Bum Day

Today I played a bum in movie you will never see.

I regret not getting a still shot of me fully bummed out. The makeup lady went to town on me — I think she was tired of just covering up blotches and blemishes on the other actors and was happy to have someone for whom her job was exactly the opposite. In the end my skin looked filthy (not just dirty, but that ground-in grime that extends several millimeters below the surface), I had a nasty-looking sore on my lip, and I had a black eye. Some vegetable oil for the hair, and I looked truly awful. Given time, I think she would have continued to add deformities and lesions, but this is the movie business, and there’s never enough time.

It was raining lightly when we made our way from the makeup room onto the streets of Prague. I shouldn’t have looked in the mirror after the makeup was done; I felt a bit self-conscious walking down the street. Doubly so when the first thing we did upon meeting up with the rest of the crew was duck into a little cafeteria-style restaurant for lunch. I did not look like the kind of guy you want in front you in the chow line. (Did I mention the big ketchup stain I put on my chest?)

Lunch finished, it was time to start acting. We made our way to a nearby park and selected a bench. They had forgotten the classic bottle-in-the-paper-bag prop, and so I was handed a plastic bottle of wine (if you take a bottle into most wine stores here, they will fill it for you). The wine was pretty good. We did a few takes. “I think you’ve found your calling,” Little John said. He meant it as a compliment. Actually, I might have been overdoing it a wee bit, but the crew was laughing (later in the day a shot was blown when the crew laughed as I scratched my ass), and I was in touch with my inner bum. I took a few lessons from the Miguel Martinez face book, moved with that careful deliberation that drunks use, and when I moved to the next park bench I sat very heavily.

The temperature was dropping. It was not just meandering in a downward direction, it had a heartfelt need to explore the basement. [As I write this, it is snowing.] We did the scene several times, using the camera from different angles, while I slowly emptied the bottle. For the off-the-tripod shots, the cameraman said he wasn’t able to hold the camera completely steadily after a while. But we carried on, for the art. I blew a couple of decent shots by saying “I could be you!” instead of “You could be me!” Technicalities. I had a lot more lines than I had been told about, and none of them stuck that well.

The rain continued. My shoes leak.

A woman passed by, then stopped on the corner and made a phone call. “Think she’s calling the cops?” one of the crew asked. Apparently this little venture had dispensed with some of the formalities. “Nah, she’s smilin'” another said. Our next location was right around the corner from the police station. There were cops everywhere, but none paid any attention to us at all. I didn’t think about it, I just continued to ply my craft.

That’s what actors say, right? “Ply my craft”? Because, well, I really don’t know crap about that stuff. Or about acting, for that matter. But being a bum on a park bench, that I can do. Being a guy who appears to be a bum wandering the street who is actually not a bum at all, I managed to pull off well enough to make them happy.

“You should have asked for more,” the assistant said as he paid me. Next time, I will.

Sometimes, you see things.

I am sitting in a bar, watching a woman with no shirt serving beer to a man with no nose. Actually, I have seen that before, in this very bar. What I had not seen before was the event that drove me here.

First, a small detour. I was sitting in the Little Café Near Home when the call came in. I will be getting up absurdly early tomorrow morning. My last word from Athena had been costumes on Monday, shooting on Wednesday and Thursday. I got increasingly neurotic as I received no further word about costumes, and I sent Athena a couple of messages. No response. Tonight, while wrapping up my celebration of successful bumness, my phone rang. I am expected to be at a certain Metro station at 6 am. The good news: starting that early, overtime is a distinct possibility. The bad news: starting that early, I will be getting up even earlier.

But that’s not why I am here, now.

After the hokej (rhymes with hockey) game, Little Café Near Home cleared out. It was just me and Bechovins (rhymes with Bevins, only in Czech). Then another guy came in and started scooting furniture around in a nonsensical way. After some muddling he unplugged the now-quiet television and plugged in…

Guess. Go ahead and try. You won’t get it right, but if you guess something completely crazy and then read the next sentence, which will be more whacked-out than what you came up with, that will make the revelation all the choicer. Have you guessed? All right then.

…a hair clipper. Bechovins was getting a haircut. In a place that serves food. Faced with a choice between drinking in a bar where the only other guy was getting a haircut, drinking in a bar where women with no shirts serve men with no noses, and not drinking at all, I chose “B”.

The man with no nose is much more difficult not to stare at than the woman with no shirt. She is quite pretty, and if everyone here in the bar had a nose, she would be drawing my eye. Sadly for all, that is not the case. He has a piece of gauze taped with a big X over his face, and there is no bulge beneath. It has been this way long enough that I wonder why he has not come up with a better gauze holder, something more comfortable than tape. I don’t know how he lost his nose; there must be a story there. I hope that eventually he gets a new one. In the meantime, what bothers me most is the tape. But, like him, I am getting used to it.

Don’t mess with me, man, I’ve read The Art of War.

About five hundred years before some guy named Jesus said maybe we should be nice to each other for a change, another guy over in China set out to codify the methods of not being nice, and doing it really well. Sun Tzŭ had a lot of thoughts about war and its purpose. In his mind, war was a means to ensure the safety and prosperity of the people of a nation, and if that was at the expense of the people of another nation, well, so it goes.

In fact, throughout his writing, he comes up with argument after argument to support one of his primary tenets: fight the war in the other guy’s country.

For all that, Sun Tzŭ was not a big fan of fighting battles at all. In his opinion, the greatest generals would never become famous because they would rarely have to fight, and when they did they would already have manipulated conditions through espionage, subtlety, and misdirection, so that the battle was already decided before it was fought. The greatest general of all would never fight a single battle.

He also pointed out that war was expensive. He was a proponent of swift, decisive action, and advised that laying siege to a walled city was folly, and would only empty the coffers of your nation and cause undue suffering among the people, which in turn would undermine the security of your homeland. Instead, he advised swift and subtle action, finding something of value to the enemy that was less well defended, and attacking that instead, forcing your opponent to come out from behind his walls. If the enemy does not know where you will show up next, he will have to spread his forces thin, trying to protect everything. Sun Tzŭ advises not even trying to defend less valuable assets.

Are there lessons for the modern age here? The four years of carnage that was World War One run counter to everything The Art of War teaches. Today’s war on terrorism is less clear-cut. Certainly we are the larger force spread thin as we try to defend everything, yielding initiative. But even spread out, we are massive and can carry big hurt just about anywhere very quickly.

There are two other things in the book that stick out, however. The first is adaptability. The author (and subsequent commentators) lay out the principles of carrying out a successful military campaign, and getting the most from soldiers. Time and again, however, we are reminded that flexibility and creativity are critical assets. Sun Tzŭ also pointed out that direct confrontation is one of the last resorts for achieving your objective.

The second thing that sticks out is haunting, considering our current situation in Iraq. “In times of peace, plan for war. In times of war, plan for peace.” When the US military exceeded all expectations and swept into Baghdad, only to stand to the side as the city descended into civil disorder, setting the tone for all that has followed, undermining our authority and credibility, demonstrating an apathy toward law that has yet to be repaired, we saw what happens when you fail to plan for peace during a time of war. There was a period of two days when we had a (not guaranteed) shot at forestalling much of what has happened since. We could have been the undisputed good guys. We failed.

Some of the details in the book are not relevant anymore, and quite a few other people have done some thinking on the subject since. This work has the advantage of being brief, simple, and to the point. He did not say war was bad, he said it was expensive, and that it was best waged swiftly, or, better yet, without using armies at all. But once you have your army on, ou must know exactly what you want and where it is, understand the enemy and all his plans, and take the fight to him. If you are not certain, stay home until you are.

How To Tell If You’re Living the Good LIfe

The day before yesterday, a bunch of us met to go bowling. We sat around upstairs too long, however, and missed our chance. We made reservations for the next day and repaired to a beer garden nearby to enjoy the springtime sun while sipping Gambrinus. Plan B was an unqualified success; we shifted from table to table as the sun went down, clinging to its rays until there were none left. After I took my leave from that group I stopped off at the Little Café Near Home to write for a bit, but I was immediately sucked into conversation with other patrons. Lucky thing, too, because I had forgotten I had agreed to meet Martín the next day to go over the English subtitles he was writing for a short film.

The next day (the “yesterday” referred to above) I woke up bright and early to get some work done before the training session at the bowling alley. Yes, that’s right — this wasn’t just a bunch of people hanging out drinking beer and bowling, this was a group of potential recruits for the Czech national ice bowling team. Sheboygan, here we come! (I don’t think people have quite realized how serious fuego is about this. He’s recruiting the documentary team already.) Training was fun, but boy did I suck. I was drinking non-alcoholic beverages; maybe that was the problem. While I did my best not to fall down, fuego burned up the lanes. After that (and the obligatory beer and pizza tactical session that followed) it was off to the little café for me.

I started in on a pesky sentence until it was time to take a break to work on the subtitles for the decidedly odd short film. For instance, toward the end the main guy wakes up and finds that forty-seven girls have moved into his apartment. They don’t speak at all, they just stare at him in silence. It’s really quite funny. That was fun, and then it was back to work on the sentence. I spent a total of about two hours working on the thing; it’s almost right, but not quite.

I wound up staying at the Little Café Near Home for seven hours, editing, editing, endlessly editing. It was quiet in there, and the new new bartender (as opposed to the now-old new bartender) is starting to figure me out. I had too much tea, then poured a beer or three on top, in what I have dubbed the “poor man’s speedball”. Toward the end of the evening I was just reading parts of Monster that I especially liked, and not really pretending to be working anymore, although I did pick up a couple of errors.

Then it was home, where I talked Soup Boy’s ear off for a few minutes (I blame the chemicals), followed by sweet slumber. A good day, indeed.

The Day the Squirrels Took Over

It was on this day in 1903 that Hinsdale, Illinois fell to the squirrels. The city fathers imported sackloads of the the fuzzy menace and declared them a protected species. That the citizens of that oppressed town still have not realized their own slavery and celebrate this day by offering up sacrifices is a testament to the diabolical cleverness of these rodents.

The Scandinavians, apparently, weren’t so easily fooled. According to their legends, the squirrel lives in the tree of life, and is the cause of all our trouble and bad luck. Possibly the nuts as well.

Squirrels manipulated events in England to cause the Pilgrims to seek the new world, then stowed away on their boats and swiftly conquered North America.

Glendale, Ohio fell to the squirrels in the 1940s, when, with the help of Tom “Benedict Arnold” Carruthers III, six black squirrels broke through perimeter defenses and took over. In another indication of the mind-control powers of the invaders, the black squirrel is now the city’s mascot.

All this stuff was culled from even less interesting factiods on this page, and then rephrased to remove the flagrant bias of the original author. I tried to find more details about the Miss America Pageant Disaster, but couldn’t find any dirt except other people quoting the same page.

The Accidental Actor

As some of you are already aware, not long ago I happened to be in the same room as Soup Boy when a message came in from a casting agent he knows. “Hey,” Soup Boy said to me, “you want to be in James Bond?” “Sure,” said I. Now, because of a simple accident of logistics, you will quite possibly see my mug on the silver screen, while interesting things happen behind me.

Recently friends of friends offered me cash money to sit in a bar drinking and being American for some direct-to-DVD movie of questionable pedigree. Drinking in bars happens to be something I’m well-qualified to do, so I agreed. I spent the morning drinking Bernard (yummy), flirting with a woman who may have been the bar’s owner (wasted), and listening while the czech actress struggled with her lines in English (awkward). The writer had tried for a literary tone for the dialog, and the vocabulary was completely out of her range. But I digress.

At one point that morning, the writer/lead actor looked at me and said, “How’d you like to play the bum?” (I must confess, when you look at me, you’re more likely to think “bum” than “Bond”.) Just like that I was cast in a speaking role in a movie that I will do my level best never to be associated with, beyond this post.

As a result of the James Bond thing, I have an agent now. I got a message from Athena last week inviting me to a casting for a commercial. What the heck, it’s only a few minutes out of my day. The waiting room was full when I got there; all around me were distractingly beautiful women and guys talking about the terrifically minor acting jobs they’d had lately. These were people who had taken up acting as a career — “Four years of acting school and now I’m auditioning for this,” lamented one. I tried to read but I couldn’t help but listen in. I recognized the game; the guys were sorting out the out-of-work actor cred pecking order. One or two of them would land roles in this commercial and perhaps move incrementally up the chain.

“I like the beard,” Athena said when it was my turn. “It makes you look like a scientist.” Better than bum, especially when the role is “Lab Assistant”. I posed for my still shots, holding a card with a number on it so they could sort us all out later. Lucky number thirteen for me, and we laughed about my credibility as a scientist when she had to tell me to hold the number right-side up. A couple of still shots, some video of me pretending to count washing machines and becoming puzzled when something doesn’t come out right, then I’m back out into the city — no blood, no foul. I had a very pleasant walk through the city center and after a few miles found a place to eat and write. A good use of a Prague morning.

I didn’t think much more about it until I got the call from Athena. “You got the role of Lab Assistant,” she said, and may have been surprised when I laughed. The Accidental Actor. I’ll be a bum on Monday, a lab assistant Wednesday and Thursday, and rent is covered for April, with beer money to spare.

Birthday Plunder

One of my birthday gifts this year was a box of stuff called “Genius Tea”. The ingredients are listed in Czech and Slovak, but I did recognize the ever-popular ginko. “I don’t know if it’s for geniuses or it will make you one,” said Big D when he handed it to me. Hopefully the latter; while my water boiled last night I struggled with the box. Finally I got past the tape and the glue to realize I had opened the bottom. Genius.

One of the cool things about being a writer is that you are very easy to buy gifts for. Food, alcoholic beverages, and books are all slam dunks. I got some good books this year, so today I’m going to finish my limerick about a cat with hat hair, step away from the computer, and do some reading.

The books I got:

  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu. — much-discussed, but, I suspect, little-read.
  • Something Grand by John Flynn (autographed) — short stories in a modern style, most about the working poor in America.
  • The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said — luckily, this book came out before I started Muddled Ramblings. I might start with this one until the Genuis Tea kicks in.
  • Into The Forest by Jean Hegland — one of those where you read the first paragraph and know you’re in good hands.
  • More Booze Than Blood by Sean Meagher (autographed) — he didn’t know it was a birthday gift, but that doesn’t make it not one.

What a grand thing to wake in the morning and know all these words await.

Add the green chile, several packages of my favorite cookies, and a squirrel, and you’ve got yourself one fine pile o’ birthday loot indeed. My sincere thanks to one and all.

Tour Theme Song

After the now-infamous scratch-n-sniff screen debacle (I left the episode about potted meat out of the refrigerator for a few days), I have been pondering how best to muddle the masses by appealing to senses other than sight. Today the secret underground laboratories have produced an innovation that is sure to rock the Internet: Music. Yes, you heard it here first; modern technology will make it possible for people to share and distribute their favorite tunes. Mark my words, once news of this leaks out, everyone will be doing it.

Somewhere around here you should be able to find a button which, when clicked, will cause the song “All For Me Grog” to come out of your crappy little computer speakers. The song is by Harold’s Craich Band — or at least that’s what they called themselves back when they recorded this for the soundtrack of Pirates of the White Sand. Those of you who have been waiting for the movie can think of this as a sneak peek.

This is my first time posting up tunes, so let me know if you have any trouble.

All For Me Grog!
Play All For Me Grog
(right-click to save file)

Happy Road Trip Day!

I sit now at Cheap Beer Place, sipping not-so-cheap tea, pondering doing something that could be interpreted as productive before the hokej play-off game starts. (Interestingly, Czech for “play-off” is play off. You’d think they would have grown their own word for it in the centuries before the ubitiquization of English.)

It was a good Road Trip Eve celebration last night, going long past the traditional midnight toast. At one point in the festivities I found lined up on the table in front of me beer, whiskey, and slivovice, and I knew that some brain cells weren’t going to live to see another sunrise. Today, as the survivors grow accustomed to having a little extra elbow-room, thoughts are moving slowly and wandering off course, like a sloth with attention deficit disorder.

It’s the kind of day televised sports was invented for. Today the Beers play Slavia. The Beers are down in the series one game to two, so this one’s important for the team to continue their cinderella run for the championship. This is their first trip to the semifinals since 1951. Go Beers!

Road Trip Eve

Yes, tomorrow is Road Trip Day, the day we commemorate the beginning of Jer’s Homeless Tour — the epic journey fabled in legend and song, which began two years ago tomorrow. This year, since Road Trip Eve falls on the weekend, the celebrations promise to be even bigger than usual. Here in Prague, fuego and MaK are taking advantage of the fact that this is the one social occasion of the year that I cannot shirk, and they’re throwing a bash. If you’re in the neighborhood, drop by!

For those new to the ranks of the muddled, April 2th, 2004, was the day the sale of my house in San Diego closed. I spent the night before that first day at Callahan’s, sitting at the bar, talking to Rose. I was watching the clock, and when midnight rolled by I said, “Wish me happy birthday.” Purely by coincidence, the first road trip day was also my fortieth birthday.

That afternoon, big chunk of cash confirmed, I packed up all the stuff I could fit into the Miata and drove away to look at the US for “two or three weeks” before moving to Prague.

Late that night found me in a little beach town in central California, hanging with friends, sipping good wine and eating good food, tapping out my first blog entry from the road. In two weeks I had made it as far as San Jose, and week three saw me (if recollection serves – sticklers for the truth can go look it up) at Lake Tahoe. Not really that close to Prague. Weeks passed, miles rolled by. Months snuck through there somehow as I trundled around North America, hanging with old friends, reconnecting with family members, falling in love with pretty bartenders, thinking, and writing. It was me, in my ideal environment: ample solitude, new places, new adventures, old friends.

Hopefully I can get back out there again someday — ideally as a book tour, but you have to publish a book first for that to make sense. It would be fun to have book signings in all the bars I wrote in along the way. Fun but not terribly profitable; I have been forgotten in most of those places by now, and the clientele in many of those places didn’t strike me as particularly bookish.

So wherever you are tonight, at a quiet little private celebration or the giant beerfest in Times Square, the tribal dances on the plains of the Serengeti or the wild street parties of Rio de Janeiro, mark moment with a toast and make your first words of the new year “elevator ocelot rutabaga.” It’s good luck.