I am a native son of California. Born and raised in the Golden State, without a single drop of Estonian in me. My ancestors, in order of their arrival into North America, are English (1700s, at least), German and Polish Jews (1840s-1850s), and Polish Catholics (shortly after World War I). My adoptive father is half Russian and Belgian (hence my distinctive surname, which would be most appropriate for a boxer or wrestler). But, as far as I know, not a single Estonian in the bunch.
So, how did I end up in Europe’s northeastern edge? The story goes some years back, when I was an undergraduate studying Aristotle. Little did I know my interest in the Stagirite (to use his academic nickname, or as some of us call him, “The Old Stag”) would lead me to the Baltic.
I always had an interest in philosophy. After some teenage experimentation with Bertrand Russell and Logical Positivism (yes, it was a wild adolescence), I chanced upon a book on Thomism and logic at the library of the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was Henry Babcock Veatch’s Intentional Logic. I thought he made a good case for why Aristotelian logic, as developed by John of St Thomas, kicked Russell’s arse. “Hot dog!” I thought. “Where do I sign up?”
By chance or Providence, I found a magazine advertisement that appealed to my new sprung desire. It talked about a party where college students transformed Aristotle’s Categories (his intro book to logic) into a rap song. “While admitting of varying contraries, substance remains the same hunk of cheese.” Silly lyrics, but no one jokes about philosophy unless they take it seriously. The ad was for Thomas Aquinas College, so I inquired, applied, and went.
TAC (as Thomas Aquinas College is called by those who know her) is still a small college. About 300 students, I believe. When I went, it was even smaller, about 200 students: Nestled in the picturesque hills of Ventura County, the little school is surrounded by nature. At night, one can see the stars in the inky black sky, or walk in an area of ponds and trees called “The Punchbowls”. When I was there, there was only one permanent building. Dorms and classes were in trailers. There was an atmosphere of “roughing it.” We did not notice, for we were eager to learn. Instead of textbooks and lectures, we had Socratic style seminars on canonical works in Western thought, from Homer and Virgil to Nietzsche and Einstein. Studying sonatas by Mozart, reading Aquinas and Newton in Latin, that kind of thing. More than the books, however, I remember the people I met. One of them was our librarian, a charismatic, older blonde woman from Lithuania.
“Lithuania needs English teachers!” she told me. She gave me a book on Lithuanian grammar, and I marveled at how a contemporary language still preserved many of the features of Sanskrit and classical Greek. When I graduated from TAC, I was completely free. So she contacted a few people, and I got on a plane. This was in 1994, just a few years after the fall of Communism. I began my first Baltic adventure.
Next: Lost and Found in Vilnius