A New Superhero

During my travels in the US I actually watched TV a couple of times, and one show I saw was about cephalopods. You’ve got your octopuses (if you want to get all snooty, don’t uses ‘octopi’, that would be a Latin plural on a Greek word. ‘Octopi’ is false erudition. The formal plural would be octopodes, with the accent on the top. But I digress.), your squids, and your cuttlefish.

In this television show they had some mind-boggling footage of cuttlefish, which have developed some amazing system that gives them muscular control over the color of their skins. They flashed colors and patterns across their bodies, sometimes one pattern on the side with the female (everything’s cool, baby), and an entirely different pattern on the side with the rival male (back off, chump).

Give fine enough motor control, a cuttlefish could play a movie on his skin.

It wasn’t until the second beer tonight that I considered what it would be like to have cuttlefish skin. Some people are worried about genetic manipulation, that it would lead to frivolous modifications of the human form. I’ve got my shopping list right here, and it starts with wings. Cuttlefish skin is right up there, though, probably even edging out gills and wheels.

Cuttlefish-man the superhero would rock. A master of disguise and ingenious at camouflage, he works out by displaying “tattoos”, then animating them running around on his skin.

I picture a superhero job interview that goes something like: “Cuttlefish-man? What the hell kind of name is that?” The interviewer looks up from the resume he is scannning to discover the chair in front of his desk is empty — until a pair of square-slitted eyes blink somewhere in the air over the back of the chair. Cuttlefish-man reappears (he would have to be bald, I suppose). “That’s what kind” he would say without a hint of smugness.

Science note: while invisibility is impossible (and even if it were possible the invisible man would be blind… Holy crap! what a great moment! The lab accident makes him invisible, but the point is completely meaningless to him because his eyes don’t work anymore! The light passes right through his retinas. It would go something like: *Lab Explodes* “Oh, shit I can’t see!” “Where are you?” “I’m right here but I’m blind, I’m blind!” “But I can’t see you!” “Dude, that’s seriously not funny. Help me!” He would imagine himself the way any adult who lost their sight imagined themselves. As far as his senses are concerned, he is completely ordinary. A blind invisible man would be the best superhero ever — uh, except Cuttlefish-Man, of course, who we’re talking about here…), it is possible to project an image that from a certain point of view is indistinguishable from invisibility.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games for the newest entry in the super-pantheon. Cuttlefish-man has inherited the shy, retiring nature of his namesake, which makes it awkward when he has to work naked. Bruce Wayne is bugging him all the time for skin samples, so he can develop his own “cuttle-suit”. He is awkward around women, worried that he’s going to light up like a billboard when she leans toward him over the table. That doesn’t actually happen — or, at least not very often — but his ears turn awfully red.

Late-Night Musings

It’s one of those times, right now, when you see things and they seem somehow more significant, tied, in some intangible way, to a deeper pattern, some kind of secret that’s almost within reach but skitters away whenever you look directly at it. Those hints, those glimpses, could be anything, and in the end are nothing.

There are two marks on the doorway leading into the kitchen, one labeled “day”, the other, a centimeter below that, labeled “nite”. They are above me as I walk past, an artifact of the Soup Boy days, an empirical resolution of a debate with his girlfriend. Yes, you really do wake up taller than you go to bed. I knew that from adjusting the mirrors in my car twice a day (I do like to have the glass just right), but there they are, the two heights of Soup Boy. I wonder, if you measured carefully enough, if you would discover that gravity is winning. I wonder if the night is a short victory but we never make up the ground we lost the day before.

But it’s not gravity that’s the enemy, now that I think of it. Gravity just wants me to fall, it pulls on all of me equally. That’s what orbit is, not a lack of gravity but a constant falling, without ever hitting anything. It is not gravity that is crushing me, but the ground pushing up against my feet.

Before getting up to look around the apartment, finding things I’d stopped seeing long since, I caught up a bit with back podcasts of Writer’s Almanac. I tend to listen to them in bunches when I’m in a mood like this one. Poetry is always better when you feel adrift, when the Big Mystery is teasing you.

Earlier I spent the evening working on a bit of prose that I really shouldn’t be spending time on. It’s self-indulgent, pretentious prose, which is certainly pleasant to write, but I got no time for that kind of shit. (Except, of course for this blog.) It’s an odd marriage of a favorite anecdote of mine and some of the thoughts thrust upon me by Lost in the Cosmos.

The anecdote:

I was sitting in a café listening to two writers talking together. Also present were a couple of college students, female, obviously very impressed by finding themselves in a foreign city in the presence of Actual Artists, who were having an Actual Discussion. I sat a little back from the table, not commenting and at one point I chuckled to myself at something one of the other writers said. The girls sitting next to me looked at me quizzically; no one else seemed to notice the joke.

I leaned back further and said, “They’re not listening to each other. It’s two monologues.” She turned her ear back to them and realized that her Actual Artists were really just talking at each other. No information moved in either direction. She smiled and we shared the joke, feeling vaguely superior to the others at the table.

In that girl’s view, she was in the presence of Actual Artists, and some Other Guy, one who was mysterious, not a talker so obviously a thinker, one who saw through the games of the Artists, a man of penetrating insight. Was I also a writer? Why was I there? With a little chuckle I had gone from being unnoticed to being the towering intellect of the little meeting.

I was also the only one not hitting on the girls. I would have, believe me, but I couldn’t figure a way to do that without becoming part of my own joke. In the end it was pride that stopped me.

So the story I wrote is based on that, loosely. I was asking myself, “what if I actually was like the Other Guy the girl imagined she was sitting next to? What might have happened next?” There are some good bits in the scene (and some pretty lousy ones), although the characters surrounding the guy are far more interesting than the guy himself. That feels about right.

As I write this I hear the rumble of the night tram in the distance, cautious as it passes over the switches at Starostrašnická. I wonder who’s on it right now, where they’re coming home from. I wonder if they will remember this night, or would prefer to forget. I wonder if they are lonely.

Grundwig (A Gargoyle Cop Story)

Intro

We see a gothic rooftop silhouetted against a setting sun. There are fanciful stone gargoyles around the perimiter, in silhouette. As light fades the profile of an extra gargoyle appears. We move closer until we see his brooding face as he looks out over the ancient city.

My name is Grundgwig. I guess you could call me a cop.

Move in, show from the other side, now silhouetted against the moon, the spires of the ancient city arrayed beneath.

I work the night shift.

Cut to: a manhole cover rattling, a jet of steam escaping.

Grundwig raises his head, listening, smelling – something is wrong. He leaps from the cathedral to a neighboring building. Nimbly he bounds through the night, unnoticed by the shadowy, indistinct figures of the humans below.

The manhole cover slowly rises, revealing a wickedly-taloned hand and a pair of glowing eyes. There are no people in the cobbled street. The demon begins to slink out of the manhole, but Grundwig lands on the cover with his full force. With a crash and a scream from the demon the fiend disappears back into the sewers. Grundwig follows. Battle ensues, breaking pipes and damaging stonework. The demon makes a final desperate lunge at Grundwig’s throat, but he is a spy, not a fighter, and Grundwig eventually gets the best of him. To permanently kill the demon Grundwig eats its heart.

As the rest of the demon corpse turns to goo, Grundwig breathes a heavy sigh.

Things have been busy lately.

The Office – hidden away in vaults beneath the city we find headquarters decked out in a completely gargoyle-like fashion. Everything has a gothic look, and many of the items are unidentifiable. There are gargoyles of every shape and description hanging from cielings, clinging to walls, and their furniture is modified to match.

There is a general bustle in the room, professional if a little on the loud side.

Grundwig is larger than most of the others, and has to push his way through the bustle to his desk. On the way he greets the others by name. He collapses into his chair with a heavy sigh.

“Long Night?” A decidedly hot babe-gargoyle-cop sits on the corner of his desk.

“Hey, Rowena.”

“Hey.”

Grundwig sighs. “Man, I’m looking forward to the short nights of summer.”

“Yeah, me too, so I can listen to you complain about how long the days are.”

Grundwig looks at his desk.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, just got a lot of paperwork to do.”

“Busy night?”

“Ate three.”

Her eyes get round. “Damn, G, you gotta slow down.”

“I’d love to.” He turns to his paperwork.

“What’re you doing later? Heading for the Hole?”

“If I ever finish this stuff, yeah, I guess.”

“See you there, then, maybe.”

“Yeah.”

She hesitates and walks away.

As the sun rises we find Grundwig back on the cathedral, in a contemplative pose.

It will never end.

Grundwig runs his hands over the stony scales on his head.

They come, we kill them, then more come. Sometimes they kill us. I am good at what I do, but it will not end until I make a mistake and my heart is eaten.

A bell tolls behind him, unbearably loud.

“Dammit!” Grundwig leaps up, frazzled, then retreats from the rooftop. “I hate Sundays.”

Chapter 1

A demon furtively walks the ancient streets, keeping to the shadows. Grundwig drops down but the demon dodges, and rolls nimbly away. Grundwig pursues and corners the other.

Rather than attacking mindlessly, the demon cowers, but wields the first weapon we have seen, a nasty-looking knife. “Wait, wait, wait!”

Grundwig hesitates. “You can speak?”

“No, I can’t.”

Grundwig disarms the demon and rears back to tear the its head off.

“Yes! Yes I can speak! What do you expect when you ask such a numb-nuts question? The Maker gives some us more intelligence than others.”

“Huh.” He registers this fact and prepares to tear the heart out of the demon.

“Wait!”

“Why?”

“Don’t you wonder why I’ve been given superior intelligence, and what I’m doing here now?”

“Don’t see how it matters. I won’t believe anything you tell me anyway.”

“So you’re not as dumb as you look. That’s good, that’s good. But don’t you think it would be a good idea to take me back and let your superiors decide what to do with me?”

“No.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because you want me to.”

“I want to live, Einstein. This is why the Maker gives so few of us intelligence. Gives us a chance to reprioritize.”

“How convenient.”

“I’m not pretending to be on your side, Chumley, I’m just buying time. But you could score some big points bringing me in alive. I can tell you things.”

“Like what?”

“Now, if I told you, you’d have no reason to keep me alive, would you?”

“There’s something you don’t understand.”

“What?”

Grundwig pushes his face directly into the demon’s, and grinnes with all his teeth. “I don’t need to score big points.”

“Er…”

“The only thing keeping you alive is the possibility that I will have one less 1066/HST to fill out in the morning.”

“Ah.”

“But I’m getting a little hungry.”

“OK, OK, OK, I’ll give you a free sample. If this don’t make you soil your trousers, I don’t know what will. The Maker is resurrecting dragons.”

Grundwig tears the demon’s heart out and eats it. “Tell me something I don’t know.” he mutters.

1

An exceptionally pretty day.

I woke up feeling sharp this morning, dialed in, ready for anything. The sun was shining brightly through the curtainless windows, so it was just as well that I wasn’t in the mood to sleep in. A stretch and a scratch and I was ready to catch up on just what had happened in the Muddleverse while I slumbered. Good news on that front; the new software release had not exploded, the economy I depend on to feed me just because I did something in the past was still intact, and outside the birds were singing. You can’t ask for more than that.

Nor did I. I sat down to work without even making tea first. I spent some time polishing the software, smoothing out a couple of rough edges that might distract a user from the task at hand. The changes will probably be invisible to the users out there, but that’s OK. Software should be invisible. Today was an effort to apply a little vanishing cream to the inevitable wrinkles.

I had some things to take care of in the hood, so after a while I shoed up and headed out. That’s right. It’s a beautiful day and I put on shoes. Socks, even. (Flashback to when I worked at BinaryLabs: my boss, the CEO, once told me ‘the people coming tomorrow are important, so… wear socks.’ I went overboard and wore shoes. That’s why I was Vice President of Software Engineering.) Here and now, I really need sandals.

I felt especially square as I walked through the park on the way to the post office to pay my phone bill. I had the tunes in, and the Pixies were lifting my gait as I made my way down the long series of steps. About halfway down a group of kids had gathered, their summer hockey sticks carefully stacked. At the focus of their cluster was a giant hookah. A fine day in the park.

Bills paid, lunch eaten (I was saddened to find that I was too early for Saxová Palačnkarna), i headed to the Little Caré near home, my goal to spend the afternoon pounding Czech words into my reluctant head. The endeavor got a lot better when Whats-her-name came on duty. (For the record, I know her name now, and it’s not the same as her name here in the Muddleverse. That doesn’t make either one wrong.) She took an active interest in my czech drills, providing insight and alternatives to unnecessarily formal speech. It took a while to get used to someone looking over my shoulder as I practiced, but it was pretty nice overall. I made up some lost ground today.

Conversation eventually turned to What’s-her-Name’s boyfriend, who now must be called What’s-his-Name, purely for form’s sake. As she told me about her man, her posture changed, and it was obvious she was aching for him on an animal level. It’s crazy how crazy she is for him. Honestly, I’ve never seen such a physical reaction outside the bedroom, and the dude wasn’t even there. Naturally I resent the guy.

Things got no better when we discussed how they met. They are both interested in photography and they met online through mutual admiration of their work. So, the original attraction wasn’t sexual at all. Bastard. What’s-her-Name produced a photo album. “This one’s not very good,” she said, “We have much better.”

She was only half right. There were some pictures in there that were really scarily good. What’s-her-Name is not a classic beauty, but it turns out that in front of What’s-his-Name’s camera, she shows a quiet inner sadness that is the cornerstone of true beauty. In other frames she shows a wildness that makes me laugh. There are other shots without her in them at all, but pack a punch. This guy’s good with the camera. So I spent the afternoon with a fun and friendly girl (It occurred to me to ask her how to say ‘third favorite bartender’, but that is complicated beyond mere language), only to watch her swept away merely exchanging text messages with some other guy. To subsequently discover that said guy is genuinely talented, a demonstrably a big-A Artist, well, let’s just say I hate that guy so much I want to be him.

I’m not him, however, and I’m reconciled to that. Happy with it even, though that doesn’t stop me from being jealous. Shit, what do I have to be jealous of? I’m a guy who spends my life doing what I want to do. I make software. I write. I say hello to the kids with the hookah in the park. My pictures don’t compare to his photographs, but I can see it. I can see beauty, I can see art. Really, what else could I ask for?

Coda: I ended up showing some pictures of my own, which included rock stacks. That put me in a certain frame of mind, and after some spillage of suger I managed the never-before-thought-possible Sugar shaker inverted over another shaker, with another shaker on top! It stood! It was stable! No one was looking. I tried to (subtly) make people look my way, and while my hands were away from the safety position it fell over and made a big mess and that’s all anyone saw. I think there is sugar in my keyboard now. But I had it. Kissing sugar shakers with a load on top. 

What’s-her-Name went out of her way to explain how not mad at me she was for the mess. Here’s where I wish I understood the female dialect.

One Point Friggin’ Zero!

I was in the Secret Labs this morning, floating aimlessly through the glossy, high-tech warren of tunnels and chambers drilled through the rock and metal of Asteroid 2029 as it orbits the distant sun here in this quiet Prague neighborhood, when I made the decision.

“Ship it,” I said to myself, and Jer’s Novel Writer 1.0 was released to the world.

I’ve been working on this thing for a few years, now. One of the reasons it took so long to get to 1.0 is because along the way the growing body of users has been full of ideas, suggestions, and constructive criticism. Some of my favorite features were things I would never have thought of on my own. The long gestation period means that 1.0 is way, way cooler than I imagined it would be when I started out.

Still, it’s about stinkin’ time. One thing that makes version 1.0 different than just another incrementally better beta release is that this one is technically not free. Users have been able to pay voluntarily for a while, and it’s really cool when I get the “You’ve been paid!” message. It will be interesting to see if people’s behavior changes as all. I estimate that I have already earned more than ten cents per hour for coding this thing  (if you don’t count classes, hardware, or any other expenses — let’s not think about that).

It would be sweet to sell enough copies to live off the proceeds, but that seems unlikely, even living here. Maybe if I move to Ukraine…

You know what would be even sweeter? Some day I want to be sitting somewhere in the world, writing my next best-seller when someone looks over my shoulder and says, “Hey, Jer’s Novel Writer! I use that too!” That would be almost as cool as happening upon someone reading a book I wrote.

That’s all the future, however. Today is about hitting a milestone, a big event that could affect my life. Today is 1.0 day. (It’s also Over-Easy Day. Dang, already a doubled-up day. What are the odds?)

Lost in the Cosmos

Warning: Whoo, boy, this episode is long, and pretty heavy. It might even be boring; it’s hard for me to tell. It’s got philosophy and shit like that in it. If you want to give it a pass, that’s cool (there is one funny bit but it’s a ways down there). I don’t want to let you down, though; you came here to read a blog episode and by dammit you should read a blog episode. Here’s a link to a another blog, which at first glance might even be fun. I found it by Googling “cat fluffy poop”.

This is not the sort of book you gobble up in one sitting. It is steak rather than soup; you have to chew each bite or you risk choking. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book explores man as the language-using animal, how that fundamentally alters his relationship with the cosmos by creating a means to name, and therefore redefine, everything. Other organisms have an environment which they act upon and acts upon them. The language-user has a world, a giant network of signs and the things they represent, some concrete, some abstract, and some provably wrong. We have replaced our environment with something entirely in our heads.

Before we go any further, know that the ideas from the book and the ideas the book inspired in my own head are quite entangled here. I’ve made some attempt to separate them, but in the end this is a muddled rambling. It’s what I do.

Not long ago I exchanged messages with a friend of mine who has a child who has recently crossed a magical threshold. The biggest reward for learning to talk is the ability to ask questions. The world expands from the room the child is in to encompass everything, through the proxy of other people who share the same language. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a child that age who was not ravenously curious about the world, and kids like that are fun. Why? What’s fun about responding to an inexhaustible barrage of questions? I’m not sure, but I think maybe it’s in part an echo of that hunger still in everyone, a recognition of the joy that living in a world that is growing at a dizzying rate.

A common question for kids that age is “What is this?” In Lost in the Cosmos, there is the example of a child holding a balloon, and asking the father, “What is this?” The reply is simply, “That’s a balloon.”

To me, thinking about it, that hardly seems like it should be a satisfying answer. Here I hold a mysterious object, it behaves oddly, falling slowly when dropped, making odd noises and POPPING! Holy crap! That scared the shit out of me! Yet when I ask my father “What is this?” and he responds with a sound I’ve never heard before, I am satisfied. No, more than that, I’m excited. That thing is a balloon. I move my lips as I repeat the word to myself. Balloon. Now I know what it is; I can put it in my world. (it was already there, I suppose, but now its handle is simpler and my world is better integrated with Dad’s world.)

There is a difference between “That thing is called a balloon” and “That thing is a balloon.”

OK, let’s take a break from all that and talk about the book. It starts with a short quiz, to prepare you for a longer quiz, to allow yourself to measure your response to the ideas he presents. My first response: Multiple choice questions about subtle and nuanced issues piss me off. Every single damn question I wanted to write my own response. None of his options fit. I think he would be happy to hear I felt that way.

On the preliminary quiz, however, was question 6, which I particularly liked: Consider the following short descriptions of different kinds of consciousness of self. Which of the selves, if any, do you identify with?

Option 6g demonstrates what is good and what is bad about the book (you can skip to the last sentence if you want, I took the liberty of italicizing it.): The Lost Self. With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, Jefferson or no Jefferson, is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland. The rational Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness embarked upon in the American Revolution translates into the flaky euphoria of the late twentieth century. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.

Like pretty much every other choice in the the quiz, the damn thing is weighed down with so many presuppositions and conditions that it crumbles under its own weight. Much of the preamble is to establish his assumption that people didn’t feel this way before. He cites lots of statistics (some patently ridiculous, others based on Donahue) to support this assumption.

Yet at the core is a really interesting comment. The last sentence could be the blurb under the title of more than half the things I’ve written. (Home Burn, the second of the Tin Can stories, has the protagonist ready to blow the airlock and become exactly such a ghost.)

Reading this book has been a lot like playing golf. Just when I’m about ready to chuck my clubs in the pond, I hit a really good shot. Just when I’m about ready to put this book down, he says something that really resonates.

Still, the multiple-choice format was getting on my nerves and Percy was tossing the word “self” around in a fashion that seemed to assume mutual understanding where there was none. Then I hit a section about halfway through, an intermezzo as the author called it. He introduced the section by saying it was optional reading, and that it would probably piss off just about everyone; it would be too technical for the average Joe and much too oversimplified for the well-versed in the field. Keeping in mind that learning semiotics from Walker Percy is probably a lot like learning Physics from a Carl Sagan television show, I dove in.

That’s when everything changed. I liked that part of the book. I really, really liked it. I had to stop every couple of pages because it made me think of so many different things. Finally we get to the definition at the crux of the human condition: a sign (a word, for instance), gains its significance in a three-legged interaction. There is the word, the thing it represents, and an interpreter. (I think that’s the wrong word, but it will do. In fact, between us it’s the right word.) That leaves exactly one thing in the whole damn universe that can’t be represented: the interpreter itself. There’s no third leg. In your world, you are the interpreter, and you are the only thing you can’t interpret.

I was talking to a buddy a few years ago, and I said that I didn’t understand someone. His response was, “I don’t even understand me.” I can’t tell you how liberating it was to hear someone say that. Since then, I’ve not bothered trying to understand anyone, least of all myself.

Most people could probably sum me up pretty easily. I can’t. Apparently that’s normal, and leads to a host of problems which can be called the human condition. We can define everything, fit it into our world, live with the contradictions, and everything fits, except one thing. There is only thing we can’t put a label on and fit into the structure of the world as we have encoded it: Ourselves. Thus we are lost in the cosmos.

Personally, I think the triangle bit works well, right up until it crashes against something too complicated. Fundamentally the system we use to describe the world, this language of ours, just plain can’t handle something as massively messed up as the first-hand, inside-the-head knowledge of a human being. Maybe we’ll develop that language some day. It will probably look a lot like math, with a layer of fertilizer and a sprinkling of fairy dust.

Speaking of math, the author cites a time about 100,000 years ago when our organism crossed a threshold, and language was born, and it catapulted humanity in a very short time to ruler of the planet. I wonder if more recently another language was born, more abstract but therefore less limited. I’m sure that mathematics as a language has been discussed, but I don’t know the arguments.

I can certainly agree that man has the ability to apply meaning to events, where any other organism would simply react. (Woman, in my experience, takes this to a level that leaves me baffled. “What did you mean by that?” I try, but can’t come up with any words better than the ones I already used. “I’m tired,” I might say. “What do you mean?” After some thought I respond, “I mean I’m tired.” It goes the other way as well, when she says “I’m tired” I’m supposed to know that means I shouldn’t have ordered the shrimp cocktail.) 

So man has this world that exists entirely in his head, and the only thing that doesn’t fit is his own self. This world is composed not just of what is and what was, but also what might have been and what might be. That’s what turned out to be so cool about the story “First Day” (a tale readers of this blog rescued), the uniquely human ability to ruin a perfectly good time with the knowledge that it will end. The Curse of Imagination, I call it somewhere.

Actually, let me take that back, and in so doing subvert the message of Lost. The day is not ruined by the immanence of night. Not necessarily. In “First Day” it is the certainty of night that makes the day so delicious. We live in an insane world, filled with people doing insane things. There is pain and suffering and death everywhere, and somewhere in the backs of our heads lies the possibility of the extinction of our species. But it was fun getting caught in the rain today. 

Also in that magical middle section of the book Percy discusses the omniscience modern society ascribes to science; that while in almost any field the practitioners of science feel they know almost nothing, the world at large sees Science as a mighty power, and the only reason the world hasn’t been fixed is because… well, the scientists working on my problem are either underfunded or lazy, greedy bastards.

The intermezzo is still disturbingly filled with absolutes (Science and Art are the only remaining ways to transcend the predicaments of the human condition), and there is an assumption that what we are feeling is new to this age. That’s too bad, because the fundamental message of the book doesn’t depend on that. We are lost in the Cosmos, and what really sucks is that we invented the Cosmos we’re lost in.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Czech Heroes

OK, you have your statue of the Good King Winceslas (they insist on calling him Vaclav here), at the top of the main drag here in Prague. There’s Charles this and Charles that, named for a king who pretty much kicked Europe’s ass. Only they didn’t call it Europe then.

Those guys were a long time ago, however, and the Czechs, as far as I can tell, don’t really think of them as being Czech. Who are the Czech heroes?

It should be noted that the Czechs aren’t that big on the whole hero thing, except now the tabloids are trying to change that. There are sports heroes here, built up to be torn down just like anywhere else with a ‘free press’. But we will ignore that unpleasantness for a while.

I’ve lived here for a couple of years now, and I’ve come across two modern military heroes. George Patton is one, the liberator of Plzn and a man who really wanted to get to Prague first but the politicians stopped him. The czechs like to imagine what things would be like had be been given freedom to roll. Obviously he is not a Czech military hero, but people here revere the man.

Then there’s the Good Soldier Svejk (rhymes with ache). I saw a movie about him just the other day. During the brutal battles of World War I, Svejk had one goal, and that was to stay alive. He was lazy, sneaky, conniving, and insubordinate. He recognized that war is the absolute last place where you want to go to the head of the class. I would not be surprised if What’s-Her-Name at the Little Café could not name another twentieth-century Czech military figure.

The second hero I stumbled upon by chance. Last summer, during the World Lying-On-the-Grass-Holding-Your-Ankle contest (some people call it ‘Soccer’ and others ‘Football’, but as for the World Cup I think I’m being charitable here), there was a break between games. Česke Telecom announced they would be showing a documentary. When they announced it would be about the life of Jára Cimrman, the low-key folks at the Little Café cheered. “Turn it up!” one girl called. The national hero was on TV, in scratchy black and white.

In a high-profile nationwide poll, Jára Cimrman was voted the greatest man in Czech history. In the documentary I watched a reenactment of a meeting between him and Gustave Eiffel, while a local scholar told us about modifications to the design of the Eiffel Tower. Without Cimrman, it seems, that tower really would have sucked. A true Czech hero, Cimrman’s greatest accomplishment was never getting credit for his accomplishments.

This country’s favorite modern military hero and the man voted by the nation as the Greatest Czech Ever have one thing in common. They are fiction.

Knowing that, it’s time to visit Vyšehrad. It’s quiet there, but not sombre. It doesn’t take long to see a trend. You are walking among musicians, artists, writers. Names you’ve known for a long time, but seeing those names on tombstones is a bit of a shock. Only now do you realize they were human enough to die. Somehow those names seemed above that.

I am sure that among the memorials lie military heroes, and the Czechs value bravery (well, stubbornness) as the highest virtue. In the cemetery lie the greatest of the czechs who did not simply vanish under totalitarian hands. The Czech pilots who came home after helping win the battle of Britain might have been made heroes but instead were sent to labor camps for sympathizing with the west.

The Czechs had a revolution a few years back, and still didn’t get a war hero out of it; the revolution was peaceful and led by writers and musicians. The Czech national anthem, “Where is my Home?” is frightfully beautiful, and not even remotely militaristic. It was part of the score for a comedy called Fidlovačka, Or No Anger and No Brawl. That their only modern war hero is fiction, and (intentionally) horribly bad at war, makes sense. War is ridiculous, and the Czechs have the writers to prove it.