Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Three-Martini Breakfast

“Perhaps a tad bit of white tea?” offered the businessman, “before I tell you all about my philosophy of life?”

His sentence contained two clear reasons to run the other direction, and normally I would have, but I was being paid to interview him. But for money or not, if I was to endure what was surely to be his cliché-ridden, borrowed outlook on life, I was going to need something stronger than tea. “Got any whiskey?” I asked.

“No, but maybe you’d prefer Bai Hao Yinzhen?”

I had no idea what that meant, but I was very much afraid he might next suggest that we go get pedicures together. “As long as there’s plenty of alcohol in it,” I answered. But there wasn’t any alcohol in it. Bai hao Yinzhen, he explained, was also a tea.


The great thing about getting drunk in the morning, Sergei Dovlatov once wrote, is that you can take the rest of the day off. And Dovlatov had done enough journalism to know. While I never lived in Estonia in the Soviet time, the early 90s were close enough, with the bottle-in-the-desk-drawer office culture still largely intact.

It was usual to have a brandy with your morning coffee, a beer or two with lunch, and then a bottle of vodka or two at whoever’s place you ended up for dinner. All this alcohol consumption seemed to aid us in the office where I worked, though to an outside observer it might have appeared that our chief competence was the ability to take anything simple and make it excruciatingly complicated. But Estonia had no real international ambitions in those days: the focus was on a move to capitalism, and a bit of alcohol on the job was merely a transitional tool.

“You’ll be judged by what you eat and drink,” a kolkhoz director once announced when I visited for a tour of his farm. We got loaded and then drove around in his Volga to inspect the cows. Once a morning meeting with a brewery director turned into a two-hour drinking session culminating with a singalong to “The Brewer” where all present performed the last verse on top of the conference table. What the directors of those companies knew was, respectively, how to make a cow calve and how to brew beer. They had little use for parroting modern management books, utterances such as “two plus two equals five!” or “Business 2.0” or “win-win.” These men just rolled up their sleeves and, at least between the drinking, did their jobs. And they never asked if you needed a yixing pot or wanted yak butter with your beverage.

It sometimes seems the trouble with post-EU Estonia is that the previous work culture has been thrown out wholesale, the baby along with the bath water. The works of Vladimir Lenin have been replaced by Deepak Chopra, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, and Michael Porter, whose chief contributions, it seems to me, have been to make us all take ourselves very seriously. Was it one of them who, when I wasn’t looking, replaced the alcohol with green tea?

I never worked in North America during the three-martini lunch period, but in the 1980s it was perfectly acceptable to eat lots of red meat and have a drink or two with lunch. We even enjoyed coming back to the office a bit lit. It offered additional courage for negotiations or for flirting with the office hottie.

But in a nascent business culture the pendulum swings wider, and I fear we are saddled with living like Buddhist monks for a while. Hang some wind chimes in your office, attend yoga classes at lunchtime, quote Sun Tzu to a visiting journalist.


My particular businessman started in about “CSR,” and though I know what it means I gave him the satisfaction of explaining it to me.

“Corporate Social Responsibility…” he continued, as if he had personally invented the concept and would be soon beatified for donating a couple of Chinese-made bicycles to an orphanage. He went on with the altruist act, throwing in terms like “synergy” and “human capital” and half a dozen other terms which had nothing to do with calves calving or beer brewing, until he realized that my mind was elsewhere.

“Aren’t you going to write any of this down?” he asked. How could I have explained to him that a good writer respects his readers?

But since it was a corporate assignment, and since I was being paid in part to make him feel good about himself, I told him that I had been blessed with an audiographic memory and that, anyway, he’d get to approve whatever I wrote. And then I said I was feeling a bit ill (which wasn’t a lie) and asked to use his bathroom. There, squirreled away in a stall, I phoned Liina and begged her to call me in exactly three minutes and shout into the receiver: “Warren Buffett called again. He wants to talk right now.”

“Who?” she asked.

“Warr-en Buff-ett,” I enunciated. “Just make sure you’re loud enough to be heard.”

Back in his office I excused myself when my phone rang. “This call I have to take.”

“I completely understand,” he said, after he overheard my brief conversation with Liina. And of course he understood, because after all it was his god of gods who needed to talk to me.

“Do you think he might come to Estonia?” the businessman asked.

“He’s an old-fashioned guy,” I replied, standing in the doorway. “He likes steak or burgers washed down with Cherry Coke. Or a beverage even stronger.”

With that I brought my hands together in front of my chest. “Namaste,” I said, bowing slightly as I stepped out into the world.


Postscript: Nature Photography Update

My April 23 story, “How to Become a Nature Photographer,” inspired a significant amount of reader feedback, including requests for tips on nature photography, but also a surprising number of suggestions about the best techniques for cooking roadkill fox (baked seems to be the favorite in Harjumaa, while southern Estonians prefer it grilled).

Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc, a photographer for Estonian Public Broadcasting whose activities were chronicled in the story, was recently honored by the Estonian Nature Photographers Association for his work photographing rodents in the Elistvere Animal Park.

Tarmo, a.k.a. Gagarin, was deluged with reader requests as to where one could purchase the Merino wool underwear. (Answer: Gagarin also recently garnered fame by photographing the five rarest animals on earth within the space of one single week: the Pinta Island Tortoise, the Baiji (river dolphin), the Vancouver Island Marmot, the Seychelles Sheath-tailed Bat, and the Javan Rhino. His expedition was financed by a grant from British Petroleum.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Powerpoint People

There’s an old Native American tradition that was still practiced the year I lived on a Dakota reservation. Every full moon, all those who had passed the manhood ritual would gather around the fire, and a pipe would be passed. It was not a pipe for smoking – most braves smoked Marlboros or rolled their own — but one for speaking. Tribe members patiently waited their turn, and when the pipe reached a brave’s hands, he might say what was on his mind. Or he might not. There was just as often silence.

In my exploration of Northern Europe I have discovered a Finno-Ugric tribe which keeps a similar ritual for allowing braves to speak. No pipe is passed, though. The Finno-Ugric tribe has replaced it with the cord to a Powerpoint projector.

And unlike the pipe, the cord is not passed peacefully, and a meeting can sometimes turn as aggressive as a game of lacrosse: it is custom that tribesmen attempt to grab the cord as it dangles from a ceiling-mounted projector near the center of the conference table.

“Here’s the point I’m making,” said Pekka, snatching the swinging cord from the hands of Heikki and plugging it into his laptop. Pekka stated his case, managing three or four painfully-constructed slides, until Kalevi, a brave of higher standing, yanked the cord from the socket of the Pekka’s laptop and plugged it into his own.

After a two-hour meeting, with the cord passed to half a dozen corporate warriors, no decision had been made on the issue, but all left satisfied. Each had had his chance to express himself and show at least some of the slides he had spent hours constructing. The meeting adjourned with promises to email presentations to each other.

I encountered this tribe when I was brought in to consult on a form of communication unfamiliar to them: the corporate magazine. They had come to me through their tribe’s medicine man who had traveled over the great water and had heard my name in context of the mystical practice of the printed word. Soon, my name and likeness were carried to his tribe and spread among their ranks via Powerpoint, and eventually I was invited to visit the tribe at its pleasant camp in a grassy meadow by the sea.

Though the vast majority of Northern tribes lead isolated existences, this one had seen the need to stretch beyond its borders in the name of commerce. More prescient members of the tribal council recognized a Powerpoint presentation in their native tongue was no more decipherable to the West than the smoke signals their forefathers had used. Just as their predecessors had come to eventually accept Colonel Colt and his invention as part of their future, the tribe believed that I and my words on papyrus in a widely-spoken language might be the key to their future.

Northern tribes are known to have accepted few outsiders, and those who have been received have generally returned to document the tribes’ consumption of copious quantities of alcohol and co-ed bathing rituals involving nudity, sweat, and birch branches. So I was not completely unprepared for their colorful oddities.

But I was indeed struck by the tribe’s devotion to Powerpoint as a communications tool. For it, they shunned all talk, and their corridors were as silent as a funeral home. This was clearly strong medicine.

“Perhaps we might talk over a cup of coffee,” I suggested to Pekka, after what I interpreted to be his victory in the conference room with the projector cord.

Pekka was silent for a long moment, perhaps because he had no specific slide to address my question. “Coffee,” he at long last uttered, “is in the silver pitcher at the far end of the table. Tea is in the black one.” There were sandwiches on the table, too, though they went unmentioned.

Though I was not successful with Pekka, after several weeks in the presence of this Finno-Ugric tribe, I twice managed to make eye contact with one I believed to be a single female. One day, I managed to engineer it where we were both walking through the same corridor in the same direction. I walked faster to catch up with her and just as she turned her head I removed a shiny blue can of Gin Long Drink from my pocket. “I have more,” I said.

She quickened her pace which I took as nervousness. “Could we not meet?” I said emboldened by her palpable quickness of breath. She stopped and looked at her feet. “I could tweet you,” she offered guardedly, and she dashed down a staircase on her right. I did not follow. Despite her beauty — she was a fine specimen — a 140-character limit was not going to allow me to complete the magazine.

I began to worry how I might write an entire magazine requiring 40,000 words if the most input I was to receive was a host of Powerpoint slides and random, 140-character tweets. I sought guidance from the medicine man who had brought me to the tribe.

“The drums say you have Gin Long Drink,” he said to me before I had even a chance to sit down. “Long Drink is strong medicine.”

Indeed. And I knew a ferryboat where it was kept.

The magazine proved a success. The stories celebrated the wisdom and cleverness of the tribe and enumerated the superior quality of its goods. And despite their worry that a photograph could steal a soul, they permitted my colleague Kaupo (whose name amused them) to make attractive, well-lit images of them in their daily routines. Pekka was photographed in front of a projection of a histogram, remote control in hand. Heikki was shown from behind, staring hard at a multi-color pie-chart slide on his computer.

As a show of thanks, I was invited to the tribe’s summer conclave, where after a welcome Powerpoint detailing the tribe’s seasonal successes, we adjourned to a row of chairs near a pristine lake. Male tribesmen removed their shirts to tan their pale bodies. Strong medicine in blue cans was passed, but it was still some time before the silence was broken.

“If you close your eyes and stare right at the sun,” said Pekka, “then the image you see is much like Powerpoint.” Braves all around grunted in assent.

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