Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 2

Our last-minute lodgings took a turn for the even better this morning when the landlady arrived with a bag full of food. Bread, cheese, cold cuts, jam and butter — nothing fancy but plenty good enough. Thus the day began on an unexpectedly high note.

The rain is playing a gentle staccato tune on the awning as I sit here at a pleasant sidewalk café, reflecting on the movie I saw this morning. We were in an inflatable theater, which would have been a pretty good venue but the sound isolation from outside wasn’t very good. If the movie had been more interesting, that might not have mattered as much. Title I Can’t Reproduce From Memory had its moments, but when it was over I was rather amazed that only 90 minutes had passed. Was it Chekhov who said that when you show a gun in act one, it should go off in act three? In this movie the gun never went off. The blurb said something like “Kid is drawn into a dark and violent underworld,” when it really should have said, “Kid draws near underworld, doesn’t do much, and then goes home to take care of his mother.”


Another movie, another gentle rain under the awning of a café. It’s a tough life.

This movie was Ma che ci faccio qui? (What the Hell am I Doing Here?), an Italian film, and when you boil it down it was an “I know! Let’s put on a show and save the bar!” movie. You’ve seen them before. Happily, this was a very nicely done LPOASASTB movie, with genuine humor and a bit of heart as well. There’s nothing wrong with rehashing an old idea if you do it well. Heck, somewhere around Homer all the good ideas were taken. (Although, it might have been Chaucer who did the first LPOASASTB story.) The movie was from a young director who made it in film school, which adds to the surprise of how much top-quality acting was involved.

Walking around after the movie we ran into a couple of fuego’s coworkers on one film or another. One woman, when she heard I was his brother, looked at me and said, “from Pirates of the White Sand?” She was enthusiastic. That was nice.

Now I need to get some work done.


Movie three today was German-Polish-Czech movie that kept me chuckling for much of the time. I’m not sure how it would play to an American audience, although the stereotypes of the Czechs, Poles, and Germans are just as broad and unflattering as that of the token American in the film. Schroder’s wonderful World is about a man who has the idea to use American money to build a theme park where former East Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic intersect, an area that is rather an international mess of communist industrialization, much of which has now been razed. The mayors of the three towns of the triangle must cooperate to make the project work.

I don’t think I’m ruining anything to tell you that the project does not work.

It was a quick shift of location to catch our final flick of the day, A Romanian film that won the big prize at Cannes. My expectations going in were pretty high, and while the movie was awfully damn good, it didn’t live up to what I had come to expect. The marketing nightmare — get such great buzz that the movie disappoints. Still and all, If you get a chance to see 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (off the top of my head, I can’t reproduce the Romanian title), do so. It’s dark, but compelling.

Looking back, we are still talking about yesterday’s Mister Lonely, despite the cinematic flood we’re experiencing. That’s gotta mean something.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 1

The question is on everyone’s lips as I walk down the street. I can see it in the sidelong glances and the more honest stares. Starlets, wondering who to sleep with to best promote their careers, pause and try to answer the question:

“Who is that guy?”

While most patrons have a badge that hangs vertically from its orange lanyard, bearing the picture of some model who is apparently the face of this year’s show, my badge is horizontal, and the picture on it is mine. Stamped in big red letters are the words “FILM INDUSTRY”. Combined with the sheer power of my charismatic personality (*cough*), it’s easy to understand why people would be intrigued.

Here, on day one of the festival, the power of the badge showed its first practical superpower as well. We selected the film we wanted to watch, and fuego went to get the tickets. “None available,” the agent told him. He asked for our second choice. Nope. Then when booking the third choice the agent saw The Badges. Whaddaya Know? There were tickets available for our first choice after all.

We watched Mister Lonely, an offbeat story of a Michael Jackson impersonator who gets recruited by Marilyn Monroe into a commune of impersonators. Then there’s the part where the nuns are jumping out of an airplane…

The show was quite good but missed an “excellent” by going flat at places. Marilyn’s performance went soft at a key moment. Still, a movie I’m glad I saw and one that would definitely be worth the price of admission should it show up in a theatre near you. It manages to combine the entire range of emotion from farce to tradegy — sometimes simultaneously.

In other news, I’ve run into several friends while here, some by design, others by accident, and they have helped make this one heck of a good time so far. There was a tense moment when we found that the apartment we had reserved was suddenly unavailable, but the folks at Shadows of Stars and Cine-Jessy came through and now I’m sitting pretty! Today I’m gonna watch me some movies.

Looking down the throat of Mt. Etna.

It was already warm at 8:30 when we caught the bus from Catania Centrale and began our meandering way through the villages that cling to the sides of the volcano. Steadily we made our way upward until there were no towns left, then it was up a new road, winding its way up a new lava flow, past new buildings. We passed a rooftop almost level with the top of the flow, a tile raft that until 2003 sheltered a family. Apparently there were sighs of relief back then when the lava stopped short of the town of Niccolosia.

We reached an artificial town, a tourist outpost, and piled off the bus. The only bus back down would leave at 4:30 in the afternoon. We were directed to the headquarters for the guided tours, where we were informed that there were two packages available. The first involved taking the cable car, then getting in trucks up to a point within striking range of the top, then a trip back down by truck and cable car after exploring a minor crater there. The other tour used the cable car and the trucks, then included a hike all the way to the top, followed by a long walk all the way down, exploring other features. It was designed to arrive back at the bus stop just in time.

After the guy explaining our options said “central crater” there was no other question. Our boots (and just about everyone else’s) were rejected as being inadequate, so we had to use theirs. Their boots were better than mine, but I have somewhat odd feet and it’s hard to find shoes that actually fit right. For a while I hoped I could put together an odd pair and have boots that fit both feet for the first time in my life, but no luck. Thus it was with quite a bit of concern for my left foot that I set out.

Tram, truck, and then then climb began. It was not a long trail, but pretty steep, and I counted myself lucky that there was at least one person in the group in even worse shape than I was. We crossed a lava flow from march of this year, and then one from 2006. Then more cinder fields, up, up, up.

The most recent eruption was from the southeast crater, on May 7. One and a half months ago. It was a small eruption, lasting only eight hours, but the southeast crater is still smoking and generally being threatening. “There are a lot of fissures on its face,” our guide explained, “and a lot of pressure. I think it could erupt soon, like in days. Of course, it is hard to predict…”

Our guide was great. Very patient and very knowledgeable. He took time out to demonstrate the proper use of walking sticks on steep loose terrain to one of our number, and was always watchful and helpful. He has been climbing Etna almost every day for twenty years. “I used to be a guide on Strómboli, but… this one is better.” He would stop to tell us about eruptions, using words like ‘beautiful’ to describe a lava flow that came within a kilometer of a town.

Finally, winded, I staggered to the top as our guide circled the group and drew the layout of the central crater in the dirt. In groups of three he took us to the edge of the “new chasm” to peer down. “Good conditions today,” he said. “Sometimes there’s too much steam and you can’t see in.”

I peered down. I eased myself closer to the edge, and peered again. The sun was straight overhead, shining way, way, down. I took another baby-step forward, and looked farther down. The wind was pushing me around a bit; it would have meant nothing were it not for Certain Death awaiting any misstep. I stepped back from the Very Deep Hole.

There are three chasms in the central crater. We walked to where we could get a good look at all of them and take pictures. We milled around a bit, finding places where the sulfurous gasses escaping from the ground all around us weren’t so bad. Crater 1964 is blocked now, which happens pretty often in volcanoes of this type, and eventually leads to explosions. So we were standing on a time bomb with (geologically speaking) a very short timer.

The central crater as a whole has been pretty quiet for a few years now, however — most of the action has been from the youthful and blustery southwest crater, which is off limits right now. We climbed out of the central crater to the portion of the rim closest to the southeast crater, and the guide gathered us around a large chunk of basalt. “This was from the May 7th eruption,” he said. The rock was less than fifty days old. I imagined standing there while semi-molten rocks rained down around me. “We will only stay here ten minutes,” he continued. “It’s not safe.”

I spent eight minutes taking pictures and two minutes looking wistfully at perhaps the best venue for stacking rocks I’ve ever seen. Good rocks in a variety of styles, level cinder terrain good for photography, dramatic backdrop. No time. A good rock stack takes a long time to compose (for me it does, anyway). I don’t like stacking in front of people, but up there I think I could have.

It was time to go down. Down and down and down, at times ski-jogging down ash and cinder slopes, pausing periodically to empty the quarries out of our shoes. By the time we reached touristville my legs were rubber, and I was not the only one in the group stumbling on fairly minor obstacles. You don’t realize when you walk on fresh legs how much goes into recovering from minor irregularities in the terrain. When you don’t have the strength to perform these basic adjustments, suddenly the world is a much trickier place to walk.

We returned our boots and caught the bus back down, winding cautiously down the steep road. Finally back in Catania we stepped off the bus and the evening heat hit me in the face like a steaming mackerel. Everyone, as they left the air-conditioned bus, said something like, “holy crap!” in the language most convenient to them. Something had changed while we were up on the mountain; the hot, hot sirocco winds from Africa had arrived and summer had begun. Time for one last seafood feast, and then back to Prague. News that it had been raining there made returning home all the more appealing.

The Island Life

I am sitting now at a place called Moby Dick, near the hydrofoil dock in the city of Lípari, on the island of the same name. We ordered big beers, and we got big beers. Our boat back to the main island leaves in two hours. The wind for which the islands are named is kicking up a bit, making our stay under the bar’s giant umbrella quite pleasant. The view isn’t much, though.

Said fuego when we saw our room in the hostel in Canneto (just up the coast from Lípari), “did I hear the price correctly?” The cheapest place on the trip was also the roomiest, coolest (in the literal sense), and even had its own bathroom. It’s not quite the busy season on the islands, so the rate might be going up in a couple more weeks. The only downside was noise; our balcony overlooked the main road and people around here get up pretty early in the morning to buzz around on their noisy little scooters. At night, however, the streets are quiet.

After we settled in we made a grocery store run to stock the fridge and then we explored the town, which didn’t take long. We settled in at a sidewalk caf

Island Bound!

Today has been a day devoted primarily to getting from one place to another. We are still in that process, on a high-speed boat from Messina to the island of Lipari. The island sounds like a pretty cool place to hang out, and it has the added bonus of being a stone’s throw from another island, Stromboli. There are many volcanoes hereabouts, but Stromboli is a particularly consistent one, throwing sparks out more or less all the time.

The best time to witness this phenomenon is at night, we have read, when the sparks are easier to see, so night tours to climb the volcano are a popular thing. That’s all the future, however, so I’ll wait until we actually do it to write about it. (This process is called ‘journalism’, I’m told.)

It was a tough call deciding to go this far afield, since the time spent traveling is time not doing something else. In the end, however, there are beaches all over the place, and Greek and Roman ruins more places than this. Active volcanoes, however, are a little more unusual. fuego called a hostel in Lipari, made a reservation, and we were decided. Now all we had to do was get there.

At the train station we checked the schedule and saw that a train was heading for Messina in… two minutes. The next one didn’t leave for hours. In fact, the guy in the tourist office said the next train wouldn’t be running because of a strike.

The train was still sitting there. We dithered for a moment and then I said, “let’s go get our other bags and see if the train is still here.” Without much hope we went back to hostel (just up the street), quickkly collected our things and hauled them back.

The train was still sitting there. We hauled our stuff out onto the platform and fuego asked someone if we could buy tickets on board. Nope. fuego stood by our bags on the platform while I went in to the ticket window. The woman there buying tickets in front of me was a Problem Customer. Time dragged. I stood, dripping sweat, while the ticket guy tried to work with this lady. Every time it looked like they might be about done she came up with some new way to introduce a problem into the transaction.

Worst case: the moment I buy tickets the train pulls out. The train remained put, however, and the uniformed guy who had answered our questions earlier would poke his head into the station to check on me once in a while.

Problem Lady left the window, with her son there to hold her place. The buildup behind me started saying something, and the ticket guy shrugged and gestured. “I’m in the middle of a transaction,” he seemed to say. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Uniformed Guy didn’t buy it. I don’t speak Italian, but I think he said something like, “The train can’t leave until you take care of these people! Screw the Problem Lady!” Whatever he said did the trick and sixty seconds later I had tickets. Uniformed Guy then showed me how to validate the ticket in a little machine and we were on our way. Well, almost on our way. It was still quite a while before the train departed.

Transfer from train to boat went smoothly, but it appears that we are not allowed up on top, and the windows are pretty much opaque, which limits sightseeing. It feels more like air travel than sea travel, right down to the crying children.

It’s the Heat, AND the Humidity

We siesta’d through the heat of the afternoon, then went out for a most pleasant dinner at a little hole-in-the wall place. It was the most relaxed meal we’ve had here yet, and prices were reasonable. The place had about eight tables but it was early when we got there and at first we had the place to ourselves.

The food was quite good (you may be catching on by now that the eating is good in these parts), and once again we got a little adventurous with one order; we got ricotta-stuffed pasta with cuttlefish ink sauce. (This was partly due to the inspriation of my Cuttlefish Man post a while back.) That dish was merely good rather than great, but visually striking, as the sauce was completely, opaquely, black.

Earlier in the day we went to check out the old Greek theater (right next to the slightly-less-old Roman Theatre), which was all right, but nothing like the photos in the books and on posters. The difference is that the old greek theater is still used for productions, so much of the seating area has wooden benches on it to protect the stone, and there are modern lighting towers and whatnot directed at the very modern set on stage. Nearby there were some cool caves — literally cool, which was a welcome respite from the heat of the day.

We tromped back to the hostel after that, stopping for sorbet on the way. It was good but I was tempted to pour the ice concoction on my head.

Another Big Day

Today I flirted a bit with a pretty girl, and I showered. Nearly missed the bus, saw some old stuff, ate some good food. Sicily, man, Sicily. It’s easy to get used to being here.

A Big Day

It was a busy morning, rushing about (well, as well as I was able) getting a few last things done before joining forces with fuego for our flight to Catania, nestled at the foot of Mount Etna. The flight was simple enough, and we hit the ground on time and in good shape. Standing on the tarmac I looked over at the volcano, relatively quiet for a few years now (due?). The air was heavy, shadows softer, not the hard-edged briittle clarity of light I had experienced in Southern Spain. It was certianly plenty warm standing on the airport tarmac, however.

One quick Bankomat score later, we set out to find a place to sleep. The first stop on our quest was the train station, where after some wandering around we found the nicely-camoflaged tourist info center, where they were not able to help us much. A couple of vague suggestions and markings on a frightfully inaccurate map, and it was back into the city proper for us. We were trying to get to one of the main Plazas in town, but where the signs said the busses went seemed to have little relation to where the drivers planned to go. Each driver had his own theories about which of other busses would take us there.

Meanwhile, there was a guy there offering to drive us to the piazza for 10 Euros. Then eight, then seven. “No, that’s OK, we’ll just take the bus.” Finally he gave up. Not log after that we gave up as well, and decided just to walk. The driver chased us down. “Five Euros!” he said, and we relented. We followed him to his car, which was quite obviously not a licensed taxi of any sort. We piled in and while I tried to figure out how to close my door with no handle or anything to pull on, our driver set to work starting the car. For a while I thought we would be walking after all, but he got the thing going, made it a few feet before it died again (my door still open), got it going again and off we went, with me managing to pull the door shut just in time as we joined the thousands of other certifiably insane people on the roads of Catania.

I’m sure you’ve heard about traffic in this part of the world, so I won’t go into detail, except that there was a road with one lane devoted to busses moving in one direction and motorcycles moving the other. You get the picture.

Our private driver dropped us off at a Hostel we had already called, only to find there was no room. There was some confusion, however, that led to us asking again to discover that they did have beds after all. So that worked out well. “I’ve got one dorm that’s almost empty,” the friendly Hostel girl said, but it’s by the bar. It can be loud at night. I assured her (and myself) that we could handle it. There was even a chance we’d be the ones at the bar making noise.

Then we were off to explore the city, and come to understand just how bad our map is. It didn’t help that the guide book mentioned places but street, cross-streets and other landmarks didn’t show on the guide book map or the official tourist map.

Still, in a city like this one, serendipity is the rule. With a single turn you can find yourself in another, unexpected world. It was when we gave up trying to find the Friggatoria that we made our turn.

The street we walked down was quiet, swept but somewhat run-down. The bhildings became more ornate above the ground floor, and the overall feeling was no one of decay but of age, Cats — mangy, awful-looking things — lounged in abandoned doorways. In other doorways we passed older woman, all of them big, most smoking, watching us as we wandered down the street.

“I know what they’re selling,” I told my brother, “but they sure don’t make it look appealing.” Scattered among the fat old whores were transvestites, equally corpulent, equally tattered and dissolute. . No one spoke to us, but one ot them smiled my way when I said hello to her little dog, which was barking at us. Other than a few more energetic cats, wer ere the only ones moving in that narrow street. On side streets younger men moved, but this street was left to its particular trade. Although the street was long, it did not go through, and it was only after a few twists and turns that we found our way back onto a main street.

Catania has been a busy port for a long time, and I suppose that this street or one like it has been around since Greek times or even earlier. I think some of the whores themselves have been around that long.

“I wonder what that place is like at night,” fuego said, echoing my own thoughts.

We made our way back toward home, stopping for a snack along the way. We got our little fast-food pizzas to go and enjoyed the cool evening relaxiing on a bench in a little park. Around us groups of old men gathered, for all the world like punk-ass kids wasting their time hanging out together, although then we call them gangs and are afraid. (Considering where we were, ‘mob’ might be a more appropriate term in this case.) I commented to fuego, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many men just hanging out, withough any alcohol.”

We relazed there for some time before completing our journey back to the hostel to redeem our two-for-one drink coupons at the attached bar. We lingered there for a good long time as well, and as we sat there they began to put the bar into it’s night configuration, which meant filling the entire little piazza with folding tables and chairs. They were ready to have a lot of customers. My confidence that we would be able to tolerate the noise was further eroded when I noticed the big speaker in the window directly below mine. fuego and I began to wonder just how late the bar would be open. Clearly there was only one possible course of action. We took naps.

At nine p.m. when we reemerged into the world, it was still early for most places. The residue of the fish market had been scrubbed away and we had read that some of the restaurants right there had good seafood at a reasonable price. We ended up at a table separated by a rattan curtain from a now (mostly) quiet fish-chopping area, being served by a guy who spoke next to no English, and in the end having no idea whatsoever what we would be getting (except that there would be five of something. Five of what, I had no idea, but the man had been very careful to make sure we wanted five of them.

Five sea urchins, it turned out. Five spiky hemispheres, with trace elements of what I assumed to be food inside. The girl who seemed to be somewhat in charge, and who spoke very good English, gave me instructions when I asked. Squeeze in some lemon, use the little spoon to scoop out the urchin gonads, and eat the trace amounts of goo.

Meanwhile, a host of little dishes began to arrive, all sea delicacies, some of which I could identify and others I couldn’t. The octopus was tender, the calamari was delicious, the eel was mighty tasty, the shrimp/something else dish was excellent, and the tiny clams were far more work to eat than they were worth. Of course, there were also fish dishes. It all added up to a mighty fine antepasto. Then came the pasto. The second dish was mighty damn tasty, but it was just too much. We passed on desert, at which point the girl who spoke English gave us a stern lecture about the importance of a sorbet after a meal — especially fish. “But, it’s up to you,” she finished, in a voice that obviously meant instead, “but, it’s your funeral.” The bill for the evening was quite reasonable, considering what we got.

It was pushing eleven when we got back to the hostel, and things were getting started at the bar. We lingered for one drink (it was too late to redeem our second two-for-one coupon, alas), but while we sat there the piazza filled completely and customers were being turned away. The noise was the usual large-crown murmer, however, and the music wasn’t that loud, so when fatigue caught up I went inside and wrote the first part of this episode and went to sleep.

In fact, I wish the bar had stayed open all night, because when it closed two of the guys staying in our room came in, wasted, and listening to one struggling to snore, breathing with his throat, wetly and irregularly, I thought he might be on the verge of throwing up. Finally he settled into a more regular snore, and after a while even that couldn’t keep me awake.

That, my dear readers, is the condensed version of day one of the Seeger Brother’s Tour of Sicily. Hopefully some of the other days will be less eventful. I have work to do.


Not sure how updates in these parts are going to go, but tomorrow I’m heading south, to test the good food and fine life in the heart of the Mediterranean. Hopefully somewhere down there I can get my writer’s groove back.

A Couple of Days Wasted

There comes a time in any geek’s life when he (usually it’s a he) wants to say, “make these two folders the same.” Of course it’s not quite that simple, but it’s not terribly complex.

Not until you look at the software available for the task these days, anyway, and this isn’t just a Mac thing. Oh, there are utilities out there, all right, but they all have two things in common: they do too much and they cost too much. I didn’t want to pay thirty dollars, not when I could spend two days of my life instead. That’s what my life is worth, these days.

So, over the last couple of days I made a folder merge utility. It came out pretty nice. I thought I’d put it up at the Hut as freeware, sort of a promotional thing.


It deletes files. Of course it does; when you synchronize folders and files don’t match something’s going to get deleted. It’s in the nature of the program to delete files. (The fancier programs allow you to reconcile the differences between files. That’s why they cost money.)


Someone’s going to delete the wrong files. With this sort of software that’s a dead certainty. I show in living color when a newer file will be replaced by an older one, but in this day and age is that enough? The software itself is pretty solid now. It does exactly what it says it does. I don’t think that’s enough.

Remembering the Great Bloggers of the Early 21st Century

A few days ago I heard about a notable literary figure, whose name I have of course forgotten. He was apparently one of the first diarists, a man who recorded his life (or at least a part of it) faithfully, and his life was interesting enough — or perhaps I should say well expressed enough — to be good reading, even a few hundred years later.

My brother’s step-father-in-law has in his possession the diary of a man who was a landowner when the communists came. If the diary is half of what Jirka says it is (not a safe bet), there’s a master’s thesis there. The parts he told me about were fascinating. (The people in charge were asslickers, not farmers, and when the decree came down that they would be switching from horses to tractors, they did, over the objections of the people who knew better. The horses were shipped off, and the tractors sank in the very soft soil. It was a disaster.) In these volumes (so I’m told) are those magical moments of life that at the time appear to be the daily grind, a window into another person’s world.

Try this. Sit in a bar strike up a conversation with the guy sitting next to you, and eventually tell him you’re a writer. A little more time will pass, and then that guy will be telling you why you should help him write his autobiography. (Actually that won’t happen where I am now, but the response is nearly universal in the US.) While I sometimes deride these folks, they do know one thing, and it goes right back to what I said before. It’s not wheter the life is interesting, but whether the account of the life is interesting.

And then there are blogs. It is remarkable, actually, that there are so many people out there who are able to put their lives out there in a way that is both articulare and honest. There are thousands of blogs like that. Then there are the millions of others. Searching for that leg-up out of the “other” category, I thought about what it was than made some blogs interesting while most were just reminders that a large segment of our society needs more to do. I’m really thinking more of the journal-type blog than journalistic-type blogs like those dedicated to politics or sports.

So what might I do, I asked myself, to lift this blog above the vast, sucking pit that is most of the blogosphere? What can I do to make the Media Empire a blazing beacon of lucid, penetrating thought, shining through the locust-plague-darkened skies of unfettered free speech? I devoted some time to this, because as with anything you do, it should be possible to get better. Eventually I arrived at the answer: What I can do is nothing.

(Involuntary falshback to a cartoon from the 50’s or 60’s, with two white-coated men standing at one end of a gigantic computer. There are dials and wires and bigness and the computer says everything about what people thought Earth-shattering computers would be like, back then. One scientist is holding the tape which feeds from a slot in the front of the machine. “It says the answer is two,” he says to the other. A lot of effort to get a simple answer.)

Nothing, or at least not much. Blogging is like hitting a baseball, maybe. Most times, the batter walks back to the dugout, unsuccessful. Yet there are some hitters who can make contact with astonishing consistency (approacing 40% not-sucking!), while others are less consistent but sometimes knock it out of the park. In those terms, this episode probably counts as bunting for a base hit.

(This thought process started as “how can I use my blog to help establish my writing career?” “Stop putting out crappy serial fiction,” was the most obvious answer. But I like putting out crappy serial fiction, even though no one reads it. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this, I think I’m going to poop out some serial fiction. Because I can.)

What I set out to say before making this all about me, me, me, was that while the diary as a literary form may continue, I fear it will be lost among the journals, blogs, scrapbooks, and Muddled Ramblings of our age. We are, as a crowd, very eager to tell about ourselves, to somehow with well-chosen words elevate our lives from “same ol’ shit” to “a unique perspective”.

I tried to imagine bloging fifty years in the future, and to me it looks a lot more like You-Tube than wordpress. We could be living in the Golden Moment of underfettered self-expression via the written word. The next generation of successful bloggers will be more like actors that writers.

Episode 25: Reunion by the River, part three

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a detective who thought he was down on his luck, until his luck changed. He has a client now, Meredith Baxter, a beautiful if quite dangerous woman who holds the key to find something, a treasure of some sort, that is badly wanted by every underworld figure on the planet. For a while the various factions wanted Lowell alive, hoping that he would help them find the treasure for themselves. He can’t make them all happy, however, and the ones who come out on the losing end will not hesitate to express their displeasure with a bullet. Lowell has already been shot once, and his spunky assistant Alice was badly beaten.

Tonight Meredith will be recovering a painting called Blood of the Saint, in which her husband found the key to the location of the treasure. He was pulled from the East River soon after that. Lowell and Meredith are at Jake’s, a dive bar favored by the disreputable crowd. Meredith is certain that there are killers waiting for them outside.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I picked up the gun where it sat in front of me on the table and tested the feel in my left hand. It was a Walther, a .32, not the sort of gat you picture blasting your way out of a building with. Subtlety was Walther’s bag. Still, it was a good choice for my sinister hand, and dexter wasn’t going to be any use. I checked the safety and the magazine. The whole time I was looking for alternatives. “This isn’t like last time, is it?” I asked.

She hesitated. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the warehouse, where you had your own people attack us.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“The people inside with us, they knew something, didn’t they? Something you didn’t want to get around. Staging the attack while I was there was a nice touch. It kept me from quitting, and got us on the run together.”

She set her gun back down in her lap. “This is what I get for hiring clever men. I suppose another drink wouldn’t hurt before we go.”

I figured she was probably right about that. Booze in here, killers waiting outside. Not a tough decision. I went to fetch the booze. By now the area around the bar was uncomfortably bright, and I felt eyes peering at me from the darker recesses.

“Another round?” asked Jake.

“That’s right. Pour one for yourself, while you’re at it.”

Jake hesitated. “Crap, Charley, It’s that bad, then?”

“Just do it.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

I paid him. Along with the bills was a card I had been given long before, on a Tuesday. It wasn’t as clean and white as it had been then, the rigor of the last five days had taken its toll. It was, I reflected, the only thing on me that I had owned for that long. It felt like I was parting with on old friend, or at least a rival. Five days since I had decided never to call that number. Jake looked at it quizzically but kept his yap shut. “Tell your mother Charlie says ‘hello’,” I said.

“Will do, Charlie.” Jake seemed almost mournful; the bags under his eyes even heavier than usual, his pale skin and hollow cheeks reminding me of a mournful spirit, not the Reaper himself but one who follows in his wake cleaning up the mess. One like that never forgets anything, no matter how hard it tries. He picked up his glass. “Here’s to ya.”

I drank with him and got a refill before returning to the table in the corner.

“What was that all about?” Meridith Baxter asked.

“Just saying goodbye,” I said. “Heading to San Fran in the morning.”

She seemed almost amused. “Are you, now?”

“Given the chance.” I was serious.

“Well, good luck to you out there.”

“Thanks.” I took a sip of what was maybe my last drink, to stretch what was maybe my last conversation. I looked across at perhaps the last dame I’d ever see and waited for her to tell me the last lie I might ever hear. Time was stretched and folded; the past, the whole of human history was nothing, a blink of a bat’s eye, while the future didn’t exist at all. Only the now was real, the moment between the vanishing past and the nonexistent future. It stretched to infinity, wrapped back on itself, and the world froze, locked in that moment. A moment drinking top-shelf liquor with a top-shelf killer who looked damn good in black.

She took a sip from her own drink and looked me in the eye. “You’re right, of course. Those were my people who attacked the warehouse. What you don’t understand is that I was for all intents and purposes a prisoner. While obstensibly part of my organization, the people ‘protecting’ me were loyal to someone else. My ex-husband’s family, I expect.

“It is true I timed the attack to make sure you were swept along in the events. I’m sorry about that, but I needed your help and I still do.” She leaned back in her chair and her face was lost in the shadows. “They laugh at you, Charlie, the thugs and goons and hoodlums, the politicians and the lawyers, the cops and the reporters and even the drunks. You’re the biggest joke in this whole damn town. ‘Charlie Lowell,’ one will say, and they all share a chuckle. Nothing else need be said.”

“Well, that explains why you hired me, then.”

“Shut up, Charles. You’re the worst of all of them. You want to know why you drink so much? Every other two-bit gumshoe in this four-bit town is just looking for the next bit of dirty work to make a quick buck. But not Charles Lowell. You spend your life looking for truth. You’re the only honest person in town, Charley, the only one not on the take or two-timing or double-dipping or working some sort of scam. You can’t lie, you can’t cheat, you can’t steal. The only other way to survive in this town, the only way to stay sane, is to be drunk. That’s why they laugh. You are the strangest fish in the fishbowl. I’m not laughing, though.” She paused and smirked. “Except when you think San Francisco would be different.”

I though of a few retorts, but discarded them all. It didn’t matter whether San Fran was better or worse, as long as it was far from here. Maybe it was all the same everywhere, but I didn’t think so. Not for me. This town was dried up, dead, it had nothing left to tell me, no secrets to whisper in my ear as I walked the streets at night. Somewhere else, it would take a while before I could see past the empty faces of the buildings and of the people to see the deeper emptiness beneath. Anywhere was better than here.

I thought of the business card I had just given Jake. “Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think,” I finally said.

She finished her drink and stood, holding her canon with casual familiarity. “If we’re still alive tomorrow, you can explain to me how wrong I am.”

I stood also, the little Walther small and awkward in my large left hand. “Back door?”

She shrugged. “Good as any.”

Three toughs stood also, and reached for their weapons.

I wheeled on them, pushing my client behind me.

“Those are ours,” she said. Quietly she added “Probably.”

I glanced over at Jake. He had picked up the bar phone and was dialing carefully.

“Great,” Meredith said. “Now we’ll have the cops here as well. Better get going.” I led the way to the back door, where Meredith took charge. “We go out fast, and ready to shoot. With any luck we still have a man on the rooftop across the alley.” We exploded through the door, goons in front, looking for targets, waiting for bullets.

There were neither. We moved quickly through the deepening twilight, bristling with guns but with nothing to shoot. We piled into two cars waiting at the end of the alley and were away.

“That was fortunate,” I said.

Meredith was scowling. “Something’s

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 4!

Thought for the day

If the US congress conducted their business in an abandoned hockey rink while sitting on folding chairs, they would do a better job.

The Hap-Happiest time of the year.

Ah, summer. It is Sunday, the quietest days Strašnice has to offer. I’m sitting on the patio at Café Vinice, the shade under the big awning sufficient to allow me to see the screen while the sun shines brightly on the purple-leaved trees in the little landscaped square.

I have only just settled in; my resolution: Get Serious. Before I do that, however, it is worth noting a couple of things — things I’ve said before and will certainly be saying again. I should probably give these principles a name, a shorthand to allow me to repeat myself without sounding repetitions. With the right code word the repetitions become a pleasure in themselves, a secret shared among the initiated.

First, beer is better when consumed outdoors. This principle extends to other beverages as well, but a chilly beer shares a special relationship with the sun and the breeze, a kinship that no other beverage can match. The lager I am drinking now was invented in the chilly caves around Plzn, and it is that residual chill and shadow that mixes so perfectly with a warm day.

Second, there is nothing a girl can wear (including nothing) that is sexier than a miniskirt. I get angry just imagining the day fickle fashion steals from me the simple pleasure of appreciating a graceful form shrouded in exactly the right amount of mystery. (That could also describe my favorite writers, and is the goal I set for myself.)

I’ve mentioned all of that before. One other thing — insignificant compared to those two — that is contributing to my current sanguinity: A nice, breathable wicker chair. Sometimes the things you barely notice at all (not because they are functioning poorly but because they are functioning especially well) are the ones that make the difference between a nice afternoon and an exceptional one. For instance, if I was wearaig sandals right now, I probably wouldn’t notice, but I’m not wearing sandals and I do know my feet are hot. Perhaps the imperfection (hot feet) makes the rest of the goodness graspable.

Shade, sun, trees, breeze, miniskirts, the arrival of my second beer (service oddly friendly today), finishing a thought-provoking book and settling in to see where those thoughts lead. I’ve been over all that stuff before. What’s the word, then, I can use as a shorthand, the sign I can use to wrap up all those feelings into a complete idea?

Maybe this one: Summer. Summer spoken in a reverent, Tom Sawyer voice, when the livin’ is easy — a time when it’s OK to be happy, to appreciate the good life and the wicker chair.

Lost in the Cosmos: A few more thoughts.

Some of this stuff falls outside the normal subjects covered in this blog (whatever that means), but it’s my Media Empire and I’ll do what I want. Actually, I’m not sure just what I’m going to put here yet, but just in case it’s ponderous, long-winded, and nonsensical (a distinct possibility), here’s a link I found by googling “potato eye rutabaga”. It’s almost certain to be more interesting that what follows.

First off, a couple of people commented on my first post about this book to point out that the author would probably be happy to discover that his book annoyed me. I said as much myself in the original post. It’s hard to imagine that he would be displeased to have provoked a thoughtful (if badly uninformed) response from a reader of his work. While the latter parts of the book annoyed me less, there were still assumptions I found problematic.

I was almost to the end of the book when I put my finger on one of the things that was troubling me. There is a stated assumption in the book that the world is a mad, ugly, brutal place, and that people are having a hard time dealing with it should come as no surprise. Part of his premise is that this is a new development, that the rise of technology and the decline of traditional ways for an individual to place himself in the world (specifically, religion) have led to historically desperate times for a species that is aware of itself, but is thoroughly unable to grasp itself the way it can any other thing in the cosmos.

Saying that things are different now is a tricky thing. In high school one of my favorite teachers pointed out that the historically large body of poetry and literature produced by soldiers during World War I was a reflection of a new level of horror that technology had brought to war. She might be right, I’m sure as hell glad I’ll never know those hardships, but I raised my hand. Might it just be that this was the first war where most of the foot soldiers were literate?

So, it’s hard to compare previous times to our own. Walker Percy cites many statistics of increasing behaviors that would be indicative of a growing dislocation of selves in a world that is increasingly mad, but I wonder. Perhaps there is a hierarchy of problems people face: eating, staying warm, reproducing, understanding your place in the universe. That does place us in a historic period; most people on this planet are going to eat dinner tonight, most are going to sleep under a roof, and some have even decided not to bother with reproduction. That leaves a historically staggering segment of the population with the luxury of feeling Lost in the Cosmos.

An aside: the author regularly characterizes a modern view of sex as just another need, like eating and breathing. If that were true, I’d be dead. Sex is a want, not a need. Sometimes it is a very strong want that make us just as aggressive and stupid as the need to eat, but the cost of failure is not the same. There is a rather large section of the book devoted to society’s idea that sex is a need — he uses hypothetical space voyages to create small groups of people forced to live together for many years. He does a good job demonstrating that the assumption of sex as a need can lead to major trouble, but then leaves it at that, not considering it might be possible to construct a crew where there is simply no expectation that this “need” will be met. Captain Cook or Magellan might be able to give some hints on the subject.

(Although twice — twice! — in the latter parts of the book he added “other” at the end of his multiple-choice questions. Maybe he thought we were ready for it by then.)

Back to luxury: the fundamental schism between Walker Percy and myself. In his view, being lost is a bad thing, leading to man’s ability to cooly, intellectually commit genocide (genocides of passion or of ideals are, apparently, better genocides)…

Um, let me jump back to the sex for a second. He echoes Kierkegaard as saying that the Christianity is responsible for eroticising sex. Before Christianity, he maintains, sex did not have the magical quality it did after. It’s odd, because the non-idealized sex before Christianity seems to be benign, while the casual sex in the wake of Christianity’s decline is a root cause of the increasing violence of our society. I think I might have to read that part again.

So, right. Luxury. I think we live in a time when needs are so completely and invisibly fulfilled that we’ve forgotten what a need really is. Five hundred years ago, people might have wanted to understand their place in the cosmos; some guy might have had periods at night wondering “why did I say that?”, revealing a fundamental desire to understand his self and his place in the world, but then his belly growled and the youngest (of nine) kids woke up crying with a really scary-sounding cough, and he was too busy surviving to stop and ask why.

Why do we feel lost? Because we can.

Percy’s not here to argue with me, so on occasion I will have to do it for him. I promise I’ll do my level best not to make him a straw man, but to present his rebuttal as honestly as I can. Let’s not fool ourselves, however; his responses would be much more complete (and interesting) than the ones I’m putting in his mouth.

Percy: But by any empirical measure — drug use, war deaths, suicide — there’s something wrong here.

[Mmm.. that’s actually pretty close to a straw man. But my heart’s in the right place, I promise.]

Escalating war deaths are a large theme later in the book. I wonder, though, what you would find if you normalized against population. Certainly I’ll agree that war is much more dangerous for civilians these days, but Hannibal broke a record for one-day battlefield slaughter that was only surpassed in the last one hundred years. And now that I think of it, the civilians in Carthage were eventually completely wiped out. War sucks, and it has always sucked. There is one enormous difference, now, I’ll agree… the weapons we don’t use.

Drug use and suicide I put in the “luxury” column. People don’t kill themselves very often if it means their children will starve (of course I have nothing to substantiate that claim with). You want to prevent a suicide? Make that person responsible for someone else’s life. That does make Suicide an artifact of the technological age, and even traceable to individuals being trapped in world they can’t place themselves in. So there is some level of agreement between Percy and me.

Dang, how many paragraphs was that without talking about Christianity and sex? Too many! I think it is historically accurate to say that with the rise of the Judeo-Christian tradition (and don’t forget Islam!) sexual mores changed. It would be easy to conclude causality, but there was a more fundamental revolution going on, something that gave rise to centrally-controlled religions and a complex code of sexual behavior. Cities.

I must admit now that I have no evidence to back this statement up, and I have read nothing that supports it. It just sounds right to me. This is not scholarship; it’s some guy talking.

Cities (and increasing population in general) created an unprecedented social challenge; there was a need for a whole new, externally applied and enforced code of conduct to allow so many people to live in such a small space. Those rules also allowed for an economy to exist that made services possible.

Percy: But mysticism isn’t necessary to accomplish that.

Jerry: You’re right, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s harder to question a mystery.

So, cities. People living packed together. Religion changes, sexual mores change. Religion was the embodiment of the new set of rules, and rules governing sex were naturally included. They’re tied together, but ultimately they’re just two parts of the answer to the question “how can we all live together?” Two effects of the same cause.

Now, thousands of years later, life is changing again, and what has broken religion are democracy and prosperity. Central authority still exists, but it must suffer questioning, and react to the arbitrary fiats of the consensus. You can’t do that and maintain an aura of absolute moral clarity.

For “Christian Era”, I would substitute “Urban Era”. The Urban Era is ending. Cities will still be here, bigger than ever, but I think there is a fundamental change going on nonetheless, one tied to cities finally doing what they are supposed to do: ensure the prosperity and health of its inhabitants. Even the most awful of US cities is doing a good job of this, on a historical scale. (If the Nitrogen levels in the biosphere gets any worse, we’ll be back to stonings, but for now let’s enjoy it.)

I was afraid of this. I’m deep in and almost ready to get back to the first point I wanted to make. Maybe if I repeat the sentence it will be like the previous ramble never happened…

I was almost to the end of the book when I put my finger on one of the things that was troubling me. Percy said (once again), that the world sucks. Then I remembered a point he had made earlier, possibly in the optional reading. A “world” is something we each create, a crazy network of signs and associated memories. A world is inside your head. (Saying that, Percy’s statement that the only thing we can’t put into our world is ourselves becomes obvious; it would be recursive. The world is a subset of our selves.) So when he says the world is insane, that has nothing to do with me.

Granted, there is a substantial overlap between people’s worlds, or civilization could not exist. But differences, especially in interpretation, are not just good, but I suspect in the grand scheme (a machine Percy and I could argue about at length) those differences are necessary.

I’ll try to be faster with the second point. Sorry, but there has to be a second point.

Percy discusses at length coping strategies for souls trapped in this place. It boils down to, live with it, transcend it, or kill yourself.

Obviously the most interesting option is to transcend it. (Borrowing from my off-the-cuff statement above that I’m liking more an more, the transcendent state is when you can see that the world is a part of you, rather than the other way around.) Percy lists two and exactly two paths to transcendence: Science and Art. I think there are those capable of finding other paths.

The problem with this transcendent life is that except in a few rare cases it is temporary. A scientist cannot remain in the realm of his field forever; sooner or later he has to go to the grocery store. Percy claims, and I believe, that ‘re-entry’ is much more difficult for an artist. He lists eleven modes (still the numbering!) that an artist can use to come back to Earth after living in that place where art comes from.

Seeger: what the hell is this reentry stuff? From where? To where?

Percy: What do you do?

Seeger: I’m a writer.

Percy: I see. [Writers are an especially messed-up breed, by Percy’s reckoning. I just find them annoying.] Do you drink?

Seeger: Well, yes.

Percy: [checks off item two of eleven — item one is still hanging] Where do you live?

Seeger: Prague.

Percy: You don’t say. Where before that?

Seeger: Well, kind of nowhere. The road.

Percy: [Checks off item three. He looks me over. Number four is sex. He doesn’t bother to ask. Likewise he skips over returning home, living a lie, mysticism, and suicide. Skipping ahead he rules out numbers ten and eleven, being ‘saved’ and frontal assault. He’s got a feeling about number nine, however…] Tell me about your day.

Seeger: I work on my software and I write.

Percy: All the time?

Seeger: Pretty much. I hang with my brother sometimes.

Percy: So… this whole nasty world you accuse me of creating… It could be there and you’d never know it.

Seeger: Umm….

Percy: You are one lucky man. And yet, the characters you create, the best ones, live in a world of terrifying ambiguity, a place where there is no truth, no right, no wrong, just an individual alone and adrift, knowing his actions ultimately mean nothing.

Seeger: Exactly! Now don’t you see?

Percy: …

I think that’s what Percy would say. (Option nine is to never come down, to barricade yourself against the pesky real world and not come out. Optimistically, that’s been my mode. It’s either that or I’ve never left the ground. It sure feels like I’ve been up there.) Two of the options on how an artist can deal with the real world don’t require dealing at all. Suicide and monkhood. (I think Percy had a more elegant name for it.) Option one, the one skipped over, is actually the option of last resort — a well-adjusted artist performing at a high level without showing any unusual signs of social discomfort.

Which, finally, brings me to the very heart of the difference between Percy and myself. We agree that the human is newcomer to a landscape unlike any terrain Scopes’ monkeys had to deal with. Man is self-conscious, a monumental, catastrophic and very recent development. We’re together on all that. The crazy thing about mankind, the frightful thing, is that [Jerry hesitates in his writing, thinking there might be two things, but one is more frightful] is that he can ask why. Dogs don’t ask why. I bet whales don’t ask why. Even the most ardent gorilla-language people have backed off on our primate cousins asking the Big Question.

The Question fascinates me, particularly because I don’t think there’s an absolute answer. 42? It’s as good as any. Maybe that’s why people with Answers bother me; I don’t even understand the question, but I’m pretty sure there is no answer. Absolutes are all false.

King Arthur: Go find the grail!

Sir Jerry: But it doesn’t exist.

King Arthur: And…?

Sir Jerry: I’ll find it or die trying.

In the above scene, King Arthur is another part of my head that I understand even more poorly than most parts.

Man is a creature of contradictions, able to believe contradictory things, to hold them in his head at the same time. This is perhaps the triumph of symbolic thought, that complex systems can be reduced to an idea, and fundamentally conflicting ideas, in their reduced states, can be entertained simultaneously. Thus people who can read can vote to not teach evolution in their schools. It makes no sense whatsoever, but here we find the most fundamental trait of humanity. We don’t make sense.

Above, when Percy cited the characters in my stories, he pointed out that they were lost, searching for meaning where none existed, islands in an ocean they didn’t understand. (Maybe I’m embellishing on the words I previously put in his mouth.) It’s true. But…

The difference between Percy and me is that, ultimately, whatever words you want to wrap it in, he sees man as having a terrible dark side. I see man as having a terrible dark side that makes him interesting enough to justify his existence.

Not included in this episode: Consciousness and Evolution and Language and the Unnameable Self. Seriously, if you like thinking, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Lost in the Cosmos. I have mentioned more than once that this book pissed me off, but what some folks don’t catch is that that’s high praise. I said somewhere that I’d like to argue with Walker Percy over beers sometime, and if he wants to throw down I’ll be there. The thing is that jargon exists for a reason; in any given field it’s important for a word to mean a particular thing. The first half of the discussion would be a tutorial. After that poor Walker would discover that nothing I have to say is actually new.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.