…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.

Arrr!

Things are going well for me here. I’m getting a lot of work done, which was the big test of whether coming here was a Good Idea. Unexpected was my output of short stories. Unexpected, but welcome, and a lot of fun. So I’ve got progress on the novels (required), progress on the software (hoped for) and a few shorts I like (bonus). I also got something else, something I didn’t expect at all. Something really cool.

No, not a girlfriend. Haven’t you been paying attention?

A few weeks ago I learned that Piker Press would be doing a special issue to commemorate Talk Like a Pirate Day. It’s way out there in September. That same day I had been thinking, “I’ve gotta lighten up a little.” A pirate story seemed just the thing. Pirates. Arrr! Hilarity ensues. I had a couple of really great images in my head but nothing written when fuego sat down to join me at the Cheap Beer Place. I said the word ‘pirate’, mentioned a couple of my ideas, and he was all over it. We laughed and chuckled our way through some ideas and the core of the story took shape. The next day I wrote up a sketch of the story and away we went.

Flashback to another bar, sitting with fuego as we worked on other projects. There were students at the table next to ours, working on a project for film school. They were torturing themselves over the tiniest details — should she be holding half a cigarette or a whole cigarette? It was distracting for me and maddening for fuego. I wanted to go over to them, grab them by their collective collar and say, “Just tell a story. Maybe when you’re done and looking at it on the screen you’ll see things you put in there without knowing it, but if you don’t tell a good story, the rest doesn’t mean crap.”

fuego, who works in the film biz, just wanted to slap them. To some of their dilemmas he wanted to say, “That’s what you have actors for.” For the cigarette, it was “however long the damn thing is when you get a good take.” But for all his more knowledgeable criticism, it boiled down to the same thing I felt. Tell a good story and the rest of the crap will work.

So, pirates, then. Using the ideas we had come up with, I knocked out a few pages, defining a couple of compelling characters, drafting some good moments and building a few great images. It was nowhere near a complete thing, but I could see its strength, its story, shining up from the depths. fuego and I began the process of adapting it for the screen. (Not relevant to this story but exciting: we may be filming Pirates of the White Sand in New Mexico this summer. It’s a long shot, but within range of a good high-powered rifle.)

As we worked ideas were conceived, hatched, and clubbed to death. Nuances were added, relationships defined. Shots were laid out. The tides came and went. The pirates came to life. Tonight we finished a draft, and the result, while not final, is fun on a biscuit. We toasted its completion with an Arrr!

Which brings me back to the other thing I have found here in Prague. We had been working on part of the story and as usual fuego had to go to the bathroom. When he got back I said in a gravelly pirate voice, “Nay, Ruthie, twenty-six minutes.” fuego laughed and we shared for a moment what that said about the pirate captain. We squabbled for a bit about something else, then fuego came up with some dialog that helped connect Ruthie with the captain. Through it all we were having a blast.

We brought different things to the table as we collaborated, but the two, um, three… wait, four! most important things we had in common: ideas, respect, humor, and something else. And that’s what I’ve found here in Prague – a collaborator. A kindred spirit who loves a good story and has the drive to see it done. Of course we have our own things going as well, but what a blast it’s been working with him. Pirates wasn’t our first project together, and it won’t be our last. It’s just working.

Why would a dude wear shoes like that?

White leather, elaborately carved, with long toes. Elf-toes. The shoes stretch out so far beyond his feet it’s silly. Naturally as he walks in this goofy footwear they have started to curl up at the toes.

My czech is not that good, but I’m pretty sure I just heard the dude say he represented the lollipop guild.

Jers Novel Writer is a hit!

I just looked and discovered that 650 people have downloaded the most recent version of Jer’s Novel Writer. I imagine that of those people only a tiny fraction will end up using it, but still, that’s a lot of downloads considering I’ve done almost nothing to tell anyone about it. I’m especially popular in Sweden. It seems that someone mentioned it in a MacWorld forum in swedish. I can’t read the comment, but it must have been good.

There’s a new version coming out in a day or two with some really sweet (if I do say so myself) upgrades to the margin notes.

If you’re curious, you can check it out at the hut.

The origin of the sestina

Who invented the sestina, and why?

The origin of the sestina

Arnoud something, Frenchman, poet, masochist
Invented the bloody thing
thought that 6 by six plus troi
would make a bitchin’ poem
perhaps there are other rules
I shall ignore them

Arnoud something, Frenchman, poet, masochist
possibly liked the cadence
A play in six brief acts
A story told in slices
Of defined form
While the band plays on.

Arnoud something, Frenchman, poet, masochist
was fond of numbers
and the mystical power they hold
The most powerful number is three
The most powerful number is three
The most powerful number is three

Arnoud something, Frenchman, poet, masochist
using the most powerful number
the way a child uses LEGO
built a new structure
not with white and yellow plastic
but with a rhythm he heard from the stars

Arnoud something, Frenchman, poet, masochist
Spent his days casting about the house
Counting things without reason and without hope
Muttering, rambling, talking to himself
The way poets do when they’re close
But haven’t got there yet

Arnoud something, Frenchman, poet, masochist
A serious individual
As masochists are
never knew the fun I would have
with a form I never knew
And if he did, he wouldn’t like it.

Arnoud something, Frenchman, poet, masochist
inventor of the sestina
is dead now

A little brain teaser

Tonight I had to enter a password. I carefully typed a series of keys, and got a message that my password was incorrect. I changed nothing, pressed no button, did not move the mouse, or alter the state of my computer in any way. I typed exactly the same series of keys again – same keys, same order, doing nothing differently, and this time was allowed in.

How can that be?

Home is where the water’s hot

About a week ago Pan Ptaček brought a guy up to see about fixing my hot water situation. It was kind of out of the blue—after all, I’ve been living here more than two months. There was a polite knock on the door and I opened it to find my landlord and his handyman. The guy looked and sure enough the hot and cold hoses seemed to be reversed. he swapped them and while things worked better over all, there was still no hot water. He told Mr. Ptaček that a new water heater was required.

I wasn’t so sure. It seemed to me like the valve between the sink and the heater wasn’t right. I tried to explain my opinion with no success whatsoever. My landlord grimaced at the expense of a new heater, and understood not at all when I told him I thought he was wasting his money.

At the same time, I knew the valve assembly was probably designed for exactly that purpose. Still, the way it worked just made no sense.

Tonight I came home to find in the cabinet over the sink a new heater unit. Bigger, badder, and with an energy efficiency label that showed a rating of very bad, but not the worst. I looked at it hanging there, then turned and walked away. Sooner or later I would have to turn the hot water tap and find out where I stood. I puttered about, stalling, but before long I was back at the sink. I took a breath and twisted the hot water tap.

The water came out clear and cold, and never warmed up. I closed the valve. The hot water valve. You know, the one on the left, the one colored red. The friggin knob that everyone in the civilized world would assume is the hot water. You know where this story is heading. The right-left cold-hot thing is not a strong tendency here, but the blue-red thing is usually reliable. Not in my house. But the difference between now and yesterday is huge. Before I had two ways to get cold water in the kitchen sink. Now I have variety, and no excuse to put off doing the dishes.

My head is in a really neat place

I’m in a bar with free Internet access. I don’t know what I’m paying for beers right now and I don’t want to know. It’s not important. If only the %(^%*&^$ at the next table would stop smoking I’d be a happy, happy man.

[moved to a different table next to an outlet]

But here I am. Connected. On the air. Reaching out to my media empire, which yearns for me. Or something.

There are even pretty girls here, but at this moment every single one of them that I can see from where I sit is smoking. This is becoming increasingly irritating as I live down the remains of a head cold. There’s good ventilation here, but it only goes so far. Another very attractive woman just came in, and stopped at the bar for an ashtray on the way to her table.

The other day fuego, MaK, and I were in a restaurant for a late brunch, and we had a most pleasant time. On the way out we paused to speak to a friend of fuego’s and I was introduced. It came out that I was learning czech, and the friend said, “He needs a czech girlfriend, then,” or something like that. My response was “No, that would be too much work,” but nobody was paying any attention to me. But it goes beyond the simple fact I don’t need another project (and having a girlfriend is work — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). On top of that, every girl here smokes.

Two more women just arrived and sat at the table just upwind of me. The bartender recognized them and brought over an ashtray. In my field of vision right now, there are nine women and no men except the bartenders. Damn near paradise, if my sinuses weren’t cowering behind my occipital lobe for shelter.

All right. enough bitching about the smoke. This is Europe, after all, and except for Slovakia it’s a smoky place. I knew that when I signed up. I’m told that Europe is following California’s lead and will be banning smoking in public places, leaving my heart divided. I dislike banning things, and I consistently vote against banning things, even smoking in public, but I sure do like life better when no one is puffing up nearby.

All right. NOW there’s been enough bitching about the smoke. I will not bitch about it any more. I will squint my eyes and try to see what I am writing though the haze and write about something besides the smoke. After all, this episode is all about how great it is to be here.

Here, in fact, is a mall. Glossy, glitzy, and modern, there is no czech character here. I first went to a cafe nearby where I was told they had free internet. A lie. A BIG, FAT, LIE. (Ano, ještÄ› jedno, prosím.) I had a feeling about this place though. [There is now a male patron in my field of vision, and his girlfriend just lit up. D’oh! bitching again!] Outside in the mall proper an authoritative voice just came booming through the PA system. I have no idea what he said, and it couldn’t have been too important because everyone else ignored it, too. But whoever was speaking certainly felt important.

“Blah, blah, blablablah, Blah.” It’s the same in any language.

I think that’s where I’ll leave this episode, which also can be summarized as “Blah, blah, blablablah, Blah.”

Blah.

Bleh

I’ve had a cold the last few days, and while it hasn’t been that bad, it seems to have completely obliterated all creative spark. So there’s not much to say today, either. Ironically, the programming has been going very well—I’ve made big strides on the next release of Jer’s novel writer in the last few days.

I am feeling better, so maybe I’ll come up with something tonight worth posting.