THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL. This is an idea that is everywhere today. That if you just keep yourself together, clenched like a tight fist, you will become some better more perfected version of yourself, or attain some higher ideal. I have come to feel the opposite is true. Unclench your fist and surrender control. Discipline will arrive as it does, like anything else. There is no gain through pain, and the real gains are made in such a way, that even if it hurts, you won’t notice it. Rather, that kind of pain feels good. Rather than tightness or restraint, there should be a surrender of control into free flow. In other words, be a Ferris, not a Cameron. Abandon control, abandon restraint. Surrender.
THE MCCARTNEY PALACE was never called such. Rather it was referred to in French as the Palais McCartney. A large white and glass structure on the edge of a field of sumptuous flowers. A long drive in, both sides of which were lined with cars. There was a soiree at Palais McCartney, and the man himself was supposedly there somewhere to welcome guests to the gala, but I never caught sight of Sir Paul. Instead my friend Jaak, the Estonian man of letters, invited me back to his house, which was not a palace, to show off his collection of novels, novellas, poetry, and various trophies he had been awarded from diverse writerly entities, organizations, and unions. He had at least a dozen of these golden statues on one shelf which he gestured to wildly, an arm tossed in the air, as he explained one thing or another. Then we went back to the Palais McCartney for lunch, which was really terrible, I mean the kinds of steaming metal buffet meals one gets in the worst roadside motels in the States. How could this be? I thought McCartney was deep into food, you know. The Kasemetsad were there, and other members of the Estonian intelligentsia. Later there was some kind of rupture in the space-time continuum and we were all herded behind a chain-link fence on the edge of a field at night watching the stars. There was a Frenchman there lecturing everyone on the proper way to pronounce Jeanne d’Arc. “It’s d’Arc, not D’Arc.” Then there was a UFO landing of celestial polar bears, who began to devour everything in sight. Meantime I was trying to do an interview with some British entrepreneur, who kept asking me, “What is that noise in the background?” To make matters worse, a woman went into labor, so she was giving birth while these bears of the stars ate up everything they could sink their teeth into. I remember climbing that chain link fence, leaping over, landing on my feet and running still. Looking back to see the agony of the woman in childbirth. How could McCartney leave us here like this? And what had happened to Jaak? He was just here a minute ago. The last thing I can recall is a silvery thread slipping and undulating through the cosmos, teasing me up and into a new and different black comfort. Freyja was there, and I succumbed to a deeper and restorative sleep.
ONE THING I HAVE BEEN attempting, or rather undertaking is an examination, assessment, exploration of the subconscious, measured in boxes of dreams, put under the microscope. The setting a kitchen, into which walks Vesta looking like Little Orphan Annie all grown up, with brown curls hanging at her shoulders, the slump of a refugee, and her entourage of course, little confused ones looking for a corner to play, read, unwind, feel sanctuary. She is no way in a good way of course, but I am drawn to her inexplicably, the allure of the dark, the allure of the unknown, the electric sizzle of danger, sure enough she sits herself on the counter top with legs dangling haphazard, and I uncharacteristically for such a soft and polite gentleman break down the wall, seize her in my arms and press into her a kiss with enough power packed behind it to warm up the whole north for a whole winter, one of those big reactions that puts the wind to blow, and the air picks up all around us, and the kids look up rather in an amused daze. What was that? And, Why is mommy kissing that stranger? Trouble, trouble, trouble. Vesta is always trouble. Remember the time we were on that tractor? Or the time I left my shoe in her house, while her friends enjoyed a nude sauna party outside? Or that time we made love in the citadel while it was being stormed by Trumpists? Why the danger, Vesta? Why you? Why the love for the distressed damsel mademoiselle? But it is profound and it is passionate. It breaks off in hunks of dark chocolate and melts in your mouth. It seeps into your bones like moisture in autumn and lingers. You awake, blanket only half draped, fully alive and wanting more. Gray cool light. Watery rain. Just a gauzy dream. Translucent and sheer. A box of rain. Another one of those dreams.
IT STARTS WITH THE SOUND of a car roaring up Orange Street in the dawn time haze and doors slamming as the Irish girls who clean our rooms and launder our bed linens, rinse out our sinks and set our breakfast buffets tiptoe in after a wild night with the local boys. They are loudly excoriated and admonished by the owner, a stubby Yankee woman with one of the ominous local names like Coffin or Starbuck, who have populated this island since the days of British rule. Yankee fire, Yankee brimstone. All of this in a Nantucket kitchen at 5 am. Our room is upstairs left, colonial style, big bed, closet of a shower and toilet, and a cot for me, as I squint through the faint light and try to make out some ghostly shape. Supposedly there are a lot of ghosts on Nantucket and I keep trying to see one, but never have much luck. This is way back in ’90, a forgotten time if there ever was one, way back before the boom, when Nantucket was kind of seedy, and the theater where we watch the documentary The Gray Lady is covered in popcorn and the sticky sugar slick from overturned sodas. Amidst wall-to-wall trash, we view the documentary, of which I remember nothing but the title and some opening scenes full of mist. At the breakfast buffet, several hours later, there’s plenty of cranberry bread, cranberry juice, and anything cranberry. There’s some writer living here too, in the back apartment, but he broke his arm. A younger writer, dark hair, nice guy smile, like some fusion of John Cusack and that kid from Back to School. Maybe he should start writing with his left foot, like in that movie? My whole world is a mosaic of useless film references. This is how we spend our time, at some inn on some lane at some outpost of the North Atlantic. At dinner last night my parents had an argument about whether lobster was better broiled or boiled. This gave way to successive, daughter arguments about how lobster is best enjoyed. In the end my father gave up and threw his hands in the air, sulking over the red carcass of his mutilated Crustacean. “Can’t I just enjoy my broiled lobster in peace?”
written 20 march 2019/revised 9 september 2021
OUR FIRST DRIVER was just a kid, maybe 20, clean cut type, brown hair, button-down shirt, can’t recall more about him, only that he let us do whatever the hell we wanted. The glorious anarchy of the school bus in 1986, acrobatics, dramatic dives, milk carton grenades, street rule of 67 percent obscenity. All other drivers on the road were targets of our middle fingers, especially that nice fellow who stood daily waiting for the bus on that one corner, and those skaters outside Station Pizza — they caught the wrath of lowered windows and “skaters suck!” That was our first bus driver. He was a good one. The older kids stood in the back, stood, never sat, and Marco, who was my best friend and idol, was back there with them. There was one younger kid, Curtis, who sat up front listening to Michael Jackson on his Walkman, trying to drown out the noise. Sometimes Marco’s father, Jock, would roll by the house and chat with us. He lived somewhere else. Marco knew all kinds of things. He explained to me that God was actually a disco godfather type and wore a white suit. I imagined this white-haired character with heavenly smoke sort of pouring out of the lapel of his jacket and the Bee Gees playing all around him. These were the kinds of deep philosophical conversations we had while standing in the back of the bus. Our second bus driver was named Lisa. She used the word “yous” for the plural of “you” or sometimes “yaz.” As in, “If yaz don’t knock it off, I’m taking you all to the principal’s office.” Her hair was permed, and she had an impeccable manicure. Sometimes she called our bluff and we were indeed escorted back for a lecture by Principal Bell. “I’m writing all of yaz up!” I do remember one session with Principal Bell, this kindly PBS morning television kind of guy, who reminded us that the “pal” in “principal” meant that he was our friend. Konstantinos, the Greek kid, was in there with me. I claimed total innocence, but Principal Bell introduced me to the term “accomplice,” which meant that if someone else committed a crime, but I helped, then I could get in trouble for that crime too. This is how we drill through the Nineties into the Eighties, mining the time, drilling deeper into prehistory. I do remember later on, toward the end of my tenure in the elementary school, waiting outside for the bus to take me and a classmate to some statewide band competition, pacing in the snow beneath a branch. Memories of buses, buried in time collecting dust, like those old plaques to doomed students on the walls of the school, so drab, brown, and sad, recounting some kid’s untimely drowning in the 1930s. He had died while trying to rescue a fellow student who had fallen through the ice on the mill pond. Because of this, he was a hero.
written 20 march 2019/revised 9 september 2021
MEMORIES OF WASHINGTON, memories of love, of clinging love, of wet-eyed girls kissing me before the fall break, as if I was going off to war or something, big District sun, big orange brick buildings, big melodrama, and all the floors of Thurston Hall with the vomit in the water fountains on weekends, and the chair that people kept in the elevator door on the fourth floor, so that our fourth floor people would get the lift first in the mornings. The rush down and up the staircases, the sweaty foreheads, the nasty coeds, those nicknames codenames like “Bastard Dan” and “Soup Boy,” idle conversations like, “Did you hear the new Ben Folds?” Ironic t-shirts, t-shirts mocking ironic t-shirts, normal t-shirts, and, “Did you get the new Lauryn Hill?,” sharpened pencils, baggy shorts, the bounce of the braided hair, and the black SUVs pulling up on Sunday mornings with young underage-ish women rather staggering toward those big wood doors after some wild night in an Alexandria or Georgetown penthouse, undergarments barely refastened. Hot, pungent Washington, DC, rats in the bushes, Congress on the Hill, Chinatown, U Street-Cardozo, sprawled homeless in the parks at night, groaning like Civil War wounded in a field hospital, and that one particular homeless man with the dreads and strange big eye who domineered Farragut North with his pronouncements of dread and the second coming. One morning, I awoke to see him standing outside our house, babbling his Biblical fury, as if he had followed me home. He looked back at me and smiled heinous and cockeyed. They said a girl in Mitchell Hall woke up once to encounter a stranger sitting in her room, another one of the unwashed mentally ill without homes. The classes were huge, whole auditoriums full, and all I did is sketch psychedelic cartoons while so-and-so gave us the intro to overview. One class, intro to sociology, was so full that there were never any seats. I would just walk by the open door, see if there was room for me, and if there wasn’t, I would keep on walking. It was just beginning to dawn on me then that I was full of “stuff” — passion? emotion? — or just maybe a psychopath trying to function in a hamster cage paper pushing world. Run the wheels, run the wheels, run those damn wheels, now, drink it off. Order some fries. Stand in line for a Manouch Dog at 2 AM. Take it home, devour it, leave the foil in curls by the bed, sleep off the hangover, dream. Tomorrow would be another day. Tomorrow.
written 20 march 2019/revised 9 september 2021
I WAS ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO contributed €35 to Black Bread Gone Mad’s Hooandja campaign to fund the production of their second long-playing recording, MAA. Fortunately, the campaign was successful and, apparently, I am still owed a vinyl version of the record, though I have not yet invested in a new set of turntables. I was gifted the CD though, which I finally got a chance to listen to this week.
Black Bread Gone Mad is a newish Estonian ensemble that plays what I would call world music. Their first album, Ayibobo, was released in 2018. The title track is an anthem if there ever was one, and the live performances were thrilling. Black Bread Gone Mad is one of the few bands in Estonia that is capable of putting on an exciting performance.
Many Estonian groups rather flaunt their introversion, and attending concerts can feel like watching two or three people pick lint out of each others’ bellybuttons, who then hold it up on display to concertgoers, only to dissect it with subdued, whispered analysis. Some audiences go for this approach, but, honestly, two hours of it can lull me to sleep.
Another one of the qualities or pitfalls of the Estonian music scene is that many groups are byproducts of the higher education system. They form in college, usually in music programs, and can come off more as the school projects of highly motivated students than what we now think of as a band: a group of musicians with a unique artistic vision that they aim to fulfill.
Black Bread Gone Mad is comprised of musicians that came out of the Viljandi Cultural Academy in Estonia, but who, according to its members, badly wanted to break free from the barriers of academic projects and make music freely. While most acts that come out of Viljandi get lumped together as “ethno” or “folk” music, in at least the American sense of folk, there is nothing folk about this group, except maybe some of the rather elegant duets between Merike Paberits (flute, vocals) and Lee Taul (violin, vocals) the phrases of which recall Estonian traditional music.
There is a lot of rock in Black Bread Gone Mad though — I have been told their drummer, Martin Aulis — is among the better drummers in Estonia. Their bassist, Mati Tubli, is also excellent, and has an amazing feel for his instrument, and the guitar player borrows heavily from the hard rock canon, and if you squint at him, it’s not hard to imagine Jimmy Page standing up there. In a word or ühesõnaga, as the Estonian say, they are different, unique, and worth checking out.
MAA (“land”) is their second release. I picked mine up at the café but waited for a trip to Obinitsa in Setomaa to enjoy the record, listening to it as I rolled down out-of-the-way roads lined by dense pine forests. The first four tracks are interesting musical exercises, and show the group experimenting with different vocal harmonies, rhythms, and sounds, with a heavy influence from African music as well as jazz fusion. Some of these compositions wouldn’t be out of place on some of Miles Davis’s 1970s records.
The group does not sing particularly in Estonian. I was told by Paberits and Taul that they are singing in different creoles and dialects from Haiti or Burkina-Faso, for example. At first, I thought they had invented their own language, like Sigur Ros’s “Hopelandic,” but they have not ventured that far just yet.
Two tracks that I found outstanding were “Yemen” and “Kosmos,” which to me showed great promise and evolution. Both are beautiful, emotive, interesting songs that stretch the bounds of song structure and musical ideas. Based on the sonic territory contained in these songs alone, I think this ensemble could put out two LPs more. Call one “Yemen, Part II,” and the other “Kosmos, Parts II and III.”
The final track on MAA is a collaboration with Gilly Jones, a Ghanaian singer now resident in Estonia, who leads his own ensemble, GJ and the Evocations, to which Taul also contributes vocals. Here, Mr. Jones crashes the party like a West African Pitbull with a funky growl that brings to mind reggaeton and hip hop, bringing something wholly new to the Estonian music scene. It’s a strong ending to something, but also a beginning.
I expect a lot more from this cadre of musicians.
WHAT KIND OF DAY is today? Today is the day when I find myself sitting back in the Nepalese restaurant waiting on an order while Sigrid recounts how one of the chefs of a rival restaurant recently died of a heart attack at a premature age because he overworked himself, and how one of their own chefs had to be taken to the hospital for working too hard. Sigrid is older, a grandmother, but energetic and an advocate of self love. “After all, what are you going to do with all that money if you die before you can spend it?” Point taken. The airplanes, hotels, trams, late-night caffeine infusions: type, type, type. This frenetic pace that eats you into your grave, because where else could it lead? Did you really think that after working your body and mind to the bone, you would magically awake at 50 or 60 with a satchel full of lucky charms beside you, a one-way ticket to paradise, and enough energy to warm the Antarctic Research Station in cold winter? It’s never going to happen, and that’s why it was good to get a bit of a reality check from Sigrid with her platinum Viking braid. What else is new? I read an interview with Wes Anderson, the film maker, who discussed reverse emigration of Americans to Europe, of which I suppose I am an example, and also all of his favorite films, which he found time to watch, even while directing great films, while I was writing something, whatever it was, it’s already published, done, gone, over and out, and waiting on my order of Nepalese food, this time the mixed vegetables. I was working on a short story directly inspired by the real-life death of the priest I used to work with as a teenager, who, it is now alleged, was also sexually harassing young men on the side, though I never experienced such harassment. But what to call the priest? I keep thinking of Boston’s Faneuil Hall for some reason, or is that too New England for a Long Islander? He needs a solid, Yankee name, I tell you, and a personal island, a family island, gifted to his line from King Charles II himself, in a moment of post-Cromwellian giddy glee. These are the ideas I am sketching into my notebook while Sigrid talks about masks, viruses, and health inspections. “But viruses have always been around and will always be around,” she says. “There is little we can do about this.” I am getting a bit tired of this “whose side are you on?” stuff that’s been going on. Want to retire, read some books, listen to “Blues en Mineur,” disappear. Maybe watch some of those Truffaut films Anderson keeps talking about. That’s the spirit. This year has been the year that has shattered all and everything to the nth degree. All I am left with is some hazy memories, glass fragments. I am fresh, I am new, and I really have no idea what will happen next. We’ll see, I suppose. We will see.
ON KATARINA KYRKOBACKE, at 8:30 am or thereabouts. A small street winding with the cool air through the bluffs of Södermalm, damp and refreshing, creamy houses with mustardy finishes and black stovetop pipes protruding, cobblestones and fine hemmed in trees. These give way to red wooden dwellings with toys and yellow flowers in the windows and everywhere that faint chirping of Stockholm birds. In the distance the roar of construction by the locks of Slussen winds up. Outside a school, a father is gently combing through his daughter’s white-platinum hair and a black car breaks the silence, its wheels finessing the stones of the road. A man in a flat cap jaunts by, clears his throat loudly, spits on the street. Despite this, there is the feel of polished cleanliness everywhere, that well-to-do feeling, as if the Swedes have always known wealth and wealth is all they’ve ever known. Back at the hotel, we have a good breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives and onions, big bowls of yogurt, dried banana, crisp dried coconuts, and three cups of the finest coffee there is. “Of course, you drink more coffee here,” says Erland, a steaming mug in his hands. “You’re in Sweden.” He says it as if we have all died and gone to heaven. This Swedish angel is proud of his homeland. He even approves of its bike paths and pedestrian walks. “It’s not like in Estonia where BMWs and Lexuses blow by you, splashing you with water,” he says bitterly. I am surprised he chooses to recall the makes of the cars, but Sweden is old money and the Estonians are nouveau riche. It’s that old old money, new money thing, along with some shared hand-me-down of clumsy woodsman’s poverty. I feel blessed to be here. I remember my first trip to Stockholm in ’01, staring up at the wreck of the Vasa in the Vasa Museet, a museum I had read about in a children’s book my grandparents once gave me but never expected to see with my own two eyes. After breakfast, we head to the Nordiska Museet, where my children make for the playroom first and never really leave, hoisting toy wooden buckets into an old make-pretend farm. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to stay in Sweden, I consider, elope with that redhead from the Pressbyrån in Slussen, to lie beside her at night, listening to ship’s horns in the harbor, and hear of the inner workings of this marvelous convenience store. “We were out of Maribou chocolate.” “It was time to refill the cups.” To lie sprawled in bed sheets with a woman who reeks of cinnamon buns, kanelbulle. In the mornings, she is off to the shop, to prepare the coffee, stor cappuccino, lite cappuccino, the whir of the machine, and there she is again behind the counter, processing people’s payments in her blue shirt and saying, varsågod. The blue of her shirt brings out the blue of her eyes, just like the water licks at the docks of Östermalm where we step off a boat later and are surprised by the golden glitz of the gilded Royal Drama Theatre. I keep processing this idea for a children’s book, about a Stockholm teenage girl with a ne’er-do-well father who turns to petty theft to make ends meet. Then one day she is caught and sent away to Långholmen, the old prison island down the harbor. I play with this idea all the way to the ship that takes us back to Estonia, the front bar of which has been permanently converted into a playroom. The five year old’s balloon is still with us, believe it or not, this artifact from Gröna Lund. It may be the best balloon we have known collectively in all of our lives. It cannot be lost, deflated, or stolen. In the playroom, they play Estonian children’s disco music, oi-oi-oi, ai-ai-ai, a strobe projects dancing rainbow lights across the floor, and I take a seat beside a Swedish mother whose hair is a mess and is probably as full of ice cream as mine is. She looks to be about as tired as I am, sapped, haggard, and so hungover by life. This is how we sail on a gray day to face our decisions and memories.
from my journal, July 2017
STORA BLECKTORNSPARKEN is an urban park a bit farther south on Södermalm with the same kinds of Bullerby buildings as Bryggartäppan. There is more graffiti here, though, and shreds of rubbish, broken glass shards, fruit peels, chipped paint and rust, the illusion of safety. “Dad? Dad? Dad!” “What?” “Look what I can do!” The nine year old swings away as the five year old arrives, panting. “Daddy, my knee hurts, look what happened. I slipped on the rocks.” I survey the wound only to be interrupted by, “Dad? Dad? Dad! Watch me swing!” And she swings higher and higher. Mothers sit around us tinkering with their phones. More wonderful park birds flit about. It feels good to breathe and write in Stockholm. To write without any project or desire for money. Just writing with feeling, without that evil thought looking over your shoulder, the one that says that every word has to count toward something. But maybe that thought came from the office or from some editor. Maybe it was never my thought to begin with. “When you are with someone, you become someone else,” says Erland. “You change yourself. When I was with Henrietta I was someone else. And when I was with Agnetha I was someone different from that person. And when I was with Gunnhildur, that Icelandic football player, I was also someone else.” Erland has been a lot of people. “Dad? Dad? Dad! Come here, help me off this swing. Come, Dad. Come!” These children. They so crave my attention. If I only had some time off I could be such a better father to them. I could never have any more children. Not now. I would go crazy. That would just be the end of the story. Not with these thin Swedish women. Not a chance. Although the lady who made me coffee was rather nice and might get me to reconsider, especially if she turns out to be some Zelda Fitzgerald type who can ruin me and provide me with loads of material about her schizophrenia. This playground is a madhouse. All the sobbing, crying children. All the childhood drama and trauma. The pale thin mothers calling after their offspring, their barn. One of the children steals the five year old’s balloon and I have to run after him and take it back, causing a puzzled look from the toddler, who thought the balloon was his. In the meantime, a mouse ran over the nine year old’s shoes at the bottom of the slide. The parents here all look at each other. I suppose this is one way to pass the time at a playground on a hot day. A Muslim family arrives, the mother’s head covered, the daughters bare to the sun. They look truly happy, content, and I sense no disturbance or cultural conflict. The Swedes don’t dress so differently from Americans. They seem maybe more capitalistic though. A Swede is the sum of all he or she consumes. The patterned dresses, the well-groomed facial hair. A barber shop stands on every other corner, catering to the perfectionism of the Swedish man. The women shop for dresses at the boutiques in between. One must exude one’s wealth and value. A haircut, a shave, a flowing cut of textile, this is worth nothing alone. It’s the effort that goes into being Swedish. This is what pays the real dividends. At night, we find ourselves at another playground nearby on Nytorget. Teenagers stand among the benches singing songs and playing ukuleles. “Södermalm is like the best place ever,” my nine year old says. “There is no traffic, the houses are pretty, and everyone has time to do whatever they want.” This is the fun of a playground in the dusky twilight of midnight in Stockholm. As the children play on, and the ukuleles strum, and I admire the lights from the cafes around the park, I read a sign about local history. This was once the site of a large garbage heap, it reads. And in the 18th century it also was the location of the gallows and a major site of public executions. I wish I could have seen Stockholm then when it was rough and tumble and full of pickpockets and convicts, truants and robbers, counterfeiters, highwaymen, gentlemen of the day and ladies of the night. Before the boutiques and barbers, there were wards of the state sentenced to hard time. Looking around nighttime Nytorget, this seems impossible. It’s as if it never happened.
from my journal, July 2017