Archive for June, 2023

Summertime Blues

It’s Friday. I am on my couch hovered over my computer screen. I am writing test materials with a Shih tzu lounging on my knee. Burke is working on lessons in the armchair. The cat is on the desk mocking the dog with her ability and agility to get to high places. The dog whines.

It’s only when I go to the kitchen that I realize people are outside. Kids whir by on bikes, people in groups walk dogs, the pub next door is slammed with people. It’s 5:30 pm.

I love the summer. As a teacher, I have a slower work season, don’t have to talk to many people, and mostly enjoy the fact that I can wear shorts and sandals. As I live in the Czech Republic, things here slow down to a crawl in the summer months. It’s all but an unspoken understanding that things don’t happen when it’s hot. Or June. Or Friday. Or Thursday because it’s Friday adjacent. But summer in the Czech Republic is the time of year that the Czechs love to dress head to toe in spandex and ride their bikes for the day. They walk and lounge and don’t seem in a terrible rush to get much done.

How I envy them. Though some might not like this tendency to slow down, I think the Czechs have a very healthy outlook when it comes to work-life balance. If you write an email to someone on Friday at 4 pm you will hear from them on Monday at 10ish. In the U.S. it’s totally possible you’d hear from them on Friday at 8 pm or even Saturday at 9 am. Though I’ve always been a bratty stepson who pokes fun at his adoptive country, in this case the Czechs do it right.

When I was a kid, summer in the Langhorne countryside was green and spent without clothing on. There was always activity on the street, the neighbors would gather on the driveway across the street drinking wine or soda. No matter, they were enjoying the time when their kids entertained themselves in the outdoors and mostly out of earshot.

We kids would disappear into the woods as soon as we could every day and come home for dinner (maybe) and covered in poison ivy and ticks and ticks with poison ivy. We were sunburnt and barely noticed it. I was 20 before I realized that people didn’t just turn brown in July automatically. Sometimes we’d spend the day at our community pool. On rainy days, we’d spend the afternoon on the Barr’s deck playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Eddie and I played baseball all summer and when we came home from practice at 5 or 6 pm, the faraway shouts of our friends would let us know where we needed to go to catch up – the woods, someone’s backyard, the Barr’s deck or sandbox. The rules were more lax in summer, and so Eddie and I were allowed to sleep over more often than during the school year. We’d sit in his kitchen eating cereal, the Phillies game and Harry Kalas’ voice a perennial presence.  

I remember being baffled by my parents’ need to work. Where did they go each day? Mr. Schorpp brought us to camp on his way to work and I couldn’t wrap my head around it – who worked in summer? Surely this awful wrong would be righted by the time I got older.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Now, while I hover over my keyboard and hear the far-off shouts of people enjoying their time outside, I can’t help but wish I was eleven again. Or at least Czech. In any event, this blog is done and I see a spandex-clad man paying his check, so I am going next door.   

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June 1919 Count Camillo Negroni brings some American culture to Italy

It was probably an otherwise normal June day in Florence. Fosco Scarselli was tending bar at the Caffe Casoni on Via Tornabuono. It may have been aperitivo hour, and the place was lively with people who had just finished work. They were sipping aperitivos meant to open up their appetites for the upcoming meals of the evening. Assisting this gustatorial preparation were dishes of small nibbles. Crostini topped with savory chicken liver pâté (crostini di fegatini), tomato and basil (crostini al pomodoro e basilico), or omelettes called frittatas with vegetables, cheese, or the leftover meats from the day before. There may have been Panzanella, a fresh salad, or little pizzas called pizettes, topped with cheese, olives, or anchovies. Or maybe beef or pork meatballs called polpetttine, which were skewered with toothpicks. Among many others, these whetted the appetite of the diners at the Caffe Casoni.

As the diners sipped and reveled in the day’s work being over and its treats just beginning, a man walked through the door. He was well-known, tough, manly, the subject of local gossip. Just like today, he came into the café often and ordered a cocktail, apparently something he could do up to forty times a day. Count Camillo Negroni ordered a very popular drink called the Americano, which was equal parts Campari and vermouth and topped with soda water. Then, before Mr. Scarselli could lift the Campari off the shelf or hoist his vermouth, the count edited his order.

“Fortify it with gin instead of soda water.”

By all accounts (and there aren’t many), Count Camillo Negroni was sort of a badass. He was born into an elite family that had an adventurous streak in them. They were always going off to find wars or expeditions that would lead to them being either honored in some foreign country or dead or, as sort of a silver lining to a bad situation, both at the same time. In the late 1860s, this particular Negroni had gone off to the United States in search of his own adventure. There – traveling from New York and through the west – he had made a name for himself as a partier, a gambler, and a rodeo cowboy. He made and lost fortunes. He spoke with western accented English and used words like ‘Hombre’ and ‘vittles’. Basically he stepped out of the pages of a Larry McMurtry novel right before he gets skinned alive by Comanches. But that didn’t happen on that June day in 1919. That day, he made cocktail history.   

Cocktails have a long history. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese fortified wine with herbs and botanicals. Medieval monks in France, Italy, Spain and Holland developed herbal remedies by infusing botanicals, fruit and herbs infused with alcohol and water, meant to improve the wellbeing of the body and spirit. Aqua Vitae, Chartreuse, Elixir Salutis, Aqua Mirabilis are all herbal medicine boozes that are precursors of the cocktail. In the 18th century the Americans found that drinking rum on its own ends up with them making romantic passes at their neighbor’s horses and murdering the neighbors. So they added water or juice to it, later they’d add coca cola (which was filled with cocaine, which made the horse romance much more likely). The French started adding water to Absinthe to lessen the possibility of blowing their brains out or lopping off their ears. Spoiler: didn’t always work.

And then there were the Italians. In the late 18th century, we see the emergence of northern Italy’s café culture in the Piedmont region of Italy, especially Turin. Turin’s cafe culture was booming and in 1786 the creation of vermouth is a game changer. Though vermouth-adjacent concoctions had been curing people of stomach ailments and bad personalities for centuries, now it’s bottled and drank as a cocktail. In the 1860s, Gaspari Campari in Milan invented a bitter, bright red alcohol called Campari. He added this to vermouth and served it as the Milano-Torino (equal parts Campari and vermouth and called thus because of the founding locations of each. Mankind wouldn’t begin creatively naming cocktails for a few years and wouldn’t stop until it got out of hand (I’m looking at you, A Long Comfortable Screw Against A Wall). In the late 19th century, the Milano-Torino was especially enjoyed by American tourists and thus the name was changed to the Americano. Just as a large coffee would be called an Americano after World War II for the American soldiers who sought something more voluminous akin to the drip coffee in the US. They still call it that in Europe and ordering one still – 80 years later – elicits an eye roll and a whispered epithet. Though, the rolls given the M-1 wielding American GIs who’d just liberated the city were not eye but rather in the hay.  

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Hvězda Run

“I’m going for a run.”

Sometimes the moment words have left my mouth, I understand the magnitude of the mistake I have made. Before I could walk it back, Burke jumped in.

“Great idea! I have to make these recordings for class. And you could pick up your new phone on the way home.”


Burke had wanted me out of the house like a wolf spider since around noon, when I spontaneously began singing things. Not songs. Just things I saw and thought of. She complains, though my rendition of Leftover Pizza to the tune of Zeppelin’s Lemon Song was a leftover slice of genius. Nevertheless, the dog had been barking at me, Burke had moved rooms a number of times. Even the cat, dependent upon me for food and the hygiene of her poop box, was beginning to give me horrifying slit-eyed glares. They wanted me gone. Now I had given them not only the method – painful to me – but they had provided other logical reasoning which was hard to refute. Traitors.

I decided to go to Obora Hvězda – a nearby park that in the 1500s served as the walled game reserve for Ferdinand I. The walls are still there, but the zebras and ostriches are probably (mostly) gone. I had spent many mornings and days walking or jogging there. Sometimes I would go through with the dog and a beer. Recently though, because we have been so busy dealing with buying a flat, I have been neglecting our local park. And since we are moving out in a month or so, I thought I’d better visit it while I can.    

The day was gorgeous. Warm in the sun, cool in the shade. What a day to ruin with a run. I walked to the local park, holding my phone which Spotified a running playlist into my left ear (my only working earbud). I grew jealous of the people walking to the park with picnic baskets, bottles of wine tucked under their arms, or plastic cups of beer in their hands. Why couldn’t I be like them?

The problem is – I have been recently. A lot. A byproduct of the stress and extra hours tacked on to your life when buying a flat is a quick allocation of coping mechanisms. In my case this was beer, pizza, and pickled cheese. Coupled with the fact that the weather is beautiful, and it became all too easy to leave a 41 square meter flat in Palmovka and say “let’s get a beer, shall we? It’s too beautiful outside not to. And we deserve it!” Anyway, “all too easy” became “damned impossible not to” PDQ. And though I have not stopped working out, beer and cheese does to a 48 year old body what air does to a balloon. My pants have grown tighter and the topography of my lower shirts has become unpleasantly hilly. Working out for thirty minutes and running continuously for thirty minutes are two different forms of workout torture. I needed to see how I would do. So this run was to gauge the extent of the damage.

The damage was noted about 41 seconds into the run. I was putting through the shady woods and though my wind held up, there was a notable jiggling in my rear and front tanks that caused me great distress. A distress so great that even the soothing flugelhorn of Chuck Mangione couldn’t cure it. I whimpered and chugged on. Should you wish to understand what two months of pizza and beer do to you, go for a jog. Make sure no people are around to hear your epithets of rage, sadness, and frustration. By the second leg (out of 4) of my first of two loops through the park, I had decided on a full life overhaul. I would never have another donut again. Carbs would only play a role in my life when a student mispronounced the Czech Christmas fish. And I was going to have to say goodbye to beer in lieu of its unappealing sister – wine.

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Things I Learned Over the Weekend

As I work as an editor for academic journals which focus on security studies and international relations, on a daily basis I learn more and more about just how screwed are we here on planet Earth. It’s probably for that reason that I spend the rest of my writing life working for children’s magazines.

In what will be a body blow to those unfortunates who have had to be my science teachers throughout my life, it seems that I have fallen into writing about science. I think it’s the mental breakdown that I have to do in order to understand the science myself that allows me to convey it to kids in a somewhat reasonable way. (I thought osmosis was a mystery novelist.) In my research, I occasionally come across information that freaks me the hell out.

This weekend I learned that Earth has a second moon. A mini moon. A quasi-satellite. No matter what you call it, it orbits Earth and I don’t like it. It’s between 130 and 330 meters in diameter. Its name is Kamoʻoalewa because it was named by Hawaiians, who spotted it while looking up and thanking their gods for universal healthcare, perfect weather, and an endless supply of ‘I got lei’d in Hawaii’ jokes. It has been in our orbit for 500 years. Kamoʻoalewa is one of five extra moons the Earth has. I hate them all.

Raccoons are very smart. Too smart. And they can pick locks. Not simple locks, but complex lock systems, one of whose best qualities is the ability to keep me safe from ultra-smart raccoons. Now, included among the things that I worry about each night as I lie in bed will be the faulty veracity of my front door’s lock, home invasion by a smart raccoon, and then losing in chess to a raccoon.

A different version of me exists in every single person who knows me or who has ever known me. I need to contact these people and make sure we all get on the same page about which version of me we all have. And I wonder if any of those people’s versions of me is the one who still wears size 34 waist pants.

We supposedly walk past 36 murderers in our lifetimes. To mitigate my rather strong feelings on this factoid, I am planning to walk along a maximum security prison during yard time. I should be able to stack the deck that way. If you want to log a few murderers for you, DM me.  

Should the male worker bee ejaculate during very hot weather, his penis will explode, fly off his body, and kill him. I repeat: if a male worker bee ejaculates when it’s hot, his penis explodes, flies off his body, and kills him. This is like the three worst things that can happen to a guy all in succession and taking place immediately after the best thing that can happen to a guy. This doesn’t help me personally unless said worker bee is in my hallway shtupping a raccoon who was unlocking my door during a heatwave.   

There’s a book called the Voynich Manuscript that nobody can translate. By studying word and letter patterns, linguists have determined that it is written in a real language, but other patterns of the language differentiate it from all known Indo-European languages. Moreover, the book is filled with unusual illustrations, mostly of plants that can’t be identified, women who are naked, and mystical animals. This book has been carbon-dated to between 1404 and 1438 and given the visual content, sounds like it may be about spring break during the Crusades.

I hope this list has given you pause as it has me. If you have any freaky factoids feel free to share them. Any new moons are not welcome.

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