Middlebury, Vermont: Good Night Sweet Prince

Friday, April 16, 2021. Middlebury, Vermont.
Soundtrack: Here Come the Mummies – Ra Ra Ra

We touched down on an active farm deep in the heart of Clarendon, where we would be staying for the weekend while she conducted whatever dark and uncatholic dealings she had lined up. The nearest neighbor was a mile away, so no one could hear screaming, should there have been any screaming. I wasn’t afraid. Remember in the third Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where the actor who played Kenan’s dad just boots Leatherface square in the gut, side-kick style? I knew karate once. I’d go high, Beefy’d go low, the witch could nuke from the backline.

Assuming Leatherface was the concern, of course, and I didn’t get turned into a donkey and ridden all over the countryside like in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. That series gave me a powerful childhood fear of agriculture. I maintain the fear, but now it’s because of comparative studies of hunter gatherer societies, and knowledge of what grain does to the human body.

The farm itself was populated by aloof female farm dogs, and a single male Australian Shepherd named Cody with a mutation that caused his right pupil to split, like the eye of a goat. He would not stop humping my attorney.

Beefton is a gentleman of culture and refinement. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and he doesn’t want to kill the vibe, so he never fights other dogs unless it’s clear that they’re just wrasslin’. He kept running away. Cody was single-minded, obsessive, and not actually too into it, since he was whining on the approach every time. I figured he was trying to assert his dominance over the larger, younger male dog invading his territory, but halfheartedly. Beefton had no idea what was going on and just kept fleeing.

“You’re gonna have to flip him,” I told him. “You’ve got to set boundaries.”

Beefton gazed at me with his doofy Baby Yoda face, awaiting intervention as Cody set up to sort of hump at his left hip. I imagined Cody didn’t get off the farm much.

“It’s a microcosm of life,” I said. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself. They’ll try to fuck you if you let them. Or… do whatever that is.”

“Cody!” yelled the farmers. “Get off him!”

Cody would not be dissuaded. Beefton looked at my beseechingly. I shrugged.

“You outweigh him by like 30 pounds. Put him on his ass and this will never happen again.”

“I am a man of peace,” Beefton told me. “We’re better than this.”

“Just throw one of the left hooks you use to flip the scrappy little German Shepherd madchens at the dog park.”

“But that’s for funsies and this feels like it’s for serious,” he said, apprehensively. Beefy took a few steps away from Cody, glancing back over his own rippling, overdeveloped deltoids. Undeterred, Cody wandered over to get back to what he perceived as his task.

“It might be funsies, but they respect your torque! An armed society is a polite society, lil mans.”

“Cody!” the farmers were still yelling. “What the hell’s the matter with you? Leave him alone!”

Beefton nodded, considering my words. He turned toward Cody, who was crookedly humping the air in the vicinity of Beefton’s side. They made eye contact. Beefy growled a little, then let loose one of his bassy sonic boom barks that have proven so effective at scaring teens off my front stoop back in Philly.

Cody dismounted and drifted away.

For the time being.

We loaded back up into the wagon and made our way across the state so the witch could scout locations for a thaumaturgist’s hut. Beefton and I secured the perimeter, burning the pent up anxiety from his protracted assault by lunging at squirrels and peeing on everything. He did most of the lunging and peeing.

And once in Middlebury, we stopped in to pay our respects to the late Amum-Her-Khepesh-Ef.

You’re gonna love this one.

In the late 1800s, deep in the social oasis of Middlebury (relative to the utter backwoods desolation that is the rest of Vermont), there lived a collector of expensive, weird things by the name of Henry Sheldon.

He looks around his curio collection and decides, “You know what this could really use? A mummy.” So he puts in an order for a mummified Egyptian prince, a two-year-old called Amum-Her-Khepesh-Ef. This was before Craigslist, so there were really no pictures of the mummy available. Caveat emptor and all that.

The mummy arrives, and Sheldon is inconsolable. It was apparently “in such a degraded condition that Sheldon never put it out on display”.

“This mummy sucks!” Sheldon probably said, jabbing a finger at the withered corpse of Egyptian royalty dating back to 2000 BC. “This mummy is bullshit!”

Disgraced and ashamed, Sheldon stashed the little body up in his attic, where it remained until decades after Sheldon himself died.

Lil Amum is then happened upon by the curator of the Henry Sheldon museum, a good-hearted fella called George Mead. Mead recognizes that this isn’t what this two-year-old Egyptian prince would have wanted, to be so far from home, from the land of his forefathers, boxed up in some Vermontian attic because he’s too ugly to be displayed, like a leisure suit or home movies on VHS.

Mead sets things right by having the mummy cremated and buried in a Judeo-Christian cemetery across the street from the Middlebury Art College.

I like to think Amum was just booling out in the Egyptian afterlife with all his slaves and gold, all the things that mummification was required to insure, and then abruptly vaporizes a la “I don’t feel so good Mr. Stark” and reappears in the middle of Sunday mass in Heaven, seated in the pew and looking up at the actual, actively writhing body of Jesus, since you’ve got to assume in Heaven they don’t need to do carved representations.

Probably frigged up his whole day.

“Rest in power, little king,” I said to Amum.

At that moment, probably coincidentally, the sky opened up and it started pouring. We ran back to the car where Beefy was waiting to make sure the campus police didn’t ticket us.

Love,

BT

Book Review: Deep Work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not a fickle man by nature, so I was surprised to look up the other Studyhacks plug vehicle I read and discover I’d given it five stars. That’s a four-star differential! If he had it, how did he lose it? How could he fall so far?

The problem with Deep Work is it featured more of the author as an individual, and less of his research. This was manifested by his constant, breathlessly verbose academic masturbation. Yeah, I think he’s a self-aggrandizing, circumlocutionary wad. Me. The guy who just used half a thesaurus to call him long-winded. I think that.

The author, as an individual, is unlikeable. Even putting aside his relentless boasting, his sloppy dual-hand shaft-massage of “innovative” CEOs and middle managers is equal parts embarrassing and grotesque.

Deep Work is a clunky propagandist how-to that attempts to convince you there is no life beyond your work, then gives helpful hints on how to drain all the vibrancy, adventure, and joy from your life in pursuit of more work, more promotions, more money so you finally make enough to consider yourself successful.

The motivational stories are harrowing. A dude who was working data-entry, getting like $60k a year, decides that he’s had it with that life and strikes out in pursuit of something more. He drops out of everything and obsessively teaches himself to code, working eight hours in his garage with fifteen different programming manuals over the course of a few months. When he wraps up this self-imposed asceticism, he enrolls in a master’s level accelerated course that “several doctorate students failed out of” and of course is the top of his class.

Ready for the payoff?

He gets certified and hired as a top-tier code monkey, making $100k a year, almost double. Newport states that he has, unequivocally, succeeded. He continues to work twelve-hour days, which begin at 5 AM, because he wants to focus his concentration and get his “deep work” in those essential four hours before everyone else arrives to disrupt his concentration.

Imagine that life. That successful life.

The book is replete with examples of these ubermensch “knowledge workers” (his term, and I cringed every time) reinventing paradigms by putting a lot of people in the same room at work, or isolating them in little cells, or whatever else. His description of the Facebook office is nothing short of sycophantic.

The book is filthy with business jargon and academic self-importance, and also business self-importance and academic jargon. It’s the worst of all conceivable worlds. I’ll give in an example, but I’ll summarize and paraphrase the lead-in; Lord knows somebody has to.

He talks about trying to classify daily work tasks into either deep or shallow work. Deep work requires sustained periods of deep concentration, pushing you to the limit of your abilities, often conjuring the flow state. Shallow work is answering e-mails and having meetings. Some things fall in between, and he attempts to establish a metric of “How long would it take a smart, recent university graduate to learn how to do this?”

Here comes the verbatim:
In the example editing a draft of an academic article that you will soon submit to a journal: Properly editing an academic paper requires that you understand the nuances of the work (so you can make sure it’s being described precisely) and the nuances of the broader literature (So you can make sure it’s being cited properly). These requirements require

— is that what those requirements do —

cutting-edge knowledge of an academic field – a task that in the age of specialization takes years of diligent study at the graduate level and beyond. When it comes to this example, the answer to our question would therefore be quite large, perhaps on the scale of fifty to seventy-five months.

Seventy-five months to be worthy of proofreading your academic paper? Are you high?

As you can see from that logorrhea, he’s absolutely unreadable.

It wasn’t a total wash, or I wouldn’t have finished reading it, though my iron resolve just kept on flagging. He name-drops Neal Stephenson several times, since he only had maybe ten examples of successful deep workers throughout the book (and one was Mark Twain, so maybe not firsthand report). Here’s what Neal had to say.

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

Well, that’s certainly true. But if the best line of your book is someone else’s, it might benefit you to gather up a “work block” for some self-reflection.

Another Geneva Convention-caliber violation is the concept of “productive meditation”. I’m a shrink by trade, so allow me to be your matador and draw your attention to the biggest, reddest flag: meditation is already productive. That’s why you do meditation. It defrags your brain and strengthens the orbitoprefontal cortex, improves your capacity for stress management, lowers your blood pressure, deepens sleep, enhances creativity, the whole nine yards. It makes you a better human being across every domain.

So the initial suggestion that Newport has discovered another, more productive means of meditation that has eluded the bodhisattvas for the past two millennia is opaque megalomania. He goes on to suggest that whenever you have “extra time”, such as when you’re walking somewhere, or showering, or eating, you should decide and hyperfocus on a specific “professional problem”, and think about nothing else for the duration of your activity.

Let’s see his own words again:
Fortunately, finding time for this strategy is easy, as it takes advantage of periods that would otherwise be wasted (such as walking the dog or commuting to work), and if done right, can actually increase your professional productivity instead of taking time away from your work.

Walking the dog isn’t a waste of your time, you fucking automaton. It’s a daily opportunity to connect with an animal that considers you its entire world.

It’s hard to slog through 300 pages of this and not interpret it as an attack on the human spirit. Your performance algorithm doesn’t allow for freedom, Cal. You’re running yourself into the ground and clocking 2 hours a night with your family because you’ve sold your soul to an outmoded notion of success, and these papers, these books that you turn out so assiduously are private little shrines and idols, designed not only to convert those who haven’t yet seen the light, but to prove to the skeptics, and to yourself, that it was worth it.

View all my reviews

Berlin: The Designpanoptikum

December 5, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

In the heart of Berlin, there’s a dungeon scrapyard exhibition overseen by a delightful and charismatic Russian who’s definitely a serial killer. Google assured me that it would be a “surreal museum”, but neglected to mention how similar it would be to that awful J.Lo movie The Cell. The similarities were only emphasized by the fact that I, too, am a thicc bilingual headshrinker, though she is admittedly a better dancer.

Panoptikum is a German word, meaning Panopticon. Helpful, right? Well, the Panopticon was a decidedly Lawful Evil brainchild of social theorist, philosopher, and institutional bastard Jeremy Bentham. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a big round building made of glass, with a spot for a guard in the middle, enclosed by one-way mirrors. The inhabitants of the glass cells have no privacy. They can see each other, but they can’t see the guard, who obviously can’t be watching all of them at once… but you never know where he is looking, behind that smoked glass.

Bentham, sweetheart that he is, suggested the Panopticon could work equally well for a prison or a school. He described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. As reasonable as it might be to want to flying dropkick the dude off a rope bridge, his figuring isn’t wrong. It’s been common knowledge that social expectation and the old “what will people think” instinct is a deep-rooted and effective behavioral modulator, but it’s on such a hair trigger that even the suggestion of being watched can promote a sort of bastardized honesty. A Newcastle study put coffee and tea out for their department with an honesty box next to it with a little note, “Please pay for what you take!”. On the rear wall behind the box was a poster, rotated weekly; either a bunch of flowers, or a pair of eyes. On the eye weeks, the researchers found a lot more honor-system money than on the flower weeks.

Of course, that might not generalize to all people, it might just be that college students are more inclined to feel anxious about being stared at, or eye contact in general. You ever met college students? They love to feel anxious.

When Bentham named the Panopticon, he was making an allusion to Argus Panoptes, a giant from Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Panoptes translates to “all-seeing”, and that he did, right up until Hera assigned him to guard Io to make sure Zeus didn’t knock her up while she was a cow. Long story. Ultimately ending with Hermes getting recruited by Zeus to sneak up on Panoptes (how that happened is unclear), cast a god-tier Sleep spell, then brain the poor doofus with a rock.

None of those things gave me any inkling of what Berlin’s Panoptikum was gonna be about, but I’m a sucker for anything surreal, probably as compensation for all the ADHD and disdain for sleep.

All alone, with nobody holding my hand through it, I figured out how buses worked. Turns out, they’ll take you in different directions depending on what side of the street you board. The bus numbers will be the same regardless! You just need to know the incredibly German name of an area near wherever you’re going.

Well, I didn’t, so I took the first bus a half mile in the wrong direction, then leaped off and grumbled my way back to the bus stop. It started to rain, because of course it did.

The correct bus eventually dropped me off in central Berlin, a little more than a block from the Panoptikum. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Russian in flawless, German-accented English, who then explained to me that a heavy Russian accent was part of his shtick until 6 pm. He lapsed into it and started giving an overview on the Panoptikum as I marveled at his terrifying sculptures.

25371171_1149915838478054_937305132_o “Form and function,” he said. “Once, they are the same thing. Once, form was secondary consideration. The product of the function. Now everything is so artistically designed and… and… ergonomic, so all of these things must be beautiful as well as functional, but they don’t look like anything. Certainly they don’t look like what they are for. But we have come so far from that, that we no longer recognize things by their functional form. Take this, for example.”

He held up an odd looking metal clamp, sort of like two L-shaped pieces of steel with a long bolt running between them. The steel slid freely, if noisily, along the threads.

“Do you know what this is?”

I shrugged. “Metal?”

“A good guess,” he said, “And technically correct. But this is something specific. This has a function. I ask everyone this question, no one has ever gotten it right. Take time, look around, think about it. I will ask again before you leave, after you see museum.”

I looked at it again. It wasn’t a clamp. There was no way to tighten it. Still looked like giant metal pincers, about a foot and a half long.

“You use it every day,” he assured me. “You have to. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

Then he set me loose in the grown up version of Sid’s room from Toy Story.

The basement had that cloying, stale grease smell of a disused garage.

“Do not go to the museums,” he warned me. “Not if you want to see art. You want art, go to the junkyard. Art everywhere. Costs much less.”

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“Form and function. Do you know what this is?”

I looked it over as he crouched down and slapped the thing. A low-pitched BONG sound echoed through the eerie silence of his subterranean trophy case.

“Well, I was gonna say a land mine, but I guess not.”

“Close!” he said, opening the hatch. “Washing machine. Back when they were first invented, only rich people had them. You put the clothes in, the motor shakes them up, cleans them. No motor now, of course, so now it’s just… this thing.”

He was insistent I take selfies with his zany assortment of hats from the dump. I didn’t want to wear the deflated punching bag on my head, although he was really pulling for it. 25383075_1149915881811383_2081062368_o

We compromised on the World War I helmet. I’ve since learned it’s called a Stahlhelm.

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“Do you know why the helmets had those little horns?”

I did not.

“It is not like a viking thing, and it is not like they came to terms with being the bad guys, dressing up like devils. It is an example of… German overengineering. Germans are a very efficient people, and sometimes they get too focused on it, and they lose sight of what’s practical.”

“I know,” I said. “I used to have a Jetta.”

“See, the steel helmets were good for protecting against shrapnel, but back in the trenches, you would just poke your head up and shoot. The metal was not thick enough to stop a direct hit from a bullet. But the scientists at the time, they thought, what if we installed a plate that was thick enough to stop a bullet? Their trench fighters would be almost impervious to gunfire, then! So they manufactured these heavy steel plates that click into the little buttons on the side of the helmet, protecting the head. This did not work for three reasons.

One, it was very, very expensive. That’s a lot of steel, and you need to give one to everyone in the army. Germany ran out of steel.

Two, it was too heavy. People running around with 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of steel on their head, it interfered with their balance. The helmets would also slip down over their eyes because it’s so much heavier in the front.

Three, in the instances when the plate did actually stop a direct hit of a bullet? The force of the impact would break the soldier’s neck in 80% of cases anyway. So for all that money, and all that effort, and all that steel, they’re only saving one out of five direct hits, which are rare enough to begin with.”

It hearkened back to something he’d said earlier when we were looking at an old iron lung.

“See, in America, life is precious. In Russia, Asia, the Middle East, life is cheap. I get Chinese tourists in here, I tell them this woman lived sixty years in this iron lung, and they are incredulous, they ask me ‘why not just die’? Well, because she was an American. They had the resources, so she lived in that iron lung, she did university from her hospital room, and she eventually became a depression counselor. Helped a lot of people. But not everyone could have done that, I don’t think. Most people would rather just die.”

I was reflecting on all this when I turned the corner, caught sight of this little number.

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“Don’t worry, it’s not a sex doll,” he assured me.

“That’s not what worried me.”

“That is part of typewriter,” he said. “Sort of a duality thing, you know? Because of the mouth, and the typewriter, and both of them use words, both of them are for words.”

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“That’s Yuri Gagarin,” he said. “You know who that is?”

I laughed. What a Russian thing! “Yeah,” I said.

“First man in space,” he told me, even though I just said yeah.

“So is that how they did it? Dr. Strangelove style?”

He grinned. “More or less.”

We made our way back to the front door and he picked up the weird metal clamp thing again.

“So! Any guesses?”

I squinted at it, then nodded.

“Is it a doorknob?”

“It is!” he said. “It is a doorknob! And hopefully, your time here at the Panoptikum opened some doors to some new ways of looking at things for you. Thank you much for coming.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This was incredible.”

“You got it right, here,” he said, “Take one of postcards, for free. Whichever one you want. Go ahead.”

I decided on the one that he had explained in the gallery as representing the German spirit.

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Refreshed and disturbed, I walked back out into Berlin’s perpetual rain to find the lauded East Side Gallery.

Next time.

(If you liked the crazy bullshit you saw here, there’s plenty more where that came from. If that site is too hard to navigate [and it fuckin’ is], there’s also a Facebook page. It’s in German, so if you like it, everyone will think you’re cultured.)

Above board, the guy who owns it and gave me the tour is an artist and photographer named Vladimir Korneev. I’d love to link to his gallery or something, but he shares a name with a Russian songwriter so there’s way too much foreign-language smokescreen for me to find anything.

I strongly encourage you to hit up this headtrip if you’re ever in Berlin. He’s probably not a serial killer. He didn’t serial kill me! But they never really seem to.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Vienna: Phallic Fixations

November 25, 2017. Vienna, Austria.

There’s really no missing the Pestsäule. The 60-foot baroque monstrosity juts up out of the center of the Graben like an ornate middle finger to God. It’s actually emperor Leopold I delivering on his side of one of those pleading prayer bargains we’ve all done. Leo’s was “Please, let the plague stop. I swear I’ll build you a really dope art phallus right in the middle of the city, just stop killing everyone.”

The Plague Column is also called the Trinity Column due to its three sides, each one presumably representing some aspect of the tripartite God.

About a block away is the Stock im Eisen, or staff in iron. That’s misleading, it’s not a staff, it’s a tree trunk full of nails, kept in a tube that makes it totally immune to photography.

I did what I could. Now, you might be asking, “Why is there a protected chunk of tree, full of nails, on a street corner in Vienna?” Good question. I’d love to answer it, but it doesn’t seem like anyone can. Every website has a different interpretation of the Stock im Eisen‘s history, and the locals who were attempting to explain its significance to their visiting friends were telling conflicting stories.

Here’s what I’ve pieced together. In the Middle Ages, nail trees (Nagelbäume) were used by craftsmen, or anyone else with nails, for good luck. This particular nail tree had something to do with the Devil. There’s a ballet about it by Pasquale Borri, so if anyone more sophisticated than me can check that out and report back, I’d appreciate it.

There was a locksmith who wanted to marry his master’s daughter, or maybe he just wanted to be the greatest locksmith who ever lived. Dude shot for the stars. So he calls Mephistopheles out of Prague, who shows up on a FlixBus a few hours later. The locksmith sells his soul in exchange for just a really, fuckin’, top-notch padlock. It’s amazing. He puts that on the tree and issues challenges to either his master in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage, or to all the locksmiths of the world in exchange for World Locksmithing Supremacy. Since the Devil made the lock, nobody could crack it, and he lived happily ever after until he burnt in Hell. The tree remains with a lock on it to this day, and also full of nails, for some reason.

This is confirmed bullshit. They looked into the padlock and it’s empty, there’s no tumblers or anything in there. It would pop right open. Maybe that’s why the whole thing’s behind the bulletproof glass.

Well, that was most of center city, barring museums and palaces. I sidled all the way across town to the Freud Museum.

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they only serve sausages

I thought it was interesting, but Freud was what got me through college. I’d read the bulk of his debunked wackadoo theories long before I got “higher educated”, and since every class in undergrad wanted to beat both Freudian and Pavlovian dead horses as much as possible, I got to recycle the same paper, with subtle stylistic changes, something like ten times.

My favorite, bar none, was a History and Systems project where we were required to adopt the persona of our chosen theorist and have an open debate with the rest of the class. We got extra credit for accents, props, and convincing portrayal. I shaved my scruff into an approximation of his beard and showed up to class with a grape White Owl in my mouth and a baggie full of flour smeared around my nose. The only Austrian accent I’d ever heard at that point was the Terminator’s, so that was how Freud talked. I sat next to B.F. Skinner, as portrayed by a gorgeous little ghoul with dichromatic eyes, and we became a vitriolic tempest of condescending reductionism, laying waste to anyone fool enough to have chosen a humanistic or positive psychologist. The Carl Rogers surrogate got the worst flaying. I think he might still be institutionalized.

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speaking of my college

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hoo i heard that

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Siggy’s personal necromancy cabinet. easily puts mine to shame, but the museum did keep repeating that his three great passions were “traveling, smoking, and collecting”

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I laughed so hard and so inappropriately at that adorable picture of Carl Jung. Look at him go! With his little hat, and his little disapproving frown!

I love Jung, I think his work is interesting, if convoluted, arcanist rambling, but I wasn’t prepared for this. From here on out, I’m never gonna be able to think of Freud and Jung as anything but Germanic Rick and Morty.

On my way back to the hostel, I located the only grocery store in Vienna (I’d been looking) and picked up a box of juice brand named “Munter und Aktiv”. Well, I got half of that. I asked Google Translate and it said Munter means “blithely”. I recognized this as impossible. I activated my German field agent and she told me it’s a mixture between happy and awake and active. Well, we already have active. I asked the lady at the hostel desk, planning on averaging all these translations into one definitive Munter.

“It is like waking up with coffee in the morning,” she said. “Like chipper.”

“All right, thank you.”

She asked me if I still had my key card. I said I did.

“Good work,” she told me. She seemed serious, but she may have just been possessed of the Wiener Grant.

“Do people lose them a lot? Is that a big problem here?” I asked, blithely. Munterly.

“No, no problem. We don’t have problems here,” she said, then she honest to God slapped the table and shouted in the thickest, most Germanic accent I’ve ever heard, “VE HAVE ZOLUTIONS!”

She laughed after and clarified that she was just kidding, but I was deer-in-the-headlights frozen. One of those disbelieving grins, you know? When what’s going on… can’t be what’s actually going on.

I know we have a sad little Nazi party movement in America, but realistically that’s like 40 lonely dudes with bad haircuts who get way too much media coverage. In much of Europe, they seem mighty sorry for World War II. The Mahnmal in the heart of Vienna is a good indicator, but there’s more going on than monuments, culturally. The aforementioned German girl is currently crossing eastern Europe and self-inflicting a sort of guilt tour (or Schuldtour). Warsaw and Auschwitz, that I’m aware of. Die Madchen ist haunted.

(As a quick aside, I looked up the German word for ‘haunted’, and, unbelievably, it is spukt. Go ahead. Say it out loud. Spukt. This fuckin’ language, man.)

In the Athens flea market, after divulging her nationality to an antique dealer for reasons I will never understand, he rolled out a bunch of old Nazi medals.

“You want?”

She literally backpedaled, shielding her face like a tall, rigid vampire from an iron cross. But she went on to tell me that there are people back in Germany — in America, we’d call them hicks — that love that kind of thing.

The modern nationalism necessary to breed either sentiment is lost on me, but I don’t think that’s because I’m an American. I’m just not much of a joiner.

A final, weird note, and the last Hitler point I plan on making: the Indian guy told me that Hitler is sort of fondly remembered in India and China. In the course of the war, Germany did a lot of damage to Great Britain, and India is still carrying a pretty understandable grudge against their former imperial taskmasters.

I sat down and collected myself until my chronic and intractable antsiness returned, then I figured I’d go check out the craft beer bar half a mile away. I hadn’t eaten in six or seven hours, so that seemed like the ideal time. They had a Bier dem Wochen flight for the cost of a regular half-pint, so I got that. They brought me 4 beers, all from Anchor Brewing, which I learned from a hipster’s t-shirt is in San Francisco.

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welp

The Steam beer must be called that because that’s what it tasted like. The stout was palatable, in a cream soda kind of way. I downed it and ordered a local imperial stout called Der Schnittenfahrt from a company called Brauwork. Hilarious though that may sound, it means “cut drive”, and washing down a flight with it on an empty stomach was perhaps ill advised.

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“schnittenfahrt” tho

The bar was very excited about rugby. Ireland vs Argentina. I didn’t know who they were rooting for, but they were rooting for them with all their heart. I went to the bathroom and laughed so hard I scared a dude.

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now that’s opulence

That was enough for one night. I had a bus to catch the next morning. I stumbled back to my hostel and passed out. I slept like a rock, except for at around 3 AM when I was awake just long enough to see the dude in the opposing bunk sit up like a mummy, slam his face into the wood support of the bunk over him, and release a long, low-pitched, closed-mouthed moan. It was sort of like a cow mooing, but in slow motion. Absolutely fantastic.

The next morning I threw all my stuff into my bag and wrote in the kitchen until my Brazilian DJ friend rejoined me, looking much worse for wear.

“Bunch of bastards,” he told me out of nowhere.

“Huh?”

“The club I played at,” he spat. “Didn’t pay me a DIME. Bastards. Didn’t even give me free drinks. I had four beers, and they charged me.”

I shook my head. “Animals. Well, chalk it up to experience, I guess.”

He made a vague allusion to being all about peace and love. I shook his hand, wished him well, and headed for the door.

Oh, right. The bus was to Bratislava, and hoo boy, do I got some stories for tomorrow.

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heard yo mama in the movies

Love,

The Bastard

Prague: Kafka, Communism, Torture, and the Horror Bar

November 23, 2017. Prague, Czech Republic.

In my dream-quest around unknown Kadath, I found so many museums that I had to pare the list down. The Beer Museum sounded good, but judging by the pictures and the greeter at the door, it was a gimmicky bar. The Sex Machines Museum wasn’t going to tell me anything that Erotic Museum hadn’t already.

I wound up going to the Kafka Museum, the Museum of Communism, and the Museum of Medieval Torture Devices. At a glance, these aren’t related, but I promise you once you’re in them you’d be hard pressed (sometimes literally) to ignore the theme.

First, Kafka. The documentaries and state-mandated tourism pamphlets are suspiciously clear that “the Prague of Kafka was only in his head, and you won’t find it here!” This is a lie. I’ve been here since I got off the bus. Nice place to visit, but much like the man himself, you wouldn’t want to live there.


this was in front of the museum. i don’t know why

The Kafka museum was all black corridors, file cabinets, and screaming. I read the Metamorphosis in high school like every other pseudo-intellectual ponce, but I just thought the guy was sad and weird. If you look at the tragedy of his life, you get a much more contextual picture of the dude who inspired the term kafkaesque.

He was neurotically high-strung. Today, it would probably be generalized anxiety disorder. He lived the whole of his life terrified of his father but unable to escape or relate to him, no matter what he tried.

In a particularly lucid moment, he breathed on a glass windowpane, drew a circle that encompassed the Old Town square and Charles Bridge. It enclosed his grade school, every home he had ever known, the university he went to as a young adult, and the office where he worked and got inspiration for most of his novels.

“Within this little circle, my whole life is contained.”

He would jaunt out to Berlin or his sister’s place in the country from time to time, but he never really got free of Prague. He had three long-distance relationships, deliberately chosen for buffer of safety the long-distance provided him. His writings explored exclusion, isolation, and the despair of being a lone individual against an overwhelming machine. When he contracted tuberculosis, it was almost as a moral victory. He had been struggling with something inside his entire life, and it had finally decided that they’d fought long enough.

Poor, haunted bastard. I’ve started reading The Castle since.

I also happened into the Museum of Communism. This could have gone either way. I knew that Czechia was east of the Iron Curtain, so I couldn’t imagine they had many warm and fuzzy feelings for the system that gave them their highest civilian fatality count since the Black Plague. But I also knew it was a very liberal, metropolitan area, and I was working from behind a notably American veil of ignorance. Leftist college students back home have a tendency to bank left so hard that, were they actually riding in a gulag train, it would overturn on the curve.

I’m certainly not here to proselytize about politics, there are so many more satisfying and provocative ways to piss people off. But here’s a picture dump of things I found either funny or horrifying, straight from the mouth of a city that survived it.

The currency reform especially staggered me. Imagine making $40,000 a year, then waking up one day to find, apropos of nothing, that you now make $8,000 a year because General Motors needed another bail out.

When I first entered the Commuseum, they gave me my ticket and a voucher for a free coffee. By the end of the exhibit, I could certainly have used to a sit-down, so I waited in the cafe line. I’m tryna kick coffee, though. When it was my turn, I gave the guy behind the counter my voucher and asked him for a tea.

He looks me dead in the eyes and says, “We’re out of tea.”

For a second I thought this was an elegantly planned joke, but he didn’t break. He was dead serious. I lost my shit, man. It was the hardest anyone has ever laughed in that grim museum. Dude must have thought I was having some kind of episode.

After that, I made my way to the Lennon Wall (distinct from the Lenin Wall, which was only slightly more communist). It’s a wall that students have been covering in John Lennon-inspired graffiti, Beatles lyrics, and bumper-sticker rhetoric since the 80s.

From Wikipedia:

In 1988, the wall was a source of irritation for the communist regime of Gustáv Husák. Young Czechs would write grievances on the wall and in a report of the time this led to a clash between hundreds of students and security police on the nearby Charles Bridge. The movement these students followed was described ironically as “Lennonism” and Czech authorities described these people variously as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism.

Oops. They already made the Lenin joke. Welp, too late now.

Taking pictures of the wall proved to be difficult since everyone horrible in Prague was trying to pose for selfies in front of it.

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i’m afraid you’re misinformed

I brooded there for a little while, visions of cockroaches and bread lines still a-dance in my head, then made my way to the Medieval Torture Museum.

Let me just say this: Dark Ages Europe was kinky.

And that’s just for starters.

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the Gridiron. this was the prototype George Foreman grill. watch the fat slide right off!

the knee-breaker. honestly pretty self-explanatory

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no explanation needed, i’ve submitted my share of insanes 

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here we got a real Fifty Shades sort of thing going on, presumably to punish this thicc peasant woman for being, I don’t know, awake

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described as “The Vigil”, the inventor heralded it as a new breakthrough in torture technology. seems to me like a suspicious amount of work to put a pyramid up a dude’s butt, but w/e

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this is called “the Pear”. if you don’t know, google it, they don’t pay me enough to explain this to you. but I will say this: its versatility is surprising

The take home of my Prague museum experience was “fetishized hopelessness”. Well, that was about enough museums for one day. I went outside and bought an “authentic Czech hotdog” which tasted like a hot Slim Jim with mayonnaise on it. It was exactly as appetizing as it sounds.

Then, on the way back, it was starting to get dark. I had a train to catch at the crack of dawn tomorrow, so I opted to grab an evening beer at the celebrated Prague Nightmare Horror Bar.

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i expected him to be taller

The bartender was a manic pixie nightmare girl, talking a mile a minu- 1.60934 kilometers a minute, eyes darting and frantic. She served me the first good beer I’d had in Europe, a semi-imperial stout called Master’s, then got excited when I mentioned the Sedlac Ossuary and began gesturing with a menu in an effort to explain how to get there from the train.

I love when ADHD girls have English as a second language because it doesn’t slow their speech. They just make a more exciting array of faces when searching for the right words. It’s like watching an adorable kaleidoscope.

Next to me at the bar was a 70-year-old Scotsman who claimed to have fought in World War II. Not giving Common Core much credit there, laddie, but I can’t say I blame you. No one could understand what the hell he was saying.

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He was drunk, and old, and mumbling, and just so incredibly Scottish. It was a perfect storm of incomprehensibility, and he made no effort to correct it whatsoever. Instead, he’d repeat himself with the same tone and inflection, and watch you expectantly. The bartender folded her skinny, tattooed little arms and put her head down on the bar, then looked at me in desperation.

“You are American,” she said.

I shrugged. “But not Scottish.”

“Ye bent’a Scootlin?” he asked me, and I got most of that.

“Nope,” I said. “Just Ireland.”

“FOOK Irelin.”

I laughed. “Thought you might say something like that, yeah.”

“‘nth’ Germans. We nev’r liked ’em.”

“Really? In Scotland?”

“Aye,” he said, without nodding, which was really difficult for me to process each time he did it. “Nev’r liked ’em. Think’t deyshud own th’ worl’.”

“At least twice, they thought that, yeah.”

He laughed hoarsely and slapped me on the back.

“Do not take the bus tour,” the bartender said, jabbing at the map with a lacquered black fingernail. “It is a waste, they just want your money. Never take the bus if you can take the Metro. You know where the metro is? The, ahhh, tren? Train. Train! Take the train, every time. Much faster, much better.”

“I knew tren,” I said. “But yeah, the tour was supposed to be seven and a half hours, talking about a mining town? I’m not in for seven hours. I just want to see the bone church, here.”

“Bone Church is incredible,” she said, enthusiastically slapping everything in sight. “I spent two hours there, maybe three hours. It’s small but there’s so much to do in there, so much you can see. Part of it is always closed. Two rooms were closed when I was there but there were still the rest of the rooms and there was so much, it was incredible. But there’s nothing to do in the city. Not even a city. Like, two bars, one store, some houses.”

“That doesn’t sound like a city.”

“It’s a village.”

“It’s a VILLAGE?”

She made somewhere between eighteen and thirty-six different faces before saying, “Well, not a VILLAGE. Is a town. Small town. Nothing to do there! Mining, once. Not worth it. Save your money, go to the church from the Metro. Much more money for you to have, come back to Prague with it. Much more going on.”

“Yeah, I don’t care about mining. Plenty of that where I’m from.”

At that point, the Scotsman started to tell me about when his wife and dog died on the same day. Fergie, was the dog’s name. He didn’t mention the wife’s. I finished my second beer and bade my friends farewell.

“Worr y’gen?”

“I gotta head out,” I said. “Early day tomorrow.”

“Pah! Juslyk n’Amerc’n.”

I grinned and ghosted into the damp, oppressive streets of Kafka’s Prague.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I got some bone sculptures to peep.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Florence: A Shoe Full of Beer

November 6, 2017. Florence, Italy.

I bailed out of my hostel and caught a bus to Florence, arriving at 3 PM. I’d overbooked myself. My plane leaves on the morning of the 8th, which gives me about a day to see all of Florence. This is the opposite of Sage Herbie’s advice, but it’s too late. I’ve buttered my bread. My stale, beef-jerky-chewy, terrible Italian bread.

I crash land in Florence and sprint of Florence Plus, which turned out to be less of a hostel and more of a low-budget indoor resort. I booked it because of the laundry facilities, but there’s a bar and a dance floor in the basement, there’s a terrace that I never got to see because of all the rain, there’s a Turkish bath and a “gym” which consisted of 2 ellipticals, but still. In the laundry room, I met a chef from New York on a similar trajectory as myself, and we grabbed a quick lunch of Florence’s world famous Thai food. We spent the meal bitching about how college is a hustle, but a far more successful hustle than all the unsuccessful hustlers we’d deflected in Europe.

We parted ways and I did a lap of Firenza. It’s a very small city, and all the sights to see are within a mile of each other. First stop was the Santa Maria del Fiori cathedral, which offered a whole host of Catholic-thematic sights for a mere $20 admission, such as “the tomb of some popes” and “weird old paintings that didn’t make it into any museums”. The duomo itself is, unsurprisingly, the crown jewel of the church everybody refers to as “the duomo”, but you needed to reserve a place at least a day in advance because this economy ain’t gonna support itself. I opted to ooh and aah at the cathedral interior, then book it to my next highlight. I would have mooned over the exterior too, but most of Europe seems to be undergoing maintenance.

From there I rolled out to Ponte Vecchio, which is the imaginatively named oldest bridge in Florence.

I saw a couple of market squares and haggled a t-shirt down to half price, then ate a steak and made my way back to the hostel. I sequestered in the quietest room I could find, which was, sadly, the dance floor, and wrote my account of Rome and the Vatican until I ran into my chef buddy from earlier.

“I’ve been drinking pretty much since lunch,” he said. “I wound up with a bunch of Americans and Canadians and South Koreans out on the terrace, and we killed 15 bottles of wine. 15.”

“Jesus.”

“Want me to introduce you to like 30 people?”

Sure. It was happy hour, why not. I met a ton of ’em and forgot every name except the French-Canadian girl who was real insecure about being in her mid-thirties, and I only remember hers because it sounded, to my unsophisticated ear, like “Julie” with a really over-the-top French accent. A tiny Colombian girl taught us all the rudiments of salsa dancing. It turned out, it was someone’s birthday, and he had hobbled up to the bar on the brink of blackout when the Australian girl announced, “WE’RE DOIN’ A SHOEY!”

In the barbarous outback, Australians will arbitrarily drink beer out of shoes, sometimes, for some reason. I looked into it, and it apparently stems from a 20th century custom of drinking champagne out of a lady’s slipper to signify decadence. I don’t know how Australia went from that point A to this point B, but the idea was introduced and the fervor was growing.

A disgusting side note: Everyone here is backpacking. You don’t bring multiple pairs of shoes backpacking because you don’t have the space to spare, so everyone is wearing the one pair of shoes they brought every moment of every day, walking an average of 10 miles a day through these exotic new locales. A hefty South Korean man donated his sneaker to the cause, and, to my unabashed horror, a shoey occurred.

“This is incredible,” the chef told me. “This is the highlight of my night.”

“What the hell’s he gonna do without a shoe?” I asked. The answer, it turned out, would be to spill half a bottle of white wine on the dance floor and grind his socks into it.

I hung in until 1 AM, but I had the Uffizi tomorrow, then a bus back to Rome. I bade all my new friends farewell, thanked them for the glass of wine (a drop in the bucket, really) and retired to my chambers.

I woke up the next morning and paid the $8 for the breakfast buffet. Back at home, I would eat a minimum of 4 eggs a day. Now, it had been two weeks since I had a scrambled egg, and I was suffering. I packed away three cups of coffee, a rasher of bacon, an alarming quantity of mushrooms, two rolls, a couple croissants, and a charcuterie board. The girl by the window kept glancing at me, presumably because of the acre of farmland I was eating, so I struck up a conversation with her that she did not understand at all.

“Very small English,” she said, gesturing.

“What’s your language?” I asked.

“Russian.”

“Oh, nope,” I said, shaking my head. “Not a chance, then.”

Despite the fact that she knew maybe 40 words of English, we spent around a half hour gesturing and making faces at each other to convey where we had been and where we were going. She told me she heard Athens was very nice, but she hadn’t gotten to go when she was in Greece. She had been in Crete, and the beaches were beautiful, but that was in the summer so odds are I wouldn’t get the chance to swim. She had only been doing a day or two in each place, and tomorrow she was bound for Rome; I warned her that there’s way too much to do in Rome, and she’d need to stay for at least a few days.

We said bon voyage and I gathered my stuff, checked out, and went to the Uffizi, where I waited in line for a precious hour. There was too much stuff there for me to do a play-by-play with pictures, but here’s the view from the rooftop cafe.

I got out and ate a tripe sandwich, which I would not recommend. It’s the greasiest thing I’ve ever eaten, and although the… tissue… holds spice flavors incredibly well, it still tasted kind of like cows smell. I spent my time waiting for the bus wondering how a stomach can digest another stomach.

Four hours later, I was in Rome, where I crashed at Melting Pot for six hours before returning to the bus station to catch the worst bus in Europe.

Friends, if you take nothing else from my blog, take this: Never, ever use Terravision. They’re not a bus company, they’re war criminals. It was psychological torture. At 4:40 AM, I showed the ticket they forced me to print out at the hostel (that was a whole different debacle; Terravision doesn’t accept tickets on phone or tablet) to catch the bus that was supposed to depart at 4:50 AM. He looked at it and said, “Next bus.”

The next bus, which was supposed to leave at 4:50, arrived at 5 AM. The early morning troglodytes clustered around the door as though, if they lowered their guard, their reserved seats would be given away. I got on the bus and shortly thereafter, a mother with an infant sat in the seat across from me. As is tradition. It was 5 AM, and something like 40 degrees on the bus. It was a matter of time before that child freaked out. The doom in the air was palpable.

The bus eventually went to the airport, but based on his spastic working of the pedals, I don’t think the driver had ever driven anything before. Maybe he was blind, or epileptic, or both. The bus was rattling apart around me. Unbelievably, they turned on the air conditioning.

I fled into the cold, tiny airport, which is where I’m writing this. My flight to Athens is about to start boarding. I’ll be in touch.

Love,

The Bastard

Europe Bound

Got a $700 round-trip to Europe for a month. Tentatively. Might stick around longer if it turns out I really like living the pseudo-hobo life.

Friend of mine said, “You’re going to be there an entire month? And you don’t even know anybody?”

“Nope.”

“That’s so scary.”

“That’s why I gotta.”

You have to make sure you can do these things. You’re never gonna know if you can write the novel til you put all the words on the page. You’re not gonna know if you have what it takes to run the whole “higher education” gamut until you got the diplomas in hand. You’re never gonna know what kind of person you are until you put yourself in a situation where you have to find out.

The chronicle starts in earnest next week.