The Best of the First Million

Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas first started in 2003, when the Internet was young and even tiny backwater blogs could score high on search engine rankings. It really started to gain traction a few months later, when I hopped in my car and started a road trip for “a few weeks” to see more of the lovely United States before relocating to Prague.

The road trip lasted more than seven months, and one of the best things about it (from my point of view) was the blog. I kept the driving short most days, and allowed plenty of time for writing. I was enjoying it so much, I actually tried to get Mazda to hire me to keep doing it. I was really living the Miata life. Alas, I never found a contact with a remote understanding of what I was proposing. (“Good luck with your book!” they would often say.)

So eventually I stopped driving, hopped on a plane, and found an apartment in Prague. Living in a foreign country is of course the source of many good stories, and the blog grew and flourished. (For certain, very small values of “flourish”.) It never became big, or popular, but it did form a nucleus for a wide-spread community. That made me happy.

When I came back to this country the tenor of the blog changed again; I can’t give too many details about my work, and now I’m in a relationship that makes much of my life none of your damn business. Facebook continued to grow and fill the community role that blogs like mine once did (more easily, if not as well), and the list of regulars here has diminished. Still I keep blogging.

Today, however, I’d like to climb in the way-back machine and look at some of my favorite older posts.

Suicide Squirrel Death Cult

It was today that the truth became obvious to me. Driving peacefully up Glenwood from the main town, two six-packs of beer placed carefully so that the side-to-side forces of the upcoming twisty road would not dislodge them, a squirrel came dashing out from the far side of the road and ran full-tilt to intercept me.

Sometimes the blog episode is merely a catalyst that gets people talking. This episode debuted early in my road trip and sparked a lively conversation in the comments. It was that post, I believe, that began to gel the blog community, or bloggcomm, as it was soon to be known. 84 comments followed, covering black holes, David Bowie, and squirrel activity around the world.

The end of the Road Trip

On the penultimate page our hero is hurtling across the heartland, thinking deep thoughts. You turn the page, and it just says, “And then he stopped.” You blink at the sentence, feeling gypped. “That’s it?” you ask the book, but the book just sits there, ignoring your ire. “And then he stopped.”

It was a bittersweet time when I gave up the road trip and moved on to a very different phase of my life. I thought of the story I had been telling, and how it ended. It turns out, it ended in a way very satisfying to Eastern Europeans, with more questions than answers.

Allison in Animeland

“Transfer student!” called one student as he dove under his desk.

“We’re doomed!” shouted a panicky girl, cowering in the corner. “So young… I’ve barely lived at all.”

“She’s so cute…,” said a boy holding a handkerchief to his nose.

“Everybody stay calm!” bellowed another girl over the noise.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” huffed a pretty blonde.

“Don’t turn me into a monkey! Please don’t turn me into a monkey,” sobbed another boy.

The teacher seemed unaware of the bedlam. “Allison has come all the way from America. She may not be familiar with all our customs, so be sure to do your best to help her feel welcome.”

One of the serial fiction pieces on this blog. I noticed that in many Japanese cartoons, untold mayhem is wrought by transfer students. It occurred to me that any student in that world would immediately recognize that the presence of a transfer student was Big Trouble. Transfer students are always demons, or robots, or escaped lab experiments. Allison, however is a perfectly ordinary American girl who knows nothing of those conventions. Or is she!? I intentionally did not spend a lot of time honing the episodes of this adventure, but just let myself be silly. I am tempted, one day, to carry this forward. There’s so much more anime to lampoon.

The Accidental Actor

“Hey,” Soup Boy said to me, “you want to be in James Bond?” “Sure,” said I. Now, because of a simple accident of logistics, you will quite possibly see my mug on the silver screen, while interesting things happen behind me.

While in Prague I had span of a few months where I landed several gigs as an extra in large films and an actor in small ones. It started with Casino Royale, where my job was to look American. Then followed a gig looking like a bum, and then looking like a lab assistant, and others. Good times.

The Stan-Man Plan

“Please, sit,” the border guard said, unconcerned for the busload of people who were waiting. Close up, Robert could see that his uniform was faded and worn almost through in places. “May I see your passport, please?”

Robert handed over his passport and his visa paperwork. The soldier looked at the visa, nonplussed. “You intend to stay here?”

“Yes.”

The guard set down the papers and scratched his head while he regarded his guest with open confusion. “Why?”

Each November 1st I publish an excerpt of the writing I did to kick off NaNoWriMo. In 2005 that effort was The Stan-Man Plan, in which venal Washington politics land a mild-mannered language expert in the forgotten land of Ztrtkijistan, which may be a country, or may be a province of a neighbor. No one has ever cared enough to figure it out. It’s that kind of place. In fact, when Ghengis Kahn came through, he took one look at the little valley and decided to go around. McFadden quickly admits he is a spy, thinking that would get him sent home, but of course it’s not that simple, and hijinks ensue.

The Cowboy God

“Hello,” I say. Suddenly I feel like I’m intruding. I should have knocked. “The door was open.”

The door on the right opens and a figure emerges, small and gray and lost in the gloom. “Of course,” she says. She steps forward into the splash from one of the windows. Her hair is dark and very long. Her skin is pale. She looks moonlit. “Preacher’s not here,” she says.

“That’s all right,” I say. “I’m looking for the Cowboy God.”

She takes another step forward and stops, back in shadow, but I can feel her watching me. After a moment she says, “We got the same God as everyone else.”

I nod slowly, but then shake my head. “No,” I say.

The first straight-up fiction I recorded here (I think), and there’s still a lot about this one I like. It grew in my head after I passed a sign at the side of a Texas road, white in the gray of a rainstorm. The story grew in my head as I drove, heading toward North Carolina in the final weeks of the Homeless Tour. That night, somewhere in Louisiana (I think), I sketched out a draft. The Wanderer shows up in a lot of my stories; someone traveling, seeking, without knowing what he is searching for. Most of those stories appear elsewhere, but there are a few here.

A Couple of Fragments I Like

“I just can’t believe what a big deal you all make of this.”

“Listen, we have to look out for each other, and it’s traumatic for the newbies. We’re not like you. We don’t just sniff each other’s butts and then go out and get drunk.”

I let that pass. I had tried the “more hygenic than shaking hands” argument before, but it never worked.

Though complete short stories are rare around here, I do like to share little bits and fragments of stories I will never write. The ol’ Vampires-n-Werewolves-n-shit sector of the urban fantasy genre has been beat to death, but honestly I think there could be more butt-sniffing. And leg-humping. So I provided it. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Graybeard

I laughed, accepted the pen, and signed the back of the photo. Around me people were trying to figure out who the hell I was, that a man with a long gray beard would stop me, already have a picture of me, and ask me to sign it. At that moment I was implicitly a celebrity, and if only they had known how to ask they could have got my autograph, too. I was a supermodel.

Graybeard is gone now, but he made Prague interesting, to say the least. This day saw us crashing a promotion for a fashion magazine. I was, I must say, the best model in the bunch, but not the prettiest. Not by a long shot.

Feeding the Eels

Among a certain type that booth is legendary. It’s the booth where Louie the Skunk shook hands with Precinct Captain O’Malley, giving Louie control of a large slice of Midtown, the booth where Six Finger Frankie proposed to a dancer named Lorraine before she took off with Old Ed in Frankie’s car, and it’s the booth where Lumpy Gannett accidentally shot himself twelve times with his revolver. There’s a mystique surrounding that booth, and it repels those who don’t belong. Maybe the faint smell of corruption and blood speaks to some part of the human animal, pushing them away. If she noticed it she was unaffected.

The link is to the first episode, which is a hyperbolic exaggeration of 1950’s hard-nosed detective pulp written as part of a Google-bomb experiment. What follows is my first shot at serial fiction here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas. Since I didn’t want this project to interfere with my “real” writing, there were rules: I couldn’t spend more than 90 minutes on an episode (though in the later episodes I sometimes spent much more than that), and at the end of each episode I’d pick a title for the next one that was intentionally difficult. No planning, no vision for how the story comes out, but almost by accident there are some sweet moments. Ah, Meredith. I should probably bang out the last couple of chapters sometime.

Heisenberg’s Daughter

She may still be out there somewhere. I hear rumors now and then. Moscow, or Cape Town, or Jackson Hole. She’s the kind of person who could be in any of those places. She could be anywhere. Her potential is everywhere…

Because nothing says romance like particle physics. This is a piece of what the kids call “flash fiction” these days. This little piece actually found its way to print, with a little tweaking.

The Remains of the Night

Dreams can be complex and confusing things, not bound by the rules of logic or waking life. When I wake up slowly from a dream-filled sleep the transition can be gradual, as the elements of the vision scatter and fade before the onslaught of rational thought that (usually) marks my waking hours. Sometimes, however, there remains a last vestige, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Like a grin without a cat, it can certainly be an odd scrap of thought.

I suppose the brief, inconsequential little episodes should have representation here as well; this is one I stumbled upon while looking for something else. If you like it, there are plenty more.

I think I’ll stop there. I’m omitting some of my most popular episodes; for instance for several weeks this blog was the top hit on Google for the phrase “New York Sucks” (back when humble blogs could top Google searches), and the episode “Eggs Over Easy — The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide” stayed near the top for a long time. There are more technical episodes as well; my treatise on CSS border-radius, with up-to-date info on support in various browsers, got a notice from a big tech publication and became so popular that my web host of the time shut me down.

The other thing not well-represented here is the community. Funkmaster G-Force, gizo, Dr. Pants, bug, Mr7k, and all the rest who made this thing worth doing. The commenters, the lurkers, the people far apart but all right here. This million-word celebration is about you guys. Thanks to all of you.

4

Stupid Friday

When I moved out to California to leverage my Physics degree into a career in fast food, I lamented with my roommates that we just weren’t as stupid as we had been in our carefree college days. Back in the good ol’ days, we had thought nothing of the consequences of staying up all night, our eyeballs exploding from the mixture of caffeine and alcohol we ingested, peeing off sheer cliffs of crumbling rock, numbering the stars and toooooasting life, wearing 12-pack cartons as hats.

Now we were living in a city, and many nights we had to keep in mind the r-r-responsibilities of the coming day. Still, reluctant to let go of the golden days of youth, we came up with a plan. A simple, elegant plan called Stupid Friday.

It was a Friday, for instance, when I shaved the top of my head to go with the monk costume I wore to a Halloween party. On another Friday we got several liters of Mountain Dew, went to a local park, and played chip-chip hula hoop tennis ball golf long into the night. (One of our number was a master at building a fun game out of a pile of toys. A recreational MacGyver.)

Stupid Fridays were a resounding success, so it was not long before we expanded the franchise. Dumb Wednesday became a feature of our calendar, and then things really took off:

  • Moronic Monday
  • Futile Tuesday
  • Dumb Wednesday
  • ??? Thursday
  • Stupid Friday

I can’t for the life of me remember what we named Thursday, but it was one of the earlier additions to our calendar, as it was only slightly more stupid than Friday. Dumb Wednesday’s name was inspired at least in part by the movie Big Wednesday, which I remember fondly and wonder now how I’d like it. Futile Tuesday has a nice ring to it, and Moronic Monday is what it is. Maybe another alumnus of the EmmaDome can remember Thursday’s moniker.

I still invoke Stupid Friday now and again, and even Dumb Wednesday. Life is too short to be r-r-responsible all the time.

2

Serious Telephoto

This is about 1/3 of a camera I spent a summer serving. You might recognize it from the movies Contact and 2010: Oddesy Something-or-other, or maybe from the cover to that Night Ranger album you’d rather forget.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Note: You do not want to watch Contact when I’m in the room, unless you want to hear me complain at length about how that’s not really how a radio telescope works. I can’t help it!

I was just a lowly grunt at the VLA, but I worked the quiet night shift and when data came off the antennae and passed through my system (using a special memory array to accomplish fast Fourier transforms on the data to convert it from time-based to space-based), I would become the first human being ever to see Things Out There.

Yeah, chills.

I’m pretty sure that specialized, really expensive piece of hardware could still outperform my phone for that one specific task. Probably. But then again game engines use that same math, so maybe not. The PDP-11’s that fed the data into and took the data out of the array were what once was called minicomputers before microcomputers ate them for breakfast after Moore’s Comet hit.

I spent free time working on the Silicon Graphics workstation to make false-color images that looked cool — uh, I mean, enhanced the features the scientists wanted to study.

I have some OK gear of my own now, but I won’t be photographing quasars shooting out gas jets the size of galaxies.

If you’re ever on a road trip across the southwest, I recommend highway 60 for Salt River Canyon alone. On your way through New Mexico be sure to stop off at the VLA and walk around a bit. It’s a hell of a camera.

1

Yearbooks

I ran across my old high school yearbook while packing up my life for this trip. The yearbook is a tool we use to say goodbye without ever saying goodbye. We press upon our friends to write something special inside the cover that we can always remember that person by. It’s like pre-packaged nostalgia. We were romantic then, all of us, even a geek like me, but for me the yearbook ritual was as horrifying as it was stupid. I think I picked up the whole cynical thing ahead of my time – I was postcocious.

I cracked open the yearbook not really knowing what to expect. There were warm words from people that I have not thought of in years, and far more empty paragraphs that from this distance were obviously rote statements made for those you had no strong affinity for but you had to write something. Then there was one from someone who I still know and count as one of my best friends. Much of it was in code. “Don’t forget Maynard,” it said. “Don’t forget Edgar.” Maynard and Edgar were not acquaintances, they were words that had special meaning for us. Maynard was, um… and there’s the thing. I don’t remember. I have forgotten Maynard. I have forgotten Edgar.

I do remember thinking that I would never forget those things. I remembered the first time I read that passage and thought that those things would always be a part of me. I remember lots of other things about that year. Many of them I would prefer to forget. I remember stupid things I did that only hurt other people. I didn’t learn from those years, I’ve kept right on dong those things. I remember small triumphs and big disappointments.

I remember the person who gave me that crazy list of things to remember. Even back then it was pretty widely recognized that remembering things was not my forte, but he asked me to anyway. Had I studied the list, well, ever, I might remember what all that stuff was about. Instead I remember moonlight frisbee golf, Mars 2021, and guerilla brass caroling in July. Those really were good times, no matter what the yearbook says. Sorry, Maynard.

Another thing I don’t remember is what I wrote in anyone else’s yearbook. That’s probably a good thing. I don’t think I signed that many, but I’m sure the ones I did I took just as seriously as everyone else and said a lot of dumb crap. Somewhere out there someone has pulled out their yearbook in the last couple of years, perhaps for the 20th reunion (if there was one), and looked at what I wrote and asked the air, “Who’s Jerry?” Better, probably, if we ever meet again, that my name is never associated with what I wrote. “We will always be friends,” or something like that. Nothing like reading a note from someone you haven’t seen in 22 years and only vaguely remember saying what a special time this has been and how you will always be friends.

My advice to any kids out there who are about to be put in the position of trying to say something sincere and lasting and flattering and intelligent: Write “elevator ocelot rutabaga” and sign your name. Learn calligraphy so those three magic words seem all the more important. The people that matter, the ones you really will be friends with forever, will look back on that oddity and say, “Yep, that’s Martha, all right. What a character.” (Assuming your name is Martha, of course. OR – better yet – sign as Martha no matter what your name really is. If you’re female, sign as Maynard.) Then they’ll go right on remembering you for who you are and why they like you so much. The others, the ones who don’t remember you at all, will have a mystery to puzzle over when they blow the dust off their yearbooks every ten years or so.

Elevator Ocelot Rutabaga. I’m pretty sure that’s not what I wrote back then.