…and they’re right

I first thought of these stores as convenience stores. They sell the necessities, and they’re open later than their less-convenient cousins. Večerka is what people call them, večer meaning night. In the end they are not like your local 7-11, however. They close at noon on Saturday just like everyone else, and stay closed until Monday morning.

Still, after I tromp home in the evening the little store down the hill from me is a welcome sight. They actually have a refrigerator with beers in it, ready to drink. They have a bottle opener by the cash register. They have guys standing around drinking. No sir, not your typical 7-11. It’s a bar with a deli counter and no tables and no rest room. Maybe I’ll elaborate on that in another episode. There’s a park across the street. Maybe I won’t elaborate.

It’s a family business, as so many businesses still are here. The demise of the family business is directly connected to the rise of the automobile. If people didn’t have cars, WallMart would die. Think about that the next time you drive to vote against a box store.

Um, where was I? Right. The little shop down the hill. If the store has a name, I don’t know it. Shops here are labeled by what they sell. The big sign across the front of the shop reads “Potraviny”. So does the sign on the shop two doors down. But that, I think, is another episode. It was a nice night; I had walked the last couple of miles home. Home, however, was a place with little food and no beer. A visit to the večerka was in order. I walked in and there was a pair of drinkers there, leaning against the ice cream cooler. The store’s owner, who I don’t see as often as her mother, was in charge. She was speaking with another woman who had a smallish, well-groomed dog.

I stepped in and greeted everyone, as is the custom here. The dog snapped around and watched me carefully. It was not aggressive, just alert. I went over and introduced myself to the pup, giving him a sniff and rubbing his ears. I spoke gently and had a new buddy. He was a good little guy. He was also standing in front of the beer fridge. “Pardon, pardon,” I said to him as I opened the fridge door. It was that, I think, that won over the pup’s owner. She laughed and said something to the shop owner, giving me a warm smile.

I grabbed a couple of Gambrinuses and also successfully asked for some salami. (An aside – there are stores here that make a big deal about being self-service, but most places you have to ask for what you want. Some stores don’t even display much of their inventory, except perhaps in the windows outside. You pick out what you want before you walk in. Toasters, phones, cookware, it doesn’t matter. People just know where to go to get what.) There were different sorts of salami, and as she gestured between them I said, “To nevadi.” It doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter to me, but more than that I had uttered the cornerstone of Czech philosophy. It doesn’t matter. The beer came to thirty crowns, including deposit, the sausage was twenty. She had rung up the beers before the sausage adventure; she punched in the twenty, the register flashed fifty total. I handed her one hundred, and she gave me eighty change.

Apparently “You have given me too much change” is a phrase so unutterable here that no amount of sign language, no pointing to the green glowing 50 on the register while pushing back the extra thirty crowns made any sense to her. Finally one of the drunks behind me said “dzbrnpl frnzlp padesat frnplzt.” Padesat is fifty. She lit up with recognition, reclaimed the money, and thanked me sincerely several times by the time I packed up and left. She wanted to make sure that it was more than just a casual “thanks.” It was a little embarrassing. When you first come to stay here, you will often hear about the reserved nature of the czechs. Maybe that’s why I fit in. They may be reserved, but I’m reserveder.

So I left, wishing all a good night, as is the tradition here, carrying slightly warmer looks from the shopkeeper, the dog, the dog’s owner, and even the drunks.

Productivity was never less productive

Instead of doing something useful, I spent the last little while taking a random sample of pages from the blog in an effort to estimate just how big this thing is. I sampled 20 episodes added up the word count, divided by 20 and multiplied by 427 (that total may include an episode or two that I never published). None of the randomly selected entries was an Eels episode, and one was a haiku.

The total? Almost 170,000 words, not counting the titles or the introductions. If it was a novel, it would be a very fat one. There’s a significance there, a message, but I sure don’t know what it is.

Showdown at Vlašska

I was early for an appointment, standing on the side of the street, watching the city move. Vlašska is a narrow street. It passes in front of the US embassy, so it is more heavily policed than much of the town. A czech army truck was patrolling, its brakes emitting a high-picthed metal-on-metal scream as it eased down the street. Perhaps patrolling in a truck with no brake pads was intended to send a subtle message to the diplomats inside the building they were protecting. The three soldiers in the truck looked bored.

The street is narrow, but it is a two-way street. There is one stretch that is just plain too narrow for two cars to pass. Generally people deal with this by driving very fast, so that if someone considers entering from the other end they will think twice. That’s not how it always works, though. The army truck assumed people would back out of their way. They were usually right.

Up the hill crept a small red Škoda, being carefully piloted by an old nun. She entered the narrows and was on her way up when the army truck approached from the other end. The nun did not falter, she just kept pulling on up the hill. They met at about two-thirds of the way up. The truck beeped officiously. The nun took her hands off the steering wheel and folded them across her breast, her expression stone calm. The truck did not beep again; and after a few more seconds the soldier put his vehicle in reverse with the sound of the sound of gears grinding and backed up.

The nun continued her slow progress while the soldiers waited.

Sometimes talking just won’t do it.

At the table next to mine, there is a guy explaining something to his companion. She’s not buyin’. She has rocked back in her chair, her arms folded beneath her breasts, her long hair flowing and framing her pretty face. Her skeptical face. She’s nodding in apparent agreement, but the only one who believes that is the sap digging his way deeper and deeper. The dude’s a steam shovel.

I don’t know what they’re talking about and it doesn’t matter. She’s pissed off. He knows it and is trying to fix things. Not a syllable comes out of his mouth that doesn’t make things worse. She’s beyond pissed off, but she sits there, nodding. “Yes, yes, I see,” she is saying. “Just how big a jerkwad are you?” It’s a rhetorical question; at this point she is interested in him only for the stories he’s providing. She’ll have some good times sharing his excuses with her girlfriends.

So she sits, listening intently only for the ammunition, while he does a spectacular job making a jackass of himself. I know what I’m talking about. Jackass is my middle name.

They just left, she steaming ahead while he trailed uncertainly behind. “I can do better,” her posture said, and she was right.

Up until that moment I was in her camp. The dude was a schmoe. A spineless kiss-up buttercup. [Remind me to copyright that phrase.] But she knew she could find another boyfriend. I prefer people who aren’t so certain certain about things. My kind of folks are the ones crashing over the waterfall with no boat and certainly no life vest, the ones who wake up each morning with an intoxicating combination of anticipation and dread. Parents, I think, must feel this way. Artists do as well, I imagine. There are forces beyond your ken, beyond your control, that will, when you least expect it, sweep you over Niagra.

She cared not for the life flowing around her. The world is hers to control, and she will control it. When I saw that I didn’t like her any more, no matter how worthless her current companion is.

Maybe it’s not fair to expect someone to show their doubt and dread in a mall bar. Maybe she wakes up every morning and wants to roll over and sleep but there’s just so much. Maybe she has a fire that burns so hot it frightens her. I don’t think so, though. She walked out cold.

I was afraid of that

Version 0.5.0.0 is big. It’s sweet. It turns Margin Notes up to eleven. Once you start using those margin notes, there’s no going back. It drives me nuts to use any other word processor now. There are different tracks of thought going on in your head all the time. You think of stuff, important stuff, but now is not the time. Jer’s Novel Writer understands that, and gives you a way to snap out, jot a note, and snap back while the fever is still gripping your creative soul.

I posted it about 24 hours ago, and at this moment, 144 people have downloaded it.

Sweet. Eleven. Broken. There’s a bug. Really the bug was in a previous version, but when version 0.5 comes across the error in those older files it pukes. All because I got fancy in the way I brought old margin notes into the new era. What I did was needlessly complex, and the subtleties of it will be noticed by no one. They noticed the bug, though, no doubt about that.

Two days I slammed myself getting something just right that no one gives a fig about, and in the process I introduced a bug that hurt some of my most faithful and daring beta testers. There’s a lesson there. The sad part is I probably won’t learn it.

Learning the local dialect

You ride the trams for any amount of time and you start to hear it, the subtle and not-so-subtle messages broadcast by the pilots of the trams. And while I rarely see the drivers, I am starting to recognize different bell styles.

Some drivers will give a little courtesy ‘tang! when a driver they know goes past in the other direction. It is the lightest touch on the bell but it is still distinct. Most drivers will give a pl’tang! as they approach the stern of a passing tram; people often cross right behind a tram and drivers coming the other way don’t want to catch anyone by surprise.

When trams have been stopped, either at a tram stop or at an intersection, many of them will give a kr’tang! as they start moving (the trams roll their bells the same way the czechs roll their r’s).

Then, of course, there is a driver on tram 7, mentioned in a previous episode and identified correctly as Johnny B. Goode by p7K, who carries on an ongoing conversation with the world at large with his bell. I’ll give this to old Johnny: No one will ever say they didn’t hear him coming.

This afternoon as I was tromping up the street, I learned some new words in Bell. Oh, I’ve heard my share of swearing in that language, believe me. Tram 7 Johnny is turning the air blue with his bell as we rumble down the road. Today I watched as a car cut in front of a tram to make a left turn and stopped on the tracks, unable to complete the maneuver. Czechs may be bad drivers, but generally they respect the trams.

The tram stopped abruptly, the car sitting dead across the tracks. Krrrrrang! said the Tram. I understood perfectly. “I would have T-Boned you,” the driver said, “ramming the coupler sticking out of the front of my tram right into your kidneys, but there would have been too much paperwork.”

There was traffic coming the other way, and the car was stuck there, as the tram inched forward. Krrrrrangggggg! KRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAANNNNNGGGGG! The language was getting choice now, not something I can put in a family blog, but more or less it translated to “The paperwork is becoming less and less important.” Finally the car completed its turn and sped off, the way drivers will do after they’ve been stupid, which is all the time here. kr’tang! said the tram and moved along its way.

Yet-to-be-hatched chicken counting

Things are going really well for me right now. I finally got the punch in chapter one of The Monster Within that I was looking for. Finally. There’s a minor ripple effect I have to deal with, but finally the prologue goes Bam! I feel good about that. That story, man, it still gets me. Even if no one else likes it, I sure as hell have enjoyed reading it, and it hasn’t gotten old.

I was testing some of the database functionality in Jer’s Novel Writer and was cleaning up the characters who aren’t in the story anymore. Nothing like deleting the memory of a dozen once-significant characters to make you think about how far you’ve come. And about the sequel.

Jer’s Novel Writer is gaining traction as well, and I’ve decided to press hard to get a version ready for this year’s Apple Design Awards. It’s got “Think Different” written all over it.

So I’m sitting here chicken-counting. The eggs haven’t even been laid yet, but I’m thinking about taking time out from shooting Pirates to accept my major software design award in Cupertino. On the way back to Prague I’ll stop in New York and entertain the agents clamoring for my attention.

You know what’s cool about this fantasy? I can hit on only a tiny part of the dream and things are still grand. Things are happening, things are moving, and if it was only hard work that mattered I would be automatic. But I have chosen fields that are more that just hard work, although hard work is still the biggest part. (Hensley once told me that in response to the question ‘how did you get so fast?’ Oscar Peterson, one of the greatest pianists ever, said ‘If you spent eight hours a day playing, you’d be fast, too’. That’s a misquote of an incorrect memory, so, you know, don’t go dropping that line in jazz clubs where you want to appear to be intelligent. If you can find a jazz club that actually has jazz.)

Right. Back to the chickens, Any individual project seems like a huge long shot. All put together, it’s almost too much to handle. It is the classic American irrational exuberance, that annoyingly cocky confidence in self, combined with the drive to get it all done. That’s what pisses people off about Americans the most. Except, well, invading all those other countries with purely hypocritical justifications — that makes them hate us too, but the real reason they hate us, (aside from our intolerable arrogance, and well, our loudness in bars) is that they want to be us. They want to Get Things Done.

Man, I’m going to catch hell for saying that.

You know what makes you an American? Your car. If you drive a car every day, you’re an American. It doesn’t matter where you live.

Although drivers here pretty much suck. You could argue that Romans are better drivers than Americans, and I’m up for explaining how wrong you are. I admired those guys once, but Americans are just plain better drivers, except in Los Angeles and St. Louis. Maybe New York. Those guys in New York are such bitchy little victims it has to show in the way they drive. Saint Louis, I have no explanation for that one. All I can say is if you’re in a car there your top priority should be getting your wheels the hell out of there. People just… do things. No cause, just simple random effect. Great hurtling tombs of steel and plastic fling themselves about, blind and oblivious. St. Louis, in the middle of everywhere. It’s like Death Race 2000 there, only five better.

OK, I’m done now.