Old(ish) and in the Way

CurmudgeonA few weeks ago Europe celebrated the anniversary of VE Day, or Victory in Europe. There were little celebrations around the city, there was a tank in Dejvice Square.

On this day, which marks the partial end to the largest conflict in the history of mankind, I found myself wandering around the Million Marijuana March. This was a music festival held on Štvanice Island advocating the legalization of marijuana. While I have always felt that marijuana should be legal, I am not exactly an advocate, but rather I went to the festival to see friends who were there.

I have not been reminded of late spring college days more than when I wandered through this festival. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people, mostly young, drinking beer, playing games or lying about on the grass in little circles of their friends, listening to the great bands that played throughout the day. There was, as you’d imagine, a mushroom cloud above the park grounds, about 5,000 smiles, and 10,000 bloodshot eyes.

And me.

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The Yellow Passport Club

20150521_083852“So, which vaccinations do you need?”

“Um.” I unfold the paper and hand it to him.

“Ah.” He winces. I take this as a relatively bad sign. “Where are you going?”


One of the realities of travelling to Africa is the preventive medicine involved. There are a slew of over the counter medicines to combat diarrhea, headaches, diarrhea, stomach issues, and diarrhea.

There are anti-malaria pills and I feel like Father Merrin about to confront Pazuzu in The Exorcist. We first met 20 years ago in India. If you have taken anti-malaria pills then you know that these pills give you the strangest, most vivid dreams imaginable, like Tim Burton taking LSD with Salvatore Dali in your subconscious. In India, we’d awake every morning and glare around the room, sweating, panting, and wonder how one brain could create the roller coaster we’d been on all night.

And just like anytime I am waiting to get on a roller coaster, I am not looking forward to it, but I am.

Primarily, though, there are vaccinations to get sorted out and there are a lot of them to consider. This is reflected in my list, which is comprehensive. Distressingly, I have noticed that the list of illnesses you can potentially come down with in Ethiopia is about 20 times longer than the illnesses you are required to vaccinate against before going there.

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On Drinking in Old Places

brevnovIt’s Saturday night and I’m walking into a monastery. No, I didn’t give up, it’s a birthday bash. Yes, in a monastery.

The Břevnov Monastery is a Benedictine archabbey in Břevnov, which is on the very beautiful outskirts of Prague. It was founded in 993 AD by Saint Adalbert, survived the Hussite Wars (barely), Wehrmacht occupation, and Bjork (so far).

It has been used by the StB (aka: the secret police. aka: the bad guys), visited by the Pope, and it celebrated its 1000th birthday in 1993.

Oh yeah, and they make beer here. Břevnovský Benedict beer, to be exact.

One of the fringe benefits of living in Prague is the number of opportunities one has to get highly intoxicated in very old places. Since my stocky rear end has arrived in Prague, I’ve gotten tipsy in castles, prisons, medieval meat houses, catacombs, and hundreds of pubs that either looked 600 years old or smelled 600 years old.

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Check Adventure Light

giza camel“Oohhuuuuuuhhhmmmmmmmmeeerrrrrrrrrr…”

My dad is groaning. And I am sitting on the other side of the phone, timing it.

I have long been timing my dad’s groans in response to my year’s holiday destination. His groan has become the barometer by which I measure the adventure quotient of my trips.

No groan means that the place does not worry him. Italy and France are no groan destinations. A two-second groan usually means the place was the scene of urban unrest when he was young. Budapest might be a two-groaner, as might Northern Ireland.

A three-second groan means the place has been in the news in the last two years. This might include Turkey, Puerto Rico, or Thailand. Anything above a five second groan suggests that it’s a place with a completely different alphabet, and not in Europe or North American and that he doesn’t know much about it. Israel was a nine second groan.

Ethiopia proves to be an eight second groan. So not as bad as the Middle East, but it is accompanied by two I don’t know, Dames and a few muttered Are you sure about this? for good measure.

It’s worth the cost of the flight itself.

I live my life as a normal enough person, I work too much, go out with friends, gripe about social affairs, cook and read and watch sitcoms on weekday nights, drink too much occasionally. But every year around the end of February, towards the end of the long and bleak winter, a little light goes on inside. It’s the kind of light that goes on when your car starts making sounds like an emphysema patient playing soccer.

A warning.

My Check Adventure light.

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Mama Fu

mom with usWhen it comes to my mom, there are things I still can’t believe. She had four teenagers at one point. Four. If I have to interact with four teenagers in one week I need to see a doctor. She once battled a spider who fell in her hair and she didn’t explode into flames. Insanity.

She chauffeured kids everywhere, ran the house, balanced budgets, ran a delicatessen, withheld our infractions from Dad, coped with blood, squabbles, temper tantrums, and yet she did not strangle one of us.

Adding to this are the countless sacrifices to body and mind, wallet, and personal comfort that still boggle my mind. Like many kids, I didn’t appreciate this when I was younger. She was just “mom,” this woman who ran around putting out fires (almost, well, literally), and fixing problems.

In those devastating moments as a kid, when I honestly believed nothing would ever be right again. It was over. At the ripe age of twelve, Cindy Balowonski had checked the “no” box on my discreetly passed date questionnaire, and my life was over. At these dark times when nothing could be made right, Mom made things right. She knew how to fix problems and repair bad moods. She knew the things to say, the snack to make, the movie to put on, the inkling of perspective to give.

It was and is a sixth sense.

This sixth sense is part of a greater art which became known in our house as Mama Fu.

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The Late Semester Student

whyIt’s late in the semester, which means that I busy with paperwork, presentations, and prepping finals. When I am not doing those things, I can be seen at my desk caressing the July 1 box on the desk calendar and silently weeping at the thought of an extended holiday.

When I am not doing that, I am looking up symptoms and treatments for teacher burn out.

I love my students and teaching, but there are times when it becomes clear that some students have an, oh, interesting idea about how the world around them works. And that time is almost always late in the semester, when these students start popping out of the sky like biblical plagues.

Here are some habits of the late semester student.

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Hockey Land

20150501_191509There’s nothing more pleasant than train travel. And travelling through the eastern Czech countryside only adds to that pleasure.

There are the fields of bright yellow rapeseed that looks as though it’s straight out of a Van Gogh. The forests are green and inviting, bushels of mistletoe perch in distant trees, already mocking me.

The charm is compounded by the occasional tiny village, the cottages that dot the landscape and make you desire country life.

But then the Moravian countryside is abruptly replaced by gray boxed factories, sections of mill, and discarded tin equipment alongside the tracks. The conductor calls “Ostrava” and my Moravian dream is over.

Ostrava is a city in the east of the Czech Republic. It is a sprawling island of industry, gray, metal, and factories. It is as homely as Prague is beautiful.

Ostrava’s greatest claim to fame is probably Stodolní Street, a collection of streets jam-packed with pubs. These pubs are useful for the crowds of people trying to drink away the knowledge that they are in Ostrava.

Why Ostrava? The hockey world cup is being played in the Czech Republic and PJ has an extra ticket. And since I lack the ability to think things through before agreeing to them, just as I lack the ability to wait before biting into scalding hot pizza, here I am.

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Me and My Monkey Mind

monkey mind“Do you have Monkey Mind?” my friend asks me.

“Monkey Mind?”

My joke instinct instantly makes Monkey Mind a pet-name for syphilis.

Since I have never heard of Monkey Mind, my mental picture is thousands of monkeys drinking whiskey and swinging around in my head chattering and shrieking at top volumes. I mean, they are drinking whiskey after all.

I relate the above vision in a slightly sarcastic manner to my friend.

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Do you have it?”

At first, I am stunned to be correct. Then I sit back and listen to my mind. “Yep, I have that.”

I have been telling my friend about troubles concentrating. My mind can’t focus on one thing, but rather gets pulled in twenty different directions at all times of the day and night. It’s infuriating at times.

Monkey Mind is the idea that your brain is filled with thousands of drunken chattering monkeys constantly drawing your attention away from the moment you are in. So in my case Monkey Mind is a spot on diagnosis.

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Derby Girls and Weird Sentences

languageTonight seems to be an interesting language night.

I suppose the vinovice is partially to blame. Vinovice is grape brandy that knocks your socks off and makes you feel like a two-hundred foot tall dinosaur named Seth. Whenever a new brandy comes into my life – which happens often since the Czechs are proficient in the field of distilling fruits in order to get you hammered – I always find that the night equals interesting language.

Moreover, it’s probably the fact that I am hanging out with five language teachers. Therefore, the discussion keeps popping back to language acquisition. It’s in my head, so my ears are more in tune with the weirdness of language.

Also, the vinovice.

There have been two sentences tonight that I have never heard before. As a language teacher and a George Carlin nut, I have always loved these. They occurred in the same interaction.

“If I see someone vomit I can’t get it out of my head for a month.”

“Yeah, I’m the same way if I see blood come out of a penis.”

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7 Minutes in Hell

workout 7When I went to the doctor with heel, calf, knee, neck, and back pain, I was fairly certain that my career as a long-distance runner was about to be put on hold.

Sure enough, when I told him I was a runner, he shook his head and said, “No.”


“You should swim instead. Running is giving you these problems.”

Translation: You are forty and your body hates you.

Despite the fact that I used to look for excuses to get out of physical activity, I was truly bummed. Running was a way to keep active, clear my mind, and keep me from needing a muumuu and a motorized scooter with a Home of the Whopper decal on the side.

I needed to do something physical to counterbalance my predilection for hotdogs, pizza, Irish Whiskey, and couch.

And yet, I knew swimming wasn’t it. Oh, swimming is fun, and you can sometimes trick yourself into feeling like you’re at summer camp. But swimming not only involves being almost naked in public, it involves being almost naked in public while exercising. Plus, there’s my odd back hair patterns to consider and the fact that swimming involves urine, only some of which is mine.

When a friend suggested I try something called the 7 Minute Workout, I slightly scoffed. Slightly, because anything involving the word workout can make me its prison bitch, it was the 7 Minute portion that got my scoff. Still, after reading about it and losing a key battle in the war against the belt notches, I decided to give it a go.

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