where people go to get away from the news

A woman cowers behind the base of a flagpole at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966

A woman cowers behind the base of a flagpole at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966

The word “linn” in Estonian is translated as “city” in English, but it would be an exaggeration to call “Viljandi Linn” a city. It is more of a town, and not much of one at that, with somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 inhabitants, depending on who is counting.

Situated in south Estonia, about two hours from Tallinn and an hour from Pärnu and Tartu, the fourth and second largest “cities” in this sparsely populated country, its main attractions are a well-preserved Old Town with colorful leaning wooden houses, a gorgeous lake view, mysterious castle ruins, and a cultural academy that attracts much of the country’s major musical and theatrical talent.

Every summer at the end of July, people from all across Estonia and many other places come to Viljandi to enjoy its annual folk music festival. It’s usually a peaceful event, and brings to mind Woodstock, with its carnival-like atmosphere and assortment of crazy characters and absurd and spontaneous happenings.

Every country has a bohemian hub like Viljandi, I guess. It’s where people who want to seek refuge from mainstream life disappear to. Women wear old-fashioned, homemade clothing, bake their own bread (when they feel like it), sit around fires in winter with their feet up against the soothing texture of wooden floors and spread village gossip while the men drink coffee or beer and make idle jokes about everything. The children play, too, with dolls or toy cars, and sometimes they strum their zithers and sing songs.

It’s about as ideal and enjoyable as life can get, but it’s only one part of Viljandi life.

Along with the cultural shakers, there is a rougher, left-behind, working-class edge to Viljandi.  Just around the neighborhood where we used to live, one could hear the coarse voices of village drunks arguing behind houses and encounter bratty street kids smoking cigarettes and yelling obscenities at passersby. In my own time there, I watched a young couple graduate from high school in love, bring a baby into the world out of wedlock, and then separate. I have not seen the young woman in some time, but the last time I saw the young man, he was standing outside a liquor store drinking. So there is a ghetto-like undercurrent to Viljandi that few comment on or address, a specter of hopelessness that tiptoes right behind the folksy frivolity.

There is also atomization, an increase in the space between people, a devolution to perpetual disengagement, and this is a phenomenon that has occurred throughout Estonia, as it has around the world. Children who spend their free hours staring at screens while their parents stare at other screens chatting with other adults who stare at screens. My God. Nobody talks, nobody opens up, nobody shares what is in their hearts. Why share something personal with another person when you can satisfy your needs the way you want to with a tap of the fingers? Many nights in Viljandi I would work late at the office and walk home alongside the buildings and look up through the windows to see zombie-like young people seated in the intoxicating glow of a device.

I cannot tell you much about the school shooting that occurred this week in Viljandi beyond what you have already read in the news. I can tell you that my first instinct has been to not think about it or what it means, and to continue on with my life. We no longer live in Viljandi, which makes it a “there” even though it’s right “here,” just an hour west of where I type this in Tartu. But many of my friends are “there” and I know that they are in shock, as am I, and are probably ignoring it as well because it is so hard to process how a 15-year-old boy could walk into a school and murder a teacher.

We are shocked because we believe that it should not have happened in Viljandi, which is where people go to get away from the news, and also because we believe that it should not have happened in Estonia, which is not Finland or Norway or the US, but small and quaint, a kind of Viljandi of the world. We are also shocked because we just cannot fathom that kind of act of violence, even though it has happened again and again and again in our societies. While the Columbine shootings in 1999 seemed to announce a new era of violence in schools, these kinds of things have occurred before many times, such as at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, when a 25-year-old man climbed to the top of a tower and shot and killed 16 people and wounded 32 before being killed himself.

The writer Hunter S. Thompson famously labeled the unrest of the 1960s as the manifestation of a second, downward half of the 20th Century. It seems today though that the trend for the 21st Century is not up again but rather the same direction. And so people moan to each other about a world circling the drain, of which the Viljandi shooting is just another dip lower toward some eventual bottom. Because if there is social movement it must be toward a bottom. Unless, of course, there is no bottom at all.

the terrible truth about extreme estonia

It's unconventional.

It’s unconventional.

THE TERRIBLE TRUTH about the book Extreme Estonia is that I didn’t take it very seriously when it landed on my so-called desk. I was too biased, too doubtful, because the word “extreme” to me carried with it unwritten references to tattoos, piercings, snowboarding events sponsored by fast food companies, and bungee jumping.

And the pathetic thing about Estonia is that so much of it is not extreme in any way. There’s nothing particularly extreme about gazing at some fluffy white sheep under some fluffy white clouds on Saaremaa, is there, unless you happen to contract Lyme disease while doing it. Honestly, I almost fell asleep when I wrote about Saaremaa for Minu Eesti 2, because it was just such a relaxing place. But fortunately the extreme in Extreme Estonia refers more to the idea of being remote, outermost, farthest removed, and in this sense it is a very credible title for such an interesting book.

What Terhi Pääskyla-Malström does in Extreme Estonia is take readers to the extremities of this intriguing northern land. And what one learns while flipping through these 192 pages, is that there is a hell of a lot to experience up here. Sure, I have been to Haapsalu and to Narva and to Võru and to Pärnu, but I haven’t managed to get out to the Pakri Islands (and I probably never will). And given the pace of the book, the terrain covered, and the author’s wonderful sense of humor, one gets the sense that he or she has hitched a ride with Terhi and is finally going to all of those distant-feeling places, locations and settings I would bet that many Estonians have not even visited.

My favorite section of this book dealt with humorous place names in Estonia. Feel  a sudden urge to visit Urge? Mustvee? Of course, we must! And why not say “I do” in Aidu? Good old Terhi! She’s a tremendously sympathetic writer. She can be honest and sarcastic at the same time, and her buoyant  and informative text obliterated any doubts I had about this book. Doubt. It’s a peril that all writers face, that irritating question of who are you and why do you have any business writing a book about anything? Many readers ask authors this question, and the authors restrain themselves from answering back, “Well, if you have such doubts about my abilities, why don’t you go write a book yourself?”

But maybe Terhi doesn’t have these doubts. She seems like a courageous person, and her book inspired me to be more courageous too. Get out a bit more. See Estonia, see the world. Time to set away the laptop and trek out to that remotest, farthest removed, outermost point. And don’t forget to take along your copy of Extreme Estonia.

independent people


Independent People is also the name of a 1935 novel by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. It has been sitting unread on my shelf for two years.

SEPTEMBER 1 it is and so so long to a summer of zero play dates. In New York, this was the key phrase, connoting two heavily supervised children comingling for a set period of time. “Daddy, can we have a play date?” How I rued the phrase, how it turned disgust over in my guts. When I was a kid, we never had play dates. We just got on a bike and rode away. As it is here in Estonia, where kids just come over and then they leave. Most have their own telephones and are reachable by them. I ran into my own daughter the other day on the other side of town. She was crossing the street with a friend. “Oh, hi Daddy, I’m going to so-and-so’s house,” she said. “That’s fine with me,” I said. And off they went. Just like that.

When I was in Orient, which is a little seaside village at the easternmost edge of Long Island, I did talk about my Viljandi friend Enn and his five children once in the general store, and about how Enn’s sons would climb a ladder up to the roof and then dive off onto the trampoline below. And the lady behind the counter said, “Oh, my, that does sound like Orient of yesteryear.”

I’m sure it did. I am sure that the children of decades ago played just as I played, and had those rough and tumble childhoods. Like I told my therapist, when I was a boy we would roam uncharted woods for hours in an attempt find our way back home. “It prepared you very well for this life,” she said. And hasn’t it. I’ve been lost everywhere, Helsinki, Beijing. I got lost outside the Summer Palace among the little stone shanty houses and cages of tiny yipping dogs kept for some special canine stew. And yet I’ve always found my way back home. But what of those children of today? I have wondered. Will they be able to find their way anywhere?

The fear culture has not yet gripped Estonia, and maybe it never will. Too small, too familiar, too many eyes, too many cameras. Sometimes here I think people know more about what’s going on in my inner life than I do myself. But there is also fatalistic trust in things, and in a free childhood, and with that freedom comes responsibility. Small, properly dressed children tote student identity cards on their first day of school, a document that will get them a discount anywhere when displayed. They learn to carry it with them, to identify with it, and to wield it out of self interest. This staircase of responsibilities leads upwards, so that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter spent most of the summer alone in Tallinn living with a friend.

“My friends in the States can’t believe it. They said, ‘Wait, you let your daughter live in Tallinn alone for the entire summer?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’” My friend is an American too, but our childhoods happened a long time ago before the suffocating embrace of the play date clung tight. “Yes,” his wife said, with a bit of a satisfied smile on her face, “We do raise children to be independent and self sufficient in this country.” They do, that’s true. Estonia has its problems, as do other countries. Independence and self interest can lead to egomania and the complete abdication of any kind of social responsibility.  I admit that I have thought from time to time that the personal motto of too many an Estonian is, “But, hey, what’s in it for me?” 

Still I am impressed by local attitudes toward children in this little country. Help to self help. Sounds about right to me.

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?”


“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.