In an Age of Wonder

      You've heard, right?  Wait, you haven't heard?  Or worse yet, you've heard, but you're not appreciating the unbelievable AWESOMENESS that is...

      ...the up-coming Dark Crystal Netflix series!!!!

      Ok, when you're done squeeing & jumping up & down you can keep reading.
      The first time I saw Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal, I was pretty young.  Young enough to be freaked out by EVERYTHING in it.  I was scared of the black beetle-like monsters that guarded the castle.  I was scared of the crystal bats.  I was scared of Fizzgig, because he had a big mouth & was loud.  But I was so intrigued by the beauty & the completeness of the world, I kept going back & watching it again & again.

I was afraid of Aughra, but that just showed that I was smart.  Only fools don't fear someone this wise & powerful...& able to remove her own eye while it still works.  Mad-Eye moody has nothing on this Sorceress.
      Eventually I stopped being scared.  Eventually I also got the movie on DVD, because my family's recorded-off-HBO-VHS tape was so dark, I missed a lot of scenery.*  But I've always loved it.
      There are some people who say that the special effects of the 1980's are outdated to the point of being laughable, but if anything I think the development of CGI make The Dark Crystal even more amazing.  Yes, it is amazing to take the time & skill to create art on a computer that transports us to places like Pandora or Middle Earth.  But everything - EVERYTHING - in The Dark Crystal was made by hand.  Every twig, every eyelash, every crack in the wall was made in a workshop, with physical tools.  And every movement was done through human action.  This is art, people.  This is mastery of a craft like nothing ever seen.
      Through the years there have been rumors that a second movie might be made, but I never let myself get my hopes up.  I was even worried that they might be true; if a sequel was made mostly on computer, a part of my heart would break forever.  I haven't looked into the plans for puppetry vs. digital effects for the Netflix series yet.  I'm going to let myself squee uncontrollably a little longer.

*I still remember the first time watching that DVD & going, "Holy Crow, check out those plants there!  And animals there!  And stuff on the wall!  HOW DID THIS JUST GET EVEN COOLER!?!!"

The Noisy Muse

      I woke up Friday morning wanting to write.  That hasn't happened long has it been since my last blog post?
      Ok, that's a mild exaggeration.  There have actually been several days in the last few months where I have felt an inclination to work on my stories.  And a few times I gave into said inclination for 20 or 30 minutes.  But that's about as far as I've gotten because - in the words of my co-workers - I got Life'd.
      What made Friday unique was that I didn't just feel like, "Writing could be fun," I felt like, "I NEED TO WRITE!"  And guess what?  No time.  I had to work for 5 hours (on my day off), then I cooked for 4 hours, then I co-hosted a Cinco de Mayo party for another 4 hours.  I have zero complaints about how the day ended because it involved margaritas.  Mixed Citrus Jalapeño Margaritas, to be exact!  But all the same, there was no time to write.
      And I. Am. Fed. Up.
      Writing is my biggest passion.  Honestly, it's bigger than cooking, it's just that finding time to cook is easier, because I eat every day.*  Life is too damn short not to pursue one's passions.  So time to write will be found, come hell or Gods Damned high water!
      I've joined a new Writer's Group, which meets every other week.  I'm hoping that will help keep me accountable.  Besides, the weather is getting sunnier & inspiration is peeking out from so many corners!  There are hikes to enjoy, Farmers' Markets to peruse, & friends to host, all of which help get my creative juices flowing.  I'm going to do my damnedest to get back into regular blogging as well.  And to thank you for continuing to read (despite a few months of absence, here is that recipe I promised.  Drink responsibly, please, & Feliz Cinco de Mayo.

Z.D.'s Mixed Citrus Jalapeño Margaritas
makes 1 large pitcher

24 oz. Tequila Blanco
11 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
9 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 - 4 oz. Mixed Citrus Vanilla Syrup**
1 jalapeño pepper, halved lengthwise
extra lime wedges, jalapeno slices, kosher salt, & crushed ice for serving

 - Mix tequila, juices, & syrup in a large pitcher until thoroughly combined.  Drop in the jalapeño, cover with plastic wrap, & chill 30 minutes to 2 hours.  DO NOT leave the jalapeño in there longer than that, it will develop too harsh of a flavor!

 - To serve, use a lime wedge to wet the lip of a margarita or highball glass.  Let sit for 1 minute, then dip rim into a shallow saucer of kosher salt.  Set aside for 10 minutes to let the salt adhere.  Fill glass with crushed ice, then pour margarita mixture over.  Serve with lime wedge on the side if so desired.

Not my photo, but this is basically what it looks like.  I went with a little less salt than that.

*Four times, usually.

**Here's the twist: this is the leftover syrup from making this recipe for Mixed Citrus Marmalade from Bon Appetit magazine.  Why the heck do I have it?  Because I made the marmalade as part of my Easter dessert.  Is it a pain in the ass?  Yes.  Is it so absurdly delicious that you'll make it again even though it is a pain in the ass?  Yes.

Stuck in the Middle...or...Beginning.

      A common piece of advice among writers is to "start a story in the middle."  The idea is that tales often don't get interesting until a certain amount of tension builds, or problems unfold.  By starting a story in the middle, the characters have their motivations firmly in place, and the reader gets to find out not only what happens next, but what has already happened.  This is fresh on my mind after just watching the final performance of Seattle Opera's "La Traviata," Verdi's famous tragedy.*  I'd never seen it before, nor was I familiar with the story, although in many ways it's a classic tale.

I wish I had seen it earlier so I could have recommended it to more people!!!
      Here's a summary: the most popular young courtesan in Paris** is wooed by an awkward, bookish young man.  She is dying from a wasting disease, & he wants to take her away from her life of vice.  Against all her instincts, she falls for him.  For a time they are happy together in the French countryside.  But then the young man's father arrives & begs the courtesan to leave his son & not tarnish the family name.  Grieved, but determined to do the right thing, she abandons her lover & returns to Paris, where she persuades everyone - even him - that she was only toying with his affections.  He confronts her in a rage before leaving to travel abroad with his family.  Months later, she is dying alone, when her lover returns.  His father has told him of her sacrifice, & he is determined they shall live happily together once more.  But alas it is too late: although her heart is filled with joy she dies in his arms.
      The opera opens right where my summary began: at a party, where the Parisian elite are teasing this bookworm by pushing him towards his celebrity crush.  We know nothing of the courtesan's past except that she must be good at what she does to be so popular.  As the opera goes on, we learn more of her lover's past than of hers.  But the story doesn't need anything more: the themes of the tragedy (and the gorgeous music) speak for themselves.
      Now a novel doesn't have the benefit of music or actors to fill out the blanks.  The author must find ways to do this on their own.  But more than that, the author has to figure out something more subtle: just where the heck is the "middle," anyway?
      Some stories seem like they're starting at the beginning, & it's not until later the reader realizes how they are really in the middle of something--something big.  While not an expert on the genre, it seems to me this is how pretty much every mystery goes.  Consider the Sherlock Holmes mysteries; sure, it's the beginning of the adventure for the famous detective, but the mystery itself may have been gathering momentum for years.
"Once upon a time" could mean a lot of things, depending on the timeline in question.
      When I tried to think of stories that actually begin at the beginning, the only thing that came to mind was fairy tales.  You don't start by saying a girl in a red hood knocks on her grandmother's door, & then find out she met the wolf en route after she's been eaten.  But then again, the story starts with Little Red going to visit her sick granny.  Already we have a character with a history so strong her identity is synonymous with it.  Where do stories really begin, anyway?  If they're character based, would the beginning be birth?  But then what about the family of origin?  Or the history of the location where it all takes place?
      While I'm certain there are plenty of authors, professors, editors, & other people far more experienced & successful than I who give a concise definition of what it means to "start a story in the middle," I'm starting to think that for me it really means knowing the story myself.  As the author, I need to know what happened to set up the events at the opening of my tale.  After all, a good novel is rarely one story: it's usually several interwoven.  "Pride & Prejudice" may seem to start at the beginning - when Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy - but later we learn the story of Mr. Darcy's pride & reserve, & the scandal that threatened his family & comes to threaten hers.
      Maybe I'm getting too philosophical here, but thinking about where a story starts seems a lot of like trying to figure out when a day begins.  Midnight?  When the sun breaches or the horizon?  Or pulls free of it?  When your alarm goes off?  When your coffee kicks in?  Maybe it's not so much about starting the story in the middle, as it is about the writer creating a sense of real time continuum.  After all, everyone wants to believe their own next adventure could start any moment!

*It's so famous, that even if you're not an opera fan you're probably familiar with at least one tune.

**Of course it has to be Paris, even though the opera is in Italian.

I'll Drink to That

      So far 2017 has hit like a right hook to the face, & it keeps on hitting.  Increasing my political activism has left me with relatively little time to write (or blog), but I'm hoping to find balance soon.  I think I did a good job of that this last weekend.  Friday I worked in the morning then went to a movie with family after.  Saturday I went to the Womxn's March in Seattle, which was an all-day, 8.6 miles on foot event, and I loved every minute.  Sunday I slept in, exercised, and then attended a Star Wars marathon at my friend Camela's place (Episodes 4, 5, & 6), while eating comfort food & enjoying a new cocktail for each film.
      The cocktails we chose included a Darth Vader (3/4 oz Godiva Liqueur & 1.5 oz Black Rum, 3 shaken with ice & 3 drops black food coloring) and a Han Solo.  But the marathon was originally envisioned as a tribute to Carrie Fisher, & I was not happy with any of the Princess Leia cocktails I found online.  So I created my own.  And before I forget it, let me share it with you!

Z.D.'s Princess Leia Cocktail

1 sugar cube
Angostura bitters
2.5 oz dry Champagne, divided
cracked ice
1.5 oz Cognac
2-3 tsp Blood Orange Gastrique

 - Place sugar cube in the bottom of coupe glass, and soak with bitters.  Let sit for a minute, then pour in 1 oz Champagne
 - Add a handful of cracked ice, then pour in Cognac & remaining Champagne.  Drizzle with gastrique, & serve.

   Just like the princess, this is pretty, but stronger than you expect.  It's dry with a sweetness underneath.  Enjoy at your next Star Wars party, or your next rebel meeting.  After all:

Well, so long, Princess.

      It's not easy to write a blog post about the passing of the actress who played the Greatest Princess of All Time.  Even more so because that role was, in some ways, the least of her accomplishments.  It's not like there won't be anything else written: undoubtedly there will be plenty of articles, memorials, and tributes published in every form of media.  But I'd be doing a disservice to myself as a woman and a nerd if I didn't say something.
      Carrie Fisher was a complicated woman.  Some people only know her as Princess Leia, and certainly that was I how knew her for the majority of my life.  I remember the first time I saw her in another film - a cameo as a group therapist in "Austin Powers" - I was actually shocked.  It wasn't just that Princess Leia was an iconic role, it was that she played it so completely, utterly convincingly.  Whether wearing cinnamon-bun hair-dos or strangling giant slugs in a bronze bikini, the character of Leia remained consistent: a fierce woman, both quick-thinking and quick to act, flexible to meet any scenario, and unafraid to do what needed to be done, but never losing her natural kindness.*

A rebel from the first moment she appeared on screen.
      This was a critical character at a critical time.  In the late 70's & early 80's, princesses were more sugar and less spice.  Disney Animated Studios had thus far only provided Snow White, Cinderella, & Sleeping Beauty.  Other sci-fi films of that era - such as Starcrash, Krull, & even the original Star Trek movie - had weak female roles at best, hyper-sexualized roles at worst.  Growing up, I craved female characters to whom I could relate.  Princess Leia was the whole package--she was a whole woman.  She helped me understand I didn't have to trade my power and independence to earn a man's respect or affection.
"Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" came out the year after "Return of the Jedi."  I'm pretty sure this image says it all.
      But Carrie Fisher was much more than an actress.  She was an outspoken advocate for mental health and addiction treatment.  She struggled with both, and as a psychotherapist I can say in many ways she was the poster child for triumphing over each--which, in the real world, means living with it every day, struggling to keep balance, and living a full life regardless.  She struggled with drugs and alcohol as early as her teens, and almost died from an overdose at age 31 before going into inpatient treatment.  This was complicated by the fact she also suffered from Bi-Polar disorder, a severe and often misunderstood mental illness that requires consistent care and medication to manage.
Nobody should be ashamed of having a mental illness.
      Many people would consider these things as shameful secrets.  As a psychotherapist who specializes in working with people struggling with co-occurring addiction and mental illness, I can tell you how devastating the combination can be, and how challenging and complex it can be to get proper care.  Both carry their own bias, and together they can make people feel utterly alienated.  ButCarrie Fisher used her own story as a way to help others.  In an interview with "People Magazine" in 2013 she said: "Well the only lesson for me, or for anybody, is that you have to get help."  With simple humility, she was living proof that asking for help is not an act of weakness, but a feat of remarkable strength.  I admire that about her most of all.
      She shared her talents as an entertainer.  She shared her real life as a means to inspire.  She was a woman who lived with her heart on display, and suffered all the slings and arrows that such public existence makes one heir to.  The payoff was that she has touched millions of lives.  And she will be missed.

*Frankly she would have made a kick-ass Jedi.  But if they had let that happen, she would have eclipsed every other character, and the last movie would have been called "Return of the Best Jedi Ever."

Hike with Wood

      With the snow well and truly in the foothills, my hiking spree comes to an end.  I hiked a total of fourteen different trails this year, totaling approximately 74 miles.  I've got one more lined up.  And if I get any reasonably dry weekends this winter, I'll probably try a few more.
      On my first hike of 2016 I picked up a nice, natural pole of maple off the side of the trail.  It's about four feet long, approximately 1.25 inches in diameter, and still pretty green.  This has served as my walking stick on every hike this year.  I'm pretty happy I've been taking it along.  I get a lot of positive comments, and it's nice to have this practical memento that's been with me literally every step of the way.
      I've seen a fair percentage of people on the trail using artificial hiking sticks, the kind that look like ski poles.  Apparently they're called "trekking poles," and some of them cost over $100 each.

That's a pretty high-tech stick ya got there.
      I don't see the appeal.  Even if someone got me one as a gift, I'm not sure I'd ever use it.  I'm rather fond of nature.  That being said, any hiking stick is better than none.  Here's my rational:

Z.D.'s Top 10 Reasons to use a (wooden) Hiking Stick

#1) They're free.

#2) Good hikes wear out the legs long before they wear out the arms; give your knees a little love and brace your steps with a hiking stick on the way down.

#3) You can pretend you're a wandering wizard!

#4) Use it to fend off over-enthusiastic wildlife, like hungry raccoons and aggressive squirrels.
No, seriously: people feed squirrels, and the squirrels start to expect it from everybody.  If you don't deliver, they WILL attack you!  I've seen this happen!
#5) In the summer months, the first one on the trail for that day WILL encounter numerous spider webs.  Unless you LIKE walking through those, use your hiking stick to take them down as you go!

#6) Perfect for testing the reliability of footing when fording streams or going through rocky patches.

#7) People who didn't bring a hiking stick will have major stick envy.  (I've actually had random people ask me for my hiking stick.  In the middle of the woods.  Surrounded by other sticks.)

#8) Unlike the store-bought ones, the supply, manufacture, and distribution of sticks on the side of the trail have zero carbon footprint!
Made in America!  In fact it's made right here!  Like, actually right just...y'know...grew on this tree.
#9) When you're done with it, you can just throw it on the side of the trail, and you're not littering!

#10) Don't act like #3 doesn't apply to you, because it totally does, nerd.
Everybody wants a wizard staff.  You are no exception.

The World According to You

      I was perusing the newspapers online today, and found this excellent article from the New York Times explaining just what the heck is going on with the Electoral College.  More than any other time in my life - including the tension-strapped presidential election of 2000 - I hear people talking about the Electoral College this year.  Most of them are like me: they have a vague recollection of learning about it in high school, none of which made sense because they were either a) experiencing panic triggered by the very word "college," or b) snickering about the nonsensical pun "erect-oral college," depending on their maturity level on that given day.

I think I still have my old U.S. Gov text book around somewhere....
      Although I am increasingly politically active these days,* my first reaction to this article was actually: "Wow, that's complicated. You can't make this stuff up."
      Then I realized: yeah you can.  People do it all the time.  Any mature, imaginary world has a made-up system of government, including mine.
      Plenty of good novels never bother going into politics in any way, shape, or fashion.  But many others - from spy thrillers to science fiction epics - touch on it with a certain level of confidence.  The more unique the world, the more essential a well-planned system of government, even if it's never fully explained.  The Harry Potter books are a great example.  Then you get Game of Thrones, which is entirely based around the complex intricacies of politics and government.  Even the Chronicles of Narnia rely on a hefty, if simplistic concept.
      Pondering this leads me inevitably to Star Wars.**  I probably saw the original Star Wars trilogy as a toddler, when "Return of the Jedi" came out.  Which means I was enjoying the heck out of it long before I could grasp a lot of what was going on.  In fact - and it embarrasses me to admit this - it wasn't until Episode One that I actually understood all the political nuances of the original trilogy.  (It also embarrasses me that I saw Episode One at all, but how could we have known what we were in for!?!)  I remember thinking, "Oh, I get it now, there's a senate!  And the empire wanted it gone!  And THAT's how there can be a princess who's not related to the emperor!"
      Don't judge me.  Toddlers get interesting ideas and can hold on to them for a really, really long time.
Although frankly I don't have high hopes for the government when the senate floor literally looks like particles being sucked down a drain.
      In my early attempts at fantasy writing, I went for very basic monarchies as governments.  They were character driven, and I didn't have to think too hard about how they worked.  I'd like to say I've come far since then, but the truth is I still tend to lean towards simplistic governments.  When I do got for something more politically complex, I usually pull a George R.R. Martin and base them on history (although not nearly as intricately as he).  This is a challenge for me, to be honest.  I don't have a very scheming mind.  I suck at chess.  But if I have a mature story that calls for any reference to the government of my worlds, I try to have an outline, because I need to know what the heck is going on even if it never gets fully explained to the reader.
      I'd love to know what other writers - and readers - think about this.  When your story takes place in an imaginary place, do you think the politics are important?  Do they add to a story, or detract?  And how the heck do you keep them straight?

*Gettin' mah social justice on!  Woot!

**Incidentally, if you haven't seen Rogue One yet, go see it!  But re-watch the original Star Wars movie first; unless you have it memorized like me, you'll be glad of the refresher to get all the awesome bits and references.

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