Monday, January 30, 2012

Ashram Vikerkaar

For me, a yogi will always be a bear. Or a malapropist baseball player (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”).

But to Liina, and to much of the rest of the world, a yogi is a yoga practitioner. And some of them are operating an ashram in my house.

The other day I came home to find a half dozen of them wrapped in brown blankets, sitting straight-backed on the second floor of my house, staring out the window at the rare winter sun. WTF? I might have tweeted, if I were the tweeting kind. Instead, I greeted them. Met by silence and assuming they did not hear me, I greeted them again. Then one whispered: “We’re meditating.”

I found Liina down in the kitchen brewing one of those Chinese teas with a name nobody can pronounce. “Who are those people?” I asked her.

“They’re meditating,” she replied.

My first encounter with the East came in the 1980s. One sunny weekend I was walking in Central Park enjoying a cold beer, when I saw a dozen Asians in Mao jackets and pajama pants making synchronized, slow motion movements as if filming a scene for a kung fu movie. I stopped and observed a while, wondering if I might be able to push one of them over, or if they’d re-set their speed and chop me before I could reach them.

It was a while before I encountered the East again, since the Estonia of the 1990s was more engaged in aping someone’s idea of the west: track suits, brick-sized mobile phones conspicuously displayed, and robot-like dancing to German techno music. About the only hint of the East I could find was shaving cream made in India. But just when I started to worry that Estonia had become little more than a vacuum to be filled by the West’s detritus, I met Liina.

If the rest of the country was looking West, Liina had somehow turned East, and she had a small army of friends who had done the same. Some traveled to India, hung out in ashrams, and returned wearing friendship bracelets and spouting phrases – “Dreams are whispers from the soul” – which I could have sworn I’d seen on American corporate motivational posters.

Many of these people started to hang out at our house, though the sincerity of their commitment to all things Eastern, I felt, was sometimes dubious. (A refrigerator full of beer is a powerful magnet and pulls from all directions of the compass. Somebody should put that on a poster.)

The East was a fad for most of them, and the majority soon disappeared into the woodwork, some re-materializing in the early 2000s as bank managers and lawyers. Liina remained committed, however. She did Tai Chi, yoga, worked with pendulums, ayurveda, and read copious amounts about Chinese medicine. I admired her commitment and even tried a few things myself, like fire walking, yoga, and vegetarianism – though the latter lasted only three days.

Liina would be uncomfortable if I described her as a guru – which I understand to mean “teacher” — but she cannot dispute that her commitment to spirituality has attracted some followers.

I have followed her into yoga classes which we attended together while living in Toronto, and I was immediately attracted by the idea that yoga could stop aging. The best yogis appeared to be decades younger than they actually were, and I was told this was the result of a chemical released when the spine is bent.

My interest was piqued by this, since my writer friends in North America had adopted the western solution to slow aging: they used fifteen-year-old photographs of themselves on the jackets of their newest books. I began in earnest my quest to slow the signs of aging through yoga, eventually becoming serious enough to purchase my own mat.

When Liina and I returned to Estonia I joined Jocke Salokorpi’s Ashtanga yoga studio. I liked Jocke, not only because he was friendly and easy-going, but because he didn’t make too big a deal out of Sanskrit. In my previous experience, instructors took sick pleasure in barking the command, Adho Mukha Svanasana, as if everyone in the room had grown up with a Sanskrit-speaking nanny and knew it as practically a mother tongue.

Jocke also made yoga fun, once playing a bit of music from The Last Samurai and having us all holler ninja war cries as if we were about to carve up Tom Cruise with a straight-blade ninjatō.

I have no idea of Jocke’s personal philosophy, but I liked his approach to the East, which seemed to recognize that I wasn’t about to give up everything Western for an orange robe and sandals. Yoga for me was just the one hour a day which equipped me to deal with the bullshit present in the other 23. I am a yoga dilettante, I admit.

Because of this, some of Liina’s peers, including those in the Brotherhood of the Brown Blanket, have not adjusted well to my presence in the Vikerkaar Ashram, as I somehow disrupt the higher vibrations of their more elevated universe. They have suggested to Liina that I might come home a little later in the evening, or enter the house a bit more quietly than I do.

To assert my claim to my own home, I have taken to carefully stocking the refrigerator. Imagine the ashram student who opens the door in expectation of finding his kohlrabi, amaranth, or yerba mate, instead to be greeted by multiple bags of frozen pelmeeni, a three-day old cheeseburger in a greasy McDonald’s sack, and the tongue of a cow boiled until it is the gray of Estonian winter.

And I have acquired a collection of the finest direct-to-video work of actor Steven Seagal, including Exit Wounds, Half Past Dead, and Out for a Kill. There’s really nothing like the sound of the bad guy’s femur snapping to add spark to a session of meditation.

I’ve also taken to greeting ashramites at the door with questions like “Do you have a tattoo of any winged creature on the part of your ass visible just above your belt?” (the women think I’m omniscient), or “Does the scent of grilling animal flesh help or hinder your meditation?”

They still come around sometimes, but those who stay are beginning to understand that I run a different kind of ashram. Chant all you want, but when the Toronto Maple Leafs come on the satellite TV then our house changes from ashram to hockey arena. And then you can pop open a cold beer and sit next to me on the couch, or you can head out to the doghouse for meditation. The dog won’t mind. He’s inside, watching the game with me.


Vello's seminal work on meditation available here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Power Trip

First come two blue-and-white police Skodas followed by a pair of black BMW X5s. Then it’s the president’s gleaming Audi A8 led by three lions on the number plate. Then follow two Scandinavian ambassadors in their black Volvos, dust-covered except for spotless national colors on polished stainless steel flagpoles. In pursuit is another X5, blue light flashing, and then two more cop cars. Then, straggling in the rear, behind the part of the motorcade any self-respecting terrorist or disgruntled ministry worker might want to blow up, is a rented silver van.

That’s where I am, in the back row of the van on a seat covered with what I hope are only food stains. The motorcade has just blown the light at the Viru roundabout, and instead of mowing down three American Indians in buckskin and war paint toting a synthesizer and drum set across the street, our driver has applied the brakes to wait out the light.

I ask my fellow passengers if we’ll arrive at our destination before everything is over with.

“Maybe they’ll serve you salted peanuts or give you a logoed umbrella as a souvenir?” a journalist remarks, compelled to put the new guy in his place for displaying too much enthusiasm.

“If you arrive in time, you’ll get to see Ilves present his guest with a painting of a ship made from tiny bits of amber,” adds another.

It’s my first Estonian motorcade, and I have to admit I’m excited. Were I not here, after all, I’d be staring at a computer monitor, or scooping up dogshit in the yard, or any number of less interesting things than watching diplomats and government officials preen and pose.

But the passengers on this bus are jaded journalists or ministry officials so far down on the food chain that they don’t even rate a ride in an unwashed Volvo. These are the ministries’ coffee fetchers and bag carriers, whose moments of glory come when a pissed-off minister wants to vent and they just happen to be in the room. A thankless job, but it’s the only action in town. I mean, not everybody can work for Skype.

But, hey, it’s a job, and these ministerians are already nicer to me than the journalists. “There are always delays,” one soothes me. “You’ll get to see what there is to see.”

What there is to see, of course, I have no idea, but the invitation to join the entourage was the best offer of the week and, really, how many times in your life do you get to join the circus? True, I may not be a full-fledged clown, but cleaning out the animal cages I still see more of the Big Top than the average Joe who drinks beer and farts in front of his television every night.
In 1994, during President Clinton’s visit to Riga, I was part of a group invited to meet Mrs. Clinton. Asked to be present a full three hours before her arrival, I was x-rayed and metal-detected and then ushered into a room with about fifty other people. A few moments before her arrival, Secret Servicemen entered the room with two German Shepherds who both put their noses right in my crotch to pronounce me First Lady fit.

When Mrs. Clinton came through the line it came out that the mother of the guy next to me was a major donor to the Republican Party of Arkansas. Although the man’s mother was an enemy of Mrs. Clinton, the First Lady knew her, and they chatted as if old friends. When Mrs. Clinton arrived in front of me, I knew I would have to do better.

“My mother hates his mother,” I said, and she laughed and asked my name.

“Vello?” she queried. “What kind of name is that?”

“Gypsy,” I replied. “We’re palm readers, but we’re Democrat.”

“Well,” she stepped back to take in two such distinguished mothers’ sons, “today has certainly been interesting for me.”

The higher a government official moves up the food chain the duller his days become. When you reach the highest levels, a huge part of your day is devoted to public appearances where you spew complete bullshit to people eager to be hit in the face with it.

Imagine the hundreds of people who said things to Mrs. Clinton like “Oh, I am just the biggest fan of yours.” And she replied, “Thank you for saying that,” while all the time thinking, Jesus, why can’t I go somewhere and get high?

The cool thing about living in a small country like Estonia is that it provides easy access to power, and I don’t just mean that you might find yourself seated next to the president in a restaurant.

In 1993, I was literally an arm’s length from John Paul II, but instead of touching His Holiness, I allowed Estonians to take my place to cop a feel of his ermine-lined red velvet shoulder cape. I could only imagine how they felt, a people separated from the West for fifty years and then one of the first foreign dignitaries to arrive after independence is a frail old man dressed in white who rides around in a bullet-proof golf cart while an Armani-clad security force jogs beside him. So this is what we’ve been missing? they must have wondered.

It was in a similar spirit that I met President Bush in Tallinn in 2006. In a tiny, packed hotel conference room a disk jockey played “Hail to the Chief” and the crowd rushed a velvet rope as Mr. Bush entered the room and leapt upon the dais. “I’d like y’all to meet Condi, my Sec-uh-tary uh State,” he said in that faux-cowboy voice which comedians had down pat. Then he spoke nonsense for a few moments before working the rope, paying careful attention to those who couldn’t be bothered to fight the crowd to press presidential flesh. Somehow the two of us got to talking about how the dry season had influenced fishing on his Texas ranch. “Well, let me know ahead of time,” I offered, “and we can go fishing here.”

“Really?” he seemed stunned. “People fish here?”

“Mostly with explosives,” I replied. “But a spinning rod works, too.”

That got the president thinking. “Explosives,” he nodded. “Wow.”

So I have never understood why journalists don’t get more excited about hanging out with dignitaries. It is what you make of it, and if a journalist is bored, well, it’s his own damned fault.

In 2000, David Foster Wallace chronicled life in the John McCain entourage, in “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub,” the Twelve Monkeys being the starch-shirted reporters for newspapers of record who, at least as Wallace saw it, traveled with jumbo-sized cobs up their asses.

The only starch that the reporters seated around me on this bus have ever encountered, however, is in a potato, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that the ministry coffee-fetchers held more potential for fun.

So I ask one of the ministerians, an attractive 20-something in a pair of governmental pumps, what drew her to the job. She didn’t miss a beat: “I wanted to help my country.”

“Hey,” I hold up my hands in surrender, “you’ve already got the job. You can tell the truth.”

Estonians aren’t good bullshitters, and if you give them the chance they’ll often tell you the unvarnished truth. She thinks a minute and replies, “Well, I get a front row seat to what everybody else has to read in the newspaper.” Then another pause. “And it’s kind of cool to be around power.”

I gesture toward the starch-free journalist who by now was now paying rapt attention to our conversation. “He agrees with you,” I tell her. “He just refuses to admit it.”

The rest of the discussion doesn’t take much imagination. The journalist calls me a sellout whore for not taking my job seriously enough. I call him a sellout whore for writing down whatever officials spout instead of piping up with intelligent questions. He argues that if journalists caused too much trouble nobody’d be invited. I argue that missing Reflector Day at Paide High School isn’t a major sacrifice. It quickly degenerates into one of those did-not-did-so discussions, which can end only by insulting each other’s mother.

But before a fistfight can start the light changes, and the driver jumps on the accelerator as if kicking at a cockroach and we pull a few Gs racing after the motorcade. By this time there are too many civilians between us and our destination, and the silver bus has no blue light. The young ministerian reports that we’ll probably miss the national anthem but that we’ll surely catch the second half of the speeches.

“And the other half we can read on Facebook!” I exclaim with enough visible joy to irk the journalist. But inside I’m really a bit depressed. Because I can imagine how everyone might have enjoyed it if we were there for the national anthem, me there in the back with the bus people, the only guy in the crowd bravely singing along.


The Collected Vello here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Role Models

“Auto.” It wasn’t Robert’s first word, but it’s his favorite.

Robert sees autos everywhere. When we explore the neighborhood in his stroller he shouts “auto” every time one passes. Several times a day he points out the window to our own car parked in the driveway. “Auto.” Even reading a book where a little boy locates his ears, eyes, and nose, Robert points to the illustration on the boy’s shirt. “Auto.” Indeed, I hadn’t even noticed.

I don’t know where he gets it. We are not particularly an auto-centric family; no one in the family has ever been a gearhead. And ever since I’ve been old enough I had to pay for them myself, I’ve thought of cars as a necessary evil – an asset which devalues 20 percent the moment you drive it off the dealer’s lot. Liina and I have only one car between us, and it is nothing fancy: a Skoda wagon that we bought used. Most of the time my transportation is a bicycle, which elicits no reaction whatsoever from Robert, except for when he sits on the back in his child seat, which allows him to see and identify even more autos.

Liina and I have considered that he might get his love for cars from our gearhead neighbor, the one Robert can see from his bedroom window. This is a kid whose entire life consists of a 15-year-old BMW, leather jacket, gold chain, bad haircut, illiterate friends, techno music, cheap beer in two-liter containers, and cursing at the neighbors (us) over the fence.

It is perhaps too early, but I worry that Robert might want to emulate him. As far as I can see, the he contributes nothing to the GDP, sponging off his 50-something parents who go to work in the morning while the young man blares bass from his second-story window. He is not even polite. Perhaps the gearhead’s presence is why some of my other neighbors – bankers – must earn so much: someone’s social taxes have to support the deadbeat.

I see the gearhead and I imagine Robert at 18, lighting spliffs on the sofa and declaring that he’s not going to work until his journey of self discovery through the lyrics of “My Beamer Has New Tires” is fully complete.

It is my hope of course that Robert will choose role models closer to home – his father – which of course creates its own attendant worries. Am I worthy?

Robert’s grandfather, a taciturn man not known for dispensing much advice at all, told me shortly after Robert’s birth that I would have a period of ten to twelve years to teach Robert something, and after that it would be pretty much hopeless – the young man would decide things for himself.

(The only other advice I recall my father providing me was before my first date: “Treat all the girls like ladies. Those who are expect it. Those who aren’t appreciate it.” Years later, comparing notes with my brother, we discovered that the pre-first-date advice given him was entirely different: “Never trust women with two first names.” Perhaps we each got the advice we needed?)

My father, in my eyes, was a sterling example of what any father should be. While he was not as affectionate as modern women would perhaps wish, he was a model of fairness, discipline, hard work, and devotion to his family and community. Mother was God. Not a negative word about her was permitted. You did not swear in front of her. You finished everything she put in front of you on a plate.

He was compassionate. Driving sideways into a post, I once put a dent the full length of his favorite hunting vehicle. He only put his arm around me to forgive. He never bothered to fix it.

He great dignity, too, though some would call it pride. I remember during one period of rather tough economic times he refused to take even a cent from the government. Even pleas from my mother that he had paid countless times more money into the government – so why not take some out? – were ignored. We were not that desperate and never would be. We could live on less. It was better to be your own man.

Through times good and bad he was a master of composure. Perhaps it was stoicism. As his son, I saw it as raw conviction and self-confidence. He could not be visibly shaken; or if he was, it would not have happened within view of his children. The only time I ever heard him lose his temper was when another duck hunter criticized his dog. (And God help the man who would have criticized his son.)

And so I have considered what kind of example I am setting for my son. Is Robert seeing anything worth emulation?

William, an American friend of mine, who is completely devoted to his children, once flipped the bird to a reckless driver who came close to hitting his kids. The driver stopped his car and challenged my friend to a fistfight. William, a former Golden Gloves champion, could have easily given the driver the beating he deserved and gone on to smash the windows of the precious car, but with his kids present, William was left in a quandary.

In a traffic culture like Estonia’s there is no shortage of opportunities to flip drivers the bird. Robert currently lacks the motor skills raise his middle finger, but he is a little sponge, and so I have attempted (unsuccessfully) to resist the temptation to point my finger at the country's deserving many.

I’ve become almost paranoid about my own behavior. Are my clothes clean enough? (Does he notice me shine my shoes?) How are my table manners? (What if he catches me eating over the sink? Am I pushing my soup spoon?)

Of course what he more closely monitors are things like how I treat his mother. Even though it may be considered a declaration of love in Eastern Europe, I’ve never beaten her, but now I’m even more careful to try to show her the respect she deserves. I now endeavor to tell her she is wrong in a fashion worthy of my own father (“Oh, I’m not so sure about that, dear”), instead of slipping into the lazy approach (“What are you, on crack?”). I have probably failed, and so I hope that, though Liina may not, children will perhaps award points for good intentions.

I also attempt not to reinforce his antisocial behaviors which I find amusing. When he makes the farting sound with his mouth I try not to laugh. When he rolls around on the church floor as if possessed by Satan, I try to simply pick him up. When he climbs out of the shopping cart to ride the supermarket’s conveyor, I try to remove him before he reaches the scanner. Although I am rarely successful, I think of my own father and try to live up.

Given Robert’s love for automobiles, I have braced for the day when his love of something inanimate surpasses his love for me. I have taken the magazine essay, “Why I Hate Barney,” to heart, the lament of a father whose infant son has given his heart to a purple dinosaur.

But amidst the worrying, Liina and I have instituted counter-programming measures to indoctrinate Robert against gearheadism – and here, one must fight fire with fire. Whenever he says “auto,” I offer him a toy gun.

Liina and I are also aggressively working with new vocabulary. She is teaching him about herbal teas and healing plants. I am instructing him how Salmo trutta may be caught on an imitation Ephemeroptera. On his own, he is taking a seminar course on the best movies of Jean Claude Van Damme.
Hopefully Robert will move on from cars and Liina and I can return to the more usual parental concerns, like worrying that our son might be gay. Of course, I suppose it is possible he could turn out to be both. And we would still love him unconditionally.


More on gearheads.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Good Green Living

My bank is committed to me. How do I know? Because they told me so.

I got a letter from my North American bank yesterday where they “restated our commitment” and then segued to a bit about the financial landscape changing, at which point I didn’t have to read further to know fees were increasing.

With the letter came a little brochure, all in green type to illustrate how much they care about the environment while they’re sticking it to me with “the best customer service around.” They even renamed my checking account “LifeGreen,” whatever that means.

Why does my bank think I care whether they give a damn about the environment? Do they think that because six tellers take part in a neighborhood cleanup every year this means that the bank loves the environment? The bank loves green type, though. That much I’ll concede.

This is no American disease, unfortunately. Estonian companies, banks included, tend to believe that if they print enough brochures using the color green, or send enough smiling employees around to talk to schoolchildren, then we’ll all embrace them as great stewards of society.

“Our company really does a lot of CSR stuff!” a smiling Estonian capitalist told me not long ago, assuming that the acronym has become part of the vernacular. CSR, for readers who don’t work in a megacorporation engaged in wringing the maximum amount of blood from each customer, stands for Corporate Social Responsibility. It may be defined as all the feelgood stuff a company does to distract you from the real business they’re in: making money.

Back in a former life I attended an American graduate business school. On the very first day when they issued me a supply of starch for my shirts and a shiv for intramural sports, we learned what would become our mantra: The goal of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value. Ethics were not mentioned anywhere, though the topic was later briefly taken up by a professor who noted, “If your mama didn’t raise you right, then nobody here is going to be able to help you.”

While the profit motive may not always be pretty, it certainly is pure. It is easy to understand, and when we accept that this is the mission of private enterprise then the behavior of business is hardly a mystery. But when we attempt to convince ourselves that a corporation can have the public good at heart, then what’s called for is a Tough Love rehab program. (If you doubt me, buy some shares in a big company and attend shareholders’ meetings. Or make a career in them: If your employment hasn’t been coldly terminated at least once, then you haven’t had much of a career.)

So it has always troubled me when I get the polished CSR patter from a PR hack, since the truth will not be held against them by any rationale being. Corporations perform a needed function in capitalist society. It’s not necessary that we love them, only that we understand them. Let us recognize that a wolf does what it does. And that even an animal-loving farmer has to, from time to time, shoot a wolf.

If you still don’t believe me then visit your neighborhood CEO’s house and check out his bookshelf. With a few exceptions, you’ll not find Eat, Pray, Love, but rather a veritable Special Forces library on inflicting quick death. The Art of War, The Prince, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, How to Win Friends & Influence People. Not to mention a pile of books by Jack Welch wearing his famous shit-eating grin.

What ought to be on every proper citizen’s bookshelf is a copy of Twain’s What is Man? The dialogue between the Old Man and the Young Man can get tedious, but sometimes we all need to be beat over the head with a shovel. Twain’s point: Any help I give you is because it makes me feel good. And what’s wrong with that?

The charitable work of corporations should be viewed much like the charitable work done by fraternities at American universities: They do it because when they do screw up — and they inevitably will — society will tolerate their dark side more if it is mingled with a history of good deeds.

On my university campus, a handful of fraternity brothers committed a gang rape. The guys who participated called it “pulling a train” and it was not the first time they did it, though it might have been the first time the act clearly fit the legal definition of rape.

Certainly, the group’s community record didn’t save them – they were aided more by a victim who did not want to endure the publicity of a trial – but the boys played their trust capital to some advantage. It was nothing more than a PR program in action, executed by a group of 20-year-old boys.

To say that if you add 30 years to those boys, remove a (small) bit of testosterone, and then you have the makings of a corporate boardroom would be unfair. There are some real gentlemen in business who are well able to keep their Johnsons in their pants. But don’t doubt that boardrooms are full of people who know well enough that things can go wrong, that one day their tanker may run aground and poison an ecosystem.

Would we really think less of a corporation which admitted that “Our objective is to make a pile of money, though some innocent folks may get helped along the way”? Or perhaps more reasonably: “We’re out to make a pile of money, and if along the way we can help others without getting too distracted from our primary mission, then great.” I think we’d embrace such honesty.

I don’t mind when they preach that the profit motive does not preclude bettering society, but they lose me when they name products “green” or want publicity for giving a bicycle to a crippled kid.

In a candid moment with an industrialist, he will not utter the phrase, “You know, if these unions will step out of the way, we’d treat these workers just fine.” He will more likely tell you that unions are a pain in the ass, but they’re necessary to keep him from abusing his workforce as if they were slaves in Egypt.

The Occupy Wall Street movement saddened me at first. When I visited their website, those who were often featured in front of the camera weren’t the most articulate. They hardly appeared qualified to take over the institutions they wanted to see reformed, and they often seemed on the edge of beginning a sentence with, “Dude…”

Now, though, it seems they’ve gained momentum, improved their speaker roster, perhaps by reading books like Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia or Michael Lewis’ The Big Short while they’re camped out in the financial district.

But there is real power in Dudespeak when backed by raw intelligence. I keep waiting for the TV camera to find someone who uses the opportunity to articulate why Alan Greenspan is the “biggest asshole in the universe”* (Taibbi’s claim), and then quote Greenspan’s 1994 Senate testimony or take up the complexities of moral hazard in perfectly digestible terms.

More good news is that heavyweights like Paul Krugman are adding their voices, and the movement is no longer limping along with only Hollywood celebrity backers.

On the homefront, what’s disturbing is not local Estonian corporate hacks waxing on about CSR and green culture – indeed, they’re just doing their jobs – but rather when a journalist writes it down. But I guess even the most jaded journalist can get caught up in the spirit of the moment with all its attendant Team Spirit bullshit. Plus, he’s got to file something. For better or worse, though, Estonia’s history of corporate abuse is no longer than its own history of independence, and therefore we are possibly still too eager to swallow whatever nonsense corporate leaders feed us.

But I do wish we’d recognize more that CSR and green culture are mere flavors of the month. (CSR is a term from the 1960s, and it comes in and out of fashion.) I can almost guarantee that in ten years, when absolutely every public and private corporation is using green type, then the one who uses black will be called a marketing visionary. Black. It’s the new green.

Perhaps you believe Estonian corporations are moving down the Scandinavian socialist path and will be different. That it’ll be capitalism with a human face; a kinder, gentler wolf. Personally, I’m in favor of making sure the farmer is well informed. And always sufficiently armed.


*Taibbi also called Greenspan a “…gerblish mirror-gazer who flattered or bullshitted his way up the Matterhorn of American power…” Now who, except maybe Greenspan himself, couldn’t love a sentence like that?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Inside Darth Vader

“Do you find this work demeaning?” my boss asked me. She owns a relocation company and occasionally employs me because she has a tough time finding Estonians to do the job. She says they often find showing apartments to be demeaning.

I told her I didn’t find it demeaning, though if she made me wear a squirrel costume or something, then it might be another matter.

Actually, since during the 1981-82 recession in Canada I had applied for a job babysitting dead bodies in a funeral home, and since I had also done work climbing into sewers to plug them with a giant cork, I kind of thought standing around in clean clothes while foreign yuppies looked at apartments was pretty cool.

The relocation job pays okay, and another benefit is that you get to see a good number of apartments in Tallinn.

On Viru Street, I looked at an attic apartment, where to enter you have to pass directly by a carnival barker who insists you eat at his restaurant. On the second floor, you are greeted by the wafting chemical odors of a hair and nail salon which occupies an apartment. On the next floor, an apartment has been converted into a torture museum, and features two young girls at a desk who beckon you to enter their lair.

Once you reach the attic apartment you find that it’s designed like a patchwork quilt made by an alcoholic grandmother: disjointed rooms meeting in odd places, bathroom walls covered with alternating granite and cheap plastic tiles, and part of its floor is suspended and fenced in timbers which makes it resemble a dance floor. All it’s missing is a silver stripper poll.

I imagined the tenants running the gauntlet of capitalism every day when they came home from work. Just how much formaldehyde and acetone would they have to breathe? And would the two girls at the desk ever learn to recognize their faces and stop shouting to “Come enjoy torture museum”?

“My company owns the whole building,” said the landlord in a tone which made me wonder if he weren’t in negotiations to put a Mini Cooper dealership in one of the empty apartments or to lease the rooftop to Copterline.

In the Fahle house on Tartu road, I saw a bathroom built so that its door hung at a negative angle – and the rest of the bathroom suspended above you like some Damoclean sword. Seated in the living room you got the feeling like all the heavy fixtures might come crashing down upon you at any moment.

And when seated on the toilet – situated in the very center of the bathroom – you are Luke Skywalker at the helm of an X-wing fighter, ready to launch proton torpedos to make a parking lot of the Sikupilli shopping center, if it weren’t already, mostly, a parking lot.

Down in the surprisingly small kitchen a stove vent looks like it is part of an expensive stereo system. Fashion magazines are fanned across a glass coffee table as if to instruct. It would be only natural to see a dozen lines of cocaine and a golden straw next to them. I wondered if the developer’s brief to the architect had been: Apartment should impress Mexican drug lords.

I also got to tour one of those many houses in Viimsi which resemble Darth Vader’s head. Some are white, some black, but all have dark, imposing windows which stretch the length of the house. You approach cautiously as if a laser cannon might fire at any moment.

The owner of this particular Darth Vader home wore a shirt which read FUBU in huge letters across the front and all the time wore D&G sunglasses while indoors. He kept peering out the window as if he was afraid thieves might be lifting the spinning rims off his Cadillac SUV. Inside, the house was nearly sterile and reminded me of a modern art gallery. I left with the same sensation I’d felt when I crowded in among the throngs to see the Mona Lisa for the first (and only) time: What’s wrong with me? Why wasn’t I as excited as everyone else?

The architect Christopher Alexander has written that the test of a good public park is whether people easily fall asleep in it. Knowing nothing of Feng Shui, including its proper pronunciation, I cannot say the Feng Shui is wrong in these modern Tallinn dwellings, but I can say I don’t feel at ease there. As soon as I sit down, I get the impulse to leave. These are not places which invite me to just be.

Liina’s theory is that architects just can’t stop trying to find new forms. “A round wheel works just fine,” she says. “Why do architects keep trying to make it flower shaped?”

A prominent musician once told me that the two most regrettable periods in Estonian history were “the 50 years of Soviet occupation and the last fifteen years of real estate development.”

I suppose it’s simply the curse of new money and our need to show it off, if only to each other. Had we been thinking, the 1990s and its availability of labor at slave-like rates should have enabled us to build with stone and expand the Old Town to swallow up Kesklinn. Who would object if the Three Penis Towers on Narva road were replaced by a tasteful medieval structure? Or if that giant Methodist Church looked a little less like a circus tent?

But that’s 20/20 hindsight, and none of us is all that clever. For all my talk, Liina says my tastes tend toward American trailer parks.

The people who mostly kept their wits about them throughout history are rural Estonians. Even during the past fifteen years they’ve continued to build simple, human-friendly structures with practicality in mind — the type of places with souls, where worries are shed and not accumulated. And the good news is that city folks are slowly starting to learn from them.

Although thatched-roof cottages may be no solution for the city, a friend of mine and his wife have taken a stab at embracing the natural and used straw bales to construct a house in one of Tallinn’s suburbs.

While the house has been celebrated in a couple of western magazines, it has not been popular in Estonia. The couple stopped meeting with journalists after a camera crew set up on the front lawn and filmed the newsgirl reading the story of the three little pigs, before she produced a local “expert” to say the house was inappropriate for northern climes, conveniently forgetting the fact that there were already several hundred in Finland and Sweden and now even 20 or 30 of them in Estonia.

And there are neighborhoods like Nõmme and Kadriorg, populated by people who apparently saw enough concrete in Soviet times to last a lifetime, and who don’t currently embrace the material as the end-all, be-all of modern construction.

We are exiting our teens, however, entering our twenties as a nation, and I believe we’re on the path to good things. My prediction is that the next generation will have far, far better taste. I predict they’ll dismantle the freedom monument and build a greenhouse in its place using the very same glass. Instead of free potatoes, there’ll be free tomatoes.

They’ll dynamite the Linnahall and the plans for a casino along with it, and they’ll develop a port area even more inviting and tasteful than anything across the bay in Helsinki.

And they’ll save the Three Penis Towers by adding a glans to each tower. They’ll market it as the Second Bhutan, and millions will flock here as art tourists, instead of just for cheap booze and a massage with a happy ending.

I look at my own little boy, and I believe in Estonia’s new generations. They’ll believe that all honest work is honorable. They’ll not only fix the mistakes we’ve made, but they’ll surprise us with their ability to work together and make good things happen, in matters of taste and beyond. It’s a small boat we’re in, and I think they’ll know how to all blow in the same direction.

And we don’t necessarily have to wait, either. There is hope for us now. “I have seen kind things done by men with ugly faces,” the poet Masefield wrote. “So I trust too.”

More on penises, thatched roofs, and Star Trek here.