Tweaking the Health Regimen

The light of my life and I bought a fancy elliptical trainer a couple of years ago. She has been very consistent with it, while I’ve been, well, streaky. There are times I come home from work and I’m just too wiped out to contemplate getting on the thing. (On days I do manage to get up on it, I’m glad I did, but that lesson is soon forgotten.) I’m definitely healthier, but I’m no skinnier. In fact, I’m bigger than ever.

The obvious answer, of course, is to climb up on that bad boy first thing in the morning, before I’ve had time to start making excuses. Alarm goes off (dreadfully early), I drag my sorry ass out of bed and grind out my time. So far, I’ve been very consistent with this approach, and I think I arrive at work more alert and cheerful. And hungry. Gotta love the oatmeal bar at the little coffee place in the building. More on the hunger shortly.

One thing I have observed about working out first thing in the morning: It’s much harder to meet my goals. I’m going into max energy burn after fasting for a few hours, and I hit the proverbial bottom of the tank way sooner that I do when I work out in the evening. I’ve had to adjust my expectations accordingly.

I did some research to see if there was some food I could eat only moments before exercising that could help me power through. Turns out, not so much. But I did learn another interesting thing: What I eat right after I exercise can make a big difference next time. There is a window after exercise in which the body grabs all the energy it can out of the blood stream to convert to store in muscles as glycogen. Get the carbs (and some protein) rolling during that window and things will be better the next day. Pretty sweet!

I started comparing different foods for the right carb-protein balance (nonfat chocolate milk apparently is about perfect and has nutrients the commercial sports recovery drinks lack). I was about three days into this process when I started to wonder:

Isn’t it good when I run out of gas while working out? Isn’t that kind of the goal of all this?

All the advice I’d read, you see, was targeted at athletes. For them, high output while exercising is the goal. Not so much for me. I want to create conditions where my body (reluctantly) chooses to break down some of that stored energy in my fat cells and use that to restore the glycogen in my muscles. This process is far less efficient, and the human body really is loath to give up its precious fat, but during that same window where the body will suck every carb out of the bloodstream, if there aren’t enough carbs, it will convert just enough fat to keep things running.

My muscles aren’t replenished as much, and the next morning’s workout will be tougher. But ideally the energy is coming from the right place.

By the time I get to work, that window has closed, and my insides have returned to business as usual. And I’m about ready to eat an entire pizza. Hooray for oatmeal! It’s carb-heavy, but low-fat and sticks to the ribs and by lunchtime I’m able to make more sensible choices as well.

So, with such a sensible system, the pounds must be flying off, right?

Well, not so much. Not yet, anyway. I’m absolutely certain that I’m on the right track, and like any long-term project, it’s best to keep expectations of instant and dramatic success tempered. But I have recently made one more change, a dramatic, desperate gesture of good health beyond all reason.

I have a target weight this month. Next month, the target weight goes down. Each morning as I prepare to exercise, I step on the scales. If I’m above the target, no alcohol that day. No beer after work, no wine with dinner. I like beer and wine. While cutting alcohol will definitely reduce my caloric intake, there is a second, even more powerful, indirect effect. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning and I just want to stay in bed, I remind myself that shirking on my exercise will only delay my next sip of sweet beer. On days I don’t bring lunch from home I think about the consequences of eating the wrong thing: Another meal with my sweetie, with no wine for me.

A coworker laughed when I told him this story, imagining me on a treadmill running full-speed for a beer hanging just out of reach. That’s not far from the truth. But if it works, that’s all right with me.

1

My 21st Birthday

I am sometimes served beer by people who are not themselves allowed to drink the beverage. One such just informed me that tomorrow is her birthday. While I know that no gentleman ever asks a lady this question, I could not resist inquiring of her how old she was going to be. “Twenty-one,” she said, making the “air quotes” gesture, holding up both hands and flexing the first two fingers on each. The message: She still won’t be twenty-one, but she’s going to drink anyway. Kids these days.

It may come as a shock to some of you, but I also experienced the taste of alcohol before I reached the statutory age for such. This story starts on a Saturday, the last Saturday I would spend as a minor. I would be celebrating my birthday the next day. I invited everyone I knew to the celebration that Sunday evening. (My actual birthday was, according to my calendar, on Monday. Somehow the story in my head managed to forget this technicality. Now I’m sorry I looked it up. Anyway, I was committed for Sunday.)

By ‘invited everybody’, I mean ‘invited every female’. I went to a small, male-dominated engineering school, and I had, as any good engineer would, arrived at a simple party algorithm. Invite every female you can. Half of the ones who say they will definitely show up actually will. Twice as many males will show up.

Party set for Sunday. That’s where planning is required. Back then, on Sundays in New Mexico, the booze stores were closed. No problem; with the true foresight that five and three-quarters semesters of physics and abstract math will give one, I mounted an expedition to the local beer store on Saturday and stocked up. Thus equipped, My roommate and I sent out word far and wide. Even divided by two, the number of women who said they would definitely be there climbed into the double digits. Hell, yeah, we had a party!

Saturday evening some people came by, then some others, and of course one has to entertain. Sunday morning dawned and our stockpile had vanished. We were going to have a party, with as many as twelve female guests, and we had no alcohol. Roommate Janne and I pulled out a map.

By Alfa Romeo odometer, it is 156 miles from my dorm to the closest liquor store in Arizona. It was a good drive, over the continental divide, bundled up against the chill air as Janne and I drove with the top down. That kind of day on that kind of road demands swiftness, but the state trooper was not inclined to agree. He pulled me over and strode to the driver’s side of the car with a swagger that cannot be trained.

He asked us to step from the vehicle. It was cold, once we didn’t have the heater blowing on our feet. Trooper shook his head. “I remember when I was young and stupid,” he said as he assessed our top-down state. It didn’t seem derogatory, coming from him. He was all right. I learned later that highway 60 had become a primary drug artery heading west to California. Not smugglers, he had decided, just dumb. One speeding ticket heavier, we continued to Springerville, Arizona, there to buy a ridiculous amount of ridiculous booze. One of everything, basically*. And beer.

Back we scampered, careful not to tempt the radar gods again.

That night, the party commenced. It was pretty good, but my invitation theorem was shattered to pieces. Of the members of the distaff who said they would definitely show up, none did. Not a single one. Yeah, I had a way with the ladies, all right (probably I told too many of them my party algorithm). Still, I was surrounded by friends, and while the party was not a rager it was a good way to stagger into adulthood, story-heavy.

———
* the new cocktails invented from the leftovers of this party are legendary: Lollipops, Bro Cones, and let no one forget Pink Drool.

Real Sports

Said by fuego this evening as he lined up a risky shot while holding a beer with his other hand: “You know it’s a different kind of croquet when you have to worry about breaking a window or hitting the bust of Lenin.”

10

Almost Ready to Shoot

Weeks have passed since our first tentative shoot dates slid past, but at last the big day approaches. The big day underwent one last unexpected lurch when the DOP was confused about the days, and the Friday shoot was abruptly shifted to Sunday. This caused some scrambling and we lost our makeup person in the shuffle, and we still don’t have a script supervisor and the free jukebox is not available, but other than that things worked out well, especially with the camera.

Wednesday night we met with Rene Trossman, who will play Old Ray Black, a blues musician. Rene has only one line, but some heavy musical responsibilities. He’d been reluctant to commit to the production, but when we met him before his gig things were congenial and he caught some of the excitement of the project. His keyboard player, Jan (rhymes with John), seemed especially excited. It was with a great feeling of relief that I woke up yesterday morning and wrote the first ten words of this episode. That was all I had time for.

Thursday was a productive day as well, starting with a meeting at Slavia Café (reputed to have been a hangout for Havel and his buddies before the revolution). The presence of a baby increased the time the meeting took by a factor of five, but we figured out most of the things we needed to figure out. The exception was our focus puller: it turns out George Lucas made us lose the guy who was going to do it for us (for cheap), and we’re still searching for a replacement. The first day we may be able to get by without one (which is good considering the rates these guys are asking); the biggest shots are using steadycam, freeing up our DOP to work focus. (We have a different guy as steadycam operator). Maybe an all-steadycam production?

The other glitch we face is that we will have limited time in the Sunday location. The key to getting in and out in time is preparation, and fortunately fuego makes a living doing that. After we’re booted from U Sudu we will get some shots of our two guys passing through the cobbled streets of the city center, dodging tourists and eventually finding themselves in a deserted lane.

After the meeting I parted ways with the rest and found a comfortable place to sit and mark up the most recent version of the script. Happily, there was nothing I felt the need to tweak that will have much effect on the shooting of the scenes. I need to read over my markups this morning and see how they sound after a few hours.

After that fuego and I met with Steve and we scouted the passages and alleys of the city choosing the locations for the aforementioned exterior shots. We found enough places to make the travel sequence work, and happily enough of them were close together so we can get the shots efficiently.

Once all that was done it was time for my first outdoor beer of the year. The weather has been ourdoor-beeriffic for days now, but there was always something in the way, either health (I’ve had a cough for days now) or just too much to do. The three of us repaired to a park in Žižkov with a large garden.

It was packed. Just next door was a slightly more upscale spot with a much smaller garden but without the long lines of people waiting for beers. A much better choice; who wants an outdoor beer to be a hassle? It goes contrary to the who ethos of it.

Only one bar and then home for some food, a bit of writing, then an early bedtime. And now here it is, bright and early on Friday, one day before the shoot. fuego here, and Lenka will stop by in an hour

More Auspicious Events on Road Trip Day

As I write this on April 3rd (5:001 M.A.), I am sipping tea and trying to convince myself that all I need is some rest and plenty of liquids and that I AM NOT CATCHING A COLD. This is annoying, especially since I had to turn down an invite from zlato to go and drink beer outdoors. (“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” his message read.)

The scratchy throat and cough are annoying, as is that fact that I can’t find Internet that doesn’t come with cigarette smoke. Nevertheless I’m in a good mood. Road Trip Day saw two events that have lifted a weight off my shoulders. First we met with the owner of a restaurant and he was very cool and now we have our last elusive location. It is a place I hadn’t been to in a while, that has a lovely terrace with a view. We won’t be using that in the film, but it’s still nice to have.

Actually yesterday the terrace was closed; it was to be opened today, one day late. They should have checked their muddled calendars. What better day to open up your beer garden for the summer than Road Trip Day?

The second thing is that for the last few weeks of pre-production I simply wasn’t having fun. The production has grown dramatically since it was first born in my head; and a job that I was barely competent to perform at the start has mushroomed into a big mess that I don’t even know where to start with. All the stress was eating at my gut and I worried constantly about my boat-anchor-like effect on the production. Finally yesterday I called Cowboy Bob. He has experience chasing all these details around, and already the film is becoming fun again. Hooray for Cowboy Bob!

Shooting starts one week from today. Suddenly that seems like a good thing again.

Bar 300

I set out today to scout a place called Jazz Dock, a venue recommended by one of our musicians as a spot we could film the concert at a respectable hour. Let’s face it, one of the themes of the movie is the difference between the day world and the night world, and we are planning to simulate the night world during the day. The reason: the best places to film have actual concerts at night.

Jazz Dock is a new place, and is therefore not totally booked up. It is also completely, 100% wrong for our film. Oh, well. So there I was in Smichov, hanging with the guy doing the original music for the final scene. “Want to have a beer somewhere?” he asked.

He’s opening a sound studio around the corner from here soon, so he’s a bit familiar with the local drinkeries. His recommendation: Jungle Bar. As we walked it occurred to me that this would be bar 300 on my list.

Only, Jungle Bar was closed, and missed its chance at immortality. Bar 300 is instead Ragtime Bar, which is connected to Jungle Bar but had the advantage of being open. And here I sit. It’s a nice place.

Nice, but I can’t come up with much more to say about it. There’s lots of wood, which is good, a moderate amount of kitsch but not enough to bother me, decent music (not ragtime) playing, but somehow all of that leaves something missing. This despite the fact that we’re by the river and I had a great view across to the other side as the sun set and lit up the buildings. Meanwhile, a bunch of older guys who made me think ‘mafia’ were meeting here. What’s not to like?

Honestly, I have no idea. When you look at any individual facet of the place it comes across well, but in this case the whole is less than the sum of the parts. I think it comes down to a feeling that the place is calculated. It’s like a really well-executed chain restaurant. I’m not entirely sure what a place can to about that, except to allow the customers to leave an imprint on the place, to provide a little funkiness and family vibe. But pragmatically speaking, how do you bring that about?

Of course there’s always rock-stacking. There’s a way to set your bar apart: a stack pit, a web cam, exotic stones from around the world — some rounded, some angular. When the bar opens the stacks from the night before (if still standing) are knocked down with a toast to gravity. That would be the best bar ever.

Pivo with zlato

I dropped zlato a line in the afternoon, and he suggested the Globe cafe/bookstore for our hanging-out venue. He had some credit there, a reward for an mp3 party he’d hosted. He also had no money, so the venue was a pretty easy call.

I was on the metro when I got the text message: the Globe was closed. We met instead at a nice Gambrinus pub called Propaganda, just up the street. It was a pleasant evening; there’s always something interesting to talk about when zlato’s around, whether it’s the use of dashes and semicolons, books, flexibility of beliefs in the context of Shinto, or the female of the species. He loaned me a book, Hypnotic Language (though he hadn’t planned to), that I’m looking forward to reading.

I ended up staying out pretty late. Time just flew by, as they say. Propaganda is a congenial place. Friends of zlato came and went. zlato proffered quick in-bar massage to a couple of people (he’s trained for that stuff), and my muscles were jealous. The waiter is apparently studying the art, and some conversation ensued. It was a night of stuff like that.

The journey home was pleasant, a combination of tram and hoof; temperatures were solidly below freezing but that just felt right. The night tram had the right mix of people napping in their seats and others still hoping to find the next great place to party. Alas, no dogs in plaid.

A Night I Won’t Soon Remember

“You still up for Andy’s party?” fuego asks via text message. I consider. It’s raining out; I’m tempted to just stay in and work. That Girl would be waking up soon, and I haven’t chatted with her in a while; my Internet has been down again. But there’s no food in the place, so sooner or later I’ll have to go get some in any case. Plus, I know I’ll regret not saying goodbye to Andy.

Andy and I have a history, of sorts. I met him at fuego’s wedding reception, a fateful No Pants Day when Andy got very drunk and then wanted to dive home. I, on the other hand, thought maybe he shouldn’t. What ensued was a rather comical series of events that included me chasing him through the park. Fun was had by all. (I was going to put a link to the episode where I described that night, but it seems I never wrote about it.)

With that in mind, I decide to don my armor and go be social for an evening.

Not on an empty stomach, however; fuego and I agree to meet at Pizzeria Roma for some fortification before we dive into the party. As we eat our pizzas fuego gestured to the TV playing behind me. “That girl was in the very first movie I ever worked on over here.” I turn to see a face I don’t recognize, but that doesn’t mean much — I would have been more surprised if I had recognized her. “She’s a real cutie,” fuego says, which means she was also pleasant to work with, or that would have been what fuego remembered.

Another problem emerges — neither of us know where the party is. fuego has a general idea, but he’s been trying to contact Andy for more specific details. We chat, order another round of beers, and finally decide to hop the trams and at least get into the right neighborhood. We hop off tram 16 near the Yacht club, in the shadow of Vyšehrad. The rain has stopped. The streets are quiet on Saturday night. fuego gets instructions from Andy; we’ve still got two tram stops to go, but we decide to walk. We pass the water works and the fancy swimming complex with its 10-meter diving platforms. To our right the river is silent in the darkness.

We arrived at last to find the party well under way. I don’t recognize many faces, but that’s expected. At one point I’m standing with fuego, Andy, and two others, laughing at a story about one of them being detained in Britain for attempting to work without due authorization. (The film fuego had just wrapped had gone to England to shoot some beach scenes.) “Here we are,” fuego says (or something like that). “The four of us all worked on my very first film here in the Czech Republic, nine years ago.” “Is that the one that what’s-her-name was in?” I ask. It turns out it was, and all four of them agreed that she had been very attractive — especially Andy, who had walked into her trailer when she was topless.

So I hang out, drinking free beer, talking to movie people about movie stuff. There is a large spread of food that no one is touching, and a pig turning on a spit outside. A band sets up, two fiddles, a string bass, and a hammer dulcimer. It’s difficult to describe the music; primarily gypsy but with a dose of dixieland mixed in. It’s fun, anyway. There is talk, and more drinking, and even a little dancing. I am labeled as “guy who will dance with girls whose boyfriends don’t want to dance.” In this capacity I am given a crash course in the waltz. Things get better when I give up on 1-2-3, 1-2-3… and just go with 1.., 1.., 1… When the song is over she compliments me on my dancing prowess, but I think she is just being kind. At least I didn’t injure her.

Andy gives a farewell speech, inviting all of us to visit him in Australia, and also to feel free to use his summer house in France. Woo hoo!

Some time later come the flavored vodka shots. The band finally calls it a night, but Andy isn’t finished, and although the crowd has dwindled there are still plenty of people ready to rally in support. Andy’s wife leaves, taking the car keys with her.

Around sunrise, the party collapses. The last of us stagger into the new day. Andy wants to find a bar to keep drinking. Some think this is a good idea, but others point out that Andy just might have had enough already. After a few minutes of indecision and dissension in the ranks I grow weary of the vibe and turn up the road, thinking that I’ll walk a bit before I get on a tram.

Under gray skies I tromp up the hill to my house, kick off my shoes, and try to compose a note to That Girl. Even such a simple task is too much; I turn and flop onto the Curiously Uncomfortable Couch and am asleep before I even close my eyes.

Mad Dog’s Dog House, Last Observations

As I released urine back to the wilds (Andy Williams singing “Born Free” in my head throughout), I discovered that I had the opportunity to purchase “the ONLY glow-in-the-dark condom certified to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of sexually communicated disease”. That quote is, I afraid, only approximate, but the word “prevent” was definitely there. I cringed a bit at that; I suppose it’s already been argued in court just what reduction in statistical probability qualifies as “prevent”. Foe me, prevent is absolute; condoms are not. So somewhere, I imagine, “reduce the probability by 99%” has been legally defined as “prevent”. Meanwhile people in the real world read that word and believe prevent means prevent.

I’m just sayin’, is all. I’m not arguing against condoms, far from it. 99% protection is massive. Maybe it’s better than 99%, but they are imperfect, and lives are at risk. Not a time to be harboring unrealistic expectations.

And… crap. When I started this episode I had the serious thing to discuss and then the light thing. Start serious, go light. Journalistic gold. The light thing has long since wandered off to the sunny meadows where happy thoughts romp, and unfortunately I forgot to put a radio collar on the idea so now my chance of tracking it is negligible. It’s a funny thing (in the not-funny sense of the word); I set out on this episode absolutely confident that there was no possible way I could forget the second point. Whatever is was. It probably wasn’t that good anyway, or I would remember. That’s what mom used to say, but maybe that was before she realized what a rockethead I am.

Cyberpunk theme: You get an idea, and you say “tag that”, and the machine that is part of your brain applies a verbal recall code to your thought. The machine then remembers the idea for you, and you can recall it by invoking the tag. The crisis: most people decide to tag everything, which leads to hopeless clutter, and civilization teeters. The moral: there’s a reason you forget stuff. Most of it is crap anyway. I see a sit-com…

Mad Dog’s, Kingman, Arizona

It’s been a long day, and a quiet haven with decent beer is just the thing. I’m sitting now at Mad Dog’s. It is quiet in here right now, a couple of locals are playing pool, a few more are sitting at the bar, and I’m across the room in one of the booths. There are televisions, but the big ones are turned off due to lack of sports, and the small ones are quiet enough to be avoidable. I am drinking Black Dog Ale, which has a nice balance between hops and malt. It is also quite reasonably priced. There are paper towel dispensers on the tables, an indication that ribs are on the menu. There is a very big Iguana in an enclosure, and he’s territorial. I looked in on him and he immediately began to go into the old head-bobbing, throat-flap-showing, weird-disk-throat-things (ears?) flashing routine. The dude’s got to be five feet long.

Behind the bar is a pitcher to hold donations for Biker Bob. To meet his expenses. I asked, and Bob’s dead now. Pancreatic cancer. The locals lost a bit of color recently. I wonder how long that pitcher will be there. Could you take it down? Will you rate a pitcher?

As I write this, I am pausing periodically to take a deep breath. Air in, stress out. Prolonged adrenaline shock. It all started in Holbrook, where I had planned to stop so I could assault the pass in Flagstaff after the storm passed. That was going to leave a long, long drive tomorrow, and then I heard the weather guy say that things were going to be no better in the morning, and perhaps worse. I decided to forge ahead.

At first things went pretty well. The snow started coming down in big, fat, flakes, but there was enough traffic to keep the slow lane fairly clear. We all just slowed down to 40 mph and trundled on. At the flagstaff exit that leads to the hotels, things were going well enough that I decided to keep going.

The “things going well enough” lasted another mile. There I was in a long line of trucks keeping the slush churning so it wouldn’t freeze, then every damn one of them went south on I-17 toward Phoenix. Road conditions got suddenly, dramatically worse, and they stayed that way. To make matters worse, there was no place to pull over to put on chains. In Donner Pass chains are commonplace, but through Flagstaff no one had them, or, like me, they were unable to find a place to put them on. The next exit was a ways on, and after slipping and sliding down the road I reached the exit to find it unplowed and untracked. I decided not to guess just where the road was, and continued on down the freeway at a nerve-wracking 20 mph.

At one point traffic came to a stop as we worked past an accident. Despite the level ground the back wheels broke free when I tried to start moving again. Finally I put the car in 2nd gear and worked the clutch very, very gently and managed to creep forward again. After a couple of miles of barely moving, my clutch leg was wearing out.

My old ice-driving skills slowly came back to me, and things were going smoother, but there were accidents everywhere. On truck had a trailer folded in a big ‘V’, with boxes strewn about, interspersed with what looked like loaves of bread. There were plenty of solo spinouts as well. Traffic crept on, and in the distance I saw another truck off to the side of the road, next to a structure I couldn’t make out. As I got closer I realized that I was looking at the underside of a horse trailer that had tipped over. Holy crap. As I passed I saw the two horses standing off to the side, but that must have been a pretty traumatic time getting them out of the tipped-over trailer. I hope they weren’t hurt.

Not long after that a truck passed me. It was a flatbed trailer carrying steel, and as it pulled up next to me it hit the brakes. I could just imagine the trailer skidding to the side and swatting me off the road like a fly. I started making emergency contingency plans. Nothing happened. We all continued our creep over the divide and gradually down the other side.

After a while tires started making the splashy hiss of water, but it was a long time before anyone on the road summoned the courage to speed up. The collective trauma of the pass still held us all, and it wasn’t until many miles later that traffic gradually picked up speed again. That was fine with me. Snow turned to rain as darkness fell, Half the traffic sped up while the other half continued to creep along, adding one last threat before I saw the lights of Kingman and said, “No mas.”

The girl at the hotel desk pointed me to Mad Dog’s, an easy walk, and it was the right choice. The juke box is playing now, and the tunes are pretty good (at this moment Jimi Hendrix is playing “The Wind Cries Mary”), and loud enough to be worthwhile.

One more deep breath, one more beer. It’s OK now.

My Walk Home.

It is late, I am tired; I don’t know how far I’ll get with this tonight. I suspect that this account of my last hour will be somewhat disjointed and lacking the rich atmospheric descriptions which it deserves, but that’s the way it goes, sometimes. And yes, yes, I know I promised to tell you about yesterday, but that will have to wait. Tonight all I have the energy for is a small tale about the end of today.

I don’t get down to The Globe much, maybe once a year. It’s down near the center of town, where beers tend to get pricey, and I find myself venturing into the center less and less. The Globe is also a favorite among Americans, and while I appreciate talking to people now and then, it’s not the sort of vibe I look for on a general basis. Tonight, however, I was at the Globe, and I had a damn good time. There was music, conviviality, and a generally friendly feeling in the air. This story is not about that.

The café was closing, and there were still quite a few people there, some of whom I knew, others I had just met. “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” the saying goes, and the group seemed to be trapped by the option. I knew, however, that I was going home. “Where are you going to catch the tram?” Don Diego asked me. “I’m walking,” I replied. “Walking to… the tram?” he asked. “No. Home.” I could have told him exactly how the walk would go. Instead I am telling you.

I said goodbye to the group, and started up the street. There was some agreement that most of the rest of them were going the same direction, so I paused and looked back. There was no action. Don’t say goodbye twice, I decided, and left the group to mill about. I set off. The wind had died down but it was still chilly, but when I got into stride I unbuttoned my coat to let the cold air in. By the time I was passing through the drunken brit section of town, I was moving. The pickpockets and pimps did not even glance my way; I passed through them with point A firmly behind and point B directly ahead, and all their games require slowing the target down.

At the top of Václavské NámÄ›sti I popped into the McDonald’s for my long-overdue supper. I purchased my McRoyal(tm) (rhymes with Quarter Pounder(tm)) from a guy who quite obviously hated his job selling deadly food to drunks, then I was back out on the street, throwing back the 26 glorious grams of shimmering fat which will form a gelatinous layer in my already-abused stomach, somehow making things better. By the time I was past the museum the burger was just a happy memory. It was Friday night, so there was still a fair amount of foot traffic as I passed though Žižkov. I considered some of the all-night places I passed, thinking perhaps that one last beer might compliment the burger nicely, but the temptation was only slight. I was in motion.

Between the long skinny park and Flora I heard a small crash and looked ahead to see a very drunk person struggling to stand back up. I crossed to the other side of the street, reflecting that I was not going to compare well with any Samaritans who might be out and about. Hopefully the door the drunk was trying to open was his own.

Past Flora are the graveyards, predictably dark and quiet, and the skeletal remains of Autobazar Å koda, a car dealership, now defunct. The signs are still out, and streamers rattle metallically in the night wind, but there are no cars anymore, and no guard dog to dutifully bark at me, reminding me once again that I should just keep walking. I miss that dog; we were starting to get along. Past the ghost dealership is the empty lot that only weeks ago hosted a circus; the ruts made by the big trucks as they carried the show away still visible. I am almost home.

I consider once more stopping in somewhere for a final beer. What I really want is to bring something home with me, to keep me company while I write about my walk, but this is Strašnice. I turn left at the final graveyard and find my way home, roughly an hour after I set out. Perhaps there were other hours today that were more significant — hours of accomplishment and interaction, connections made and ideas shared — but looking back, my hour alone on the streets of Prague late at night was my favorite.

A day well wasted.

It started off as an ordinary enough day. I woke up at a usual time (not as early as it used to be), and got over my general business stuff (comics, email, bug reports for Jer’s Novel Writer), and still had time to catch the American breakfast down the hill at Café Fuzzy. I made myself comfortable and the cute little red-haired girl smiled at me. “Čaj?” she asked.

——–

That’s how far I got relating the events of the day before everything accelerated. What followed was music without soul and men without honor. Plus beer. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

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.

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.

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?”

Letna2.jpg

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.