Packing for Prague

I haven’t mentioned it here yet, but in the morning I’m heading out to Prague. My suitcase will be packed with plenty of goodies, both high-tech and low. Cookies, it has been made clear to me, are the top priority, so even though my sweetie will not be joining me, her presence will be appreciated by those I meet.

What will I be doing there? Well, for the most part, not working. Not programming, anyway, I’ve got a novel to outline and chapters to hone. Deadlines and whatnot. I’ll also be hanging out with friends and family, and helping fuego and MaK celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Five years! Dang. It seems like yesterday we were celebrating No Pants Day in the park after his wedding reception, but there’s been a lot of voda under the most, as they say over there.

I considered mentioning my trip here a few times, like when I bought the tickets or arranged a place to sleep, but it just didn’t seem… momentous. I pushed a few buttons on a Web site, entered my credit card number, and off I go. I will say that Prague is wonderful this time of year, though I’ve probably missed the First Beautiful Day of the Year. It’s a true Czech holiday, but not one you can plan for.

When next you hear from me I’ll be in the Central European time zone, enjoying a fine Czech pivo, pining for my sweetie so far away, and (hopefully) getting some serious writing done. Maybe I’ll see some of you there!


Rough Cut

Today I got my first look at Moonlight Sonata footage, a rough cut that gives a general feel for how the thing will look, but also demonstrates that we have a long way to go to get to the finished product. We had planned to have the opening shot be a long, continuous steady-cam shot, but as fuego has combed through the takes it seems we don’t have one that really works from start to end. That’s not a disaster; there is plenty of footage to make Paul’s entrance into the café a nervous and disorienting time. Not all the takes in this cut are the ones I remember most fondly from shooting, but it’s about making all the parts work together.

Man, I sure wish we’d had more extras.

The cut did not even include the concert scene, so I don’t know how that is going to work, and the voiceovers aren’t there and the walking through Prague and all the audio post, so at this point all I can really report is that there are shots that look fantastic. The voiceover raw files are on their way to me; and I will be going through them and picking out the best takes over the next few days, and putting the bits together into seamless delivery. It’s a job that can take as much time as I’m willing to give it.

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

The underground bar looks great. Really really great. I was worried about the video noise I was seeing but at least on the version I have (far from big-screen quality but pretty good for a computer monitor) the noise is not a problem. Using the real audio and getting the music in comes much later, so I’m trying to not worry about that too much (yet).

A long way to go, but so far, so good!


Leaving Prague

I’m not a big fan of packing, and cleaning, and all the other tasks associated with moving. As a result, I tend to procrastinate when confronted with them. Add to that a big complicated task like making a short movie — a task that will absorb as much time as I allow it to — and the desire to keep my normal tasks of writing and maintaining software (the latter a dismal failure lately), and you end up with night falling less than twelve hours before departure, suitcases empty, house a jumble, and the clock ticking away.

Add on top of that an editor anxiously waiting for the data from the last day of shooting and the master audio, a task that ended up sucking down a couple of hours of my time, and it’s fair to say that my exit in the morning was not the cleanest one on record. I stopped downstairs to tell the landlord that the big pile of clothes was for charity (Angelo will be picking it up), and that Soup Boy would be in touch. I forgot to mention that the garment bag was hers for the taking, that the hair trimmer set was Soup Boy’s if he wanted it, and that the bag at the top of the stairs was trash that would not fit in the can outside.

I was in Atlanta when I realized that I had left my leather jacket in the kitchen. Bummer. I really like that jacket. Apparently That Girl does also. I was wearing it when she first saw me.

But time waits for no panicked, exhausted, scrambling packer, and it didn’t wait for me, either. Goodbyes were brief and then the car arrived to whisk fuego and me to the airport. “Whisk” in this case meant stop-and-go traffic; it was like Prague was giving us one last reminder of what California would be like, one last bid to have us stay. Sorry, lovely city, but it’s time to move on.

Airports are airports, and while Prague’s is less of a hassle than some, it’s not different enough to warrant much comment. My bags were a bit over the limit but thanks to the traffic jam the agent didn’t have time to make me pay extra. So that worked out.

On the plane, over the water. In the seat behind me was a 14-month-old baby, and I cringed when I sat down. Still, I’ve had some experience with that demographic lately, so I resolved to be tolerant. fortunately, the kid did really well, with a minimum of fussing and only the occasional seat-kicking. It was the five-year-old in the seat in front of me who was the problem. Lots of energy, nowhere to go, piercing scream. Lovely.

Atlanta was routine; a period of standing in line to be screened by various agents of the government, then a wait until the plane was ready. From there to Albuquerque, and a hotel. It was a long day, eight hours longer than most days, but fuego and I managed to stay up long enough to have dinner at a diner that served green chile. The plan was to meet with family members in the morning, to recover my car and go up to Los Alamos for the evening.

Only, with all the communication and plan-making flying around, apparently none of the messages sent to my sister and brother-in-law, the keepers of my car, included the date of our arrival. They were out of town. Hm. A bit of a wrinkle, that. Fortunately the parents had an extra key for the house where the car was. Unfortunately, it was 100 miles away. We went up to the ol’ homestead and fuego and I prepared for our road trip, and I got to see my beer slave.

It all worked out in the end, obviously; Saturday morning found fuego and me in a convoy heading out into the desert. I’ll tell you about it soon.


Voice-Over Day

There was one remaining task for Moonlight Sonata that had to be done before I left Prague. We had to get actor, director, producer, and sound guy in the same place for an hour or three to get the voice-overs recorded. It turned out the only time all parties could be present was Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem but the night before was my (not yet documented) going-away party. Perhaps it was a good thing that there was something important to do the next day.

I resolved to bring donuts for everyone. There is a store near the metro station in my neighborhood with a sign saying DONUTKY, which I assumed was a czechification of the English word. Closer inspection of the sign, after four years of walking past it, showed that the sign said DOUTNIKY. Apparently that means “cigars”. Happily there was a shop filled with yummy baked things two doors away, and it had very donut-like items.

Apparently, what you might call a jelly donut (similar here but smaller and rounder) is in this country called by the name “horse poop” (in Czech, of course). My guess is that it has something to do with the shape. Dobrou chut’! (rhymes with ‘Bon Apetit!‘)

But I digress. I got to Brad Huff’s new studio on time, with donuts. We recorded the audio. Coaching someone in reading my words was educational; I became aware of cadences of long and short vowels and a flow I give my words that I had not been consciously aware of before. Sure, I like to make my writing sound good to the ear, but I hadn’t given any thought to just how I do that. Maybe that’s one reason I can spend so long on a single sentence. (Not here, of course, this is Muddled Ramblings.)

We recorded the sound, and after a great deal of confusion and uncertainty got copies to all parties who needed them. The data distribution chore ended up eating several hours of precious packing time, but it was by far the more important task.

Now the ones and zeroes are in the hands of the editor, and a rough cut should be in the works. I’m really, really excited about seeing it.


Shooting Old Ray

One thing about making a little movie on a very low budget: when you don’t pay the extras you never know what to expect. You really can’t twist elbows too hard, and since most of the people who show up are friends, you also don’t want the experience to be too bad. But there’s just no getting around the fact that being an extra in a movie is mostly about sitting around waiting.

In this case we managed to come up with some small compensation for the extras; we were shooting in a little blues club so we opened a tab for coffee and other beverages, including a keg of beer. We told the extras to be there at 3 in the afternoon, and we had no idea how many to expect. We were hoping for at least twenty, but we’d spread the word far and wide, so it was possible that the siren call of ‘free beer’ would bring in a lot more. Then again, it was also possible that no one would show up at all. No way to tell.

My day started much earlier. I woke up with the sun (pretty early these days) and couldn’t get back to sleep. I decided to use my Saturday morning to get a couple of errands done. There is no getting anything done in Strašnice on a Saturday morning, so I hopped tram 7 and headed for the shopping Mecca known as AndÄ›l. In that neighborhood there is a big electronics store, and I bought a nice little external hard drive that holds a whole bunch of ones and zeroes. This was going to make passing data to editors easier, and also reduce the weight I was going to have to lug back to the US when I moved.

New technology in hand, I considered what to do next. Breakfast sounded good. I decided to mosey down to the area we would be shooting that day and wander around, learning the streets a little better. Eventually I’d find a place to have breakfast and get another dose of caffeine in my bloodstream.

Yep, one week before I was to leave the city I’d lived in for four and a half years, I finally learned my way around the center. Part of the center, at any rate.

It took me a while to find a place for breakfast that appealed to me. Finally I stopped in at Subway for a meatball sandwich. Perfect. Sometimes that stuff really hits the spot. I cracked open my book, enjoyed the sandwich and a coke, and life was pretty good. When I was done it was still early for my scheduled meeting with fuego and the shooting crew, so I found a sunny place and kept reading. After a short time I got a message from fuego: “We should meet early and grab a bite to eat.”

We met at Chillilili’s (rhymes with chile Lily’s), just a few doors down from Blues Sklep, and fuego had a snack while I had tea. For the record, the people at Chilli Lili’s (spelling varies by signage) are really cool. fuego and I talked about this and that and the crew for the exterior shooting gathered. We wanted to get a few more beauty shots of the two walking through Prague, and we finally had found the right doorway to be the entrance to U Nikde.

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

There is a rule about shooting films on the streets of Prague. If you put your camera on the ground (by using a tripod, for instance), you must get a license first. I watched as the crew set up the camera on a tripod. “Um… how much is the fine?” I asked. “I’ll tell you later,” fuego said, but I could tell he was nervous. Finally, for the shot right at Charles Bridge, among throngs of tourists, they decided to go handheld and stay off the sticks. fuego was visibly relieved. The fine, it turns out, is 500,000 Kč, which even when divided by 20 remains an uncomfortably large number. Tomas and the rest figured they could pretend to be innocent film students if trouble arrived, while any non-czechs disappeared in the crowds. They neglected to mention this plan to me, though.

Exterior shots finally complete (the door worked out nicely), we went back to the bar, where preparations were already well under way. Extras were starting to arrive, and mill about, not needed yet and underfoot in that small place. The crew was assembling a large jib arm with remote head for the first shots, and soon the band arrived and began to set up while the art director (Soup Boy had no idea that would be him when he arrived) tried to dress up the stage area a bit. Zlato was our mule to bring munchies and other supplies from a nearby department store. Everyone was pitching in.

Still, we weren’t shooting yet. People were fiddling with the jib, and I assumed that was the cause of the delay. Perhaps the jib setup was behind schedule, but that wasn’t the real problem. It turns out the lighting guys had locked their keys in the van. They couldn’t get to their stuff. Ever-resourceful Steve tried to help, but eventually it became clear that a locksmith was going to be necessary. Meanwhile, no shooting. The band was getting bored, the extras were getting drunk, and I was getting more and more stressed out.

It took an hour and a half to get the lighting truck open. Yikes.

So then we shot, finally using the extras at about 7 pm, the time we had originally told them they would be able to leave. That was when the owner of the bar started to get pissed off. He was supposed to open at seven. While that wouldn’t have bothered us (more extras!) he didn’t think it was a good idea. I’d feel worse for him, but the extras and crew were buying far more than he would have sold to the first arrivals of the day. Still, his anger added to my stress.

In the end, we got most of what we needed. More extras would have been good, more time at the end to shoot some confusion and pandemonium and whatnot. The story may have to be tweaked a bit as a result; we’ll find out once we get a rough edit.

Rene Trossman and his band were helpful and professional the whole time, playing the same song over and over while we shot from different angles and featured different musicians. I’m pretty sure we got what we needed to make a good scene. We’ll find out soon enough.

After the main shoot the band took a break and we cleared out all the gear so the bar could open for business. Just a little later than scheduled Rene and the boys took the stage for their actual concert. We set up in the back and shot the first set for them, Soup Boy catching other angles handheld. Hopefully it’s footage they can use for their own promotion. I was worried that after all that shooting they wouldn’t have any energy left for the actual show, but I was wrong. They had an excellent gig, and we stayed to listen, eat pizza, and unwind. The owner eventually bought the last stragglers a round of something really nasty that he apparently thought was special. Makes for one of those half-hearted thank-yous.

Finally home, bed, and a gradual sigh as the stress went away. We have a film in the can, as they say.


On the move!

I have plenty of stories to tell about my last days in Prague, but no time to tell them right now. As the Bars of the World tour draws to a close things are busy busy busy. Nostalgic retrospectives, details of our day shooting in Blues Sklep, and other tales will have to wait for another day or three.

Note that as I fill in the episodes the dates will be reflective of when I should have posted them, not when I actually did. I’m doing it for posterity. Or something like that.


Your Support Matters!

Thanks to the those of you who have generously donated to help defray the (still rising) costs of making our little epic. I’m told the footage looks great. A lot of people are working for us at a discount, but let’s face it, making this thing isn’t cheap – a whole lot more not cheap than I had originally hoped. Then there’s post-production…

Special thanks to:

  • Philip and Barbara Seeger
  • Anonymous Donor
  • William Forman (aka Bill Bob’s Brother)
  • The Right Honourable Rev. Damen P. Dowse, D.D.
  • Jesse Kenyon
Support the arts! Someone’s got to do it.

You can get your name in the credits, too! For an explanation of what you get with each level of donation, the details are here.

  • less than $50: Hearty slap on the back.
  • $50 – $150: Seriously cool people who want to make sure the little guys can still make movies.
  • $151 – $500: Honest-to-God supporter of the arts.
  • $501 – $1500: My new best friend.
  • $1501 – $5000: Where have you been all my life?
  • $5,000,000: Guess I’m done.

Shooting Day 2

Setting up for and exterior shot

Setting up for an exterior shot

I ran into Cowboy Bob on the Metro, which I thought fortunate because I don’t know my way around the middle of Prague very well. It’s just not a place I’m tempted to go very often. There’s nothing there you can’t find in other neighborhoods for a lot less. Nothing, that is, except ancient architecture, narrow cobbled streets and all-around old-world atmosphere. For this part of the shoot, that’s what we were looking for.

Applying makup in the square

Applying makup in the square

A minimal crew (only about eight of us) gathered at the statue of Jan Hus, and after some caffeine and makeup we were on our way. The goal was to get as many guys-walking-down-little-streets shots as possible before U Sudu was available at 10:00. Our time would be very limited at the bar, so it was important not to waste any of it. It’s not uncommon to see kids running around making little movies around town, but I think we stood out, what with our big ol’ camera, another guy to do focus, and so forth.

It was a fun morning for those of us who didn’t have to carry the camera, and I got quite a few pictues in the good light. (There’s another guy in charge of taking good pictures.) All in all, a pleasant morning. Then it was off to our favorite subterranean bar. (They’re our favorite because they let us shoot there for free.) The gaffers were already unloading gear when we arrived, and Tomaš and fuego put their heads together to plan the first shot, handheld following the action, arranged to show off some of the cool ironwork. Then the shooting progressed lower and lower into the bowels of the bar.

measuring the distance from the lens to Cowboy Bob's nose

Measuring the distance from the lens to Cowboy Bob's nose

Down in the depths, the bar had not been cleaned from the night before. There was broken glass here and there, dishes in the sink, straws strewn, sticky spots on the floor. Lenka did most of the cleanup, with some support from me.

Low-tech visual effects: we didn’t have a smoke machine, but the grip and gaffers had cigars, and would puff up a storm before each shot.

At 1 p.m. fuego said, “We have four more hours. It’s not going to be enough.” I wasn’t surprised to hear it, having seen enough filmmaking in my limited career to know that there are wide shots and coverage shots (shots featuring a particular actor) with lenses of varying lengths, then there are shots to show the details (money hitting a counter, things like that), and so a fairly simple scene can several different camera setups. In general it’s the setup that takes time; lights have to be adjusted, focus figured out for each stage of the shot, and so forth.

Once again I was grateful to have so many experienced people on the crew. They had worked together before, knew what they were doing, and got us set up each time with a minimum of fuss. The time saved meant more setups, more shots, and better coverage. Not to mention that these guys were creating some visually dramatic stuff while they were at it.

Due to the fluid nature of our movement through the location and the limited space, I wasn’t able to watch a monitor as we shot, so I still haven’t gotten the full effect, but fuego assures me it’s good. For much of the day my role was alternately acting coach and furniture mover. I was also in charge of getting some munchies — and apple juice. There is whiskey in our story (Old Ray Black was a bourbon man), but whiskey is expensive and after a few takes the actors would be turning green, so we substituted apple juice. Steve (rhymes with Cowboy Bob) drank a lot of apple juice. By the end he was starting to feel a little queasy even with the benign juice.

Time keeps on Slippin’ into the Future, as Steve Miller pointed out, and the crew was working to get us all the shots we needed, but at the end, we were forced to compromise, and take it on faith that (for instance) the wide shot with Paul sitting down was a good as it looked to fuego, so no coverage shot of that was necessary. I wished later that I’d written down more notes about each shot, because in several of the wide takes there’s a bad chair noise when he sits. The last one was good, though, so I hope that’s the take fuego is relying on.

setting up in the bowels of U Sudu

Setting up in the bowels of U Sudu

You have no idea how many things can go wrong in a take. There’s the obvious problem of the actor missing on the performance, but in fact what you are hoping is that the actor’s performance is good when all the other shit actually works. Were I in the position to hire actors, I would choose consistent actors over great ones.

Although, I just did hire actors, didn’t I? There’s one line delivered brilliantly in rehearsal that never popped as well in performance, but fuego was really pleased with the performance of the line on camera, on more than one take. He just didn’t have the rehearsal to compare it to. And maybe on camera there were subtleties I could not pick up.

There’s a moment of transformation, when Cowboy Bob leans back, knows his job is done, and gets up to leave. fuego proved his chops as a director right there, once the lenses and the lights and the angles were figured out he guided the actor through the timing of this gradual transformation. While rolling he said “now look across at Paul… smile a little… lean back…” Past all the technical details it was all about telling a good story. Budget, crew, schedule, time left to film in the location — all details. Story is the thing. That’s what the business is about, in the end, a story well told. fuego’s a storyteller.

Early in this game fuego said, “here’s how we take over the world,” and my little project became an effort to make something really spectacular. I hope we succeed. fuego’s put a lot of his personal credibility on this script, and on what we can make of it. I’ve improved as a performance coach this time, but I could have done better. The nitty gritty details, I want nothing to do with. I want to watch the monitor, watch the actors, help them be awesome. I want my story to come to life. In film that is an incredible team effort.

Miki and fuego

Miki and fuego

In the novel biz, we laugh at the people who are worried that someone will steal their idea. An idea is nothing; it’s all about execution. No one will steal your writing. Or at least if they do it’s easy to trace. The importance of execution applies in the movie biz as well but the execution is a massive collaboration in which the writing is important but there’s a lot more. The original script is little more than a template. Two crews with the same script will end up with different movies.

The day ended, and fuego canceled the evening exterior shots. I think the stress of getting what we needed down there, and the weight of being director, tired him out. We were loading our stuff out (a bit late), we were in a bar, and it was a chance for me to buy beers for everyone. A moment not to miss. (Though now that I think of it, fuego picked up a big part of the tab.)

So we enjoyed the evening when really we should have been shooting, relaxed, and hung out. I was all right with that, and as Executive Producer, it’s my call. Apparently.


Shooting Day 1

I woke up early this morning, really early. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. Today was the first day of shooting “Moonlight Sonata”, and I have to admit that I was pretty excited. It’s been a long and winding road, as Paul McCartney used to say every once in a while.

My first job of the day was clearly defined: making copies. I was waiting outside Copy General when it opened at 8, and I think the people there were a little surprised to have someone there at the crack of opening on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. But there I was and without any grumbling they followed my instructions to the letter — except that the guy was so sure I had asked for three of something at some point he had a hard time accepting other numbers. Nevertheless he was friendly and helpful and I got what I needed. I tromped up to Zvonařka and the crews were already hard at it.

The first shot of the day was the most complicated, a long steadycam shot, and there was a hitch. The steadycam rig was an elaborate piece of equipment but it was home-grown and there were problems getting it to work with the Red. (More on the Red later.) We were delayed getting started, and our time using the main room of the restaurant was limited. Yikes.

There were some positive aspects, however. One of my regrets with “Pirates of the White Sand” was not spending enough time with some of the actors, coaching them and challenging them to bring more to their roles. Steadycam delays today meant idle actors, and these guys were all for running the lines, discussing deliveries and timing, and just being professional. Steve (rhymes with Cowboy Bob) had the most complicated lines today, and there were a couple I was worried about. He was a bit nervous himself, but then he would nail the line dead cold, adding nuances I hadn’t thought of before. Likewise Curt (rhymes with Paul the Piano Player) showed a range of expression within the boundaries of a fairly introverted guy.

The steadycam was finally ready and work commenced. Unfortunately the monitor wasn’t working, so I could not watch the feed. Also, I didn’t realize that the walkie-talkie I’d been given wasn’t a walkie-talkie at all, but a digital receiver for the audio. Later, when I learned that I could hear what was being recorded I was in a happy place.

But our time in the main room was limited, and we weren’t going to get the necessary shots and coverage in time, and the woman in charge of the place made it clear that it wasn’t her idea to let a bunch of film people in. In one case, when we identified the source of a nasty, persistent noise to be a mirror ball motor with no mirror ball on it, we asked if we could turn it off. “Impossible,” the woman said — a common Czech response when one doesn’t wish to be bothered. Happily, one of the gaffers found the magic switch. But I digress.

The woman in charge was getting increasingly uptight, as we were pushing in on the time she needed to prepare the place for paying customers. fuego pressed on, working with Tomaš, our director of photography, to get the shots we needed. I had spent the previous day twisting the arm of my former czech teacher to be the waitress, and I didn’t get to see her performance. Or hear it, because I still thought I had a walkie-talkie. How might I have affected her performance? I’m told she did well.

All around me people were doing stuff. Subtle stuff, like wrapping the compact fluorescent bulbs in the overhead fixtures with… I don’t know, some sort of softening stuff. Dolly tracks laid without a fuss, lenses swapped and data transferred, actors made non-shiny, water brought around to the crew.

Once we got off the steadycam the monitor was working correctly and with my headphones getting the audio I was able to stay out of the way and still get a really good feel for how things were going. I monitored the performances of the actors, listened for trouble, and every once in a while chimed in, either to call out “smoke!” to remind them to light the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray, or to slide over while the crew was doing technical stuff to talk to the actors. “Like the hair a lot,” I said once, and people seemed to think my opinion was important (perhaps because they all agreed – it was a no-brainer).

I should probably have been looking for visual problems as well, but to be honest the stuff hitting my monitor was just plain blowing me away. It was a combination of things: the Red, bringing film qualities to video (not just resolution, but the whole feel), lighting, sound, and actors who may not nail the line every time but when they do… damn. And you only need the one. At one point fuego and Tomaš were watching the footage and were obviously pleased with the stuff coming out of the Red. “And this is raw,” fuego said, “we haven’t done anything to it yet.” Some of the credit for that has to go to gaffer and focus puller, to the dolly grip and all the others. You can’t fix bad focus in post. Yet in the end the Red proved worthy of all the business that went on around it, giving us raw footage that looks (to my eye) really damn good.

I’m excited.

I’m also a little scared. All the skill and technology in the world can’t fix a bad story (though Hollywood is striving to prove me wrong). Does my story hold up? Is the screenplay fuego and I created worthy of all this amazing talent? I sure hope so.

There was one other job I had today as producer. Paying people. This little project isn’t so little anymore, and I’ve ridden along because the value is increasing much more steeply than the cost. For example our boom guy knows how to point a microphone, and while he’s working for a song, it’s not free. Nor should it be. Several people on this production think they are working for free, and I’d really like to surprise them. You can help. (To be honest, I’ll do my best by these folks no matter what you do.)

Which brings us to this button:

I suppose there should be defined donation levels, with commensurate rewards. That’s how high-class beggars work, right? I’m inventing this as I type, so it’s subject to brothers and lawyers smacking me around and making me change things (one might say ‘subject to change without notice’ or something like that). Let’s try this:

  • less than $50: Hearty slap on the back. You can say “I believe in you guys”, and we will be honestly grateful for your vote of confidence.
  • $50 – $150: Seriously cool people who want to make sure the little guys can still make movies. Your name in the credits!
  • $151 – $500: Honest-to-God supporter of the arts. Your name in the credits, recognition in any Web presence this film ever has, and a foot massage. I’m pretty good at foot massages.
  • $501 – $1500: My new best friend. You get a whole card in the credits, your name and/or logo (whatever you want) all alone right there for people to read. Plus, a foot massage. No, let’s make it TWO foot massages.
  • $1501 – $5000: Where have you been all my life? Tell us what you want. We’ll probably say yes.
  • $5,000,000: Guess I’m done. You’ll have to watch the movie to understand that one.
Support the arts (or, failing that, me). Someone’s got to do it.

I hate to end on such a mercenary note, but even while I was writing this episode I came to realize that I’m one of those people who wants to add to the human experience through art. In my case, it’s storytelling. I’ve always thought of myself as a commercial artist, a guy who’s going to make things people will buy, which are no less art for that. Moonlight Sonata will never sell. It’s just cool. There’s a closeup of Curt that makes me chuckle, and a line by Steve that gives me chills. I don’t care what you bastards think. I like it.

Tomorrow: smoke and doubt below the streets of Prague. Don’t miss it!


The Mysterious Blue-Lit Building

The Mysterious Blue-Lit Building

The Mysterious Blue-Lit Building

Just across the street from my house is a somewhat run-down structure that is the home of a few businesses. None of those businesses have bothered to put any signage on the side of the building facing the road, however, so just what goes on in there has an air of mystery. This is compounded by the blue glow that comes out of the windows in the evenings. Perhaps it is a sign of economic decline, but back in the day more of the windows glowed blue.

Whatever is inside, they make no attempt to hide it. I look in the windows closest to my house and I see a mostly empty room, coated with tile, a fire extinguisher on the wall, and on the wall near the ceiling a fixture with UV tubes bathing the whole room with that haunting glow.

When I first moved in to my place here it was winter, and I expected to soon see plant life inside, getting a jump on the growing season. Nope. During the course of my extremely casual observation, nothing has changed inside. Not that my observation has been terribly diligent; there is a strong feeling in these parts that one should mind their own business, and on this quiet street there is no better way to summon a pedestrian than to pull out a camera with the intent to take a picture of something that is not my business.

Note that this picture is taken from the driveway to my house; the gate in the foreground is the one I pass through to every day (every day I leave my flat, anyway). If those strange lights are doing something like, say, incubating Godzilla eggs, I’m in trouble.


Happy Road Trip Day!

Well, here is it again, the Muddled New Year. For those keeping track at home (eagerly awaiting the restoration of the holiday ticker in the sidebar, no doubt), today is day 5:000 of the Muddled Age, marking five years since I piled way too much stuff into a Miata and headed out to see some of the United States for “three or four weeks” before moving to Prague. That trip took a little longer than expected, spanning more than seven months, 18,000 miles, and over a hundred blog entries dedicated to that trip alone.

Good times. Coincidentally, Road Trip Day is also my birthday.

The holiday is a young one, so the traditions aren’t as entrenched as some of the old-calendar events, but I’m happy to report that I did remember to make the first words I uttered for the New Muddled Year “elevator ocelot rutabaga”, virtually guaranteeing a happy and prosperous year to come.

This year has already started auspiciously. March 31st (4:363) was a beautiful sunny day, but still on the chilly side. Today the weather was simply spectacular, the kind of day where things like this happen. (I was dismissive of that story at first, but the loyal readers of this blog enjoyed it and took the trouble to tell me so, so I submitted it to Piker Press. The rest, as they say, is history.) Lest you think my description of the first nice day of spring in Prague is an exaggeration, let me just tell you that I was talking to a dude about it on the 31st and he got downright misty.

I once also joked that somewhere there is a bureaucrat with a big button on his desk labeled “spring.” when he pushes that button crews rush out and dig up every third street corner and all the trams sport yellow signs alerting passengers that there’s really no telling where the tram is going to go. (Actually the yellow signs tell exactly where the tram is going to go, but it may have nothing to do with where it went the previous day. By that measure Monday was the first day of spring. I laughed repeatedly as I walked past holes in the sidewalk that had not been there the day before, cobblestones piled or asphalt carted away. In most cases the crews who had dug the holes were nowhere to be seen; no doubt they were off digging other holes in another part of town — holes don’t just dig themselves, you know.

Happy New Muddled Year, everyone! It’s off to a great start!

Calendar Note: the pedants among you can relax; the Muddled Calendar started with year zero, so when the calendar reads five that means five years have elapsed. There will be none of the silly arguments around millennia we have with the old calendar. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.


Talking ’bout the Weather

It’s spring, and so when I left my little sanctuary this morning (for the first time in a few days) I did not check very carefully what the weather might be like outside. I put on my beloved (crumbling) leather jacket, slapped a baseball cap on my head, and ventured forth.

I was greeted outside the door by a wind that seemed to be especially talented at reaching icy fingers through my clothing and even my skin, chilling my very bones. I had gone perhaps fifty strides when the first popcorn snow started to fall. By the time I got to the corner I was in a blizzard, swirling swarms of little snow nuggets dancing in the wind and finding ways to get down my neck. At least I wasn’t pony-tailed today. It makes a big difference.

Standing at the tram stop was pretty much miserable. There is a small shelter there, but it was already full. I stood in the wind wondering why the hell it was taking so long for the tram to get there. Yeah, buddy, welcome to spring.



Well, here I sit at Bowle & Bowling, listening to the rumble and clatter of the bowling balls, and a feeling of normalcy is starting to come over me. I can pay rent.

Even the last chapter of my adventure was not as straightforward as I had hoped. The credit card people told me, “you can get cash from any bank with a Visa sign on the door.” This, it turns out, is not true. Not at all. Not even close. What she should have said was, “It’s possible there’s a bank in Prague that will advance you cash on your card, but good luck finding it.”

I started my two-day quest in my own neighborhood, at the largest and fanciest bank. As usual in my neighborhood no english was spoken there, but we communicated surprisingly well. “I need money,” I said in Czech. I didn’t know how to say “cash advance” in Czech, and credit cards are so rarely used here that it wouldn’t surprise me if the bank lady didn’t know the word either. “You can’t use the bankomat?” she asked. “No, it’s an emergency card,” I explained. She thought for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help you. I don’t think any bank can.”

I canvassed the rest of the neighborhood and got the same story. It was getting late so I decided to try another approach. I would call my bank and see if they could issue me a PIN so I could restore all the happy ATM-ness to my card.

Naturally, that turned out to be complicated. Then my Internet connection went down, leaving me Skype-less.

Back on the street again today, an earlier start, knowing that I was going to have to go down to the city center to have any hope of success, and I would probably have to visit a currency exchange. There are plenty of them on Wenceslas square and thereabouts. I wandered up and down the street, window shopping. I noticed that the rates most places advertised were for very large amounts; the normal-human rate was much worse. Luckily (an odd sort of luck, I must say), I will be needing a lot of money, so I found the best rate at a 0% commission place and went on in.

After a little confusion because I said “hundred” instead of “ten” we got the deal squared away. “There will be a commission,” the woman said.

I thought of saying things like, “but your sign says…” but I knew it wouldn’t help, and I knew it would be the same everywhere. No commission on currency exchanges. Credit card: get ready to bend over. If asked they would probably say that they have added expenses and whatnot, and there’s a risk of fraud they have to factor in. In reality, it’s because people getting cash off their credits cards are all desperate schmucks like me. I was tired. I just wanted to be finished with this whole mess. I bent over.

This is officially the last time I think about how much I just spent to get my own money.

Now, no more worries! Now I have money, enough for me to cover rent and some of the expenses of filming, and I have time to find another conduit for the rest. Back on my feet, baby!


Travelers Tip: Don’t Use Raffeisen Bank

I am still struggling to recover from having my bank card eaten by an ATM at the bank closest to my house. In fact, this is the second time it’s eaten my card, but the first time I had a backup. As my tale of woe spreads, I’ve learned that several of my friends have had their cards eaten by the hungry bankomat machines of Raffeisen.

My theory on the matter is that Raffeisen is more sensitive to fraud than other banks, so if the slightest thing goes wrong on the transaction (say there’s a glitch in transatlantic communication, or, as is the case with my bank, one of the card-processing networks that serves them goes down), that’s it – card eaten. For locals this is an inconovenience, for travelers it is a major pain in the butt.

So, while before I thought it was bad luck that my first card got eaten, now I know that there is a difference in banks, and I will never use a Raffeisen bankomat again. I encourage you to do the same.

Meanwhile the emergency delivery of a replacement card has been far less than swift. First told I could even have a card the next day, now it’s been a week and I’ve been riding a ridiculous merry-go-round between San Diego County Credit Union and Visa Emergency Services. My nerves got a bit frayed on the phone last night, as the credit union seemed to have gotten confused somewhere along the way about a check card I never activated and in fact don’t have. Sure wish I did. Or that I’d applied for a Paypal card. Or anything.

“I’m getting hungry,” I tell them over the phone. (Thank the gods of telecommunication for Skype.) Now I’m waiting while (once more) Visa Emergency Services seeks permission from my bank to issue a new card.

So, lessons learned: First, don’t use Raffeisen Bank. Never. Second, don’t don’t count on two organizations to work well together. Hound them relentlessly until things are fixed. Third, don’t tell your landlord you’ll have the money on a certain day. I never thought I’d be the one tip-toeing past the landlord’s door. That’s out of a sit-com, right? Except that was me today. And just like in a sit-com, I got to the bottom of he stairs, realized I’d forgotten something, and tip-toed back up and down again. High comedy.


I’m Boned

I’ve been under the weather the last few days, but last night I resolved to get back out into the world. I had a plan: visit the bread and cheese store, visit the bankomat, then on to the friut and nut store, then sit down for a nice pizza.

Mmm… pizza.

Step 1 went flawlessly, but they were short on stuff for my classic recipe “Rice and Stuff”. No worries. On to the bankomat (rhymes with ATM). After some deliberation I punched in a large number (rent is due) and the machine replied, “Unauthorized use. Card retained.”

So much for pizza.

I wasn’t terribly worried; I figured I’d be able to drop by the bank in the morning, communicate my predicament in broken czech, prove I was the same guy that was on the card, and recover my cash lifeline. Those who have been around a long time may recall that a bankomat ate my card once before. That was long ago, and I had a backup, so I just started using that one. Time has made me complacent, and now I have no backup.

There will be no pizzas until I get my card back.

This morning bright and early I popped down to the bank and spoke to a rather gruff person there. She spoke no English, but I’d mentally gone over the vocabulary I’d need. It took a couple of tries to get across that my card had stayed in the machine and that it was not a card for their bank. She went off for a brief conference with her colleagues and came back to tell me, “you have to call your bank and get a new card.”

No pizzas for a long time. Rent is a bit of a problem as well.

I left the bank in a bit of a daze, turned in the direction away from home, not sure what to do. Western Union? I’ll call the bank and we’ll figure something out. As I was walking I was stopped by an old man who asked me to help him across the street. So I’ve got a little karma working anyway.

Now I at Little Café near home, squandering pocket change on tea, thinking of the upcoming release of Jer’s Novel Writer (long, long overdue) and about scheduling problems with Moonlight Sonata, and generally moving my worry into channels I can do something about until business hours in San Diego.

But, yeah, I’m boned.