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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Five Trips

I could do this

This year’s travel is light. A three day canoeing trip in July, New York City in early August, and Langhorne, PA. I am looking forward to a relaxing summer of writing, reading, and gaining weight. However, as I’m not doing much in the way of adventure travel, I am naturally spending hours looking at destinations I’d like to visit. Researching trips I can’t go on for a year is the sort of a sadistic self-torture my thirteen year old (read: twenty-nine) self used to enjoy while looking at Playboy (read: Granny Fanny).

In any event, here are five trips that I want to take now, but can’t. Yes, the research for this post was a thing of beauty.

The Trans-Siberian Railway

There’s nothing about this that I don’t love, but I’ll sum it up: An epic train journey across Russia, Mongolia, and China. These are three countries I have long wanted to visit and this would allow me to see them all in one blast. And my favorite way to travel is by train. I would pass the winding hours between stops writing and reading and rocking back and forth. And, according to sources, get ordered around by the stern provodnitsas, the (evidently) dominatrix-like cabin orderlies.

Just a few of the things that this trip would feature are Moscow, Lake Ural, Beijing, Mongolia, the Steppe, Lake Baikal, Siberia, and Irkutsk (the Paris of Siberia). Along the way I want to hawk for a fur cap, buy smoked fish, and take in the insanely beautiful scenery. Oh, plus, Russian vodka for breakfast. Yes, please.

Fishing in Alaska

Most of the things I thought I knew about Alaska I learned from Northern Exposure. These things were eventually offset by the film The Edge and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I am so attracted to the idea of a five day fly fishing trip in the wilds of Alaska, the vastness of the country, the wildlife. For most people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. The prospect is as exciting as it is terrifying.

Oh, I have done my share of the outdoors, kayaking, camping, a ton of fishing. My cousin and I spent a month camping and fishing in the vast back countries of the Sawtooth Mountains, Olympic National Park, and Montana’s Glacier Park. It was one of the most wonderful summers of my entire life.

And one of the scariest.

I am not a Marlboro Man and I admit freely that I spent a lot of that time terrified. It was a hell of a shock to throw a city slicker into the wilderness, more than ten miles from another human. There’s a lot happening in the great outdoors. Deep black storm clouds are a hell of a lot more daunting when you’re watching it from your tent in the mountains and not your flat in Prague 4. A pile of steaming bear shit is a genuine source of terror. And to get lost in Montana’s back country could mean that you end up as a (hopefully) search and rescue.

There’s just as much not happening. The daily sounds I’d grown so accustomed to – cars, bickering neighbors, trains, television – were gone, and in the overwhelming quiet I found that my head was a scary place. But that fear and anxiety gave me a lot of insight and the rigors of camping and having to catch food (or you ate oatmeal or white rice for the ninth straight day) forced that city slicker to work hard and get things done. And I loved it. Oh, it goes without saying that that Alaskan fishing trip would be guided. And maybe catered.

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Cultivating Obsession

Like most of you who are old enough to suffer from self awareness, I have a pretty solid idea of what I have inherited from my parents. I don’t mean the brown hair or a face void of chin. I mean the little things that end up making you who you are.

From my mom I got the inability to stop moving around my house tweaking things. From my dad I got a sense of personal duty that borders on (see: lies fully within the boundaries of) obsession.

Obsession sounds like a bad word, a thing which motivates and drives bad guys in movies and books. If you are an obsessive person, you know that obsession can have its downsides, but as optimists, we have to look on the bright side. And that bright side is that obsession is just how shit gets done.

I am obsessive about two things in life at this moment: writing and exercising. If you have known me for a long time, then one of these things made you laugh. Well, poop on you. Obviously, cultivating obsession in these particular areas of obsession doesn’t happen overnight; they’ve been several years in the making. Here’s how I developed as an obsessive.

Write in a Journal

For me, this is best done in the morning; for others it’s the evening. I like writing in a journal because I can plan out my whole day. This is in no way sexy writing. I do not craft and I do not consider this towards my day’s writing, it’s simply a way for me to map out my whole day.

I write it almost as a series of directives to myself. I will write 1,500 words for the book. I will make notes on two podcasts. Exercise will be pushups and crunches.

Sounds pretty banal and robotic? Good. That’s how it’s supposed to sound. Oh, just for poops and giggles, I always tell myself to have a great day.

Think Deep Work, Not Huge Sessions

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Do the Road Work

Today (or really tomorrow) marks the seven year anniversary of this blog. Twice a week, every Monday and Thursday, for seven years, I have brought my grandmother and a few others some sort of tidbit from my life or POV.

What has it brought me? Oh, people know a lot more about my cat than I feel comfortable with. My mother knows how much I drink. At times I hear a student use a joke I have written and it makes me sweat in horror-filled pride. I have gotten in trouble a few times when people didn’t take to my humor or the particular snark I was flinging.

How I viewed blogging in the beginning is vastly different from the reality I have come to know. I figured it was just a matter of time before I’d be vaulted to international blogging fame and that some literary agent would come out of the woodwork to offer me a six figure publishing contract in order to snatch up the brilliant blogging juice dripping out of my brilliant blogger’s brain. But this has not happened.

My readership is built of my extended community, and probably my blog has otherwise gone unnoticed on the gigantic internet. It exists there as one of surely millions of relatively unknown blogs like small roadside diners.

To those thinking of blogging or writing, this result might seem counter-intuitive. Why get into it if you aren’t going to make money or achieve fame?

Answer: because it could quite possibly be the best thing to do for your writing. The two best things I have done for my writing was a novel and this blog. The novel was bad. This is in not a plea for sympathy or an indirect request for validation or reassurance (no it was great!). The novel was the best I could do then. But it is not good by my standards now, and that’s because I’ve been writing daily for the seven years since it was published. And that’s a damn good thing. Imagine going into the shadowy corners of your parents’ attic and finding a box of your old journals from high school. How would you feel about the writing in those? Right.

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Who Does What?

Of the places I have been, Ireland and the Czech Republic do pubs better than anyone else, despite massive differences in approach. Both places value pubs with character and a bit of grime, a homey and comfortable place where you aren’t afraid to lean on the tables in fear of getting yelled at by someone’s mother. Their pubs are places where people go drink beer and shots and talk. This is in contrast perhaps to the more gentrified American pubs, where you may order a craft beer, but feel as though you could be ordering a two-toned drink with a piece of fruit floating around in it. And chia seeds. In a jar.

Czech waiters will shush you if you’re too “loud” and might make you sit where they want you to sit. There’s not a lot of intermixing between tables and groups, but there’s a great pub feel to it all. Chatter, discussion, laughter, the satisfying thump of a fresh tankard of beer landing on your beermat. Others gather around tables and one has the correct sense that the pub has been the center of Czech society for a long time.

The Irish will rouse you if you’re too “quiet.” The barman will talk to you as if he’s been waiting around all day just to do so. But he is a careful artist at the taps. The other drinkers will pull you into conversation, instantly begin making fun of you like an old friend. In twenty minutes you’ll leave your belongings with them as you run to the ATM. They’ll somehow get you to start singing. If you don’t laugh gaily in an Irish pub, then you can’t laugh gaily.

Americans do hospitality and pampering. This is no left-handed compliment. We will simply do anything we can to make you more comfortable than you have ever been. I am far more excited ordering food in an American restaurant than I am in a Czech restaurant. This comes straight from the ordering process, which, in an American restaurant, takes place over about three minutes of question and answers in order to fully cater to my needs a that moment. How do you want that cooked? Do you want truffle juice in those mashed potatoes? Would you like me to bring you a fresh beer when your food comes out? I find this dessert goes best after this meal, would you like me to reserve one for you? One gets the impression that their waiter has thought of anything and everything to make their dining experience as tailor made as it can be. In the Czech Republic a similar order would be like this:

Waiter: What’ll it be?

Me: Cheeseburger.

Waiter: OK.

Me: Oh…can I get that medium please?

Waiter (sighing and rolling eyes): I’m not sure; because [enter complete bullshit reason here].

Me: Thank you.

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The Gods of Busy Work

There’s a definite after world feel in my office today. In the first place, the place is completely dead. For the most part classes have ended and there’s nothing happening today so there’s not one student on the 7th floor. Additionally, the heat of June has created a confluence of effects. We need to keep the doors and windows open, with the window blinds down to keep out the sun. So the place is dim and, while the open windows and doors allow air mobility, the gods of ironic comfort call forth aggressive currents to slam and thump the windows against their frames.

We jerryrig them open with boxes of paper, chair backs, door stoppers, and rope. But still, now and then a door slams in impossible surprise. Then there is the wheezing and wailing the wind plays as it rattles the windows. The sunlight never seems to go away. And the office gets eerily quieter as my colleagues get picked off to do busy work.

At this point in the year, we are short timers. There’s only a few weeks left until we are allowed to frolic in the meadows of summer and sip from the fountain of replenishment offered by relatively late mornings and guilt free late bedtimes. In reality, I do very little of this. I almost never frolic, my summer bedtime is remarkably geriatric, and I like getting up early so as to enjoy the day before it becomes mercurial. Nevertheless, the end is nigh, and we are looking over our shoulders.

At this time of year our teaching duties are essentially done, so we embark other university work. This includes syllabus design, pedagogical development, research, writing, or editing. Basically a lot of stuff we couldn’t devote all that much time to during the semester.

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The Obsolete Plot

When I am trying to relax after a day of school or study or research, I do what a lot of you do – I put on a show I have seen 12,000 times. I know, I know. I should put on a classic film or read Flaubert or even watch something new, but when I want mindless relaxation, this is what I tend to do.

When looking for this sort of entertainment, I go for old friends like Frasier, Seinfeld, and Friends. I sometimes go for The Office or 30 Rock, but only if I want to cringe and implore the gods of Michael Scott with ten minutes of genuine “Why!? Why would he say that!?”

One thing that has become clear is that today’s technology renders most of the plotlines and antics of a nineties show completely obsolete. Seinfeld’s complete shtick was a comedy of errors that flows (or clashes) together into one big serendipitous catastrophe. Whether it’s George and Art Vandelay or Elaine trying to bed JFK Jr, a series of cosmic occurrences leads it all to explode in their faces. Hilariously.

But all of that would be easily handled in seconds with a cell phone. The missed opportunities, the misunderstandings, the botched explanations and mismatched ideas. Gone. Done. Taken care of by a text message: Jer. Where R U? Cool. C U in 2.

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The Rise of Humidio

After sitting on the metro platform for ten minutes to soak in the cool winds, I finally brave the train. It’s enclosed and stuffy, there is not one window on this metro. I sweat preemptively while even thinking about the crowd and the closeness. I shudder, it’s going to be miserable. But I have to go to work.

If there’s a bright side, it’s that I’m right. I am miserable. I literally grumble the entire eight minute journey. While I am not directly addressing anyone or speaking loud enough to be understood, I do a series of low mumbles and irritated heavy breathing. I must come off like a drunk crazy homeless guy who can’t help wondering why God has chosen him to lead the armada against the turtle people. I look around the metro: I hate everyone and everything on it.

Let’s just be clear, I am not proud of this. While I am a relatively normal and pleasant person, the humidity has a way of bringing out a rage in me that is frankly super villain worthy. I hate everything when the clouds above el Praha close in the heat and make life unpleasantly and inescapably wet. Everything. The cat is an asshole, the little kid crying should be shipped to Iceland. Dog forbid someone hold me up at the grocery store – which in the Czech Republic happens every time you walk into one. I am a lunatic, only it’s not the moon which transforms me into a monster.

In the U.S. it’s slightly better. Only because each covered domicile or building or room or hut is blasted with the comforting arctic temperatures of air conditioning. If you’re overheated you can go to the mall or a bookstore or anyplace. But not in Prague. This induces my rage all the more.

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No Talk

At first, I was upset that limitations were being put on the First Amendment. These rights include freedoms of speech, expression, and religion. And even though this president is a walking endorsement for the extreme reach of free speech, he doesn’t much care for it when it comes to something he can score points on.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I warmed to the idea. If we put some limitations and conditions on free speech and expression, then I have some demands.

There are people I never want to hear about again. Paris Hilton no longer exists and neither do any of the Kardashians. Uttering the names Kanye West or Ted Nugent are as offensive and irresponsible as shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. From now on, all humanity shall refer to the walking logical fallacy who (sometimes) inhabits the Oval Office as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Philadelphia sports fans can will on board with a few of my other ideas of expression and speech we should crack down on. From now on, nobody is ever allowed to mention a homerun Joe Carter hit in 1993. Any support, whether fashionable or vocal, should ever be put forth in favor of any New York baseball team, any Texas football team, or any Florida sports team at all.

I’d like to nip a few sayings in the bud, as well. From now on one cannot say “YOLO,” “You go, Girl,” or “I’d like mushrooms on that, please.” I will no longer hear any slander towards cats or cat people. I’ve been sick of that crap for a long time and think it’s about time we stop people from making those comments, because they almost offend me.

There’s been a lot of talk about what’s acceptable to do at work and I’d like to address that as well. I wish to see no socks with sandals in my building. I will not tolerate anyone who heats up food with no garlic in it, and Dog help you should you even consider saying “A case of the Mondays.” When the rector, vice rector, or president of the school is mentioned in any way, all in the room must stand. I don’t care what they do in their own time, but when at work any other course of action will be deemed offensive.