An Email I Don’t Want to Answer

I was excited for a very brief moment when I discovered an email in my in box from the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a magazine that has published my work in the past. Rejections come by snail mail. (Of course, checks also come by snail mail…)

My pleasure was short-lived. He was checking to see if he got all the pages of my most recent submission. “This seems incomplete,” he wrote. He gave the last line of the story that he was holding. Yep, that’s the end all right. As soon as I tell him that, the rejection will be on the way. I wonder how many strikes I get before my slush pile free pass is revoked.

I think the problem may have been in part that the story has a similar feel to what they published previously, only this one is supposed to be funny. If he’s reading the thing with the assumption that it’s serious, it’s not going to work and the punch line will just hang there. (I actually backed off on the funny for the final version, not wanting to overdo it. Might have been a bad choice.) I’ll try the story next at a place that will read without preconceived notions and see if it goes over better. If not, I’ll just have to accept the fact that the story just isn’t as funny as I think it is. Inconceivable!

(Another lesson – there’s a reason one is supposed to put [end] at the end of a submitted story.)

Bit by a Leopard

I hadn’t really been paying attention to the hype (if there was any), so the release of Apple’s OS X 10.6 “Leopard” (someone in the marketing department over there needs a good talking-to) caught me by surprise. I hadn’t preordered it and I first learned it was out when reading a Web comic. The second place I heard about Leopard was from a user of Jer’s Novel Writer. That message: “it’s broken!”

Grand. Over the weekend I searched Prague for a store with Leopard in stock. Nope. No clue when it might arrive, either. There was a hint of bitterness on the part of some shopkeepers, a small resentment at being second-class citizens in the eyes of Apple, but mostly just the Czech shrug. Wait and see.

“It’s an emergency,” I explained to one clerk. “Can you find out when it might come in?” She answered in the negative. That doesn’t mean it was not possible to find out, it meant that she wasn’t going to try. (“It’s not possible” here means “I don’t know how and I can’t be bothered to figure it out.”)

I’ve gotten some helpful diagnostic information back from a couple of users, and I’ve built a shot-in-the-dark attempt at a fix. We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I’ll be turning to mail order today. Why couldn’t Apple have delayed just a little longer, until I was in the U.S.?

ADDENDUM: HEY! APPLE! Czech Republic is a country too! It’s in Europe and everything! First I wasn’t eligible for your software contest, and now you won’t even ship me your product! AAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!

I feel better now.

In the zone.

I woke this morning to differing clocks. It took me a while to notice; the clocks on the computers are how I tell time when I’m at home, while the time on my phone is what I use when going mobile. When time matters at all.

Tonight I’m at the Budvar Bar Near Home, and the television is on. They just showed a feature about the confusion caused by the time change, and part of that was footage of engineers resetting the astronomical clock in the center of town.

This clock is a big tourist draw, a bigger tourist disappointment, and the ancient mechanism should not be subject to modern arbitrary time laws. The clock should be showing solar time, the way it did when it was first built. While every other timepiece in the square is telling you what time we have decided it should be, that one clock should stand defiant, and say what time it really is. I guarantee that will only add to the magic.

Dia de los Muertos

I didn’t notice the crowds outside the entrance to Olšanský Hřbitovy, the sprawling, ivy-covered cemetery complex that I pass when walking home. I was feeling lazy about then, and thought I’d take the tram the rest of the way. As I passed the next tram stop I looked back and — what luck! — tram 11 was pulling in just then.

Oddly for a Sunday, it was packed to the gills. I kept walking. It was when I passed the next, smaller but more neatly-kept cemetery, that I noticed the crowds. There were more people than I had ever seen there before, and the road was lined with illegally-parked škodas. The people were in general dressed nicely, but not in a funerary fashion.

I peeked in the gates and one of the central monuments was surrounded by hundreds of candles, while people wandered the pathways bearing pine boughs and wreaths. Even the run-down little graveyard close to my house was jumping. Tram 11, tram of the dead, was filled with folks coming and going from the graveyards and the crematorium.

If this is the day to pay respect to those that have gone before, I’m surprised that here in Strašnice, Haunted City, my neighborhood, there is not a city-wide celebration of this day. There should be a wiener-dog parade and children’s pageants. Some of the supermodel wannabes from the center of town would come out for the look-like-a-skeleton contest. Tourists would mistake it for a Haloween celebration, but the locals would know that this is just Strašnice’s one chance each year to celebrate it’s own unique character.

It’s a silly thought, probably. While other parts of town are doing their best to establish a reputation and a marketable local vibe, sleepy Strašnice has no such ambition. It is here, just getting along, minding its own business, and just being Czech.

A damn good night.

Live band karaoke. Beautiful women everywhere. Free beer. Can it possibly get better?

Yes, it can.

I was pleased when Don Diego invited me to the shindig. As you may have noticed from the sparse entries lately, life has settled into a routine around here. Routine, and not terribly exciting. People invite me to stuff, but if I’ve got a groove going in my work, I tend to back out. Also, most people tend to go out on the “weekend” (some sort of business ritual, I understand), and so everybody has plans at the same time, and the bars are at their most crowded and smoky. How can you get any work done in a place like that?

Don Diego and I scan the list of songs and go to sign up. Although we are just about the first ones on the list, the girl in charge tells Don Diego that his song is already taken. He chooses another. I scowl at the list again. There is nothing really in my wheelhouse, and fortunately for the bar there is no Billy Idol, either. I make a choice and scribble it down.

The outing was organized by a local language school where Don Diego teaches English. “One thing I have to tell you,” he had to tell me, “there are a lot of really good-looking women there.” I put this factum in the “good” column and was all the more eager for the night to roll round. When we learned that the karaoke was in front of a live band, I didn’t quite know which column that belonged in. On the one hand, it’s simply a kick to get up and front a bunch of talented professional musicians, to be a part of their act if only for a moment. On the other hand, you are limited to what they know how to play. For instance, there might be relatively few songs in English, and you might find yourself singing a song that’s just a little too high for your rusty vocal cords.

The first regular takes the stage and the band begins to play. “Hey, that’s the song I was going to do,” Don Diego says. Obviously the girl has sung it before; she belts it out with confidence and more than just a little style. This is not going to be your average drunks-with-microphones sort of karaoke. Oh, no, not at all.

The party ostensibly started at 19.00 (rhymes with 7 p.m.), and we got there only a few minutes after that to find that things were still pretty quiet. Don Diego decided that his first entrance (and consequently mine) wasn’t grand enough, so we took a mulligan and arrived a second time. He was with the circus; he knows the importance of showmanship.

We sat and I found myself chatting with a very pleasant bunch of people, all involved with the language school. It was an easy-going bunch, and I was very happy to have on my right a particularly charming young woman, who we will call Lily. Across from me sat the recruiter for the language school. “Do you need a job?” she asked early in the evening. I had just been looking at my finances earlier that day, and I had to admit that the time for gainful employment was looming. She gave me her card. Apparently the screening process is pretty rigorous, so there’s always a chance I’ll wash out later on in the process. We can hope, anyway.

‘What are you going to sing?’ People ask me when they see I am holding a lyric sheet. I show them the song. ‘Oohhh… nice. I like that one,’ they each say in turn. I nod. I like it too, but I’m not sure I can actually sing it. The regulars are, as a bunch, pretty dang good.

More good news followed. Yes indeed, the company had opened a tab at the bar, and until the money ran out, beer and wine were free. Of course this can be a dangerous situation, especially when one is trying to make a good first impression on a new group of people. Don Diego and I reached the same conclusion at about the same time. The trick was to get the free alcohol into key other people at the party.

The group ebbed and flowed around the tables, and while I had some time alone to contemplate my good fortune, I was never lonely; there was conversation to be had all around me, and Don Diego never left me hanging, although most of his attention was on the girl who had first recruited him into the school; he had gone to the interview just to spend time with her. She struck me as a Czech version of Cameron Diaz — something about her smile just charmed my socks off.

Don Diego takes the stage, loosens his  shirt, and strikes a pose. He isn’t just up there to sing a song, oh, no. He is about to put on a show. The music starts, Don Diego puts away the lyric sheet. He kicks ass.

I found myself talking to Red, a very pretty and very pleasant girl who worked at the school. Her eyes lit up when she heard I was a writer. Yes, her eyes lit up. Halogens, I think. We talked about literature for a while, about favorite writers (making it obvious I don’t read enough), and she asked me if I was published. “Short stories, yes, but I’m better at writing than I am at selling.” My current line. “Have you tried publishing here?” she asked. I told her I had not.

In classic bad news/good news fashion she told me that her boyfriend is an editor at a publishing house here and is looking for American writers. Did I get her contact information? Of course not. I was too busy downplaying the literary merit of my stories. A big opportunity falls in my lap, and I drop it like a hot buttered potato. Hopefully I can pick it up before it rolls away completely.

A confession here: I’ve got a pretty major inferiority complex when it comes to presenting myself to people who know and love literature. This set includes almost all Czechs. It makes me say and do the stupidest things imaginable, and turns me into the same sort of asshole that I most dislike among the American writers here in Prague.

I had signed up right after Don Diego, but my name is not called next. Just as well; that’s going to be a tough act to follow. Another song goes by, and another. Had I been forgotten? Is that a bad thing or a blessing in disguise?

The night wore on at a gentle pace, with plenty of good conversation with interesting people who are not afraid of being happy. Eventually the band was finished, and the party started to dissipate. Don Diego and I resolved to go somewhere quiet for a nightcap and to chat about the most excellent time that was, apparently, had by all. Lily was still there, and determined to stay, despite our attempts to lure her away into the next phase of the party. We bid her farewell (after exchange of phone numbers), and in an I-can’t-believe-I-just-did-that moment I pulled the old kiss-on-the-cheek-sudden-shift trick. Grand larceny smooch.

As the dude finished his most perfect rendition and the crowd when wild, I turned to Red and said, “My worst nightmare is that I’m next.” After a bit of confusion I heard, ‘Let it Be’. My song. Shit.

I looked for Red to say goodbye. I never got her contact information, but I know she’s out there somewhere, and I will find her again. In the (relative) quiet of another bar whose name I’ve already forgotten, Don Diego and I sat with our final Gambrinuses of the night and reflected on what a damn good evening we had had. I’ve got to get out more often.

There is clapping and cheering among the language school people as I take the stage. It’s show time! I am about to sing “Let it Be”, a beautiful song of sorrow and hope, a song carried by the vocals, that rises steadily to a grand conclusion: There will be an answer, Let it be. I set my posture, getting into character, and the exercise calms me. I am ready. I will not be taking the chorus down an octave; it’s all or nothing tonight. The music starts.

Holiday Plans?

I’ll be back in the Western Hemisphere shortly, and more or less at loose ends for a while. I’m not planning anything on the scale of the Mini Road Trip (some of you in the background are sniggering right now that I even needed to write a sentence that started “I’m not planning…”), but I am looking forward to some time on the open road. Christmas itself I’ll spend in New Mexico, I think.

So… are there times and places I simply must be over the holidays? Do those of you who actually make plans in advance know where you’ll be? Any strangers out there who would like to buy me a beer somewhere? I’m flexible.

Zombies are up!

It’s too late to vote on the video (voting ended right at the submission deadline), but you can still see the product here: http://www.collegehumor.com/worldsdirtiestfilm/dirtyfilms (Please note that it is a bit risqué — that’s the point of the contest.) Considering the time constraint and the all-volunteer cast and crew, I think it came out pretty well.

Because we submitted right at the last minute, we probably won’t be eligible for the Grand Prize, but honestly that’s all right by me. Grand Prize is a pile of toys and an appearance on a late-night talk show; first prize is the pile of toys without the TV. Since logistically it would end up being yours truly on the talk show yet I wouldn’t get any of the toys, I’d just as soon we did NOT win the grand prize. I didn’t really think this through until I had already voted, of course.

So, fuego thanks all of you who saw his message in the comments and voted, and I thank the rest of you who didn’t. There’s always a chance we’ll be disqualified anyway. As I said to Zombina and the Skeletones, who gave us permission to use one of their songs, the rules are redolent of lawyer-stink and somewhat contradictory.

Zombie infestation at Little Café Near Home!

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fuego and Soup Boy plan the first shot.

The other day fuego was poking around online when he discovered a video contest. The contest is sponsored by the company that makes some sort of shower gel, so the videos are to show people who are dirty getting clean again. This particular shower gel advertises heavily in magazines like Maxim, which is essentially Playboy for illiterate wimps. Right away, then, it is safe to assume that the winning videos will have sexy women in them.

fuego and Soup Boy put their heads together and came up with a storyboard. In the story… zombies! I don’t think they even knew it was Zombie Month. Soup Boy scored a fairly high-end camera and rounded up the cast while fuego recruited an accomplished makeup special effects artist and got a production assistant in the bargain. I set to work trying to get permission to use interesting zombie-worthy music.

The first bit of shooting was at a castle an hour’s drive outside of Prague, and it was just the three of us. This weekend it was time to get the shots with the zombie babes. I held the ideal table at the Little Café Near Home while the makeup guy went to work on the actresses. It created quite a stir when the first two arrived at the vanguard of the film crew, staggering in with a shuffling zombie gait. They looked… dead. (A little too dead, I thought. This shot is supposed to be after the miraculous transformation wrought by the shower goo, leaving the girls looking only slightly dead.) The girls came over and greeted me by name, which surprised the other customers, who are used to me just sitting in my corner and working.

The crew invaded and began to set up. fuego echoed my concern about the makeup, but when you get a major guy in the biz working for you voluntarily, you don’t complain too much. I tried to be helpful, which for the most part meant staying out of the way. fuego enjoyed calling out (in Czech), “OK, look dead, people!” After a few takes it was over, and the crew packed and left, off to shoot the dirtier (and more risqué) “before” scenes. Alas, some of the zombie babes were shy, so as a nonessential male I was not invited on set for the lingerie portions of the shoot. Oh, well.

Yesterday I got a message from fuego. Sure enough, the zombie babes need to be cleaner for the “after” shot. Tonight, the Zombie Babes will strike again! Watch out!

So you’re sitting in a bar…

Unique and interesting. They’re not a bunch you wouldn’t expect to find hanging out together. Except…

The circus is in town, just up the road. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s my romantic idea of the SHOW fed by my friendship with a guy who spent a few years in the biz, but the pull of the four-mast big top of Cirkus Berousek would be a siren song of disaster but for one sobering fact. While I would sell my soul to the circus, in return I have nothing to offer. Well, almost nothing…

CIRCUS HR REPRESENTATIVE: So… (she flips though papers, not finding what she is looking for. She folds her fingers in front of her and regards me. We are not in an office, but a crowded and humid trailer where my request for tea was answered with diluted coffee.) …you want to be in the circus.

JERRY: Yes.

CIRC HR REP: And what can you do?

What can I do? That’s always the catch. To be in the circus you need more than a wandering frame of mind, you need either a physique that says ‘the big top will rise despite the snow’, or you need some sort of reason that strangers might want throw down a buck to keep you alive. The whole “what do you do” question is tough for those of us who don’t do much of anything.

JERRY: Well, I speak with the Voice of Authority.

C. HR. R.: Explain.

JERRY: I can say the most ridiculous nonsense and people will believe me.

C. HR. R.: For example?

JERRY: I can bench-press forty-seven times my own weight.

C. HR. R.: Really?!? That’s amazing! When can you start?

Sadly, that’s the best-case scenario, and it just leads to total humiliation later, when I am killed trying to bench-press a mere four times my weight. The Voice of Authority is like a gun with a backwards barrel.

Double Whammy

The bartender asks, “You want another?”

“Nah. I’ve gotta go home.”

He nods knowingly. “You seem sad tonight.”

Shit. Am I that obvious? And where the hell does a pimple-faced beer slinger get off even tiptoeing over the surface of sadness? Where in your world of primal teenage lust have you ever had the chance to understand deep, permanent, sorrow? If the cure to a broken heart is a new thang, what happens when there are no more thangs? Take your whole ‘there’s always tomorrow’ platitude and choke on it.

Still, the little bastard was right. I was sad tonight. Am. Women shined me on not one but twice, chopped-liverificating me to the harshest degree. The second shine was from my favorite bartender in this country. She was intoxicated and in a hurry to get back to the party downstairs, so I will cut myself some slack. Still, there was a big hole where “it’s great to see you again” might have fit.

I probably would have passed that over with a chuckle were I not already feeling raw from a previous shine. I suspect I have only myself to blame in the end, but I wrote in these pages a while back about a woman (name rhymes with feevah!) who out of the blue started talking to me. Perhaps it was my public expression of joy over this event, or perhaps I cashed in on another opportunity to make a complete ass of myself, but she doesn’t talk to me any longer. She doesn’t even look at me. She would be more comfortable if I didn’t exist at all. Which, overall, pretty much sucks.

Message from reality

I got a lead balloon from an old friend tonight. Heavy, but miraculously buoyant. The first part was an answer she gave to an essay question on a test. Mechanically, well, it was her runaway style. I’ve seen poet laureates try to manufacture her voice, and fail. Her emotions are felt so hard it’s impossible to write her off as sentimental.

(Somehow nowadays sentimental is a bad thing. I often disparage my own work for being sentimental. Here I am styling myself as a writer unconcerned with what other folks think, yet I can’t raise a sentimental middle finger to the Art Establishment.)

Anyway, tonight I was fortunate to hear from her. She has mastered the run-on sentence. No, more than mastered, she has made the run-on sentence her groveling minion and her flaming sword. I would not dare construct her sentences, and I am less for it. She is a verbal avalanche, and the only thing worse than being swept away by her is to wonder what you missed if you somehow got out of the way. In this way her language is an honest reflection of herself.

To all English teachers out there: Be true to the kids. Be true to the language. Style counts, and when style is backed by passion… well, you dream about that already. There’s art nearby.

fuego

I’m at a new place, one that my brother found. It serves his favorite kind of beer (usually), and is a cozy place, below street level. When fuego gave me directions how to find it, they ended with “go up about 2 1/2 blocks and it will be obvious.” As I walked up the street I smiled. There was the Bernard sign. No mystery which of the several taverns on the block was the one I was looking for.

As I got closer, the choice became even more obvious. The name of the place is ‘fuego’. Alas, despite the name there is no fireplace here. Despite living in a place where buildings don’t burn and the winters are cold, almost nowhere to be found in this city is a bar or café with a fireplace.

The music that is playing right now is pure ’80’s power pop, generic in every way, lacking in anything that would single out which hair band is responsible for this stuff. There was one instrumental in which the guitar sounded like Joe Satriani, but what he’d be doing with those other losers, and why the producer wouldn’t let him loose on the other songs as well, will remain forever a mystery.

Soundtrack and fireplace notwithstanding, this is a pretty nice place to get some work done.

Sparta v. Slavia

Sparta and Slavia are the two soccer teaks from Prague. Think Mets and Yankees, and you’re getting warm. Red Sox/Yankees would be closer, as there is no Boston equivalent in the Czech Republic. Tonight, these guys are playing each other, and it’s for keeps. While there has been some lying in the grass crying like a baby, there hasn’t been much, and the game is turning into a hard-fought affair.

But here’s something you will not find in any sporting contest on US soil. Frankly, I’m pretty damn stunned that it would happen here (after all, this isn’t England). The game is being broadcast live, of course, and after a corner kick the defenders had gained control when a bomb went off behind the goal.

Let me write that again, in case you missed it the first time. After a corner kick the defenders had gained control when a bomb went off behind the goal. The advertising set up there was blasted, and the goalkeeper hit the deck. The players paused for perhaps two seconds, then resumed playing while the smoke cleared. An emergency crew rushed to the location of the blast to repair the advertising. The shot of the girl in stands eating a sausage garnered more comment among the rank and file here at the Little Café Near Home.

Meanwhile, the game has been a good one. (Yes, I wrote that.) Slavia scored early but Sparta has been dominating, threatening to score much of the time. It seems I’m surrounded by Sparta fans. There are a lot of muddy uniforms, frayed nerves, and unheard of in this sport, players are picking themselves up off the turf to show that they can take a hit. Players are colliding and not falling over; instead they play through and try to get the advantage with their own talent at fotbol, rather than the ref’s whistle. The ref proved inclined early to let the boys play.

— As I typed the above, a Slavia player took a dive. Massive head trauma of some sort. “Three minutes!” Franta said, predicting how long it would take for him to get back in the action. “Two minutes,” I countered. I imagine a scene in which the team medic is summoned onto the field, to discover to his horror that the player is actually injured. The doc is helpless, as his magic freezy spray cannot heal the stricken player.

The “let the boys play” attitude turned this into a very physical game, and toward the end of the first half we found out just where the ref’s limit was, as a flurry of yellow cards and one red came out. The game is still hotly contested, but so far in the second half there have been no bombs.

Oops. I wrote that sixty seconds too soon. Smoke bombs this time. One section of the stands is engulfed in orange and yellow. There was a great shot of a woman in the Emergency Response Team running with a smoke bomb, trying to find a place where it would be less harmful.

— As I typed the above, I saw that the guy out with the head injury is still out. It’s possible I owe him an apology, but Boy Who Cried Wolf still applies. The game is winding down, and as usual it’s easy to tell which team is ahead. They’re the ones lying on the ground to eat up the clock. In this regard the game remains fundamentally broken.

— The game is as good as over, but a Slavia player was just hit by a thrown beer while preparing to throw the ball inbounds. (The beer-thrower was skilled; the cup was miraculously half-full when it reached its target.) Clearly fans throwing stuff at players cannot be tolerated, and the game stopped while security handled the situation. I assume that if the perpetrator could not be identified, the home team would have been penalized. This is right and proper, but compare with BOMB above. The bomb did not make it into the highlight reel.

The Best Place in the World to Drink Beer

One of the things about the last day of summer—it may turn out to be the next-to-last. You never know. There’s a compounding effect, as each one is more appreciated than the one before. I was back on the hill Sunday, enjoying perhaps the last warm day of the year for a second time.

The people I was with were well-traveled individuals, putting my wandrings to shame (although, not being players of the ex-pat game they never tried to put me to shame). I asked my drinking companions, “Have you ever, anywhere, ever seen a more beautiful place to sit and enjoy a beer?”

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Beer drinkers enjoy a sunny afternoon in one of the world’s best places to sip a pivo.

Uker, who’s been around (he was traveling with the first person ever to be diagnosed with malaria in Mongolia), thought for a while and said, “Nope. There’s nothing like this.” Or something like that. I wasn’t taking notes. I have in the past asked this question of other folks who’ve been around and about. They will look out over the city, think about it for a while, and shake their heads. There are some nice places out there, but this place is a mystical convergence of beer, peace, beauty, and people who love beer, peace, and beauty.

I know some people who could make a case for their own back porches as the best place on the planet for sipping suds (I have had such a porch myself), and those people are fortunate indeed, but for the sake of this discussion I think it necessary that we limit the contenders to drinking and eating establishments that a traveler could visit without an invitation. Ultimately, compiling a list of the most beautiful places in the world to have a drink may be the greatest service this blog ever performs.

So now I throw down the gauntlet. Do you know a place that can compete with this? If I get any responses (especially with pictures), I’ll set up a special page to list the best the world has to offer. I may add a couple more myself. There are some damn fine places out there.

A Stray Thought…

“If I stole her purse, she’d have to talk to me.”