Escape from Oz, part 2: The Longest Day

Here I am, another airport, more waiting. I must say that Heathrow Terminal 4 is not my favorite air travel experience. Despite quite a few innovations and a host of people dedicated to getting people previewed, checked in, screened, double-checked, then through security, the outer departures area was a zoo of milling, confused humanity. One simple thing they could add: A sign indicating which airlines could be found in which check-in zones. At any rate, I’m through all that now, waiting at gate 5 to get on flight 5 to take me over the ocean to Houston.

Right now there are carts driving past with beepers beeping, there’s an alarm beeper of some sort going off, there’s an announcement that has no hope of being understood over the din. I am in a loud place, my first tea of the morning still cooling to a consumable temperature, echoes of trains still rattling in my head. Ah, for the lovely quiet morning of yesterday!

—-

Hours have passed, miles are a memory now and I’m in Houston, Texas. Well, I’m in an airport, and there are signs here and there that tell me that the airport is in Houston. No way to tell, otherwise, except some of the shops have a distinctively Texas flavor. (Pro Bass Shop, for instance, so you can stock up on huntin’ and fishin’ gear before you get on your plane. I was about to scoff at that store until I saw a gaggle of Japanese businessmen venture in. Then it all made sense.) It occurs to me that I really should have brought my Rice University baseball cap.

The flight from London was, while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it pleasant — it’s not like I was sorry to get off the plane — was remarkably non-unpleasant. The Continental Airlines 777 had more leg room than I’ve come to expect, and that little bit of extra space can make a big difference. There were some bumpy intervals, but overall the flight was nicer than I’ve come to expect. So thumbs up to Continental for taking out a couple rows of seats and giving their passengers a little room to breathe.

Getting through passport control and customs was as simple as it’s ever been, and going back through security went smoothly. But despite the swiftly moving lines, there was a general tension that is always present during this process. Strange that with all the other lines and bureaucratic silliness that travelers go through, that for this one step tension is high and people get really bent out of shape. In London Heathrow, there are signs that say (more or less) “Please do not assault the security personnel”. I think it could be that there is such emphasis on getting people though quickly at all costs that what results is inherently stressful for security employees and travelers alike. What could they do differently so that all parties concerned could just relax a little?

First thing – more space before and after to take all your luggage apart and more space on the other side to put it all back together again. There’s a big human pile-up on both sides of security as people try to comply with whatever the daily regulations are.

The Prague airport is actually a little more relaxed; individual gates have their own security, so you don’t have a chokepoint with thousands of people all trying to get through. And since everyone in the security line is catching the same plane, there are fewer worries about getting left behind.

Anyway, didn’t mean to go off on that tangent, but that’s why we call it Muddled Ramblings.

Here I sit in a shopping mall that planes park next to, enjoying a beer and a Buffalo Chicken sandwich. I sort of expected something that was related to Buffalo hot wings, but no. Oh, well. I will sign the credit card receipt with my eyes closed.

And hey! I’m getting a very weak, but free Wi-Fi signal here! We’ll see if I can stay connected and the battery lives long enough for me to post…

Blogger’s Dilemma

Back there a couple of episodes, I thought I hit a classic old-school muddled ramble. The vibe of a traveler, an observer, a humble host for your vicarious adventures. Almost immediately I came up with two more minor episodes that, while they do manage to summarize the human condition in a few magical words and therefore just might change someone’s life, are not as fun as the bit about my voyage from Prague to London.

But could I hold those episodes back, to keep the (relatively) good one at the top for a bit? No. The media empire is impatient that way.

It feels good, though, being on the road, seeing things faster than I can record them, a sense of newness and discovery permeating everything. London! Dang! Language aside, this place is more foreign to me than Prague.

Stealth Police Station

I’m sitting at a friendly pub, watching London go past. There’s something about this town, something I’m not sure Londoners are comfortable with themselves, but it’s something that is there nonetheless. They have everything here, and everyone.

I’m sitting at the window of the pub, and beyond the glass the fascinating world is doing its stuff. There is a gate across the street, and it took me a while to notice that a lot of police were passing through it. In and out, like bees at the hive’s entrance. I started to suspect that behind that unmarked gate was a police station. A few meters up the road is a mast with four cameras mounted, capturing every detail of all who pass.

This situation bothers me. Through the iron gate police officers pass, wearing ballistic vests but carrying no sidearms. Those men and women, I salute. Those are the good guys, and I’ll fight anyone who says they aren’t. But the police station is unmarked. I expect that the Lebanese bakery on one side and the Oriental health store on the other are happy about that, but to me, it’s a bad idea. The bad guys can figure out where the police station is, anyway. I mean, hell, I figured it out.

WARNING: Profanity ahead

So, rather than hide, I’d put up a sign: Hey! We are the motherfuckin Police and we are here, and WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF YOU! At the very least, someone who needs help would know where to go.

The Science of Fishnet Stockings

This discussion will be hampered without diagrams, but I’m not about to draw anything right now. Let’s all appreciate the fundamental property of the fishnet: when viewed straight-on, they are practically invisible, and when viewed from the side, they are practically opaque.

What this does is make the fishnet-encased leg look not just more slender, but more well-defined. The subtleties of the muscles are amplified. The curves and contours of the calf and thigh are enhanced, making the resulting skinniness a healthy, athletic sort of skinny. I am, as I write this, comparing fishnets with dark stockings (all in the name of science, of course), and the difference in leg enhancement is striking.

Escape From Oz, part 1: To London!

I’m sitting at the Prague airport right now, doing what all air travelers do: wait. I will be in London in about three hours (two by the clock), and when I arrive I will have no local currency. This isn’t usually a concern; cash machines are everywhere. Only it just occurred to me that since I just made the maximum daily withdrawal to pay my rent, there will be no love from those machines until tomorrow. Hm. Fortunately Great Britain is much more credit-card-friendly than the Czech Republic, so I should be all right. I’ll find out soon enough — long before I can post this.

At the far end of the waiting area is a fussy child. Anyone want to lay odds on the chances it’s in the seat next to mine?

—-

For those of you who stopped to lay odds on the probability of my being trapped with loud children, fear not; I was several rows away from what turned out to be loud pair of siblings, and boy am I glad I wasn’t closer. At my distance they were only mildly annoying. I arrived, passed through the bureaucratic barriers with no difficulty (although the passport guy said “Czechoslovakia”, something I thought the folks protecting Britain’s borders would be up-to-date on.)

I sit now facing a lovely English breakfast. Excuse me…

Ahh, that hit the spot nicely. A little more tea, and true happiness will be mine. (Actually I just warned the waitress that I would probably be drinking “rather a lot of tea”. There are some phrases that the English do better than anyone else.)

Where was I? Right. Luton Airport, favored destination of the ultra-cheap airlines. It’s a ways outside London, but there are plenty of options available, the cheapest being an express bus. I managed to coax a small amount of the local currency out of a cash machine, then I went to the bus counter and a very helpful woman went to a great deal of trouble looking up just where my hotel was, and the best place to get off the bus. Then she ran down my options for mass transit tickets to get from there to my destination, based on what my plans were for the city for (quite literally) the rest of my life.

The bus trip went without incident (except they made me put my backpack in the luggage area for no reason that I could discern, and I worried about all the valuable things being so far out of my control for the entire trip – I watched closely at stops where people claimed their own stuff) and after a bit of wandering in the Victoria Station area I got myself to Earl’s Court Tube Station, by any indication quite close to my hotel.

I got off the tube and right there was a sign indicating the street I was looking for, with a helpful arrow and everything. This was going to be a piece of cake! The address I sought was 36 Earl’s Court Gardens. I walked up the street, then noticed that the house on my right was numbered 20, the one after that 18. I turned back and identified house number 22. There were no buildings on the other side of the street. Now, with this information one might reasonably conclude that even-numbered buildings were on one side of the street and that 36 lay in the direction I had come from. One might also be incorrect.

It took a phone call to the hotel (itself a bit confusing because my printout with their number omitted the lead zero; it was not until I saw the pay phone’s number that I thought to try that) to resolve the difficulty. The hotel was on the other side of the street, at the other end. The numbers counted (by two’s) down one side of the street then (by 1’s) up the other!

The hotel guy was very friendly, and the hotel took only cash, including a ten-pound key deposit. I didn’t have enough. No problem, however; he took all I had and said I could pay the rest tomorrow. I got settled in, slaked my powerful thirst at the sink, with cupped hands, then headed into the night with only a two-pound coin to my name. My plan was to find a credit-accepting place that was going to be open for a while, but I was tired, had a headache, and when I saw the golden arches I changed my plan. A Quarter-Pounder with Cheese was £1.99 (half the price, incidentally, of my tube ticket to go five stops). I returned to my room with a rather sorry example of the American delicacy, one penny, and still no cup.

My room is nice enough, if spartan, certainly adequate for my purposes. For those out there lulled to sleep by the sound of passing trains, it would be heaven. The underground makes a brief overground appearance right outside my window. My window does not close tightly.

As one falls asleep, there is a phase when thoughts get rather deliciously disconnected, associations get freer, and the absurd is perfectly ordinary. I spent a long time last night dipping into that realm only to be dragged back out of it by a passing train. My thoughts when in that state were consistently about the trains, but because of my repeated rise to a more conscious level, I awoke this morning with actual memories about things like the three talismans that would reduce train noise, but that I needed to make a note in my review of the hotel that the one I had wasn’t working very well. It took a while to sort out truth from fiction.

Now I sit at The Courtfield, a fairly upscale pub, quiet at this time of the morning, watching a very modern double-decker bus go by outside (“We Will We Will Rock You – the musical with Queen and Ben Elton” the banner on its side reads), while people slide mail into the big red Royal Mail box on the sidewalk. I’m on my third cup of tea and feeling quite content. My ambitions for the day are being steadily reduced; just a visit to the Czech embassy will do, right after I sample one of the traditional cask-conditioned ales on offer here.

—-

A final addendum: After striking out completely at the embassy, I wandered the neighborhood around my hotel looking for a place with the following three criteria: 1) traditional ale 2) Wi-Fi 3) accepts credit cards.

And here I am at the Prince of Teck. Life is good.

Just About Ready to Roll

Tomorrow evening my travels begin. The to-do list was extraordinarily long this time around, and when I get on the plane to London tomorrow evening I think there will still be things un-done. It didn’t help that I picked up a couple of small jobs to earn a little cash, and of course the one that paid the least turns out to be a time-sucking monster. (It’s an interesting time-sucking monster, however.) Still, I said I would do it so I will. It’s not done yet but the client knows that I will finish it when I can.

But all the important things are checked off now (except two, which I will be heading out to do in a few minutes). Tomorrow night I arrive in London; after two nights there I hop a plane for California. Then I have some freedom for a while, but somewhere in there I have to do a bucketload of reading and critiquing the writing of the other workshop participants.

I’ve been a bit of a stress monkey the last few days, especially over the paying gigs, but there comes a time when there’s just nothing left to be done about it anymore except take a deep breath, relax, and get on the plane.

My Curse, Apparently, is Broken

For several years the performance of San Diego sports teams was almost frighteningly linked to my proximity to the club. Just watching the game, even remotely, has been well-documented on these pages to be a kiss of death. (In the interest of science, I have on some occasions in advance correctly announced that I was jinxing a game.) There was a period with the Chargers when it was just downright ridiculous.

This year, I have paid almost no attention whatsoever to baseball. I knew that pundits were predicting good things for my team this year, but things have been hectic, you know? Finally I had a bit of time and I thought I’d go see how my boys were doing. There is weekly column at espn.com called the power rankings, and I started scanning the list for my team. I scanned down… and down… and down…

By just about any measure (most notably the ability to win games), the Padres are the worst team in the league, with no help from me whatsoever. If the blessing of my absence is ended, so too must be the curse of my presence. I declare the curse ended.

A Night With the Womenfolk

Those who don’t want to read me droning on about my day may wish to skip to the #—> symbol below. That’s where the story actually begins.

It was a productive day – I spent the morning recording audio as a test to see if I was qualified for a new “job” — reading texts out loud to help a professor somewhere with his research. The pay is insignificant, but I like the idea that I’m helping out. Of course, the first recording session is always the most complicated, and it wound up taking most of my morning. Next time (if I pass this test) will be much easier. I was reading about the history of mathematics, and the subject is actually quite interesting, so that’s all right.

Next came some tweaks to the upcoming release of Jer’s Novel Writer, which promises to be a small but tangible step forward in utility. One or two fewer things to think about when working, and support for the newfangled gestures that the latest macs support. (None of my equipment does, which makes debugging a crapshoot.)

Next it was out on the town with fuego; we both had computer hardware to buy. I needed an external drive that I could use to boot my laptop into the latest version of the mac operating system while leaving the old-school install intact. It would be cheaper to wait until I get to the US to buy it, but I need to make sure I can maintain the software before I leave.

#—> (don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything)

Hardware purchased, we stopped off at a café to get some writing done – me on my novel package for the writing workshop, fuego on some advertising copy he’s been hired to write. “You’re invited to dinner,” he told me. Thinking of the barren wasteland that is my refrigerator at home, I gladly accepted. fuego exchanged messages with the missus and I was committed. It was a while later that fuego told me “Oh, by the way, MaK’s mom and a friend of hers will be there.”

Hm. I like my brother’s mother-in-law, she’s a cool lady, but this night was starting to sound like more than I was prepared to handle. “I expect they’ll just cluster around the kid and we can escape unnoticed,” fuego said, or something to that effect. We stopped by the store on the way for beer and cheese, then headed up to their apartment. Already there was a mother and daughter, neither of whom fuego or I had been warned about.

Fast forward. I’m sitting at the kitchen table in a very small apartment, watching the women gathered around MaK as she cleans the baby’s butt. The conversation is about baby poop, in czech. I am not in my element.

Skip forward a little farther. MaK produces a table that lists the time of every feeding the baby has ever had. The older women are impressed. “They’re not like us,” fuego says, but not in exactly those words, although one of the womenfolk, whom I’d met once before, is quite a charismatic lady. We hadn’t counted on her when we figured how many beers to bring.

Join me in another hop forward in time as I witness jealousy among the women toward the one who is currently holding the baby. When I’m holding a child, I’m am thinking nothing except “please oh please don’t let me break this thing.” Apparently something on the missing leg of the Y-chromosome is capable of convincing one that holding a tiny helpless thing that you could kill by sneezing is relaxing. Therapeutic, even.

Not long after that, the baby was asleep (despite periodic checks by enthusiastic fans) and I sat and listened to the flow of conversation. I understood more than I expected, but even if I had been able to form sentences in a timely manner I would have remained quiet. It was not my conversation, and the language it was conducted in was not the largest obstacle. Soon after I was expressing my regret that I had to go. Yes, sadly, I had no choice. Things to do and whatnot. You understand. They certainly did.

What I Did Last Friday

I haven’t been very regular about posting lately; sorry about that. It’s not that nothing has been happening — quite the contrary in fact. One thing I’ve been working on is a small documentary with fuego. It’s not entirely my story to tell; but it all begins one night in the distant past when the Little Café Near Home didn’t close at the usual time. In fact, it stayed open for a long time, and there were beers, and Becherovka, and other beverages involved. Exactly what happened next is the subject of great speculation, so fuego assembled a crack forensics team (himself) and a camera crew (me) to trace the route he possibly took on the way home that fateful night.

Somewhere out there is a bush fuego fought. (Judging from appearances later, the bush won. This may or may not be when he dented his laptop.) Somewhere out there is a hotel foyer with vending machines, between which fuego decided to take a little nap. The hotel might or might not be near a gas station. The rest is shrouded in mystery.

We knew it was going to be a major undertaking, so we got an early start with breakfast at Café Fuzzy. fuego was carrying the backpack he had worn that night, a pair of headphones similar to the ones he lost that night, and various other props. Once I had a bit of tea in my bloodstream we repaired to Little Café Near Home to begin the quest — after a wee bit of Becherovka for inspiration, of course.

The trek took us from my quiet little neighborhood, past a sprawling cemetery or two, and then into a busier part of town that I don’t frequent very often. We stopped at key intersections along the way, trying to figure out just why fuego ended up walking the direction he did. We tried a few experimental shots as well, and the traditional view-from-the-passing-tram shot and whatnot.

Finally we reached the neighborhood of Karlin, where most evidence indicates the hotel should be. (The bush may have been the victim of construction.) We walked the streets of Karlin as the sunny morning gave way to clouds and eventually rain. Still we persevered, searching for clues that would lead us to the fabled hotel, stopping only at a little bar called Bistro 4×4 to transfer data from cameras to computer — and have a wee nip of Becherovka — and another break for a late lunch and all that. Then it was right back out on the streets. The rain eventually moved on.

We didn’t find the hotel. There are only so many streets to search, and we did them all. No hotel. After something like ten miles of wandering, we realized that a new plan was called for. The new plan: go to a bar we passed on the way and watch hockey. This new plan turned out to be much simpler; and after a short tram ride we were settled comfortably in an old rail car turned into a bar called Orient Express.

It turned out to be a day of questions rather than answers. We still have more filming to do, and more research as well. Will we ever find the hotel? Does it really exist at all, or is it some sort of ghost inn, that only appears when the moon is full, a Shangri-La for weary, disoriented travelers?

pivo!

Pivo on the Orient Express

Já, robot

I, Robot the film with Will Smith in it is on TV right now. I’ve never seen the movie in English, but I had heard that it wasn’t very much like the short story collection by Isaac Asimov. All I can say is that unless there’s some dialog that really doesn’t match the action on the screen, the title is the only thing the two have in common. The bit I watched was much closer to Terminator 2 than it was to anything that ever came from Asimov’s pen. Gone is the graceful economy of the writer’s storytelling style. The original stories presented a series of intellectual challenges; problems that were solved with cleverness and occasionally personal risk, but none of these ridiculous flurries of hyper-accelerated violence.

And maybe it’s the small screen, but the cinematography in the action scenes I watched was crappy too. Absurdly, forehead-slappingly over the top, which could possibly be forgivable if it weren’t so badly done. So, if there’s anyone else out there who has not seen the movie, well, don’t bother. Read the stories instead.

D’oh!

In case you haven’t heard, I’m coming to the US this summer. All kinds of things are going on, from intensive writing camp to hanging with That Girl. It’s going to be a good summer. But meanwhile, back here in the old world, I have some paperwork to take care of, to affirm my legal presence here. I’m not so good at paperwork and I intend never to be, so I have paid someone to guide me through the legal jungle. With a bit of nagging on my part he has done far better than I would ever manage at assembling all the bits of paper that demonstrate that I can contribute here. So I have a big wad of documents prepared by various czech authorities, and now I can submit an application to be allowed to stay for a while.

The catch is, that one must submit this application from outside the area one wants to stay. This makes London a good place to apply, because the English consider themselves outside of everything. There is a large part of Europe that is now a big passport-free zone, and it is best for me to apply outside of that zone. Happily, the best plane fares to the US are also out of London, and flights from Prague to London are practically free.

So, I talked to my guy, picked an appointment date at the embassy out of a list, and bought plane tickets. Time was running out; if you wait too long fares go way up. I was already worried that I had waited too long, so I picked a date, told Visa Guy, and bought my tickets.

Only, I didn’t get that date. One massive financial commitment later, I now find that I’m spending a day in London without any political benefit. The Czech embassy will not see me that day. Plan B: visit on the way back. In the meantime, it will be nice to be in the British National Museum on my own, free to study the minor bits of the Egyptian collection that strike my fancy, to muse over stone pillows and odd bronze sculptures at my own pace. So, it’s not a total disaster.

Hats Off to Belarus

The world hockey championships are underway. Sixteen teams make it to the dance, and four of those are quickly eliminated. (They play amongst themselves to give the people who flew over the atlantic their money’s worth.) Belarus could have been one of those rapidly eliminated teams; but in the first round they succeeded in frightening a couple of good teams and soundly beating another. They have moved on.

In the next round, they have played the Russians and the Czechs. Both of those teams are better, both of those teams should have beat the Belorussians easily. But no. These guys, while the great powers were skating circles around them, blocked goals and jumped on opportunities. I feel bad for their goalie; twice now he has held back the barbarian hordes in regular time, making save after save, to give up the win in the shootout. Belarus is next to last in the group, despite skating to a virtual draw with two of the top teams in the tournament.

So I hope, hockey fans, that when this is over, that we do not forget those valiant undergogs, an overachieving team that damn near turned the tournament upside-down. And the games aren’t over yet; they still have a chance to make waves.

A Couple of Thoughts About Star Trek

On the starship Enterprise they have one hell of a computer. I thought about it today watching someone work their iPhone. The Enterprise had even more computing power than that, way back in the ’60’s. Not bad.

But here’s something that’s bothered me for a couple of decades now. At one point Spok plays chess with the computer and wins. Since Spok was the one who taught the computer to play chess, and he gave the computer all his chess knowledge, that he could beat the computer proved that the computer had been tampered with. Which has always made me wonder: Why the hell did Spok play chess? Apparently the idea that he could get better at the game, gain new insight and thus be able to beat his own program, is unthinkable. So, if he’s not going to get better, if he’s just exercising the same algorithms that he programmed into the computer, why bother?

An unplanned bonus Star Trek beef: some of the guys are freezing to death on a planet. The transporter is doing wacky stuff. Shuttle, anyone? You know the writers were taking a bunker attitude, hoping no one would think of that.

Missing on the Star Trek crew: the IT guy. There are hints now and then, when someone messes with the computer (and I must say that the ‘mess with the computer’ scenarios are already coming true), but you’ve got a guy in charge of the warp drives but no one dedicated to the computer. I haven’t spent much time with the Star Trek progeny, but in The Next Generation the guy in charge or the computer was a computer, which in the end begs the question. The deep space galctica Enterprise prequel thing I’ve not seen any of, so I can’t comment there.

Note that Galaxy Quest, one hell of a fine movie, casts Sigourny Weaver as the IT babe, though her IT role is somewhat limited – she is the interface between man and machine. Presumably, in the Galaxy Quest universe, the computer respects her intellect over all others. That’s how I spin it, anyway.

One of Those Mornings

morning hair

How I looked when I woke up this morning.

Happy SOS Day!

Things are quiet here in Strašnice today, many of my favorite places are closed in observance of the holiday. What an enlightened nation!

Although this just might be a effort to extend Yesterday’s May Day celebrations into a four-day weekend, which is also an enlightened policy. (SOS Day gets its name because “SOS!” is what often comes after “Mayday!”) The Czechs take May Day seriously; around here it’s National Kiss Your Sweetie Under A Cherry Tree Day. More than one couple had told me about “their tree”. The cherry trees have been blooming, and when the wind blows their petals fill the air (where there are enough trees, at least).

That was yesterday; I meant to alert you all to it in time for you to go find some sort of plant to stand under and do some smooching with someone you like. Still, it’s never too late for that. Perhaps we could come up with a related activity for SOS day. Hmm… something that follows kissing under trees, and as a bonus would include some connection to pleas for rescue.

Nothing I’m coming up with would be termed “romantic”, I think.