historic event. Björk was supposedly there. Maybe Mike D from the Beastie Boys would also put in an appearance, fresh off the plane from Los Angeles. Then my life would be complete. And I wasn’t so different. Even as my physicist comrade recounted Cold War tensions in his Brooklyn brogue, he too scanned the rows until fixing on a person of importance. “Do you know who that is?” he whispered, gesturing to a middle-aged man with a black turtle neck and sports jacket in the row behind us. “No,” I said. “That’s Peter So-and-so from the New York Who’s-it, what’s-it.” Later, when the man asked me politely to lean to the right so that he could watch the concert from the left, the physicist took out his program and scribbled me a note. “Peter So-and-so just spoke to you!!!” I nodded yes. He had just spoken to me. It’s true that I didn’t know who he was, but he didn’t know me either. But what did it matter? On that night we were just the audience.

The thing about Arvo Pärt’s music is that it has been so embraced by the intelligentsia that you cannot really say anything intelligent about it anymore. Which is good in a way, because words can never do justice to sound. Words can become sound within someone’s mind, so that literature becomes its own kind of music, but to try and describe someone else’s music, especially a minimalist composer’s, becomes a ridiculous task. And I was ridiculed when I used the word “mystical” to describe it at the reception.

“It reminded me of the incense smoke that comes out of the thurible during mass,” I said, downing another free white wine. “The what?” A lady asked. “The thurible,” this former altar servant continued. “The priests burn incense in them and swing them from chains as they walk down the aisle. The music reminded me of that smoke. It was all quite mystical.” Several puzzled looks. “Well,” an Estonian lady interrupted, “I heard Arvo Pärt on NPR and he said that he hates it when people say his music is mystical.” “Really?” “Yes, he hates that word ‘mystical’ in particular. He absolutely despises it.” “Oh, he does. I see. Well, excuse me, but I am going to get another drink.”

As the evening wore on, I spoke with others and drank with others and circled the frivolity. I even encountered the Icelandic singer whose poster used to hang on my dorm room wall and about whom I have written several embarrassing columns. But that’s another story. For this story belongs to Arvo Pärt.

daddy, why can’t you just get a normal job?

A normal job.

A normal job.

LIKE MANY PEOPLE when I reached my late teens I made some big decisions based on a few loosely connected concepts that continue to track me to the present day. I was good at writing and could do it quickly and did not care for an academic major like psychology or anthropology. The way I saw it, journalism was practical, just a craft, like being an electrician or a mechanic. It was a job that needed to be done and I had some of the right skills to do it.

There were a few hints along the way that our lives as journalists might diverge from the college-educated mainstream though. “Don’t expect to get rich from this job,” one professor said. “You’ll meet a lot of alcoholics in this business,” another confessed. “Everyone has heard about the reporter who comes back to the office after a long day on the job, pulls out the whiskey, and gets to work, and I am here to tell you, it’s true.” To me, as a 19-year-old kid who liked to drink on the weekends, journalism seemed to promise everything I could ever want — a life spent writing, a career path lubricated by liquor, and, most of all, limited responsibility. It was the perfect job for the drifter at heart, and that was me.

Yet somehow I got settled. I meandered over to the other side of the world only to fall in love with a woman. Then we got married and have had three children and acquired real estate. And all the while I was writing. I got so used to writing that I started to write even when I wasn’t getting paid. I started one blog and another and then I started this one. My poor children have grown up watching their father stare at a small rectangular screen, sometimes even in awe of the speed in which letters sprout up across it. But they hate it too. They wish they had a father who went to work somewhere and then returned from that place. Or better yet, someone who does something physical, who produces something other than content.

My eldest daughter’s friend has a boat mechanic for a father. I’ve never seen him in action, but I imagine that he is walking around a lot with tools in his hands and perhaps rubbing his forehead from time to time when a particularly ugly job comes in. “It’s a damn shame what salt water does to good vessels,” he has a habit of saying. “It just destroys them.” “The wiring?” I ask. He nods. “The wiring. Everything.” Sometimes he goes to training courses in New Hampshire to learn about lake boating and kick it with other boat mechanics. The kids come too and they stop at the aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, along the way. It all seems very nice.

My daughter senses this niceness too, which is why the other day while I was checking my email in the car she said, “Daddy, why can’t you just get a normal job?”

“A normal job?” I set down my device. “But being a journalist is a normal job.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“It isn’t?”

“No.”

“Well, what kind of job do you think I should get?”

“Why not be a boat mechanic?” she said and shrugged. “Jenny’s dad does that. He seems to like it.”

A boat mechanic? I thought. Only on the North Fork. Anywhere else and your kid would ask you to be a doctor or a restaurant owner. But on the North Fork, ask a child for a career option and she’s bound to mention something to do with boats or vineyards. And it’s not just Jenny’s Dad. Angie’s parents run a dock-building business. And Nate’s dad owns a berry farm.

“But I didn’t go to school to become a boat mechanic,” I said. “I went to school to become a journalist.”

“Are you serious? They actually have schools for that?”

“They do. And I don’t think I’d be a very good boat mechanic anyway. I’d probably screw the boats up more. They’d sink.”

She thought for a moment. “Yeah, you probably would,” she said. “But maybe you could try and write a little bit less sometimes. Okay Daddy?”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”

welcome to greenport in summer, man

Who are these people?

Spending G’s

FORGIVE ME if I have forgotten what the on season in Greenport is like. There are vague memories, yes, faint stains of motorcycles and convertibles humming down Front Street with pop music drifting through the air, “‘Cause we’ll never be royals {royals} …”

There were lines in those days, lines at the cafes and in the supermarkets, and just on the streets everywhere. It was hard to walk down the sidewalks, because the other pedestrians didn’t seem to know where they were going, and they’d just drift along as if lost in a bit of fog or a dream.

And you couldn’t drive through town without almost knocking down an aloof couple that looked like Mr. and Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, stepping by accident into the street beside the maritime supplies store, as if all of Greenport was their own private yacht. They had all come from somewhere to here, but from where and for what purpose?

In the off season, there was no one on Front Street on the January Monday mornings, and I was the only other soul beside the shivering postman and icy police officer, sipping his hot coffee next to his car as the reassuring steam curled up and into the air. You learned how to dress like a North Forker, too, not like the on season crowd, but with the correct amount of neglect in the wardrobe. At first, you dressed down just to blend in, but soon enough your clothes were dirty from some automotive or domestic mishap, and you didn’t bother to shave anymore, and imagined yourself as a tough and able Nantucket whaler. You would walk out to the end of the main pier in the wind and stare at Shelter Island and stay for as long as you could until the weather sent you running for Aldo’s Coffeehouse’s womb-like warmth.

There were few truly good-looking people in Greenport in winter, most of them haggard and some just above the poverty line. So when the good-looking, well-dressed people started showing up and spending G’s, I began to sense that something was amiss. In a place where flannel never went out of style, what to make of that couple in form-fitting athletic clothes rollerblading down the street? And did you hear, they had British accents?

Something is happening in Greenport. It’s changing. Restaurants that were closed for months are now open and busy. Beautiful people sit around the patio tables, looking as if they are somewhere special, somewhere to be seen. Beyond them, crowds of youths prowl about with cool green growlers from the brewery. Should I think of them as fools, or welcome their cash injections into the local economy? The latter seems to be the local sentiment. On the main road, the children of East Marion are selling lemonade. Southold residents are dragging old furniture out on their lawns and asking top dollar for these East End vintage antiques. Soon the local berry farm will begin charging “tourist prices” — $10 for a jar of authentic North Fork blackberry jam, with all of that just folks country, melted-in, mmm-mmm-mmm goodness.

[This isn't just your average, run-of-the-mill blackberry jam. Oh no. This jam is from the North Fork.]

It’s enough to make a man scream when someone who looks like somebody from Hollywood goes strolling down the street walking a tiny dog and eating ice cream. At the cozy corner nook in the village between the Georgian-owned cafe where they sell the tasty khatchapuri and the Turkish-owned liquor store where I am fond of idling away my time and restocking my Bedell 2010 First Crush red table wine — which only costs $20 — I asked David, who has always lived here, about the swarms of savage strangers.

“David, what the hell is going on?”

“What do you mean, man?”

“There are all of these well-dressed people here this week. They look good and have nice clothes. They can’t be from around here.”

“Oh, you mean the yuppies? Welcome to Greenport in summer, man.”

“But it’s not summer. It’s still May.”

“Memorial Day weekend. That’s what kicks it off.”

“It’s crazy.”

“What is?”

“I saw a couple bicycling through town this morning. They were wearing matching fanny packs.”

“But that’s just how it is, man. And believe me, it’s only going to get worse.”

And maybe it has. David is suddenly clean shaven and wearing a collared shirt. And I am too. It’s Greenport in summer. Gotta stuff the local scruff.

the tuesday afternoon dildo club

Just another letter from the swinging East End.

IN A COFFEEHOUSE on Front Street in Greenport, a group of ladies gathers every Tuesday to share and gossip. Some are younger, others older, some thinner, others larger. But they are loud. The round table in the front of the building seems to spin round and quake with nervous energy and laughter, and the conversation themes usually drift from polite updates on personal lives and real estate to down and dirty girl talk, and you’ll find your ears prick up each time an out of context word like “dildo” penetrates the otherwise mild and old-timey atmosphere of bean roasting smoke and recorded Italian folk singers.

I pretend not to listen to them as I work, but I cannot help but eavesdrop. I measure my own manhood in counterpoint to their strident womanhood, and this gives me great sadness. It seems that so many men and women define each other by gender. They cannot see past this very important dividing line. It envelopes all. The Tuesday afternoon dildo club issues bold communiques like, “But that’s men, they want to control you, they want to isolate you, my ex-husband was just like that.” When a woman’s husband actually entered the cafe to say hi, the gatherers adopted a faux friendliness of “Hi there you!” and pecks on the cheek that vanished the second he was out the door, followed by the telling postmortem, “Why do men feel like they need to do that? Intrude?”

The last confab of the Tuesday afternoon dildo club led me into even more peculiar territory. Someone mentioned Orient, the village where we live, and another person brought up all the “swinging” that goes on in Orient. Swinging? I paid swift notice. As in Swinging London?

“And it’s not just couples, it’s marrieds,” the first woman gushed.

“Really, marrieds, too?!” A second woman half-asked, half-gasped.

“Yeah, it’s huge out there,” the first one said, “not that I know from experience. I have just heard. And also on Shelter Island. And also Sag Harbor,” she said.

“Yes, yes, swinging is huge in Sag Harbor,” a third woman agreed, touching her chest to connote integrity and honesty, as if she knew even better than the first woman about Sag Harbor’s wild key parties. I imagined the nice young Latina cashier I saw at the deli in Sag Harbor, and the gentleman with the scarf and the Jack Kerouac glasses. Were they in on it too? So many things were going on around me and I had been oblivious all this time.

“Will you quiet down,” the first one said, “you are disturbing people. He’s trying to work.”

“No he’s not, he’s listening to us,” the second woman said. I cocked an eyebrow at the revelers seeking some acknowledgement of my humanity, our shared asexual existence, but one never came. Only more locker room talk and vibrant outbursts and chocolate dusted cappuccinos and rubbery pounding of fists on the table. To quote Monty Python, there was much rejoicing.

nashville cats

"I find myself alone when each day is through."

“This is that real America, the one they talk about.”

NASHVILLE is in Tennessee and Tennessee is in the Old South, as well evidenced by all of that “Yes, sweetheart,” and “No, darling,” I heard over the phone as the hotel receptionist buttered me up.

For breakfast, pork sausage and eggs and hot biscuits with gravy, some smooth gray sauce with black flecks of pepper to make it look edible, and some sugary sweet juices to wash it down, or a hot coffee. For lunch and dinner, the men and women behind the counter had one question, “Beef brisket or pulled pork?”

One time I ordered the brisket just to have the barely-there bartender repeat back, “You wanted the pulled pork, right?” “No, I said I wanted the brisket.” He reached into one of the tins of steaming, dead slop. “You said you wanted the pulled pork, right?” “No, I said I wanted the brisket. See, this stuff right here.” I tapped at the glass and he winced as if embarrassed by his mistake and I felt like that terrible pushy Yankee that I am. Then the man looked up at me again through those glasses and squinted, “Excuse me, sir, but didn’t  you say you wanted the pulled pork?” And I thought, “Is this Southerner slow or something?” But I would never ever say that. No, no, no. I just inquired again for the brisket, politely, gently, because being Down South means you’ve got to be genteel.

It’s a weird relationship we’ve got with those Southerners, my Virginian granny among them. Granny’s never lost the mild manners, the mild temperament, the mild avoidance of the letter ‘r.’ I used to look at the Elvis Presley Christmas Album in her house and wonder how somebody could listen to such a thing and take it seriously, to really dig the King singing “We Three Kings,” maybe even catch herself singing along. Southerners! I’ve heard tale that some of them are still trying to defend the CSA, as if I cared. I’m not going to split rails over your head with the bones of Abraham Lincoln, gentlemen, but let moribund cavalry horses lie. And where would be the US without Nashville anyway? Our most iconic postage-stamp-worthy musicians have all walked its streets, even an ominous-sounding one called “Demonbreun,” which the taxi driver pronounced as “de-mon-bre-un,” but I read as “demon-something-something,” as the car pulled up to the curb beside a big band blazing satanically away, saxophones and baritones and all. “Do they ever stop playing music in this city?” I asked the driver. “Not on your life,” he said.

The Man in Black himself Johnny Cash is an old saint of this music city. Across from its conference hall, called the Music City Center, you can stare at his custom cowboy boots and military-looking jacket behind protective glass. “Those personal effects. He wore them.” You slobber, you gaze in awe. The man who bagged June, who was very pretty, either as herself or as Reese Witherspoon. Yeah, you get a real sense for how dark and dashing he was, that Johnny Cash, so much so that you just want to say his name over and over again and cross yourself a few times too (“JC”) and admire in perpetuity those spare guitar lines and rockabilly rhythms.

They still pour out into the avenues of Nashville, every bar has bands playing. Here you still hear the rollin’ sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival,  “Bootleg,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary.” The party people hang from the balconies above the neon lights with their beer and hats and revelries, those cat calls and whistles, and it reminds you of New Orleans, but with less poverty and hurricane madness and voodoo hoodoo. And if you are a Yankee you know you’ll never be one of them, not if you try. Because first you gotta change that last name to something that means something good — Swift, Cash, Snow, Earle, Haggard — and then set your voice up with some twang and practice saying “Y’all” in the mirror a few times before you head out among the honky tonk men and women in their swinging bluejeans. This is that real America, the one they talk about, the one with the pedal steel guitar licks and cowboy hats and pickle salads. Out on the coasts, in the factory mills of Massachusetts, that’s not the real America. That’s something else.

And here come the honky tonk girls! They all look like that honky tonk woman that Miranda Lambert is trying to look like, like a done-right Dolly Parton as seen through beer goggles, with the frosted hair, birdy features, the t-shirt revealing form, the lanky limbs and pleased-as-punch smile and manicured everything. They stand behind the counters with their pleasantly pasty forearms ready to tap some refreshing alcoholic beverage into that mug or query your choice of pulled this or that brisket, and, “Would you like barbecue slaw with that?” And, “Yes, I would.” And, “Here you go, darlin’.”

After a few days in Nashville, Tennessee, your insides are so sloppy with meat ribbons and hot sauces and grimy grits that you’d beg for a fire hose enema or maybe a tamer, Northeasty fruit cleanse. Anything to get the grease out. And so you say goodbye to those Nashville cats and bar hall “sweetheart-sugar-honey-pie-darling-baby” babes. It’s time to move on. Back up to Yankeedom. Back north.

like a bad cold you don’t want to catch

South Park Episode 513 -- Kenny catches a lethal case of Estonianitis.

South Park Episode 513 — Kenny catches a lethal case of Estonianitis.

ESTONIA IS NEXT, or so they say. They being somebody. The story of how a Russian official voiced concerns about the treatment of Russians in Estonia is already so convoluted, I cannot tell whether it is an accident, or a brilliant PR stunt on the part of pro-Estonian media partisans to make their country seem vulnerable in order to win more security commitments. The fishy trail to a Russian diplomat’s statements at the UN has been well sniffed out by ERR. Yet that hasn’t stopped the speculation that Tallinners might wake up soon to the specter of armed Russian soldiers standing between them and their custom Vapiano pasta orders .

It seems ridiculous, but then again, the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia in 1940 was also ridiculous. The 2014 takeover of Crimea was absurd. And who is Russia to let its Dadaist foreign policies stand in the way of geopolitical tits-for-tats?

But as bizarre as such events would be, should they ever unfold, they would also express galaxies worth of stupidity on the part of the Russian leadership. Have not they acquainted themselves with Russia’s history in this indigestible Baltic province? Are not they aware of how many times Estonia has screwed over the empire? Everyone talks about that precious quarter of the population that is Russian. But what about the seventy percent of the population that is Estonian? As history has taught us, Estonians are just not the kinds of people you want in your empire.

But first, let’s make like Mr. Peabody and Sherman and take the Way Back way back in time, setting the controls for the year 1710. It is summer, and the Baltic German landowning elite in the provinces of Estonia and Livonia (present day Estonia and northern Latvia)  is about to capitulate to Peter the Great. As part of this reversal in allegiances, Peter guarantees the Baltic Germans their Protestant faith, their traditional privileges, leaves all local institutions in place, and overturns Swedish land reforms that would have put the Estonian serfs on the path to being full subjects of the crown. Estonia thus becomes Russian, but with vast autonomy. Indeed, the official, public language will remain German, right up until the end of the 19th century. When future Estonian leader Jaan Tõnisson goes to market in Estonia as a boy in the 1880s, he will be ordering “zwei” kilos of strawberries, not “dva.”

Yet the Slavophiles in the empire at that time have decided on a course of Russification throughout the land. They want administration in the Baltic provinces to be in Russian, and encourage many Estonians to convert to Orthodoxy. These efforts appear to nullify the old agreement with Peter the Great, and leave the Baltic Germans looking with warm feelings toward an expansionist German empire, which is busy unifying German lands under one leadership. When World War I breaks out, and the Baltic lands fall under German occupation, the Baltic Germans propose integration into the German empire as a Baltic Duchy. The Slavophile Russification policies have alienated the leadership of the Baltic provinces to the point that they are no longer loyal to Russia. They have made the Baltic provinces open to the overtures of expansionist Western powers. The sad yet ironic thing is that Russia’s leaders will make the same mistakes toward Estonia again and again during the 20th century.

Even at that same time, other Russians are busy making a similar mistake. The Northwestern Army of General Nikolai Yudenich refuses to back Finnish and Estonian independence. As a result, the Estonian High Command makes its peace with V. I. Lenin, and interns Yudenich’s retreating forces. Had the White forces agreed to support Estonian independence, they may have been able to retake Petrograd together. Instead, the Whites lose the war, and the Soviets consolidate their power. Yudenich is said to have regretted this decision to the end of his life in exile in Nice, France. Even he knew that the White forces had made a grave mistake in not supporting Estonian independence. Unfortunately, for Yudenich, history could neither be relived nor repeated, and, according to one legend, Yudenich requested to be buried with a tiny Estonian flag in his coat pocket.

We skip ahead to June 1940. The Soviets have provided the Estonian government with an ultimatum to form a government capable of carrying out the mutual assistance pact that the two states signed in September 1939. The government responds by nominating August Rei, a highly intelligent social democrat and former state elder. While Rei is no Communist — he later regards Lenin as suffering from a mental disorder in his memoirs — as a social democrat he is perhaps best poised to accommodate Soviet demands while retaining some modicum of Estonian independence. Instead, the Soviets insist on a puppet government led by depressed poet Johannes Vares (who later commits suicide in Kadriorg), a full military occupation, and annexation into the USSR.

Not only do many Western powers refuse to recognize this illegal incorporation, but political repressions and deportations within the newly proclaimed Estonian SSR lead the public to actually welcome the arrival of the Germans a year later. In a year’s time, the Germans have gone from being the historical enemy of the Estonian people to their saviors. The most hated army in history is greeted by crowds waving Estonian flags. It will later take six months for Soviet troops to break  through a German and Estonian defensive line in northeastern Estonia in 1944 and Soviet troops will continue to fight partisans in the forests of Estonia well into the mid-1950s. Yet nothing of the kind happens in neighboring Finland, which has retained its independence, albeit at a huge cost. In Finland, Soviet soldiers will remain stationed first at Hanko and then Porkkala until 1956 without incident.

Had August Rei become prime minister in 1940, Estonia might have joined the Nordic Council in 1956 and retained a policy of strategic non-alignment. Instead, given its experiences with Moscow in the past, the restored Estonian state in the 1990s opted for integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in 2004 the alliance expanded to include Estonia, bringing NATO to within an hour’s flight of Saint Petersburg.

I can go on. The establishment of Russian as an official language in 1940, the import of Soviet workers dramatically changing local demographics, intensified Russification policies in the 1970s that led to the famous Letter of 40 in 1980 and associated protests that year, the illegality of the Soviet annexation that allowed the Baltic republics to spearhead the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But the theme remains the same. For more than 200 years, Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, but enjoyed vast autonomy and even a completely different administrative language. When this autonomy was reduced in favor of central control and Russification policies, it created resentment that reversed loyalties to the empire. Soviet aggression in the 1940s might have had short-term benefits in term of military control, but it had long-term negative consequences that led not only to the dissolution of the USSR, but also the expansion of a Western military alliance right up to the border of the Russian Federation.

I think it is fair to argue then, that any Russian leader who is a student of history should try to avoid Estonia at all costs, because Estonia, as history has shown us, is like a bad cold that you do not want to catch.

goodnight putin

Goodnight KGB man mumbling mush.

THE ESTONIANS WORRY ME SO. They worry me so because they are so worried. “Are we next?” they think. To which, I mouth, but do not utter aloud, “Get over yourselves.”

Part of it is just me talking myself out of worst-case scenarios. But the other part of it is true. Estonia was never that important in the real world game of Stratego. Even Peter the Great was a bit surprised when he won it off Sweden three hundred years ago, something like, “Huh, what’s this?” He had only wanted Ingria, and yet wound up with Estonia after defeating Sweden’s Rambo King Carl XII, a sort of imperial freebie, the way a Chinese take-out restaurant upon receiving a large order might throw in an extra quart of wonton soup.

But what about all of those wars, all of that tragic history? It is true that throughout the years many armies crisscrossed Estonia, but what people forget is that most of the time they were heading somewhere else. Sometimes they were on their way to Saint Petersburg (under its various names). Other times, they were driving to Berlin. Yet they rarely — if ever — went to Estonia just for the sake of going to Estonia. Which is not to say that Estonia is unattractive. Not at all. It is a lovely country, and Tallinn has a magnificent Old Town, with one of Europe’s oldest continuously running apothecaries, where you can view and photograph medieval medicinal cures, like mummy juice and deer penis, but … even with such delightful trappings, most visitors tend to stay for just a few days before going somewhere else. That’s just how it is.

And that should make us sleep more comfortably at night, right? We should be able to curl up like that little cute bunny in Goodnight Moon and drift off into dreamland without mistaking that noisy truck in the alleyway for an invading tank like I used to when I lived in Tallinn, and Tartu, and Viljandi. Or, I’d hear a crackling sound and look out at the hills and think, “Oh, no, it’s started again …” when it was just fireworks, or hear the hum of a convoy down by the lake and run over to check it out, just to see it was the local hillbillies racing their leased cars around on the ice.

Call me paranoid, but I bet I’m not the only one with such an overactive imagination. The US is sending jets to patrol Baltic airspace, in part to calm those jittery nerves. Still, I have to ask, if Ukraine is being dismembered, and people seem to feel the Baltics are under some existential threat, then what does that portend for the rest of Europe? Because, like I said, Moscow never took over Estonia just for the sake of taking over Estonia. They always took over Estonia on their way to taking over something else. If you are worried about Russian troops marching through Tallinn, might as well imagine them in Budapest, Prague, and Berlin. Because if history repeats itself, then that’s history repeating itself.

I have no idea why they would attempt to do something like that again though. That would be profoundly stupid. Think about it. It’s almost been a century since Tallinn’s own Roman von Ungern-Sternberg became a White Russian war lord in Outer Mongolia. It’s been slightly over two decades since Dzhokar Dudaev, who once commanded the 326th Heavy Bomber Division in Tartu, returned to his home in Chechnya to declare the republic’s independence from Moscow. In the past 100 years, empires centered in Moscow have crumbled twice.  The chaos and carnage has been spectacular and absurd. And the best its current leadership can come up with is, “Let’s try it again”?

No, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This just can’t be. It can’t be because I thought Putin was supposed to be a clever KGB man. A diabolical mastermind. An evil genius. A real-life Bond villain. He’s the one pulling all the strings, faking left and hooking right. Putin couldn’t be that stupid, could he? Could he?