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A Short History of my Life with Bidets

Chauncey the Bidet and Derrick the Cockatoo

It’s been a little over two weeks since I moved into a new flat. Like almost anyone, I have gotten accustomed to my new neighborhood. And not just the big, basic things like how long it is to get to the metro or the shop. I’m also getting used to the little things, like my preferred ATM or the shortcuts to the main road. Or the most efficient path through the grocery store.   

I am getting used to the little things in my flat, too. I am figuring out which windows allow the best breeze, where the floor creaks are, and where I stand around nekkid in my living room without accidentally giving the neighbor a mildly disappointing peepshow.

But in terms of the little things, it’s the water things that’s taking a while to get used to. I lived in my last flat for thirteen years, and so I knew my shower, toilet, and sinks like old friends. There were no surprises. I knew that the water pressure was going to be strong in the shower and exactly how to angle the nozzle at what exact pressure to avoid soaking the floor or ceiling. I knew that if I was in the mood to drink really cold water I’d pour from the bathroom tap, which, along with most of Prague’s pubs, spews absolutely glacially cold H2o. I knew the water pressure in my kitchen so well that I could turn it on without looking, walk away, and come back when I knew the sink would be filled to the desired level.

Now I have to get used to a new shower, a new bathroom, and new sinks. The water pressure is different as is the water temperature from the respective taps. I am acclimating myself to a new water system.

So is the cat. Every morning I was greeted by not so much a cat, as by a continuous thronging of meows from a mobile furball beneath my feet. It didn’t stop until I turned on the tap in the bathroom for her. She would then drink, play, and then stare at the water in amazement. Occasionally she’d pass her paw through it to test its stability. While I showered, she’d stand on the shelf watching me the way I watch Keith Moon play the drums. It is a picture of astounded.

In the new flat, I haven’t quite learned how to control the shower, so the bathroom floor is often wet. I have been drinking lukewarm water and washing my hands in freezing cold water. The cat, a literal creature of habit, meows at the bathroom sink, but can’t quite get her head under the tap as it’s lower than in my last flat. So she spends a lot of time trying to understand the geometry of the sink. It’s a bit sad.

Oh, and then there’s the bidet.

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Don’t Get Me Wrong

I was once sitting in the movie Happy Gilmore. If you have seen this it features Adam Sandler as a fragile tempered wannabe hockey player turned golfer who makes headway into golfing tourneys despite an unorthodox swing. As he is a hockey player, he doesn’t do the traditional static golf swing, but rather dances forward in a crow hop of sorts, winds up the golf club, and takes a huge slapshot.

It’s the quintessential mid-90s Sandler movie. A high volume comedy that was ridiculous, but not I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry ridiculous. We happily suspended our disbelief at the door. I can’t say the same for the guy who was sitting behind us who spent the majority of the golfing scenes critiquing and commenting to his date on the main character’s absurd slapshot and slapstick swing. “There’s so much more to golf than just driving, you know,” he said. “This is ridiculous, you can’t drive like that. What about his short game, huh?” He asked the screen.

I didn’t hazard a glance at his date, but I can only hope that he was single less than five minutes after the film’s end.

I couldn’t understand the man’s motivation. Why not simply sit back and enjoy the movie? It’s a movie, we willingly suspend our disbelief so that we don’t spend the whole time asking stupid effing questions and driving people nearby insane with those stupid effing questions. And also, did he think the absurdity of the movie’s details were lost on the rest of us? Did he think we didn’t know that usually a gold swing doesn’t work out like that?

Two things have happened recently. The first happened while watching my all-time favorite sleuth, Lt. Columbo, take down a dastardly chess player who killed a fellow chess player. The dead chess player was from some unnamed Eastern European country and the guy in charge of his security detail manager was no doubt upset that the man he was to protect had ended up in the bottom of a trash compactor in thousands of little pieces. It was during this scene of stress that he erupts in anger, spewing the following(ish) in an accent so “Eastern European” that is was made of borscht.

“Why is it so impossible for you to figure out what’s going on, Lieutenant? How can you be so in the dark about what’s happened? He would never have stolen off into the night on his own. He would have …. (searching for word, asks his colleague) notified one of us.”

And then, between handfuls of popcorn, laid out an argument to invalidate the language being used. “There’s no way he would be using that phrase or that other phrase or that grammar. No way. Figure out. What’s going on. Be in the dark about. What has happened. Steal off into the night. On his own. Never would have. And then ‘notify’ is what trips him up? Nah. Nope.”

Burke kept her thoughts to herself, but I read in the sardonic (and a little sad) look over a handful of popcorn a loud and clear statement: shut up, man, can’t you just enjoy the show?

I could. I did. I set all subsequent notes to mental and quelled my distaste with popcorn.

As a language teacher, I spend a lot of time looking at, working with, and thinking about language. Since I teach English and am a non-native Czech speaker, these are the two languages that mostly occupy my brain’s time. And while I have actively and definitively avoided the ideology of Grammatical Nazism, my pet peeve has become misrepresented non-native English speakers in films and shows.

Everyone would have a guess as to what a non-native speaker of your language might have trouble understanding or using. Big words. Complicated grammatical points. Hard to pronounce words. But there’s a good chance you’d forget about the words and phrases that we use each day without even a moment’s thought. Take off your pants. Change off to any other preposition and it’s a radically different meaning. Take in your pants. Take out your pants. Take away your pants. Each of these phrasal verbs have vastly different meanings. So it’s no wonder that a film or TV director would misrepresent the language difficulties that a non-native speaker of English might have.

Another example from one of my favorite shows of all time. The West Wing was written by probably the greatest living screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. In one scene, one of the president’s aides played by Rob Lowe is telling his colleagues about a meeting that he had with two aides to the Russian president. One of the meeting’s goals was to reschedule the meeting between the Russian and the American presidents. Lowe comments that the Russian aides spoke “conversational” English, but not “idiomatic” English. We then see the conversation that occurred:

Rob Lowe: Can you pass this along to President Shogurn?

Russian Aide 1: ‘Pass along’? Is this not bad?

Rob Lowe: No, it means give ‘go’. I think you’re confusing it with ‘pass over.’

The two Russian aides speak in Russian for a moment and then thank him for the language lesson.

Rob Lowe: We need to talk about the time of the meeting.

Aide 2: Is not the time OK?

Rob Lowe: It needs to be an hour later.

Aide 1: Why?

Rob Lowe: The president will be getting in too late the night before. Don’t get me wrong, this president can do two shows a night, but you’d be hard pressed to find a person with a worse reaction to jet lag.

The Russian consider the point, agree to it, and then, moving on, hand Rob Lowe a paper with suggested additions to the American president’s speech. Lowe reads it aloud and is surprised when he hits the phrase ‘stem the tide.’ He asks the aides who had written the edits and the first aide claims that he had. At this point, Rob Lowe, because of the trip up with ‘pass along’ and ‘pass by’ knows that someone else besides this aide had written the addition.

So, the Russian aides didn’t understand idiomatic English, but Rob Lowe uses three highly nuanced phrases “don’t get me wrong,” “he can do two shows a night,” and “hard-pressed?” These would almost certainly be understood by high-level English speakers and fall, by the way, directly in the category of “idiomatic” English. The inconsistency has driven me nuts for years.

I have been jokingly toying with a niche company in which I offer editing services for scripts which feature non-native English speakers. Until then, I’ll keep my mouth shut so Burke doesn’t smother me to death with popcorn while I sleep. Maybe I’ll track down that golf guy and we can put together a joint company of language editing and golfing skills.

I’ll be sure to….notify the lot of you once it comes to fruition.

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Random Creepy Things

Creepy

The building where I teach is a monument to communist era architecture. It’s tall, blocky, gray, concrete, mundane, and removes the will to live from whomever casts their eyes upon it. It fits right in with a lot of the other monstrosities that popped up in the Czech Republic in the second half of the twentieth century. The buildings that ain’t ending up on a postcard anytime soon.

But mostly I have found it to be a reasonably innocuous building. It’s got good Wi-Fi, the static electricity is pretty low, and you’ve got a killer view of the car dealership across the street. I mean, the toilet lights are set to shut off every nine seconds, so you end up looking as though you’re in a one-person synchronized pooping competition. But overall, what else could you ask for?

Well the building does take on a more sinister feel after dark as I have done for five years each Tuesday after my evening class in the winter. When I leave the building at 7:15 pm in spring the sun is still out and, depending on how my class went, my mood is not at its most morose. In the winter, though, it’s been pitch black since 4:30 and by 7:15 there’s not a soul in the building. The students want to get home, so they run out of the place like it’s on fire. By the time I drop my books in my office and head down the stairs, the only people in the building are me and the night guard who works reception.

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Lost in the Mall

It was December 23rd and the Neshaminy Mall was packed. The shops were overflowing with deranged shoppers. The food courts were like Valhalla sans booze or war hammers. The mall staff looked crazed and exhausted, as if they’d just been on a weekend bender with Charles Bukowski. The walkways of the mall were jammed with people trying desperately to get last minute gifts to bolster Christmas piles. It was all happening to a soundtrack of Christmas music, store announcements, and screeching children.

My mom and I had made a morning of it. Well, she makes a morning of it every day. My mom rises at about 5 a.m. every morning and begins a day that would flatten a senator. She is the most active person I have ever known. Three decades raising four kids and five decades raising my father has left my mother in a perpetual state of activity and motion. I have never known her to not be busy. She shops every day, works every day, and does a number of activities within our little community. When she is at home she’s cooking, cleaning, reorganizing, and building. This is in direct contrast to my dad, for whom a bank run and a nap in the same day requires another nap.

Since my mother would be up and out early, I knew I would be too. And sure enough we were up at 6 a.m., caffeinated, organized, and out the door by 8:30. Once at the mall, we had a bagel and coffee and made a game plan. Her priority was to get me a coat for Christmas. My priority was to buy 97% of my Christmas gifts. We started at Boscov’s. Boscov’s is a department store where my mother dragged me each August for a decade to buy back to school clothing. She brought me and my siblings here before countless Christmases to shop in the evenings after work. The ground level is immense, aisles cut through uncountable racks of clothing and accessories sectioned off in age-old classifications: ladies, misses, juniors, men, young men, intimate apparel, active, LL Bean. Upstairs is kitchen and dining room, downstairs is living room and bedroom.

Department stores are my mom’s natural habitat. Today she read the crowd and store conditions the way a Sioux tracker might observe a valley or a forest perimeter. She grabbed a cart three times her size and swerved it down the aisle in the same way she drives the SUV that is fourteen times her size. She clipped me in the hip twice and then took it off-road without warning. She squeezed it through the racks of clothing into nooks and crannies where carts aren’t supposed to go and, thusly, do not fit. It was like watching someone maneuver an airboat through a miniature garden pond. She whistled the whole time until she shouted my name from some invisible locale. We then had a disembodied conversation.

“Damien?”

“Yes?”

“What about this one?”

“This one what?”

“This coat?”

“I can’t see the coat.”

“Why not?”

“I am not with you!” I looked around wildly. My neck began to heat up. She was nowhere to be seen and I ran into a rack of shirts more expensive than my rent. I took several deep breaths and listened for my mother’s response. When it didn’t come I offered: “Mom?”

“What about this one?”

“Holy shit.”

“Oh that’s real nice language.”

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Happy Christmitzvah

Christmitzvah

Get Christmitzvah

My sister Amanda and I were huddled beneath the wall in our living room. The Christmas tree stood to our right, kept precariously erect by fishing line tied to various sections of banister post. We had belly crawled from the foyer and then gingerly tiptoed between gifts that had come in the mail or from my parents’ work contacts. I hushed her with a finger. Above us, in the kitchen, my mother played Mah-jong with her friends. Their discussion jumped from Oprah Winfrey to the seasonal financial concerns. When the talk finally turned to gifts my sister and I made eye contact. This was exactly the point of our intelligence mission. Gifts. Our two younger siblings were upstairs sleeping or watching Christmas specials, but as the oldest I had a responsibility to get information. Amanda was next oldest, my second in command. So, we listened.

“I’m going to pick it up this weekend,” my mom said.

“Who’s it for?” one of her friends asked.

My sister and I goggled our eyes. The mother lode. But before my mom could say anything further, one of her friends laughed a short horrific cackle and said, “I had to give Michael the talk last week.”

“Oy, how did that go?” one of them asked.

My sister’s fledgling OCD thwarted our plan when she reached out to right an errant Christmas ball and upset the house of cards equilibrium keeping the tree upright. It listed, we were forced to hold it in place or become impaled by hundreds of pine needles, and my mother and her friends were alerted to our eavesdropping. I managed to convince my mom and her cross-armed Mah-jong partners that we were just snooping around the gifts under the tree. And, left without proof of any further misdeeds, she sent us upstairs where we joined the other two watching one of the dozens of Christmas specials on television in late December.

My external environment during the 1986 holiday season was probably the same as it had been in 1985 and 1984. My family and I lived just off the teardrop of a cul-de-sac on a hill high in a suburban development. We were surrounded by trees and fences and other houses. It was in that cul-de-sac, compacting snowball ammunition that my friends and I – Skip, Joe, Eddie, Mike, and Ben – were engaged in our seasonal debate on the rivalry between Hanukkah and Christmas.

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I’m Better than you Because I Travel

So, it’s no secret that we all should be travelling all the time. Go into debt if you have to, but travel. You’ve seen the memes. It’s very enriching. And don’t mistake me for a tourist. Tourists go to Ocean City and Disney World, two places I don’t go to unless my parents are footing the bill. I carry a backpack, not one of those rolly thingies. I hate buses. I would rather wrap myself in banana leaves than stay in a famous hotel. Also the places I travel to are usually filled with people who don’t speak the same language as me. Or brown people. Or Asian people. And these things make me a much better person than you. Here are some ways that travel has made me a fantastic person.

I spent two weeks in Africa a few years ago and now I totally understand racism. People looked at us the whole time. We stood out like a sore thumb. It was so annoying. People kept asking us for money. It was probably really stressful for the hotel security who had to keep scaring those kids away from the other side of the fence at the pool. It was so annoying. But afterwards I did what I always do. I sat under a tree indigenous to the country, took out my moleskine, and searched my soul. I demanded that I learn a lesson from the experience. The lesson was that now I totally and completely 100% understand what it’s like to be black in America. Maybe in the northern states. I understand what it’s like to be black in Milwaukee. I am one with my brothers. Fist in air.

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Obituary for my Season Spirit

Photo courtesy of Andy Thomas at Wildlifeprints.com

This last Sunday morning, at 8:13 am, my Season Spirit passed away quietly in his sleep. He was twenty-seven days old.

We did everything we could for him. He was tucked chest-deep under The Holiday Aisle comforter I’d bought him which depicted Christmas trees and wintry homes. A random selection from Spotify category Autumn Road cooed at us from my laptop, which simultaneously played Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (on mute). I was chanting a list of fun autumn activities from realsimple.com.

We tried everything, but by the time we got his pumpkin spice muffin to him, he was gone.

My Season Spirit was born in late October, when the daytime sky was brilliant blue and the evenings still conveyed a feeling arguably that of cozily creepy and not yet morbidly depressing. He was born on a Thursday before a long weekend, perhaps the most optimistic day of the week buffered by the boost of an extra day off. He was born after the leaves had just started changing, but before they lay around the city in soaked clumps. He was born while we prepared for the season’s first screening of Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin. I was donning my favorite roll-neck sweater, testing out a bourbon spiced flavored coffee, and gazing out the window at the leaves and baring trees, enjoying the season’s last reflection on the cycle of life that wouldn’t focus intensely upon my death.

Or maybe it was indigestion.

So ripe were the conditions that my Season Spirit just came out with a big smile on his face. Sort of like that thing that Craig T. Nelson pukes out in Poltergeist II, only it was wearing a scarf, a jauntily tilted newsboy cap, and he was humming the rhythm to Autumn Leaves. And now he’s gone.

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The Haunted Toaster

Professor Percival Plumefeather and Paperfeet the Cat.

Sunday sucks. Sure, I can sleep in and eat a leisurely breakfast. But after that the hours storm by as I watch helpless. This feeling of angst (read: epic morbid depression) is worse in the autumn, when the sky is gray all day long, thus making it seem about 4 in the afternoon from 8 am until the actual 4 pm, at which point it then appears to be about 8 pm.

Making all of this even worse is a pressing deadline for a writing or editing project. Now, I do enjoy writing and editing work. Usually. Often. OK, sometimes. More often, I come up with creative ways to avoid the work, just like everyone else.

And so my procrastination mission begins. I start by checking my email 9 times in 23 minutes. I groan through a smile when I have an email. Then it’s to my normal stomping grounds. Mental Floss, AP News, Twitter, Facebook. The Book is filled with football predictions and statements of either support or aggression. You can only look at so many GIFs of hot girls winking on Twitter. I check my email two or three dozen more times (both email accounts – work and private), but nothing doing. I visit a site of ill-repute for about 129 seconds. I have a sandwich and read some more articles. Trump’s still a nit. Today he’s being a nit in France. I write an unflattering post about his self-promoted tough guy image vs. the fact that he doesn’t want to stand in the rain, but then I cancel it.

It’s the haunted toaster that saves me.

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Shape

This summer I was driving into the city when I saw a moderate green and white sign: Belmont Plateau. Belmont Plateau is a green area with fields and some picnic areas. If you were going to a picnic at the plateau you would be happy to see this sign and its helpful little arrow. If you weren’t looking for the plateau there’s a good chance you would miss it altogether.

I did neither. I lost my breath, my train of thought derailed and, just like in a movie, I stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence. My companion asked what was going on and I told her in a faraway voice that this was where I used to practice football in high school. In said movie, we might cue an eighty minute flashback. It would show a younger me about to go through something trying, something I wasn’t suited for, but in the end gaining something important from the experience.

If you’re worried now that this is going to be a post about past glories on the football field, then we obviously have never met in person. In the first place, there were exactly zero glories on the football field with which to regale you. There were, in fact, two debacles. Second, even if there were some glories, I wouldn’t want to be that middle aged male caricature, whose [enter sport here] career as a young man somehow gets more and more glorious with each passing year and each inch added to the waistline.

The fact is that while many I knew look back with great warmth and nostalgia at their high school career, I do not. Rather, high school football was the first time I remember hating being active. It was when exercise stopped being fun and became work.

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A British Man Buys Books

There’s a new English bookstore in town and I have found myself there several times in the last four months. This bookstore has everything I could possibly want. It’s a large room filled with cheap English books, those selling said books are young, attractive, and clad in boxy glasses, and it’s literally across the street from one of my favorite pubs.

Last Saturday, I brought three books up to the counter. Life couldn’t be better. It was Friday and I was about to leave my second favorite venue for my first favorite one.

Perhaps in anticipation of that mecca I looked across the street at the pub’s entrance.

“Dobrý den,” the woman behind the counter said. She was early twenty-something, guardedly chipper, and wore glasses which suggested a knowledge of Sartre.

“Dobrý den” I said back.

“Oh,” she stuttered a second. “Um…hello. Is this all?”

OK, this happens. Sometimes Czechs switch to English upon realizing their interlocutor isn’t a native Czech speaker. It has upset me before, both morally and conversationally. Morally I sometimes take it as an indictment on the quality of my Czech. Conversationally I get flummoxed as to what language I should speak back. I have had entire conversations with a Czech person speaking English and me speaking Czech. It’s like being in a David Lynch dream sequence.

“Right,” I said, “that’ll be all then.” The words themselves aren’t as notable as the fact that I spoke them in what my brain tells me is a British accent. I clipped the ‘T’ off of the ‘Right’ and based the rest on Inspector Morse, Tiny Tim, and what I’d always imagined Mr. Bean would sound like.

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