prehistoric crabs

MY COMMANDMENTS have been sewn into my skin: if I go a day without writing, the scar burns me; and if I write too easily it also burns me. Today, this worn exigency strikes me as clumsy and inflexible: like those solemn, prehistoric crabs which the sea washes up on the beaches of Long Island; like them it survives from times past.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, 1964

deep all around you

SEEING THE TERM “patriarchy” a few times recently has led me to think about the matriarchal clan systems that have defined my personal life, yet are seldom if ever discussed. It was just taken for granted that the family was built around the life-giving female, if only because the older males had mysteriously predeceased them due to various ill habits likely spurred on by endless stress. There was no ‘pater’ around which a patriarchal system could revolve. Matriarchy decided so much about you, in what way you would relate to God, what way you would celebrate, which foods were acceptable, how you carried yourself in public. You were just swimming in matriarchy, and it was deep all around you, like the ocean itself. This is not a critique, for one cannot critique the ocean. Still, one may attempt to size it up from time to time.

tiny pagan northlands

WHAT SURPRISES ME, still surprises me, in all of this recent scandal/discussion revolving around this Balto-Finnic players gallery of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former First Lady Evelin Ilves, Iivi Anna Masso, Krista Lensin, Toomas Sildam, Risto Vuorinen, Erkki Tuomioja, Ieva Kupce, and nearly everyone else touched by its transparent but potent vapors is that, with the exception of President Ilves’ Latvian bride to be, I have met or exchanged mails with almost every person mentioned or involved. I even bumped into the Finnish journalist Risto Vuorinen at a book launch once, where he made light of the insinuation that he was a tool of Russian propaganda. Everybody here knows everybody. Everybody is so close. Too close. Like that grotesque sensation that courses through your fibers when you stand next to a vagabond at a urinal at a New Jersey rest stop. This is life in the tiny pagan northlands, that feeling that you have made out vicariously with everyone in the country, or at least felt the sweat from your palms mingle as you exchanged handshakes after a good night’s sauna. The spit and sweat of the people, yeah, it’s here all around you in Eestiland, everywhere you go. The political does not get personal up here. Everything is personal. We have all shared too much.

it takes time to build

DEEP AMBIVALENCE about dueling western&eastern approaches to achieving the successful life path. Modern mental medicine has set our destination as contentedness, or happiness, for which all else must be sacrificed. Wisdom of the ancients (read: grandparents) stressed fortitude in the face of adversity. No longer. This was before the eastern philosophies weaseled their way into the consumer mindset. The zen of the perfect life, full of inspiration and happiness.

And stuff.

I’m not mocking it, but it seems to lead to much wandering, too much. Is stability a threat to the good things we have been promised? How can you achieve anything long-lasting without a stable base? If you have no home to return to or rest in, how can you recharge to fulfill your artistic destiny? A writer needs a nest. Anyone might need one. The thing I keep turning over in my mind is: it takes time to build anything of significance. You do your homework, you take your time. It only takes a second to wreck anything, true, but it takes time to build.

Here I sense my own deep Greco-Roman roots. They took their time to build things that are still standing. It took dedication, endurance, hardship. It required strength in the face of adversity. But there was a pay off — longevity. Rather than spinning around in cycles of wanderlust, they pushed ahead with their plans, guided by a vision of what could be. Set the goal, achieve the goal. Not the deadline, not the submission, but the greater, spiritual goal.

Building anything requires patience. It will be hard. So what?

little fish town

“A little fish town,” or how it used to be.

THAT “LITTLE FISH TOWN,” called Setauket, or so it was known to anyone who wondered what it was. A little fish town in the middle of the bottom of nowhere. Setauket was settled in 1655 by land-hungry New Englanders. Ancient churches, village greens. It still retains that doomed, Salem witch trial feel. This is why it makes the perfect setting for AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies.

That the “Setauket” of TURN was assembled in Virginia is no matter. The series captures its tart, backwater taste perfectly. When Abraham Woodhull’s frustrated wife moves to her father-in-law’s house, and Abe gets wasted on homemade beer and shoots his musket into the winter air and then has a confusing romantic encounter with Anna Smith Strong — that’s the futility of Setauket right there. Never have I identified with a main character like I identify with the proud and painfully independent Woodhull. So I am proud to see Setauket portrayed as it revealed itself to me in my own youth.

Nothing has changed in the little fish town in the past 200 years.

Yet so much has changed. When my daughter saw the opening scenes of the series, she said, “But Setauket doesn’t look like that.” When I was going to school we had a local history book that ended in 1955, when the area was still agrarian. It looked a great deal like the Setauket you see in TURN. Then something happened. The State University of New York at Stony Brook was founded in 1962. A rash of development spread from abandoned farmstead to abandoned farmstead, placing Best Buys and Targets and Home Depots on land where people used to grow cabbage. It’s still going on, as condominiums choke the remaining patches of unused land out of memory. Sadly it’s not just Setauket. When the camera panned in on virgin forest and then revealed the location as “Northern New Jersey,” I had to laugh. Really. Call it graveyard humor.

One of the centerpieces of the colonial-royal conflict was the idea of land ownership. “This is not your land, this is the King’s land,” says the villainous British officer Simcoe in one of the earlier episodes. “They are fighting for their King, we are fighting for our homes,” says the patriot spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge in another scene. Yet what’s become of all of this contentious real estate? Nail salons, gas stations. Housing estates with quaint-sounding names. They call it progress, but progress toward what? They call it development, but development toward what?

These are just some of the many ideas I have while watching this excellent show. My only regret is that it wasn’t made when I was 10 or 11 years old and we were learning about the Setauket spies in elementary school. If I had obtained it on DVD then, if they had had DVDs then, I would have never have left my house. My friends would have been the actors on the screen. I would have dressed up like them, and affected their peculiar transatlantic accents toting a toy musket bought at Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There’s something telling about either my fragile childhood mental state or the place in which I grew up that I found the idea of living under foreign military occupation absolutely thrilling. British troops in Setauket? Couldn’t be better. I’m sure it was terrible, but at least something was actually going on then. Anything to kill the boredom in that little fish town.

usaldusväärne

THE WORD IS usaldusväärne. It means worthy of trust. Trustworthy. Something upon which you can depend. It is a dependable word, and yet deceptive, too. Recently someone complained to me about a colleague who arrived late to a meeting. “If it was the first time, that would be okay, but she’s late all the time. For me, that means that this person is not trustworthy.”

I’ve written too much about timeliness in my time here, but this for me brought out two interesting facets of what can be called the Estonian Mind. The first is to see other people not as individuals who merit a sort of commonplace compassion, but rather as other free agents, walking business fronts. A person is not just flesh and blood and feeling, but rather a social implement, someone who has a set of skills that may be of use to me. Another person is a tool that I can use to get what I want. Social interaction is a kind of on-going marketplace where various individuals exchange skill sets to advance each other’s agendas.

Another curious aspect of the psychology of usaldusväärne is the idea that by merely displaying competence, a person can gain others’ trust. You may have another colleague who completes all tasks assigned, is never late, is always properly dressed, and is just a miraculous and meritorious manager of time and function, and yet is stealing thousands of euros from the company while nobody else is looking. Criminals can be quite charming, can’t they? Here, I might argue that being on time to a meeting does not equate trustworthiness. Being on time only means that you have a watch. You may still be a conniving crook.

These are thoughts that I will never share with friends and acquaintances here. I fear that even venturing into the world of intuition will provoke a certain impatience, or, even worse, render me as being less usaldusväärne than I was before.

gold streaks

“AH, YOU SEE what being outside has done to your hair. You have more gold streaks.”
“My hair is still darker than the other girls’. I want to have really light hair, like so-and-so.”
“But you are Italian. You will always have darker hair.”
“I don’t want to be Italian.”
“One day, I will take you to Italy, and you will see lots of girls with even darker hair. We can go to Rome. And then we can eat.”