Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Wider Berth

Almost daily, for the eleven-and-a-half months of the year when Estonia is covered with snow, someone will ask me if I ski. This is a test with only one correct answer.

“But do you cross country ski?” they follow up, their look showing they think they’ve got me now.

“Absolutely,” I reply. And then before they can think too long I quickly add: “Of course, unlike you I wasn’t born on skis. I learned in army survival courses, which required me to ski fast enough to catch a wild horse, kill it with my knife, and then gut it and sleep inside its still-warm carcass on a cold Canadian arctic night.”

This usually effectively ends the skiing discussion and allows us to move on to other topics.

Of course the answer Estonians expect to hear is that I am a downhill skier, which is, in their minds, hardly a skier at all. As with ski resorts anywhere, visit one of Estonia’s two or three “mountains” and you’ll find the sort of people which residents of mountain country derogatorily refer to as “flatlanders”: Unfit pussies in designer ski wear who are present more for the après ski than the skiing itself. It is no wonder cross-country skiers would avoid them.

In Estonia it is debatable whether it is worse to be a downhill skier or a non-skier. So, if one does not want to be thought less of, it is always best to lie.

Estonians’ devotion to cross country skiing is worthy of scientific study. My friend Gunnar took part in the Tartu marathon this year--63 kilometers in minus-25 degree Celsius weather--just because he thought it was an experience he should have. My friend Ahti, who is just a regular guy and not especially ski-crazy can be found at least three nights a week on the lighted ski trail in Pirita. The prime minister is there, too, more than he’ll publicly admit. How do I know all this? I sometimes go there to walk the dog.

The rest of the world has yet to fully embrace this sport for a variety of reasons, mainly of which is that it’s terribly boring. (The Americans have cross-country ski teams, but this is hardly out of enthusiasm for the sport: it is rather to not be completely ignorant in the case that someone someday finds a way to actually make money off the sport.)

What could possibly be fun about skiing on flat ground? If all one wants to do is sweat, then running is a better substitute, and the gear is a fraction of the price.

I understand that cross country is a quiet sport, and I do see appeal here: one can quietly approach game and kill it with less trouble.

But cross country as a spectator sport is a let-down, crowds cheering for a half second as the skiers fly by and disappear into the trees. Skiing is even less conducive to televised broadcast than bowling or yoga.

Add personalities like Smigun, Veerpalu, and Mae, and it still holds no appeal. Who wants to listen to a skier in an interview say things like, “I’ve trained really hard” or “my team did a great job on the wax”? And when do ski fans do anything more than stand alongside the trail and wave flags? (In the Tour de France, fans used to throw tacks in front of the cyclists!)

The biathalon improves skiing only slightly, because it has a hint of an element of suspense: will the Chinese skier miss his target and accidentally shoot the Russian? What if the skier forgets and leaves a round in the chamber and falls hard rounding a turn which is packed with spectators?

If you want to give cross-country skiing more universal appeal, then you have to add back the element which makes all popular sports popular: violence.

What if Kristina Smigun were to ski through a forest inhabited by wolves and feral dogs? (Or ski through Bucharest, if no wolf population can be found.) What if contestants were required to ski across the Russian border at night armed only with a puukko and return with the scalps of a dozen Russian soldiers? (Or perhaps Latvian scalps, as the international community would hardly take notice of a few less Latvians.) Or what if prisoners were put on skis and forced to cross a clearing which is simultaneously shelled by artillery and strafed by fighter jets? One could easily argue that cross country skiing has not been interesting since the Winter War.

Despite the sport’s shortcomings, though, each year I give it a fresh try. Just as I’ve tried to give a chance to beet soup, head cheese, and Baltman suits, I approach skiing with an open mind. So what if there’s nothing on the trail to kill? So what if the sport causes the release of no more adrenalin than billiards? Onward I ski, striving not toward a finish line, but toward understanding.

And there goes the prime minister past me. Again. And again he in his spandex superhero costume cannot hide his disdain for my baggy wool Swedish army surplus trousers and my worn-out wool sweater. “Eest ära!” shouts one of his bodyguards, as if my pace is holding up the machinations of the Estonian state.

“Up yours!” I shout back. “Try sleeping inside a horse!” And then all three of them, Ansip and his body guards, slow their pace and turn back to have a look.

“That’s right,” I say. “A horse.” And next time, they give me a wider berth.

Oprah recommends Inherit the Family.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Eurovision’s Dirty Little Secret

Although it’s enough for most viewers to tap their feet to the Eurovision beat, something within my soul compels me to listen to lyrics and attempt to divine their meaning.

For example, these lines from the Sven Lõhmus song which will represent Estonia at the contest in May:

Daylight fading away
Night silhouettes in the sky
LED lights are flashing in towers
It’s Manhattan’s magical time
Ballerinas dancing to Swan Lake
On a river made of diamonds and pearls
Everything’s a little bit weird now […]
One-two-seven-three down the Rockefeller street
Everything is a little surreal

Weird and surreal, indeed, because I have no clue what Getter Jaani is singing about. Perhaps the author chose “weird” and “surreal” because the phrase “incredibly fucking stupid” is so hard to rhyme in English?

Apologies. I don’t mean to be cynical, but as far as I know, offices in skyscrapers are still not illuminated by LEDs (which would be confined to stairwells or parking garages, and in any case not pronounced like the chemical element with the symbol Pb). The nearest Rockefeller Street is in Randolph, Massachusetts (population 30,000), the definite article has no place before “Street” in that context, and wouldn't 1273 on the Avenue of the Americas would be near the Time Life building, somewhere uptown of Rockefeller Plaza?

Readers will no doubt rally around Mr. Lõhmus, invoking a defense of “nonsense literature,” a legitimate genre that defies language conventions or logical reasoning – and the “Rockefeller Street” lyrics certainly do that. But they do not meet the second test of nonsense literature, which is to have an excess of meaning rather than a lack of.

But wait, readers will interject: it’s so easy to be critical. Anybody can laugh at a Eurovision song.

True, but I have done more. I have, in fact, discovered the genesis of Eurovision lyrics, the fountain from which they all gush. And, it turns out, Sven Lõhmus is not to blame.

Take these lyrics for example:

I like to play with toys
Let’s all have a party
Watch me blow bubbles
It’s fun to make music

Set the words to a catchy tune, add Getter Jaani’s voice, a few godawful dancers, and viewers will shriek at their television screens in orgasmic pleasure.

Or imagine these words recited by a beat poet backed by a contrabass:

When you cook onions and broccoli, why do they stink up the kitchen?
Why is the smell of a dead animal attractive to a vulture but disgusting to you and me?
And why does your morning breath smell so bad that your mom runs screaming from the room?

All are no less worthy of Eurovision than “Rockefeller Street.” And they require no expenditure of creative energy since they are already written: All the passages were excerpted from books in my ten-month-old son Robert’s personal library, a veritable Eurovision gold mine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I beg the reader to put himself in foreign shoes for a moment. If the Estonian language, instead of English, dominated the world, then how might you be moved if song lyrics were taken from books titled, Vaata, raputa, ja loe; Ahvenapoiss Sulev; or Pese ennast-sa?

Or what if a contingency of foreigners were to compose lyrics in the Estonian language for songs romanticizing your infamous industrialists? Titles like “Hanschmidt Puiestee,” “Kruuda Tänav,” or “Armin Karu Avenüü”?

The solution is for Mr. Lõhmus and his songwriting colleagues to expand their reading lists. What if they sought poets for inspiration? Jaan Kaplinski has some good lines. Or there’s Karl-Martin Sinijärv, who not only is a fine poet but boasts some of the coolest threads in town. And anyone who borrows from a poet immediately basks in associative glory. In this fashion it’s possible to climb several rungs in the cultural ladder by simply leaving the public library’s children’s section.

And if Estonian poetry won’t suffice and international flair is desired, there’s the American master, Wallace Stevens, whose material cries out for song lyrics.

Let the lamp affix its beam
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Were these Eurovision lyrics, a whole new class of listeners might join, who would speculate that the song is about a “forced choice between the gross physicality of death and the animal greed of life.” And the lyricist himself might fire back with an overarching statement that a poem must “resist the intelligence.”

As it stands now we are without that debate, and a lone Postimees columnist is left to hope that the significance of 1273 might amount to more than Tommy Tutone’s 1982 hit, “867-5309/Jenny.” The latter caused thousands to dial the number and ask for Jenny. Yet the former, I fear, will cause only this one curious listener to plug the address into Google Maps.

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