how bizarre; or, the plan to dose hanson

SOME (MUCH YOUNGER) PERSON here has put together a circa 1999 playlist at the café where I write. And so I am revisited by “How Bizarre” by OMC, “MMMBop” by Hanson, “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals, and “Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop. Basically, what was playing in the music store where I worked in ’97 – ’99. We marked up those one-hit-wonder compact discs something mighty. I think OMC’s disc was selling for something ridiculous like $17.99. If it was really in demand, like KORN (but with a backwards R) it might be $18.99. The dream was that some local oligarch would walk in on Friday night half-drunk on whatever, stinking of cigar smoke, and buy out the whole lot. We sold a lot of that Elton John remake of “Candle in the Wind” after Princess Diana died, and, of course, all of the Notorious BIG and Tupac posthumous releases (DMX has now joined them). Hip hop was really gory then. I remember DMX’s album was called Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. This was not Run-DMC or Public Enemy.

As I see it, the late ’90s were a time when pop music was just a bit more open to new sounds than it had been throughout the ’80s. I wasn’t around in the ’70s — well, for a few weeks — but ’80s pop was less DIY. Everything from Duran Duran to Bananarama to New Order and Depeche Mode seemed so overproduced, and most of the post-glam rock was the same. Even their hair was overproduced. It was the era of overproduction. The idea of some guy making songs in his basement and becoming a big star didn’t really happen until Nirvana broke down the gates, and all of those “alternative” acts came flooding in. Beck arrived with “Loser,” and it actually got played on the radio. That didn’t happen in 1989. In 1989, we had Phil Collins and Billy Joel, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cher and Rick Astley.

There was no “Loser.”

But afterward, you saw these pop groups start to bubble to the surface, and they brought with them guitar-driven, self-composed songs. Hanson were three brothers from Oklahoma. New Radicals was really one person, who wrote and produced all the material. Cornershop was an actual band, with a riff-driven pop song that vaguely resembled some of the material that came out in the very distant halcyon days of the late 1960s. Even Smash Mouth arrived and dared to do a farfisa solo on a record, and it sold amazingly well. They covered The Monkees (!) The doors were again open. You could basically do anything, and if you got lucky, you could be a success.

The late ’90s were a very funny time, I think, in retrospect. The music was ridiculous. The adoration and obsession with celebrities was overboard. The movies — Rushmore, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club — were only getting better and more prescient. And there were all of these teenagers growing up, just a few years younger than me, who seemed much more potent as a collective force. You saw them on these shows like Total Request Live hosted by Carson Daly. It seemed like there were just billions of teenagers all of a sudden eager to buy Backstreet Boys and Eminem records. It was like Baby Boomers, Part II.

I remember talking to one kid at the music store who tried to convince me that Third Eye Blind were the second coming of the Beatles. This was in 1997, so he was maybe 14 or 15. I thought, “Are you joking?!” But he was dead serious. He was walking around with an acoustic guitar slung on his back and claimed to know how to play all of their songs.

PS. I was working with Max, a hippie traveler John Coltrane devotee who was 10 years older than me, in the shop, and we used to joke that Hanson was actually like the 1990s version of the Beatles. Max hit upon the idea that we should slip some LSD into Hanson’s fruit juice, and that they would subsequently produce the 1990s version of Sgt. Pepper’s. We schemed to produce tie-dye t-shirts showing Hanson swimming in trippy psychedelic colors with the slogan, “Dose Hanson.”

I still wish I had made those shirts.

northman ventures

I WAS BEING FOLLOWED, and by an American. I knew he was an American because his eyes were somehow livelier and more naïve than a European’s, yet also infused with a hint of skepticism, distrust, even a slight confusion, as if he truly did not believe in Europe, and that I also must be up to no good if I had moved to such a place and started such a life here. He was dressed casually and his dark curly hair was much longer in the back, leading me to refer to him as the “Man with the Mullet.” I would notice him milling about the corridors of the office building where I work in the Old Town, which also happens to house the offices of Northman Ventures, a major client. I assumed he represented another firm. This is in an old European city made of solid prewar buildings and, indeed, ours used to be a Swedish textile factory. Sometimes I would see the Man with the Mullet there and he would looked at me in passing as if he knew what I was doing. Unfortunately, for both of us, I had no idea what that was. This went on for several weeks, the run-ins with the Man with the Mullet. One day, when I was certain he was not around, I went by the office building to retrieve a few things. I parked in front and went up the white stone steps. A large van roared up in front and several men jumped out, led by the strange mulleted man. They charged into the building and began removing all the paperwork they could from the offices of Northman Ventures where I had a desk. “What’s this all about? Do you guys even have a warrant?” I said. They ignored me and continued to load the van with boxes. The Man with the Mullet then addressed me. “Did you illegally download music on Napster in the year 2000?” “Sure, I did. But everybody was using Napster in those days.” “Our records show that you downloaded all of De La Soul’s album Stakes Is High. And also, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. Do you deny this to be the case?” “I think I copied those from a friend.” “You’re in violation of of US copyright law,” said the Man with the Mullet. “But so is everybody! We all did it. Everyone had Napster back in 2000.” “You will soon receive a summons and court date,” he said before getting in the van. “But this isn’t even the US! I don’t live in the US anymore!” “You can tell that to the judge,” he said. After the federal agents left, I noticed they had also taken my pants. So I was left standing there in my long gray coat holding my briefcase which, interestingly, they had not confiscated. I went to take the elevator up. I felt troubled inside, wondering if I would really be jailed for using Napster while I was in college. I got into the old-fashioned, creaking elevator and Liv came in and sat beside me. She was the little sister of one of the owners. She had just had her blonde hair cut in a fringe, and was happy to see me. “But what’s the matter with you?” she said. “You seem really worried. Why are you so melancholic?” “We were just raided by US federal copyright agents for something I did in college,” I said. “And also, I’m not wearing any pants.” “Aha,” said Liv. “Now, I see.” Liv put her warm hands under my coat and gave my thigh a squeeze.

saint naram’s

WHEN THE SNOWS had at last thawed, and the water levels risen, all of the streets of the town were flooded, and locals took to traveling from shop to shop on flat-bottomed boats, turning this provincial backwater into a Venice on the Baltic. I had been signed up for some kind of book-related event, but honestly I hadn’t paid much attention to whatever it was my agent was talking about. Things took a more serious turn when Lata showed up and told me that she was the one they had selected to interview me. The producers it seems didn’t know that we had been lovers. She was perfectly cast, actually, we were about the same age, and she was also a journalist, or at least a former one. There were two couches, two water bottles, two microphones. Everything was ready to go. But first, I had to slip into something more appropriate. I went into the dressing room, but Lata followed me in. She sat on the couch as I undid my zipper, bubbling with exuberance, like a sparkling wine. Hadn’t we agreed that we weren’t going to do this anymore? Hadn’t we agreed that it wasn’t what we wanted? I changed my pants and then my shirt, and then I noticed a passenger ship passing by the house, the way some of those larger boats sail around in the canals of Amsterdam. I took my chance and leapt from the window and landed on the top deck. Not long after, we sailed up the Thames and I disembarked in London. I took a bus up to Saint Naram’s Place, not too far from Notting Hill, in search of a very special bookshop that someone had told me about. Only the most in-the-know writers who have been vetted by the writers’ union have been to the very special book shop at Saint Naram’s Place. You had to get off at the square and then walk up two blocks. It’s lovely little house made of wood and brick that’s been open since the 1860s. The windows are full of musty books and old LPs, and it’s had Christmas lights blinking in the windows since Thatcher was prime minister. I went up the steps and inside and asked the owner, a burly old man with a mustache in a gray suit, about Saint Naram. He told me that nobody actually knew the source of the name. “Some say it was named after the Sanskrit word for ‘human being,’ but others say it’s the Sumerian word for ‘beloved.’ There was also a theory that it was originally ‘Saint Maran.’ ‘Maran’ means ‘death’ in Sanskrit, you know.” “Wait. Saint Death? That doesn’t make any sense.” “No, it doesn’t,” said the old bookseller. “But nothing here does. Anyway, how can I help you? Are you looking for a special book at Saint Naram’s? You have come quite the long way, sir.”

the south pole

WHO KNEW there was a bustling city at the South Pole? All you had to do was take the ship from Punta Arenas and you would be there the next day already, or fly in on a small passenger plane, if you dared. It’s not easy landing a puddle jumper between those craggy mountains, yet it is still a sight to behold, all of those lights, and the tiny cars traveling up and down the avenues. Nobody even knows about this place, it’s a kind of Las Vegas at the South Pole, full of mirth and money, neon and strip joints, but without the grunge, desperation, and mass shootings. I suppose Santa’s Village at the opposite pole comes close, but that place is run by elves, this one is run by desperate and degenerate people. I only went there because our band had a gig. I brought my Fender Jazz bass along. It was pretty standard rock music, Zeppelin-derived and all that. After the show, the owner of the venue, a robust Inuit woman who smelled something awful, hunted me down and, well, raped me, at least at first. There is something to be said for surrendering to the advances of a girl from Greenland whose lips taste of vodka, lust, and seal blood. I let her have her way with me, and all was fine and peaceful after that. I saw the ships in the harbor at Cape Menace, with that glowing skywheel circling above, but I had no desire to leave town. The South Pole was turning out to be my kind of place.

a meeting of the baltic foreign ministers

ONE MORNING, I just got tired of it all and left the house and went out on the beach. Brynhild was there in her swimsuit, sunning her lonesome hourglass self, but with her head covered in one of those old-fashioned, big-brimmed hats, and her eyes covered with sunglasses, and her skin covered with cream, and her soul covered with unrequited love. She had given me everything, but I was always distracted. “It’s like you’re not even there,” she had said. I didn’t know how I felt about the thing. Sad, I suppose. There was just sadness. Gulfs, bays, and estuaries of the stuff. I told Brynhild that I had no time for her and that I had to go, and I left her behind too, sunning herself on that desolate beach. For a while I just walked on with the sun in my face like a hot blade, passing ice cream vendors with handfuls of chocolate and strawberry, sprawled tanned sunbathers, and little boys pushing copies of Le Monde. Finally, I arrived to the grand Krusenstern Villa and went inside. A meeting of the Baltic foreign ministers had convened and the hall was draped in the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian colors. The gloomy war criminal Russian foreign minister was there, though he looked sulky, droopy-faced, and mildly bored, as if he had been seated at the children’s table at a big Hollywood wedding. Linda was managing the catering. She’s involved in organizing almost everything in this town. She poured me a drink as soon as she saw me come in and tossed back her hair. We decided to go for a walk down the beach together and when we got tired we stretched out in the sands and I told her my story in all of its tawdry, inglorious detail. Linda is just a friend and she’s a lot older than me. Such had become my lot in life, to go from one woman to the next, like one of those pilgrims of constant sorrow they sing about in cowboy songs. “What all of this means,” said Linda looking at me with those blue eyes and tracing a finger across my chest, “is that all of your old relationships are ending now. When old relationships end, new ones begin. That’s what this all means.” My eyes followed her lips to her neck, and then down to her blouse and its white candy buttons that led beyond. It was as if she had the whole sun stuffed in her shirt, and I lost my patience with those buttons. I ripped them apart and soon was face deep in her topography. “There, there,” said Linda, “There, there.” “But what will the Baltic foreign ministers do without you?” I asked. “And the Russian foreign minister? He looked so grumpy today.” “There, there. There, there. The ministers are all having their coffee break now,” said Linda. “And after that, they will have chocolate cake.”

the royal dragoons

RENNIE AND I went back to England on a fact-finding mission connected with his studies. We took the Ryanair flight into Stansted Airport and then a series of trains, buses, and a rental car until we arrived at the sands of the North Sea coast. We were standing there in a reedy inlet when I first noticed the outline of a large, furry animal in the sands. It was a household cat, but it had been reduced to two dimensions, almost like a carpet. Someone had pressed this cat, as with an iron, or maybe it had been run over by a tank? Up and down the beach, we found other two-dimensional pressed animals and there were some washing up in the waves. I was intrigued by this, but Rennie barely paid any attention to the animals. He wanted to talk about history and nostalgia. In Rennie’s view, nostalgia was eating away the true, tedious work of studying history, the same way that the North Sea was slowly eating away at Winterton Beach. “You’ll notice when you produce any academic work these days,” he said, “that people are no longer interested in the facts, in events, numbers, measurements, or anything concrete that can be defined, no, they want the fluff, the drama, the fucking romance of the era. They only are interested in nostalgia these days, not real history.” We walked along the beach and came to the Royal Museum. Inside there were different kinds of exhibits. One was a life-sized British graveyard that included graves from different eras, ranging from Anglo-Saxon burial mounds right up to the crypts of the Victorian era. Further on, we came to an old industrial mill that was still churning the waters. We went inside, passing through an iron gate. Rennie continued to fume about history. He picked up a large boulder and threw it under the wheel, bringing the whole mechanism to a stuttering halt. “You see this?” he cried. “This is the still-beating heart of British nostalgia!” The pressure on the wheel began to build up and the walls of the mill started to crack. It was like an earthquake. “Come on,” Rennie said. “We’ve got to get out of here before they get the Royal Dragoons after us.” We went back out through the museum, past the cemetery exhibit, and came down a hall filled with tall portraits of the Duke of Wellington and so on. There was a separate back staircase that led down into the staff area of the museum, and we walked through their cafeteria. The Royal Dragoons had already arrived and were filing in, and we passed them as we walked out the door into the sunshine of an English winter day and over towards the car we had rented by the station in Norwich. One of the Royal Dragoons, a beautiful young lady with long red hair, wearing their special red jacket and sash, followed us out and began to pepper us with all sorts of questions. She was a bit shy but seemed genuinely interested in Rennie’s research, but I said we had to go. The Dragoon seemed disappointed, and said she only wanted to know more. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to run away from me,” she said, “as if you don’t like me.” “No, no,” said Rennie. “We just don’t want to miss our flight.” Later, after they found out who had destroyed the nostalgia mill, Rennie and I were both blacklisted from Britain for some time. It was only after the discussions around the Northern Ireland Protocol failed for a 15th time that a magistrate granted the two of us clemency.

bourgeois love

AND THEN I whispered to her, that we are no longer in a cold house in a cold town, and that we are actually beneath a waterfall in a tropical jungle, and she began to purr like a kitten. This was its own kind of love, a sensual love, a true love. Love isn’t only theatre tickets, dresses and ties, dangling earrings, vacation getaways, social media posts, and anniversaries. That’s bourgeois love. Sensual love is another sort of love, an untreated, crude, imperfect and raw love. Just the way I like it.

busy beavers

I WAS UP to my waist in green swamp water. It wasn’t murky or silty and at no point was I scared or did I sense any kind of natural dangers. No water moccasins came swim-slithering by. Instead, I came upon some branches downed in a storm and began tossing them in the direction of some cypresses. A few beavers had taken refuge there and were busy building something. Building, building, busy beavers. I can’t say they were the most endearing of creatures. Big teeth, paddle tails, semiaquatic rodents. They were grateful for the donations though, and went at once to work diving and building and chomping. As for me, it was time to ramble on. I crawled out of the swamps and got on a white bus bound to somewhere. I was interviewing a German scientist in the back. Sandy-haired, looked like a thinner, kinder Dolph Lundgren. He had done his postdoc at Universitäten Neustrelitz. A chemist by training. I went to check my recording device and when I looked back, he had changed appearances and was now African American. I kept blinking at him, but he couldn’t understand what had happened either. Had I been hallucinating? How does that happen? The bus finally arrived to its destination, and I could see the publishing house was having a street party. There were bins of books and long tables covered in white tablecloths. Baskets of calzones and fist-sized falafels. Floppy Neapolitan pizzas with runny melted mozzarella. Women in summer bonnets. The academy instructors were there. Everyone was talking.

lost book of erotica

SOMEHOW I CAME to possess an illustrated book of erotica. It was new, or at least some of the illustrations were in color. I was sitting upstairs in an alcove thumbing its pages when Sonja came in. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and was kind of surprised by her appearance. Where had she been all this time? Sonja wore a long bright red dress with a white sweater on top, and seemed quite happy to see me. To be brief, I was quickly seduced. Her yellow hair tangled loosely halfway down her back. I hadn’t kissed a woman who was that beautiful in a very long time, if ever. It felt so good to be kissed. What did she want with me anyway? Then, just as soon as Sonja had appeared, she was gone, but with my book of erotica tucked away under her dress somewhere. I went out into town to find her but she eluded me. The Hanseatic Days Festival was on and the streets were so colorful and vibrant and crowded with sellers and customers. There were antiques for sale, old books, street corner musicians, sauna demonstrations and the like. Someone was roasting a pig. Ruta came by with her new lesbian lover, but I was confused because she used to be married to a man and they had a bunch of children. Was this big switch to be believed or was it just a passing phase? I ignored the both of them and kept looking for Sonja and my illustrated book of erotica. It wasn’t such a great book, you know, but it was mine, and I wanted to find Sonja and kiss her. Miguelito was there and we got to talking by the water fountain. While we were talking, I noticed that another woman was climbing a cherry tree in the park. I watched as she got out on one of the branches, loaded with pink blossoms, saw me from afar, and then toppled and tumbled down into the bushes. I started to dig through the old books on sale nearby, hoping that perhaps Sonja had left the book there, or traded it in for something new. There was an old copy of Kon-Tiki and a Soviet atlas, but I couldn’t find the lost book of erotica. It was Sonja’s to enjoy for now and forever. Wherever she was.

north one-two-five

ONE DAY I was in Lapland with Riho and Alar. They were teaching me how to cross country ski. I couldn’t recall how we had all decided to head up there, but there we were. I had a good set of new skis too, just perfect for freestyle. Riho in particular was a strong skier and seemed to know the terrain quite well. “You just don’t have vistas like these down in Estonia,” he said. He was right. There were long, descending slopes that just went on and on, past lines and lines of pines. It was like butter. The freshly fallen snow billowed up like smoke and it only kept snowing. I was happy there but the following day was less happy. That was the day my daughter and I were driving around Kharkiv pulling Ukrainians from the wreckage of ruined buildings. Another Russian missile strike, the bastards. One woman was trapped up on the second floor and we had to pull her free from the rubble. She was a middle-aged singer in a black dress with red curls. She alone had survived. The poor woman had been living indoors since Christmas and hadn’t taken down her decorations, so they were now strewn about in the rubble, the broken pipes and shards of glass and concrete, the plaster and sheetrock, the blinking ornaments. My daughter wanted to keep rescuing people, but I told her that if we kept going like that, someone would need to rescue us or even worse. Besides, the next morning I had to attend a climate change conference in Stockholm. Some denialists were giving a talk at a posh hotel by T-Centralen, but I was surly and disagreeable and interrupted them. The police were called, of course, and I managed to evade them in the kitchen. But the police went in there too, asking to see everybody’s passports. I stole a white coat and pretended to be the sous chef and made it out the back door, but then realized that I had left the cat in the room — North 125 — and had to go back to get her. When I made it back to the room, I saw four officers standing around the door, pounding on it. I didn’t know what to do so I just approached them. “Excuse me,” I said, “but do you happen to be looking for me?” After I was released from jail, I went to get a coffee at a Chinese restaurant. It turned out the owner had assaulted his girlfriend and also done time for it, though he insisted it had all been in self defense, and that she had attacked him first. He was a young kid, maybe 25, with a baby face, and seemed kind enough. It was hard to imagine he had done it, but I decided to leave anyway. I didn’t want to wind up back in the slammer and, anyway, what kind of person drinks coffee at a Chinese restaurant? I went to find another café and rode my bike all the way down the avenue. I saw posters for the elections everywhere, but there was no café open at that hour. I thought about going back to Lapland instead. Maybe there was a good café up there? Some place with warm pastries and cocoa, hot espresso and hot Sámi women? Maybe Riho and Alar were still waiting for me? The skiing had really been wonderful up north and there was no war.