Sunday, March 11, 2012

Not Kingly, Not Manly


“So what is it you do?” I asked one of the men sitting across from me at a dinner party. But it was clearly the wrong question.

“I’m an intellectual,” he said, exhaling dramatically to indicate that I was a complete idiot for not knowing who he was.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I was tempted to say. “I thought you were just an asshole.” But the specter of Mother Vikerkaar appeared in the room and I thought better of it. “So that’s a job title now?” I asked instead.

Then the man two seats over took up the topic and said he was making films about intellectuals but how Estonian TV networks weren’t interested in airing them. “They only want to hear about Eurovision,” he said.

There had clearly been a mistake in the seating chart. What was I doing with these people?

Then the discussion turned to a debate over which was the most elite secondary school (English College, the 21st, or Realkool? – with no mention of the Woburn Collegiate Institute in Scarborough). Then the dikes finally broke and we were all drowned in a Hit Parade of Western Philosophy. Abélard, Acquinas, Adomo, Aristotle, Augustine. It was if someone were reading off crib notes in alphabetical order.

Well before they arrived at Wittgenstein I felt like standing to quote a character from White Noise about the communal ego: “You say I’m a genius; I say you’re a genius; and we’re all geniuses together.”

But I didn’t have the courage to cause a stink, and so rather I silently recalled the words of Bluto, one of the intellectuals from the movie Animal House: “Grab a brew. Don’t cost nothin’.” Which means I got drunk instead.


Last week, I worked at my friends’ secondhand English-language bookstore in the Old Town, substituting for them while they were away making porno films or assassinating evil African dictators, or whatever it is that booksellers do on their days off.

I was humbled by the fact that every customer who entered the store seemed better read than I, and I lost count of the number of obscure literary references I was supposed to pick up on, because working in a bookshop they assumed I had read everything on the shelves. (I found myself wondering if forest rangers are often asked about specific trees among hectares of forests.)

Also, many people felt compelled to tell me about the size of their personal libraries (thousands of volumes), and they were shocked to learn how light I travel: my library is limited to a hundred books or so.

I could not even escape intellectualism on the bookstore’s radio: “…not singing about frivolous things…” said a talk show host about Leonard Cohen, who then noted that Cohen was writing on the “human condition, duality of our flesh, higher self…” Puleez. Give me my vomit bag.

But one of the things you do in a bookstore is read, and while leafing pages I stumbled upon an observation made by Iivi Anna Masso to Toomas Hendrik Ilves in the book Omal Häälel: “Paradoxically, this is a problem of our northernness – to be ill at ease with elitism is a northern phenomenon, and in the 'old' Nordic countries it's feared even more than in Estonia.” If this were true, I thought, then someone had failed to inform those at the dinner party.

Thinking a bit, I wondered if perhaps the Estonians, though not known for speaking in coded language, have simply employed a euphemism: visionary. I have noticed it is currently fashionable in the country to refer to oneself as a visionary. Is it perhaps the Bud Light-version of Intellectual?

But I have always considered a visionary to be an action figure from Hasbro, or a millionaire with a self-image problem. Even Steve Jobs refused to describe himself as a visionary. (“Technology leader” was his preferred term.)

I somehow believe the real visionaries among us aren’t the guys who call themselves visionaries. (And shouldn’t a true visionary have the courage to call himself an oracle?) And I am sure true visionaries are not the guys who continually post inspirational quotes from self-help books on Facebook. Real visionaries are more the troublemakers and the shit-stirrers, the activists, misfits, the dreamers and the downright crazies.

The moment I hear the word “visionary” I unsheathe and ready my dagger. I want to sit across the dinner table from a visionary just about as much as I want to receive a Jackie Lawson e-greeting card or walk barefoot over broken glass.


I’ve often wondered why it’s not okay to be smart in Europe without branding yourself as such. Perhaps it’s the North American in me, instructed from birth to pretend that class differences don’t really exist, even when they’re staring me right in the face.

I’ve long been a fan of intellectuals who shun the title. Like Joan Didion. She’s said the term “doesn’t make her reach for her gun,” but that she isn’t one because she doesn’t think in abstracts.

But mostly, to me, a peasant boy from Scarberia, Didion seems like somebody I’d like to drink a beer with. From her essay “Insider Baseball“: “[I]t had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations, […] had not gone to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives…”

My favorite Canadian intellectual — who will reach for his gun if you employ the term — is a timber framer with little formal education. Michael is a boat builder and collector of antique tools, all of which he employs in his craft. He can speak for hours on the virtues of Damascus steel, the art of typesetting, or Plato’s conviction that books were a poor substitute for dialogue – and convince the listener that each topic is of burning relevance to his own life.

I also find refreshing a diplomat I know in Tallinn with the courage or courtesy (I’m not sure which) to answer in the affirmative with a one-word response: “Rad.” (Probably only in unofficial communication, as the term has not surfaced in the Wikileaks memos.)

Were I to ever achieve status as a writer to the extent that readers make pilgrimages to my home, I would hope to be a recluse in the manner of Cormac McCarthy, who was once reportedly so aloof that he stowed his mail in the trunk of his car – unopened royalty checks, included, until his agent arrived to cash them for him. Or Pete Dexter or William Gay, modern day Hemingways who can make a fist fight real on the page because they’ve started a few themselves.

And so I should have punched out those fool dandies across the table from me, I know. I should have stood, thrown down my napkin, and declared that they had offended the sensibilities of a Thoreauian.

“To be a philosopher,” I might have crowed, “is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men.”

But, alas, I did not. And perhaps in Estonia, as in America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler (as Gore Vidal told us). And if you think you’re a great thinker then you must say that you are. Perhaps there is nothing American about it? Perhaps it is simply human? If so, I am saddened.


Saturday, March 3, 2012


Just like you, I’m excited to see if Anna-Maria Galojan will be granted political asylum in Great Britain.

I admire her cohones for attempting that maneuver, but I also have to wonder how she found a British attorney willing to take on her case. They don’t work for cheap, and if she hasn’t somehow squirreled away the cash, will she sell her designer clothes on eBay to cover the several hundred pounds sterling per hour she’s being billed? Or is her tab being footed by a political party? And might she appear again in Playboy? Is she considering hosting her own talk show? Will Estonian Public Broadcasting take it, or is it more a thing for Tallinn TV? Or will she keep her current high-profile position as foreign- and energy policy analyst for that elite English-language diary, The Baltic Times?

And in addition to Anna-Maria, what about that ex-Pirita politician who likes to drink coffee in Amps? Did he only have to return the bribe he got? No jail time? Did he lose friends after his conviction? Did the family stay intact? Will we witness his return to politics after finding salvation in Jesus Christ Our Lord? These are the questions which haunt me when I see him in cafes, sipping coffee and laughing with his friends.

And what about the other Estonian businessmen wrapped up in court cases currently? There are the land scandal guys. Will they have to risk homosexual rape in a penal institution? (Does that even happen in EU prisons?) And who’s going to get only the finger wag, sentenced to lay low for six months before actively rejoining business life as a local hero?

And what about the businessman who may or may not have paid someone to whack his associate? I see him weekly at the grocery store, but I can’t bring myself to ask the obvious question. Would “How’s that murder trial going?” be an appropriate question in a culture which prides itself on the lack of small talk?

Growing up in Canada we never had it so good: you could never see your criminal class in the grocery store. Once a person became even scandal material, he retreated completely from public life. You might witness him step outside his home in a bathrobe to pick up the morning paper, but there was far too much peril in shopping or café sitting. But in Estonia it’s like we’re all in one big Catholic marriage: for better or worse, we’re going to make this thing work.

In Canada, there was my scoutmaster, arrested for indecent exposure, caught showing his tool to a group of small boys in a schoolyard. Reportedly, he revealed himself in the classic fashion (raincoat), but the small children were unimpressed. They went about their business on the playground unfazed, even though thousands of dollars was later spent on them for hours of obligatory counseling. And the scoutmaster? It was before the digital era, and so he packed up and moved to another city several hours away, safe for as long as it took a newspaper clipping to follow.

Then there was my tennis coach, sent to prison for fondling an exchange student. Reportedly, the coach had asked for photos of the Scandinavian boy in his underwear in order to evaluate his physical fitness, photos which were duly sent. When the boy arrived, he was the beneficiary of special off-the-court training sessions. The coach, after his release, also moved several hours away to start a new life, hopefully sans his special kind of tennis.

There was the science museum director, tried for keeping someone else’s artifacts at home, and perhaps selling a few on eBay. Until the end, his family maintained his innocence but the court disagreed and he was both bankrupted and jailed by the system. Released early due to ill health, he moved to a new community and died several years later, presumably from the shame of ostracism. His case was so well publicized that he could never again visit the grocery store without enduring shouts of “Shame!”

The moral here? In a country of 34 million people, criminals are disposable.

Having never had the opportunity to see a prison in Canada, in the 1990s I took advantage of an invitation to visit a prison in Estonia. There were no politicians that I can recall, but rather garden-variety thieves and rapists who were serving their sentences in the filth and squalor of pre-EU prisons. And amongst it all a book club to which I had been invited to speak.

We all hit it off quite well, though I only recall that we never talked about books. Among other things, we did talk about their one celebrity prisoner – a foreigner in for drug trafficking – who did not attend the book club. Perhaps it was because he was my acquaintance? Or perhaps it was because he spoke not a word of Estonian, the language of the book club?

After my first visit, I began to receive telephone calls from a couple of the inmates. “How’d you get my number?” I asked. “And how’d you get a phone?”

“We can get anything in prison,” the caller replied.

They could get anything except me to return, which the warden strictly forbade. “This is a prison not some boulevard café,” he told me when the inmates invited me back for a third time. “You just can’t come and go as you please.”

Several years later, one of the inmates was released, and invited me to tour the Patarei with him. He’d served several years there, and his comments made during the tour demonstrated such remarkable knowledge that the guide – a retired guard – was prompted to ask how a tourist could know so much. After the tour the former inmate approached the retired guard, shook his hand, and told him who he was. He had never been guarded by the guard, but had read a book on prison life authored by the man and respected him very much for it.

My newly free friend and I had a coffee together where he told me he’d been admitted to university, which pleased me very much. I loaned him 500 kroons and I never saw him again, not even in the grocery store.

But I know it’s only a matter of time before we meet. In a country so small, not meeting is probably a statistical impossibility. So when we do meet, given the mores of a small society, how am I expected to behave? Must I, like the rest of Estonian society, tacitly welcome him back to the world by pretending the past is water under the bridge? Because – as an Estonian politician once explained to me – in such a tiny society we need everyone we can get. (We often don’t seem to need those in Ida-Virumaa, though that is another story.)

So should I ask him how he’s doing? Did he finish university? Is he gainfully employed? Is he happy? Does he have a wife? Children? Or will I have the cohones to ask what I really want to know: Am I ever going to see my 500 kroons?

I’ve never met Anna-Maria, but I feel like I know her. Via Facebook, I’ve followed her many adventures, where we enjoy many mutual friends. My feeling is that she’s truly destined to have a talk show, and when she does I hope she’ll answer all my burning questions about a public life on the lam. She has 5,000 Facebook friends currently, but has anyone unfriended her since her conviction? Or has this incident, in fact, brought her more friends? Has she ever turned anyone down for friendship?
I’ve not yet tried to friend her. I wonder would she take me seriously? Would she be my friend?

Vello in print.