Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Being Rein Lang’s Bitch

A lot of art is boring read the tshirt that I stumbled across in a secondhand shop. I immediately imagined wearing it to gallery openings. But it was size “S”, so small only a child could have worn it.

When Kendergate broke, I thought of that tshirt and realized I could have presented it to Kaur on his first day at work. It’s his mantra on a tshirt, if he really did say Culture is boring shit. But I realized that if the tshirt didn’t fit me, then it would have had no chance of fitting a muscled Kaur. But maybe he could have held it up for a photo in the manner of a star football player who has just signed with a new club?

When Kaur got the editor’s job, I felt some pangs of jealousy. Why hadn’t Rein Lang called me? I mean, I wouldn’t mind the job. I might have agreed to be Lang’s editorial bitch, his kukk, his petuh with a pen.

Because what writer would not mind a steady paycheck once in a while? You can feed me all the Freedom House reports you want, but having personally seen the thickness of the divide between the editorial and publishing sides, the so called separation of church and state, I am not disillusioned. My rose-colored glasses were long ago crushed under the heel of a jackboot.

Personally, I believe that culture doesn’t have to be boring shit, though I suspect anything funded by the government does have to be boring shit. At least it has to eventually become it. This is the law of dancing to the tune of the one who paid the band.

At my most skeptical I wonder what are the opportunities for a reader to find great stimulation in any of the dozen publications funded by SA Kultuurileht – Sirp, Akadeemia, Diplomaatia, Keel ja Kirjandus, Kunst.ee, Looming, Loomingu Raamatukogu, Muusika, Teater.Muusika.Kino, Täheke, Vikerkaar, ja Õpetajate Leht.

If I’m to believe what I read in the newspaper then editors of some of these publications are crying out for strategic direction from the board, a board which is painted as a political tool. Even if everyone could work toward the same goal, or even just get along, I wonder if bureaucracy can possibly enable writing worth reading.

As Rein Lang’s bitch I would have expected a warm spot for a livable wage that would allow me to tinker with other projects (my “art,” let’s call it). Give me my little piece of the state’s 7.7 billion euro budget, seven hundred euros or so per month. Give me a ten-year old computer, free parking, all the drip coffee I can drink, and allow me to disappear to junkets and trainings as often as I can get them. And let me take off work anytime I have a runny nose, or when it’s the season to help grandma make apple juice. There is something to be said for that lifestyle.

At one point I had imagined a cartoon which might have run in a newspaper: Rein Lang bigger than life with a prison shiv in his hands. On the shiv’s blade is written “SA Kultuurileht.” Lang is protecting his turf, spinning and slashing at the encroaching editors of his twelve publications. The text in his speech bubble: You're all my bitches now!

But it didn’t work out that way. Literally everybody just said fuck it and walked away. (Dombrovskis, too, though he was unwilling, at least publicly, to connect it to Sirp.)

When Lang resigned, I worried about Kaur. Surgeons are prima donnas by nature, and I accepted that one would not begin carving up a publication without his own anesthesiologist by his side. But I figured, in Lang’s absence, that Kaur’s dream team would all get the axe as soon as there was an open competition for the editor-in-chief’s job. Those poor bastards, I thought, they gave up whatever warm place they had for what would likely turn out to be a four-month gig to be publicly dissected under the scratched loop of a hypersensitive intelligentsia.

Writing isn’t a great “job” in any sense, and many successful western writers I know openly advise their kids to grow up to be lawyers or accountants. And for Estonian writers who shun the taxpayer’s money, life in the private sector of such a small market is much less lucrative than in the west. In Estonia, your bestseller and two euros will get you a cup of coffee.

I stand in awe of Estonian editors who are able to fill magazines and newspapers with stories, since what they’re able to pay is attractive mostly to those who write for god and country, or to those who write because their mothers will cut the article out and put it on the fridge.

When editors can pay from zero to a couple of hundred euros (at best) for a story, the editor-writer relationship trades on an ugly currency: personal favors. It creates a world where a freelancer cannot earn a decent living, and writers make ends meet by running guns, cooking meth, or writing for advertising agencies.

Speaking purely as a reader, I was excited by Kaur’s appointment. I like the idea that such an unapologetic shit-stirrer would take the helm of a magazine. Any magazine.

The fact is that a good magazine editor doesn’t go looking to administrative bodies to find direction. He doesn’t build his content based on consensus. A good magazine is led by the editor. Kaur seemed to indicate the willingness to take that responsibility and the heaps of abuse that go with it.

(Yes, I’m aware some say it was all an elaborate prank, meant only to kick sand in the eyes of intellectual establishment. I have no way of knowing, but I can still like the idea of Kaur as editor.)

Did Kaur have the academic and literary credentials for Sirp? What should those credentials be? (Do I have them?) Estonians do seem obsessed with higher education, though I tend to think that if you can write you can write. But don’t misunderstand me: a diploma does have value to a writer. For one thing, he can wipe his ass with it if times get tough.

I was at the R-Kiosk in Viru Keskus at nine a.m. on the Friday when Kaur’s first Sirp came out. Alas, they were sold out, and so instead of reading Sirp I meandered upstairs to Rahva Raamat where I purchased Mihkel Mutt’s Kooparahvas Läheb Ajalukku.

I bought myself a morning whiskey and cracked Mutt’s book.

And I found Estonia’s entire cast of characters there in Mutt’s cave: the intelligentsia, artists, the businessmen, the politicians . . . and they were all mulling over my question.

“But aren't the Party and the government our sponsors?” asked a doubting voice.

“Are you crazy?! They fucking hate us.”

Over at the Rahva Raamat checkout, I noticed an Estonian cultural icon raising a fuss because they did not stock a coffee table book he wanted about the six breeds of hairless cats. I recognized him as one of the intellectuals who had taped his mouth shut and posed for Eesti Ekspress.

At that point, I would have liked to raise my glass to wish Kaur luck. But since there was no one left to drink to, I just drank.

And that’s of course what we readers are left with: to just go drink. That, and to grapple with the question raised by Mikk Salu in Postimees on November 29:

“Who'll answer the questions about what we want – more readability and higher circulation where we invest more in marketing. Or do we want quality and put the money into paying writers?"

Who’ll answer? We’ll answer. We the readers. And maybe this is Mikk’s real question: Is there any one of those twelve Kultuurileht publications that are so damned good you really look forward to its arrival in your mailbox? Any of them that you’re willing to wake up early for and rush to R-kiosk? Or would you prefer to just sleep in?


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Monday, November 11, 2013

Indigo Child

Public speaking is supposedly the average person’s greatest fear. Mine used to be getting a haircut in a country where I don’t speak the language. That’s been replaced by a fear of shopping with my son Robert and him demanding we get one of those shopping carts with the yellow car attached to it.

If you’ve ever used one of them, you know that the wheelbase’s relationship to the track is so out of kilter that you don’t push the cart but wrestle it. “It’s like navigating hairpin turns in a double decker stretch Hummer towing a horse trailer,” wrote Marc Cozza and Rebecca Cohen in their aptly titled blog, Whoever Designed this is an A**hole. After 20 minutes of shopping you’ve got spondylolisthesis so bad you require hospitalization. You suffer pain for weeks, all in the name of pleasing a little kid.

I’ve developed a number of techniques to distract Robert from the car shopping cart. We walk past every store entrance until I see through the window that only regular shopping carts are available.

If Robert sees a car shopping cart, I then tell him they’re too dangerous: 24,000 American children are injured each year in shopping cart accidents (they're hit by them in parking lots, but why split hairs?).

Another technique is to shout at him like an angry Russian mother as soon as he points at the car. “Paidjom!” Or I can run ahead of him and yell, “Idi sudá!” This visibly perturbs Estonians who see me as the shale mining lumpen they wish would move further east. Russian proles are not bothered, but I notice the educated class will attempt to hide themselves. But it makes little Robert convulse with laughter. To him, there’s nothing funnier than dad’s bad Russian.

I’m not saying that thrilling Robert with a 30-minute ride isn’t worth throwing my back out for, but once Robert gets in the car cart, he’ll inevitably get bored with it and be on his feet in three minutes, me left to pilot the awkward barge for the remainder of the shopping experience.

Once on his feet, Robert begins singling out fellow shoppers, usually of recognizable professions, blocking them with his body to demand they identify themselves: “Kes oled?”

“Soldier,” the man in BDUs answers.

“Fireman,” replies the man in giant boots.

Sometimes Robert complicates things by selecting someone for his “kes oled?” who appears no different than the rest of us. Like the balding, overweight man he chose last week.

The man paused a second before answering “Politician.”

Robert literally scratched his head. “What’s that?”

“We’re the people you hate as a class but make exception to as individuals.” It was likely his stock answer, but it was election season and maybe the man just needed to get it off his chest. Although the explanation was over Robert’s head, he stood a while and gazed at the man. I wondered if he was somehow sympathizing with him? And whether I should step in and make him stop.

Just the other day friends were in our kitchen bemoaning Centre Party’s overwhelming victory in Tallinn. They seemed truly dumbstruck that Tallinners had elected Edgar for another term, even though most of them admitted to not having voted. As justification some offered an argument Russell Brand made in a recent interview: that voting is “tacit complicity” in the crimes of the ruling class. But when voter turnout is only 58 percent, it seems that if more people bothered to vote, the result might just be different. It’s hard to say if Edgar is the The People’s Choice, but there’s no question he’s The Choice of The People Who Voted. Robert had witnessed this kitchen discussion and remained silent. I wondered how much he had understood, since there were no Jedi knights or Hot Wheels cars involved.

As Robert stood staring up at the politician, I saw what I wanted to interpret as a wry smile come over his face. He reached out, extending a tiny hand to the balding man, who gently took it. “Who’s that?” Robert demanded, pointing his free hand at an approaching bearded young man.

“Non-voter,” the politician replied, hardly missing a beat.

“What’s that?” came Robert’s standard follow up.

“Part of the problem instead of part of the solution.”

This politician cannot be real, I thought. I couldn’t recall which party he represented, and made a mental note to look it up when we got home.

As we drove home with a car full of groceries, Robert looked out the window at the dark October sky and cooed, “Hey, moon, don’t follow me. Go away, moon.” Sometimes kids floor you with their observations and unknowing wit.

I wondered for a moment if it hadn’t been Robert who supplied the wit to the supermarket politician, subconsciously beaming witticisms into the man’s bald, yet otherwise empty, dome. What if Robert is one of the indigo children that my wife Liina likes to talk about, the super-empathetic next stage in human evolution, the children who will supposedly save us from ourselves?

But then, still looking out the window, Robert began to sing. It was an Estonian song I’d never heard before, a very serious drama about a pair of trousers: “Mamma mia, mamma mia. Anna püksid kohe siia.”

I figured it was smart not to report any of this to Liina. If Robert’s chat with the politician could be interpreted as him being indigo, then it followed that the simple-minded trousers song was evidence of the politician hijacking Robert’s mind.

Better to avoid supermarkets altogether, I thought. Avoid politicians, too. Perhaps Russell Brand was right. Better to reject the world, hermit ourselves away in a comfortable place until that day arrives when society somehow better meets our expectations.


Vello's new book is available in Estonian. Or the old standby in English.

Friday, August 30, 2013

"Tantramees" now in finer Estonian bookshops

Not yet available in English, regrettably.
You can also order it here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What Robert Can Do

“How old is your son? Three? My son was reading by then! Learned his alphabet at age two.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a similar story forced on me in a public playground. The parents are perhaps well meaning, proud of their own, but I have to wonder just how much of it is fiction. Because if your three year old can really read, shouldn’t he be over at the university enrolled in a philosophy course, instead of sitting under the swing set rubbing dog feces all over his face?

“Oh, your kid isn’t potty trained yet? My daughter was potty trained at six months.”

It’s tough to be a parent of a three year old who has not yet done anything extraordinary by society’s standards. My little Robert does not play violin, is not a chess Grand Master, and has not won the Ironman. He has not developed a popular iPhone app, nor has he made his first million.

What he can do with remarkable aptitude is crush snails he finds in the garden. He can stand on his father’s wheelbarrow and load a recycling machine with enough empty beer bottles to recoup ten euros in just a few minutes. He can urinate on his mother’s strawberries and remain silent when she eats them directly from the vine.

These achievements aren’t going to allow me to win a pissing match with most other parents. The need for one’s own child to be superior is surely as ancient and inevitable as prostitution. One either elects to participate in the game or remains silent. I’m still struggling to decide which route to take.

“My child attends the school where the president's child goes. Where does your child go?” She was 30-something, well dressed in that Eastern European way, which is to say every thread that covered her body had a designer label.

“What good fortune,” I was tempted to say, “that your child’s ass touches the same toilet ring as the president’s child.” Instead I settled for a “You must be so proud.” But my sarcasm went unnoticed.

“He’s also enrolled in a course to prepare him for state exams so that he can get into a very good grade school,” she continued.

I suppose I’m just beginning to get a taste of what’s in store as Robert grows older. Tiger moms will boast of their sons’ legitimate chances at solving Goldbach’s conjecture, while my boy struggles with multiplication tables. Tiger dads (do they call them that?) will live vicariously through their black belt sons kicking the crap out of mine.

If this is the case I’m going to have to hole up and avoid other parents, or else seek out the parents of underachievers. Are they the ones who encourage their children to play games where there are no winners or losers? Or push their kids to take up harmonic hobbies like choir singing and ballroom dancing? Or those who send their kids to camps where “Kumbaya” is still sung around the fire?

For dealing with tiger parents, I’ve begun to experiment with a kneejerk response about craniometrics, which I offer free of charge to you, fellow parent. You are welcome to help stuff a sock in the mouths of those who desperately need it.

My tactic is to pretend to seriously mull over the mother’s boast that her three-year-old has mastered all 24 Paganini Caprices or conquered the Seven Summits, all the time studying the shape of the child’s head. “You know,” I say, rubbing my chin, “psychopaths and criminals have smaller amygdala and prefrontal cortexes than other children. Have you had your child checked out?”

While she’s processing that, I add that the chair of the criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania (the president's alma mater, don’t forget to mention) can identify brain markers which allow people to progress to become rapists, arsonists, and ax murderers.

It generally only takes a few seconds for the mother to find a reason to relocate her child to the other side of the playground (“Oh, look, stagnant water!”), and you’ll never hear again about her ballerina daughter who’s destined for the Mariinsky.

While I’m polishing my phrenology approach, I’ve also started to prepare myself in case Robert does not get admitted to one of those elite schools with its own swimming pool, iPads for every kid, and an annual government-funded trip to the Louvre with dinner afterwards at Maxim’s.

I am trying to get comfortable with the fact that Robert’s school may be like one I toured a couple of year’s back in Mustamäe: paint flaking off the walls, windows that don’t close all the way, and no heliport on the roof for students arriving from Viimsi.

I’m starting to practice the recitation of truisms like “All I want is for my son to be happy,” and “I just want my son to be healthy.”

But of course I also desire that Robert is not a burden on society. I don’t want him to be homeless, and I don’t want him to be a pickpocket, arsonist, or real estate developer.

From what I’ve seen so far, I think he might become some kind of humanitarian. Robert exhibits a palpable concern for other children. He worries about an orphan mitten we pass in the park. “Daddy, boy lost a mitten,” he says. “Boy’s hand cold.” He doesn’t stop repeating it until I assure him that the boy’s mother knitted a new one. “Boy still sad, Daddy,” he remarks, until he notices the redheaded girl on the slipper slide, the one who’s on the list of Child Prodigies So Amazing They'll Ruin Your Day.

Robert runs toward her shouting her name. When they meet they hug, and start to play. Then the mother sees me and whisks the little genius away. “Why’d she go, Daddy?” Robert asks. “It was her mitten,” I say. “She went to get it.” And this fills him with joy, so much joy that he’d wet his pants if I didn’t distract him with a snail in the grass that needs a proper crushing.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Pardon Me, I’m Amish

It happens often.

“What’s your number?” I ask a corporate thirty-something PR chick, for whom I am producing a brochure on how corporate social responsibility will save the planet, or at least ease the consciences of some smug, carbon-footprint-producing white people in one tiny corner of it. “I’ll call you, and then we’ll have each others’ numbers.” I remove my phone and input +372.

“What’s that?” She is visibly baffled.

“That’s the country code.”

“No, your phone.”

“It’s, uh, a phone.”

“You don’t have a smart phone? Really?”

But by the third time it happened I’d learned how to avoid a long explanation: “It’s verboten. I’m Amish.”

She gives me a strange look, so I follow up. “You know, the Ordnung. Gelassenheit. Gottes wille.”

Although half of the mobile-phone-using population is still using dumbphones, disbelief is still a common occurrence when I whip out my mobile. Which explains why I know a hell of lot more about being Amish than I know about smartphones.

There are a quarter million of us scattered across the globe, most of us in North America. We speak a Swiss German dialect, though some of you gentiles insist on calling it Dutch. Our Ordnung, or rules, prescribe limitations on use of power-line electricity, automobiles, and of course, smartphones. Those who cannot conform are excommunicated, or at least shunned. Our formal education is discontinued at age 13. We value rural life, manual labor, and humility. Men wear hats when outside, black in winter, straw in summer. We wear suspenders, not belts, and all our clothing is home sewn. We grow beards but shave our upper lips, since mustaches have historically been associated with military officers. If you haven’t met an Amish person, then you’ve at least seen us in the movies.

“You mean, like, ‘Witness’?” the PR chick will gasp.

Indeed. Thanks to the 1985 Hollywood film, being Amish is cooler than ever. The film’s actors included real-life Amish sex bombs such as Viggo Mortensen and Kelly McGillis (though, admittedly, she is no longer hot, having aged about as well as a Russian peasant).

As one of the few Amish persons in the Nordic region, I am often sought out by journalists to give comment on technology and its encroachment on my people’s way of life.

How does a paper calendar work? Can one safely sharpen a pencil with a penknife? Is that a real alarm clock?! Show me your straight razor! Gentile television crews often come around to film Liina drawing water from the well by hand, or me carving a nativity set for little Robert from the tree in our yard that was struck by lightning. Often they want to see me composing columns – like this one you are reading – on a manual typewriter. And they always ask for my thoughts on the evils of the modern world.

One well-known Estonian tech guru recently posted a photograph on Facebook of an iPad advertisement in Time magazine. The back cover advertisement was a shrunken down version of the front cover, showing that the magazine is available on the iPad mini. The guru noted also that Newsweek breathed its last print words in the language of its conqueror, Twitter: #LASTPRINTISSUE.

When I, as an Amish man with a primitive mobile phone, am asked about this, I explain that despite my love for the writing of Fareed Zakaria, printed Newsweek is dead not because of the internet, but because its editorial content sucks. If Time dies, too, it will not be because print as a medium is dead (to the contrary: witness success of The Economist or the Financial Times), but because its content is boring, and its mostly second-rate writing was long ago eclipsed by more progressive, interesting publications. Newsweek was the magazine of my youth, just as the Saturday Evening Post was the magazine of my father’s. Both publications are dead and no one’s the poorer. Ironic but true, “Time” and “Newsweek,” much like “Reagan” and “Thatcher,” are names more cherished in Estonia than they are in the west. Shed a tear if you must, but to declare an entire industry dead may be premature.

I of course also remind the gentile TV people that with the advent of both radio and television, the death of print was foreseen and, like the end of the world (which was also bought into by another prominent Estonian tech guru) did not come to pass. But follow your gurus if you must.

Admittedly, we Amish are traditionalists. You will find no full-length mirrors in my home since they promote vanity and self-admiration. Liina and I wear no jewelry, not even wedding bands. What you might consider a monastic existence enables we Amish to see the world more clearly. And I have to admit it gives me a sober perspective when working for gentile clients who wish to foist their products – and their system of beliefs – on the rest of the world.

“But you have a telephone!“ a PR chick will inevitably remark. “Is that not worldly?”

We Amish do not shun all of your worldly, gentile developments. Word processors are allowed in our schools, though not in homes. Batteries are allowed. Mobile vehicles are fine, as long as they do not have rubber tires, though the Ordnung allows me to hire a taxi when traveling on business. Gasoline generators may provide energy for washing machines, water pumps, and agricultural equipment. And, yes, cellular phones and voice mail, may be used by a business to compete, though these are permitted on a case by case basis.

It may amuse you that my jacket fastens with hooks (not buttons), but our clothing is considered to be an expression of humility, simplicity, and non-conformity. Visit New York City’s Diamond District any workday morning to watch the yellow school buses disgorge workers, and you will see yet another fine example of a traditional culture operating both outside and inside of yours.

I am sure that one day I will also own a smartphone, the day when it becomes a necessary tool to exist in your world. But the rules of my people prescribe that a our telephone must be kept in a booth or an unlocked barn, and this has not yet handicapped Liina and I in a way we cannot compete in the modern world. The lack of a smartphone constantly in my pocket helps me draw the boundaries between work and home. The Ordnung keeps our social fabric intact: no laborious work is ever done on Sunday.

“There must be something you miss?” the PR chick will ultimately exclaim, perhaps expecting me to mention Dolce & Gabbana, Cheezits, or televised football.

This is the point where I explain my fascination with the hairless body of a gentile woman, the Amish male’s secret longing for a woman with shaved armpits.

Goosebumps will form visibly on her bare arm. Momentarily, she will avert her eyes. She will suffer shortness of breath, perhaps stutter. And then her smartphone will ring, saving her from an awkward moment.

Vello holds forth on other topics here.