Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Swiss Fox, The Big Shoe, And The Famous Tall Mountain

Once upon a time, there was a playful fox who lived near a campground in a magical Swiss village. The fox loved to steal people's shoes. The fox stole so many shoes from careless campers that the owner of the campground even put up a warning sign.

One night, a silly man who forgot about the sign or perhaps had had too much wine left his only pair of shoes under a table outside his rented RV. When the silly man got up in the morning, he discovered that one of his shoes was missing. And that his remaining shoe had been shit in and upon by what looked like a very sick fox.

The silly man walked barefoot all through the surrounding farmer's fields of cold, dewy grass, being careful not to step in the scattered mounds of manure, as he searched for his shoe. His feet were cold and wet. The silly man found three other single shoes in the long grass, the footwear of other careless campers, which at first gave him hope. But his hope quickly vanished. His shoe was nowhere to be seen.

But he did meet a nice cat.

What was the silly man to do?

He had big feet and found it hard to buy new shoes, even at home, which was more than 700 kilometers away. He knew that he had no choice: He must take the bus down into the tiny village below and try to find a pair of size 51 shoes (or 15.5 U.S.).

His wife kindly cleaned off the silly man's one shoe, and he put a sock on the other foot, and put on his face mask, and took the bus into the village with his family and his dog. He was hoping that no one was staring at his one shoeless foot, but he knew that they were.

He went into many stores, whose friendly shopkeepers were amused by his story. But they only laughed heartily when he told them the size of shoe he needed. One very nice shopkeeper worked really hard to find some sandals that the silly man could wear.

Finally, they found one pair that kinda, sorta fit, and the silly man bought those for 30 CHF, because he had no choice. He really wanted to go to the top of the famous tall mountain the next day and knew that he needed something on his feet because there was still snow up there, even though it was August.

The last shop in the village told the silly man that they could order a pair in his size from a nearby city, but that it would take 24 hours to arrive. So the silly man said yes. He didn't want to wear ill-fitting sandals for the rest of his trip.

The silly man did go to the top of the famous tall mountain and walk in the snow in his silly sandals, and later that day, when he came down from the mountain, the nice shopkeeper who ordered him some shoes sold him a new pair of size 51s for 200 CHF.

And that's how a silly man lost a giant shoe to a crafty fox, who is probably living inside it now. With his whole family.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Beyond The Basics, Human Anatomy Lab Offers A Bigger Lesson

The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr. Tulp (1632) by Rembrandt

This essay was published in The Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard on July 8, 2001. I worked as the features editor for The R-G, after I left Prague in November 1999, before returning, as so many of us do, in August 2001. I think about this experience often and thought I'd share this here on Gusto.


By Grant Podelco

A FEW WEEKS AGO, my wife and I stopped at the Farmers' Market to buy red potatoes, radishes, and baby zucchini for a dinner we were preparing for guests later that day. Then we headed over to the University of Oregon to touch dead people.

My wife is going to school at the Cascade Institute of Massage & Body Therapies in Eugene to become a licensed massage therapist. It's an intense, yearlong program and involves the study of everything from anatomy and cell structures to ethics and pathology.

It's one thing to be learning muscles from textbooks, peeling back clear plastic pages to reveal layers of tissue and muscle and bone, or to probe for the gastrocnemius muscle under the warm, giving flesh of a fellow student.

It's something else entirely to wrap your fingers around the thick ropes of muscle exposed on the calf of a male cadaver and follow them down from knee to ankle.

When Deana first told me part of her studies would involve multiple visits to a cadaver lab, I asked if I could go along. When would I ever have such a chance to peer inside the human body? Morbid curiosity got the better of me.

That's how I ended up in Room B75 of the UO's Human Anatomy Teaching Laboratory, surrounded by five moist corpses, each wrapped in cloth and plastic, resting in various states of dissection on stainless steel gurneys. There were 21 of us in that cramped, low-ceilinged room, including 13 students, an instructor and a UO graduate student.

Large charts detailing the inner workings of the human spine and digestive system decorated the walls. A human skeleton hung listlessly in a corner, next to some life-sized mannequins upholstered in exposed muscle, standing near a bin labeled: Used Gloves and Other Dissecting Waste.

We had been warned about the smell, told to bring a change of clothes, that we wouldn't be able to get the odor out of them.

As our group waited anxiously in a basement hallway of the Onyx Bridge building before entering the laboratory, one student spoke for many when she said, "I'm kinda terrified, actually."

"As long as there's no juice stuff coming out, I'll be OK," another said.

Cascade's pathology instructor, Dr. Marie Freyre, gave us a little pep talk before we went in.

"The preciousness of life is a wonderful thing," she said. "That's what you're going to be experiencing today."

Then she mentioned the smell again. "It's going to be intense.

"... Are you ready?"

It's uncommon anymore to come face-to-face with death. Even funerals are antiseptic affairs, the bodies on view well-dressed, their hair combed, cheeks rouged. Seems to me this wasn't always the case, that seeing a dead body probably wasn't that unusual 100 years ago. Before antibiotics and penicillin, it was much more common to wake up one morning and find that a family member hadn't.

There was no rouge on the cheeks of the bodies in Room B75. Some of the bodies didn't even have cheeks. They were naked. Their identities, exact ages and causes of death were unknown.

One male cadaver was resting face down, his nose pressed against the cold metal table. He sported a round metal tag looped through his ear that was stamped with the number 302225. Small plastic buckets hung beneath drain holes on the gurneys, each filled with a cup or so of reddish liquid. A sign dangling from one of the gurneys read: "This Is Gerty" - a playful nickname, something to take the edge off.

They'd all been dead for six months or more. The smell of the preservatives was sharp, intensely medicinal, but more tolerable than I had imagined.

Tesa Brown, 24, a UO master's student in sports medicine, had already been working on a few of the cadavers and introduced us to them, unwrapping them from their shrouds, revealing their grim, pinched faces and opened torsos overflowing with organs.

We inched closer to the bodies, hesitant, keeping a respectful distance from death. Freyre detected our shyness.

"It's an experience to open the cadaver and view the human form. That's why we're here," she said. "This is your first lab, so walk around and really get in there."

In the end, we really did get in there, unfurling Slinky-like lengths of intestine, poking the subcutaneous fat exposed on an abdomen, following veins and arteries, limp as shoestrings, down an arm with our fingers, turning loose pages of skin and muscle to reveal the next anatomical chapters hidden beneath.

"Everybody take a look at this one," Freyre said, standing next to an old woman's body, her muscles a dark brown, like beef jerky. "The organs are really beautiful."

It was oddly moving for me to reach inside this woman's chest and cradle her heart -- stiff, heavy, the color of red wine -- in the palm of my hand.

I'll remember how it felt for the rest of my life, how for such a small, old woman, it was such a presence in her tiny chest.

Morbid curiosity had given way to profound respect. I wondered about the lives these bodies -- these people -- had led, the children they had borne, the places they had traveled, the homes where they'd lived, the birthdays they'd celebrated.

I wondered about those they had loved and those who had loved them in return.

I find myself thinking about them often now, and not only for what their sacrifice taught me about the inner workings of the human body, which was considerable. Yes, it's a cliche, but confronting their death has made me appreciate anew the fragility of life.

Seeing inside them has helped me to see inside myself.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Acting The Part

As the Sea Captain. (Photo courtesy of Kaja Curtis)

Boldness be my friend! Arm me, audacity. -- William Shakespeare, "Cymbeline"

In 2014, I think it was, for one of my New Year's resolutions, I vowed to do something that made me uncomfortable, that I was scared of doing, that frightened me, that took me out of my comfort zone.

I succeeded in accomplishing that resolution, but it took me until the spring of 2015 to do it. And what did I do, exactly? Well, I acted before a live audience in a Shakespeare play, and to say that I was scared is to belabor understatement.

I've done a few scary things in my life, or things that seemed scary to me at the time, at least. I wrote my own jokes and went on stage at a comedy club in Syracuse, New York, in the late 1980s; I went bungee jumping in the early 1990s; and I reported from Afghanistan for four weeks in 2002. So it had been awhile since I'd challenged myself in that way.

Daisy and I have become good friends over the past few years with Guy Roberts and Jessica Boone of the Prague Shakespeare Company. Guy is artistic director of PSC and Jessica is co-CEO. They're both incredibly talented Shakespearean actors, and Guy has directed many of the Shakespeare works performed at the historic Kolowrat Theatre in Prague.

Every time Daisy and I would go to a PSC production, I'd always think to myself, "Man, I would love to do something like that." Just a small part, mind you. Just to feel what it's like to act on the stage, to feel the adrenalin rush of coming out from behind the curtain as someone else, to interact with other actors in a situation where there's no Take 2, where it's all live, baby.

I was bold enough to mention my dream to Guy a few years ago. He didn't laugh or dismiss the idea immediately, as I figured he might. I have done some acting in a few TV shows that have been filmed in Prague, as well as in a number of student films for the Prague Film School, so my idea wasn't totally crazy, but I'd never done live theater. It just seemed too damn scary.

With Jessica Boone as Viola. (Photo courtesy of Kaja Curtis)

I was secretly hoping that Guy might make something happen someday, but I was also secretly dreading it. What if he did offer me something? Could I act before a live audience? Could I memorize my lines? I'm bad at memorizing things. I suck at foreign languages.

In the end, Guy did ask me to audition, for Hamlet, back in 2012, but I declined, writing back:
"There is a part of me that is truly desperate to try something like this. And part of me thinks I'd succeed somehow. (Hubris!) Of course, I have no stage experience, so starting with Shakespeare is probably a huge mistake anyway. But I don't have any Shakespeare scenes or monologues from my past that I could audition with, and I wouldn't know where to start, frankly. Seems like the Gravedigger would best suit me, but I am confident that you will find someone slightly more experienced than I!"

I thought nothing more of my dream. I'd turned down the one offer I was ever likely to get.

And then, on January 27, 2015, I received this e-mail:
"Hi, Grant. I hope this finds you well… How are you? We just had an actor drop out of Twelfth Night and now we have two small roles that we need to fill and thought it would be really cool to get you involved if at all possible.. 
We would like to offer you the role of The Sea Captain and the Priest. The production will be directed by Rebecca Greene Udden, the Artistic Director of Main Street Theater Company in Houston, Texas. 
I know this is a bit out of left field but I have seen you act in film clips and you are a good actor and I would love to get you involved with the show if possible. 
So let me know what you think and if you have any questions - thanks so much for the consideration. 
All my best, 


As The Priest, with the amazing Gregory Gudgeon as Malvolio. (Photo courtesy of Kaja Curtis)

It had happened. I felt like throwing up. Shakespeare? Me? What had I gotten myself into, for Chrissakes? I can’t memorize Shakespeare!

I kept the offer to myself for a day or so and then mentioned it to Daisy.

“You have to do it,” she said.

I felt sick to my stomach. I had Guy e-mail me the script. I looked at my parts. They were both small, but bigger than I had ever imagined. But Daisy was right. I could not say no. Or rather, I could not not say yes. I screwed my courage to the sticking place and told Guy I was in.

Backstage with director Rebecca Greene Udden (center), Jessica Boone as Viola, and Guy Roberts as Sir Toby Belch.

Backstage as The Priest.

And for the next six weeks, I lived and breathed those parts. I dreamed them. I carried my script with me everywhere I went, mumbling my lines to myself over and over as I walked to the metro, while I rode the metro or tram, in my car, in the shower.

And you know what? Slowly, very slowly, and much to my surprise, I did learn them. For example, as the Sea Captain, part of my lines went like this:
True, madam: and, to comfort you with chance,
Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
When you and those poor number saved with you
Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself,
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin's back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.
Pretty cool stuff.

We spent many weeks in rehearsals. I loved every minute of it. I loved seeing how such a big production all came together. I loved being backstage and being made to feel like a real member of the company by the real members of the company. I loved getting fitted for my Sea Captain and Priest costumes. In the end, after a bit of difficulty early on, I even loved dancing in the choreographed number that ended the play. And it was such an honor to be working side by side with Rebecca and Guy and even having scenes with both Jessica as Viola and Jan Thompson O.B.E., the British ambassador to the Czech Republic, as Olivia.

And when opening night came and the theater filled with people and it was my time to take the stage, my body was electrified. I was nervous, but it was a different kind of nervous. I wanted to walk on that stage. I couldn't wait, in fact. It was almost like this was where I was supposed to be.

I think I did eight performances of Twelfth Night. Yes, I stepped on Jessica's lines at least once, and as The Priest, I must admit that a moment came onstage where I simply forgot what I was supposed to say. I froze. Believe me, I'll never forget that moment. Sheer, abject terror. I looked at Jan and I looked at the other performers onstage (at that point in the play, there are a lot of people onstage), and I looked at the audience, and nothing came out of my mouth. I had rehearsed those lines probably 1,000 times, but when I needed them, they weren't there.

Just the sounds of crickets.

And then, eventually, after what seemed like five minutes of awkward silence but was probably only five seconds, a few stumbling words came out of my mouth, and then somehow my brain slid back into gear and I picked back up from where I was supposed to be. I was mortified, but was assured that it happens to the best of them. 

In the end, the play was a big hit. And I had accomplished something I thought was impossible.

Fast forward to the end of August, and I get another e-mail:
Hi all,
John Poston is adapting and directing a new play for our Artistic Lab series based on Karel Capek's Pocket Stories and we would like to have a gathering of all the cast we hope to be in the show to meet and go over the script. 
If you are getting this email it means we would love for you to be in the show. 
Please come to Divadlo Kolowrat on 8 September at 7pm and find out more... 
Let me know if you can or cannot make it. 

And so my second foray into live theater – The Order of the Blue Chrysanthemum (OBC) -- began. I entered into it with as much – or more -- trepidation than I did Twelfth Night, because my part – that of Interior Minister Martin Bartosek – is HUGE. At least compared with Twelfth Night. Many, many lines.

But when the final script came in, I had a month or so to prepare, and I did it. I learned my lines. I did something that I didn't think I could do. And we played to three sold-out houses. And if that wasn't enough, Emma, my step-daughter, who wants to be a professional actress and has been in many, many plays at the International School of Prague and at Prague Youth Theatre, is also in OBC. She has a speaking part as a maid, marking her first professional acting gig. How cool is that?!

Rehearsing OBC with director John Poston (right) and Curtis Matthew, not in the Kolowrat Theatre but, just for a few days, in the lovely Divadlo Bez zábradlí.

Backstage at the Kolowrat with Emma.

With John Poston, the director of OBC, who also plays Dr. Mejzlik. (Photo courtesy of Kaja Curtis)

With John Poston (left), Karel Heřmánek as Pretty Boy, and Sam Barlien as Novak. (Photo courtesy of Kaja Curtis)

With Peter Hosking (left) as Major Vrzal and Bob Boudreaux as Colonel Hampl. (Photo courtesy of Kaja Curtis)

If you want to see The Order of the Blue Chrysanthemum, we're doing it again this week. It plays January 29-30 at 7 p.m. at the Kolowrat Theatre in Prague, near Mustek. You can find ticket information here. It's a fun night out at the theater. There's comedy, there's drama, and a few surprises. You won't be bored. And the Kolowrat is a wonderfully intimate venue in which to experience theater.

If all of this weren't enough, I learned that at the PSC holiday party in December (which I was unable to attend), I shared the award for Best Newcomer with fellow Twelfth Night and OBC actor Sam Barlien! Wow.

Thanks to Guy, Jessica, Rebecca, OBC director John Poston, Stage Manager Kris Ayers, and everyone in both casts, both in front of and behind the curtain, for making me feel not only so welcome but that I was capable of doing this and not embarrassing myself or the Prague Shakespeare Company. Bravo to them!

I will never forget it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Photographic Evidence

I know I haven't been spending as much time tending to this blog as I should. No excuses. But here is some photographic evidence that I still care about you, dear Gusto.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Monday, November 17, 2014

More Stromovka

Until I got to know it a little better, I had kinda thought of Stromovka park as a little too wild and shaggy. In my mind, it wasn't manicured enough. It was nice, but it could be so much nicer, I thought. But now that I live close by, and have spent more time there, I've grown to really love it.

Not sure what I was thinking, really. 

(You can see more of my Stromovka photos here and here.)

World, Meet Sadie

Introducing Sadie.

We got her in early August, a few months after our beloved Chicho died. I'm allergic to cats, the apartment seemed incredibly empty without an animal, and the girls had desperately wanted a dog.

We decided to get a rescue dog. Daisy began following various shelters on Facebook.

Daisy and Emma were (and still are) particularly taken with French bulldogs, and we ended up finding two (!) who needed homes in the early summer.  They lived a few hours outside of Prague in what turned out to be pretty horrible conditions. We didn't really want two French bulldogs, but this pair -- named Lilly and Adena -- had been together for many years and it seemed unwise to split them up. They had a few health problems, but nothing that we couldn't handle. Or so we thought.

They ended up being too much for our small flat. Their health problems and behavior, combined with our work schedules, made keeping them impossible.

We felt awful.

During our quest for a dog, we had met Jana Bednarova from the XY agency in the small village of Vsenory, a few minutes outside of Prague. With nowhere else to turn, we asked Jana if she could take Lilly and Adena. She said she would. We donated a good
chunk of money to her shelter for her kindness.

We were very happy to learn that, after a few more health scares, both dogs were soon adopted to homes better able to accommodate their needs.

We can't thank Jana enough or say enough about the work she does there. If you're looking to adopt, please get in touch with her. Or just donate some money. She's a wonderful person, and it's a wonderful cause.

Our search for a dog continued.

In July, Daisy saw Sadie on the Facebook page of Home 4 Pets, another local adoption agency. She had been rescued from an illegal puppy mill in Slovakia that had been shut down. If you don't know anything about puppy mills, they are horrible places where dogs are kept in terrible conditions for the sole purpose of giving birth to litter after litter of puppies so they can be sold for big profits. God only knows what Sadie had been through before she was rescued.

Home 4 Pets believed she was about 3 years old. She was staying in a foster home when Emma and I first we went to see her.

She was very shy and very cute and very small (2.8 kilos) and had a very sad face. She was tan and white, with faint, caramel-coloreds wisps across her back. She was, we were told, mostly house-trained. I think I knew the moment I saw her that she was The One.

Sadie is the definition of a lap dog. If there's a lap anywhere in her vicinity, she'll find it. If you stop petting her, she'll scratch at you until you have no choice but to resume. Give her a treat and she runs around in circles with such delight that all you want to do is to give her another. (One of the reasons she's gained half a kilo since we got her.) She sleeps on our bed at night and during the day, while we're at work, she either snoozes in her own little bed or finds some nook and cranny in a closet somewhere in which to wedge herself.

Like most chihuahuas, she's very protective of her owners and barks at dogs 50 times her size. She has no idea how small she is. She also hates bicycles for some reason and barks and lunges at them when they whiz by. (We just took her to her first obedience class, run by Alex Van Der Kuijl, a dog trainer who also runs a dog hotel. He offers free obedience lessons at 11:15 every Saturday at Letna Park in Prague 7. So far, so good.)

We love her a lot and hope she's forgotten all about that terrible puppy mill by now.

We took Sadie to Germany a few weeks ago for some hiking. We ended up walking about 8 or 9 kilometers, and Sadie did the whole thing. We found out later than a long walk for a chihuahua is, at most, a couple of kilometers. She was exhausted. 

We gave Sadie a rawhide bone and were quite surprised when she took it out onto our terrace and buried it in a bowl full of dirt that Daisy had laying around from some gardening.