away, away, away

I’M NOT SURE what day this is off of social media. I have cheated though, with some Instagram posts. Instagram is less addictive and menacing than Facebook, but it also peddles illusions of beautiful people doing wonderful things in beautiful places, and everyone is just so happy! This feeds a kind of collective narcissism. When you have been off the stuff a while and then revisit these images of people posing themselves for both self gratification and the amusement of others, it all looks so absurd and stupid. “A photo of me doing something on the internet.” This is what 21st Century life has been reduced to. I wish I could write more about my life, or rather my rich inner life. There are just things I can barely tell anyone, and even my psychologist isn’t always fair game. Who is watching? Who is reading? I did see a very beautiful woman one day in front of the Orthodox church on Mäe Street. The kind of beauty one could lose oneself in, the kind I rather need, that gateway to an abundance of fertile, Mediterranean love. I am not one of these Northmen who see beauty and love in hard work and stark landscapes. My kind of love is a Roman orgy of the senses. For me why bother being alive if you cannot enjoy the fruits of paradise? I saw this woman again last night at an event in town. This was a warm and reassuring moment, for I do not know what her name is or anything about her, nor am I tempted to look. But she does exist. That was what was most reassuring about it. It all wasn’t a dream or my imagination. Still I am haunted by the social media vortex. It’s not just the arguments online, it’s the information that gets carried offline into private discourse, people repeating things they have seen or read. It is going to take a much longer time to detox from this. Away, away, away. That is my dream. Last night, I turned my data off as I was walking. I thought, where was I in 2001? I had no phone, I only used the internet at a computer lounge at my school. In the year 1998, before I went to college, I did not use the internet at all. I went away for a week or so to Nantucket with my family, and I had no connection to the world via that route. I spent my time digging through a used records store or just people watching. That is where I want to go. Not back in time. A resumption of time. To skip over this part, leave everyone else lost floating in deep digital space. Away, away, away. Away.

visions of jakarta

LAST NIGHT was the book launch for Linnéa’s new book, Visions of Jakarta. I was late to the event, which took place in a university auditorium. There were rows and rows of readers awaiting Linnéa, who walked in and stood at the front and began to lecture about her days spent in Indonesia. Then she gestured to the ceiling and it began to rain inside the auditorium. Warm, tropical rain splashed down on the attendees, on their hair, hands, and books. Visions of Jakarta! “Tonight, I decided to share with you some Jakarta rain,” Linnéa said. After the launch, Linnéa came up to me and embraced me. “Please tell me you’re not leaving yet,” she said. “Come with me tonight to Riisipere! We leave at once.” Riisipere was an unusual name, though I was sure I had heard of it before. Riis (rice) pere (family). Rice family? Come with me to Rice Family? We leave at once? Some preliminary research revealed that it was the site of a ruined manor house that had once belonged to key Baltic German lords, Master Peter von Stackelberg among them. The night after the Visions of Jakarta launch I went out again with Linnéa. This evolved into a brutal pub crawl, and cisterns of wine and liquor were consumed. It all got to be a bit much, so I decided to take a plane back to Tallinn. We flew with Captain Sven, who brought us up and over Saint Petersburg to reduce altitude ahead of approach and landing. I could see all of Petersburg’s white houses and white ships and blinking lights. It looked like a fairytale winter city. Then Captain Sven brought the plane lower and flew beneath the Kronstadt Bridge, which terrified me, before setting down on a landing strip somewhere in a field in Püünsi. We were all safe but it was a rough landing and some of our belongings fell into the sea. I was happy to swim and retrieve them. When I got to town, Linnéa was already there with her yellow hair and fun smile waiting with an autographed copy of Visions of Jakarta and a freshly uncorked bottle of wine.

the embassy b&b

THIRD DAY FREE of the social media soul abyss. Last night, I even read a book. It was called The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand, and it was about the failed English attempts at colonization at Roanoke in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, about two decades before Jamestown. Two facts surprised me. One was that Drake’s fleet landed 300 Central American indigenous women and 200 Africans and Turks in the Outer Banks and sailed away, allowing them to fend for themselves. Perhaps they were massacred by the indigenous Algonquians, but this I seriously doubt, because they were already weakened by intertribal conflict, conflict with the English, and disease. More likely they were assimilated into other tribes. The second was that when John White returned to the Americas, the ships landed at Tiburon in Haiti and encountered skeletons strewn on the beach, perhaps jettisoned sailors from some wreck or other mission. One can imagine that ghost wind blowing, licking the bones of the dead with sand. It makes me wonder how often sailors washed up on American beaches in this forgotten time. At night I dreamt I was inside the Russian Embassy, presumably in Tallinn. Like Russia itself, I needed a visa to enter the embassy, and my visa had a three-hour time window for me to get everything accomplished inside. The inside of the embassy was rather like a comfortable bed and breakfast, with carpeted staircases and an old-fashioned, white wooden desk for the concierge. There was an outdoor water park too, and I went for a dip in the sun with two of my children. The third, the eldest, was nowhere to be seen. When I asked what had become of this teenage girl, the concierge at the embassy B&B alerted me that she was last seen getting into Putin’s black car wearing an orange dress. I did not like the idea of Putin alone with the girl. There I waited, anxious for their return.

in the cloud

I’M STILL NOT OUT OF IT, by far. I would not say my mind has been damaged. This is the wrong concept. But my mind is elsewhere. I am thinking of old discussions, arguments, intrigues, images. My mind is awash in these images as I walk down streets, past old houses and barns. If you asked me what color those houses were, these would have barely registered, because as I said my mind is elsewhere, in the cloud. When you do turn off, other people’s behavior becomes fascinating. I watched a woman walking down the street today staring at her little rectangular device screen, laughing her head off. I realized, I was probably the only person who saw this sight. The girl next to me at the café had her nose in her phone. It’s become severely bizarre. Just days ago, I was the same. Walking around Viljandi, staring at my screen to change the song that was playing or reply to some message. Sadder are the images of my children when they were small. In nearly every one, a laptop is open. This is where my life went, straight into this digital dimension. Nearly every person I interview is connected in some way with the digital economy, the digital ecosystem. They create content and solutions and so do I. Even this here is content. Even this here is part of the ecosystem. It’s not Orwellian just yet, or maybe it is, but either way, I cannot really attach a moral value to it. I only know that I feel my mind is changing, and that I do feel slightly more at peace today and slightly more in my true reality. If only slightly. This is the second day off social media.

the 400 blows

The 400 Blows | Blow movie, Film stills, Film
A scene from The 400 Blows

I’LL POST SOME NOTES here about going off social media. Today is my first day off. It’s really become such a ritual over the years, that the day is spent interacting with Facebook and/or Instagram. It’s the first thing I’ve done in the mornings, the last thing I have done before bed, and if I happened to wake up, I might check again. I cannot say any of that time was worth it. Maybe a tenth? But more likely 1 percent of that time spent actually enriched my life in any way. So I wasted a piece of my life using the 21st century version of an online bulletin board. At least I am off it for now. Social media is a war zone. It’s where people who are unhappy with their own lives or the world in general gather together to settle scores. It also feeds massive insecurity issues and, I think, reinforced a sense of isolation or apartness. When you are using it, you tune out the real people who inhabit the same physical space that you do. You ignore the richness of real life, yes, real life, the one you can taste, touch (and smell). When I deactivated my account, I felt a sort of massive void open up. Somehow I felt as if I had “lost everything,” and yet I had lost nothing. Ninety-nine percent of the so-called friends on there haven’t been seen in years if not decades, and many of them I have never met at all. We’re not friends! They haven’t left my life. They haven’t been in my life for years. So that sense of loss is synthetic. There is also this odd sensation of “disconnecting from the world,” because no one knows where you are eating lunch, except the real people who see you eating lunch there. Think about that for a moment. How can you “leave the world” by deactivating an online account? Still there was that big vast open space again. Only in the evening did I start to feel somewhat normal. I watched The 400 Blows by Truffaut about French kids in the 20th century. It was actually a beautiful film, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Somehow I realized that my own childhood, in circa 1989, wasn’t actually so different from this little boy’s childhood portrayed in 1959. This was to me a validation of what a real life could feel like. I know though that it will take days if not weeks for my mind to return to normal. I cannot wait for odd questions like, “Where did you disappear to?” when I am in the same place I have been all this time. I don’t think most people realize the extent to which they have lost something, been brainwashed in effect. It’s amazing that it has engulfed so many people, almost all people. Only solitary writers who simply cannot be on social media have been spared. As Murakami said, he avoids social media because the writing is so bad. He cannot afford to read bad writing. He can only read good writing. That sounds like a wonderful start.

this stunning golden character

“THIS STUNNING GOLDEN CHARACTER,” the psychologist said at the party. “This golden character. I understand you, you know, I understand why you like her. And I have spoken with her. She’s said you’ve changed.” Earlier in the euphoria, a young messenger had arrived looking, again, like Robert Downey, Jr., in the 1980s. Why did so many characters look like him of all people? He had with him some kind of horsehair brooch, which included the crest of a noble Cossack family. I took a look at this peculiar thing and tried to bite into it, and felt some of the horse hair get stuck in my teeth. Then I struggled to pull the hairs out, one by one. When I did so, half my front teeth came out, and I tried to jiggle them back into place. This might require a trip to the dentist, I thought. Would they have to screw the teeth back into place? Later, the wood delivery man Rasmus arrived, but he brought only a truck full of furniture. How was I supposed to fill my furnace with mattresses and chairs? He also brought two scampering kittens, one white, one striped, which my daughter immediately fell in love with. The striped cat stayed with her, but the white one ran away, and I was dispatched to find it. The last thing I remember, I was standing by the roundabout on the outskirts of Adelfia, that small town on the periphery of Bari where my relatives live, searching for the white cat.

mccartney palace

THE MCCARTNEY PALACE was never called such. Rather it was referred to in French as the Palais McCartney. A large white and glass structure on the edge of a field of sumptuous flowers. A long drive in, both sides of which were lined with cars. There was a soiree at Palais McCartney, and the man himself was supposedly there somewhere to welcome guests to the gala, but I never caught sight of Sir Paul. Instead my friend Jaak, the Estonian man of letters, invited me back to his house, which was not a palace, to show off his collection of novels, novellas, poetry, and various trophies he had been awarded from diverse writerly entities, organizations, and unions. He had at least a dozen of these golden statues on one shelf which he gestured to wildly, an arm tossed in the air, as he explained one thing or another. Then we went back to the Palais McCartney for lunch, which was really terrible, I mean the kinds of steaming metal buffet meals one gets in the worst roadside motels in the States. How could this be? I thought McCartney was deep into food, you know. The Kasemetsad were there, and other members of the Estonian intelligentsia. Later there was some kind of rupture in the space-time continuum and we were all herded behind a chain-link fence on the edge of a field at night watching the stars. There was a Frenchman there lecturing everyone on the proper way to pronounce Jeanne d’Arc. “It’s d’Arc, not D’Arc.” Then there was a UFO landing of celestial polar bears, who began to devour everything in sight. Meantime I was trying to do an interview with some British entrepreneur, who kept asking me, “What is that noise in the background?” To make matters worse, a woman went into labor, so she was giving birth while these bears of the stars ate up everything they could sink their teeth into. I remember climbing that chain link fence, leaping over, landing on my feet and running still. Looking back to see the agony of the woman in childbirth. How could McCartney leave us here like this? And what had happened to Jaak? He was just here a minute ago. The last thing I can recall is a silvery thread slipping and undulating through the cosmos, teasing me up and into a new and different black comfort. Freyja was there, and I succumbed to a deeper and restorative sleep.

box of rain

ONE THING I HAVE BEEN attempting, or rather undertaking is an examination, assessment, exploration of the subconscious, measured in boxes of dreams, put under the microscope. The setting a kitchen, into which walks Vesta looking like Little Orphan Annie all grown up, with brown curls hanging at her shoulders, the slump of a refugee, and her entourage of course, little confused ones looking for a corner to play, read, unwind, feel sanctuary. She is no way in a good way of course, but I am drawn to her inexplicably, the allure of the dark, the allure of the unknown, the electric sizzle of danger, sure enough she sits herself on the counter top with legs dangling haphazard, and I uncharacteristically for such a soft and polite gentleman break down the wall, seize her in my arms and press into her a kiss with enough power packed behind it to warm up the whole north for a whole winter, one of those big reactions that puts the wind to blow, and the air picks up all around us, and the kids look up rather in an amused daze. What was that? And, Why is mommy kissing that stranger? Trouble, trouble, trouble. Vesta is always trouble. Remember the time we were on that tractor? Or the time I left my shoe in her house, while her friends enjoyed a nude sauna party outside? Or that time we made love in the citadel while it was being stormed by Trumpists? Why the danger, Vesta? Why you? Why the love for the distressed damsel mademoiselle? But it is profound and it is passionate. It breaks off in hunks of dark chocolate and melts in your mouth. It seeps into your bones like moisture in autumn and lingers. You awake, blanket only half draped, fully alive and wanting more. Gray cool light. Watery rain. Just a gauzy dream. Translucent and sheer. A box of rain. Another one of those dreams.

memories of nantucket

IT STARTS WITH THE SOUND of a car roaring up Orange Street in the dawn time haze and doors slamming as the Irish girls who clean our rooms and launder our bed linens, rinse out our sinks and set our breakfast buffets tiptoe in after a wild night with the local boys. They are loudly excoriated and admonished by the owner, a stubby Yankee woman with one of the ominous local names like Coffin or Starbuck, who have populated this island since the days of British rule. Yankee fire, Yankee brimstone. All of this in a Nantucket kitchen at 5 am. Our room is upstairs left, colonial style, big bed, closet of a shower and toilet, and a cot for me, as I squint through the faint light and try to make out some ghostly shape. Supposedly there are a lot of ghosts on Nantucket and I keep trying to see one, but never have much luck. This is way back in ’90, a forgotten time if there ever was one, way back before the boom, when Nantucket was kind of seedy, and the theater where we watch the documentary The Gray Lady is covered in popcorn and the sticky sugar slick from overturned sodas. Amidst wall-to-wall trash, we view the documentary, of which I remember nothing but the title and some opening scenes full of mist. At the breakfast buffet, several hours later, there’s plenty of cranberry bread, cranberry juice, and anything cranberry. There’s some writer living here too, in the back apartment, but he broke his arm. A younger writer, dark hair, nice guy smile, like some fusion of John Cusack and that kid from Back to School. Maybe he should start writing with his left foot, like in that movie? My whole world is a mosaic of useless film references. This is how we spend our time, at some inn on some lane at some outpost of the North Atlantic. At dinner last night my parents had an argument about whether lobster was better broiled or boiled. This gave way to successive, daughter arguments about how lobster is best enjoyed. In the end my father gave up and threw his hands in the air, sulking over the red carcass of his mutilated Crustacean. “Can’t I just enjoy my broiled lobster in peace?”

written 20 march 2019/revised 9 september 2021

memories of the school bus

OUR FIRST DRIVER was just a kid, maybe 20, clean cut type, brown hair, button-down shirt, can’t recall more about him, only that he let us do whatever the hell we wanted. The glorious anarchy of the school bus in 1986, acrobatics, dramatic dives, milk carton grenades, street rule of 67 percent obscenity. All other drivers on the road were targets of our middle fingers, especially that nice fellow who stood daily waiting for the bus on that one corner, and those skaters outside Station Pizza — they caught the wrath of lowered windows and “skaters suck!” That was our first bus driver. He was a good one. The older kids stood in the back, stood, never sat, and Marco, who was my best friend and idol, was back there with them. There was one younger kid, Curtis, who sat up front listening to Michael Jackson on his Walkman, trying to drown out the noise. Sometimes Marco’s father, Jock, would roll by the house and chat with us. He lived somewhere else. Marco knew all kinds of things. He explained to me that God was actually a disco godfather type and wore a white suit. I imagined this white-haired character with heavenly smoke sort of pouring out of the lapel of his jacket and the Bee Gees playing all around him. These were the kinds of deep philosophical conversations we had while standing in the back of the bus. Our second bus driver was named Lisa. She used the word “yous” for the plural of “you” or sometimes “yaz.” As in, “If yaz don’t knock it off, I’m taking you all to the principal’s office.” Her hair was permed, and she had an impeccable manicure. Sometimes she called our bluff and we were indeed escorted back for a lecture by Principal Bell. “I’m writing all of yaz up!” I do remember one session with Principal Bell, this kindly PBS morning television kind of guy, who reminded us that the “pal” in “principal” meant that he was our friend. Konstantinos, the Greek kid, was in there with me. I claimed total innocence, but Principal Bell introduced me to the term “accomplice,” which meant that if someone else committed a crime, but I helped, then I could get in trouble for that crime too. This is how we drill through the Nineties into the Eighties, mining the time, drilling deeper into prehistory. I do remember later on, toward the end of my tenure in the elementary school, waiting outside for the bus to take me and a classmate to some statewide band competition, pacing in the snow beneath a branch. Memories of buses, buried in time collecting dust, like those old plaques to doomed students on the walls of the school, so drab, brown, and sad, recounting some kid’s untimely drowning in the 1930s. He had died while trying to rescue a fellow student who had fallen through the ice on the mill pond. Because of this, he was a hero.

written 20 march 2019/revised 9 september 2021