Project Gutenberg!

Few things have transformed society as much as the moveable-type printing press. By dramatically reducing the cost of reproducing the written word, the press sent shock waves through our civilization. Not long after there was Cervantes, and the novel was born.

Now we have the Internet, enabling new literary forms (and, even more illiterary forms). And, thanks to the folks at Project Gutenberg, not only can we waste our lives searching for the rare gems in the raucous jungles of the blogosphere, we can peruse the classics that got us here. Their goal is pretty straightforward — archive all books that are in public domain and make them available to anyyone with the technology to access them.

I had read about this project, but hadn’t taken the time to drop by until I was doing a search for Ring Lardner, a humorist who is mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye. I downloaded and read The Real Dope, which was, indeed, quite funny.

Then I looked at the “Most popular downloads” page and the biggest movers were textbooks. The most popular authors, with more than a thousand downloads per day, were Mark Twain and Jane Austen. My guess is that this would correspond to writers popular in literature curriculums. Also near the top was Sun Tsu’s Art of War, someone’s Illustrated History of Furniture, and Beowolf. “Beowolf,” thought I, “cool. I should read that.”

So I downloaded the book in a few seconds and after going through the translator’s notes from the 1880’s and a few newer notes about the current digital encoding and choice for what characters to use, I got to the poem. In Old English. Completely unreadable unless you happen to know Old English. I assume the thing’s a top download simply because it’s a top download. It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of people who know Old English and don’t happen to already have at least one copy of Beowolf in Old English are going to be happening by each day.

Anyway, you can bet your boots I’ll be dropping by from time to time to brush up on the great classics of literature. For instance, right now I’m reading Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Borroughs.


Half a Million Words

I ran my little “just how much of his life has Jerry wasted” script this morning and got back the result: this blog has passed the half-million words line. 503,909, to be precisely inexact. The total includes a few words written by other people (as in the Bacon Haiku episode), but does not include episode titles or the little blurb at the beginning of most episodes.

For a very rough comparison, at 250 words per page in a typical paperback, printing the contents of this blog would cover roughly 2000 pages. (It might be less because there is relatively little dialog here, but you get the idea.) That’s a lot of muddled ramblings. I’m sitting here sipping my congratulatory tea, trying to imagine someone reading this thing from start to finish. Ouch. Maybe it would be like Las Vegas – success just often enough to keep a reader going. Somehow I doubt that.

Still, I suspect that out there are folks who have read just about all of those half-million words. This milestone is for you guys, the stalwarts, the ones who have stuck around through the lean times. It’s also dedicated to the newcomers, those who have become regulars recently, the ones stepping up to carry Muddled Ramblings into the future! (Both of you.)

So, where should we celebrate MuddleCon 1,000,006 in 2012?

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is one of those American classics that everyone is supposed to read. Somehow I never did. As an American who proposes to make a living butting words up next to each other, I’ve been working on closing up some of the gaping holes in my mental library.

The results of these efforts are almost always rewarding. There’s a reason these books have gained the stature they have. This one is no exception and I will not attempt to add to the already-too-large body of criticism surrounding it. People, it seems, can make a big deal out of a good story.

The main guy, the narrator, Holden, is a high-school kid who is full of contradictions. He knows what he is supposed to be, he knows what he wants to be, and he’s acutely aware that he is neither. What he is, we start to realize, is better (by conventional standards) than what he thinks he should be. He aspires to be a modern, devil-may-care man, but he simply isn’t. He cares about a lot of things. He cares so much it’s a little scary.

That’s my take, anyway.

After reading the first few paragraphs I knew this book would be a special sort of challenge for me. A personal one, a gauntlet thrown. There is a voice driving this narrative, a guy speaking in a very natural manner that exposes his character, and old JD isn’t going to let the English language get in the way. There are times Salinger simply repeats the same sentence twice. The same goddam sentence. Twice. That old JD knocked me out sometimes the way he’d just repeat things like that.

Sometimes I write stuff like that. I just let fly, type like I think, words are punctuation, punctuation are words. Fragments. Asides, nonlinear thought expressed in a linear form. Then I delete it, or clean it up, to make it easier to digest. What I get from Salinger is not just a very good read but also an example that done well there’s nothing wrong with setting aside rules, as long as the result is a distinctive voice. My first drafts tend to be much more courageous than my final results. Maybe that’s not a bad thing most of the time, but I think I miss opportunities too often.

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

Ballroom Dancing: NOT a Sport

For some reason, here at Little Café Near Home, we are watching some sort of Ballroom dancing competition. Like figure skating, it fails on all three of my criteria for being a good sport:

  1. No judges – if you need someone else to tell you who won, it’s not a sport at all. Lack of an empirical scoring system removes the activity from even being considered as a sport, let alone a good one.
  2. Scoring must be a significant event – NBA, please take note. Scoring should be a cause for celebration.
  3. Scoring must be possible – take hockey. Points are rare, but things are nuts and a score could happen at almost any moment. Soccer occupies this weird realm where almost scoring is such a rare event that even that is cause of great emotional release. I will grudgingly allow that perhaps you can derive some tension from knowing that your team could in the next few minutes work their way into a situation where they almost score (but probably won’t).

Anyway, ballroom dancing stumbles at criterion number one, and so cannot be considered a sport at all. Yet here it is on the Czech sport channel. All other judgement of worthiness aside, I watched for a while and wondered, “isn’t dancing supposed to be fun?” I watched a little longer and had to wonder, “isn’t dancing supposed to be about being with someone?

Here’s the thing: the women in these events have their backs arched and their necks twisted such that one must conclude that they find the man they are with repulsive. They hold their heads as far from their partner as possible, with plastic smiles on their faces, looking anywhere but at the man. I’ve had dance partners like that, actively radiating disinterest, lest I get the wrong idea. Yet here are the friggin’ professionals, people who theoretically have chosen to be together, yet to appear to be enjoying the company of your dance partner is considered bad form. When the music’s over they still don’t look at each other; they turn and suck up to the crowd. I wonder what would happen if one of these teams went out and did a really passionate dance, eyes locked, and at the end the dude gave her a little kiss. Maybe just a kiss on the hand, thanking her for the wonderful time they just spent together. Like they were courting. Like they were dancing.

Forget about whether it’s a sport; in my book, this competition is not even dancing. It is, to twist a phrase, strictly “ballroom”.


Tons and Tons

Q: Which weighs more, a ton of feathers or a ton of lead?

A: A ton of paperwork.

Although, now that I think about it, if one were to weigh out a ton of feathers and a ton of lead at sea level, the mass of the feathers would exceed the mass of the lead. The feathers would be be more bouyant. Neither, however, come anywhere close to the crushing weight of a ton of paperwork.

Overheard In My Apartment

I talk to myself often, but I rarely listen. Tonight I was standing in the middle of the room, looking about, when I heard myself say, “There’s a new kind of wisdom in town.”

Livin’ The Dream

A conversation I had this morning reminded me of this fragment. I’ve tried a couple of times to put the image of the morning changing of the guard into a story, into something that follows “Moonlight Sonata”, but it hasn’t worked yet. This fragment is just another of those abortive attempts, but I like it OK.

“Hey, Doc! Some guy was looking for you.”

“Do I want him to find me?”

Sparky scratched his head. “Not sure. Didn’t look like a bill collector or anything. He was wearing a suit, though.”

I couldn’t think of anything I’d want from a man in a suit, which meant if he never found me that would be all right. I sipped my coffee as Sparky slipped into the seat across from me, starting on his breakfast beer. He made a satisfied smacking sound with his lips.

“He had a black eye,” Sparky said. “You hit anyone lately?”

“I’m a lover, not a fighter, man.” I yawned. The sun would be rising soon. The little café was in transition; the last of the night people were desperately clinging to wakefulness, trying with forced gaiety to hold onto something they had never had. They were giving way to the morning people, coming in for a smoke and a jolt of caffeine before moving on to the grind of the day. At one table a girl was asleep, head on outstretched arm, party dress rumpled, while her friends chatted on and ordered shots of Becherovka. Next to them three men in coveralls were smoking and having a morning beer before going to work, idly trying to flirt with the party girls, but the girls were too far gone to notice.

“Fuck, Doc, what are we doing here?” Sparky asked, looking at the ceiling.

“Livin’ the dream, Sparks, Livin’ the dream.”

He rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, but whose dream? I’ve been sitting in this chair or one just like, morning after morning, for years now. It never changes. Even the tourists are the same.”

“Maybe you should take a break.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing, for about five years now.”

Five years was a long time to last on the underside of the city. The life there wears you down, making you less and less distinct until you finally just disappear. Everyone is just passing through; friendships are fleeting and conversations often start, ‘Whatever happened to…?’ But before long you don’t remember the names, and the faces blur and fade.

Talking about time meant Sparky had one foot out the door already. Once you accept that there is such a thing as progress you start to notice that you aren’t making any. I was going to miss him. He had seemed more solid than most of the night folk. I had almost come to know him.


Bacon Haiku

Bacon Haiku

When you’re feeling blue
Let some bacon in haiku
fix what’s ailin’ you
Not long ago there was a feverish burst of bacon-related haiku activity in the comments here at MR&HBI. Not surprising, really, considering the position we hold in the vanguard of modern literature. As a service to the poetic community I thought I would consolidate the bacon haiku in its very own episode. Let me know if I missed any, or if I made any errors transferring the words. And, just because I posted these, doesn’t mean you can’t add more! In fact, I’m quite certain that the ultimate bacon haiku has yet to be written.
delicious bacon
side order of happiness
greasy crispy bliss
– TG

Greasy piece of lard
Oil drenched yummy goodness
bacon gift from GOD

Salty crunchy good
The dog tackles me everyday
Ouch that’s not bacon dog

Bacon oh Bacon
from the sizzle to the crunch
a cat eating beans
– pL

crisp pink perfection
the pig’s noble sacrifice
as the chicken smiles
– Harlean

m-m-m bacon
m-m-m-m-m bacon
baco frickin n
– Jerry

delicious frying
bacon on the hot griddle
blt coming
– john[liz]

bacon, ham, porkchops
magical meat animal
oh how i love you
– john & liz

if i ever thought
that bacon would cease to be
i would stab my face
– liz

when i eat bacon
i find that i enjoy life
more than e’er before
– liz

this one time in france
i did bad things with bacon
that i won’t forget
– liz

bacon on my knee
feel the oil burning me there
wish i had a plate
– john (dedicated to liz)

like the morning mist
the dew upon the branches
bacon is profound
– liz

why bacon, you ask?
why do we draw breath each day?
why does the sun rise?
– TG

Bacon sizzles hot
A breakfast with John and Liz
Going to eat that?
– The Eightster

you must know, eighster
all’s fair in love and bacon
would you like seconds?
– liz

gleam in greasy eyes
unseen but for its effect
stealth ninja bacon
– TG

back when we were kids
Liz and I would eat bacon
then go to the park
– TG (dedicated to liz)

if i had a choice
my sister would always win
over all bacon
– liz

find us if you can
ultimate bacon haiku
we will be waiting
– TG

Pork belly futures
My plate the fulcrum of Time
Ghosts of Breakfast Past
– John H.

Following Soup Boy
John ain’t got no office job
Can’t pay for bacon
– Squirrely Joe

Look at your breakfast
Chicken did a good job but
Pig was committed
– Squirrely Joe

Bacon o bacon
‘Tis thy crispy porcine
Flesh I miss the most
– dyczko schmeeczko


Back at Café Fuzzy

Fresh-squeezed orange juice, a particularly fine cup of Earl Grey, and my breakfast sandwich (hold the ketchup) is on the way. The sound of falling water all around me from the integrated waterfall-sculptures (complete with large hairy structure). It’s good to be back.

café fuzzy

Café Fuzzy, complete with big hairy sculptures

I stand out a little bit here. This place is bright and modern, people are dressed for business. I’m a wee bit on the scruffy side. I’m American, though, and the folks here are willing to make allowances for that. In fact, I think I can even take a picture without breaking the Mind Your Own Business code. This isn’t the kind of place where patrons still remember having to worry about who might be watching them.

Soup Boy Ain’t Got No Office Job

This isn’t new or anything, but I thought I would share it with you guys. Now let’s see if I get this YouTube thing right.

john ain’t got no office job

A Tough Old Bird

This morning I heard the rap-tap-tapping, but I did not realize it was at my door. It was a little more tentative than the average door-knock. Then my phone rang. The gang was gathered on my landing, collecting me for our big meeting with the landlord. The purpose of this meeting: getting some paperwork signed that is a step toward solidifying my legal status on the continent.

There is a lot of fear running around the ex-pat community right now, as Europe tightens its immigration rules and steps up enforcement. Neither Soup Boy nor I are particularly worried about that, but we each have our reasons for wanting to be more compliant. I want to cross borders without worry, and he wants to be able to work for bigger clients who are more of a stickler for paperwork. Soup Boy found a guy who helps people in our situation for a very reasonable fee, but he had one sticking point. He needed a business address. Strangely, this was difficult for him to come by, but when he realized that I would soon be in the same boat, we worked out that we could both use my address. The only catch: the building owner has to sign a document. I didn’t anticipate that my landlord, Otakar Ptáček (rhymes with little bird), would have a problem with that.

MaK made the calls and we set up a meeting. It turns out that Otakar has transferred ownership to his daughter, so it is lucky indeed that she is visiting from the Unites States right now. Papers in hand we trooped into the landlord’s home, directly below mine.

Otakar did not get up to greet us. He sat in his favorite chair, a tissue pressed up against his nose. He had a nosebleed. Not just a little thing, but a big ol’ nosebleed that had been going on for two hours. His medication had changed recently, which may or may not have been a contributor. Still, we forged ahead with the meeting, making our way through documents that, while simple, carried just enough ambiguity to cause errors. As with every czech transaction, there must first come a lengthy discussion of the task and it’s reflection on the world as a whole.

Then Otakar started hacking and spitting blood. There was talk of an ambulance and hospital, but Otakar insisted that if he was going to see the doctor he would drive. His coughing subsided and some semblance of normalcy prevailed. We continued to wrestle with the documents.

Finally we were as done as we were going to get (there was a search for an ID number that had Otakar up and moving furniture), and it was time to go. Otakar was back in his chair, looking small, a new tissue over his nose.

I later met with the Visa consultant, and because Soup Boy managed to put together a group, we got a pretty deep discount. Not only that, but much of the haze of confusion about the whole process has been lifted. It almost seems possible, now.


It Goes Without Saying

Last night I set up the new home for the novel It Goes Without Saying, the latest masterpiece by promising young author Edgar Pildrot. What? You’ve never heard of him? Not a surprise, I suppose, as his epic has not been published yet. It hasn’t even been written, in fact. That’s where you come in. That’s right, dear reader, you can be Edgar Pildrot — or at least a part of him. Chapter 5 is under way, Damien and Alice are on the run from mysterious people dressed all in black, and the only thing that’s missing is what happens next. It could be anything, but it will likely be a bit odd.

If you would like to have a hand in determining the fate of our heroes, pop on over and sign up! (Or, just ask me nicely and I’ll create your account.) Once I’ve given you book-authoring powers, you will be able to add your own two cents to the embryonic novel. There are only two rules: Never use the word ‘said’ and every alternative may only be used once.

Of course, even if you don’t want to participate directly, you are welcome to hang out, read along and heckle comment. Take a look!

The Bubbles! The Bubbles!

Yesterday was That Girl’s birthday, and although we are far apart I thought I would mark the day. I was at the Little Café Near Home and had the brilliant idea to order a bottle of bubbly. That Girl likes her bubbly.

Today I’m thinking that may not have been such a good idea. I awoke to that not-so-fresh feeling. OK, I feel lousy. Furry in head and tongue. This boy needs cheesy home fries!

He Remonstrated, She Demurred, and a Project was Born

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she prevaricated.
“Yes you do,” he blaxtophosed.

As I was writing that last episode, I got an idea. Ideas come in a wide range of flavors, and many of them are undercooked. I’m counting on you guys to make this idea fully-baked. I think there are enough regulars now to make something like this work. Group fiction. Silly group fiction, anchored on a bit of patently bad advice every writer hears at one point or another.

I propose two chapters of a novel, chapters five and ten. The writing should be reasonable but for one rule: no word for verbal utterance can be used more than once. By chapter five our otherwise-talented author, Edgar Pildrot, will be scraping the bottom of the barrel. By chapter ten he’ll be reduced to wild invention to paraphrase ‘said’. Wild invention, I think, is something this crowd could do well. Perhaps also we should include a rule that no character can be described the same way twice. Forget names, they would have been used up in chapter one. Just a thought.

I imagine this would be a perfect application of some sort of wiki thing. I’ll try to figure out how to host one of them (I welcome any guidance), but there’s also the question of the story. What do you guys think? Would you play? How much structure should be there at the start? An outline of the novel with a little more detail for the relevant chapters, or is that too much? There must be some structure; I wouldn’t want a bunch of fun sentences that didn’t follow. Or is continuity part of the challenge? I wouldn’t want to stifle you guys too much. Where’s the balance? I’m figuring the group would write chapter five first, then chapter 10. Kind of a vegetables-before-desert thing, only in this case the veggies are tasty, too.

We also need a good name for the project. My first instinct was Outrageous Dialog Project, but that misses the import of the dialog markers.

So four (wait, five) questions:

Do you want to join us and write silly dialog?
Do you have any idea how to make the project work?
How much of the story should be predefined?
What should the project be called?
Something else?

Please give your two cents in the comments below. I will interpret the sound of crickets chirping as an indication that the rest of you have actual “lives” and stuff, and don’t have time for such silliness. I’m not really sure how many participants it would take to hit that critical mass of fun.

He said, “said.”

Every once in a while you see advice for writers to lay off using the word “said” so much. When you read work by people who take this advice seriously, it shows. Characters who “exclaim” and “counter” and “blurt” when really all they’re doing is saying something is the mark of a writer who has forgotten their own experience reading. “The masters don’t use ‘said’ all the time,” I have heard people say.

Yes, they do. All the time. You just don’t see it. Good writers use those alternatives the way that quiet people use profanity. They are words for when you want to be noticed.

When I write (notice how by inference I am defining myself as a good writer — pretty sly, huh?), I use ‘said’ to resolve ambiguity about the speaker and to provide phrasing clues, to put in a narrative pause where the speaker is taking a breath. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘said’ is not a word, but punctuation. I postulate here that in the cognition of written language, that ‘said’ is managed by some sort of pre-processor, an arrow pointing to the character speaking, and by the time the text reaches the active story-enjoyment centers of the brain, the word is gone, in its place is an understanding of the voice of the speaker. The times I most notice ‘said’ is when it’s missing and I’ve lost track of who is speaking.

Still, I often find myself using a similar crutch. I will supply business to change the reader’s focus to the correct speaker:

Beth fiddled with her glasses. “That’s weird.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah.
Ed picked his nose. “You guys are just paranoid.”

Business can be useful, if it enhances characterization. If it’s just to replace “said”, it’s just a bad as

“That’s weird,” Beth mumbled.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed.
“You guys are just paranoid,” Ed whined.

A special subset of the ‘don’t use said’ crowd is the ‘never use the same word for a verbal utterance twice’ bunch. This can lead to some truly comic writing. (In fact, that gives me an idea… stay tuned. You and we and all of us, we have a project.) Generally I use the “business trick” when I want to name the reader before the spoken words, which can be helpful. For some reason I resist the form “Beth said, ‘That’s weird.'” and so forth. Part of my prejudice I’ll defend on timing grounds; I generally use the device when I want to slow the pace of the conversation. Still, there’s a limit, so the advice here about the invisibility of ‘said’ is directed toward myself as much as toward anyone else.

Meanwhile, what a great sentence: “‘Yeah,’ Joe agreed.” As if ‘yeah’ could have any other meaning. What the heck, why stop there?

Joe nodded. “Yeah,” he concurred agreeably.

So what can we conclude? Ed will be second or third to fall to the Kabin Killer, allowing him screen time enough to really annoy us before we cheer his downfall. Beth will last a little longer; she will almost escape but will lose her glasses at the critical moment, the only point in the film where there is any doubt about the outcome. Finally Joe will be the one to discover the killer’s weakness but too late to save himself. His demise will be heroic, as he leaves the critical clue for the others to find. He will be the last male to die. That’s what a few well-placed nuances in the dialog will do for you.