nashville cats

"I find myself alone when each day is through."
“This is that real America, the one they talk about.”

NASHVILLE is in Tennessee and Tennessee is in the Old South, as well evidenced by all of that “Yes, sweetheart,” and “No, darling,” I heard over the phone as the hotel receptionist buttered me up.

For breakfast, pork sausage and eggs and hot biscuits with gravy, some smooth gray sauce with black flecks of pepper to make it look edible, and some sugary sweet juices to wash it down, or a hot coffee. For lunch and dinner, the men and women behind the counter had one question, “Beef brisket or pulled pork?”

One time I ordered the brisket just to have the barely-there bartender repeat back, “You wanted the pulled pork, right?” “No, I said I wanted the brisket.” He reached into one of the tins of steaming, dead slop. “You said you wanted the pulled pork, right?” “No, I said I wanted the brisket. See, this stuff right here.” I tapped at the glass and he winced as if embarrassed by his mistake and I felt like that terrible pushy Yankee that I am. Then the man looked up at me again through those glasses and squinted, “Excuse me, sir, but didn’t  you say you wanted the pulled pork?” And I thought, “Is this Southerner slow or something?” But I would never ever say that. No, no, no. I just inquired again for the brisket, politely, gently, because being Down South means you’ve got to be genteel.

It’s a weird relationship we’ve got with those Southerners, my Virginian granny among them. Granny’s never lost the mild manners, the mild temperament, the mild avoidance of the letter ‘r.’ I used to look at the Elvis Presley Christmas Album in her house and wonder how somebody could listen to such a thing and take it seriously, to really dig the King singing “We Three Kings,” maybe even catch herself singing along. Southerners! I’ve heard tale that some of them are still trying to defend the CSA, as if I cared. I’m not going to split rails over your head with the bones of Abraham Lincoln, gentlemen, but let moribund cavalry horses lie. And where would be the US without Nashville anyway? Our most iconic postage-stamp-worthy musicians have all walked its streets, even an ominous-sounding one called “Demonbreun,” which the taxi driver pronounced as “de-mon-bre-un,” but I read as “demon-something-something,” as the car pulled up to the curb beside a big band blazing satanically away, saxophones and baritones and all. “Do they ever stop playing music in this city?” I asked the driver. “Not on your life,” he said.

The Man in Black himself Johnny Cash is an old saint of this music city. Across from its conference hall, called the Music City Center, you can stare at his custom cowboy boots and military-looking jacket behind protective glass. “Those personal effects. He wore them.” You slobber, you gaze in awe. The man who bagged June, who was very pretty, either as herself or as Reese Witherspoon. Yeah, you get a real sense for how dark and dashing he was, that Johnny Cash, so much so that you just want to say his name over and over again and cross yourself a few times too (“JC”) and admire in perpetuity those spare guitar lines and rockabilly rhythms.

They still pour out into the avenues of Nashville, every bar has bands playing. Here you still hear the rollin’ sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival,  “Bootleg,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary.” The party people hang from the balconies above the neon lights with their beer and hats and revelries, those cat calls and whistles, and it reminds you of New Orleans, but with less poverty and hurricane madness and voodoo hoodoo. And if you are a Yankee you know you’ll never be one of them, not if you try. Because first you gotta change that last name to something that means something good — Swift, Cash, Snow, Earle, Haggard — and then set your voice up with some twang and practice saying “Y’all” in the mirror a few times before you head out among the honky tonk men and women in their swinging bluejeans. This is that real America, the one they talk about, the one with the pedal steel guitar licks and cowboy hats and pickle salads. Out on the coasts, in the factory mills of Massachusetts, that’s not the real America. That’s something else.

And here come the honky tonk girls! They all look like that honky tonk woman that Miranda Lambert is trying to look like, like a done-right Dolly Parton as seen through beer goggles, with the frosted hair, birdy features, the t-shirt revealing form, the lanky limbs and pleased-as-punch smile and manicured everything. They stand behind the counters with their pleasantly pasty forearms ready to tap some refreshing alcoholic beverage into that mug or query your choice of pulled this or that brisket, and, “Would you like barbecue slaw with that?” And, “Yes, I would.” And, “Here you go, darlin’.”

After a few days in Nashville, Tennessee, your insides are so sloppy with meat ribbons and hot sauces and grimy grits that you’d beg for a fire hose enema or maybe a tamer, Northeasty fruit cleanse. Anything to get the grease out. And so you say goodbye to those Nashville cats and bar hall “sweetheart-sugar-honey-pie-darling-baby” babes. It’s time to move on. Back up to Yankeedom. Back north.

like a bad cold you don’t want to catch

South Park Episode 513 -- Kenny catches a lethal case of Estonianitis.
South Park Episode 513 — Kenny catches a lethal case of Estonianitis.

ESTONIA IS NEXT, or so they say. They being somebody. The story of how a Russian official voiced concerns about the treatment of Russians in Estonia is already so convoluted, I cannot tell whether it is an accident, or a brilliant PR stunt on the part of pro-Estonian media partisans to make their country seem vulnerable in order to win more security commitments. The fishy trail to a Russian diplomat’s statements at the UN has been well sniffed out by ERR. Yet that hasn’t stopped the speculation that Tallinners might wake up soon to the specter of armed Russian soldiers standing between them and their custom Vapiano pasta orders .

It seems ridiculous, but then again, the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia in 1940 was also ridiculous. The 2014 takeover of Crimea was absurd. And who is Russia to let its Dadaist foreign policies stand in the way of geopolitical tits-for-tats?

But as bizarre as such events would be, should they ever unfold, they would also express galaxies worth of stupidity on the part of the Russian leadership. Have not they acquainted themselves with Russia’s history in this indigestible Baltic province? Are not they aware of how many times Estonia has screwed over the empire? Everyone talks about that precious quarter of the population that is Russian. But what about the seventy percent of the population that is Estonian? As history has taught us, Estonians are just not the kinds of people you want in your empire.

But first, let’s make like Mr. Peabody and Sherman and take the Way Back way back in time, setting the controls for the year 1710. It is summer, and the Baltic German landowning elite in the provinces of Estonia and Livonia (present day Estonia and northern Latvia)  is about to capitulate to Peter the Great. As part of this reversal in allegiances, Peter guarantees the Baltic Germans their Protestant faith, their traditional privileges, leaves all local institutions in place, and overturns Swedish land reforms that would have put the Estonian serfs on the path to being full subjects of the crown. Estonia thus becomes Russian, but with vast autonomy. Indeed, the official, public language will remain German, right up until the end of the 19th century. When future Estonian leader Jaan Tõnisson goes to market in Estonia as a boy in the 1880s, he will be ordering “zwei” kilos of strawberries, not “dva.”

Yet the Slavophiles in the empire at that time have decided on a course of Russification throughout the land. They want administration in the Baltic provinces to be in Russian, and encourage many Estonians to convert to Orthodoxy. These efforts appear to nullify the old agreement with Peter the Great, and leave the Baltic Germans looking with warm feelings toward an expansionist German empire, which is busy unifying German lands under one leadership. When World War I breaks out, and the Baltic lands fall under German occupation, the Baltic Germans propose integration into the German empire as a Baltic Duchy. The Slavophile Russification policies have alienated the leadership of the Baltic provinces to the point that they are no longer loyal to Russia. They have made the Baltic provinces open to the overtures of expansionist Western powers. The sad yet ironic thing is that Russia’s leaders will make the same mistakes toward Estonia again and again during the 20th century.

Even at that same time, other Russians are busy making a similar mistake. The Northwestern Army of General Nikolai Yudenich refuses to back Finnish and Estonian independence. As a result, the Estonian High Command makes its peace with V. I. Lenin, and interns Yudenich’s retreating forces. Had the White forces agreed to support Estonian independence, they may have been able to retake Petrograd together. Instead, the Whites lose the war, and the Soviets consolidate their power. Yudenich is said to have regretted this decision to the end of his life in exile in Nice, France. Even he knew that the White forces had made a grave mistake in not supporting Estonian independence. Unfortunately, for Yudenich, history could neither be relived nor repeated, and, according to one legend, Yudenich requested to be buried with a tiny Estonian flag in his coat pocket.

We skip ahead to June 1940. The Soviets have provided the Estonian government with an ultimatum to form a government capable of carrying out the mutual assistance pact that the two states signed in September 1939. The government responds by nominating August Rei, a highly intelligent social democrat and former state elder. While Rei is no Communist — he later regards Lenin as suffering from a mental disorder in his memoirs — as a social democrat he is perhaps best poised to accommodate Soviet demands while retaining some modicum of Estonian independence. Instead, the Soviets insist on a puppet government led by depressed poet Johannes Vares (who later commits suicide in Kadriorg), a full military occupation, and annexation into the USSR.

Not only do many Western powers refuse to recognize this illegal incorporation, but political repressions and deportations within the newly proclaimed Estonian SSR lead the public to actually welcome the arrival of the Germans a year later. In a year’s time, the Germans have gone from being the historical enemy of the Estonian people to their saviors. The most hated army in history is greeted by crowds waving Estonian flags. It will later take six months for Soviet troops to break  through a German and Estonian defensive line in northeastern Estonia in 1944 and Soviet troops will continue to fight partisans in the forests of Estonia well into the mid-1950s. Yet nothing of the kind happens in neighboring Finland, which has retained its independence, albeit at a huge cost. In Finland, Soviet soldiers will remain stationed first at Hanko and then Porkkala until 1956 without incident.

Had August Rei become prime minister in 1940, Estonia might have joined the Nordic Council in 1956 and retained a policy of strategic non-alignment. Instead, given its experiences with Moscow in the past, the restored Estonian state in the 1990s opted for integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in 2004 the alliance expanded to include Estonia, bringing NATO to within an hour’s flight of Saint Petersburg.

I can go on. The establishment of Russian as an official language in 1940, the import of Soviet workers dramatically changing local demographics, intensified Russification policies in the 1970s that led to the famous Letter of 40 in 1980 and associated protests that year, the illegality of the Soviet annexation that allowed the Baltic republics to spearhead the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But the theme remains the same. For more than 200 years, Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, but enjoyed vast autonomy and even a completely different administrative language. When this autonomy was reduced in favor of central control and Russification policies, it created resentment that reversed loyalties to the empire. Soviet aggression in the 1940s might have had short-term benefits in term of military control, but it had long-term negative consequences that led not only to the dissolution of the USSR, but also the expansion of a Western military alliance right up to the border of the Russian Federation.

I think it is fair to argue then, that any Russian leader who is a student of history should try to avoid Estonia at all costs, because Estonia, as history has shown us, is like a bad cold that you do not want to catch.

goodnight putin

Goodnight KGB man mumbling mush.

THE ESTONIANS WORRY ME SO. They worry me so because they are so worried. “Are we next?” they think. To which, I mouth, but do not utter aloud, “Get over yourselves.”

Part of it is just me talking myself out of worst-case scenarios. But the other part of it is true. Estonia was never that important in the real world game of Stratego. Even Peter the Great was a bit surprised when he won it off Sweden three hundred years ago, something like, “Huh, what’s this?” He had only wanted Ingria, and yet wound up with Estonia after defeating Sweden’s Rambo King Carl XII, a sort of imperial freebie, the way a Chinese take-out restaurant upon receiving a large order might throw in an extra quart of wonton soup.

But what about all of those wars, all of that tragic history? It is true that throughout the years many armies crisscrossed Estonia, but what people forget is that most of the time they were heading somewhere else. Sometimes they were on their way to Saint Petersburg (under its various names). Other times, they were driving to Berlin. Yet they rarely — if ever — went to Estonia just for the sake of going to Estonia. Which is not to say that Estonia is unattractive. Not at all. It is a lovely country, and Tallinn has a magnificent Old Town, with one of Europe’s oldest continuously running apothecaries, where you can view and photograph medieval medicinal cures, like mummy juice and deer penis, but … even with such delightful trappings, most visitors tend to stay for just a few days before going somewhere else. That’s just how it is.

And that should make us sleep more comfortably at night, right? We should be able to curl up like that little cute bunny in Goodnight Moon and drift off into dreamland without mistaking that noisy truck in the alleyway for an invading tank like I used to when I lived in Tallinn, and Tartu, and Viljandi. Or, I’d hear a crackling sound and look out at the hills and think, “Oh, no, it’s started again …” when it was just fireworks, or hear the hum of a convoy down by the lake and run over to check it out, just to see it was the local hillbillies racing their leased cars around on the ice.

Call me paranoid, but I bet I’m not the only one with such an overactive imagination. The US is sending jets to patrol Baltic airspace, in part to calm those jittery nerves. Still, I have to ask, if Ukraine is being dismembered, and people seem to feel the Baltics are under some existential threat, then what does that portend for the rest of Europe? Because, like I said, Moscow never took over Estonia just for the sake of taking over Estonia. They always took over Estonia on their way to taking over something else. If you are worried about Russian troops marching through Tallinn, might as well imagine them in Budapest, Prague, and Berlin. Because if history repeats itself, then that’s history repeating itself.

I have no idea why they would attempt to do something like that again though. That would be profoundly stupid. Think about it. It’s almost been a century since Tallinn’s own Roman von Ungern-Sternberg became a White Russian war lord in Outer Mongolia. It’s been slightly over two decades since Dzhokar Dudaev, who once commanded the 326th Heavy Bomber Division in Tartu, returned to his home in Chechnya to declare the republic’s independence from Moscow. In the past 100 years, empires centered in Moscow have crumbled twice.  The chaos and carnage has been spectacular and absurd. And the best its current leadership can come up with is, “Let’s try it again”?

No, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This just can’t be. It can’t be because I thought Putin was supposed to be a clever KGB man. A diabolical mastermind. An evil genius. A real-life Bond villain. He’s the one pulling all the strings, faking left and hooking right. Putin couldn’t be that stupid, could he? Could he?