a weird thing

locker-wide

I KEEP RUNNING this scene through my head and trying to make sense of it. There we were in a locker room in an American high school. It must have been the last year or the second to last year, and we were changing our clothes when I noticed an older man in a black jumpsuit with a camera. He walked into the locker room, surveyed the scene, and began to take photos. The flash of the camera caught my eye, and then there was another flash. I decided to confront this strange individual, whose body language was stiff and clumsy, as if he too was baffled by his appearance and odd behavior.

“What are you doing here?” I asked the old man.

“I’m looking for the swimming pool,” he responded.

“The swimming pool?” I was too perplexed to even ask any other questions. “Well, it’s not in here. I’ll show you where it is.”

I walked the old man out the door of the locker room and pointed him in the right direction. Before he left, he thanked me for showing him the way. The man walked down the hall, turned a corner and vanished for all time.

Back in the locker room, Cariati,who was a week younger than me, and just as eccentric, as any sane person who spends most of their lives in a public institution will one way or another become, asked me what that was about.

“He said he was looking for a swimming pool,” I shrugged.

“Swimming pool?” Cariati recoiled. His dark hair was in his eyes and he had that typical rabid dog expression on his face. “That old man took photos of us in our boxer shorts! And he claimed he was looking for a swimming pool? Don’t you get it, Petrone?”

I shook my head. I still didn’t get it.

“Oh, you are so stupid Petrone,” Cariati made as if to smack me. “He’s probably a pervert who’s into young guys! We have to go tell Ms. Leuca.”

Ms. Leuca eyed us with some suspicion. Who was she to believe Mr. Petrone and Mr. Cariati, two young fools who spent most of their time pretending their tennis rackets were electric guitars and singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“But Ms. Leuca,” Cariati pleaded with her. “We’re not joking this time. Some pervert has pictures of me, Petrone, and Jimmy Grasso in our boxer shorts.”

Ms. Leuca sighed and pressed her fingers to her brow, as if she couldn’t wait until Mr. Cariati and Mr. Petrone would graduate and she would be done with their oddball stories and antics. “Okay, Cariati, I guess I could tell the athletic director about it,” she said. That was the final word on the matter. Neither of us heard anything about it ever again. As far as I know, there are blurry Polaroids out there circulating of me in the Nineties in my boxers.

I don’t recall much more about that story, other than running into Cariati a few months later in a convenience store and reflecting on the incident of the old man. “If we had been girls,” Cariati whispered to me, “this would have been in the local newspaper and the school would have been locked down!”

He took more umbrage at the idea that some man had photographed him without his permission and could be, in some basement somewhere, deriving pleasure from it. I on the other hand couldn’t even understand how someone would risk their livelihood to take some images of some out-of-shape, under-aged men in a sweaty high school gym locker room.

Never before had I felt sexualized in any way. The idea that I too could be subjected to the same kinds of bizarre behavior that women had to manage on a daily basis was beyond my comprehension. Since the idea of being victimized that way was foreign to me, I also could not think of myself as a victim. It was just an incident, as I saw it, a happenstance, a weird thing that happened to which I paid little if no attention. I’m only recalling it now because I am awash in news about the trials and transgressions of others. It occurs to me at these times how limited men’s discourse about themselves actually is. We simply do not talk about our experiences, the things that happened to us, or how we felt about it. Our common media landscape consists of fitness and lifestyle magazines informing us about how to get the perfect body or the perfect tie. Victimhood is not an acknowledged part of the male identity.

To this day, I do not feel victimized by that day. Instead I am still a teenager, scratching my head, wondering if that old man ever found the swimming pool, and if he did, why he needed so badly to take photos of us to get there.

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the all-night burger joint

Little MyIT OPENS AT THREE in the afternoon and closes at five in the morning. Its air is thick with the smell of hot bubbling grease. It does its best business after all the other bars in town close, and restless locals find their way to its door.  It’s the all-night burger joint and it’s just around the corner in every town in Estonia. At Christmas time, it is done up festively. There are elves displayed in the front windows casting pointy shadows on the snowy sidewalks. In the glass by the grill, a Nativity Scene. The infant Jesus writhes in his manger. The Three Kings look on. What have they brought their savior? A vegan burger?

Inside, young men in thick jackets sit around a fake Christmas tree that glows with blue lights. Someone cracks a joke and they roar with joy. Even at nearly 5 AM they are not yet subdued by alcohol or weariness. Their appetite for life is so substantial.

Nearby, two young women drowse before plates of crispy spuds. They are Estonian ladies and so both look a bit like Little My from the Moomin books, though hardly identical. The fries find their way to their mouths. They are comfortable in the all-night burger joint, so they talk with their mouths full. There are spots of sauce on their lips. This is just an outstretched arm from the plastic infant Jesus and elves in the window.

The ladies are also restless. After a night out, they still want more. This is Estonia. Nobody is satisfied. After glasses of wine and several bars, they’re still bored. One talks of going to Italy in the spring. The other wants to run away to Portugal as soon as possible.

“Mallorca,” the first offers as a compromise. The other agrees. But not just yet.

“I just can’t stand this climate anymore,” one of the women then says to me.

“But you are from this climate,” I say.

“But even when I was a child, I just wanted to run away!”

“No matter where you run, it still won’t be paradise.”

“That’s not true. Other places have palm trees. And beaches. Paradise!”

Somewhere inside the all-night burger joint, Frank Sinatra has begun to sing. The speakers are invisible. I imagine that Sinatra himself is just out of sight. Perhaps he is flipping some fries as he does it, with one of those old-fashioned white caps on his head, just like the ones you see in the movies about old burger joints the 1950s. The golden age.

“Silent night,” Sinatra croons through the greasy air. “Holy night.”

Then I noticed that the tipsy ladies are leaning across the table. They’re whispering. Plotting. They cast glances at the elves in the windows.

“Which one?” one mouths to the other.

Then right under my watch they snatch up one the elves and run out the door.  I watch them through the windows, laughing and snorting in the snow, on their way toward morning dreams. These Estonians are like Siberians, I think. Always packing up their shelters, always hungry for another landscape. I imagine what it would be like to journey with them. Maybe over the ice flows of the Gulf of Finland to return their rescued elf to Santa Claus at the North Pole. I just sit there though, feeling too content to move. This morning, there is just nowhere else I would rather be. It’s my very own Christmas peace.

dreamy november

image

NOW NOVEMBER. OUR BROKEN CULTURE, BRITTLE AND STALE. Each day brings more dispatches from the dark side of paradise. The sexual harassment inferno flames and crackles along, engulfing movie producers, politicians, and actors that burn like good dry wood in country furnaces.

Analysts try to decode Vladimir Putin’s hamster-like expressions, as if reading tea leaves. Will X be next? Meantime, a century since the great October Revolution that actually took place in November. Little black-and-white silhouettes of crumpled bodies on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg.

It’s fitting, now that I think of it. Something so otherworldly could only happen in November.

These are our headlines, this is our life, or so we are told, or so it may seem. I’ve given up on providing any explanation of it to our daughters. “But why is Trump so bad?” Ten-year-old Anna asked me one black morning while I was making buckwheat porridge. This happened to be the week when he had said about a recently killed soldier, “He knew what he was getting himself into.” Trying to explain the situation to her was impossible. Words like “good” and “bad” become useless when you are engulfed with circus and more circus. In the end, I just shrugged it off. Away she went to school on her bike, gliding away through November’s various shades of gray.

To be honest, I have tried to raise my children away from the circus. I turn off the radio, and, if there happens to be a TV on somewhere, I turn off the TV. I am not sure if it’s the right thing to do. I grew up in a household where we watched the news every night. Every night I watched President Reagan meeting with Comrade Gorbachev. Every night I watched the the Palestinians battling the Israelis, the Iraqis fighting the Iranians. The month I was born, the Iranians stormed the American embassy in Tehran. All of these things have just been going on forever.

I awake in darkness, make myself morning tea under the spotlight of a solitary kitchen lamp. Is this really what our lives consist of? News-fed moments of elation and sorrow?

When we have nothing to do, during those few hours of pristine white sun and blue sky with that beautiful specter of night that stalks all November days, I take my children as far from civilization as I can get them.

We drive northwest, disappear into Soomaa, that swampland wilderness with all of its treasures. It takes forever to get there, and to enter the refuge, you have to get out of your car, open the gate, drive through, and then get out and close the gate again. One path leads to another, which carries you over forest streams to a third, and then a wooden platform bears you over the windy swampland, where only brave crooked pines bother to grow and the bog water is red wine red.

In the swamp, I found a great stick, curvy as a narwhal’s tusk, one that would make a good cane in old age, and promised myself that no matter how cold it got this winter, I would never burn it. In the distance we inspected scattered humps of earth, moss and wood, which we imagined had once been an active village of beavers. Our youngest daughter stuffed my pockets with pine cones and loose fluffy white moss she collected from the edges of the platform.

The morning after the expedition, I displayed the pine cones and moss on a table at the cafe for all to see. The sun was supposed to have risen, but it was still gloomy and gray in the streets, but I didn’t mind. Instead I felt content with the whole scene, and it occurred to me that I actually liked November. I was grateful that I had been born in such a dream of a month.

mirror man

peegelmeesIN THE SUMMER OF 2015, I received a letter from Sigrid Kõiv at Postimees asking if I would care to contribute a monthly column for the newspaper’s weekend Arter section. I of course said yes. Not only was it a great opportunity to reach a weekly audience in Estonia, but it offered me the possibility to write in a fresh context.

Most writing assignments are would-be columns. Going back to elementary school, we are asked for our opinion and to be brief about it. I studied column writing and reviewing when I was a university student, so I had my training, but with the Arter columns, I wanted to break free of the ‘Someone with an opinion says something and defends it with a few facts,” model. I wanted to deliver something more poetic to an audience drowning in politics and business news.

One of the pieces I wrote for Arter was called “Mirror World” in English. It discussed the phenomenon of outsiders adopting the perspectives and biases of their host countries to an extreme degree. I gave the example of Dean Reed, the American rock ‘n’ roll musician who defected to East Germany and became such a good communist that he once described the Berlin Wall as being a defensive measure against the West.  This is the concept of Mirror Man. The idea of an outsider reflecting back the attitudes around him.

Mirror Man is not only a collection of Postimees Arter columns. It also contains much of the pieces I wrote while I was a health columnist for the magazine Tervis Pluss, plus some articles that appeared in Eesti PäevalehtEstonian World, ERR News, and other outlets. A favorite, “The Death of Pensioner,” was published online by ERR News in 2011. To date, I still think it’s one of the best things I have written about life in this country.

There are other new pieces included in Mirror Man, such as “Üleminekud” (“Transitions”) and “Uus Algus” (“A New Beginning”), which I penned last summer.  Some of these are really personal and crescendo into the more recent columns I have done, including “The Breaking Point,” “Rapla Witch,” and “The Last Bit of Mourning“.  In these new pieces, I have tried to improve my approach to making a point through imagery. Rather than tell you what I think, I would like to recreate in words for you what I experience, and for you to arrive — maybe — at a similar experience, or a familiar feeling.

Mirror Man reads like a good book though. It reminds me a bit of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. This was an album made for a 1967 film made up of singles and some studio cuts that didn’t fit in here or there. Yet if you listen to it all the way through, it’s a real pleasure. It was one of the first LPs I had. I would listen to it all the time. Since my record player was so primitive, I would have to flip it every time and then flip it again. It’s my hope this book will offer readers the same kind of good and satisfying experience.

mushrooming

metsaseen

EACH DAY WE LOSE FIVE MINUTES OF LIGHT. A little shaved from the morning, a smidgen trimmed from the eve. Like a small yellow fish being swallowed by a dark lake trout, I sometimes think. Or a moist face disappearing into forest shadows. This is how autumn goes. It’s an introspective time. The antics and disappointments of summer are over. The crushed hopes of spring are long lost. What remains is a quiet, cozy contentedness. A silent peace.

I like it.

Some of the days are gray and wet and I don’t mind them. On other days, the sun is brave enough to smash through. The sky turns a brilliant blue and the sun’s strong rays bake the leaves gold and red. Such yellow days can last for as long as a week. Good weather for drying your laundry outside. Perfect weather for heading to the woods in search of fungus. Metsa seenele as the Estonians say.

To the forest, mushrooming!

I understand the Estonians best when they are in the forest harvesting mushrooms because to me it’s the most intimate and sensual experience you can have in this land. There is something about being surrounded by birches, with your hands deep in the moss, that settles and cools you inside and then excites, arouses. It’s as good as a long kiss or a passionate embrace, yet slow and soft. God knows how many Estonian babies have been conceived in these woods. Not enough, I say.

What I like about it is the loving intensity. The way hands scavenge. The surprise of finding a new bloom of chanterelles, one that leads to another, and then to another, until you somehow become frustrated that you can’t take the whole forest home in a bucket, berries and all.

I’ve been there, though I have never done mushrooming well. I only know a few of the species on sight — puravik (boletus), kukeseen (chanterelle) — and when I do find a good mushroom, I spend so much time admiring my catch that I forget to look for others. Once I forgot to bring a knife with me, though I had a bucket. I wound up using a pair of scissors from my car’s first aid kit.

Päris Macgyverlik,” as the Estonians say, “Just like MacGyver.”

It feels good to be able to understand at least one aspect of Estonian life, to take it as my own. It feels good because on most of these days, many of the people here remain a mystery to me. I don’t always understand their fondness for silence, or their northern zen of “waste not, want not.” I don’t appreciate their ideal of a smoothly running world, where time hums along, where no unnecessary word is spoken, no unnecessary feeling is expressed, no precious second wasted.

You send letters to people that are never answered, not because they dislike what you said, but because they merely felt that everything had already been expressed, and there was no need to waste time or additional letters of the alphabet. Then you run into them two weeks later and say, “Did you get my letter?” and they reply, “Yes, I did.”

In Estonia, I imagine, some couples fall in love and break up without saying anything. How do they even know? Maybe they just search each other’s eyes for answers.

I  have wondered how an Estonian might understand that another Estonian is showing interest.  Will this Estonian say anything, or will she just show up one morning with a suitcase and a pet and move in? In a land where silence is golden, it’s not easy to keep it all inside. A volcano could erupt from the need to say something. Sometimes I just don’t get these people.

This is why I love to go mushrooming in the forests. It allows me to cool and calm. It’s just me, the woods, and no one else. If you do encounter a stranger with a knife and bucket, there can be no misunderstandings. Who could misunderstand another in such a mossy and nourishing place?

sketches of estonia

Sketches-of-Estonia-_-kaas-220x322 I HAD A NEW BOOK come out over the summer called Sketches of Estonia. This is the English version of the material that was published in 2016 as Kirju Eestist. The title is in homage to Miles Davis’s 1960 album Sketches of Spain and Jack Kerouac’s Book of Sketches.

My beatnik leanings are no secret, but this book is really a collection of not only interesting short stories about Estonians and Estonia, but an exercise in literary styles. The pieces in the book — there are 24 chapters — were written at different times, and have diverse influences.

Some were pieces that were drawn up or held over from the My Estonia 3 or Minu Eesti 3 project. Originally, I wanted to write a similar collection of shorts for that book, which came out in 2015, but quickly recognized that the book demanded some kind of linear story line, and that there was simply too much material to pack into another My Estonia book.

The first two books are entirely linear and carried by a narrative. However, they covered roughly 18 months in my life in 2002-2003. My Estonia 3, however, covered 2007 to 2013, which made such an approach difficult. I wanted to cover this period as a general memoir, along the lines of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. However, while I was doing it, I noticed that the book demanded a narrative. So pieces that were originally written for the My Estonia 3 project were set aside if they were superfluous to the narrative. These formed the foundation for what later became Sketches of Estonia.

Chapters like “Kid Sirts and Surfer Taavi,” “Tea with the Icebreaker,” and “Drinking in Tallinn” came out of that time period. They were largely written in 2013 and 2014 at Aldo’s Coffee House in Greenport, Long Island.

Some of the other chapters here are even older though, and these are in my opinion quite personal. “Tree Balsam,” “How Romet Became a Clown,” “Gold Fish,” “Vastlapäev Arithmetic,” and “Gypsy Vika” were written in the 2011-2013 time period when we were living in Viljandi. I think I wrote “Tree Balsam” in Setomaa on a laptop set up on the porch. I would work and then come back to the laptop and write down my thoughts and then return to working on the country house.

Some of the pieces are quite different though. I had always wanted to write a new journalism-style profile about Andres Metspalu, and “Metspalu’s Elevator Speech” is absolutely one of my favorite chapters in this book. I took a similar approach when constructing my “Kuressaare Tropicalists” chapter. I also experimented with some modernist approaches in chapters like “Chaos and Spirits,” where I inserted “images” into the text, to allow the readers to imagine what these images looked like. I happened upon this approach once while copying something from Wikipedia. It preserved a space marked IMAGE and then the caption, but the actual images did not copy over. I realized that one could invent all kinds of images this way, ie. [IMAGE: Björk meeting with the Dalai Lama]. Ask yourself, what was Björk wearing when she met with the Dalai Lama?

It is fun, right?

The newer material in the book dates back to the 2014-2015 time period. “Pärnu After Christmas” has been readers’ favorite. It was written in Pärnu, after Christmas, in 2014. Two of the pieces were written in an ashram in India though. “Karksi House,” and “With Kaplinski at the Supermarket” were both written at Sai Baba’s Ashram in Puttaparthi in November 2015. I like these chapters because they were not heavily rewritten, and are largely untouched from what I put down working there in that peaceful state of mind. The Kaplinski chapter was later amended to include a note from the man himself!

I think I am really proud of the final chapter though, “The End of the World.” I like that I was able to get so many images into the beginning, without them being directly related, perhaps only by time. Somewhat fittingly, I can’t recall how or when I wrote it. I imagine it was finished up in Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, in March 2016, when all of the chapters underwent editing ahead of their publication as Kirju Eestist.

Before I go, I wanted to thank Kerttu Kruusla and Signe Valdmäe for helping me with the cover of the book. Kerttu photographed the image at the Rohelise Maja Kohvik in Viljandi, and Signe wrote out the text on the same board they use to advertise their daily specials. I also thank Epp Petrone for assisting greatly in the editing and revision of the pieces, and Kristopher Rikken for his editing work, noting discrepancies in the details, or things that might not be obvious to a person not immersed in Estonian culture. Taken all together, I believe that Sketches of Estonia is solid and very much worth your time.