shout at the devil

IMG_1250I grew up in Montcalm county, in rural central Michigan, in a land of largely poor and pious protestant farmers and factory workers. My family was alternately Methodist or Lutheran or some close denominational outlier depending on how vigorously you shook the bush. Like in many families of my acquaintance, my mother was the driving force behind my family’s religion, though she was never particularly strict about it. My father, by all accounts, preferred the woods. I much prefer the woods.

When I was ten-years-old, my parents sent me to Lutheran confirmation classes on Wednesday afternoons, that I might be instilled with moral and ethical virtues. I would walk to the church after school and a confirmation classmate’s mother would drive me home afterward. The main thrust of the class was that we should believe blindly and literally. During one of the first classes I asked the preacher if he truly thought there was once a great big boat with two of every animal in the world on it, and he’d said yes. When I’d asked him to elaborate on if he thought the menagerie had included two panda bears, two Komodo dragons, and a brace of duckbilled platypus, etc., he’d said yes again, unblinking, unequivocal. There was no discussion of metaphor or symbol or allegory. I’m not entirely sure if I was formally taught what those things were until I went away to college. More likely, I just wasn’t paying attention.

I did have a nose for bullshit and hypocrisy, though, and quickly decided to take the school bus home from school on Wednesdays instead. I would play in the woods for two hours before walking in the front door and announcing to my father that my confirmation classmate’s mother had “dropped me off at the corner.” I got away with this for a couple weeks. Children don’t realize the extent to which adults speak to one another. Soon enough my father figured out my game and my mother struck a deal with me. I was to attend confirmation classes until I was confirmed, without fail, and Sunday services as necessary. Believe or not, she told me, but I was to finish what I’d started, and maybe I’d learn something from the process. After, I need never set foot in a church again, she’d said. Except for the occasional wedding or funeral, I haven’t.

Around the same time the man who was the driver of my school bus happened to be some brand of fundamentalist preacher. I remember him as a mean spirited little sparrow of an evangelical who liked to use the bus ride to and from school as an opportunity to right the sin of wayward youth by yelling irrelevant scripture over his shoulder and, when we children were truly unruly, stopping the bus along the road to deliver an entire sermon on why we were all going to burn in hell. This would have been around 1988 and I would have been in the seventh grade, and though already five years out of date, Mötley Crüe’s breakout album Shout at the Devil was as good as a top forty hit for my friends and me. We could usually make it all the way through the first verse of the album’s title song without the bus driver noticing, but by the time we had built the song’s first chorus of “shout, shout, shout, shout at the devil” into a pubescent, falsetto crescendo, the bus would careen to the muddy margins of the road where we would receive an earful about pentagrams and drugs and Dungeons and Dragons and black magic and… We were all going to burn in hell.

Decades later, I’ve come at midlife to live for a time in one of the world’s least religious countries, Estonia. It is a stark contrast from my home in the United States where people seem increasingly intent on legislating their belief in the existence of angels. To be fair, I don’t really know what Estonians believe – they’re a tight lipped lot – but history tells me this land on the Baltic Sea was the last corner of Europe to be Christianized, and the Estonians where the last of all. The poor bastards were finally put to the sword in the early decades of the 13th-century during the Livonian Crusade, because Christianity, because peace, love, and mercy. They were still rebelling Christian thralldom as late as the St. George’s Night Uprising of the mid 14th-century, and they remain to this day blessedly quiet on the subject, bless their pagan souls.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetPatience is a weapon goes the maxim. Those medieval churches and cathedrals tourists come to take pictures of, those were built by military occupiers, Germans, Swedes, Russians, no mass conversion implied. So I’ve been told in proud if quiet tones. While up the hill from my apartment, behind the ruins of a medieval cathedral there’s a large glacial erratic with two small hollows carved in the top thousands of years ago, an “Uku Stone” upon which I frequently find (and occasionally make) offerings of candles, flowers, coins, or bits of food. Estonians will speak at loud length about bog and wood, mushroom, bear, boar, and solstice if you let them. If they trust you. On this coming Sunday, December 21, the sun will be reborn and begin its long return to the north. My Estonian students all nodded knowingly when I observed this during our last class together yesterday. Back home, my American students wouldn’t have known what I was talking about, not most of them anyway. Apparently the old gods still hide in the mossy forests, still travel with the sun and moon, if you stay quiet, if you know how and where and when to look.

three 200-word scenes, tartu

Scene 1: On a Monday morning in the sauna at the Kesklinn MyFitness

The Russian guy on the cedar bench next to me wants to chat, wants to know if I have an opinion on Russian and US relations. I shrug, they’re all the same to me I say, they being the politicians, the rulers, whomever they are, they all want power while the people bleed, same as it ever was, all we can do is stay out of harm’s way. He thinks about this for a moment and nods then observes that in the current standoff the Russian people will probably bleed more than their American counterparts. Probably, I agree, they always do, though at the current moment Ukrainians seem to be doing most of the bleeding between the two. This seems to piss him off and he gets quite again. We take turns throwing water on the rocks. It gets very hot. But Russians are tough, I offer finally, and they know how to suffer. Americans, on the other hand, aren’t good at suffering at all, but we’re very fat so we can afford to bleed a lot before we really feel it. Maybe, I add, it all works out in the end. This seems to mollify him. We part ways.

Scene 2: On a Sunday afternoon under the scary 40-foot-tall rope junglegym at the Tähtvere playground.

An Estonian boy asks my son to play. They run off to the swings. The boy’s father sidles up and asks if I speak Estonian. I say yes, a little, but not much. He confides that between himself, his five-year-old son, and the boy’s mother, they speak four languages – Estonian, Russian, English, and German – but while he studied French a little, he never practiced and lost it. I say the same of both Spanish and German. He asks what I do and I tell him I’m a writer, editor, and professor. I ask him what he does and he says he’s works in the woods running a small company of a half dozen lumberjacks. I am married. He is not. We confer over Michigan and Estonia’s similarities. I confirm that there are no mountains where I’m from, but the northern part gets a lot of snow. He contributes February is the coldest month in Estonia. He wants to know what I’m doing in Tartu so I explain about my wife’s family, our desire for the kids to learn the language, and sabbatical. Your life is interesting, he says, then looks at his watch and walks away to collect his kid.

Scene 3: On a Friday night at Genialistide Klubi.

My wife and I sit near the door sipping beer. We’re drunk, but not as drunk as the old man who has just come in out of the cold and the rain. His teeth are bad where they exist at all and there’s a week’s worth of grey beard on his dirty face. He wants to know if I speak Russian, but he settles for English. He tells us an incomprehensible story about Russian peasants who sit down to table to drink vodka and share food. He keeps pumping his fist. We can’t understand why he keeps pumping his fist. He leans down and in until our noses almost touch and I can smell the booze on his breath and he wants to know if I trust him. I don’t. This is hilarious and he wants to tell everyone in the bar what just transpired between us. No one pays any attention. It is the second time I’ve run into this guy. The first time he asked me if I knew what a haiku was. I told him “haikus are easy / but sometimes they don’t make sense / refrigerator.” I read that on a t-shirt. He didn’t get it.

i have a picture of my cheese

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetPeople keep asking how I am spending my days on sabbatical. Am I writing, they wonder? Am I teaching? Well, yes, and yes, and getting kids to and from school and fed, too, but most of my own days hinge instead on something like a haircut. I need one right now, for instance. It will occupy almost the entirety of my Tuesday, for while most times my hair cuts might last 20-30 minutes, maybe 40 if I have to wait for my turn, in Estonia I must first spend an inordinately long time in a café, first to gather my courage, then to slowly and painstakingly compose what I must say to the barber. Short here, long there, fade into the beard I’d like to say, but I’m afraid discussing the nuances of my hair preferences with an Estonian barber is still far, far above my pay grade. Most of the heavy lifting I can do with a picture of my last hair cut, but I’m sick of miming my way through my daily life, too. So I must speak. I must speak to learn. But first I must compose, I must get close, though inevitably I will have to know that the plural genitive of hair is “juuste,” and let’s be honest right here, right now, I don’t really understand what “plural genitive” means. However, I do know that the word for cheese is “juust,” and that’s simply too close for comfort. I know that if I’m not really careful I will end up walking into the barbershop and I will end up saying something really stupid. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak much Estonian,” I’ll begin before adding, “but I have a picture of my cheese.” At that point in my day there will be little left remaining to accomplish, and scant dignity or daylight with which to do it.

let us give some thanks

Politicians and preachers and poets will give you wind, but a doctor will give you penicillin, and you can keep the wind if it makes you feel better about dying, because for my part, I’m mostly thankful that when time comes for me it won’t be tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, influenza, tetanus, polio, syphilis, a broken bone, or parasites, that when I do pass, as we all must sooner or later, my death is likely to be relatively quick and painless, assuming, of course, that I still have access to doctors and medical facilities and resources like drugs and sterilization equipment and the doctors can keep the damned priests out of the way because prayer doesn’t cure shit and I want to live as long as I can for my family, and by family I mean every person for whom I will ever take or throw a punch, every person who I will visit in a hospital, every person who’ll stand with me as we screw everything up, people with whom I don’t have to agree on guns or abortion or what turns us on when the lights go out, because real family knows that resemblance can lie, too, and if that person will like me anyway despite myself, if that person will hold my hand when we grieve or hold my hair while I puke, then that person is my family, even if only in the moment, because family is the only thing standing between us and an eternity of nothing preceding and following the rosy glow of this moment right now, and we need to cherish those people, whomever they may be, all of them, while we have them, because we don’t have each other for long, because life is too short to surround ourselves in an endless parade of cheap, tawdry, and mostly useless crap and people, and I, for one, want to feed the ones that matter on love because while it might be a banquet out there, most poor suckers are starving to death, and we both know Auntie Mame wasn’t talking about meat and potatoes, but love and life, and I want to feed my brain with it, feed my heart with it, feed my belly with it, because when we feed our brains with hate and lies, feed our heart with fear and hate, feed our bellies with falsehood and artificiality, then we all starve, I’m talking about anemia as metaphor, this anemic food we eat, and the anemic education we give our kids, and the anemic philosophies we predicate our lives around, our anemic empathy for one another, just look around to see the damage it does, look around at all the poor suckers starving to death amidst the banquet, so I’m  going to raise my glass, in thanks for knowledge and intellectual curiosity and the vitality and diversity of thought and opinion that it engenders, as I’m thankful for the love between family, between parents and children, between friends and neighbors, between the bodies of lovers, as I’m thankful for words as sign posts pointing the way toward something closer to substance and sustenance than mere calories and consumption than wind, as I’m thankful to whatever and whomever can do the thing needs doing, to whatever and whomever can keep the anemia at bay, be it you or someone like you, raise your glasses, brothers and sisters, clink clink, put all your love on the table, and let us give thanks while the giving is good.

shit quick, the bear is coming

photo (15)What’s the time? For the past ten years of my life, I couldn’t have told you. Post-graduate school, I started a career as a tenure-track professor. I had classes to prep and teach, papers to grade, students to advise, and committees, committees, committees. Then I foolishly founded a literary magazine that needed every once of my will for it to exist. Above all I had a wife that needed a husband and two small children in need of fathering and all that entailed. I would occasionally be called upon to be a son, a brother, a friend. I had a house to maintain and my chores were innumerable. I had hobbies, pastimes, pets, and for a while I combined the three into a dozen chickens. Those birds gave me the best eggs I’ve ever eaten, rich saffron yolks, but they shit a lot, too, as animals are wont to do, and that shit needed to be cleaned up regularly lest things get real. A good metaphor for life, that bit about the chickens.

To paraphrase Tolkien, I was feeling thin, stretched, like butter spread over too much bread. To paraphrase Ron Swanson, I was half-assing too much, and whole-assing too little. At forty, I see myself in the mirror. Tenured, a poetry book under my belt (whatever that’s worth), the magazine established, I have passed through both the eye of my own professional needle and through the jaws of my own snarling, selfmade noonday demon, family and health relatively intact. And while there’s always room for betterment, perhaps even for some additional kind of distinction, there’s also now this thing called time. Mostly, I just want a nap, but I’m trying to be responsible in this newfound place. I’m busy and engaged, learning a new language, teaching, writing. While I’m hardly using my sabbatical year to help eradicate Ebola or to contribute in even the smallest of ways to ending conflicts in Syria or Ukraine, while I have little in the way of contribution upon the subject of Bill Cosby, the horror show that was the American mid-term elections, or the careening clown car named the Duggars, that’s probably a silly standard to hold oneself to, isn’t it?

We live, we eat, we die, and we should all get over ourselves. I’m beginning to see this now that I have the time, finite though it may be. I’m using mine to help my family through the daily experience of living abroad. I’m using mine to scrape out a little extra space for joy or exhilaration or catharsis or something approximate where I can get it. On really good days, I’m using mine to get my 7-year-old son off to his adoptive Estonian elementary school without either of us having a panic attack. These things are accomplishments when I take the time to see them as such.Though there still be a lot of dirty laundry on the floor, though there remain many unwritten words.

 

 

say yes and see what happens

RattamaratonWebEstonians are said to be a quiet, reserved, and polite people, or so the guidebooks would have us believe. Judged from the vantage point of my own loud, obnoxious middle-American standard, I suppose there’s a scrap of truth to the quiet part, but let’s be honest, most of the world’s peoples are publicly quieter than me and my brothers and sisters in the good old USofA and by a long shot, saying nothing of northern Europeans. As for reserved and polite, that’s harder to get at. Certainly, my experience has been that Estonians are more formal than Americans in speech and dress (they observe the formal/informal “you” when they speak to strangers, for instance, and I have yet to see an Estonian publicly wearing sweatpants). I will observe, however, that for a supposedly reserved people, they sure like to sing in public a lot and celebrate every minute occasion with feasting, flowers, and yet even more singing. It strikes me that the reserved part is maybe more a holdover from the Soviet-period when being reserved might have been all that spared a person from a one-way cattle car ride to the gulag. In my personal experience, Estonians are a whole lot of loud, gregarious fun (just my kind), once they’re done with telling you how quiet, reserved, and not fun they are.

Case in point, the Tartu Rattamaraton, which is the largest mountain bike race in Estonia, and the third largest (claim the organizers) in the world. There were 8,400 cyclists across three events in this year’s event, held September 21 – a children’s race, a competitive 89K race, and a genial 40K race. I learned about the race from my wife who’d mentioned to my daughter’s homeroom teacher that I liked to bicycle, to which my daughter’s homeroom teacher exclaimed, “my husband, too!” Then the homeroom teacher went home and said to her husband something I can only imagine as, “the nice American man likes to ride bikes and so do you, do something about it,” which must have elicited both a roll of the eyes and a sigh, but did end with a very nice email informing me about the race.

Now, I’m a pretty experienced mountain biker, if I do say so myself. I’m not claiming to be particularly good at it, and I’m certainly not competitive, but I’m a shade better than the average bear, and as my home trails in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula provide some of the best single-track riding anywhere in the world, I’m also decently practiced. More importantly, perhaps, I’m annoyingly fey about the whole thing. For instance, I exclusively ride a 29+ single-speed, only on a Brook’s saddle, I prefer Bern helmets and 5.10 free ride shoes, among other accouterment, and I have very strongly held opinions and prejudices regarding riding style. What does any of this mean, you ask? In terms of actual mountain biking, it means fuck all, save that I can be a precious and profoundly pompous ass about it when I choose.  And/or it means I had picky questions about the race to which I received unsatisfying answers from my sources.

Was the Tartu Rattamaraton a road race? No, a mountain bike race. But from the website I can see that it’s not really on trails?  No, a mixture of pavement, dirt roads, grassy farm lanes, and wooded two-tracks, with the occasional small knoll thrown in for interest (the highest point in the whole damn country, after all, is Suur Munamägi – literally, “Big Egg Mountain” – at only 318 metres or 1,043 feet above sea level). But everyone rides mountain bikes? No, they ride whatever. What’s whatever? Whatever is whatever, ride what you want. But all I have here in Estonia is an old jalopy of a cruiser, single speed, coaster brakes, fenders, a bell, and all I see online are pictures of people riding mountain bikes? Your bike will do fine, people use similar bikes all the time. For forty kilometers? Yes, yes, yes, some even wear costumes. Wait, costumes, what?

And so on because I couldn’t reconcile what I was being told with what I was reading with what I was seeing online with what I thought I knew about mountain biking and mountain bike races. Was my daughter’s teacher’s husband being honest with me, obtuse, merely polite, or was he yanking my chain? And there’s the crux. I can’t tell. True, Estonians are a polite people, but the way politeness combines with the reserved and quiet part comes across as something closer to cagey, not to mention they have a wickedly subtle and dry sense of humor that means you can’t ever quite tell when they’re taking the piss out of you, and also they are adept at playing every side against the middle (try being the tiny guy who endures for 10,000 years on a playground full of enormous bullies and see what kind of skills you develop). Be that as it may, politeness here can sometimes translate to dealing out all the rope someone needs to tie his own noose. Accordingly, I hemmed and hawed over it all, checked into renting a proper race bike (too expensive), and finally decided just to skip the whole damn thing and do nothing. My wife’s advice: “Say yes and see what happens.”

Twenty years ago, post college, while backpacking through Europe and North Africa, my wife and I agreed on a set of basic travel rules. Most were pretty prosaic, things like don’t try to settle a disagreement while hungry, or don’t willingly separate without a contingency plan for how to find one another again (this was pre-cellphone ubiquity). Many of those rules were administrative and forgotten over the years, but the ones rooted in cultivating adventure stuck. My favorite has always been, if a little old lady is selling food out of a five-gallon bucket at a bus station, you must buy it and eat it. Awfully wordy and literal, I’ll admit, but I stand by this particular rule as god’s own gospel truth. Those donuts or pierogis or tamales or whatever the little old lady is selling for pennies will probably be the best thing you’ve stuck in your pie hole all day, but I digress. No doubt, as a life philosophy applied injudiciously, seize the day can sometimes turn into rue the day, but while one might get the occasional burn while pursuing the moment (I’ve certainly got the scars to prove it), the burned will seldom suffer from being either bored or boring, however boorish.

So it went when Marika and I were twenty, so it goes with us, for better or worse, nigh onto middle age. I said yes, registered for the race, and on the day decided that if I was going to ride a stupid bike in a confusing race, I may as well look the part. As I don’t generally travel with costume, per se, I dressed up in a white shirt, orange tie, and black boots. Everyone else looked like they were about to embark on the Tour de France. I looked like I was headed to the local pub to catch a punk rock show. It turned out to be true, that within the sea of mountain bikes and brand plastered spandex there were, indeed, a handful of comrades in clownishness. There was one other guy in a full suit, albeit on a mountain bike. There was a woman on a bike like mine, but outfitted for an Olympic speed skating event. There was a man in a pink tutu and matching pink wig who gave me a high five as we wheeled past one another while warming up at the race start. It was immediately after that high five that I careened headlong into a racer bedecked in branded racing regalia and astride an incredibly expensive mountain bike, knocking us both to the ground.

Like any place with a high proportion of outsiders to locals, there are two distinct Estonias. There is the small, well-curated one for tourists, and the larger messier one for Estonians themselves. What makes the separation so incredibly striking here is the intensity of the language barrier between the two. Often, in situations where the Estonian language is assumed, it is also assumed that there simply won’t be anyone but Estonian speakers present. Not that foreigners from further afield aren’t welcome, far from it. Estonians always seem genuinely pleased that you’re there, that you’re trying to speak their language, however badly, that you’re participating in Estonian culture, that you like Estonia and them (who isn’t pleased by this?), they just seem perpetually surprised by it, it apparently happens so seldom. Which is to say I was not expected at this race to begin with, let alone dressed absurdly, riding an absurd bicycle, and then crashing into Estonians and knocking them to the ground. As I apologized in English, my victim, the man on the mountain bike, looked upon me like I were an evil phantom, picked himself up cussing, gave my bike a little kick for good measure, and rode away fuming. Not two minutes later, a colleague from Tartu University was pointing me out to her boyfriend who was also riding in the race. “Look at that guy dressed up on the funny bike,” she was saying, then “wait, I know that guy,” then, to me, “what on earth are you doing here?” What, indeed.

The race itself was fun, though there isn’t really much more to tell. I had a bent front rim from my prerace collision, which while not a deal breaker, added a distinct wobble to my ride, thus completing the Benny Hill effect I was apparently going for. Otherwise, it was a beautiful, sunny day on a course that took me past green fields, adorable peasant farmsteads, and through rolling autumnal forests. I finished in two hours and seventeen minutes, well ahead of most, if not all, of the children and old ladies who made up the field. And at the end, I got to have a sauna where I stood naked in line (small sauna, big race) to get in. While I queued up, I couldn’t help but notice that we men were in direct line of sight down a short open hall from a café that occupied the same building. Spectators from the race, men, women, and children, were lined up to buy a cup of coffee or bottle of water. Some of them watched us naked men. Some did not. No one really seemed to care. Two women drinking coffee were talking together matter-of-factly, pointing to us occasionally, conferring, nodding, bored. As no one else in the sauna line seemed to mind this, I decided I probably shouldn’t either. I’m not a shy man. The guy standing next to me, also belly and balls to the breeze, turned to me and asked me something in Estonian. I’m sorry, I replied, but I don’t speak very much Estonian. He was so delighted by my not understanding very much Estonian in Estonian and asked in English why I was there. I raced, I replied. “Of course,” he said, “you must have been our American, welcome to Estonia.” Yes, I replied in Estonian, thank you, I love it here.” He smiled warmly at this, visibly pleased, and we both returned amiably to our silence, arms crossed across our chests, bare assed come whatever, come what may.

how is the sausage occupied?

My wife’s 95-year-old Estonian grandfather, Edgar, likes to tell me how stupid and ugly English is, particularly the kind of American English I speak. This topic is usually capped by the proclamation that Estonian once came in second only to Italian as the world’s most beautiful language. I’ve never been able to substantiate the whole language world championship thing (not that I’ve tried very hard), but I’m not denying that such a contest once took place, nor that Estonian came in second to Italian in the final race. I simply don’t know. All I’m saying is I can easily imagine finding old men the world over who would make similarly cranky claims for their own languages.

That said, as an American poet working exclusively in the language, I don’t entirely disagree with Edgar’s takedown of English. It has a lot going for it, true. It’s flexible, nimble, and like a good toilet paper, it’s exceedingly resilient and absorbent. But it’s also messy, chaotic, and oftentimes cumbersome, and though English can certainly turn on the charm when it wants to, I don’t think we can amass more than a handful of people who might call it particularly pretty. Estonian, on the other hand, has a lot of cheerleaders, about 1.1 million, or basically every single Estonian speaker in the world, because with the exception of sauna and giant wooden swings, there is nothing Estonians are more militantly enthusiastic about as their language. No, I’m going to agree with Edgar and the rest of his countrymen and women, Estonian is a beautiful language, maybe even the second most beautiful language in the world, especially when spoken fluently by beautiful Estonian women, of whom there are many. Hoist the blue, black, and white and cue the 30,000-person choir.

But while we’re at it, Estonia, there’s one other thing about your language besides its beauty I’d like to point out. It’s horrifically frustrating to try to learn as a 40-year-old American, which is to say, it’s an ancient Finno-Ugric language with virtually no similarities to English. It’s a language in which there is no gender or future tense, but fourteen noun cases with hundreds of different spelling groups, and instead of prepositional phrases, all the nouns change in weird, irregular ways, and then all the adjectives have to change along with them. True, all languages have their eccentricities, and learning any new language is a struggle, and I’m getting awfully old for this kind of knowledge acquisition at any level of complexity. All I’m saying is that to travel to the land of fluent Estonian, one must cross a bridge gaurded by evil philologists. But I married in, so what’s a guy to do?

photo (13)The first time I tried to pick up some Estonian was in 2009 when I took a two-week summer intensive course at Tartu University. It was something of a failure, I’ll confess, but in my defense, no one learns more than a smattering of any language in two weeks, no matter how intense the course. Also, I returned to the United States immediately after finishing the class and—I don’t know if you realize this—there isn’t a great deal of Estonian spoken in the good old USofA. And do you want to practice something you’re bad at with your spouse, mother-in-law, or an old man who holds nothing in higher regard than the language you’re about to butcher alive? Right. So I walked away from my first attempt with what you might expect: My name is Matt, my favorite shirt is blue, and thank you for the delicious hand pies. In the interim I’ve retained exactly that, plus please, thank you, damn it, and my favorite, “mine perse,” which is kind of like f-off, but literally means “go up an ass.” Beautiful, no?

Now, five years later, I’m at it again because I’m living in Estonia for a year this time, going to the market every day, and pointing and grunting my way through transactions with the market ladies is quickly loosing its charm. No delusions of grandeur, mind you. I would simply like, for the first time in my life, to be something other than the stereotypical monolingual American that I am, the kind of person who might buy carrots without resorting to “please, orange things” in a bad accent and a lot of hysterical smiling thrown on top for goodwill. If, by the end of my stay, I can answer my Estonian teacher’s daily inquiry into my wellbeing by saying, reliably, “I’m well, thanks for asking,” instead of,  “I’m well, thanks for pissing” (a mistake by just one umlaut in Estonian), I’ll count myself a success of sorts, a winner in the game of radically lowered expectations.

photo (14)In the meantime, my lovely Estonian-American wife, Marika, mocks me daily, slowly and painstakingly asking me dumb questions over drinks or on my Facebook wall, things like, “how is the sausage occupied?” Well, perseauk (that means asshole, one of our terms of endearment, so you see how we roll), I’d be happy to tell you all about this sausage’s occupation, so long as I can do so in the simplest declarative sentences possible and you don’t rush me. This sausage name Matt. This sausage favorite shirt blue. This sausage love the hand pie, very good. Big thanks for pissing.

I come to you this week to report that I’m writing almost every day. I can’t say as anything particularly good is coming of it, but I’m putting words on paper, and submitting a few things here and there in the process. Though I never have any great hope for any one particular submission, I’ve also been around the block enough to know that the odds of success rise dramatically when one does something more than nothing. Hard earned wisdom, there. Thus, I believe, I’ve effectively resaddled the pony. Let’s ride.

Matt bike raceWhich I did on Sunday, ride that is, after a fashion, as part of the Tartu Rattamaraton, the largest mountain bike race in Estonia (and one of the largest in the world). The event clocked in at over 8000 riders over two events, an 89- and a shorter 40-kilometer course. It was more of what we call a cyclocross race in the US than a mountain bike one, with the majority of the route covering gently rolling forest two tracks and gravel roads through farmland. Though the vast majority of riders were on mountain bikes, I road an old Norwegian single-speed bike with coaster brakes (the kind you have to pedal backward to brake) in the shorter race, and though I was a danger to myself and everyone around me, I finished the shorter race in two hours and seventeen minutes unscathed, and capped the experience off with a sauna in the woods of Elva, a little village just south of Tartu, where the race ended. I’ve much more to say about this little adventure, but I’ve got a little essay about it submitted and pending at a magazine that doesn’t take kindly to previous publication of any kind. So you’ll have to wait for that to move forward, or for it to get rejected and end up here. So it goes.

This I can share, though. After coming home from the race Sunday night, I put on my pjs and then gave a poetry reading as part of Transatlantic Poetry‘s online reading. I read a few poems from my book, THIS IS WHAT THEY SAY (Typecast Publishing, 2012) and I got to do it from my living room while drinking a beer. In retrospect I didn’t even have to wear pants, though I did.  Check it out below if you’re interested in such things, or go here.

It was a good day. More soon…

10606456_10152238777417257_18371475616253337_nIt’s foggy this morning in Tartu, Estonia, where I am living at the moment, having moved here three weeks ago with my wife and kids. We’ll be here until next summer. Marika and I are both on sabbatical from Michigan Tech for the year, she has strong family ties with the little country (she and the kids are dual citizens, actually), we want the kids to speak Estonian, we were able to make connections with Tartu University… More on this later, I’m sure, but right now, suffice it to say, it’s just a relief to be away from an America I find increasingly difficult to handle: the insane fundamentalist religiosity, the insane love affair with guns and the overwhelming number of mass shootings that are its spawn, the undercurrent of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, the public disavowal of information and knowledge and perspective and the dismantling of intellectualism of all stripes, the insistence upon total and perennial war… It’s a big list befitting a big dysfunctional country. True, all times, places, and peoples have their problems. Yet for all that is right with the States, and for all the reasons I love it and will gladly return to it when this sabbatical year ends, I’ve been ready for a trial separation for a good long while. We need some time apart.

Next week I turn 40. To be honest, while I find neither aging nor mortality particularly thrilling, neither am I scared of nor even particularly interested in either. Not yet, anyway. Besides, I’m better now than I’ve ever been in my life previously, so what’s to groan over? Not to mention, growing older is an inescapable fact, and much like the  weather, I find dwelling upon the subject to be mildly boring. Yes, Captain Obvious, there is weather; yes, we age. On the other hand, lingering overlong upon mortality has always struck me as futile at best and weak minded at worst, a malignant tumor sized failure of the human imagination. My money is on a particularly similar nothing at the end apropos to the eternity preceding our births. Not much to get jacked out of shape about. But let’s agree to disagree these points if it makes us get along better, and agree, instead, that I am happy to be alive, that I am happy you are alive here with me, that neither of us are what we once were, anymore than either of us is likely to remain as we are now. Then, let’s talk about music or food or poetry or sex or bicycles or birthday plans. This next one of mine will be spent with my family at a little Russian place down the street. I’ll be the big hairy dude eating blinis and caviar and getting drunk out on the patio. Everything else, my friends, is pointless noise.

It seems a good time, too, to mark a return to public writing. I’ve been absent from it for more than a year now. So much for my writing life! A friend once told me that in the absence of writing there is no such thing as being a Writer, that previous publications are no indication of present occupational status, that a person is only the thing when actively engaged in the doing of it. Unnecessarily pedantic, sure. I mean, one can still be a tennis player when they leave the court to take a shower, they can still be a lawyer when they leave the office to have dinner with their husband, right? But insofar as my friend’s claim hyper-privileges the place of process in the life of the artist… I guess I’m down with that, process trumping product and all. I suppose this is why writers always discuss current rather than past projects with one another. “What are you working on?” being more gang sign than project query. Are you one of us still, we are asking? Are you still in process? No, has been my answer to these queries these past months, at least in my head. No, I published my book of poems, I went on my little tour, and silence I was ill prepared for descended around me. No, I got tenure and checked the fuck out, broke my arm in a bicycling accident and checked the fuck out. No, I had a personal meltdown, was diagnosed with an obsessive anxiety disorder, and spent some very difficult , but fruitful months checking the fuck back in, as it were, pardon my language, and pushing my nastier demons out from the driver’s seat of my careening bus. No, I haven’t been working on much more than emails, texts, journal scribbles, the occasional rough sketchs of poems quickly miscarried. But I’d like to get back to it now, if for no other reason than to say I’m currently an American writer living abroad, something I’ve always kind of wanted to say about myself. How about you, what are you working on? More blinis, caviar, and vodka anyone?

 

 

photo-1It has been a year of readings, lectures, classroom visits, book festivals, fairs, and signings: Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Boston, Massachusetts; Iowa City, Iowa; New York City; State College, Pennsylvania; Albany, New York; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Dayton, Ohio; Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Louisville, Kentucky; among others. I’ve read in the basements of punk rock bars and community arts centers, in book stores and libraries, brewpubs and coffee shops, in university lecture halls, on stumps, in alleyways and old movie theaters, and in at least two boutique clothing stores. There have been mics and no mics. There has been money, but mostly no money. Sometimes I sold books, sometimes I didn’t. I once read to an audience of two, mostly to audiences in the teens and twenties, and twice I’ve read to audiences of almost two hundred. Sometimes those audiences have come of their own free will while others have been conscripted. Sometimes I’m the draw while other times I am a happy hanger on. I’ve traveled by plane and train, but mostly thousands of miles in cars. I prefer the trains, hate planes with a passion, but as it is America, cars are simply the path of least resistance. I hate cars, too. Cars, it’s said, are coffins. I’m almost at the end of it. Three Twin Cities events yet in front of me. I’ve smoked too many cigarettes. I’m tired. I’ve learned a lot, much of which concerns the fact that I am most certainly no longer twenty and being almost famous as a poet is about the equivalent of being a hobo. I’ve always liked hobos.

Continue reading