378. TMTF’s Official, Essential, and Utterly Invaluable Guide to Brewing Hot Tea

Typewriter Monkey Task Force is a blog often wasted on personal rambles or geeky nonsense, but not today. TMTF justifies its existence today by offering invaluable insight and time-tested tips on an all-important subject.

I speak, of course, of the brewing of hot tea.

TMTF makes tea

I have twenty-something years of experience brewing and drinking tea, yielding a few successes and one or two truly harrowing failures. (Don’t ever mix black tea, yierba mate, and cinnamon sticks—just don’t.) Although I drink more coffee than tea these days, tea was my passion for many years. It was my special-tea. (I’m so, so sorry.)

Varieties of Tea, as Explained by Science

Are you ready for science? I bet you didn’t expect science.

Et-Webscout16The beverages called tea fall into two categories: tea and herbal tea.

Tea comes from a plant whose scientific name is Camellia sinensis. Black, green, oolong, and white teas are all prepared from the leaves of the tea plant. The difference lies in how they are processed from fresh tea leaves to dried leaves. Tea processing involves oxidizing the tea leaves—which is a fancy way to describe the process by which oxygen interacts with the tea, changes its molecular structure, and gives it its taste.

In simple terms, white tea is oxidized only slightly, green tea is oxidized a little further, oolong tea is oxidized even more, and black tea is oxidized completely. Generally speaking, the further a tea is oxidized, the darker its color, the stronger its flavor, and the higher its caffeine content. Black tea is most common in the West, though green tea is also popular. White and oolong teas are a little harder to find.

Kinds of teaTea is often infused with other ingredients; such teas are called blends. For example, Earl Grey is a famous blend of black (and sometime green) teas with bergamot oil.

The other broad category of tea beverages, herbal tea, is not actually tea. An herbal tea is some other plant, herb, or spice infused in hot water in the manner of tea. (I can only assume these beverages are called tea for their style of preparation.) In Ecuador, my homeland, herbal tea is more accurately known as agua aromática, or aromatic water. Common herbal teas include cinnamon, chamomile, mint, and ginger.

Preparing to Brew a Proper Cup of Tea

You should start with fresh, cold water. Do not use hot tap water; hot water pipes tend to corrode, giving hot tap water a flat, metallic taste. You will also need a method for heating your water. I recommend heating a kettle on the stove or investing in an electric kettle. (I use an electric kettle: it’s fast, easy, and well worth the price.) I do not recommend heating water in the microwave. Most microwaves build up an oily residue from the foods it has heated, which can flavor the water and give the tea an unpleasant aftertaste.

Brewing Tea: The Basics

As a general rule, the darker your tea, the hotter your water should be and the longer your tea will take to brew. Use boiling water for black tea; for white and green teas, use water that has just boiled.

When the water is hot, add tea. It ain’t hard.

Tea is brewed by a process called steeping, which infuses tea’s soluble substances in hot water. Once again, darker teas require a different set of rules from lighter teas. Most black teas should steep for two or three minutes to bring out their full, robust taste. White and green teas should steep for only one or two minutes—any longer and the tea develops a harsh flavor.

Many tea drinkers leave tea leaves, whether loose or in a teabag, in their tea as they drink it. This is a matter of personal taste. However, I do not recommend it, as tea releases compounds called tannins when steeped for too long. Tannins give tea a bitter and astringent taste, which overpowers its more delicate flavors.

Unlike genuine tea, whose preparation is pretty consistent, there are few universal rules for brewing herbal teas due to their staggering variety.

Teabags Vs. Loose Leaf Tea

The most popular preparations of tea are teabags and loose leaf tea. Teabags are small packets of tea leaves, generally attached to a string for easy removal. Simply put a teabag in hot water, let it steep, and pull it out by the string. Loose leaf tea consists of dried tea leaves. Brewing tea with loose leaves is slightly more challenging, requiring a small strainer.

Tea bag and loose leaf teaBoth of these preparations have benefits and disadvantages. Teabags are widely available, easy to use, and conveniently sized for individual servings. However, teabags offer a less robust flavor than loose leaves. Loose leaf tea is generally more expensive and harder to find, requires a tea strainer or brewing basket, and must be separated into portions for individual servings. However, loose leaves offer a much fuller flavor than teabags.

Adding Stuff to Tea: The Basics

By itself, tea is fairly bitter. Sweet additives such as sugar, honey, artificial sweeteners, and even agave syrup are popular. A small amount of milk, when added to darker teas, cuts their bitter flavor for a smoother drink. (Milk has a similar effect on coffee.) Lemon or lime juice gives tea a refreshingly tart flavor. (Do not add milk and lime or lemon; trust me on this.) Small amounts of liquor give tea a bracing taste. Fresh mint leaves are a tasty garnish to lighter teas and some herbal brews. Around Christmas, a small candy cane in a cup of strong black or mint tea is a festive touch.

Recommended Blends and Recipes

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites.

Earl Grey

This aforementioned blend of black tea and bergamot oil has a light citrus flavor. The Twinings and Bigelow tea companies offer the best blends, which are widely available in the US. Twinings’s blend is subtle and delicate; Bigelow’s is bold and bracing. They’re both delicious, especially with sugar and just a bit of milk.

Gollum Juice

Named for J.R.R. Tolkien’s morally ambiguous monster, this one packs a punch. Start with a really strong cup of black tea, add a lot of honey, and squeeze in a couple of fresh limes. (I recommend not using bottled lime juice; the fresh stuff is much better.) Fish out any stray lime seeds, mix it all together, and enjoy—but carefully.

Yierba mate

Popular in Uruguay and its surrounding countries, this herbal tea packs a murky flavor. (This is the tea I’m drinking in this post’s title card, and it makes an appearance in one of this blog’s banners!)

Mate and bombillaAlthough Uruguayan culture demands an elaborate preparation with specialized cups called mates and metal straws called bombillas, a simpler option is to use an ordinary cup and a tea strainer. Yierba mate is definitely an acquired taste, but a light infusion with sugar and even a little lime juice is quite refreshing.

Still Not Ginger

Add a spoonful of honey and two of brandy to a cup of ginger tea. This is a particularly good recipe for cold days. If you recognize the pop culture reference in the name, I will personally brew a cup for you.

Cinnamon tea

Fill a small pot or large saucepan with water, bring it to a boil, and toss in a couple of large cinnamon sticks. I find cassia cinnamon makes a much better brew than Ceylon cinnamon—and yes, there is a difference.

Cassia vs. Ceylon cinnamon sticksLet the brew boil for a minute or so, then turn off the heat and add a lot of sugar. Cinnamon tea is spicy, fragrant, and delicious. This is another good one for cold days.

Jasmine green

This famous blend of green tea and jasmine blossoms is delicious, especially with a little sugar. Brew it from loose leaves if you can; you can sometimes find them in Asian food stores.

That, dear reader, was TMTF’s Official, Essential, and Utterly Invaluable Guide to Brewing Hot Tea. Go forth and brew!

Question: Should TMTF feature more Official, Essential, and Utterly Invaluable Guides to things? Let us know in the comments!

How Cartoons Are Made (and Why It Takes So Long)

When my favorite animated shows undergo hiatuses—those bleak times when no new episodes are released—I am left alone in grief and misery to ponder the cruelty of the universe. Why must all good things end? Why must I dwell in a twilight existence of interruptions, cliffhangers, and mid-season breaks? Why? Why?!

The good folks at Disney have offered a brief but illuminating explanation. (They have also reminded me that I need to watch Wander Over Yonder sometime.) Apart from the animation itself, which takes a long time, every episode is bounced between teams of artists, writers, actors, musicians, and producers, with executives weighing in regularly. Many studios ship stuff to animators overseas to cut costs. Amid the chaos, I assume, scurry interns: answering phones, running errands, serving coffee in foam cups, and greasing the gears of the mighty machines known as animation studios.

Of course, I can’t discuss how cartoons are made without also sharing the following video, in which the creators of Disney’s Phineas and Ferb explain the process in a rap song. Yes.

Fun fact: This video convinced me to watch Phineas and Ferb a few years ago. That show revived my interest in cartoons and animation, thus guiding me toward a brighter existence… albeit one with hiatuses.

377. That Time I Discovered Coffee

Sixteen years ago, somewhere in the jungles of Ecuador, something happened that changed my life. I was nine years old, bookish, chubby, fond of Star Wars, and—if my memory is correct, which it probably isn’t—recently bespectacled. (I wasn’t born wearing glasses, you know.) The thing that happened on that day shaped my destiny in ways I could not have imagined.

On that day, I tasted coffee for the first time.

In the brightly-colored blur that is the life of Adam Stück, such concrete details as dates are elusive. It’s hard enough for me to trace most memories to a particular year, let alone a specific month. In this case, however, one fact allows me to place the day I discovered coffee in April, May, or June of 1999. My life-changing experience happened around the time Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was in theaters. I am certain of this.

I had just turned nine, and was eager to seem as grown-up as possible. My joy and excitement at receiving eyeglasses was tremendous; wearing glasses seemed like a huge step toward the sophistication of adulthood. (It turned out to be a huge step toward a world that isn’t blurry.) Yes, I wanted to be a grownup, and nothing seemed more grown-up than coffee.

Adam, roughly 1 B.T.C

Adam Stück, roughly 1 year B.T.C. (Before Tasting Coffee)

However, some faint intuition told me coffee wasn’t suitable for children. It was an adult drink, like whiskey or vodka, and therefore beyond my reach. I had only ever seen adults drink coffee. Whenever it was served to adults, kids were offered milk or juice instead. The message was clear: Coffee ain’t for kiddos.

I was mistaken, of course. My parents would surely have let me try it. However, convinced coffee was exclusively a grown-up drink, I was too timid to ask.

The day before that fateful morning, my dad and I (and maybe my younger bro; I don’t remember) piled into our dusty Trooper and drove from our home in Santo Domingo de los Colorados to a place my dad called “Charlie’s camp,” a campground surrounded by jungle. Charlie’s camp surely had a proper name, but I don’t remember ever hearing it; I can only assume a man named Charlie either owned or managed the place.

Trooper

Our Trooper was a beast with the roaring power of a rhino and all the spacious comfort of a coffin.

My memories of Charlie’s camp are few. There was a river nearby with muddy banks studded with rocks. I recall fences with rusting barbed wire, and remember munching a bag of Star Wars-shaped sweet crackers. My recollections of Charlie’s camp are faint, but one stands out clearly after all these years.

After spending the night, we ate breakfast with the camp crew. It was a campesino (rural) meal of pancitos (bread rolls) and boiled eggs. Black coffee was the only drink available. With nothing else to drink, I realized I might be able to persuade my dad to let me try a cup, even though coffee was clearly and obviously not a drink suitable for minors.

Much to my surprise, my dad raised no objections, and I was finally free to try the stuff that had tantalized me for so long. I filled my cup, lifted it to my lips… and very quickly set it down again.

Coffee was disgusting.

At any rate, that’s what I thought at the time. I was a foolish, ignorant child.

Faced with the prospect of drinking an entire cup of bitter coffee, I did what any sensible child would do—shoveled in plenty of sugar. I took another sip. The taste was much improved, and I felt like a proper grown-up.

The rest is sweet, sweet history. I started drinking coffee regularly in high school, and it gradually replaced tea as my beverage of choice. In college, I began drinking my coffee with milk instead of sugar for health reasons. My daily intake had increased so much that a proportional increase in my sugar intake would probably have caused my heart to explode.

HRRRNNNGGG

Don’t laugh, guys. It could’ve happened.

That’s the story of how I discovered coffee, and how one day changed my life forever. In the words of that guy from the latest Mad Max movie: Oh, what a day. What a lovely day!

376. Metal Gear Solid Absolutely Needs to Be a Movie

I realize that most of the people who read this blog don’t play video games, so this post will be ignored by nearly everyone in the universe. I accept this. You see, there are sometimes truths so obvious and self-evident that they must be stated—nay, shouted from the rooftops!—regardless of whether anyone listens.

I may be only a voice crying in the wilderness, unheard and unheeded, yet this must be known: Someone needs to make a Metal Gear Solid movie.

Metal Gear Solid movie (with TMTF logo)How can I describe the Metal Gear Solid series? If someone blended Tom Clancy’s Cold War thrillers, the James Bond movies, some Batman and X-Men comics, and all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Metal Gear Solid would be the stylish, complex, campy, violent, and weird-as-all-heck result.

Released in the late nineties for the PlayStation, the first Metal Gear Solid follows Solid Snake as he infiltrates a nuclear weapons facility on a remote Alaskan island known as Shadow Moses. The facility has been seized by FOXHOUND: an elite unit of the US military that has gone rogue, taken two high-profile hostages, and acquired a weapon called Metal Gear REX. This superweapon, a bipedal tank armed with nuclear warheads, is now in the bloodstained hands of terrorists. Snake’s orders are to rescue the hostages and neutralize the Metal Gear before FOXHOUND can carry out its threats of nuclear reprisal.

Metal Gear REX artMetal Gear Solid could make a terrific movie. In my last post, I discussed three pitfalls in adapting video games into movies. First, many games lack a strong story; second, too many filmmakers make films that appeal only to people who play games; third, the cyclical structure of most video games can’t be compressed into movies.

Metal Gear Solid can easily dodge all of these problems. The game has a strong story, complete with a highly cinematic presentation. (The game’s director, Hideo Kojima, is a film aficionado whose tagline on Twitter reads: “70% of my body is made of movies.”) The game’s plot requires little backstory or gaming knowledge, and can be easily revised to require none.

Finally, while Metal Gear Solid only slightly follows the ubiquitous looping structure of video games. A few edits to the story would yield a focused narrative that lends itself beautifully to film.

What should be cut? The two hostages taken by FOXHOUND could be reduced to one. Several characters—FOXHOUND member Vulcan Raven and cyborg Gray Fox, among others—could be removed. The plot could be streamlined by leaving out the less interesting parts of Snake’s mission from the original game. One or two action scenes could be omitted, and the others rearranged for the sake of pacing. Finally, the villain’s angsty monologues (which are silly even in the game) could be extremely abridged.

What should be kept? I recommend abbreviating the story’s action-packed climax, keeping Snake’s epic battle against the Metal Gear and subsequent fistfight with the villain, but leaving out the vehicle chase. I also suggest keeping the character of Psycho Mantis, a member of FOXHOUND. This deranged psychic isn’t essential to the plot, yet remains one of the most iconic elements of the story. He is the kind of villain who peers into the flawed hero’s soul and pronounces judgment on him. In the hands of a good writer, Mr. Mantis could contribute a lot to the film’s mood and characterization.

Whatever else is kept for a film adaptation, Snake must, at some point, outsmart his enemies by hiding under a cardboard box.

In a perfect world, the Metal Gear Solid film would be written by David Hayter: the screenplay writer whose credits include X-Men and its sequel X2—and, by glorious coincidence, the actor who voiced Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid games. Mr. Hayter actually wrote a treatment for a Metal Gear Solid movie, but it was rejected. Ours is truly a broken world.

My top picks to direct a Metal Gear Solid film are J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau, but I would settle cheerfully for any competent action movie director. (The worst potential directors are Michael Bay and Uwe Boll; they should never direct a Metal Gear Solid movie… or any movie, honestly.) The obvious choice for the film’s composer is Harry Gregson-Williams, who wrote much of the score for the Metal Gear Solid games.

MGS artThe casting for Solid Snake is of utmost importance; I consider it no exaggeration to say a Metal Gear Solid movie would be made or broken by Snake. His actor must appear as tough, determined, and dangerous as any action hero. However, that action-movie persona must be accompanied by two things: first, a dry sense of humor; second, an attitude of philosophical resignation—a weary resignation to the fact that he is nothing more than a pawn in the hands of authorities no less corrupt than his enemies.

If Solid Snake is played as merely an action hero, the movie is lost. He is more than that, and also less. Appropriately to the title, he is a gear in the vast, impersonal machines of warfare and politics. He doesn’t make the rules or choose his morality. His mission is to do what he is told. Snake’s tired acceptance of his fate, along with an irrepressible vein of humor, are what make him such an interesting character.

I think Hugh Jackman would make an excellent Solid Snake.

My other casting picks are Kevin Spacy as Roy Cambell, Snake’s commanding officer; Scarlett Johansson as Meryl Silverburgh, Cambell’s niece stationed on Shadow Moses; Alan Tudyk as Hal “Otacon” Emmerich, the nerdy designer of the Metal Gear weapon; Tom Hiddleston as Liquid Snake, the leader of FOXHOUND; Willem Dafoe as Psycho Mantis, a FOXHOUND member and homicidal psychic; Anne Hathaway as Sniper Wolf, another FOXHOUND member and expert sniper; and Jeff Bridges as Revolver Ocelot, Liquid Snake’s enigmatic ally. Besides being a film fanatic, Hideo Kojima has a staggering ego, so he could cameo as an enemy soldier or something.

There have been persistent rumors of a Metal Gear Solid movie for years, but nothing is certain. This is a movie that needs to be made. Please make it happen, Hollywood.

The Perils of Self-Motivation

From the cartoonist who perfectly expressed how it feels to grow up comes his latest step toward being a successful adult. I sometimes have the same conversation with myself, except that I want to do something in writing or publishing instead of being a comic artist, and my language is a little less coarse.

Edowaado has a point: Starting a successful career isn’t as easy as it sounds. His imaginary self also has a point: Everyone has to start somewhere.

I hope Edo is able to achieve his dream of becoming a comic artist. In the meantime, he’ll keep making comics, and people will continue enjoying them. I may someday find a niche in writing or publishing. I may not. Either way, I’ll continue writing. The nice thing about creativity is that it isn’t reserved for professionals!

375. Why Video Game Movies Suck

Name three good video game movies.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

You see, video game movies suck.

Granted, movies about games as a medium are sometimes good, like Disney’s superb Wreck-It Ralph. I love that movie.

Wreck-It Ralph coverMovies adapted from games, however, are another story: a sad, depressing story. I’ve seen a number of video game movies, and most of them are awful.

Why is this? There are many excellent films based on books; why not on video games? There are at least three reasons.

First, many games have either no story or only the barest semblance of one.

The plot of nearly every Super Mario Bros. game, for example, consists of a monster (Bowser) kidnapping a princess (Peach) and a brave man (Mario) setting out to rescue her. That’s it. This story (and minor variations thereupon) appears in game after game after game.

For a video game, such a simplistic story is perfectly fine—after all, the story is just an excuse to play the game. What matters in the Super Mario Bros. games is the what of the adventure; the why is a minor afterthought. It’s such fun to guide Mario through challenging levels that his reason for facing them in in the first place is hardly more than a footnote.

Unlike a game, which can be fun for its own sake, a film needs a story. The what is not enough; it also needs the why. Many video games don’t offer a strong enough why to be adapted into compelling movies.

The second reason video game movies often fail is that too many filmmakers, assuming their film has a guaranteed audience in fans of its source material, make it inaccessible to broader audiences: people who don’t play video games.

Final Fantasy VII - Advent ChildrenThe clearest example of this is my all-time favorite action movie, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. This computer-animated movie’s action scenes are ridiculous—this movie has a sword fight on motorcycles, guys. The animation looks great nearly a decade after the film’s release, the music is excellent, the characterization is compelling, and the ending is genuinely touching.

However, Advent Children has one damning flaw: it’s practically incomprehensible to anyone has hasn’t played an old PlayStation game called Final Fantasy VII. Even for those of us who have played the game, the movie can be a little tough to follow. This is a shame. In every other respect, Advent Children is an excellent film—but that excellence is locked away from most audiences.

The third reason games hardly ever make good movies is in the medium itself. Most video games are a repeating pattern of stages; many are nothing more than a series of levels. That’s hard to adapt to film.

Other games offer a more subtle take on this structure. Role-playing games, for example, generally feature a robust story, yet follow the same pattern: the player progresses from a town, to the open world, to a dungeon, and then back to a town, there to begin the cycle anew.

This approach works well for video games as a medium. It even works for television, in which a set of episodes allows for repeated rising and falling action. A film, however, is too short for this structure. The repeating pattern of a video game doesn’t fit in a movie. A game’s cyclical narrative can’t be compressed into a two-hour film.

Every now and then, however, there comes a game whose narrative isn’t a repeating cycle, but a focused story that could be brilliantly adapted to film. I can think of at least one video game movie that absolutely needs to be made… but I’ll save that for next time.

Are there any good video game movies?

Vide game movies that don't suckOf those I’ve seen, I can think of a few good ones. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, an animated film spin-off of the Professor Layton games, is accessible and charming, though it drags a bit. The aforementioned Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children boasts phenomenal action, epic music, and stunning visuals for viewers who don’t mind having no idea what the heck is going on. For those who like foreign films, Takashi Miike’s live-action Ace Attorney is really good, despite its absurd hairstyles.

Um, that’s it. Flipping heck, someone needs to make a good video game movie.

Question: Have you seen any video game movie that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments!

374. Feeling Bad for Feeling Bad

Well. If it isn’t the slouchiest blogger I know.

Get out, you miserable git.

I’m wounded, Adam. You’re a lot of awful things, but rude isn’t usually one of them. Insecure, yes; selfish, sure; useless, absolutely; but not rude. Not on a daily basis, anyway.

I’m not in the mood for you right now.

Are you ever?

No, but that doesn’t ever seem to stop you.

You shouldn’t slouch in your desk chair, Adam. It’s bad for your back. I care for your well-being, you know. That’s why I visit occasionally. Because I care.

Things get ugly when Adam argues with himself.

Things get ugly when Adam argues with himself.

If you had a face, I would punch it.

Oh, I have a face. And you’re welcome to punch it, but that seems just a bit self-destructive. Anyway, before you get violent, we need to talk about something.

Oh, joy.

You’re depressed, and you need to stop it.

Of course! Why didn’t I ever think of that? I’ll just stop being depressed. Problem solved. Anti-Adam, you’re a flipping genius. What would I ever do without you?

Adam, just shut up. Shut up your face. You know exactly what I mean. Don’t pretend you don’t.

Yes, I know what you mean.

You, Adam, are one of the most ridiculously fortunate people in the universe. You have a loving family. You had a happy childhood. Your cozy little life is full of blessings and creature comforts. Your health is perfect—

Except for chronic depression.

Shut up. Your health is perfect. You have no trauma in your life, no toxic relationships, no awful tragedies. Your old job kinda sucked, sure, but the new one is easy by comparison. Everything about your life is awesome… and here you are, slouching at your desk, whining about how depressed you feel. What is wrong with you?

I don’t feel depressed—I am depressed. There’s a world of difference.

Has it ever occurred to you that maybe the thing you call depression is what everyone else in the world calls being alive? Life can be hard, and that’s a fact. Everyone has bad days. You blame it on depression, and wallow in it.

I do not.

You sure don’t do anything useful, that’s for sure. You just sit around being depressed. And then you feel guilty for wasting your time and potential, moping when you could be writing novels, building a career, or doing something useful with your life.

Are you done?

I could go on, and on, and on, but that’s enough for one day.

Good. Go away.

You’re not going to argue? Fine. I accept your silence as tacit acknowledgment that I’m right.

I wasn’t arguing because—in case you haven’t been listening—I am seriously flipping depressed right now. Do you have any idea how hard it is to function when you’re depressed?

Stop making excuses.

You don’t want excuses? Fine. Have some facts. Depression is a mood disorder, not an emotion. Depression is not a choice. I can choose whether to treat depression, but I can’t choose whether to have it. My life circumstances, good and bad, affect my depression, but they can’t prevent it.

How do you know you have chronic depression? Have you been diagnosed by a doctor?

Nope.

So you’re guessing.

I’m paying attention. I have most of the symptoms of depression: low mood, abysmal self-esteem, lethargy, inability to find pleasure in things I normally enjoy, lack of focus, inability to function—

All right, yeesh, sorry I asked. If you really think you’re so broken, why don’t you take medications or get counseling?

Who needs counseling when I have you?

Shut up. Seriously, though, if you’re going to insist on having depression, shouldn’t you insist on needing help?

My depression isn’t that bad, thank God. Not anymore. I think I’m doing all right. My depression comes and goes. It doesn’t stay. I won’t worry about my depression unless it lasts more than a couple of weeks at a time. Besides, meds and counseling are expensive.

So that’s it. You insist your depression is authentic, and you’re just accepting it.

Yup. I won’t feel guilty for being depressed, no more than I’ll feel guilty for having a cold or headache. I won’t let you blame me. I won’t feel bad for feeling bad. At least, I’ll try not to feel bad for feeling bad. When my mood and self-esteem are low, it’s an uphill battle.

You’re a fool. And you should stop slouching.

It’s nice to know you care.

And Now, Some Relaxing Piano

If you’re a living human being—which, if you’re reading this, you probably are—I invite you to set aside five and a half minutes from your busy schedule whenever you can spare them. Then grab your hot beverage of choice, lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and listen to some relaxing piano.

The video above offers a soothing melody from Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky, my all-time favorite film, but it may not be to your taste. That’s perfectly fine. I invite you, in that case, to pull up whatever song relaxes you, and listen to that instead.

Peace, my friends.

373. That Time I Ran Afoul of Jellyfish

Jellyfish are nasty little gits. Sure, they may look pretty when you see them in aquariums or on television, with their billowing bodies and delicate tentacles, but jellyfish are rotten company when you’re in the water with them.

When I lived in Ecuador, my family and I vacationed at the beach or the jungle. Our favorite beaches lie on a stretch of coast not far from the city of Esmeraldas. (We spent a few years in Esmeraldas in the early nineties; we’ve moved around a lot.) One of the best beaches belongs to a resort called El Acantilado, which is Spanish for The Cliff. As its name suggests, El Acantilado is located on a cliff overlooking the beach.

Acantilado beach

The beach below El Acantilado is lovely in a brownish, grayish sort of way.

My family and I loved El Acantilado, and visited its beach once or twice a year from my childhood to my graduation from high school. Of course, not every visit was perfectly pleasant. It was in the murky, gray-green ocean just off the beach that I had a run-in with jellyfish.

I had forgotten this dreadful encounter until a couple of days ago. As anyone who has known me for more than five minutes can confirm, I have a wretchedly poor memory. Every time I think I’ve finally run out of interesting stories to share on this blog, I recall some new misadventure. This one was brief, but painful.

I don’t recall in what year I ran afoul of jellyfish, but I’m pretty sure it was during my middle school years. My younger bro and I were messing about in the surf when I felt an excruciating pain along one leg. (I don’t remember whether it was the right or left.) “Get out of the water!” I shrieked, stumbling through waist-deep water toward the beach.

I reached the safety of land, collapsed upon dry sand, and inspected my leg. My entire calf had turned red, with pinpricks of crimson, and was beginning to swell. It hurt like the dickens. My parents and younger brother (who had made it safely to the beach) gathered round to examine the sting.

Within ten or fifteen minutes, my calf had swelled and hardened; I remember saying my leg felt like a heavy club. The swelling went down overnight, but it took nearly a week for my calf to heal. My skin burned and stung for days. Needless to say, I didn’t go swimming again for a while.

The ocean beyond El Acantilado is opaque, so I never saw the little blighter that drifted against my leg. For all I know, it may not even have been a jellyfish; I suppose it could have been some other stinging marine creature. Whatever it was, its sting hurt like all heck. Flipping awful little git.

Besides that miserable jellyfish, I haven’t been stung by anything but bees, though I once narrowly escaped a sting from a bullet ant. Good times, good times.

I hope to revisit Ecuador someday, and El Acantilado is near the top of my list of places I want to see again. (Other locations on the list include the Pailón del Diablo waterfall, the Papallacta hot springs, and a tiny bakery called Bom Pan that has the best bread rolls in the universe.) Someday, God willing, I may return to El Acantilado.

Flipping heck, I miss this place.

Flipping heck, I miss this place.

I’ll probably stay out of the water, though.

372. About Storytelling: Lampshading

How do you make something more obvious?

You put a lampshade on it, of course. Observe.

Lampshading

In fiction, there are sometimes implausible elements or plot holes that can’t be resolved by the author of the story. How can a storyteller respond to such a thing? That’s easy! The author can simply acknowledge the thing, whatever it is, and then move on.

Of course, this doesn’t fix the thing, but it reassures the audience that the storyteller is aware of it. By drawing attention to the thing—putting a lampshade on it, figuratively speaking—the author can dispense with it and get on with the story. This technique is called lampshade hanging or simply lampshading.

Lampshading is a great technique for writers because, sooner or later, most of us run into plot holes, clichés, or other issues we simply can’t fix. By lampshading those things, we don’t make them go away, but we at least make them easier to swallow.

This is such a notable technique that the logo of TV Tropes, a website that catalogs tricks and tropes used by storytellers, has a literal lampshade hung on it.

TVTropes logo

One of my favorite examples of lampshading comes from Monk, a television show about an obsessive-compulsive private detective. Many detective stories, including Monk, constantly kill off minor characters in order to give the detectives murders to solve. It really stretches the story’s credibility after a while. After all, in real life, people aren’t ingeniously murdered left and right as they are in detective stories.

In Monk, murders and mysteries abound. Everywhere the detective goes, people die. The show never explains this implausible fact, but one episode lampshades it hilariously. After yet another murder victim turns up, the show’s detective, Adrian Monk, has the following conversation with his assistant Natalie and a police officer, Captain Stottlemeyer.

Natalie: Everywhere you go, every time you turn around, somebody is killing somebody else.

Captain Stottlemeyer: That’s true.

Monk: What?

Captain Stottlemeyer: Well, there was the time you went on vacation, and then on the airplane.

Monk: These things happen.

Captain Stottlemeyer: Oh, and then that that stage play.

Monk: It happens.

Natalie: To you! Not to me, not to anybody else. It follows you around. You’re not just unlucky, it’s—it’s something else.

Monk: Bad karma?

Natalie: You’re like a magnet.

Captain Stottlemeyer: Bad karma.

Natalie: It’s like you’re causing it somehow. You’re the Prince of Darkness!

Captain Stottlemeyer: No, he’s not the Prince of Darkness. I’ve seen him vacuuming the ceiling. You wouldn’t see the Prince of Darkness doing that.

Natalie: No, I can picture the Prince of Darkness vacuuming the ceiling, to trick us. He’s very tricky.

Monk: Stop calling me the Prince of Darkness! That’s how rumors get started.

Monk’s tendency to show up wherever murders happen doesn’t make sense, and the show never explains it. By simply acknowledging it, however, the show makes this unbelievable fact a little easier to accept.

Another superb use of lampshading comes from Doctor Who, the enduring British series about a time-traveling wanderer-hero. This show practically wrote the book on lampshading. I can’t find the quote, but I remember one of the show’s writers stating that the plot holes in Doctor Who are explained by the time travel in the show and the resulting butterfly effect. That’s fifty years of plot holes lampshaded by a single statement. Most impressive.

My favorite example of lampshading from Doctor Who is the Tenth Doctor’s explanation of time travel, which posits that time is not a straight line of cause and effect, but more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.

This isn’t an explanation. It’s a statement lampshading the fact that time travel in Doctor Who doesn’t really make sense. We should all just assume that time travel is too difficult for humans to comprehend, leave it in the clever hands of the Doctor, and dismiss any narrative inconsistencies with the words “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.”

If you’re writing fiction, and you’re stuck in an unavoidable plot hole or cliché, consider acknowledging it and getting on with your story. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get this lampshade off my head.