Archive for July, 2018

When the Key Breaks

When a key breaks off in your door, the universe closes its ears and forgives the torrent of vulgarities that vomit forth. It’s the same when you are confronted by a dangerous animal and when you spill anything hot in your crotch.

I only hope that my neighbors were as understanding yesterday when Burke informed me that she had broken a key in the downstairs lock. The word du moment was shit with a deluge of other phraseology whose creativity and complexity actually sort of developed a narrative of vulgarity.

I knelt down to look at the little teeth in the lock, and I moaned. I consulted Google and went for needle-nosed pliers, and then a pair of tweezers. I found that pushing my key into the other side of the lock made the chunk of the broken key jump forth a little. So I pushed my key in and then grappled with the little bit of metal, all the while reviewing the little speech in Czech that I would give any of my neighbors who happened to come by. It was 6 o’clock, people would still be coming in from work.

Even though the key was moving a drop, I wasn’t able to get any traction on it and therefore I made a series of frantic trips between my flat and the door. Bobby pin, needles, a drawing compass, a box cutter, a barrette. Ultimately nothing was working. My vulgarities subsided as I worked, though, and I was at least pleased that my brain had settled me down to deal with the task at hand. It seemed that I was equal parts my parents, my dad who despairs in the face of unexpected difficulty and my mom who’s evicted four children from her uterus and for whom unexpected difficulty is all expected.

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The Non-Shoe Movement

Something rather alarming has been happening. On my way to the metro station for the last few months, I pass a man who does not wear shoes. He wears nice pants or shorts, carries a backpack and wears a nice shirt. He just doesn’t wear shoes.

Why doesn’t he wear shoes?

Just to be clear, we’re talking about a sidewalk in the city. A place riddled with broken bottles and nails. Rocks and stones are everywhere. It’s not even fun walking this route in shoes. Isn’t there a time and place to go shoeless? I could get on board if we were prancing through a dewy meadow or wandering along a sandy path to a beach. But Pražského povstání?

OK, I mean, I get it. He’s free, while my feet are slaves to the constriction of fake leather. He’s one with the earth and I’m wearing mankind’s snow tires and unconnected to Mother Earth. I’ve only seen one other non-shoer. It was about 25 years ago, I was working in a Pittsburgh restaurant, and a hippie came in to fill out an application. She was wearing what looked to be a potato sack and was wearing no shoes.

“She’d have to wear shoes during her shift, right?” I asked the manager.

“There won’t be any shifts,” he’d said.

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The Stream of Nostalgia

Rugby Formal: 203,940 years ago.

Perhaps it’s because I’m heading home for the month of August, but I have been getting rather nostalgic for the last few weeks. I know that nostalgia is more common for older people, you don’t hear about a lot of ten year olds wistfully reminiscing about the time they were four, but I didn’t realize how strong it would come on at times. And what would spur it. And that sometimes I’m nostalgic about stuff that never happened to me.

In the last week a Harry Potter movie made me reminisce about the summer I was reading those books in my parents’ house. The later (darker) Harry Potter movies made me nostalgic for the earlier, lighter ones. News from home about a friend who’s health is deteriorating sent me down a rabbit hole of nostalgia centered around summers growing up, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the community pool, learning how to throw a curve ball until the late evening dark finally settled in, playing Dungeons and Dragons on the neighbor’s porch when it rained.

But that’s not all. Last week I was nostalgic for the spring, when school was winding down and my summer holiday was still ahead of me. And a picture of two twentysomething girls blowing bubbles in a field on Spotify’s “young and free” category made me nostalgic for things I hadn’t ever experienced. Because, I know this will come as a shock, I was never a young girl in the summertime. Man, it was out of hand.

The problem with nostalgia is that it’s a siren sitting on the edge of a rock-lined coast luring you into harmless indulgence. Nostalgia has a way of editing out all of the bad memories and leaving the good ones that suggest that life was simpler, happier, and more fun.

And it’s largely bull.

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Day of the Weir

The Angry Vltava

Burke and I are on a train, the commuter kind, about 80 meters long, meant to reach the remote towns in the hills and mountains and valleys. It’s the first day of a four day weekend and we are headed on a three day rafting trip. The train is a zoo; the Czechs are laughing, shouting, drinking. Bottles of Jack Daniels are guzzled at directly. Shots of Božkov rum are passed across the aisle. The term Ty Vole is no longer a mild expletive, but rather a comma, a period, parenthesis, and everyone’s name. To observe the Czechs on the way to canoeing, camping, cycling, or hiking is to see an ebullient people on the way to their natural habitat.

We sit in a corner of the mayhem and make last minute notations on things to pick up at the local shop (bottle of water, a protein bar, cheese) and we do my favorite travel activity (plan) while discussing my favorite travel topic (time). Let’s plan to get in the water at 2, we’ll stop along the way for a beer or two and then get to the pension at 5 or 6. We’ll walk around Rožmberk tomorrow and the castle and then get in the water at about noon tomorrow. Meanwhile, some of the more severely intoxicated blink through glazed red eyes and miss aim with their drinks. I ring my palms and crack my toe knuckles, and voice concern for them (they’re getting in a canoe?!) but a pang of self-awareness tells me that I am really voicing concern for myself (I am getting in a canoe?!).

I enjoy the outdoors. Theoretically. I think nature is beautiful and serene. However, I typically enjoy them from afar or within a stone’s throw of a building and a police station. I walk through city parks and look at the river before stepping into the pub it’s running along. I like looking at the trees from my balcony while grilling a hotdog. So when I agreed to go up the Vltava River in a two person raft, my brain celebrated that duality by leaping in celebration and then sitting down on a rock to worry.

For the first few weeks before the trip, we talked about our adventure in honeyed, excited language, the way I do when reminiscing about something that’s both perfect and hasn’t happened yet. I suppose that’s how I deal with nature in the future. In this pre-hypothetical-reminiscent period before the trip, I imagined myself gliding up the river in a canoe, the sagacious squint of a Lenape studying the river conditions ahead. This is much related to how I’ve envisioned my summer writing schedule when getting up at six and having three hours of writing and my workout done by lunch sounds like the Ernest Hemingway method of doing a morning’s work. The reality is far less pristine.

We are in the raft for about four minutes before it flips the first time. This is while shooting a weir, or, rather, some approximation of that collocation that didn’t quite pan out. We are pushed and bullied by the rapids and, were it not for a couple of the other recently deboated, would ave lost our belongings to the river. As it is, I only lose my ring. A little down river we nurse our lumped shins and we get back into a suddenly wobbly, unreliable, and unstable raft.

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Things to do After University

If you were to ask me “When you’re 40, what do you want to be doing and where?” I would have probably not have specifically said “I’d like to be living in Europe somewhere, writing books, teaching at a university, and drinking my weight in cinnamon-flavored liqueurs.” But it would be something along those lines.

I am very happy with my position in life. I have a wonderful job teaching at a university, I have great intelligent and interesting friends, and I have a variety of hobbies and pastimes. I have a side hustle that’s becoming more of a paid job.

But I did not get here by “traditional means.” I didn’t fly through college, get into an MA program, and dive directly into the profession of my choice. I had some idea of what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure exactly what hat was, so I spent years behind bars, working in bookshops, farms, and freelancing articles about mudflap production and well depth. I taught at a language school, spent years as the bottom totem, and learned the field. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I think about these things when students ask me for advice on what to do next. They’re 22ish, and about to graduate university. And they want to know, what now? While I won’t dissuade anyone from doing what they want, I make a few suggestions below of what to do in the two years after you graduate.

Before you say that these are unreasonable, let me just say – no, they’re not. These years are the freest you will probably ever be again. Therefore I suggest that you take these two years to be less pragmatic than might seem reasonable. The suggestions I make could help you become more interesting, explore your interests, learn about yourself and the world. Also, you never know what path it will send you down in life. Plus, a forty hour a week job or grad school will always be there waiting for you when you come back. So don’t be in such an almighty rush to get there.

Work in a Service Industry  

For some years in my mid-twenties I worked in a bookstore and as a waiter and bartender. In the first place, a service industry or retail job involves very few out of work concerns. You go to work, you do the work, you leave work. Additionally, you will probably meet a lot of likeminded people in these jobs. These are young people who are just starting off, so it’s a wonderful place to make more friends and expand your horizons.

Moreover, you will learn some lessons and skills both in the practical and life categories. It was in a bookstore that I was introduced to writers way off my college reading list and musicians out of the genres I’d explored. These things filled gaps in my worldly education and prompted a lifelong love of finding new writers and music.

Bartending was a paid-for education in how to multitask, work hard, the importance of patience, and an in depth knowledge about how a restaurant works. After bartending Saturday nights before Pitt basketball games, the world’s work held no fear!

Service industry jobs expose you to a corner of the workforce that you might not otherwise know about, and, trust me, having that knowledge makes you a more empathetic, self-aware adult.

Read Forty Books

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