Old Units

I wonder if there is any man-made unit of measure still in use older than the hour. Months, days, and years have physical events to define them, but no aspect of nature told the Assyrians to divide the day into 24 parts (actually 12 pairs of parts).

Looks like I’ve got me a date!

I’m not used to getting hit on. Sometimes, after a conversation that in retrospect seemed flirtatious, I’ve spoken with friends and asked, “So was she…?” only to be smacked upside the head. “Yes, you moron, she was interested in you.” These conversations occur, of course, long after the fact.

So tonight I was in the Little Café Near Home, and I had an interesting conversation with another patron whom I had met once before. We talked about all kinds of stuff. It was when he paid for my drinks and waited for me to saddle up and leave that the alarm bells went off. I reviewed our previous conversation. Plenty of things that could be misinterpreted. For instance, while we were talking I got a message about a possible gathering on Thursday. I mentioned it, and he asked if he could come along. “Sure, sure, the more the merrier,” I said.

“We’ll have to think of a story for me, to explain why I’m there,” he said. Now, sitting here, it’s obvious, although maybe tomorrow it won’t be again. I did not stop to think why he would want a cover story. A friend joining me at a gathering seemed perfectly natural. I didn’t think past that, I thought it would be fun to invent a completely fictitious background for him. It was a creative writing exercise. I ran with it. My story involved prison.

There were other questions he asked, mildly personal ones, that had I caught on I could have answered with equally innocuous but meaningful answers.

So now I’m contemplating what to tell him and how. It’s my own fault; if I had a clue I would have read the signs long before and not allowed this situation to develop. On the plus side there is the fact that I carry around me an aura of remoteness carefully crafted keep people from getting too close. It should work on anyone, I figure, as long as I remember to use it. But I am classically clueless, unable to recognize even the most obvious of come-ons. Mostly I think it’s because I can’t imagine why anyone would hit on me in the first place.

Note to all and everyone. Hints don’t work on me. I can sit in the corner and watch the subtle nuances of a conversation and tell you things the participants themselves don’t know, but make me part of the interaction and whatever observational or analytical skills I have vanish in a haze of self-delusion.

* * *

Time has passed, and now I find myself in the Budvar Bar, the closest drinkery to my house. Hockey is on, Czech Republic hosting Finland, and it’s Thursday, so the waitress has no shirt on. Old men are playing cards for money, and one of them has no nose. Generally I avoid this place on Thursdays, but, well, I know that no one will talk to me here, and right now I don’t want to talk to anyone. I have a lot of work to do. I am conspicuously the one of these things that is not like the others.

I have mentioned in the past that it is a peculiar Czech talent to turn a woman serving beer with no shirt on into an oddly unsexy event. Tonight, however, if you will allow my Y-chromosome to speak for a moment, we have the exception that proves the rule. The difference: her smile. Rare enough among waitresses throughout the land, waitresses without shirts wrap themselves instead in a wall of studied disinterest, boredom, and downright disdain. I can’t blame them. Tonight, however, the waitress has a pretty smile, and that makes all the difference. (“You’re the best”, I just heard from the table next to mine. “Thank you,” she said, blushing a little, proving it. She is much more comfortable with the arrangement than I am.)

It still bothers me when she stands in front of the hockey game, though. I haven’t seen hockey for quite some time. (Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen breasts either, but somehow boobs seem subordinate to hockey in August.) And now a little more time has passed, The Czechs beat the Fins in a shootout, the crowd (and the smoke) is thinning, the Partial People (one with no nose, one with no larynx) are playing cards, and the only topless woman who has ever tweaked my imagination has gone home early. Obviously, I did not have the same affect on her. But…

It was a good night.

An unusually ordinary day

I’m not a shopper. I’m especially not a big-store shopper. It’s not so much that I consciously avoid the giant department stores, I just don’t like lugging the booty home with me when there are neighborhood stores I would walk past on my way. I’ve been in a couple of the big department stores around here, but always as a spectator. Today, it was time. I needed a few things that the local stores don’t seem to carry (emphasis on ‘seem’), and I’ve lived in my apartment long enough that it’s time I went out and got those little things that make a house a home. A year and a half is long enough without a can opener. If I waited any longer people might accuse me of procrastinating.

I hadn’t realized it until I saw a billboard, but one metro stop away from me is one of the giant department stores. It is in the direction away from the city, and in my time here I had never gone past my stop. So on the one hand all I did was hop on the metro to go shopping at a giant store. On the other hand I went to a new place to shop at a store I’d never been to before.

It was entirely like every other giant department store on the planet, with just a couple of exceptions. The goods were arranged with czech sensibilites, matching the way smaller stores categorize themselves. For instance, every shopping district in Prague has a store that sells electric things. If you want something that runs off electricity, for whatever purpose, you go to the electric thing store. Perfectly sensible. I found my beard trimmer between the digital cameras and the microwave ovens. Because it’s electric. Once I walked through the store once, I had no trouble finding anything I needed.

I now have knives that cut, a nice stainless-steel frying pan, a can opener, and a hair trimmer (not one of those pathetic pieces of junk they sell as beard trimmers). Five more years and I’ll be moved in!

Life

Listen up kids. Life is not a toy. Life is not something you throw against a wall to see what happens. Life is not something you leave out in the rain. Life is a puppy. It’s crazy and spastic and will pee on you sometimes and poop in your shoes, but you have to take care of the puppy.

Seriously. Take care of the puppy. I’ve had enough bad news this week.

Illustrators wanted!

We here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked ideas are going to turn up the audience participation a notch. Why? Because we care. Yep, for any of you with an artistic bent, now’s your chance to emerge from the comments and get your stuff on the front page.

Elephants of Doom is turning out to be a pretty big story (2000 words in and no ivory-billed woodpecker yet), but I have written a couple of bits that might be fun to draw. If you’re interested, drop me a line in the comments and I’ll send you the part of EoD that I have written.

I thought of turning this into a contest, but hey, if more than one person supplies a picture, I’ll just include them all — with, of course, full credit to the artist and a link to your page if you would like. My goal is to release Elephants of Doom to celebrate visitor 50,021, which will happen a few days from now. Sorry about the short notice. If you send an illustration later, I can still add it, and make sure that everyone sees it.

In fact, now that I think about it, feel free to illustrate any of the stories I scratch out here. Some of them are certainly more illustration-worthy than others, but any of them would be improved by a nice picture. (It’s hard to imagine why you would, but if you choose to illustrate Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy, Episode 1, please be careful.)

Thunder in Krumlov

Out on the water, making our way downstream, our raft stood out. Cap’n Soup Boy standing tall, waving the battered Jolly Roger, wearing his pirate gear, while Izzy and I acted in a generally piratic way… it worked. Those on shore called out and took pictures. There was no doubt that the ladies were particularly impressed (I kept a low profile). Izzy was making plans. When we got to Krumlov, he was going to tear that place up. Rock and roll all night, etc.

We pulled up at our final stop (“Let’s keep going!” Little John called), dried off, and boarded the van to Krumlov. It dropped us off right in front of our hostel. (Total cost per person for the rafts and the lift into town: $12. Just try to beat that.)

The van brought our baggage with us, and most of that was of the personal kind. While we on the Zen Boat had had a most enjoyable pull, there was dissent on the other boat. Nothing major, but there were some larger-than-average personalities crowded onto the raft, and friction occurred. I was surprised, then, when later there was friction between Zen Boat members, and that I was one of them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were delivered safe and sound at our hostel, and the seven of us checked in. We were put in an eight-bed room, with the last bed already occupied by a chinese guy traveling alone. He was nowhere to be seen, but already I felt sorry for him. It was pushing nine o’clock when we invaded the place, and I groaned when Soup Boy declared that he was going to take a shower before we went out. I was hungry after paddling his ass around all day. Soup Boy showered. Izzy declared his intention to shower as well. I said I wasn’t going to wait while everyone showered, and if that’s what was going to happen, I’d just go on ahead. Rosa also objected.

Izzy got pissed off. Not at me, though, at Rosa. If he’d gotten pissed off at me, I could have apologized and explained that it was my stomach talking and I would continue to be a pushy jerk until I was fed. His anger was directed at Rosa, however, because for much of the day her advice sounded like criticism, and even though Izzy was not the target for most of it, it still bugged him. (In retrospect, I realize I could have stepped in an apologized and intercepted the anger. That’s hindsight for you.)

Advice and criticism. The distinction is not simple, and it’s more complex when you consider friendly criticism. Rosa, however, could improve her delivery. Like me, she was among strangers, and I think she wanted to present her most competent and assertive self. With two exceptions on this trip, I just paddled. Exception one was getting our collective ass out the door for food before everything closed. Izzy knew of a place with a dish called Bohemian Feast, which translates into English as “Big plate of food for not so much money”. Were it not for this special knowledge he held, I might have taken off on my own.

The castle tower in Český Krumlov

The castle tower in Český Krumlov, taken from the riverside table where we ate out feast.

I’m glad I didn’t. The bohemian feast is awesome. We sat at a table by the river, and the food was plentiful and bohemian. Izzy made the right call, and not for the last time. We ate, we drank spiced mead, and fun was had by all. We toasted Soup Boy and I officially thanked him for putting the trip together. We ate more.

Finally it was time to go. Izzy and Little John, both determined previously to get laid seventeen times each, declared they were tired and going back to the hostel. I was up for a bit of nocturnal walking around, and when Soup Boy signed up, the rest of the party expressed interest as well. Where we ate was on the riverside, with the castle soaring above us on the opposite bank. We headed that way.

We strolled through the castle grounds. I was mostly with Rosa, and we chatted about nothing important. Jane was dedicated to talking with Soup, which left Beau on his own. That made me a bit uneasy, since he was Jane’s boyfriend and all. Beau, I think, has a traditional streak like mine. It was peaceful at night, and during one moment of solitude I saw flashes away behind the hills. Lightning, still too distant for me to make out the thunder. I noticed later that the flashes were getting closer. Eventually we moseyed down into town, and looked around for a place to have one final birthday toast. Although it was the weekend during tourist season, most places were closing up by then, with the exception of clubs that looked loud and uncomfortable.

Shadows on the castle wall, Český Krumlov

Shadows on the castle wall

Eventually we found a spot that wasn’t quite closed yet, and I voted for the patio. Others thought maybe we should get home before the rain started, but for me the right choice was to be under a big umbrella outdoors when the deluge happened. I carried the argument for a while, and when Beau complained of getting wet I managed to get us to move to another table with better umbrellage, rather than go inside.

The rain came down. Torrents of big, fat drops splattered into the street, quickly soaking anyone caught out in it. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, I sipped my beer and wondered how it could get any better. When the waiter came to suggest we go inside for shelter, Beau and Jane jumped at the chance, however, and so we went into the closing restaurant and sat next to a table full of smokers. Even so, the conversation was pleasant, and I had a good time. The storm passed, we paid our bill, and headed back to the hostel, with only one wrong turn.

When we got there the light was on, Little John and Izzy were sacked out, and Chinese Guy was asleep on the bunk underneath mine. I tried not to jiggle the bed too much as I climbed up. Soon I was asleep.

But not for long. I awoke a short time later to the sound of Chinese Guy snoring gently, and the feeling of my shoulder stiffening up. Hours of steady paddling was going to take its toll on muscles more accustomed to typing. I rolled over to put my arm in a more comfortable position. The bed shook. The snoring stopped.

That set the theme for the rest of the night. Short sleep, snoring and stiff muscles, roll over. I didn’t sleep that much, but I was pleasantly surprised to awaken in the morning, (after Izzy’s alarm went off at 4:30 and Chinese Guy got up early and quietly left) with my muscles in relatively good shape. After a bit of that very pleasant lazy-morning snoozing I climbed out of bed, planning to write while others slept. Izzy and Little John both got up as well, however, and without a single word being spoken we headed out to find breakfast. Not one damn word. That, friends, is how decisions should be made. I enjoyed everyone’s company on the trip, but I was glad to get out into the morning air before other people got up and the inevitable decision paralysis set in.

The streets were deserted that early in the morning. We headed back toward the middle of town, where the most touristy places were, and eventually Izzy landed us at another great place to eat. It was a hostel with a full kitchen that served true English breakfasts, and had unlimited self-serve tea and coffee. On top of that, it was cheap. Breakfast was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip, hanging with a couple of guys, not having to talk but finding things to discuss, some of them even meaningful.

Eventually it was time to go back and join the others and catch the bus back to Prague. As smoothly and calmly as the morning had been to that point, going from a cluster size of three to one of seven increases complexity by several orders of magnitude. Eventually I went out to the hostel’s garden to wait for the others to unknot. Izzy was already there, and Rosa was not far behind me. Beau, it seems, is not a fast starter in the mornings.

Finally we were moving (after Beau ran back to get his phone), but we didn’t get far before some people wanted to stop for breakfast. It was cutting the time a bit close, but I figured that the absolute worst thing that could happen was that we’d be stuck in a truly pleasant little town for another day. From my point of view, that wasn’t so bad, so once again I forced myself to relax and not worry so much about missing the bus.

Sardines

The bus ride home (artist’s rendition).
Photo stolen from here

We did not miss the bus, thanks largely to Izzy and Little John. I’m not sure if it wouldn’t have been better, however, if perhaps we had. When we got on, there were no seats left, so we stood in the aisle. A few more people got on, and the driver called out for everyone standing to squish together more so we could squeeze more people on. Some of our group ended up standing the entire way back to Prague. When people needed to get off the bus, it was a major chore for them to make their way to an exit.

At least there were no chickens. There was a fat guy who wheezed on my head for a few kilometers, and I wondered if there would be more rainstorms in Český Krumlov that night, and why I had wedged onto the bus just because everyone else did. The bus the next day would have been much less crowded. Still, I got to sit much of the way, which is more than some of the others had.

Home at last, tired, happy to be away from the crush of people, I truncated my goodbyes as much as possible without being too impolite and headed for home.

Happy Birthday, Soup Boy, and thanks for putting together a fantastic weekend.

To sleep, perchance to dream

I got the text message on my phone this morning. It was from Soup Boy. “You remember Gretel?”

“Of course,” I typed back. I had met Gretel a few times here and there. We had been extras together once, but the first time I saw her she was asleep on my sofa. I imagined, now that Soup Boy has broken up with his girlfriend, that forthcoming would be an interesting story about the two of them.

It wasn’t long before the next message came in, short and to the point, the way phone text messages are. “She’s dead. She committed suicide yesterday.”

“Wholly crap,” I responded, and that’s it. A few hours later, it’s still about all I can come up with. That and questions. There’s a threshold, the line between life and death, and you can only cross it once. What was it about yesterday that made it her last? She was far from home; what was she hoping to find when she came to Prague? And, of course, the big one, the one only she could ever answer, and probably even then I wouldn’t understand: Why?

Now she’s gone. I have odd regrets. I wish I’d known when her heart beat for the last time, so I could put down whatever meaningless task I was performing and mark her passage. I wish I could have known before that and somehow brought her the happiness she ultimately despaired of ever finding. I wish I’d taken the time and had the courage to get to know her better. I wish she wasn’t dead.

We all have our private and public faces — some of us even have different personalities for different occasions. Gretel, the few times I talked to her, seemed chipper and upbeat, clever and conversational. Of course, that is what she wanted me to see of her. I’ve had some experience with people who are skilled at hiding their troubled thoughts. I was married to one. How many others do I know, among my happy and well-adjusted friends, who, when they are alone, face demons no one else knows about? How many sit in the darkness and wonder if it might be better not to be?

Do I even want to know the answer to that?