Dork Season Cometh

Czech people are really into the past. Bars almost uniformly go in for a comfy, old-timey vibe, such that the white leather sofa — so ubiquitous in the nightlife of other former Communist capital cities — is a rare sight here. Anytime we go to visit my wife’s parents and I stop to inspect the steady drone of weekend daytime TV going on in the background, the show is always something medieval-themed along the lines of Xena: Warrior Princess– there’s rarely any sci-fi or Saved By The Bell-type contemporary teen fodder. (Of course, there’s always the occasional exception– check out this great 1963 Czech sci-fi clip that JohnnyO passed along to me, in which futurist Slav-onauts discover a capitalist ghost ship).

The celebration of olden days of yore reaches its peak every year in September, when the annual harvest of a special kind of Moravian wine called Burčák arrives. Burčák, which doesn’t mean ‘the stinky wine’ but should, tastes like juice but smells terrible– the tongue may be fooled into thinking it’s not particularly alcoholic, but the nose knows better. I usually quaff it with my left hand while using my right hand to daintily pinch my nostrils closed. Anyway: the point is that the arrival of Burčák sets off a tidal wave of Renaissance festivals and other such pagentry, such that I tend to mark this time in my mental calendar as Dork Season. If you have a phobia of town criers or heaving, bodice-clad bosoms, definitely stay away from the Czech Republic in September.

Even though it’s a few months away, I was acutely reminded of the coming of Dork Season because we were visited this weekend by a friend from Paris who’s a veteran of historical reenactments. His first visit to the Czech Republic a few years ago was occasioned by the 200th anniversary of some Napoleonic battle, where he and a hundred other buffs dressed up in authentic uniforms and ran down some hill together. Naturally, I plied him with questions, attempting to disguise my mirthful curiosity as legitimate historical inquiry. Here’s what I learned:

1. Apparently, one can just hit ebay in order to buy one’s Napoleonic-era military outfits. Over here in Europe, the participants tend to be fairly relaxed about how carefully you adhere to historical authenticity, but the Civil War guys in the U.S. are another story altogether, and are much more likely to take you to task if your musket is a few years out of date or something.

2. Clannish factionalism runs amok in these historical revivals. Especially between Flemish Belgians and French-speaking Belgians. I guess this probably mirrors the regional rivalries roiling under the surface of Napoleonic-era armies pretty accurately.

3. It sounds like the revivals are often poorly organized and, in that sense, also accurately reflect the realities of 19th century warfare. Our friend said that he had gotten off the group bus in some town in Austria and started wandering around the town center, thinking they had a few hours of free time, when he suddenly noticed clouds of cannon smoke and shouting coming from a nearby hill and had to rush over as to not miss the skirmishing.

A semi-fictional story about why I haven't blogged much lately

I apologize for the freaking paucity of posts lately. The truth is that everything was humming along smoothly until last Saturday morning, when I took my kid to the park and read a magazine article while he was sleeping about all the problems with drug cartels in Mexico. There was one part where the journalist interviewed townspeople in the city of Zitacuaro, a place that has become entirely captive to drug lords. Kidnapping has become so prevalent there as a routine source of revenue for organized crime that “everyone I talked to in Zitacuaro seemed to know someone who had been kidnapped,” the journalist explained. This statement was followed by an unbelievable interview with a school teacher who explained the precautions one takes against being kidnapped: “Everybody has to vary their routines, all the time.” When the journalist expressed astonishment that a school teacher could vary his routine all the time, the teacher replied, “You just have to. They’re watching.”

After reading this, it occurred to me that I should try to continually vary my schedule as though would-be kidnappers were targeting me for a nabbing. Partly, this is about expressing solidarity with the people of Zitacuaro, but it also seemed like a good skill set to develop if and when the political situation deteriorates here in Czech, once the Russians eventually cut off our supply of drinking water. For me, this continual varying-of-routine has mostly been a matter of wearing disguises and eating at a variety of outlandishly bad restaurants, although I’ve definitely cultivated a full quiver of lesser tricks as well.

So it was that I found myself in my druid outfit, sitting in a Czech Mex place and eating a burrito that tasted like an oversized sleeping pill filled with yarn. It was in these dismal circumstances that I decided to risk phoning my wife. Calling home is definitely a gamble, but I had been hiding out in a silent Quaker prayer session the last two days at this time, so I imagined that my antagonists couldn’t possibly anticipate this sudden burst of communicativeness on my part. With eager hands, I brushed the wizardy beard wisps away from my face and dialed.

Where are you?” she immediately wanted to know, forgetting that this type of location-revealing question is completely against protocol when one is trying not to be kidnapped.

“In a fist fight,” I immediately answered, hoping this would throw them off. The truth is that that there had been some serious tension at the last Quaker meeting, so I hadn’t entirely fabricated this response out of thin air. I was getting sloppy. I’d have to be careful to avoid an actual fist fight at the next meeting, lest I inadvertently establish a pattern of behavior.

“What?” she said. While one could forgive her for being confused, the truth is just that she hadn’t heard me clearly, given that I was mumbling through my Gandalf beard in a sotto voice in the darkness of the unpopular restaurant. Meanwhile, I was having trouble concentrating– my mind was wandering from the tiredness accumulated from continually waking up at odd hours to stage the diversionary errand of  going to the bank in the middle of the night. In this bleary state, I started thinking about the way that married couples are portrayed in most movies, as these sorts of bland paragons of maturity. In my experience, this couldn’t be further (thankfully) from the reality of spousal interactions, which better resemble the long rides you had in the back seat with your best friend when you were 8 or 9 years old, where you enjoyably resort to the most slapstick of humor in order to pass the time together. Moreover, people never mishear each other in movies, unless it serves some kind of comic purpose. In order for Hollywood depictions of marriage to resemble what I know to be real, the two people would have to get over themselves somewhat, amuse each other with a lot more dumb jokes, and mishear each other almost constantly during certain intervals.

The 7 types of stories

See the list of tags in the right-hand column of this blog? Turns out they’re obsolete. Categories, too.

(Side rant: there isn’t a single coherent explanation anywhere in the WordPress internet kingdom of what the difference is between ‘tags’ and ‘categories’. I vaguely get the sense that you’re supposed to use them both in concert with each other… which would be fine if I had 5 hours a day to write posts or a teeming staff of assistants to delegate such matters to. Like I’m conducting interviews and explaining So, once the post comes back from the copy desk and the fact-checkers, it’ll be your job to assign appropriate categories and tags. It’s important that you do this before we get the galley proofs back from the publisher! )

According to this WaPo profile of economist-blogger Tyler Cowen, there are only seven possible variants of story line, blog or otherwise:

Cowen also has rules about stories: He distrusts them, particularly ones like this profile. The writer is arranging facts to keep readers reading. “The more inspired the story makes me feel, very often the more nervous I get,” he once said. He believes nearly all stories follow seven templates: “monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth.”…Cowen, based on his reading of thousands of books, thinks stories trick readers because they are filtered: Writers ‘take a lot of information and they leave some of it out,” he says.

So there you go. From now on, blogs should come pre-populated with only those tag/category options:

  • monster
  • rags to riches
  • quest
  • voyage and return
  • comedy
  • tragedy
  • rebirth

There could still be a ‘edit tags’ button, but this would only shoot a thick black inky substance across your monitor, like a retreating octopus.

As far as taxonomies go, this is a good one, although not as quite as fun as Wolfgang Weinart’s enumeration of the different kinds of typefaces he designs:

  • bunny type
  • sunshine type
  • ant type
  • five-minute type
  • typewriter type
  • for-the-people type

I guess if I were to write a post about the Led Zeppelin tribute band I saw last night, that one would go under… hmm: tragedy and rebirth? Why was I watching a tribute band, you might ask? Well, my friend was playing the part of Mitch Mitchell in a Hendrix tribute outfit that opened up for the Led Zeps. (Maybe quest would be a better categorization for this post, actually, given man’s ancient quest to have Hendrix and Zeppelin play on the same bill). Czech Zeppelin was entertaining and played the songs well, but made no attempt to look like the members of Led Zeppelin. Here, for example, was our Jimmy Page for the evening:

Other than the commendable accuracy of the red sunburst Gibson Les Paul, he looks more like Ray Cole from The Wire:

Now, the idea of a cover band whose members play Zeppelin songs but look like characters in The Wire would be a perfectly welcome innovation, but they didn’t extend this concept across entire band. Only Page, and the singer who looked passably like that Stevedore character whose name I can’t remember who helps Ziggy lift stuff off the dock:

With the singer– who sounded exactly like Robert Plant, by the way– there was this hilarious juxtaposition between his Czech speaking voice and his howling, vowel-laden sung Plantisms. Example:

SPEAKING VOICE (quiet, clipped, lots of consonants): “mutter, mutter…. zxk k kvvvvkkx xsxxxkkxxvvv….”

[music kicks in:]


OK, time to put a sock in it. Wouldn’t wanna offend Tyler Cowen any further.