Career Advice for a Wayward Pop Star

I was driving up highway 17 the other day, top down despite the threatening weather, ZZ Top playing slightly louder than strictly necessary. Inexorably, inevitably, sure as night follows day and a pilot for a terrible television series follows the Super Bowl, my mind turned from Tres Hombres to Britney Spears.

To call me a fan of Ms. Spears would not be terribly accurate. Her music and schoolgirl-slut image is interchangeable in my mind with that of several other forgettable young women. Presented with a song by one of them, I expect I’d guess the correct singer at a rate only slightly higher than random chance. I’m pretty sure she did one called “Not That Innocent” or something like that.

Recently I learned that she was a Mouseketeer, along with another of the interchangeable popsters, and Justin Timberlake. I didn’t even know they still had Mouseketeers. Maybe now they’ll reconsider. If memory serves Britney and Justin were together for a while, but I might be thinking of some other guy.

I’m not a fan, but I think about Britney every once in a while. Somehow she came to define the whole pop-bimbo image, the platonic ideal of sweaty teenage jizz-bait. Then something went wrong, and I heard even less about her than I had before. A year or two ago she tried to stage a ‘comeback’ (it says something about us that someone in their twenties can come back), and I read that it was a disaster. Recently I saw her face on a perfume commercial, so I’m pretty sure she’s not dead.

The things I read about her comeback meltdown were almost giddy in their celebration of the crash of one of the most famous people of the previous decade. While I was never a fan, I also took no pleasure in her downfall. I could have told her that her comeback was ill-concieved, however, had she taken the time to ask me. Britney the schoolgirl cock-tease won’t work anymore. There’s too much history. Under my sage guidance Britney could come back, however — just not as a recapitulation of what she was before.

This is what occurred to me while listening to crunching electric guitars while driving a curvy road. Britney is now in a position to make an album I would buy, and I suspect a lot of other people would too. The title would be Mea Culpa and it would be about her real experiences, the mistakes she made, her lessons learned and her hope for the future. She would tell us of the fear and insecurity and the agents and handlers and the drugs and all the other stuff that can make anyone’s life go haywire. It would be her taking responsibility for her life, and showing the strength to rise up and move on. That would be a cool album.

It would be Britney evolving from a singer into an artist. Does she have what it takes to make an album like that? The artistic power and the courage to open her soul? I doubt we will ever know. Her people would never stand for it.

Making Truffles

The insides and the outsides

The insides and the outsides

There is a thread in my life, a theme that plays out time and again. It is a small part of who I am, a constituent in the definition of ‘Jerry’. This bit of Jerryness is manifest often, and was apparent on the Night of Truffles. Simply put, there is a gap (sometimes quite large) between my image of what I want to achieve and my ability to achieve it.

Take drawing, for instance. On the occasions I have set drawing implement to paper, my mind has produced vast scapes of color and light, form and structure, of a depth that could stir the most jaded soul. What comes out on the paper is, well, not that.

Topping off the Truffles

Topping off the Truffles

And so we come to the task for the evening: painting melted chocolate into the molds, so that it can be filled with different chocolate stuff and then covered with chocolate. It is important to avoid thin spots in the chocolate, lest the structural integrity of the truffle be undermined. Too thick, and the ratio of crunchy outside to smooth inside is lost. The walls of chocolate must reach the top of the mold in even thickness.

Of course, getting the chocolate thickness exactly right isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not that hard. Yet, as I stood there using a kitchen knife to distribute the chocolate, there was always the platonic ideal of the truffle, haunting me, rendering my sorry efforts inadequate. As a result, the light of my life produced about two truffle shells for every one I made.

That's a keeper!

That's a keeper!

Then came the measuring of the inside goop into the shells. “This is really easy,” the beacon who guides my heart said. “You just have to fill them almost to the top, but leave enough space so the chocolate on top can seal up with the sides.” Yes, but exactly how much wiggle room does that leave me? I was a little better with this task, and occasionally even recognized that the tiny amounts of filling I was adding and removing couldn’t possibly make the slightest difference. In my gut roiled the fear of producing a truffle that cracked or leaked or was otherwise unsightly. When you consider how yummy the thing was going to be no matter what happened, it might seem like a lot of worry over very little. Still, the Ideal Truffle loomed, superimposed by my imagination over each still-incomplete confection.

Not All the Truffles

Not All the Truffles

The next phase of production was best done by two people: the chocolate-topper and the sprinkler. I was elected sprinkler and happily so. My sweetie laid the molten chocolate over the tops of the truffles, then handed them off to me, and I sprinkled peppermint and toffee fragments into the still-soft chocolate. I managed to make this more difficult than necessary (each truffle had to have a good distribution of fragment sizes, and the peppermint looked better with red stripes showing), but not debilitatingly so. (Crushing the hard candy had it’s own uncertainties. Fragments too large? Too much dust?)

Eighty-eight truffles later, it was time to start again.

Ultimately, all the worry was for naught; the truffles came out quite lovely, and tasty like crazy. A few even approached the Ideal Truffle.

Life on the Back Porch

The house where I am staying is a nice one, nestled among towering redwoods just north of Santa Cruz, California. I am in Scotts Valley, the place where the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult was first exposed, almost three years ago. (Three years!)

When I arrived home from a fruitless but enjoyable day of driving around, my hosts were both unavailable to entertain me, and the dogs had been exiled to the back. I set up my laptop on the dining table but soon felt the hopeful gazes of the hopeful dogs tunneling into the back of my head. The writing wasn’t going anywhere anyway, so I pulled a beer from the fridge and went out to join the banished canines.

It was a pleasant evening. I played with the dogs for a while and then leaned against the porch railing, appreciating the quiet. Quiet is different than silence, much different, and tonight’s quiet was filled with gentle sound. There is a stream that marks the back boundary of their property (as well as eating away at the property), and the still air carried the chatter of small birds. Sometimes things would rustle in the foliage back in the forest, and the dogs and I would both scan the dense brush for any sign of what might be out there.

The air, while clear, was not empty; countless winged creatures filled the canyon, darting through the sunbeams. One of those insects will appear in a story of mine someday, I suspect. While the multitude darted about in their brownian randomness, there was one, slightly larger flyer whose motion seemed to carry much greater purpose. The bug flew straight up, then after rising a few feet would freeze, wings outstretched red-gold in the slanting sun, and drift straight back down again. Up, down, up, down, the yo-yo bug continued, steering with a long tail to always be in the sunbeams. Hunting? I assumed so. Perhaps while it is drifting its prey cannot hear it coming. It was a very pretty killer.

I looked back in the window to see a cat silhouetted against my laptop screen. One of the feline residents here has an affinity for electronics. I wondered what the cat might be adding to the short story I was working on. (Later I discovered that the cat has actually removed a chunk of the story which it apparently found to be of substandard quality. Hey, it’s only a rough draft! Luckily the four-footed editor did not save her revisions, as I did not agree with all of the changes.

While the smaller dog grew impatient with me just standing there, the larger was content to hang out with me. There was much scratching of backs and rubbbing of bellies. The younger dog sent up clouds of winter fur, which drifted to form a layer, snow-like, on the deck. The birds sang, the creek babbled (happy to have someone listening for once), the land turned it’s back on the sun once again, and all was well.

Miss America is Not the Problem

I am sitting at the Budvar Bar, basking in the glow of writing what might be a really good story. It might not be — a review and edit a few days from now will determine that — but right now I feel good about it. I’m not supposed to be working on short stories right now, but there are going to be days like this.

On the television is the Czech version of Miss America. The Czechs, still being old school, have no problem with the fact that being sexy is an important qualification. They know that people are tuning in to see hot women in small clothes. With that in mind, I considered the Miss America pageant. Its television ratings, apparently, are plummeting, and the event is caught in a hard place where they used to sell it with sex but they’re not allowed to do that anymore. Judging women by their physical appearance is now only done shamefully, in secret. By everyone.

It occurred to me that while the Miss America contest is getting less and less sexy, the US Congress is getting better looking every election. So while we cringe at giving some woman an ultimately meaningless title on the basis of her looks, we will not give a man or woman the power to declare war on another nation unless they look like a professional athlete or a model. It’s not that I care much about the idea of Miss America, I just wish we’d apply that same queasy skepticism where it really mattered.

Been Writin’

The words, they are coming right now. It’s fair to say that I’m writing most of the time anyway, but there’s a difference, sometimes. Eighty percent of the time I’m working on the ninety-five percent perspiration thing. Then there’s the sixteen percent of waking moments that I’m not writing. That leaves only four percent of my life for inspiration.

These numbers skew dramatically from week to week, and there are certainly moments of inspiration when I’m working on the software as well. In fact, recently I’ve really had some good ideas about improvements to JersNW. The thing is, I’m writing right now. The words are there for me, scary in their nakedness.

I wrote a bit a while back, my hypothetical advice to hypothetical students, an essay about writing essays. The message was to write without fear. I was (and still am) pleased with that work. There are times when I put something down that is just a little too close to the bone, sometimes here in the blog, sometimes elsewhere. There is a moment of commitment, and I hesitate. Secrets. Demons. Shame. Rambunctious offensiveness. I tell myself at those times, “Write without fear.”

But that’s not right. What I really mean is “write with courage.” The fear is there. In fact, when I feel the fear, that means I’m getting close to something. No, I never write without fear. I write despite fear. I write because of fear. I look back at my favorite episodes here at muddled ramblings, and they fall into two categories. There are the most entertaining ones, and the ones that frightened me the most to publish.

There are also the gray episodes, the ones I’ve written but pulled back from hitting the go button. Eventually I delete those, and the words are lost until I find a braver moment. In the end I am not as courageous as I’d like to be.

Random Stuff

I’m listening to Saint Low right now. Johnson City. Somehow in that narrative there is something important, something more complicated than love, and it will be lost. They are going to Johnson City, but it feels like the last time. Something’s changed; it’s heavier now. The trip is destroyed by its own significance.

The singer would probably laugh at my interpretation.

I watched hockey tonight, the electric hypnosis coming at times from different hemispheres. During the first intermission of the Sparta/Slavia (rhymes with Yankees/Mets) game, the owner of the Budvar Bar Near Home switched to Rugby. Amazingly (at least to me), one of the teams playing was one that I had seen during the calm part of new year’s eve in Ireland. The game was in its final moments, but is was close and hard-fought. I’m not sure how the players differentiated each other — they were all the color of mud.

Sport, mate. Sport.

There were times when the team with the ball was stalled, and there was a pile. Who gets the ball in such a pile is carefully regulated, but when you can’t move the ball from under the pile, you have to move the pile off the ball. It has been argued that the pads in the NFL actually increase the injury rate, and watching these guys, that’s easy to believe. When the progress of the ball is stalled and the pile is forming people will fly in, head first, smashing into the pile without regard for personal safety. We’re talking about big people, and big hits.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons a man might fling himself at a pile like that. First, he could hope to move the pile. Second, he might take one of the other team off the pile, someone who had good leverage. Third, he might just like to crash into people, without regard for personal safety. I think to play that game there must always be a bit of reason three.

The whistle blew, the game was over, and they unpiled themselves and began shaking each other’s hands. It was an easygoing, natural sportsmanship that limits the cheap shot because you’re going to be looking those guys in the eye when the game is done, and ideally you’ll be buying each other beers down the street. That is sport.

Saint Low is now telling me that I can just walk on by, like she’s no one. I just wish I could tell her how wrong she is.

Soup Boy sent me an invitation tonight, chocolate night at some club or another. I do like chocolate, but the launch time for the festivities is about now, and I am well and truly done for the day. In fact, today is about done for the day.

Hockey. I was pulling for Slavia, the other Prague team, mainly because they weren’t Sparta, easily the Yankees (ca-ching!) of Czech hockey. It was a good game, back and forth, with both sides pulling off some of those passes that have you saying “Wha — wow!” The game went to a shootout. While I will always rail against the shootout in any team sport (reducing a contest that is supposed to be about how a group of people work together to a series of one-on-one events is a disservice to the entire sport, whether hockey, soccer, or whatever), this was an interesting one to watch. It went long, and I noticed a pattern that held. If the shooter glanced down, even for the tiniest of moments, at the puck, he missed. The shooters who never, ever took their eyes off the goalie scored and made it look easy. Nothing fancy, just smack it by the guy.

I’m pretty sure there’s not a useful life lesson there.

After that game we switched to NHL. They play on a smaller surface and at first the skaters seemed unnaturally large. In the past I’ve preferred the North American version of Hockey, but with the recent rules changes they’re caught in middle ground, no longer the hard-nosed pounding game I like, but without the room to be a game of finesse.

Johnny Cash is telling me that it’s the time of the preacher, in the year of ’01; when you think it’s all over, it’s only begun. I’m pretty sure he’s right about that.

My team, the Flames, they still play old-school hockey. (Incidentally, this means they’re doomed.) That is only secondary to why I am a Flames fan; it would be more accurate to say that I am a Flames-fan fan. I’ve already documented it in these pages, no sense in digging up old laundry and all that, but never before and never since have I seen a row of pretty girls neglecting their jobs because they simply could not tear their eyes away from the hockey game.

I wonder what apartments go for in Canmore.

I only had the one Johnny Cash song handy, now Nick Cave is singing about a woman with a dead man in her bed. I’m pretty sure she’s not referring to me. She’s never met me.

There are times, looking out at the city at night, at all the lights, the sound and the motion; it seems busy but for all that there are no people. My window is just another sparkle.

The Transitional Seasons

Piker Press just published a story of mine, a decidedly springtime one. It didn’t feel at all strange to have it come out as the days are getting shorter, however; spring has more in common with autumn than with her neighbors. Lazy, shimmering, devil-may-care summer is too self-absorbed, while brooding, fierce winter will not contemplate another’s voice.

Spring and autumn are the seasons of change, when we feel the passing of time. It makes perfect sense to me that spring and autumn are the times when new fashion lines are revealed, summer and winter are when one coasts along, enjoying or enduring according to personal preference. Excitement comes with uncertainty and change, with the realization that today will not be a repeat of yesterday.

Spring is often compared to birth, and of course Halloween could not come at any other time of year. Autumn is spookier than winter, even though winter is darker. There is a restlessness to the season; leaves skitter and twirl aimlessly on city sidewalks and in fields harvested and prepared against the coming cold. There is anticipation in the air, the certaintly that something is coming, but there’s no telling when it will arrive. It’s the same feeling that horror films so often fail to achieve.

They are the seasons of scent. In autumn there is the smell of decay in the air, leaves piling up, but it is not death, it is autumn passing a note to spring, right under winter’s nose, the down-payment on spring’s vitality. In return spring fills the air with the scent of flowers and the songs of birds — dialogues of reproduction, as spring creates sprawling vibrant life poised and ready to take all the energy it can from summer’s plenty, the return message to her friend on the other side of the sun. They are in cahoots, spring and autumn, giddy seasons sharing the joke that is life, while summer and winter are none the wiser.

Old Units

I wonder if there is any man-made unit of measure still in use older than the hour. Months, days, and years have physical events to define them, but no aspect of nature told the Assyrians to divide the day into 24 parts (actually 12 pairs of parts).

Yesterday

Ah, yesterday. A fleeting thing, lost, gone by definition. Some yesterdays leave something behind, a tendril of connection that we can grasp to assert that yesterday was more than just a mathematical concept — more than just a number on the calendar. Some yesterdays linger for lifetimes, becoming The Day That… Most yesterdays fade, however, as further yesterdays intervene, until they are lost into a statistical mish-mash of a “typical day” for that phase of one’s life.

Yesterday was not a typical day, but (unless this writing makes it a Day That…), it is not a day that has managed to linger in memory even until it’s own end. Forgotten before it was even finished.

I was tired yesterday. Two nights previous I had gone out with Cassius and Frodo, and we had welcomed the dawn together. The following night I was surprised to not be drowsy (I think I had given myself jet-lag) so I started playing a computer game. I did this well into the following morning without a break, at which point I had to get up and do things. Four hours sleep, then none at all. So, yeah, like I said, I was tired.

And that, really, is all there is to say about yesterday. No words written, no chores done, no accomplishments. So today my only handle on yesterday is a hole: a day when the lists of things to do all got longer. Most if it I just spent breathing, I think, although I do vaguely recall a nice dinner at home, and this morning there were dishes to prove it. Nice to have a houseguest who cooks.

An interesting crossing

I sit now in a large plaza in the town of Maó, the largest town on the island of Menorca. Pigeons strut about in idle hunger or relax on the warm ground; they take no notice of the older one in their midst. The elder bird scruffy and worn, but the others do not see their own futures in the other bird; they are not reminded of their own mortality. They are just pigeons, after all.

I am partially in the shade, with my legs protected but my black sweatshirt soaking up the sun. I sit, uncommonly comfortable, and I ask myself, “what happened last night?” I’m not sure, really, but something happened on the boat between there and here (whoever here is). Alcohol happened, that I know. A pretty girl cried on my shoulder. I stood in the wind watching the sea slide past. All those things happened without a doubt, but I think maybe something else as well. I just can’t put my finger on it.

Alcohol happened, and plenty of it. Alcohol on a boat, on a moonless night. On deck, near the bow, I the professor (“Is that Mars?” “Actually, that’s Antares, who’s name means ‘Not-Ares’, the greek name for Mars.”), enjoying the night with Cassius and Brutus, and of course dear sweet Emily. (Some characters in this little drama may have appeared previously in this blog under different names, but that’s not important.) We gathered, a tight little bunch. Emily is a proper and well-spoken English girl, and the rest of us, well, we are who we are, only last night all the more so.

We met Emily as we marched out to board the bus that would take us to the boat. Brutus was immediately very solicitous and helpful (as the married member of our little trio he obviously knew more about how to treat women than Cassius or I), and we learned that she was coming to Menorca to be with her family, and that she had just broken up with her boyfriend two days prior. As Professor, I prescribed her medication: alcohol. She was already ahead of me, and specified gin and tonics.

Alcohol happened. We sat in the bar for a while, then adjourned to the walkway outside, standing in the warm Mediterranean breeze and mist, chatting and laughing. The bar closed, we covered our rather astonishing tab, and still we stayed out there. After a while Cassius disappeared and returned a short time later with more beer. I received this bounty with joy, and didn’t ask too many questions. Cassius, crafty and fearless, had found a way to overcome the classic “Closed Bar” problem, a conundrum which no member of Star Fleet had ever managed to win before. And so, alcohol continued to happen.

As did Emily. Emily happened; dark-haired, blue-eyed, witty and intelligent, she happened. Brutus connected with her easily, attentive and helpful, friendly without being forward. Cassius, well, there’s a price to be paid for being crafty and daring — it leaves one cynical and acerbic as well. Not the way to win over the ladies, which just feeds the cycle. Finally there was Professor, me, exercising my limited knowledge of astronomy and other subjects, a roller coaster of lugubrious prattle and long silences. In the course of things, while alcohol continued to happen, Cassius left to liberate more of the beer unfairly trapped behind the closed bar’s bars, and Brutus went to bid farewell to some of the beer that had already served its purpose. I was alone with Emily. I asked a question — I don’t remember what — and she began to cry, happening in great sobs. She missed her ex. She was not happy about the breakup, not at all, and had been soldiering on with strength and courage before my question broke through her crumbling defenses.

Awkward, uncertain, I stood close but very far away, wanting to offer comfort, baffled, afraid. This is where you make a gesture, this is where you give someone what they need without thought of yourself. But, but… She’s a stranger, she’s a pretty girl, she’s a wounded bird, vulnerable, and anything I do is open to misinterpretation. (And, come on, let’s be honest here, it’s not like the thought of sharing a bonding moment with her didn’t spin enticing possibilities deep in my head. I’m not dead.)

I did what any silver-tongued smooth operator would do. I asked her permission to give her a hug. Holy crap, of all the things I could have done, short of pitching her over the side of the boat, that had to be about the lamest thing possible. Pathetic.

She didn’t answer, so I bit the bullet, swallowed hard, and hugged her. She really let loose then, and there’s nothing to say but she loves him and they’re broken up and she feels lost and alone and she wants him back and he was supposed to be traveling with her and and and…

Things I didn’t say: “It’ll be all right.” “I’m sure you will get back together with him.” “You’ll feel better in the morning.” I couldn’t say those or a hundred other things. Empty words, signifying no more than do the grunts and squeaks of a monkey at the zoo. Or, at best, lies. So I held her, searching for something to say that would make her feel better, but there was nothing, nothing but pain and contact, tears and silence. It was an honest silence, though, and it was the best I could do.

Brutus returned and immediately offered up the phrases I couldn’t. Perhaps she needed to hear them, perhaps they would even turn out to be true through some blind chance. Who was I to say? At that moment, however, his words felt hollow. Cassius returned, beer-laden, and after a couple of attempts Emily recovered her game face and banter slowly got back to safer topics. When she pulled away from me I felt the place she had been, empty now. Again.

What happened last night? Perhaps the question seems strange, since I just told you what happened, but there, alone in the darkness, it seemed like something else had moved, something I still can’t put my finger on. Alcohol happened, and a pretty girl cried on my shoulder. In the end she was grateful to all of us (especially Brutus — cheerful, giving Brutus). After everyone else went to sleep I returned alone to the walkway. I, Professor, stared ahead into the moonless black, and failed once again to determine if the sea foam was luminescing or just reflecting the last of the lights on the ship. The answer was inconclusive, as was the answer to the more pressing question: what just happened?

She had asked for my email address and this morning I gave it to her, but I don’t think I will hear from her again — unless, perhaps, she knows the answer to my question.

I Murdered a Pot Tonight

Let us all pause for a moment of silence, as we remember the pot.

It all started this afternoon when I went to a bar in my ‘hood that I had not visited before. I went in and sat down in a position that completely disrupted the place. It is a regulars bar, and apparently there is assigned seating. I plunked down and threw the entire joint into doubt and uncertainty. I did not stay long; they didn’t have food and I was one hungry pup. Still, it was beer on an empty stomach, and that’s never good. The Czech hockey championships were on, so I went to the Little Café Near Home – not renowned for their vittles but I enjoy watching hockey with the folks there. I had a snack there and resolved to have more when I got home.

Home I got, and while the larder is traditionally spare, I did have rice. Perfect! I put a pot on the stove with plenty of water, and then came in here to write about download day.

I forgot about the pot.

Time for bed, and luckily I had to pass through the kitchen to perform my evening cleansing rituals. I heard the hiss of the stove and looked over to see a pot, formerly lined with enamel, blackened on the bottom and the enamel on the sides of the pot slumping. I turned off the gas and now the apartment is filled with a smell reminiscent of burned popcorn. We’ll send a forensic team in tomorrow morning to fully assess the potworthiness of the vessel, but I expect it will be time for me to go pot shopping pretty soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Snow

It is snowing this morning, here in the Haunted City. The flakes are light and fluffy, falling gently in the still air, covering the ground with several centimeters of pure white. (Note for Americans: centimeters is Czech for inches.) The old men and their wiener dogs are having a tough time of it this morning – the fluff is up well past weiner dog belly level and traction is tricky. Still they are out, doing what must be done. True Czechs, they know that snow comes and goes, but they will endure.

It is late enough, this morning, that others are out as well. Here at U Kormidla the joint is jumping in the very low-key way this place has. I am upstairs, and I’m trying not to stare as I figure out if one of the girls at a table I can see downstairs is one of my favorite bartenders at Cheap Beer Place. My eyes, it seems, are not what they were.

Ah, time. If I could just be like the older Czechs seem to be—somehow reconciled with its steady depredations, stoically enduring the everyday aches and pains of life as a side effect of not having died yet. Instead I spent yesterday stopped by a headache, unable to write anything that wasn’t pure poop, and turning for shelter from thought to a place where mental activity is optional and likely to be painful as well, headache or no. I went back and played online poker for fake money.

I described it already, the other time I tried it, so I won’t go into detail here, except to say that the only thing worse than playing poker with people who bet completely irrationally, seemingly without looking at their cards, is playing against those people and losing, which is what happened yesterday morning. That afternoon I had a mission: win back more fake money than I had lost. It took a while, and then I found myself playing with other players more at my level, my own mental acuity was recovering from its migrainal body-blow, and the shimmering in my vision went away, and I had a really good time. I ended up with a nice big pile of fake money and the ridiculous fantasy that maybe I should play for real money—I mean heck, I just made fifteen hundred bucks! Right?

Income thus assured I now must turn towards making at least a token effort to be a part of the world around me. I am behind on correspondences of all sorts, emails from nice people who are patient enough not to have written me off yet, people I haven’t seen in a long time, even phone text messages.

Yet all I really want to do right now is sit, sip my tea, and watch the snow drift down in the courtyard outside my window.

A Night of Dark and Light

Let’s go backwards tonight. We’ll start with now, and see if I can move backward faster than time moves forward. If it’s a tie, you will be stuck reading about the same moment until my fingers fail.

Now: Listening to a cover of “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” by Linoleum at volumes that may not be healthy. This is good. Got the nice headphones on, so the neighbors are safe. I went looking for the original, a spacy, ethereal bit from around 1980, but this cover does justice.

Just as it was starting, Soup Boy withdrew his head and closed the door to my room. He had just come back from a quest to a bar/archery range. Yes, you read that right. Alcohol and deadly weapons. Of course it is not their policy to put the bows and arrows into the hands of dangerously drunk people. (I wasn’t there, mind you, but someone I knew once went there, and while they were going through the formalities he sat down and missed the chair, and after reassurances from his comrades the manager put a lethal weapon in his hands. Tonight, however, Soup Boy reported that the archery range was closed (hours are notoriously erratic there), so they were shooting pool instead.

I got a response back from fuego – he was home. We fired up Skype and discovered our favorite three words. He sent me a really cool tune called “Belladonna”. We unraveled bits of life and poked the decaying corpse of civilization with a stick. Or maybe I just complained that someone had consumed 2/3 of my hard-earned beers.

Soup Boy’s phone chimed on the sofa where it lay, to indicate it had received a text message. I unpacked my computer, plugged it in, and checked up on the ol’ media empire.

When I got home tonight, the place was empty. I wondered where everyone had gone, so I sent a message to Soup Boy and fuego.

I got off the metro just a little after midnight, and knowing that my beer supply at home was severely compromised, I turned to a haven I have not sought in a long time – Hanka’s Herna Snack Bar. The door was locked. It seems the place closes at midnight on Sundays. There were still people inside, and I might be mistaken, but the bartender may even have seen me and headed for the door as I turned my feet up the street. It’s hard to see into the place. I tromped toward home; the only other bar I knew was open between me and the domocile was a glitzy sports bar that is not the kind of place you sit alone with only your pivo for company and mutter to yourself in a vaguely insane manner. I decided to head home.

After Belladonna got off the metro at JzP and the doors to the train slid shut, I wondered if I should have offered to walk her home. Prague is a pretty safe town, but she had definitely wanted me to ride with her on the metro.

The three of us retired to a nearby café/club to discuss the movie and to just hang out. It was a pleasant time; the caffeine from the tea I drank combining well with the beer to make me jolly and chatty. Belladonna continued to try to hide the hole in her sweater, but I never did get the chance to suggest duct tape. Neither was in a position to stay out late, which was OK by me, although the conversation was pleasant. We spent a lot of time comparing cultures, and I would smile and nod as they discussed various med school classes. I was disappointed to learn that Firenze intended to return to El Salvador – Europe’s just not for her. I tried to talk her into running away to Shanghai with me. I don’t think she thought I was serious. I got a message from fuego saying he was at my place and had drunk some of my beer.

We got out of the movie and spent a moment looking at each other, wondering, what the hell was that?. I think the reasons we disliked the movie were not all the same, but the overall we agreed. Hostel blows. The movie starts with breasts and moves on to dismemberment; it is a movie that you would expect a group of fourteen-year-olds to write as they sit around a table at the pizzeria whacked out on Mountain Dew, each one trying to outdo the others: “You know what would be really, really sick…” All would laugh at the fingers-on-the-floor gag and then move on to the next shock-for-shock’s sake schlock. The writing was bad, the acting was poor, the editing was shit. There were points where the dancing and the music were so disconnected that the audience laughed. Continuity was a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t disaster.

One bit player put in a very good performance.

We settled into our seats while the ever-longer sequence of advertisements played. I am not exaggerating to say that movies here start twenty minutes after the projectors roll. Belladonna smelled good. I thought about the garlic soup and wondered if maybe I didn’t. She was fiddling with her sweater to conceal a hole in a not-too-embarassing area on her upper chest. I began to compose a duct-tape joke about it.

Firenze showed up and we bid farewell to Sophie. I gave Sophie a hard time because each time I’ve met her she’s left almost immediately.

I put away Kundera’s essays on the art of the novel when Belladonna and Sophie arrived. They sat down and I finished my Pilsner as we waited for Firenze. We talked about this and that, nothing earth-shattering. I reflected on my good fortune to be there, then, in a movie theatre lobby, sipping a beer, sharing conversation with two pretty and intelligent girls.

I think that is where I will begin the story for tonight.

Half-stories

I once heard an Inspirational Speech, given by a man who stood to profit from my labor. He had a good point, though. Everyone has ideas. Most people start things. Less than half make it halfway, and a tiny percent finish what they started. There is no place that is more true than in writing. It is easy to start a story, and damn hard to finish.

The other day I woke with the feeling I had a few stories languishing—thoughts with very strong beginnings, some even with middles, just waiting for an end. I did some housecleaning and found five stories more or less finished that I know could be better, five others I put in the newly-created ‘active’ pile, and some fifteen in the back burner folder. Most of those are good starts: excellent settings, fine prose, no destination.

And there, perhaps, is the difference between a beginning and an ending. Not that all prose must have a capital-p purpose, but it should have a direction. In the beginning was the word, and at the end was the period. Beyond the end is The Moment, the pause that as a writer you can only hope for, when the reader hesitates, still in the story, not yet ready to give up that world. All those images, characters, and whatnot are in the quest of delivering that one most rapturous pause, the finest hour, when the story is over but the narrative continues in the reader’s own language. We don’t write to last, we write to linger.

So, I have a collection of beginnings now. Many of them are pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. I read them and smile at my own prose, my own creativity (how did I ever come up with that?). Only problem is, a beginning isn’t worth the paper it’s wiped on.

When I chose this life, I had the Inspirational Speech in mind. I came to the game confident that I would be a finisher. I’m not done yet.

The episode is over. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.

Thoughts on the theme:

The first girl I was ever in love with—not just a crush but really live-or-die in love with, consumed. the girl who burned her way through my thoughts, the girl who tormented me even as I tormented her, the girl with the power to destroy me—I guarantee she’s more beautiful now that she was then (and she was mighty damn beautiful back then)—she was not a finisher. I knew that, but that’s not why we didn’t work out. We broke up because I was a dork. But in the end, I like to tell myself, we were doomed anyway, because she was a dabbler, a dilettante, not a finisher.

I wonder where she is, now. Probably much closer to finishing something than I am.

I think you never get completely over that first love. You will never match that hopeless mad passion again. You will never have the innocence of not having failed. You only have one shot at purity. Ever after, you are fallen, and the love you feel will have a peer. The next affair will, perhaps, surpass, but never again will there be pure, unmeasured, love. When you feel that giddy euphoria, you will remember that you have felt it before.

Meanwhile, Robert Jordan is a giant in the fantasy fiction world. Damn near a dozen books in, he has yet to write an ending, even though anyone with an IQ greater than six who has been willing to hang with The Series That Will Not Die already knows exactly what will happen. Robert Jordan sucks. Stop buying his books until he comes up with an ending for once in his life, and cuts his page count in half.

William Gibson finally got off his ass and wrote a good book. If only they had forgotten to print the last chapter. In the business world they call it ‘selling past the close’; here I will call it ‘writing past the end’. He should learn from the Japanese so prevalent in his stories. He should recall Neuromancer. Still, it’s his best book in a long time. Cayce Pollard is my kind of hero. Gibson, however, seems to be suffering from the same malady I have (elevation by association?) – good setups, a search for a conclusion. I, however (elevation against a straw man?) don’t try to publish my stories with weak endings. To be fair, it’s easy for me to talk, down here, about one of my favorite writers. The dude’s pretty good. Effinger’s better, but he’s dead.

I watched an anime series recently – I won’t name it because I don’t want to spoil it for you – but at the end I just sat for quite a while. “Dang,” I said, more than once. “Wow.” I took a few deep breaths. This series was made for Japanese television and there is no way it would ever have been made in the US. It ended with two people dying, one literally, the other figuratively, sacrifices to something evil they had unwittingly supported, helpless, linked by a pair of tears and infinite regret, both meeting the most horrible fate they can imagine. Only one has the luxury of death; the other has a job to do. It was an ending, the death of all we had known before, but it was also a beginning. That’s fair, as long as there is that moment of reflection. For me, that moment stretched for hours.

Speaking of James Bond, the bad guy lying in a pool of blood is not an ending, even if his laboratory of evil (LOE) explodes.

In a crossover meditation, Mission Impossible, the television series, despite the constraint that each episode was a complete and interchangeable story, managed to come up with some of the best endings ever on television. No blood, just the bad guy having a moment when he knows he is well and truly screwed.

So where are we? So many stories undertold, overtold, retold, better left untold. Unfinished. My job is to chase down a couple of those endings, wrassle them to the dirt, and make them work for a living.