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).


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.