Kitchen Dweller

Morning work station. Pen. Notebook. Coffee. Cookies within reach. Check.

I’m in the kitchen writing. It’s a rainy Sunday morning, I’m sipping coffee and clicking away at the keyboard. From ground level, I hear a short growl and then I feel a paw on my thigh. That cat wants up. I lift my left arm and she vaults onto my thigh and sits there as though it’s December in a mall and she’s about to tell me about the Chewbacca Lego kit she wants me to bring her.

She tentatively makes the leap to the table, where she roams around before settling behind my computer. She comes back to my side, stares at the screen and offers small editing advice in disgruntled chirps. When she’s had enough, she splits off into the living room, where she does some facsimile of the same thing to Burke.

My new flat has three main rooms in which one doesn’t poop or shower. Living room, bedroom, and kitchen. They are all pleasant in their own way. The living room windows look onto the backyard and so it’s peacefully quiet. It gets no direct light in the morning, so it’s mellow and cool and it gets a nice breeze. The bedroom gets that nice morning light and the room is usually warm and comfy. It’s also about .0007 seconds closer to the bathroom than the living room, which can be important to men in their advancing years. The kitchen is cozy, cool, and bright. Plus, it’s where my cookies and coffee live.

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The Peculiar Personalities of Trams

It’s one of those spring days which are warm or cold depending upon whether or not you’re standing in the sunlight or the shadows. I have somehow managed to secure both, with my head in the bright sun and my butt cooling in the shade. My soon-to-be fellow passengers are mature, with the average age, including me, some teenagers, and a woman with a gaggle of children, resting somewhere in the high 230s.

As the 1 tram approaches the mature passengers halt any conversations and edge towards what they know to be the spots where the doors will open. The tram gets closer and the tension is palpable. Who will get the Class A seats by the door, the ones in the shade? Wrinkly elbows begin to wield and I let them go. Last week I was clipped by a suspiciously well-placed walker to the shin. In any event, I’m still getting used to the personality of the trams out here. And I don’t want to overstep my bounds.

If you spend time riding around on Prague’s transportation system, you learn quickly enough that each tram has something of a personality. More than the metros and far more than the buses (the recognized bores of the transport world), trams have a feel, a personality, and these are fostered by their routes.  

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Story Time

On the Saturday before Easter I was determined to get my flat into order. We have been living here for about two months and there are still boxes and bags laying about. Burke went off to Dresden, and I rolled up my sleeves for a day of work.

And that’s what I did. I hoisted things organized, found cubby holes inside of cubby holes, and slid boxes and backpacks in a not-so-haphazard manner into them. I became friends with our storage unit in the basement, freaked out a little because of its direct resemblance to the setting in a Stephen King story, screamed and did a spider dance when a piece of yarn touched my wrist. Despite these setbacks, I got things done, stacked boxes, brought up a lamp, which I got a bulb for later. I cleaned and rearranged. At the end of the day I read on the bouch in the content pleasure of hard work that is also productive. My felt my more of a flat now than it had been before. I fell asleep with a book on my face at 10:30 on a Saturday night.  

And I have been telling everyone within earshot since then.  

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Alternate Working Life Fantasies

picture courtesy of
Three occupational paths: pizza delivery frog, ninja archaeologist, and firetruck.

In today’s alternate working life fantasy, I am a standup comedian podcaster. I wake up at 9, write comedy bits over coffee for two or three hours. In the afternoon I interview big names in entertainment and comedy in the book-lined studio in the basement of my home. Every few months I do a comedy tour. In this fantasy there are no students, I am in charge of my own working destiny, and that work entails being funny and talking to other people.

By the time the fantasy ends (usually as I’m stepping off the tram at my actual job) I am so hypothetically proficient at the work that I wonder how I didn’t go into this line of work. It would have been perfect for me. The gift of gab, the friendliness, the questions, the comedic self-loathing. I have it all!

This isn’t my only alternative working life fantasy, not by a longshot. There’s the bookstore owner one. A quiet, cozy bookstore which somehow brings in huge amounts of money while I lounge in a summer bed reading novel after novel. There’s the folklorist one, in which I am paid by a university to teach about mythology and fairytales. I wear a lot of cardigans in that one. The Saturday Night Live one, the professional Sudoku player one, the wino who has it all figured out one.

I even have a dentist one. My dad is a dentist, a thing whose ramifications I understood quickly as a lad. At least three times a week someone asked me if I too was also going to be a dentist, four times a week someone who knew that my dad was a dentist asked to see my teeth, and five times a week my father would abruptly interrupt any conversation or television show simply to tell any of his spawn in the room not to be a dentist.

Spoiler alert: I did not become a dentist. But that doesn’t mean I don’t include it in my alternative work fantasies. I’m a small town dentist working in the small town practice in my reasonably-sized country home. With a hot tub. The whole part about dealing with teeth doesn’t appeal to me as much as the sitcomic hobnobbing I do with patients between appointments.

While I normally don’t sit around fantasizing about different work realities, recently these have ruled my unoccupied mind. This is almost certainly because I’m currently applying for a PhD. While many would embark upon that with excitement and confidence, I have taken the opportunity to second-guess every occupational and professional decision I have ever made in my whole entire life.

I have no idea if other people do this, but I have to guess that they do. There’s no doubt a guy sitting in a cubicle wondering what may have been had he followed his love of cubist painting rather than the reasonable and rational path of accounting, the one his parents pushed him to do. I allowed myself to be swayed out of fields by what seemed like rational logic. When I told an aunt I wanted to be an archaeologist, she said, “Most everything has been found.” This seemed reasonably discouraging to a fourteen year old, but my forty-year-old self once wondered: “How the hell would she know?”

Many of you probably have similar experiences and might even harbor some resentment about it all. Are parents really to blame for trying to encourage their kids in a direction they see as safe or reasonable? Maybe not. I am sure when I told my mom was relieved when I ended up in the teaching field. Most certainly she was thrilled when I walked away from my first career choices of frog ninja and pizza delivery toad. And when I told her that I really wanted to be a fire engine, she probably thought “Man, does that come with a 401K? Kids gonna be living in my basement for five decades.”

But even with that caring attitude, I’m sure there are others out there who were told that they could do anything if they wanted to. And in the past years, I have realized that I could have been successful in fields that seem unlikely and difficult if I had put my mind to it. I try to say that to my students now.    

When it comes down to it, I am one of the fortunate ones that loves his field and his working life in general. It complements my side hustle and I look forward to doing it. That’s a lot to say about a job.

This morning it occurred to me that I do an awful lot in my real life what I fantasize about doing in my alternate work realities. I wear cardigans, a university pays me to teach students about language and writing, I spend a lot of time surrounded by and writing books, cat sleeping in her day bed at my feet or on the chair next to me. Worse paths could have been taken.

And probably in one of those other realities, in my dentist life or my folklorist life or my standup life, I imagine this life as an applied linguist and writer, living in a small European city in a charming and quaint flat. I have great friends and play hooky from school once a week for afternoon beers and about to apply for a PhD. No teeth cleaning. So it’s not that bad after all.

But it won’t stop me from daydreaming. Today’s is the practical and totally up-my-alley occupation of ninja archaeologist.    

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The Airbnb Test

We roll into Stansted Airport and as soon as I step off the plane money begins flying out of pockets. I wink one eye closed while buying us tickets to the express into town. It’s a move I will mimic multiple times in the next two days. Once off the train, we begin eating up London. The culture. Every vertical surface is plastered with an advertisement for another cultural output, book, play, musical, movie. The language. Different and the same. One can hear the superfluous U and the ISE’s instead of IZE’s. We marvel at the ad-libbed speeches of the homeless and how their word choice makes them sound like prep school teachers.  

By the time we have reached our little corner of the massive sprawl of a city, I have something to worry about. The Airbnb guy, Burke informs me, hasn’t given us the address or written back to her last message (the day before) for the buzzer number. It’s common for Airbnb owners to give the full address after confirmation of payment, which occurred two months ago. While we arranged a time to meet (7:30) the only address we could get was from google maps. We go to it.

7:30 comes and goes and I am walking up and down the little road. Now and then I scream “Jim!” and then “Jim!” up in the general direction of an open window. No Jim appears. The street is desolate and any man who does pass gives me a crooked look when I murmur “Jim” at him.  

We go to a local restaurant to get online. We are served by a lovely Romanian girl (the first of three we will meet). She gives us the Wi-Fi code and brings us two bottles of some IPA whose name I can’t remember (something like Scrambly Doug’s or looney Luther’s). Burke gets on Airbnb and has a message.

“Oh, he says he was there and waiting for us.”


Despite our requests for the information, good old Jim has not given us the address, the buzzer, or the means of meeting (outside, at a specific spot, etc.). We only have the road and a hopeful address from father Google. So how he expected us to miraculously show up is setting off a red flag in my brain’s bullshit detector.

“Oh,” Burke continues, “he sent the address and I’m telling him you’ll come now and get the keys.”

I knew this was going to happen. It takes Burke several minutes to shed the outdoor gear she wraps up in. there’s a beer in front of her. It’s a long walk back to Jim’s. I knew I was to be enlisted, but it’s fine as I have aggravated energy to burn off. On the way I decide to be nice. The most important thing is that we get the keys, no use worrying over a little miscue. I practice my dismissive-of-an-apology act. “Oh it’s fine. These things happen.”

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Inconvenience Store

Hills. Hills. Everywhere hills!

For many years and up until very recently, I lived very far away from any shop. There were three or four shops in my neighborhood, but getting to any of them required at least a 10-15 minute walk. With the shopping and the inevitability of a person in front of me who had somehow forgotten how shops operated (present, pack, pay) the whole experience took at least 45 minutes. 45 minutes for a bottle of milk or a candy bar.  

And then there were the hills. That is, any shop I chose involved a hill. I know. I know. Really, Grandpa? Uphill. Both ways? Yep.

If I went to a shop down the hill, I had to walk back up it or if I walked uphill to another shop, my walk started uphill. There was no avoiding the hills. My flat was in the middle of a giant one.

This isn’t a complaint; I loved living there. The walks were invigorating, pleasant, they were incidental exercise. I’d listen to a podcast, music, or just think or argue with my mind gremlins. I liked it. Plus, nothing shirk off the guilt of a candy bar like a 30 minute walk. But still, I associated city living with a certain degree of locality convenience that I wasn’t privy to and it made a difference in day to day life.  

In the first place, I was paranoid about forgetting to pick something up at the store. I made lists, checked them twice. Because my local shop (12 minute walk) was hit or miss with kitty litter, I’d sometimes pick it up in the city. And so there were several days I’d go to the pub or to  an appointment lugging twenty pounds of sand in my backpack. I felt like Sisyphus or Atlas. If I weren’t able to get the litter at all, the cat would loudly push the few remaining pebbles around in her box, stand inside of it and poop on the floor, all the while giving me a look which clearly sent the signal “you asked for this, buddy.”  

Often a trip to the store was a negotiation point in our household’s domestic chores. I’ll do the dishes if you go shopping. I’ll clean the bathrooms if you go shopping. If I really felt like going to the store and not doing the dishes, I knew the tactic was to mention the hill. There’s that hill. If that didn’t seal it, I’d add: bit rainy today. It was an easy touch on Burke, whose natural enemies include precipitation over 30% and any incline whose grade is above 20%.

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Yoga Guy

al….most…. there

It’s 5:30 am. The cat has heard me rouse and meows at me through the door, where I assume she has been waiting since around 4:15 am. We trip and kick our way into the kitchen (neither of us has gotten used to simultaneously roaming the slighter narrower hallways of the new flat). There are bites and meows, a squeak.

Once I bribe her quiet acquiescence with food, I pour a tall glass of lemon water. And I start my day.

Since awakening and moving, my body has been incrementally becoming less stiff. A more mobile knee here, a crack in the neck there. The dissipating spasm in my lower back. Who knew sleeping on your side could hurt your cowlick?

It is all part of what I have come to define as the physical reality of being in my forties. There are other physical realities. The mamba routine that goes on between my arms, my eyes, nearby lights, and the directions on a box. The mystery box game that my gastrointestinal system plays after digesting pizza, Mexican food, or, well, basically anything that isn’t lettuce.

In the wee morning hours, before starting to work, I move into the living room and work out the physical kinks. Work on the aches. I do a few stretches that I learned in aikido and a couple I learned in various other sports. And then I sigh, open my phone to the links I researched the week before and, swallowing my pride, begin the Dolphin Pose.

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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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The Move

Last time, coming or going

It’s Friday, about 2 pm. I am on my way home on a tram filled with young teens and kids, who, while in various stages of personal and physical development, share in common a momentary ecstasy that is born of the beginning of the weekend. I am immensely jealous.

Since I was a kid, there has never been anything quite as euphoric as a Friday afternoon. I have always loved the “look ahead” stage. More a fan of Christmas Eve than Christmas, a fan of the last weeks of school rather than the beginning of the summer holiday. It’s when I have everything ahead of me that I am happiest. And Friday is just that – everything is ahead of me and the possibilities are endless. Pizza and a movie, a nice walk on Saturday, a nice walk on Saturday that ends conveniently at a pub. So on any other Friday I would be sitting on this tram, outwardly a middle-aged dude listening to podcasts, inwardly a twelve year old with a peach-fuzz mustache throwing the devil’s ears at passing motorists.

But this weekend is the weekend in which I will move. After two weeks’ prep, planning, organizing, boxing, bagging, and throwing away huge portions of the collected booty of thirteen years, it will happen. Without touching the obvious horrors of tragedy or medical crises, there is nothing worse to look forward to on a weekend.

Friday night is spent standing in various rooms in my house having meltdown moments. “Has someone fed these things after midnight!?” I scream to the ceiling, wondering how our bags and boxes are multiplying. “What is this? I don’t own a toaster! Where has this thing been, just waiting for me to move it!?” I occasionally center myself (read: avoid prison) by sitting on my soon-to-be-disassembled bouch (bed + couch, you get it) and eat some form of carbohydrate while watching a sitcom and purposefully not looking at the room beyond my laptop.  

The misery that comes with moving isn’t the carrying and lifting, but the fact that every single thing has to be reckoned with. Whether that means it gets thrown away, put in a bag and brought to the new house, or set on fire and thrown out the window. Everything from the deep, darkest caverns of the last thirteen years must be dealt with. Every single item. Everything.

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