Unreal Dan in Unreal Life

It’s Friday. We’re in the mood for a light movie. We opt for a lighthearted rom-com with Steve Carell. Dan in Real Life. He’s a widower with a big goofy family. Dane Cook’s in there. How can you go wrong with all that?

Long story short, we go wrong with that.

Rule number one of storytelling is that you are true. True means that you have to make the actions of your characters believable. We suspend our disbelief every day to allow ourselves to settle into a good story and to let a good story settle into us. Flying crocodile-zebra hybrids attack earth? Sure. Julia Roberts’ character falls in love with Hugh Grant’s character? Why not. Twelve convicts drop behind enemy lines on June 5, 1944 to gunk up the Nazis? I shall get the popcorn. These two extraordinarily beautiful women are going to have their way with the pizza guy? They ordered a sausage pie, after all. Aaaaaalright…for the next 2 minutes and forty-three seconds.

And we will do this as long as what your characters are doing resonate with real life (you know, except for the porn because our genitals have different rules when it comes to real life). But if you break this rule, your audience is unforgiving. Last month I turned off the movie The Nice Guys because of the insanely implausible action of a character. Up until then the movie had been extremely fun to watch and I’d been giggling rather than shaking my head at its ridiculo-hilarious plot. But I just couldn’t get over that one unbelievable action.

While some of the interactions and actions of the characters do ring true, where Dan in Real Life fails on the (ahem) real life-o-meter is in its depiction of family. It has to be the corniest, most rigged family since The Waltons was on the air. Evidently, this family gets together once a year to play nine thousand competitive games, from guys against ladies crossword puzzle-offs to charades to sing-offs to scrabble to a mind-numbing-un-fucking-real talent show to top off all of the crap. There’s the obligatory family football game in the yard. A thing which I can stomach as long as it’s the only family oriented game, but when it comes at the end of this feel-too-fucking-good-a-thon it was just another nail in its unbelievable coffin. By the time Dane Cook (whose job it is, I guess, to run an aerobics class) leads the entire family in a synchronized aerobics class, I have had enough.

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Basic Impulse

Autumn Sprinkles: I never stood a chance

I’m standing in line at the supermarket in Langhorne and I am wondering exactly how it is that my cart is filled with the items it’s filled with. I am already marveling at the array of goods. The line is relatively long and some genius has made it so that we stand in a tunnel of goods that A. I do not need and B. I am slowly rationalizing a need for.

The Impulse Buy Trait has long run in my family. My mom goes shopping sixteen times a week and has a talent for the most random of gifts, with a particular fondness for things which illuminate, golf shirts, and tech gadgets. And so I have an abundance of flashlights and dehumidifiers. On a trip to Naples, my dad bought roughly thirty items of clothing. We’d be walking on the street and we’d turn to address him only to find that he was no longer with us. Moments later he’d come out of a tailor with a shirt, a pair of pants. Once he bought a suit and a hat. Haberdashers all over Naples must have hung his picture up for the others to prey upon. He could have clothed Hobbiton with his purchases over those three days. For sixty years, he has made the fatal mistake of only shopping when he’s hungry, so when he returns from a supermarket the strata of baked sweets and bags of candy resemble what would happen if a stoned fifteen year old found $100 in a supermarket.

My sister and I both got the gene. My sister Amanda’s impulse G-spot is Amazon and she will often order something on her phone seconds after it’s brought up in conversation. During my month at home the front porch resembled Stonehenge with the daily delivery of boxes and packages. Books, DVDs, knickknacks, appliances, workout equipment. Her bedroom looks like the aftermath of an explosion at a mail order catalog distributor.

Stonehenge by Amazon (delivery in 2-3 business days)

I have the gene as well. I can’t be trusted to go into a store by myself. This is primarily concerning supermarkets, but I have been known to walk into a clothing shop and walk out with a shirt and some shoes. I walk into a supermarket for avocados and walk out with a nonstick pan and four lightbulbs (and no avocados). The Czech genius who started putting individual shots of booze in the checkout line is my Lex Luther.

My impulse tendency is magnified when I visit the states, mostly because I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the supermarkets. Yes, we can shake our heads and groan at wasteful, mindless American consumerism, but to step into an American supermarket is to walk into a gastronomical heaven. The cracker aisle alone makes a Czech shop look like a homeless man’s garage sale.

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Radio Days

I’m on my way to the supermarket, which is about a five minute drive from my parents’ house. In actuality there is very little to discern me from my teenage self. I am running an errand for my mom, I have a list, I am in her car. It’s the kind of hot humid day that I have long associated with eastern Pennsylvanian Augusts and I am listening to the radio.

One of the facts of life when staying with my parents is that I will be pressed into indentured servitude. My mom cooks, cleans, and does laundry, not to mention a zillion other little generosities for her kids, and all she asks is that we run errands for her on an almost unending loop of momentary need and whimsy.

Today is the grocery store and I am quite happy about it. A lot of people have romantic notions of grocery shopping in Europe, we all imagine walking around small shops with a cloth bag buying fresh bread from a baker, ripe tomatoes from a corner fruit stand, and freshly slaughtered meat from a butcher. And there is something to that. However, there is nothing better than an American supermarket. I could spend a week’s salary in the cracker aisle alone. The selection of hams in the deli, the ice cream cakes seducing my eyes in the bakery, and an entire freezer dedicated to french fries is something I look forward to each year.

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Internal Navigation System Busted

I’m on my way back from the shore when I make a mistake. I turn from 95 North, the road that will bring me easily home with my eyes closed, onto an exit, which brings me into the city of Philadelphia. The city I was smoothly bypassing I’m now driving directly into.

When you make a driving mistake, you react. How badly you have screwed up depends on the severity of the reaction. If you make a simple wrong turn in your town, you might do a good-natured forehead slap. Something that takes a few minutes to correct might warrant a “shit” or a “fuuuuck.” What I have done now, leaving the road that was conveniently bringing me home, as in it could have had a sign on it that said Damien’s Way Home, and turning into the city of Philadelphia, a city I am not familiar driving in, a city whose bowl of cooked spaghetti throng of highways would have made Patton turn around and go home and accept German occupation, a city where one wrong decision brings you to New Jersey, makes my gut to fall out and with it a series of seething remarks that question my abilities and intelligence.

Not only have I gone out of my way to up my level of stress and aggravation, but part of the upset is due to a bruise growing on my tender male ego. Men are supposed to be good at directions based on an internal navigation system. We’re supposed to know things about cars and know what all the things in our truck is for. We’re supposed to be able to open the hood and understand what we’re looking at.

But I don’t. I suppose my internal navigational system was left out of the congenital male gift basket I was supposed to get at birth. I also know nothing about electronics, could give less than a shit about expensive cars (like. Zero), and though I like putting things together here and there, I could go the rest of my life without touching a drill and die a happy man. These things I have come to accept about myself, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t frustration when one of these evident shortcomings is thrust in my face and causes me aggravation. Whether you are a man or a woman you can probably commiserate in some way.

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The Ghosts of Pittsburgh Bars

Pictured: The Green Front Inn. Not Pictured: The Ghost of the Cook.

It’s a Saturday on East Carson Street on the Southside of Pittsburgh. It’s hot and I am wearing a captain’s hat, a gift from my friend L. He was one on too. We are in a convertible that I couldn’t afford if I had a decade to save up for it and an extra kidney to sell on the black market. It’s then that we pass a place I know too well. The Green Front Inn.

“Oh my God,” I say. “I haven’t been there in more than a decade.”

“Well we’re going in now.” He pulls in front and parks, where the shiny red convertible is a sore thumb.

Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods. This was typically the only reference people would give when going out. “Where you going tonight?” “Southside” or “Shadyside” or “The Strip” was all that was said. This is also because a night out in Pittsburgh rarely included only one bar, but rather a mini-bar crawl often occurred, so a neighborhood was used as a blanket location.

The Green Front Inn was a job taken out of necessity. I was working an unpaid internship at a local magazine and I needed a paid job, if only because I had grown accustomed to eating food and sleeping indoors. And so four nights a week I stood behind the bar in this dive and wondered where everything had gone wrong. I’d loved bartending up to that point, but probably because I worked in a campus bar before that. It was filled with young, good looking people who wanted to have fun and often did so right there on the bar. The place before was positive and much of my time there was spent laughing and surrounded by people I really liked.

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Stages of Summer

It’s about midway through the summer, late July. I am about to fly back to the U.S. and I find that I am a little bit sad. There is no reasonable explanation for this, other than to say that there are stages to the summer and, like stages, they have notable beginnings and endings.

I am one of those awfully addicted to the looking forward to stage more than the stage itself. So I love the pre-Christmas season more than Christmas Day, which is obviously the goal of the whole season (for some), but which also signals the completion of that season.

It’s the same with my summer. The first stage of my summer is late May to early June, when teaching has finished, but we’re still performing admin tasks and doing retake tests. Though these tasks can be irksome at times, there’s a definite slowdown feel to my work life. No class, just office work. One of the best parts of this stage is that the rest of the summer is still ahead of me.

The next stage of summer, the one I’m currently in, is the first part of my holiday. This usually involves a trip, but this year has involved staying in Prague. I have been enjoying beer gardens and summer storms and little trips with friends. But mostly I’ve been working. I’ve recently signed on as a freelancer for a website and I also have a novel to finish and research to do.

This month has involved getting up at 6:30 each morning and writing or editing. Then I have a break, and then an afternoon session of work. It’s been a taste of what life would be like as a fulltime writer, I suppose, but it hasn’t been so relaxing. I have enjoyed the long hazy days of midsummer and the purple and pink evening skies. Sometimes in the morning before I work or in the evening before I put on a movie, I force myself to look out the window and enjoy whatever’s there.

There’s some sadness now as I know this stage is coming to an end. I’m off to the U.S. today to embark upon the third stage of my summer. Home. I am looking around at a sleeping cat, my packed bags, and wonder where the first two stages have gone. I am excited and sad at the same time. This morning I am writing a blog that will appear in a week and a half and I am already bummed about the fact that when this is published I will be almost halfway through my third stage of summer.

With all that said, I’m looking forward to the next few weeks. I’ll watch baseball with my dad and drink Miller High Life at a bar while arguing with my brother at an impossible volume. I’ll visit friends in Pittsburgh, eat four cheesesteaks, go to the Jersey Shore, eat crabs, and let my parents spoil me. I’ll be in New York City for a few days and have Gay Day 2018 with my sister. I suppose the third stage has its own stages and that, all in all, things are great.

So, I hope you are enjoying the stages of your summer as well. Go have a High Life.

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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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