Columbian Magic and other secrets of the stone house

This weekend, the wife and I drove to a village in the the north of Czech for a confab of friends with small children. Here are some of the highlights from Saturday:

Approx. 1:00pm: Wife driving, me sitting in passenger seat. Wife mentions that our hosts for the weekend (whom we’ve never met before) are a family named Vitek, Lubmila and baby Josefina. Sometimes Czechs have weird names.

Approx 1:15pm: Wife and I discuss a friend of hers who apparently cannot wrap her head around the fact that I do not know how to drive stick and never owned a car prior to 2009. Friend has repeatedly asked if I have some sort of condition or chemical balance that prevents me from getting behind the wheel. We resolve that I will act in a highly erratic manner next time we spend time with her.

Approx 1:30pm: Start to drift off to sleep in passenger seat and enter that phase between sleep and wakefulness where you start to have strange, disconnected thoughts. In this state, I realize that as you pass through the membrane into sleep, your thoughts suddenly extrude into three dimensional shapes, like soap bubbles being blown. The shapes are filled with ideas that look like sparkly glitter, which were actually shapes back in the awake world. So: when you fall asleep, ideas become shapes and shapes become ideas. Got that? Good.

Approx. 2:15: We arrive at our destination, which is an awesomely dilapidated stone house owned by the family with the weird names. The outside looks like this…

The inside, meanwhile, is full of the kind of grandeur-fading-and-crumbing-into-ruin that never fails to excite visiting rootless American bloggers. Check out the photo at the top of the post, for example: that was the ceiling of a room where I helped Vitek set up an ornate Romanian bed that lacked any matching parts and apparently turned out to be murderously uncomfortable for the people who slept in it.

Also included on this floor were Mamby-pamby Baroque Piano, No Face Jesus and Mary, and Giant Picture Frame With Nothing In It:

Right after arriving, we get the grand tour of the place, which took a solid half hour and also included…

Approx: 2:50pm: … on the third floor, a working toilet, finally! Except its not really a toilet, it’s more like an outhouse that’s indoors. And painted an inviting shade of pink:

If you open the hatch and look down, there’s what appears to be a bottomless pit. Sort of like an oubliette. Let’s move on…

Approx 2:52pm: our tour takes us to a quasi-secret room, which contains a super ornante wood burning stove. Inscribed in curiously Haight-Ashbury-type lettering (and in English, no less) is ‘Columbian Magic’:

If I had to guess at gun point what ‘Columbian Magic’ is and had a hundred guesses, I would still never guess ‘wood burning stove’.

In conclusion: when you factor in the crazy surroundings and the fact that our hosts were more than a little Ren Fair-ish, the weekend probably more closely resembled a Scooby Doo episode than anything else I’ve ever experienced.

This Movie Happened

The other day somebody sent me a link to a trailer for what appeared to be a 2003 movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Kate Beckinsale, and Gary Oldman. Those actors were all pretty big-time in 2003, so I was a little surprised that I didn’t recognize it — it was called Tiptoes. But then I grasped its premise, and I immediately concluded that this was some Funny or Die sketch. In Tiptoes (purportedly), Kate Beckinsale is pregnant with her fiance McConaughey’s child, and he reveals to her that he is from a family of dwarfs and has been hiding this fact from her — and it is very likely that her child will be a dwarf. And the kicker, which proved to me beyond any doubt that this was all a big send-up, was that Oldman, in “the role of a lifetime” as the trailer promises, played McConaughey’s wise-cracking dwarf older brother.

The tagline, “It’s the Little Things in Life that Matter” and the improbable “2004 Sundance Film Festival Selection” also seemed to be examples of the perpetrators getting a little carried away with the joke.

It literally didn’t cross my mind that any studio could have actually made this film, let alone that these three actors might have voluntarily agreed to be in it. Even my movie producer friend agreed that it was just not possible. So I did some googling to learn more…and I found more and more evidence that it was real. An IMDB page. A Rotten Tomatoes page. Random internet discussions of it. I soon concluded that this was one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever perpetrated. Only when my friend actually managed to download a full copy of the movie and, he claims, watch all 90 minutes, did I accept that it was real (although I am still pondering whether the gag might have extended to filming an entire feature-length movie).

I’m hoping this can become a regular feature on the blog. Dan, I challenge you to find a movie less likely to be real, but still real.


Dan replies: If I wanted to be a jerk about it, I would nominate Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up. Synopsis: In real life, a man named Hossain Sabzian insinuated himself into the lives of the movie-going Ahankhah family by pretending to be the noted Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Makhmalbaf’s colleague Kiarostami filmed the resulting criminal trial and then got Sabzian and the Ahankhah family to impersonate themselves and reenact the entire drama. Now that’s unlikely. It’s a jerk comparison, though, because Kiarostami’s movie is ‘unlikely’ in a deliberate artistic manner, whereas Tiptoes is just weird. What’s more, its a jerk move because Krafty introduced me to the film in the first place.

Supply-Your-Own-Caption Contest

From a Mexican TV slapstick comedy that I caught a few minutes of in the Radioshack on Mission St. I was literally just standing in front of a TV taking shots of the screen with my phone while my friend bought batteries for his camera, hence the grainy ‘field footage’ quality of the images.

Unfortunately, I missed the comic denouement where– of course– the doctor finds a pretext to ‘examine’ the nurse and starts pawing at her bosom with his stethoscope to peals of laughter and applause. So, you’re on your own as far as visualizing a conclusion to this Chekovian little drama.

Glimpses of A Disco Story

Some screenshots from Discopriběh (A Disco Story), the seminal Czechoslovakian teenybopper movie that I watched over the weekend on a friend’s suggestion.

It’s essentially an 80s teen musical in the spirit of Pretty In Pink, anchored by the pop stylings of Michal David, who might really be the most incredibly cheesy person on the face of the planet. Filmed just two years before the Velvet Revolution, it gives an interesting glimpse into the last days of Communism… I suppose. And the points where it converges and diverges with American teeny-bopperism are instructive … I guess. But mostly, it’s just a good laugh. I would recommend it, but I imagine it’s impossible to find a copy with subtitles (I had to have my wife clue me as to what was happening whenever the plot strayed from the most rudimentary teen plot points).

Lots of this: exuberant, goofball out-of-the-blue musical numbers.

Many of the clubs they hang out in don’t really look fully renovated, and thus have a kind of civic-sponsored, junior-high-school-dance vibe. I would make more fun of this, but a lot of clubs in villages still look like this, and I’ve hung out in many such places…

Early on, there’s a Teenage Mischief Montage where the main character engages in a bunch of ruses to evade a tram inspector who’s caught him without a ticket. Suddenly, he plunges into a crowd of goose-stepping, robotic soldiers who are marching through the main town square. Marching soldiers: communist-era comic foil!

Also, a gratuitous topless scene involving these two girls that’s far more random, baffling, and inexplicable than anything you can imagine seeing in a U.S. movie from the same period (and that’s saying a lot). It’s all a bit… unreconstructed.

Aside from the dreamy male and female leads, the other sidekick characters are incredibly cretinous and look like they just fell off a dump truck. This is the lucky male character who gets prominently involved in the topless scene mentioned above. Let’s just move on…

Lots of bonding scenes between father and son, who share a typical (small) Communist-era box flat and therefore share a bed. You can really ratchet up the bonding vibe when the two characters are sharing a bed.

There’s a classic West Side Story angle, in that the boy hides his humble social status in order to try and impress the girl. Interestingly, the humble social role that he’s trying to conceal also involves training to become a chimney sweep (??), so we see lots and lots of scenes with guys dressed liked this.

Then, a fantastically cheesy date montage scene, which someone was kind enough to upload to youtube. I encourage you to watch it.

Finally, after a classic dramatic arc and some depressing moments, the movie ends with a triumphant denouement where thousands of kids suddenly burst out dancing on the main square of Plzen. By this point, my wife had stopped watching, so I was kind of confused as to what had happened that had suddenly made everyone so jubilant… but I enjoyed the happy ending nevertheless.

The Zen of crying

This past week, our kid has gotten full-blown sick for the first time in his young life– throwing up, feverish, the whole nine yards. This has introduced us to a routine that is familiar to a great many people but thankfully new to us, the Sleepless Night With Sick Baby. Much like getting married, taking a driving test or spending a night in jail, this is one of the familiar set pieces of human experience– you’ve either heard about it, read about it, or seen Ted Danson do it enough times in sitcoms that it feels like you’re acting out a script even as you’re perhaps having a very individualized experience. The Sleepless Night With Sick Baby scenario has an extra bewildering, gothic aspect compared to these others in the sense that it erupts at sporadic intervals in the middle of the night, but the basic familiarity lingers and makes you feel as though you’re trapped inside a trope while it’s happening.

An interesting part in this bleary drama is the moment when you simply decide to let the poor kid cry, because there’s nothing you can do to help him. This is sad, obviously… but once you make the switch, there’s also weird sense of release: its like the moment of being caught in a rain storm when you eventually get so wet that you stop hurrying to get out of the rain as fast as possible and instead just accept the situation. Listening to it in the darkness last night, the sound of crying began to loose its contours and become this weird formless thing, like when you repeat a word over and over again. As a thought experiment, I tried imagining that the crying was not in fact crying but rather some challenging musical performance that I had paid good money to attend, maybe involving one of those awful, discordant one string Chinese zither instruments. I could half-imagine myself sitting in an auditorium chair, trying to take to accept the music on its own terms but nonetheless getting impatient for the concert to end.

In general, we haven’t been hit too hard by the parenting exhaustion stick… but I’ve had enough spotty nights to notice something interesting about sleep deprivation that I couldn’t have noticed before, which is that there’s a strong moral component in terms of how I experience it. If I’m underslept because of my kid, there’s no way it could have been otherwise, so there’s a feeling of non-responsibility (so sue me’) as I’m perhaps stumbling through a bad presentation at work the next day, or delivering a garbled lecture to my students, or writing an incomprehensible blog post. Interestingly, the sense of not being responsible for one’s tiredness makes it much more negligible somehow. It’s the times when I stayed up too late the night before watching the episode of the Wire where Avon and Stringer get into their fight for the fourth time– or any of the other dumb reasons I used to have for not getting enough sleep– that the sensation of tiredness feels particularly impairing–that is, when it comes with the feeling of having engineered one’s own demise.

(Photo: gratuitous-cute-kid shot taken in normal, healthy times– right now, he looks considerably more dazed, sad to say)

Clichés in action

In addition to the Belmont pit stop described below, we also made it up and down the east coast during our just-completed month of traveling, making stops in upstate New York, Vermont, Vieques (small island off of Puerto Rico) and New York City.

One of the perks of sampling so many disparate places is all the little regional and situational clichés you run into on the way. A clueless-looking dude pulling off his boot in a ski lodge to find acute frostbite covering his foot (we happened to be watching his foot and his facial expression at the exact moment of discovery). A flight to San Juan nearly postponed on account of volcanic ash. Hassidic Jews tromping around mid-town Manhattan. A flight in a tiny 10-seater plane where we taxied by an iguana sunning itself on the runway.

Things came to a head, cliche-wise, at 6am on our first morning in Vieques. Imagine: we’ve gotten up at 5am the previous morning and taken two planes with my mom and 7 month-old baby to get to the island from Boston, so we’re really, really tired and desperate to catch up on sleep. At 6am, we’re woken bolt-upright in bed by blasting, cheesy Latin pop music that seems to be coming out of the heavens. It’s so loud that you can’t even identify a directional source of the sound– it just seems to be emanating out of the air particles around our heads.

Realizing that kiddo is not going to sleep through this onslaught, and that our prospective morning of sleeping in is dashed, I decide to throw on some clothes and at least make a grumpy harrumph of it. Stomping out into the bright Carribean morning sunshine, I make a wrong turn before correctly identifying the direction of the noise and setting off across a small field towards it. At one point, I look back over my shoulder and see that I’ve been joined by an irate comrade-in-arms, a shirtless, insanely-disheveled-and-outraged-looking guy. He looks strangely like a combination of Robert Downey Jr. and Morton Downey Jr. Finally, I cross the field and near a road where I am presented with the source of The Din and the following sight: about 20 guys neatly lined up on horseback, wearing sort of festive, tricked-out ranch wear. A kind of self-appointed inspector guy is making his way up and down the line, checking out everyone. A truck sits in front of them with a couple heavy-set women bouncing up and down next to giant speakers – the kind you see used for outdoor concerts– that are playing the music.

Of course, it turns out to be impossible to communicate anything in words once you get that close to a loudspeaker truck, much less in Spanish. After lots of irate hand-gestures, I eventually turn around and huff back to our guesthouse, satisfied at least to see that a veritable lynch mob of angry villagers has started to form behind me. At breakfast (served outdoors by the pool), The Din is the hot topic, with one of the guesthouse staff commenting off-handedly that the malefactors were probably just ‘some really drunk guys’. ‘They didn’t look drunk to me,’ I find myself saying. ‘They looked really, really organized, actually.” We never were able to figure out what the whole thing was about, although it seems reasonable to guess that it had something to do with 3 Kings Day, which happened a few days later and apparently is a big deal there.

This is the point where the blog entry veers sharply into insensitive ethnic generalizations… but: I haven’t experienced such an insane, nuisance-y episode of noise-making since, oh… the 10 years that I lived in the Mission District. Once I arrived in Prague, it felt disorienting to actually experience REM sleep, as though I’d been skidding over the surface of it during a decade spent with street noisy and crappy single-ply windows in SF. One morning in particular, shortly before I left SF for Prague, I was woken up at 8am on a blazing hot Saturday by a bunch of drunken guys congregated on the sidewalk outside with a guitar, literally doing the ‘Aye, aye, aye-yi … aye yi, yi aye-yi‘ song. Fuming, I decided to retaliate by filling a garbage pail full of water and dumping it on them from the roof, in much the same way as you train a cat not to jump on a table by flicking water at it.

There’s a big difference between thinking about doing something like this and actually peeling yourself out of bed to do it, but a few minutes later I actually got to the top of the stairs lugging a several gallons of water behind me. Unfortunately, our upstairs neighbor was also there, meditating in a cross-legged position and chanting. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to push by him and nonchalantly hurl a trash bin full of water onto people below while he was trying to tap into his inner center. So, I made my egress, feeling thwarted (common theme in these two stories, I guess). It struck me as a specifically ‘San Francisco’ kind of quandary: trapped between drunken noisemakers on one side and chanted Ohm Shanti Shantis on the other.

(Photo: world’s dinkiest baggage carousel at Vieques airport).