an uncomfortable question

saunaTHERE CAME A POINT during this year’s European Sauna Marathon, which was held in and around Otepää and had about 900 participants, that I had to turn to my teammate Allan and ask him an uncomfortable question.

We were standing outside the maasaun overlooking a frozen pond that, fortunately, did not have a welcoming ice hole awaiting one of our team members. I was the first team member to go into the ice hole at the Kekkonen Sauna at the start of the day in Kääriku. We weren’t permitted entry into the sauna until one of us went in. Down I went, down the ladder, thrusting myself into the chill water until it covered my shoulders. I came out blinking and cursing, feeling like I had just been baptized. But baptized by what I wondered? Tradition? Stupidity?

At the maasaun, we stood about with the other teams. Four grown men from Germany dressed in matching lederhosen and sauna hats. We saw their truck — which had a German flag painted on the side — at most of the saunas. There was a Mexican team, too, with sombreros, and a Danish team with Viking helmets and the red and white Danish flag, supposedly gifted to their countrymen during a siege of Tallinn in the 13th century. Yet it was the Estonian teams that were by far, the most varied and bizarre.

Some came in Spider-Man pajamas, others wore what looked to be their grandmothers’ bath robes. One team wore matching silver helmets, another wore fluorescent wigs and little else. There was a man in a full-body pig costume. I think I saw a man dressed up like a sheep at the indiaanlastesaun — a sauna located in a giant tee pee in the hills outside Otepää — but I am not sure. It was really smoky in there. There were the female teams dressed in bikinis with glittery tassels, like exotic dancers from space. They gathered around a karaoke machine at one point to sing along to the Estonian classic, “Viska Leili.”

Viska leili! Küll on mõnus, soe, ja hea! Viska leili! Viska leili!

This song was originally called “In the Navy,” and recorded by The Village People, a (mostly) gay disco group in 1978. Yet somehow the Estonians took a song about gay sailors and turned it into an anthem for tossing water onto the hot stones of the sauna. That’s not all they tossed on the rocks. At one sauna, marathon participants apparently ran out of water. Someone had peed on the rocks instead. We called this one the pissisaun.

Outside, dudes named Juss and and Janar were skating around on a frozen tiik in nothing but their swim suits and drinking beer. “Hey, Juss, would you throw me another can?”   

That’s why I had to ask my uncomfortable question at the maasaun.

“Allan,” I said. “Did you ever think that the Estonians are a little, you know …” I put a finger to my temple and twisted it back and forth.

“What?” he asked. Allan’s Estonian himself, tall, big, and blonde with decades of sauna experience, especially at his country house’s sauna, which he insists is the very best.

“You know, when a man marries his sister and they have a kid. What do you call it?”

“What? Hmm. I don’t think we have a word for that in Estonian,” Allan replied.

“Oh well,” I pushed my freezing hands deeper into my wet pockets and thought of another way to present my question. “Have you ever thought that you Estonians are a bit crazy?”

Allan just laughed. “Not so much up in North Estonia,” he said. “But down here in South Estonia,” he cast an eye at some of the other, strangely dressed sauna goers and sighed. “The people down here are a little cuckoo, yeah.”

cantankerous old bastard

You open one “self” only to find another, and within that self is another, and then there’s another. There’s even a tiny little self inside of that one too.

I HAVE HIGH HOPES FOR 2017. For one, it’s not 2016. That alone is an incredible improvement. The past year took enough beloved artists to crew a ghost ship. One can imagine them all — David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, and Leonard Cohen — sailing that wonderful ship into the heavens while the rest of us are stuck here with Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin.

But we should not despair. We still have ourselves.

The self, yes, the most holy and high entity there is in the modern age. Isn’t that what all health and fitness magazines are about really? The self. You must exercise it. Maintain it. Finesse it. Love it too. Even practice self love — in private. You cannot do without it. At all times you must be testing it, probing it, exploring it. It’s like one of those Russian Matryoska dolls. You open one “self” only to find another, and within that self is another, and then there’s another. There’s even a tiny little self inside of that one too. It’s fascinating. The process of self discovery never ends, rather this game is supposed to keep you entertained for the majority of your time here on the planet.

Until you join the ghost ship with Prince and Bowie. Then a new journey of self revelation begins.

The self is only the vehicle though, the ship. The destination is perfection, or rather a perfect self. The goal is not really about improving the well-being of your community or your family, or if it is, it is through improving yourself. After all, how can you help others if you don’t take care of yourself? Surely, if enough people become vegetarians and do yoga, all will be right with the world. Stronger muscles, a healthier digestive track, healthy skin that glows, great sex — but not too much, an uncluttered mind as mindful as minds can be. Not the Dalai Lama, but close enough. We must hit the gym, lift weights, change our diets, not to mention daily meditation and asanas. And if you feel lost, you can go to India. Many others seem to be able to locate themselves there.

I know I sound like a cantankerous old bastard but hear me out.

As 2017 dawns, I must determine what to do with myself. Should I putter on as I did through the windstorm year that was 2016? Should I binge on coffee, on Internet, on apathy? Should I eat more chocolate, shivering in the cold waters of modern anxiety and restlessness? Or should I flip through one of those fitness magazines and download a bunch of self improvement applications, sign up for tantra courses, and commit myself like the others to the glorious cause of the self?

Mediocrity or perfection, that is the question. And I am starting to think perfection is a worthy goal.

I admit this with some hesitance. Why? Because being mediocre is so comfortable, isn’t it? When I look at the images of men and women who labor away in gyms, I cringe. It’s not jealousy, but a repulsion to anything to do with weight rooms and rowing machines. I hate fitness clubs. For one, you have to pay to go in. You pay to do work you don’t really feel like doing. It’s like college. Also, they stink of sweaty dudes — not my favorite aroma. I think I’d rather shovel horse manure. And yet, other than cross-country skiing, this is really the best place to improve your physique. Other people swear by it and say that it’s the greatest feeling in the world, working out regularly. They all want to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger but the truth is that I’ve never wanted to be like Schwarzenegger. Yet I may no longer have that choice. I’m getting older. I need more energy.

Like Arnold, I must pump iron.

And despite my apprehension about toying with Eastern Philosophies, the reality is that my mood and mindset do improve if I take time out each day to space out for a while. In fact, it’s been happening spontaneously more often, probably because my children are sucking my life essence. I’ll just sit on the couch and find myself staring off into oblivion. Apparently, this is what the Tibetan Buddhist monks do all of the time, other than eating. Maybe those guys are really on to something.

Or maybe these are the earliest stages of dementia?

Whatever they are. I’m in. It’s time to join up with the rest of you here in Estonia. A perfect amount of exercise in a gym next to big smelly dudes named Priit and Märt, a perfect diet of strange dishes cooked up at some vegan restaurant, and some extra expensive tantra courses, of course.

As much as I would like to deride it and resist it, the writing is on the wall for me in this fresh year.

In 2017, I must improve myself.