Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spoiled Little Soviet Girl

Liina and I don’t fight often, but when we do it sometimes ends with me calling her a spoiled little Soviet girl.

That’s how it goes at the beginning of summer, when the weather warms enough that it’s time for a new roof on the greenhouse, or the fence needs painting, firewood restacked, or a hundred other little jobs that the tough Estonian winter keeps us from doing earlier. “Why aren’t there any kids around?” I lament, bent over a can of latex paint, trying to get more color on the house than I get on myself. “This is a perfect summer job for a high school kid.” Then I’ll start my tirade about how Tallinn kids don’t seem to require summer jobs, how they spend their summers wind surfing or at grandma’s summer cottage or just hanging out in a parking lot somewhere with an endless supply of cigarettes and beer.

Liina will reply that not every place in the world is like America, where all anybody does is work, and when people aren’t working they’re thinking about work. Liina knows that summers after my sixteenth birthday my mother shipped me to America, where my Uncle Feliks in Kansas found me work which, in my father’s words, “built character.” According to my family, Canadian kids were “soft,” beneficiaries of a socialist system that encouraged reliance on the government cheese. If I went to America, the cruelest capitalist country of them all, then I’d be hardened and independent, never one to stand around and complain that the world is unfair. That was the logic, anyway.

My first American job was in the “building profession,” as Uncle Feliks put it. I imagined wearing a denim shirt and yellow hardhat, carrying around rolled-up architectural plans, and giving instructions to clean-cut men like those we see in deodorant commercials. Instead, I operated what is known to American builders as the Mexican backhoe: a shovel. And when I wasn’t operating the Mexican backhoe, I ran a jackhammer. Once I spent an entire month removing a parking lot which a client argued didn’t properly drain. Rather than sending out a machine that could destroy the parking lot in a single day, to punish the client the construction company sent me, a fifty-kilo kid with a twenty-five-kilo jackhammer. After thirty days of ceaseless noise and vibration I’d removed an entire parking lot in breadloaf-sized pieces. While I learned about character, the client learned what happens when you complain to a builder after you’ve already paid him.

The next summer Feliks got me a job as a plumber. Before I left Canada, my father explained what he called the cardinal rule of plumbing: Shit runs downhill. The job turned out to be more work with a Mexican backhoe, either digging holes or filling in those that others dug. As the smallest guy in the company, I was regularly called away from digging to descend into sewer lines with a plug to stop the flow of feces above a point where the real plumbers wanted to work.

Meanwhile, back in Estonia, what was Liina doing? She was windsurfing in the Bay of Tallinn and eating caviar from Viimsi’s Kirov Fishing Kolkhoz (one bright exception to the rule of Soviet poverty) where she lived with her family. There are plenty of stories about how hard Soviet kids worked, how they toiled in the fields to bring in the harvest, because Soviet combines were of such quality they left forty percent of the harvest on the ground. Even smart kids sent to the malevs (a camp for elite kids, as I understand it) where I imagined them playing chess in the shade and talking about how they’d one day rule their country, had to do some symbolic work. A malev camper friend of mind once showed me a brick wall he built at a camp.

But Liina’s summers were different.

When she wasn’t “training,” which many Estonian kids not destined for professional sports seem to do even today, she was aboard her family’s Moskvich, traveling around the Soviet Union. She spent one summer on the White Sea, diving for starfish, which she and her family then killed, painted, and trucked south, where they were sold as souvenirs of the Black Sea. She argues that was a job, but I say diving for starfish hardly counts as work. Try diving for turds in a fifty-degree Kansas sewer.

Perhaps Liina is right about Tallinn kids not working. Maybe it isn’t a tragedy. Maybe it is better for a kid to enjoy his youth before he becomes an adult and spends the rest of his life with a car payment, mortgage, and kids who need fed, watered, and educated. Maybe my father and Uncle Feliks were wrong in their belief that you can’t understand the value of a dollar if you haven’t earned it yourself. Perhaps they were wrong about character. Liina certainly lacks none.

But I was brought up the way I was brought up, and I don’t think it will kill my kids to earn a little money to help pay for the surfing camps and general goofing around which I know their spoiled Soviet mother is going to encourage. Let my kids sell Eesti Ekspress on street corners or shovel snow off the neighbor’s walk. Or better yet, let them go to America. Uncle Feliks has already offered to take them as soon as they’re old enough to work. “America has Disneyland,” I’ll tell them. Little will they know it’s two thousand kilometers from Kansas.