THIS MONTH has been so hard. The temperature hovers around 0 degrees Celsius. Every day brings a new thaw and then a new freeze. You wake up and everything is either black and wet or white and ice. Weird energies are swirling around everything, both me and the world. The conflict in Ukraine continues, and my own inner peace is evasive. I have written 10 chapters of a new book though, 10 chapters in 17 days. The creative impulse is undaunted, but my soul, my soul is restless and unhappy. I ended ’22 full of hope and bliss, and have since dropped down to the bottom of low. It will take weeks or months to recover from this. Maybe I never will. My grandmother once told me, “Justin, this life is tough, and you have to learn to roll with the punches.” But I am getting tired of the punches and just want to roll. I will try to keep my eye out for some shred of sunlit optimism, but right now, things look bleak. Black and wet, or white and ice. Such is the end of January.
ONE DAY, I stopped into Abbey Road Studios. McCartney was there, as usual. He likes to get in the studio before the rest of his bandmates. He was seated with Linda, and showing her the chords for a song he called, “Don’t Go Chasing Polar Bears.” It seemed odd to me that Linda was still alive and Paul looked so young, and then I realized that it was 1968 all around me. It was also kind of strange that he wouldn’t release that song for another dozen years on McCartney II. The more I looked at Linda though, the more confused I got. Because Linda suddenly looked like my mother, but just as my mother would have looked at that time. What was my mother doing with Paul McCartney in Abbey Road? I left the music studio and went back to my hotel and rode the elevator up to the fourth floor. This turned out to be the same building I had lived in as a freshman in college, Thurston Hall on F Street in Washington, DC. It was just as I had left it, filled with trash and roaming co-eds, like some kind of posh university version of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Dulcinea passed me in the hallway. She looked fine as always, with her straw-coloured hair, but she was chasing a small child, and I could see she was expecting more. “I have twins on the way,” Dulcinea said. She was wearing some kind of creamy Victorian dress, with a corset and full skirt. I felt excited and miserable seeing her all the same. “Well,” I said under my breath, “I hope you are happy now.” I found out later that Dulcinea had been having an affair with her history professor, and that her father had with great haste arrived to the university to shoot him with an old pistol. Dulcinea ran from the whole thing, and nobody knew where she had gone. Probably back to Spain. Later, I recounted the story to some friends at a café. Old Grace Slick herself was there sitting in the corner, listening to my tales of McCartney, Dulcinea, and murderous fathers, and started cackling to herself. “What’s so funny?” I asked the ancient Jefferson Airplane singer. “Life is funny,” she said. “Well, what else do you expect men like me to do,” I said, “when all of you girls are so damn beautiful.”
THIS STARTED WHEN Erland and I were cycling in Norway. We were traveling around and eventually arrived to the M-Fjörd, which had on one side a long, picturesque view of the sea through rings and rings of old pines. I could even draw you a map of the place if you would ever like to go there. We traveled down a gravel road through the pine forest and arrived at what looked like a botanical garden and museum. It might have belonged to some old philanthropist at some point. The kind of place that had been gifted to the state upon his death. Within this old estate, we encountered a red crow with a broken wing that was sprawled across an ancient sun dial. It could no longer fly but it continued to struggle with its wing. Later, we went into the back building and down a set of wooden steps. This led to a dockside bar. There were a lot of young couples sitting around drinking Guinness or glasses of white wine. The place had a New England feel to it, with platters of fried clams on plates with lemon wedges. Suddenly, the whole bar began to rumble and the man at the bar, a younger fellow with dark hair, informed us that we were no longer at the museum, but were actually on a seagoing vessel bound for the east coast of the Americas. Soon we had left the harbor behind and were out on the open sea, somewhere up in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway. Dozens of vessels came through the sea, mostly warships bound for Russia. I was surprised the news had not informed me of this fleet bearing down on Arkhangelsk. There weren’t only American ships. There were Canadian vessels too, and I spotted a few with Scandinavian flags. I went to use the restroom in the boat bar, which was located in a ship’s cabin, and saw on the wall a faded map of Orient Point, Long Island. Was this ship really going to sail all the way to Orient? Erland came into the cabin and said, “You have to get out quick. We’ve been torpedoed. The ship is taking on water!” I looked down and saw that my ankles were already wet and I climbed the steps. We both jumped off into the sea as the boat sank. We were soon rescued by a Swedish vessel passing by, and returned safely to Europe.
IT WAS THANKSGIVING, and the whole family was gathered at a palatial house in the country. It was something like an estate or old manor house, with multiple entrances, stairwells, dining halls, and many floors. The feast was arrayed on long wooden tables, protected with simple white table cloths, and the furniture in general gave one the impression that it had once belonged to a guild of medieval carpenters or perhaps really some Round Table knights. But with all of those platters coming in and out of the kitchens, with all of that racket, with all of the children climbing over and up and on top of everything, I was overcome with panic and went outside. There I lied in the grass, just for a few moments. It was cold, but not so cold that one couldn’t lie in the grass. And that’s when I saw her, with her boughs of red curly hair, cycling away in the distance. I hadn’t thought of Celeste in ages, but she was still cycling around on her white bicycle, running errands, or going places, lurking away on the periphery. Cycling away. I wondered if she had seen me lying in the grass exasperated. I wondered if she ever cared. Her back was to me, and soon her black silhouette disappeared into a hot orange sun. When I went back into the house, most of the feast had already disappeared too. It had all been eaten, and most of the guests had left. There were just hundreds of messy plates and half-drunk glasses of juice and coffee. I was all alone there in the banquet hall. At last, I found a basket full of untouched red plums in the center of a table. Then I took one of the ripe plums and ate it.
I NEED SO LITTLE from the world these days. My heart is reformed and realigned, so fat, plump, warm, and content. What a funny solstice, everything turns, everything is now like this. This is how it works. It comes into you and remakes you over. For just a few shimmering moments on the solstice night, she was the most beautiful person anywhere, who may have ever existed, and maybe even the most beautiful phenomenon in existence. If there were stars in the sky, then she was the brightest and most flaming of them, and if planets could be seen by the naked eye, then hers was the most incandescent. Of course, this phenomenon of love merits study. Love is warm, pulsating. It is not stagnant. Love wants to move, love wants to flow, love goes with the currents. Love is natural and as alive as nature. But what do we do with love, this phenomenon that requires nothing to be done to it? We try to contain it, define it with words and ideas, crank out paperwork and bureaucracy. We forge it into golden and silver rings. We try to make serendipitous and bizarre things out of love, sculptures and buildings. What comes of it? Does love seep into the upholstery? Can you spray yourself with it, like a fine perfume? Does it even deserve a word or words, ideas, concepts, shapes and galleries? Music boxes with a spinning ballerina, fixed in place, that you can take out from time to time and watch and observe? Wax figures on a frosted cake? I could just sweep this all away like chimney ash and reduce it to nothingness, but there is something here. There’s no more reason to talk about it though, this pure and undulating thing. It requires no words. Nothing needs to be done to it or for it. Love fulfils itself. Sometimes though when I see something or hear something, I am reminded of love. I recognize that it exists, just like that red planet in the sky, or those transmitting stars or you, sitting there quietly in a corner. It exists and it emits. I would rather just let it be and breathe, sit and incubate inside of me. I know it will hurt one day, if it is taken away. But we all know that good love never really leaves you. No, never. Good love never leaves. It lingers.
PHIL GROIA WAS MAYBE the best teacher I ever had. He was an expert on 1950s doowop and knew a lot of blues players, like John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal. He taught 9th grade social studies. I remember how we watched the film Gandhi in class, which is over three hours long. A student complained and Groia shot back, ‘Why don’t we watch a three-hour film about your life? I’m sure it would be more interesting!’ A young Groia was on the way to school in 1947 when he heard on the news that Gandhi had been assassinated. The last time I saw Groia was in Port Jefferson around the year 2000. He was complaining about getting harassed by Giuliani’s NYPD, and had befriended a much, much younger woman he met on the train. “I didn’t know how old she was!” he told me. Man, you were larger than life!
He passed away in 2014.
Groia had a longstanding misunderstanding with another teacher, who, incidentally, also did not like me very much. One day Groia took me aside and said, “Don’t listen to him. He’s not even a conservative Republican. He’s to the right of fascist.” This was probably how I was sorted into the left wing. I could have become another fascist, easily, but Groia intervened, like a liberal guardian angel.
Groia also liked to talk about his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s. He was born circa 1940 himself. Back then, in the Truman era, they would get small milk containers (you know the kind, in tiny cartons, the standard containers you get in public school) with their meals. But Groia and his classmates would weaponize the milk and launch the containers over the fence at other unsuspecting classmates at recess. They made good milk bombs, he said.
Because of his interest in doowop, Groia was at times invited to high profile events. He was the author of, “They All Sang on the Corner: A Second Look at New York City’s Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups” (1983). He described being basically the only white person at one event, where he was seated next to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Supposedly, he and Chuck D got on quite well. I wish I had been there.
After the ridiculous excesses of the 1980s, the ’90s were a time of sobriety and/or dark drugs, nihilism, and serious dudes wearing black clothing. Dayglo, hair metal, Lacoste, and acid wash were out, black turtlenecks and The X-Files were in. Groia would wear a black turtleneck and sit at the head of the room with his coffee cup talking about Gandhi. He no doubt drank his coffee black, as he was such a serious dude. The inscription on the cup read, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”
I HAVE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED for writing about my ancestry by numerous people, but I decided to write one more post. This post is called “One-Eighth Canadian.” It so happened that years ago in New York, I was out drinking with my friend Patrick O’Connor and a couple of floozies at the bar inquired if I happened to be the prime minister of Canada. I told them no, but explained that there is a reason that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and I look alike: we both have Canadian blood.
The Canadian blood in me runs thick, sweet, and deep, like freshly tapped maple syrup. Long ago during the inter-Anglo conurbation referred to by Americans as the Revolutionary War, some of my predecessors chose the wrong side and decided to make haste for the wilds of Canada, leaving behind New York for good, or so they thought. They made their home on the shores of Lake Ontario where for several generations, I imagine, they were quite cold. They were joined there by Irish from Ulster and English from County Durham and the West Country. They had boring English-sounding names and were Methodists, I think. While not attractive, they still had plenty of sex.
Many children were made.
Then, in the later years of the 19th century, a roving moulder or foundry worker named Frank, married the daughter of a machinist in Detroit. Her name was Annabelle. They had only daughters and one son and for whatever reason relocated to the Hochelaga district in Montreal around the year 1900. Here they briefly changed the family name to “Millar” and then back to “Menagh.” As most of the documents from that time are in French, I thought they were all chefs, but it turned out that “chef” just meant “head of household” up in Québec.
Arl was one of the daughters. She married a fellow named Sinclair but then was divorced “pour cause d’adultère” in around the year 1910. Alphonse was the son. He held various odd jobs. In 1911, he was a “colleur,” whatever that means (internet search engines translate it as both “billposter” and “examiner”). He had also recently married a sharpshooter from a Wild West show named Lucy, who was actually from New York. She had pearl-handled pistols. This detail remains.
They had two sons and relocated to New York by the year 1920, for sure. But then Lucy died in the flu epidemic. Her sister Genevieve married the Canadian, and had five more children, one of whom was my grandmother, also called Annabelle. She’s the one who married the Italian, Abbatecola, who lived in the same community in Queens. And so the Canadian blood was diluted, first by New York Irish, and then by first-generation Italians. But the maple still runs strong. There is an affinity there, an unbreakable bond, a fondness for red things with leaves embroidered on them and silly hats. As an old Québécois once told me over croissants, if a person has a drop of Canadian blood in them, just a drop, then that person is a Canadian. Who am I to argue?
ALMOST EVERY MORNING, I have coffee with Mati in town. We have no set arrangement; we just happen to visit the same cafe when it opens. Mati likes to drink his coffee black and gets it refilled in his own half-broken mug. I typically have a cappuccino. We look quite different. He looks like an old painter, with his long beard. But we are growing more similar over time. We both make absurd jokes to the women behind the counter who smile but don’t understand us. I must admit that sometimes, most times, actually, I don’t understand Mati’s jokes. He tells me that I am incapable of understanding them though because I am not a native Estonian speaker.
“Your small Indo-European mind is incapable of understanding the deep nuances of Estonian,” Mati has said. He may be right. If my Indo-European mind is so different, how could I ever grasp the intelligence of the Baltic Finns?
These are the kinds of conversations you have in Estonia though. In the United States, I don’t recall having these kinds of conversations. What did we even talk about when I lived back in America? For starters, I never even thought of myself as being back in America. America was a vast, sprawling entity, consisting of different regional identities, each with its own history. One commonality in American thought though, is the idea that the United States is a kind of great social project. More than being a country, consisting of the people who live there, America is an idea, a concept, and the United States is supposed to be the greatest country to ever exist, or so I am told.
As such, a lot of American discourse revolves around how this greatest country disappoints, or has not yet lived up to its promise. This is why you have these strange far-right vigilante groups, like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys who ransacked the Capitol when Trump lost the election. On the left side of the spectrum it’s the same. How can the greatest country in the world have once enslaved a sizable part of its population? Could it be that it is actually not so great? We are all living in an imaginary world, where a mythical America has been promised to us. When we gather together at cafes, people talk about how the country is going in the wrong way. And baseball. Nobody talks about the small minds of Indo-Europeans, or ancient Finnic beliefs.
Estonia instead is very tribal and that word rahvas, which gets translated as “people” or “nation” seems to have some greater meaning that I can’t fully intuit, given my own pathetic Indo-European roots. When someone says that a person is of different ethnicities, or nationalities, or peoples, for Estonians, it’s almost as if a cow and a pig got together and had a baby. A Norwegian? And a Greek? Got together? And had children? I don’t understand what the reason for the surprise is. Even in the town where I live, a new race of Estonian children has emerged, who are half Swedish, half Japanese, half Argentinian, half Ghanaian. As I have predicted, in the future, the most popular Estonian names will be Trochynskyi, Keränen, and Petrone.
Of course, to be an Estonian, they say all you have to do is know the Estonian language. Once you speak Estonian, you become one of them, in which case, I am well on my way to becoming a member of this superior race, the Estonians, the Finns, the Karelians and Veps. I find it funny that the word for language and tongue are the same: keel. Estonians might say that someone has “keel suus,” meaning they know the language. But in English, this would translate as the person has a tongue in their mouth. Mati keeps telling me over coffee, but you still don’t have the Estonian tongue in your mouth, “Sul pole veel eesti keel suus.” I tell Mati that I have had plenty of Estonian tongues in my mouth, just not my own tongue. This makes him laugh so hard that he nearly chokes on his drink and even has to wipe away a tear of joy.
“Oh, you Indo-Europeans,” says Mati, “with your stupid Indo-European jokes.”
12 NOON, AN ESTONIAN CAFE. The last dispatch for the time being, as my attention returns to work and creative projects and other things. Traveling is a good way to shake up one’s perspective, even in going to a country as close and as similar as Finland is to Estonia. I forget that while Finland is about five or six times larger than Estonia, and has had a less complicated story of statehood, it’s still a small country. Helsinki feels like a metropolis, and there is a certain kind of local aristocracy, or at least wealthy old families, but it’s still the capital city of a nation of 6 million. Helsinki also has a stronger Scandinavian influence, and I don’t even mean official bilingualism, but just seeing the name “Vasa” here and there, or encountering the Swedish Theatre at the head of the Esplanaadi. In Tallinn, we have the Russian Theatre across from Freedom Square. Finns are not exactly a friendly, outgoing people, but they are at least polite in their indifference. In Estonia, one thing I noticed on the train was that people seemed a bit brusquer, or just annoyed by each other. I didn’t notice this on the trams in Helsinki. People keep to themselves, but I do get anxious on the trains here, that I might overstep some invisible boundary and get a lecture on what is “normal” and what is “not normal.” Yesterday I went to a restaurant and got the feeling that the server was doing me a major favor by even taking my order. I understand that most of these workers do this work temporarily, that it doesn’t pay well, and that they would rather be somewhere else, but it’s still a restaurant, and there is a menu, and it’s open. Do you want my money or not? Of course, that’s just one instance of shitty service. Actually, it snowed the day before I got back, and I begged them to change my tires the next morning. They relented and offered me 8 am, and I put my phone to charge, with the plan to set the alarm. I fell asleep within second. When I noticed the light behind the curtains, it was already 8.20 am. I had a strange dream that I had gone outside to put the winter tires in my car, but in my underwear. So, there I was, half naked and standing in the snow, when a whole bunch of mardisandid showed up seeking candy. This is a holiday in November somewhat similar to Halloween where girls and boys dress up like Saint Martin and go around telling riddles and singing songs in exchange for candy. I let these little Saint Martins serenade me and challenge me with riddles and dispensed the chocolate. Then one of their mothers, whom I did not recognize, showed some interest in me, and so I wound up cuddling with one of the Saint Martins’ mothers in a wood barn. She was a fine woman, with curly brown hair. Attractive, I guess. Everything was quite affectionate, if not a little weird, until I woke up and realized that I was late for the tire appointment. I went there and the mechanic was quite understanding and friendly. When I went to pay, he presented me with one of my books and requested my autograph. How strange, to come from a country where no one knew me to one to one where even the mechanics knew me. I didn’t know what to think about it. Then another driver, a middle-aged woman who was quite cute and rosy-cheeked had a bit of a country lilt to her voice came up and asked if she could get her tires changed within an hour and the good-humored mechanic assured her that she could. There were nice people in this land, I thought, and whatever the history had been, they had always been here, getting their tires changed, and wagon wheels before that. I left feeling rather content and relaxed about things.