THEORETICALLY, there is nothing wrong with a 41-year-old, mostly employed writer living in a wooden house in a small provincial town on the northeastern flank of European ennui developing a thing for a 31-year-old American singer songwriter who is far more successful and wealthier than he will ever be, whom he also happens to encounter here and there in the media. Theoretically. But there is also that icky feeling that comes when developing feelings of any kind for someone you have never met, and for whom you are almost expected to have some starburst reaction, just like you’re supposed to thirst for a cold Coca Cola on a dry day, or long to feast on a bag of fluorescent orange Doritos, or gobble up whatever else they are selling you. Yet the eyes don’t lie. For whatever reason, they keep rolling over to Miss Swift. It just happened to me the other day. There I was, in the café, drinking my double espresso in the back room, when I chanced across a photograph in a magazine. Two clear blue eyes and that rebellious ski jump of a nose. There was something rather unruly, mischievous, and punk in those eyes. Who was she? I read the photo caption. Oh no. Not again. Her. Why? Years ago while in Nashville, I had acquired some merchandise for my daughters, including crimson t-shirts with her image on them, and an album they could listen to in the car. I remember listening to that album and thinking, “Hey, I actually kind of like this girl.” These thoughts I kept to my miserable, repressed, father-of-little-girls self, a gray, opaque nonentity that existed to step in and bandage knees, procure ice cream, and chauffeur them from destination to destination. I was a little ashamed, truth be told. But why? Why do we feel shame for our own impulses when clearly the mind has a mind of its own? There is a joy though too, the joy of having a reaction to anything. I have enjoyed my thing for Swift. Let it be, you know, let it all be. Even as I have to grimace through the very dreadful “Look What You Made Me Do,” which is basically her saying that line over and over and over and over again, even then, just let it be. Accept one’s inner Taylor-loving self. Revel in it. Write love poetry, songs, prose. Follow her on social media. When I worked in New York in the mid-00s, I had a similar freak experience when I would find myself drawn to images of Nicole Kidman of all people. My eyes would wander the magazines and billboards and movie posters down on Maiden Lane, Gold Street, Pine Street, Park Place, and seize on this pretty person and ponder her identity, only to realize it was Tom Cruise’s ex-wife, the star of Dogville, and an Australian no less. One day I confessed this passing fancy to my coworker, Waylon, who was from New Mexico and carried a knife, and he had no bones about it. “Of course, dude,” he said when I told him. “She’s a total babe! I’d definitely do her.”
I MUST HAVE CREATED a Tinder account a few times already, only to delete it about 20 minutes after swiping through the faces of strangers. Well, mostly strangers. Let’s say the sole joy of using such an application is seeing how your neighbors market themselves to the world. You see their faces, their ages, what they are looking for. There is a bit of a tragedy in seeing these advertisements though. Why is modern life so hard that we have to market ourselves in such a way? Or is this just another sign of progress? If we can pay taxes and vote online, then surely love can’t be far behind? Usually these photos are accompanied by words. What people say they want. What people say they are looking for. I vaguely remember reading these words at 2 AM. Then I remember deleting my account and uninstalling the app again.
I don’t remember the first time I heard about Tinder. Maybe around the time that I became single again. A friend had it. Some warned me that it was a “sex app,” meaning people just used it to fish for hookups. According to the descriptions on the site, most people using it weren’t looking for that though. They thought they were going to find the true loves of their lives, dependable, reliable partners. Sort of like pet dogs, but humans they could actually interact with. And yes, they could have sex. Maybe around that time, I logged in for the first time, and was offered up a motley crew of the eligible. I wasn’t sure on what basis I was supposed to select some of them and discard others. Attractiveness? Shared hobbies? There weren’t many beautiful women, to be honest. Many had altered their profile photos to such an extent that only the eyes and lips were left. They were like cartoon characters. I was being asked to choose an anime character.
Some did not follow this pattern. Some women posted photos where they looked away from the camera, creating a sense of reluctance or mystery. Others trained the camera lens on their legs. Or their cleavage. Was this what it had been reduced to? Selecting a new pet human based on breast size or appearance? Maybe some other attribute. Kids, no kids. Distance. Musical taste.
I probably swiped through hundreds of women. They fell before me like foot soldiers during the Great War. It was a slaughterhouse. The app reshuffled the deck again and again. No, no, no, yes? The ones I actually chose bothered me more than the ones I rejected. Most had a kind of psychotic gleam in their eyes. Why was I drawn to mentally disturbed women? I deleted the app.
Later, a female friend showed me her side of Tinder, the images of men standing beside their new cars, or working out in the gym with their shirts off. I had simply harnessed my Facebook profile photo for my short-lived profile. Alas, it lasted no longer than the Otto Tief government.
(It was taken of me through a window one summer, reading Sakala, and looking very literary).
What horrendous nonsense, really. What a stab in the heart of anything good and honest left in this world. Take your online dating applications and shove them. I have heard there are other apps too out there. I don’t know, if you want to find a new life partner the same way you pick out a pair of discounted snow boots on Amazon, then be my guest. But this tack in life isn’t for me.
Whatever happened to the old days? Whatever happened to the Nineties, when you just called a girl on the phone and she was forced to speak to you, or at least you would hear her tell her mother in the background to relay the message that she was busy or not at home? Or what of just riding the bus home together and going to a bedroom while the parents were at work? Whatever happened to inglorious college dorm hookups, so blurry almost nobody could remember them? What happened to paper letters? What happened to sharing mix tapes? What happened to seeing a film?
What happened to dreaming and not writing? To sensing and yearning and feeling and not typing or swiping? What happened to not knowing what you were looking for? What happened to waking up in a feverish state soaked in sweat dreaming of her and only her? What happened?
What happened to pretty bar room girls shooting you thrilling glances? What happened to a world without the instant gratification of the digital connection? Will she write or won’t she? Will I be ‘left on read’? Will she like my comment? Why did she like all my Instagram posts at 3 AM?
There was once a quote attributed to a high-ranking Nazi official that went something like, “Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.” In this case, we could stretch it to, “Whenever I hear the word Tinder, I reach for my gun.” If I had one. Maybe a journal instead.
SOMETIME IN EARLY ’94, I walked into a music store in New York and saw Morrissey’s new album, Vauxhall and I. I was 14 years old, which is a tender, non-knowing age in man years. Generationally, I occupied an interesting in-between space between the older kids, who were well versed in The Smiths and the odyssey of Morrissey, and the younger kids, who would probably only learn about them in college many years later. I can’t say Morrissey appealed to me on any level, looking like Chris Isaak crossed with Helena Bonham Carter, but that name stuck with me. Who was this Vauxhall and what did he have to do with this brooding Englishman? Much later, while in London perhaps, I did indeed learn that Vauxhall was the name of a street. But that is all irrelevant, because this story is actually about vaccinations and “vaxholes,” not Vauxhall, though I enjoy the similarity. I’m wondering why I became vaccine hesitant, and it probably goes back to looking at these rather pitiful effectiveness rates of the early vaccines, Jannsen and AstraZeneca, which promised to deliver around 66 percent protection. Which wasn’t very promising, honestly, if these were the tools that would supposedly catapult us back into normalcy, or perhaps some two-tier system for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, where those with the doses could cut ahead in line in airports while sneering at those idiots in the unvaccinated slow line. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines looked better, for sure, but recent studies have shown efficacy hovering around 39 percent versus the Delta variant, the one that matters currently, which is pretty much where Jannsen and AZ are. This, plus widely reported breakthrough outbreaks, some of them in highly protected populations, mean we aren’t going back to normal on the back of first-generation vaccines. It’s just not happening. There will be some adjustments in policy, but they haven’t been fully articulated yet. Recent anger toward people who asked questions about vaccines, or decided on a “wait-and-see” approach, which is understandable when you are dealing with experimental new healthcare products, has one foot in legitimacy and another in frustration with the status quo. Yet there is anger, a lot of it, and there will be more. People will turn on each other, blame each other, and hurt each other. Mostly because hopes have been dashed.
A NICE WALK BACK through Viljandi Town on the night of the folk music festival, all the streets lit up by lanterns, and people gliding by on bicycles or scooters at midnight, straight down the middle of the street without caution, talking between each other, groups huddled around cars drinking, or sitting Indian style in the parks under the shadows of trees. Something about it reminded me of my first trip to Europe in ninety-four, and the street festival in Zurich where I saw kids approximately my age drinking in public and having a good time and felt so jealous that they could openly do that, and then sleep off their drinks on the trains out of town into the Swiss hills. Then I got back to my hometown that summer, where a kid I knew kept his beer stash buried in the woods so his parents wouldn’t find out! But I also missed Nantucket tonight, which seems to be the place in the US I miss the most. This has grown in me over time. Sometimes I think Nantucket is my home in America, Orange Street, Union Street, the Whaling Museum, the Unitarian Church, Siasconset. I suppose I also went there as a teenager and bonded with it, and remember hearing the parties at night and wishing I was there. Also thought of Block Island recently and how the Irish girls who worked in the hotels would gather at night and sing folk songs in the yards. Sometimes I miss that time, when my best friend was my cassette of Pink Floyd’s The Wall that had that special new cassette smell. Anyway, it was a nice night and felt at last some balance restored within myself after feeling uneven for some time. Thanks for that.
WHEN I USED TO GO to San Diego I would always stay in the Gaslamp Quarter. Even if the conferences were over the bridge on Coronado Island, or up above the freeway at the Town and Country, the Gaslamp was my home. There were some festive Mexican restaurants with chili rellenos and mariachi bands, and loads of both young urban professionals as well as aggressive, toothless homeless people pushing shopping carts and howling about Obama and Jesus. The names of the other neighborhoods were the usual fare of bland American names that meant vaguely nothing — Golden Heights, Southcrest, Normal Heights — or were named after some historical curiosity that had long since been engulfed by fast food restaurants, parking lots, and cheap motels — Mission Hills, Montecito. Then, somewhere to the south, America ran out of land and turned into Mexico. Just like that. A few tram stops and this gringo paradise of meaningless English names, indoor shopping extravaganzas, and expensive but soulless residential areas, turned into the wild cactus MexTex-Aztec beast. If all of North America could be seen in such a light, as a struggle between pale gringos, hungry for a Burger King on every street corner, and swarthy Mexicans, just hungry, it would make far more sense. That’s all it is still, England versus Spain, with some wily French fur traders mixed in up north. I felt bad for the Europeans I knew in San Diego. I felt bad for them when they had to get in their leased SUVs to drive down to the Gaslamp for that European feel of rolling out of bed and strolling down the street just to get their lips around some sunshine, street scenes, and espresso. I felt bad for them as they sat in traffic many hours a day on a conference call, their shades on to block out any sunlight that made it past the tinted windshield. Only in the Gaslamp could they get any of that old-timey, lived-in feel, of listening to bar brawls at 2 AM and some woman screaming over mariachi horns, or waking up to the clamor of construction at 6 AM and drilling. Only there could they sleep deep in the belly of the hairy California animal. They had given it all away, you know. They had traded away everything for palm trees and this.
DISSONANCE is a word we know from music. But one can also experience cognitive dissonance, or a dissonance in one’s mind, in one’s thoughts. This happens when, for example, somebody insists on pushing a narrative about your own life, feelings, or experiences, that doesn’t match up with your own memories of them. Imagine, for example, that a long time ago, you went on a trip and you didn’t invite your friend along. The trip happened suddenly, and it wasn’t planned. Your own memories of the trip are that it was interesting and enjoyable. It was an experience in your life. You remember that trip the way that you remember it. Until your friend accuses you of having abandoned him by not inviting him along. Your friend says that you went on the trip to spite him. That the trip was against him in a way. You shouldn’t have gone on that trip, this so-called friend says. You betrayed him when you went on that trip. You don’t remember ever having made this kind of pact with your friend regarding spur-of-the-moment trips and until now, haven’t felt anything resembling guilt for that experience. It was one experience from your life, one that you thought of seldom until now. Now, things are different. To make matters worse, mutual acquaintances have been informed of your betrayal, and will bring it up to you in conversation. “Oh, that was the trip when you betrayed your friend,” they will say. You will no longer have control over your own version of your own life, as there is now a separate official version. If you challenge it, you will be ignored or shot down. “That’s not what I heard.” “But that’s not what happened!” “See how toxic and angry you are.” Now you start to relive that experience from your life, with your friend’s old grudge superimposed on your own memories. You see photos of yourself from that trip, and you think, “That’s a photo of me betraying my friend.” You never had this thought before, and this is not even your own thought. Now your friend is in your mind, telling you how your life was, and telling you how you should feel about your life. This is what dissonance is. If you continue down the path of dissonance, you soon will have none of your own memories of your own life or your own experiences, or will at the very least have to fight for them. You’ll have to fight within your own mind to keep your own memories and experiences alive for your sanity. Otherwise you lose track of who you are. You don’t know yourself anymore. You’re unsure. You once thought you were someone. Maybe it was all a big misunderstanding.
SLAVE. What is a slave? A slave is a person who isn’t free. A free person is a person who can decide his or her own destiny. A free person can be a master of his or her own fate. A slave cannot do that, because a slave has a master. A slave’s master owns him and decides what his destiny will be, or what his fate will be. Sometimes slaves try to escape. Some do it spontaneously. Some make plans. Some plan their escapes day in and day out. Then, one day, they make a break for it. Sometimes they are successful. Sometimes. Sometimes they are unsuccessful. They are pressed back into slavery. A slave who has been thoroughly domesticated no longer tries to escape. He no longer wishes to argue with his master. Instead, he comes to terms with his destiny and fate as a slave. It’s not so bad, you know, he tells himself. We are all slaves in some way, he thinks. He sleeps soundly. Better to sleep soundly as a slave than rouse the fury and the barking dogs of a defied master. There is a still a bed here, in the slave house, and there is food. There is company. There are other slaves. Sometimes one or more slaves will try to escape together. This rarely works out. Human treachery trumps altruism. It’s too easy to use someone else to get what you want. Slave rebellions end the same way. They are quashed and put down, and the leaders are made examples of and hanged for all to see. Some still try to overthrow the order, regardless. So fervent is their desire for freedom.
ONE WONDERFUL ASPECT of the pre-digital world was not knowing. And in the prehistoric dreamland dawn age of hip hop, when brontosauruses munched on wet leafy vegetation while pterodactyls swooped overhead, and the Fat Boys could be heard loading up at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Sbarro’s somewhere, this aspect of not knowing really counted. You just didn’t know who Grandmaster Flash was, or who Run-DMC were, other than that one of them was named Run and the other one was called DMC. You sort of could make out the identities of the Beastie Boys if you listened to Paul’s Boutique — “Suckers they be saying they can take out Adam Horovitz” — and you knew that some of them were from Manhattan and some were from Brooklyn, but that’s all you knew. Because of this, rumors circulated that gave only more color and flavor to what were pretty humdrum, end-of-the-century lives of sitting around, smoking joints, drinking brass monkey, playing video games, shopping for new Adidas, skeezing with some groupies, and maybe later taking some LSD and listening to that new record from A Tribe Called Quest. My favorite hip hop rumor, heard in the Long Island suburbs around the time that Check Your Head came out, was that the Beastie Boys had taken time off from hip hop and had all enrolled at Villanova University, where they received their degrees. In English literature, I suppose. Or maybe physics? It seemed plausible. Mike D at least seemed to come from some prosperity, with his stolen VW ornament adorning his gold chain, so why not Villanova? Then River Phoenix died and Ad-Rock beat up that photographer at the funeral. That was also part of the lore. Which brings us to Biz Markie, who died this week at 57. It was only at his death did I learn what his real name was (Marcel Theo Hall), or how old he was, or what any of his life story was. He was just the emcee in the wig crooning in his broken voice, “And you say he’s just a friend, and you say he’s just a friend …” God, what man among us hasn’t lived out the lines in that song? I think every kid on the school bus was singing that in the fall of ’89. Imagine all of those heads in rows, rolling down the street, reciting every word. We just liked the song. We knew nothing else. Rest in peace, Biz Markie. For me, you will always be an emcee from the dawn of history. An ancient hero with a mic.
GARBAGE, I remember that word. Or rather another word, the Estonian one. Prügi. In Estonian, the vowels matter. They are of significance. One loose vowel and you’re gone and misinterpreted. This was a long time ago, and so I said prugi instead of prügi. Kus prugi on? Where is the trash? Or trush? The nurse at the Tallinn Central Hospital squinted at me and then realized what I was trying to say. “Oh, prügi. Oh, trash.” That was on the cold night that my first child came into the world. Almost 18 years ago. It was an occasion. I held her in my arms and looked into her strange eyes. Newborns take a while to comprehend their surroundings. That’s how that all started. These days I feel a kind of sagging or pulling feeling in me. I feel my soul on ice, to quote Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver was an Arkansan, a drug dealer, a rapist (with intent to murder), but also a journalist (go figure), a Minister of Information, a presidential candidate, a political refugee, a Mormon, a conservative Republican, and, toward the end, a crack cocaine-addicted burglar. He also, for a time, cultivated a relationship with North Korea. My story has been simpler. I feel part of my soul though is freezing. It’s freezing and I do not feel it can ever be thawed. Indifference comes in with the cold, even on hot July days. Beige blasé indifference. Blasé-sur-Ennui. I will get through this, eventually. Will I be the same? And when you give up on something, what’s to stop you from giving up on everything else, bit by bit, question by question, until you start using that other Estonian phrase, ükskõik, “one-all,” whatever and ever? Where to next? Just ask Eldridge, I guess. Denunciations follow, then a ticket to Cuba and to Algeria. After that, Paris. Where else?
HOW TO MEASURE a mental collapse? All I can think of is different platforms folding in on themselves, like those British sailing ships of old that got crushed by the ice of the Arctic. All of the pressure forcing the beams and planks to buckle, splinter, and break, until the whole craft is swallowed up and never seen again, really. Only some old nails or pieces of rope are recovered, maybe some navigator’s tools, a compass that still works. The rest of it is gone. So goes it with the mind. As people, as individuals, we have this concept that our minds are like standard issue Apple computers, and that each more or less comes with the same power. Just plug it in and go. Our minds are the same, it’s just some are more adept at self-programming. Is it really that way though? Maybe his mind is better at numbers, or entrepreneurship, but he couldn’t string a line of sentences for his life. Can’t even write an email. Or maybe she is more capable of seeing the bigger picture, better than he ever could. For her the world is a brilliant pattern of interwoven ideas and themes and people, like a great Oriental rug, he just being one of them. He is just a pattern in her rug, nothing more, nothing less. He has his talents but is, as they say, still small. That is not where his strength lies, in seeing things. There is also the case of psychic attack. These often hasten the collapse of the mind. This is, after all, the pressure that builds up. It’s not just the real world things, the bills, the deadlines, it’s those waves of disruptive energy that are sent out, that leave one cringing in a fetal position, waiting for the terror to stop. Eventually it does. The sun comes out. Some kind of balance returns to an overturned universe. But hell. Recovery is never easy.