So I Married a Writer …

At first glance, it all seems quite romantic. One might think of Jane Austen and the stirring melancholia of England in the 19th century. Or perhaps Anaïs Nin springs to mind and with her the Paris of the ’30s, bohemian and erotic. Everyone knows that writers are a little crazy. In my experience, they are, but not in the way you think. Because if there is one thing writers adore more than sleazy affairs, cisterns of alcohol, and mindless self-destruction, it’s sitting in one place for a really, really, really long time and writing. Writing is what writers do, and they do it all the time.

Here I am reminded of the lamentable suicide of the great Ernest Hemingway, a man famous for fighting in wars and hunting wild animals, but who was plagued to the end of his life by simple hemorrhoids. Think about it. It may not have been the ghosts of the battlefield that drove Hem to the brink, but sitting on his ass all those years, writing!

And the disease of the pen is contagious. Consider this. While my writer was working on her latest book, I would awake at strange hours in the night with a feeling that something was not quite right. I’d drift through the darkness of our bedroom to the top of the stairs, from which I would sense the orange glow of electric lighting on the first floor. Who could have left the lights on? I’d wonder. Then I would descend the stairs to the dining room. And there she would be, behind the table, punching away at the keyboard, hair in her face. “What time is it, honey?” I would ask. “I don’t know,” she’d mumble. Then I’d look up at the clock on the kitchen wall. “It’s 3 am.”

Her latest idée fixe is a travel novel, a story of strange men and exotic islands, of scrapping everything in frustration and rebuilding your life piece by piece. When I read the draft, I felt the usual way, like a small boat on top of an enormous tide. From sentence to sentence I felt the water rushing, rushing and rushing, and I kept reading and reading. And the most mysterious thing is that all this water, all these words, all this electricity slipped simply from her fingers in our dining room in the middle of the night.

When I catch her during one of her zombie writing spells, I am grateful that I too am some kind of writer. I lack the near religious devotion to the art that she does, but I imagine that if I didn’t comprehend the narcotic-like allure of a creative project, living with such a person would drive me or any other reasonable person mad. And the interesting thing is this: few people write about what living with a writer is like. Everyone wants to read their great books. Who needs to know about the sleepless nights spent laboring behind the keyboard?

There is one more detail. When you live with a writer, you are not only a caretaker who provides energy-sustaining coffees, or midnight editor who cheers the creator on with her endeavors. Often times you are a character in the books too. In this world of reality television, there are now reality books, because who doesn’t want to read a story that’s at least partly true? And so there you find yourself, in fine print, described from another’s perspective with lines of insightful dialog that you may or may not recall ever saying.

How does it feel to be a character in a book? You’ll know it when it happens. I’ve come to understand the huge gap that exists between what is written and what is reality. I now understand that even if the scene is constructed perfectly, the dialog edited from a digital recording, it still is not and will never be a precise rendering of what happened. No matter how hard you try, fiction always finds a way in.

I think I am the kind of person who enjoys living with an artist. There are different types of people in this world. Some are analytical academics. Others are fiery activists. But a small group of them are artists; people who can make water rush from their finger tips. It’s not easy being married to one of these characters, but it’s worth it. After weeks of devotion and labor, her she said her manuscript was finished. An eerie blanket of calm fell upon our household. Could it be? Was her book done? She insisted that it was, but I didn’t believe her. Some part of me still doesn’t.

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“Did You Get Kicked in the Balls?”

That’s what a relative said to me at Christmas a few years ago when our second child made its debut. We had traveled across the ocean with five-month-old Anna just so that relatives like him could see her. And when he did, he couldn’t find it in himself to just say that she was cute. He could only insinuate that by having produced two female children, I must have suffered from some physical problem.

I’m not sure why males are in such demand but it seems that they are favored. When we learned we were having a third child, the prospect of another female made a certain amount of sense. We had boxes of pink clothes packed away.  We had the right books, toys, films. And — most of all — we had become relative experts in raising females, at least compared with our knowledge of little boys. Little boys seemed dirty and alien, violent and dangerous. Every other little boy I come into contact with is pointing a fake machine gun in my face or trying to saw off my arm. In contrast, little girls seem slightly better mannered … and clean.

And yet, all we heard following the announcement of the coming of our third child was, “Certainly, it’s a boy.” Sure, it made mathematical sense. There is only a 12.5 percent chance of having three children of one sex. It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely. But the way they said it made it seem as if we had been yearning for a male child all along. This was not the case. I would have been far more disappointed if I had been stuck with two boys pointing fake machine guns in my face rather than sweet little girls, waking me up with kisses. But to other people it seemed that males were more desirable than females.

Why is this so? It’s not like I need help tending to the family farm. I don’t know anything about farming. It’s not like I need to pass on my talent for building houses, because, as everyone knows, I can’t build anything. And then there is the pressure to pass on the family name.  Ah, the family name. My grandfather had four sons, so somewhere around the year 1960 the future of the family name seemed secure. But only two of those sons had children, and I was the only male grandchild. And now I am preparing to have my third daughter. So much for passing on the family name! Fortunately, according to the Pagine Bianche, there are 2,208 Petrones living in Italy, so the family name will continue. We have achieved critical mass!

Now, I can understand the male desire to see other males born, if only to rescue them from the wackiness of the female world. There are just some things about girls that I don’t understand. I cannot fathom the interpersonal feuds my daughters have, where they can go from being friends to enemies to friends again with the same girl in the same week. I’m tired of sitting in clothing stores pretending to be able to tell the difference between one dress and another. And how many mornings have I rubbed my exhausted face, frustrated because my daughters were unhappy with the way their hair looked? I admit that once in a while, I wish there was another male around to balance out all the estrogen.

But what I find interesting is that some women also prefer boys to girls. When I told my neighbor, a woman in her seventies, that we were expecting another girl, she frowned. “Well, maybe the fourth one will be a boy,” she said. The fourth one? The third one has yet to arrive and you’re already thinking about the fourth? “Boys are easier,” the neighbor told me. “Girls are more difficult.” Are they really? Hmm, I don’t remember many girls playing with pool chemicals or rolling portable toilets down hills, as my friends and I did as youths, when we were out terrorizing the neighborhood.

And how many families do I know where the older sisters are hardworking and successful and the youngest son is lazy and spoiled? A lot. Think about Al Gore. His three daughters have all led successful lives. Karenna is a journalist and attorney, Kristin is a screenwriter, Sarah is an artist. And then there is his son, Al III, who is most famous for being arrested for drug possession, twice.

So, I guess we could try for a fourth, and when another girl is born, we could set our sights on a fifth. How about a sixth? Or a seventh? But, nah. I’m happy with the  children I have now, and I have other things to do in life than worry about producing male offspring. Sure, some can joke that I’ve been kicked in the balls, but at least I haven’t been kicked in the head.

This column originally appeared in the magazine Anne ja Stiil.

International Man of Mystery

It happened the other day. I was walking down Kuperjanov Street in Tartu and I walked past two teenage girls. I caught them looking in my direction, to which I responded with a glance. At this, they both snorted and began to chuckle.

Is something wrong with me? I wondered. Is my fly undone? I checked and it wasn’t, so I decided to forget about those two girls on Kuperjanov Street. But then I walked into the University Cafe to buy some chocolate. The November darkness brings on a chocolate craving like you wouldn’t believe. I’m like a drug addict. And while I was paying for my fix, I noticed two completely different girls staring at me from a table. “Look,” one whispered. “It’s him.”  When I looked in their direction, they started to giggle. And to make matters worse, an old guy who was reading a newspaper nearby looked me up and down, too, as if he had seen me before.

Am I famous? I don’t know, or rather, I am beginning to suspect that I might be, at least just a little bit. My life doesn’t yet resemble the opening sequence of the first Austin Powers movie, where the international man of mystery is chased around a city by screaming girls. But I do have a lot more empathy for the well-known, including my wife.

For years now I have walked by store windows seeing her name in print from behind the glass “Epp Petrone.” I’ve seen magazine interviews and newspaper articles about her. When our second daughter was born on Epp’s birthday, it warranted a headline: Epp Petrone Gives Birth on Her Own Birthday. I even noticed people staring at us on the street from time to time, though mostly in her direction.

Still, I was unaware of what it meant to be semi famous until recently. And this new challenge, of navigating the line between what is personal and what is public, is one of the issues I hope to address in this column going forward: to make sense of the changing views on social boundaries in this era where everybody has their own blog, where people tell me they know all about me at parties before I can even say a word about my life myself.

I wonder, what is the difference between being famous and not famous?  In New York, from where I come, it’s not just a matter of being on TV or on the cover of a newspaper or magazine. No, the well-known live an entirely different lifestyle. They don’t fly commercial, they take private jets. They don’t eat at the corner restaurant, they dine at exclusive clubs. They don’t suntan at the public beach, they tan at their own estates. There is a huge gulf between the famous and the average. If you are lucky enough to actually see one of these famous people in person, you might tell all your friends at the office.

In Estonia, it’s different. Here, the famous and lesser known do almost everything together. They do their shopping at the local department store. They take the same package trips to the same exotic destinations. I’ve been told that Estonia is such a small country that there is a very thin line between being well known and unknown, and I think it’s true.  Estonians rub elbows with public figures all the time. You go to the store in Tallinn, and a quarter of the parliament might be in there picking up groceries. That’s just how it is.

But while the relationship between so-called celebrities and non-celebrities in Estonia is different from the US, the channels through which celebrities are made are the same. How did people figure out who I was to begin with? They saw me on television or heard me on the radio or read about me in a magazine or newspaper article. And after several TV appearances and radio interviews, the local taxi driver is looking in the rear view mirror and saying, “Hey, I know you, you’re the guy that wrote that book.”

How to react to this new-found awareness of my existence? I’ve tried to think about it, but I keep failing to settle on any profound thought to guide me through scenarios where diners at a cafe drop their forks and start laughing when they see me at the cash register. I’m told that experienced celebrities tip their hat or smile or even go and introduce themselves. I’m not there yet. After the experience at the cafe, I turned and got out of there as fast as I could. And I checked my zipper again, just to be sure.

Still, I’ve come to see celebrities in a new light. They really are just people like you or me. So, if I ever meet someone genuinely famous, I’ll make sure not to burst into laughter or give them a weird look or chase them down the street. No, I’ll let them go on their way. And if we happened to be introduced, I won’t feel nervous. Instead I’ll feel pleased. I’ll feel like I am meeting anybody. I might also feel that we have something in common.

Sibling Rivalry

Two little girls sat in a gravel alleyway in Pärnu throwing rocks at each other. “You stole my babies!” one yelled at the other. “No, you stole my babies!” the other one fired back, pelting her sister with stones.

The “babies” were actually little rocks. For a good twenty minutes they had played peacefully, naming their “babies” who shared a home together on an old brick. “This one’s name is Maria!” six-year-old Marta held up a tiny blue stone. “This one’s name is Villem!” announced three-year-old Anna. It was a sunny day, the sky a dream-like blue. What could go wrong? At some point, though, someone took “Baby Maria” or “Baby Villem” over to the wrong side of the pile. And that’s when the war began.

I never thought little girls could fight so fiercely. When my daughters start battling though, there are no boundaries. Long-legged Marta naturally brings her feet to her defenses, kicking at her sister’s face. Rolypoly Anna reciprocates by using her sturdy strength. Rather than kick from afar like Marta, Anna goes straight for her sister’s hair. By the time I wade in to stop a conflict, both are usually crying. “Anna pulled my hair!” Marta will whimper. “Marta kicked me,” Anna will whine. I try to console them equally, holding Marta in my left arm, Anna in my right.

“Girls, you should be nice to each other,” I adopt my most fatherly tone. “Not every girl gets a sister. It’s a special honor.” But even as I hug them, Marta will manage to get one of her feet back into Anna’s face, and Anna will grab a lock of Marta’s hair and pull. “Let go,” Marta will growl. “He’s my daddy!” “No, no!” Anna yelps back. “He’s MY daddy.” Anna will tug harder. Marta will kick again. And me? Worn down by the two little beasts, I inevitably collapse on the ground, my two offspring writhing and rolling and kicking and punching and crying all over me.

To me, my daughters’ rivalry is a mystery. My kids have the same parents. They live in the same home and so, arguably, are the products of the same environment. You would think that would make them somehow equal: equally parented, equally fed, equally clothed, equally entertained, equally bathed, and, ultimately, equally loved. And yet, they fight over everything: what clothes to wear, what food to eat, what movie to watch: even in a gravel driveway in Pärnu, they managed to fight over rocks.

What is the solution? How do I stop my kids from trying to kill each other? There is some modern idea that if we read enough self help books, if we go to enough counselors, we can somehow eradicate every problem in existence, including sibling rivalry.There are plenty of self-help books out there, no doubt written by experienced psychologists who have done loads of studies and all of which I am sure would be helpful to read if I didn’t have two children to pull apart every day.

I have asked Estonian dads for advice, but their answers haven’t been encouraging. “They are fighting all the time,” I lamented to Jüri, a father of three young men. “And they will keep on fighting for the rest of their lives,” he answered, puffing quietly at his pipe. “They will still be fighting long after you and I are gone.” Rein, a father of two grown women, offered a similarly bleak forecast. “Kids” he grunted, “are only good when they sleep.”

Love Is All You Need

“All you need is love, love, love is all you need.” So The Beatles sang over a full orchestra in 1967 and so their words of love reached my young ears twenty years later. I was my elementary school’s youngest Beatles fan. While other kids amused themselves with video games, I had inherited my parents’ record collection and I would stay up late at night watching the old vinyl spin round, trying to decipher what exactly this “love” thing meant that the Fab Four were always singing about.

Whatever love was, it sounded like something I needed. From the adrenaline rush I got every time I listened to the rocking “She Loves You” – yeah, yeah, yeah – to the cool calm that would set in whenever I heard the harmonica on “Love Me Do,” to the jingle jangle of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” I was hooked on love. I just had to have this wonderful thing. So I set my sights on a girl in the grade above me. She was an unusual choice, very dark hair, porcelain skin, round face, mysterious brown eyes; she could have been Japanese if she wasn’t Jewish. I don’t think any other little boys were in love with her, but I was sure that I was in love with her, so I began to write her letters, passed by my courier, a classmate who rode the same bus with the little mysterious girl.

My friend warned me that the girl was mean. “She once hit me over the head with a chessboard,” he said. “I hate her.” This should have turned me off, but it just made her that much more intriguing. “Who is this girl who hits boys?” I wondered. “What is her secret?”

I knew she was absolutely the one for me and so I wrote to her, though most of the words in my love letters were copied from Beatles songs. “Love, love me do,” I wrote to her. “I’ll always be true.” At the end, I added, “PS. I love you.” I waited anxiously for her response, but when it finally came, I was shattered. “Stop writing me these fucking letters,” she cursed me. “You are ugly and I hate your guts.”

I was crushed by her rejection. I cried in my room all night. If love was so great that The Beatles sang about it all the time, then how come it hurt so much? But her letter didn’t dissuade me. No. Instead I fell more deeply in love with her and wrote her even more, to which she replied with more nasty responses. By the end of the year I was heartbroken and decided to maybe find another girl to fall in love with. It was only later I found out that my classmate never passed the letters to her. He had been writing her nasty responses all by himself, the little bastard! He really did deserve to get hit over the head with a chessboard! It was the end of our short-lived friendship.

Of course I did find another girl to fall in love with. And one after that. And one after that. And after a long time, my idea of love began to change and I thought I started to understand it a little better. One could now say that I have gained wisdom in all my years of love, wisdom that could be shared, wisdom that could be passed down to the younger generation. Or maybe not. Because these days I see my daughter is reliving my elementary school experiences.

It’s not The Beatles that are informing her pursuit for love, though. This time it’s 2009 Eurovision winner Alexander Rybak. “I’m in love with a fairytale, even though it hurts,” the Belarusian-Norwegian croons, leaping around with fiddle in hand. “I don’t care if I lose my mind, I’m already cursed.” My daughter loves that song. She watches it over and over again on YouTube. I can see that it hurts her a bit to watch it, to be in love with someone so unattainable, who she can only view through a tiny clip on the Internet. That bittersweet feeling. I remember it so well from my school days.

But there is another side to this story. In my daughter’s school, there is a little boy – let’s call him Meelis – who has fallen deeply in love. With my daughter. I can see it in his words and deeds. My absent-minded daughter will forget her backpack in the classroom and then use him. “Meelis, go and bring me my backpack!” And I will stand there and watch as little Meelis jogs up the stairs and returns, with red ears, to hand my daughter her bag to which she replies, “Go away now, Meelis. I don’t want to talk to you anymore today.”

I want to interfere, to step in, to teach my daughter that she shouldn’t be so obsessed with Alexander and be kinder to Meelis. And I want to advise Meelis that he should probably find somebody else to fall in love with. But I don’t. I just stand there and watch them, because there’s nothing I can really do because I know that these kids will just have to learn their own lessons in love.

Who is Beautiful?

It happens at the beginning of each month. I hear the metal close on the mailbox and rush outside and open it up, just to get my hands on that fresh copy of Anne ja Stiil. It’s been sent from Tallinn and addressed to me, sealed in a white envelope. Terrific! I tear open the envelope and hold the soft glossy paper in my hands. What follows has become a ritual. I first flip to my column to see what parts have been edited out of the final product. Then I skim the rest of the magazine, sometimes glancing at headlines, but mostly to just check out the women.

The ladies on the cover are quite attractive, often to an extreme. I found one recent cover so riveting that I had to hide the magazine away under some old newspapers, just so I could go about my daily business of dressing children and tending to the wood-heated furnaces without getting distracted. I won’t disclose the name of the woman though, not just to leave you guessing, but because I know that the moment I hold her up as some example of beauty, most of you will start thinking bad things about her.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed with most of my female friends. As soon as I ever made a remark about the virtues of another female, they sharpened their spears. “She’s an idiot,” “she’s crazy,” “she’s so fake,” “she’s a nasty bitch,” and, the absolute worst, “she thinks that she’s so pretty but she’s really not.” Ouch. Whatever happened to solidarity? Whatever happened to sisters doing it for themselves? It seems that the competition to be seen as beautiful can be quite fierce. It is as if beauty gives a woman her value, and perhaps it is true. My mother was a slender model in the 1960s. A few years out of high school she was hanging out with celebrities in New York City. I asked her how it was possible. “If you are a young and beautiful woman, you can go anywhere,” she said.

But who is beautiful? That is the question. The men’s magazines keep serving me these emaciated, rail-thin chicks with fake tans and pointy breasts. After the British Royal Wedding last year I had to endure endless articles about Pippa Middleton, the woman that supposedly all men, including me, wanted. I complained to an English friend about Pippa at a bar one night in Germany. I had drunk a few beers by then. And I said, “I don’t see what these guys see in her anyway! She’s too skinny.” “Well, I think Pippa is quite lovely,” the English colleague demurred. “She’s your classic beauty, I mean she’s nice and thin and trim …”

I should never drink beer in Germany. It only gets me into trouble. And yet I am adamant about my conviction that not every beautiful woman has to be skinny. Maybe I am in the minority when it comes to ideals about body image. Maybe most men and women really do think that the thinner the better. It’s lonely to be in the minority. Man, I need to find Sir Mix-a-Lot and buy him a drink.

This all may sound rather silly, superficial, and even chauvinistic, until you consider that my eldest daughter woke up one morning recently and asked me, “Daddy, do you think that I’m fat?” The girl is eight years old. Where does she get such ideas? I can only guess that every beautiful woman that she has ever seen, from Barbie to the majority of the fashion and cosmetics models in Anne ja Stiil, has been thin. And so she already equates being thin with being beautiful which, as I have already made clear, is not true.

She’s not alone. Before she went senile, my 93-year-old grandmother used to weigh herself every morning, before and after visiting the toilet. “I weigh 125 pounds,” she would beam. She was so proud! But here I was, faced with a little skinny girl who has barely an ounce of fat on her body asking me if she weighs too much. And I was her father. Perhaps I was in a position to rectify the situation, so that she could see the world the same way that I do, so that she wouldn’t wind up like my poor grandmother, smiling down at that scale every morning.

So I told my daughter, “You’re not fat. You’re too thin!” “But so-and-so at school is thinner than I am,” she said. “She’s also too thin,” I said. “You two need to eat more. Mangia, mangia!”

My wife told me that maybe this was maybe not the best response, but what is? I still do not know how to proceed. Should I really point out every curvy woman I see to prove to my daughter that one not need be thin to be beautiful? (One time I did accidentally mumble, “nice chick” under my breath as we passed some girls in swimsuits headed toward the beach, and my second daughter became excited, asking me, “Where’s the chicken? I want to see the baby chicken!”) Or maybe I should take the “You are beautiful, no matter what you look like, it’s what’s inside” approach. Will that work?

I like to get my wife’s perspective on beauty, because we see things very different ways. Once I suggested that Kate Middleton was pretty, to which she snapped, “Really? You think she’s pretty? I don’t think she’s pretty at all.” So, I must have been mistaken that time, as I often am. But recently she caught me flipping through a new copy of Anne ja Stiil and looking at the ladies.

“Just think, Justin,” she said and sighed. “Someday someone will be looking at our daughters the same way.”

Fuck Genetics

I discovered it on the morning of my thirtieth birthday. It was staring back at me in the mirror, sticking out like an icicle or a stalagmite. There, in the sea of dark brown, was a solitary hair, as white as a winter morning.

For a few seconds I deliberated on what to do with the new addition to my left eyebrow. Then I fumbled around for my wife’s tweezers, gripped the hair, and tugged it out of its follicle. “That’s better,” I smiled to myself in the mirror. “As good as 29.”

I wished I was still 29. But the truth was that I was 30, and after that I would be 31, and after that, I might be 42 or 54 or 79. The numbers only went up. They didn’t go down.

It was a fitting birthday present from my body. The week before I discovered it, I had an encounter with a hair dresser that left my ego smarting. While the hair dresser was cutting away, she alerted me my hair was thinning, a sure sign that all of it would go very, very soon.

“Don’t worry,” she said, trying to cheer me up. “I’m sure you’ll make a very beautiful bald man.” Continue reading “Fuck Genetics”