425. Stealing Ideas Is Wrong (so Borrow Them Instead)

Today’s post wound up on someone else’s blog. Hey, don’t give me that look. Bloggers sometimes misplace their posts. It happens. Don’t judge me.

My friend JK Riki wrote the book on creativity. (This isn’t just a figure of speech; he wrote a literal book on the subject.) He also writes a monthly newsletter with creative tips, and a personal blog on creativity.

JK's blog header

When I got an opportunity to write a post for JK’s blog, I wrote about J.R.R. Tolkien, because of course I did.

My latest post, “Stealing Ideas Is Wrong (so Borrow Them Instead),” can be read here!

422. Lance Eliot Is Not Dead

A long time ago, I declared the death of a dream. My attempts to tell the tale of Lance Eliot, a sarcastic and reluctant hero, had finally failed. I pronounced Lance Eliot dead… well, mostly dead.

I announce today that Lance Eliot is alive… well, somewhat alive. (I thought about titling this blog post Lance Eliot Is Alive, but that seemed much too optimistic, so we’ll have to settle for Lance Eliot Is Not Dead.)

After Typewriter Monkey Task Force concludes later this year, I will rewrite the first part of Lance’s story, The Trials of Lance Eliot, before moving on to its two sequels.

At any rate, that’s the plan. God only knows how many years it will take me to write the Lance Eliot saga, or whether I shall even finish it. I don’t know if I can, but I suppose I’ll try.

The Lance Eliot story cycleAt this point there are three questions I should probably answer. Why am I rewriting The Trials of Lance Eliot instead of working directly on its sequels? Why am I revisiting Lance Eliot’s story instead of starting something totally new? And who the heck is Lance Eliot anyway?

Let’s start with that last one.

Who the heck is Lance Eliot?

From pretty much the moment I could read, I wanted to write a book. Years later, in middle school, I steeped my impressionable imagination in the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen R. Lawhead; I also played a lot of fantasy games, such as the outstanding Legend of Zelda series. It was then, during my awkward transition from boy to slightly-taller-and-less-chubby-boy, that my vague dream of writing a book crystallized into a clear ambition of writing a fantasy novel.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I stumbled upon a decent idea for a story. People in fantasies and fairy tales are often summoned from one place to another by magic. What if a magician summoned the wrong person by mistake? What she tried to summon, say, Lancelot from the Arthurian legends, but got some unsuspecting loser instead?

Over the next six years, the idea became a short story, and then a completed novella, and then one or two incomplete manuscripts, and then finally a published novel—and then it failed spectacularly, failing even to recoup the expenses of publication. I struggled for a year or so to make progress on its sequels, and finally gave up.

This brings us to the next question.

Why am I revisiting Lance Eliot’s story?

I no longer dream of publishing novels. Even if I finish all three parts of the Lance Eliot saga, which is by no means guaranteed, I may not bother publishing them. If I do take another stab at publication, I will probably self-publish instead of working with a literary agent or trying to court a major publishing house.

My reason for revisiting Lance Eliot’s story is a simple one: it’s a story I want to tell. In the vast scheme of things, it isn’t remotely special. It won’t be particularly deep or clever or original. I have no delusions of grandeur this time around. The Lance Eliot saga won’t be a masterpiece. It will be nothing more than a story I want to tell—a story I feel compelled to tell—a story I’ve struggled for more than a decade to tell.

I’ve already told part of it, but not very well. This leads to the final question.

Why am I rewriting The Trials of Lance Eliot instead of moving on to its sequels?

A few people have said ridiculously nice things about my novel; in response, I’m touched, flattered, and grateful. When I look at it, however, I see an embarrassing number of clichés, oversimplifications, cheap coincidences, and lackluster characterizations.

I believe I can do better. There are so many things I want to change about the story, including some I haven’t mentioned. Instead of writing reluctant sequels to a failed novel, I want to start over with more experience and creative freedom, and less emotional and literary baggage.

Am I excited to revisit the Lance Eliot saga? Nah, not really. What I feel is a mixture of resignation, determination, nervousness, and cautious optimism.

After four or five manuscripts, one failed novel, and more than a decade of hard work, I am now almost ready to begin working on the Lance Eliot saga. Oh, boy.

Here I go again.

421. The Beginning of the End

Well, dear reader, this is it. This is the beginning of the end. After four and a half years of caffeinated rants and geeky ramblings, Typewriter Monkey Task Force is starting its final laps.

Final lap! (Watch out for banana peels.)

Final lap! (Watch out for banana peels.)

I’m ending this blog, but not quite yet. TMTF shall conclude with its five hundredth numbered post, which will probably be published toward the end of this year. I don’t yet have an exact date for that post; it depends on how many more breaks I take from blogging.

(You know, this bittersweet blog post could use an appropriately bittersweet soundtrack, such as “The Best Is Yet to Come” from Metal Gear SolidHere you go. No need to thank me.)

Why am I ending this blog? Well, that’s a good question. (I’m glad I asked.) Ending TMTF is a big decision, and I’m not the only one it affects—if you follow this blog, it probably affects you, too.

You may be a little saddened by TMTF’s impending demise. If you’ve enjoyed something over a long time, it can be hard to see it end. (Gravity Falls ended just a few days ago, so believe me, I know the feeling.)

Then again, you may just be wondering why I didn’t put this blog out of its misery ages ago.

There are a few reasons for my decision to end TMTF.

It’s getting harder for me to come up ideas for new posts.

As I think of posts to write for this blog, I feel like I’m beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel. I would much rather give TMTF a respectable finish than drag it out endlessly: as Tolkien put it, “like butter scraped over too much bread.”

TMTF has lost its purpose.

I began this blog years ago with a strong sense of purpose. TMTF originally had three clear objectives.

  1. I wanted to build up an audience for the novel I was finishing at the time.
  2. I wanted to make some sort of positive difference with my God-given talents for writing, humor, and creativity.
  3. I wanted to try something new and exciting.

At this point, TMTF has either completed or failed these objectives; either way, they hardly matter anymore.

  1. My novel failed, and it won’t be getting sequels anytime soon, so there is no longer any point in finding an audience.
  2. At this point, I think TMTF has made pretty much all the difference it can. I’ve said most of the things I really wanted to say… except for the word pulchritude, of course, and now I’ve said it.
  3. After four and a half years, TMTF is neither new nor exciting. Writing this blog has been a great experience, but I’ve lost my passion for it.

When I started TMTF, I was motivated to write blog posts by a sense of purpose. Now I write them because I have to keep the blog’s publishing schedule. I’m trying to live more purposefully; it’s one of my resolutions for this year. My writing should be driven by a sense of purpose, not feelings of obligation. I owe that much to my readers, and to myself, and to God.

I want to work on a new project.

I could say more, but that’s another post for another day.*

I’m thankful for this blog, and I don’t regret the time and effort I’ve put into it. Working on TMTF over the years has brought me satisfaction, laughter, gleams of insight, and moments of catharsis… not to mention quite a lot of harmless fun.

I’ve met a number of amazing people through this blog whom I would never have met otherwise: JK Riki, the animator and creativity expert; Tom Zuniga, the wandering blogger; Rev Kev Niebuhr, the manliest Methodist of our generation; and more. I’ve also had the privilege of collaborating with awesome folks like Paul McCusker, a veteran writer for Adventures in Odyssey; Kevin McCreary, a YouTube and podcast creator; and colorful YouTube personalities like DRWolf and Crowne Prince, among many others.

This blog motivated me to write a fantasy novella and some short stories, not to mention hundreds of pointless rants thoughtful reflections upon faith, writing, video games, literature, TV, movies, life, the universe, and everything. With the help and support of its fabulous readers, TMTF raised hundreds and hundreds of dollars for charity. I even invented a holiday on this blog: Be Nice to Someone on the Internet Day—which is coming up on March 4, by the way!

I’m thankful for Typewriter Monkey Task Force—and it ain’t over yet, folks! It shall continue yet for months and months, and there’s one thing I want to make very clear about its end. I’m not abandoning this blog. I’m finishing it.

Finally: Thank you, my dear readers. Thanks for the past four and a half years. I welcome you to stick around for whatever is left, and for whatever comes after!

*And that day shall be Friday.

How to Start a Story

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

~ C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Any writer worth her ink and paper knows the importance of starting a story with a really good line. An interesting or clever first line grabs the reader’s attention right away. First impressions are important, you know!

The quote above from C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite opening lines of any story. It’s witty and succinct, and also tells us several important things right away while setting up one or two intriguing questions:

  1. Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a character in this story.
  2. He is also a boy.
  3. His name is terrible.
  4. He almost deserves his name—why?
  5. The lousy name suggests that his parents, who (presumably) named him, are probably unusual in some way or simply have poor taste. (Spoiler: It’s a bit of both.) What is their deal?

In just thirteen words, the author has begun to set the stage for the story, and told a joke into the bargain. That, dear reader, is how it is done.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite opening lines in literature.

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

~ Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

I have yet to read The Metamorphosis by Kafka—it’s on my reading list, which continues to grow at an alarming rate—but this line is fantastic. I mean, after reading this line, I really want to find out what happens next.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

As many of my friends know only too well, I have read only one book by Jane Austen, and hated it with the burning passion of ten thousand suns. Mark Twain put it well: “I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” However, as much as I disliked Pride and Prejudice, I have to admit that it has one heck of a first line. It wryly pokes fun at the expectations of high society with its “truth universally acknowledged,” and also hints at the plot of the novel.

In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

All right, I admit it: I love this one mostly for sentimental reasons. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great opening line. What is a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole in the ground? The following paragraphs elaborate with surprising information: the hobbit lives not in “a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole,” but in a neat, comfortable, luxurious home built inside a hill. This line is an intriguing set-up to a few really engaging paragraphs… assuming the reader doesn’t mind starting the story at a leisurely pace.

What is your favorite opening line in literature? Let us know in the comments!

390. An Open Letter to Content Creators

Dear Content Creators,

I’m afraid content creator is a boring title, but it’s the best one I could find for all of you. (I considered creative people on the Internet, but that’s kind of a mouthful.) The title of content creator is the one given to all of you artists, bloggers, actors, video makers, musicians, animators, commentators, cartoonists, gamers, photographers, creative writers, and other creative people who make stuff and throw it at the Internet.

For example, consider the artist who reimagined the Fellowship of the Ring as a bunch of cats:

The Fellowship of the Cats

She’s a content creator. So are these video makers who try to explain Doctor Who in sixty seconds:

There’s this guy rocking out on a guitar to the best song from Mario Kart.

He’s a content creator, alongside this hipster Calvinist and all the other people who say funny things on social media:

Then there’s, um, whatever this guy is doing:

You people are awesome.

If you’re anything like me, your content-creating experience is a roller coaster. Sometimes it’s fun and exhilarating. Sometimes it’s dull and exhausting. There are days when you feel an incredible sense of accomplishment, and days when you think you’ve accomplished nothing at all. All of it—the highs and lows and twists and loops—takes determination, effort, vision, and (occasionally) a touch of obsessive lunacy.

Most of you don’t make much money, if any, from your work. You create because you enjoy it. You create because you are an artist. Whether you have an audience of one or one million, I admire your creative spirit. If you do make a living as a content creator, I congratulate you all the more. That takes a lot of dedication.

And here’s the thing. I don’t just respect you—I really, really enjoy the work of content creators. A staggering amount of my music library consists of songs not from professionals, but from amateurs on the Internet. I read several blogs and webcomics, follow a few artists, and spend quite a lot of time on YouTube.

So much of the entertainment, laughter, insight, inspiration, excitement, and happiness in my life comes from the work of content creators—people like you.

I’m not the only one whose life is better because of content creators and their work. In fact, millions of people across teh internetz enjoy the humor and creativity of content creators—but they don’t always take time to say “I really enjoyed this,” or “This was brilliant,” or simply “Thank you.”

It is so easy for content creators to become discouraged. When their work doesn’t receive a positive response, they tend to assume the worst. They think their work wasn’t worth the effort.

I’m here to say: Your work matters, and thank you.

Thank you, content creators, for brightening my everyday life with moments of amusement and understanding. Thank you for being hilarious, honest, insightful, vulnerable, creative, clever, witty, weird, and wonderful. Thank you for being you, and for sharing your creativity with the rest of us.

Oh, and keep up the good work.



388. Fans, Geeks, and Waifus: A Momentary Study

I once had a friend who had a crush on Legolas from The Lord of the Rings. This puzzled me greatly.

Granted, Legolas isn’t ugly. He has two eyes, which is generally the preferred number of eyes. That’s a good start. Legolas also has a nose, all his teeth, and a full head of hair. (At any rate, in the movies, he wears a nice wig.) So far: so good. His skin is healthy—no leprosy there—and he isn’t painfully thin or morbidly obese. Legolas also seems to have “the smolder,” a trait considered desirable by females of the species… I think.

Look, I’m no expert on what ladies find attractive in gentlemen. I’ve simply been told Legolas is a smokin’ hot stud or some such, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to argue.


Exhibit A: Legolas the (apparently) sexy elf.

All of this, however, doesn’t explain the adoration my friend (whom I’ll call Socrates) lavished upon this imaginary elf. She thought Legolas was the sexiest thing since Hugh Jackman’s abs in the X-Men movies, and I thought Socrates was crazy.

Nah, my crush was on Daphne from the old Scooby-Doo cartoon.

Of course, that was back when I was in kindergarten: a faraway time when I was tiny and blond, barely knew the alphabet, and didn’t drink coffee.

Exhibit B: Adam Stück in kindergarten, roughly nine years B.S. (Before Sideburns).

On the right, Exhibit B: Adam Stück in kindergarten, roughly nine years B.S. (Before Sideburns).

By the time I reached high school and met Socrates, my secret crush on Daphne was a thing of the distant past. As the Apostle Paul wrote, doubtless referring to childhood crushes on fictional characters, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

By high school, I had put childish ways behind me, and Daphne from Scooby-Doo with them. No, I was enamored of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables.

My point here is that fictional characters can be attractive, and real-life people can be attracted to them. This is a common enough phenomenon. In geek culture, however, it is sometimes embraced wholeheartedly… even to a point that is frankly weird.

Let’s talk about waifus.

No waifu no laifu

Exhibit C: The anime-obsessed President of the United States voices his support for waifus.

A waifu is a fictional character to whom a person is attracted, to the point of considering that character a significant other.

The word waifu comes from an exaggerated Japanese pronunciation of the English word wife. (Thanks to anime and video games, a lot of weird geek culture originates in Japan.) A waifu doesn’t have to be female, by the way; the term can be used for characters of either sex.

By calling a character his waifu, a geek wryly acknowledges his crush on that character. It’s basically a form of shipping in which a real person ships a fictional character with himself.

Is it weird? Yes. Do I support waifus? Nah. Do they worry me? Not really. I’m pretty certain the waifu phenomenon is the sort of harmless, silly nonsense the Internet does best. At any rate, I hope it’s no deeper or darker than that!

384. Spiders Are Noble and Misunderstood

Nearly everyone I know has an irrational fear of spiders. In fact, most of my friends and relatives react to spiders by terminating them with extreme prejudice. This is a shame. Spiders are noble, innocent, misunderstood creatures. I’m fond of the little guys, and I think they deserve better than to be slaughtered without pity or remorse.

I grew up in Ecuador: a tiny country with a bewildering variety of birds, animals, insects, and other creatures, including several species of spiders. At one point in Quito, my family and I had tarantulas burrowing in our back garden. No spider ever did me harm. Other bugs attacked me, such as mosquitoes; still more tried unsuccessfully to hurt me, such as scorpions and a Giant Mutant Killer Jungle Ant, but spiders were contented to mind their own business and leave me alone.

Most people refuse to return that favor. A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Socrates, once tried incinerating a spider with a flamethrower cobbled together from a lighter and a can of cooking spray. Other friends—less creative than Socrates, but just as violent—have wielded books and shoes in their bloodthirsty crusade against spiders.

Misunderstood spider is misunderstood

Heck, even J.R.R. Tolkien, a man of enormous creative genius and one of my heroes, hated spiders. A childhood encounter with a tarantula traumatized him for life. His arachnophobia surfaced in his stories; his most famous books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both feature wicked giant spiders.

As much as I admire Tolkien, I think E.B. White was closer to the truth when he wrote Charlotte’s Web, a children’s book about a sweet, noble friend who happens to be a spider.

Charlotte's Web

Everyone thinks spiders are awful, but look at that goose! That bird is clearly evil, and probably possessed by many devils.

Charlotte is basically any and every spider: hardworking and considerate, spinning beautiful webs to rid the world of pests like flies and mosquitoes. E.B. White understood, guys.

Flipping heck, even cartoons for young children get it.

Spiders quietly eliminate true pests. Have you ever tried sleeping with a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around your ears? I have. It sucks. Have you ever been annoyed by flies, stung by bees, or menaced by cockroaches? I have. It sucks. (Cockroaches, my archenemies, are the worst creatures on God’s green earth.) Spiders prevent the proliferation of these wretched beasties. If spiders did not exist, the world would be overrun by filthy pests. Spiders are God’s guardian angels.

Spiders aren’t so bad, really.

Look, I get it. Spiders look scary. They have a lot of legs and too many eyes, and the way they move is a little creepy. Spiders are odd-looking. However, if it were okay to kill things just because they looked odd, Pete Docter would have been murdered ages ago, and Pixar’s Inside Out (which Docter directed and co-wrote) would never have been made. So there.

Pete Docter

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Mr. Docter, but he sure is a goofy-looking guy. He has roughly 70% more forehead than most people.

If we killed everything that looked weird or made us uncomfortable, I probably wouldn’t have made it to my teens.

An expert on Englishing

There’s a reasonable explanation for this. Probably.

Yes, some spiders are venomous. Some can kill you. Do you know what else can kill you? Donkeys. (They have a vicious kick.) Human beings also kill each other occasionally, but I like to think most of us aren’t so bad—and neither are most spiders.

So the next time you want to slaughter a spider out of fear or disgust, consider showing some mercy and putting it outside instead!

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!

367. Notes from the Road

Well, I’m back.

My journey to Wisconsin was refreshing, wonderful, exhilarating, highly caffeinated, occasionally uncomfortable, and a smashing success. Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts from the trip.

The pastor who invited me to speak at his church is a really cool dude.

Rev Kev, the pastor who invited me to Wisconsin, is a tough-looking dude with epic tattoos, pierced ears, manly stubble, and massive biceps. He could probably have snapped my spine with his bare hands.

Adam and Rev KevFortunately, the good Reverend turned out to be a true gentleman and total geek. He and his family—which included a dog, three cats, and a colorful assortment of friends and honorary family members—were welcoming and kind. I was treated not as a guest, but as a friend.

Rev Kev has an amazing story. One of the highlights of my trip was sitting in his dining room, drinking coffee and listening to his testimony. His faith and story inspire me.

In other news, Rev Kev has a wonderful church office. Surrounded by Star Wars and comic book posters, a large plastic Hulk stands on his desk, wielding an Adam West Batman action figure like a club. ’Nuff said.

My only concern about the good Reverend is that he might be a Sith Lord. No doctrine in Christianity states a person can’t be a Sith and a pastor, but I still consider it cause for concern.

Sith pastor

I drank a lot of coffee.

For all my jokes about coffee, I do really love the stuff. In two days of traveling, I drank roughly eight cups of brewed coffee, two bottled frappuccinos, a latte, and a double shot of espresso. I also drank a masala chai tea latte, because variety is important.

I ate the best burger I’ve ever eaten.

My humble road trip was transformed into a glorious pilgrimage by a quick stop at a tiny burger shack called Wedl’s. This burger vendor serves such good food that it was featured on the Travel Channel. Wedl’s grills its burgers on a skillet that has been in use for nearly a century.

Wedl'sA drunk driver once totaled Wedl’s and broke its skillet. Fortunately for all of humankind, the shattered skillet was repaired. Just as the broken shards of Narsil were reforged into Andúril in The Lord of the Rings, so Wedl’s skillet was restored to its divinely-appointed purpose of grilling tasty burgers.

Rev Kev and I discussed the legend of Wedl’s skillet, weaving a story of how the skillet’s greasy shards were held by a weeping maiden in a lonely meadow, only for a kingly elf to ride up on a stallion and pledge to restore it. He worked in secret, reforging the skill on a magical anvil, his furnaces blazing hotter than ten thousand suns—and it was done. Wedl’s skillet was resurrected, and its noble work continues to this day.

When I bit into my Wedl’s burger, my reaction was pretty much the same as Samuel L. Jackson’s in Pulp Fiction, but roughly seven hundred percent more excited.

Wisconsin has beautiful scenery.

On my way home, I following winding roads past green hills, lovely woods, and beautiful streams. It was fantastic. Indiana occasionally has nice scenery, but approximately ninety-six percent of the state is covered by cornfields. What I saw of southern Wisconsin was breathtaking.

I don’t know how I lived without a GPS.

As usual, I seem to be a decade or two behind everyone else in my generation when it comes to technology. I finally acquired a GPS, and it is amazing. It made traveling so, so much easier. My GPS, GLaDOS, is a gift of God.

Hell has a tenth circle, and its name is Chicago.

As much as I appreciate my GPS, I must quote its namesake, GLaDOS from the Portal games: “Remember when you tried to kill me twice? Oh, how we laughed and laughed, except I wasn’t laughing.” My GPS made two attempts to murder me by taking me through Chicago going and coming back.

I have an embarrassing fear of city driving. (My decision to buy a GPS in the first place was prompted by a stressful visit to Fort Wayne.) For all my travels, I haven’t done much driving in big cities, and I have long made a point of staying away from Chicago. Unfortunately, my GPS took me through Chicago twice.

The Chicago freeways were vast rivers of faded asphalt, channeling streams of vehicles over, under, and through an arid wasteland of concrete, weeds, and rusting metal. The summer sun blazed overhead. (My car lacks air conditioning.) The traffic was predictably slow. My trips through Chicago were all sweat, noise, fumes, desperate prayers, and hopes for the sweet release only death could bring.

This brings me to my next point.

It did me good to work through some of my anxieties.

Besides my fear of city driving, I’m stressed out by traveling alone, public speaking, and prolonged social commitments. My trip to Wisconsin consisted of driving hundreds of miles by myself, hanging out with new people for hours on end, and speaking in front of a church congregation.

My anxieties are silly and irrational, but also very real. I was forced to confront them, and I lived to tell the tale. As George Orwell wrote, “You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” I survived my anxieties, and that’s encouraging.

It was nice to get away from my typewriter monkeys.

For two glorious days, I didn’t see a single banana peel, hear a single explosion, or smell a single whiff of burning apartment. It was nice.

Now that the trip to Wisconsin is done, what’s next? I wish I knew. I suppose I’ll resume my quiet, caffeinated, day-to-day life, and daydream about my next road trip.

317. About Storytelling: Deus Ex Machina

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There come moments when storytellers feel trapped. A story has a problem with no easy solution. The hero is cornered by ravenous wolves, pushed off a cliff, or given a toothpick for a duel instead of a sword. No happy ending is possible.

This is when storytellers use a dirty little trick called deus ex machina. This fancy-sounding phrase is used to describe contrived or impossible resolutions in storytelling.

In the first problem mentioned above, the hero might be saved by the wolves dropping dead of simultaneous heart attacks. The second problem can be solved by an angel catching the hero in midair, and the third by the hero’s opponent abruptly putting down his sword and becoming a pacifist.

These solutions are ridiculously improbable, and that’s the point: deus ex machinas (or dei ex machinis if you want to be really fancy) are not believable. They are jarring reminders that fiction is completely made-up.

The phrase deus ex machina is Greek for god from the machine. In ancient Greek theater, actors representing gods entered the stage using literal machines, such as platforms that raised them up through trapdoors or lifts that lowered them down from above. These “gods from machines” represented divine beings capable of doing anything. Was the hero stuck in a problem with no solution? Presto! Here came a god to solve his problem miraculously!

Deus Ex Machina

Fear me, mortals! Be awed by my divine splendor! Pretend not to notice the crane!

Thanks to this theatrical convention, deus ex machina has entered the vocabularies of writers everywhere.

One of the most infamous deus ex machinas in recent history is the convenient arrival of giant eagles to save the heroes at the last possible moment in The Lord of the Rings. In The Adventures of Tintin, the hero is frequently saved by lucky coincidences such as landmines turning out to be duds when he drives over them. Charles Dickens, bless him, used deus ex machinas all the time to give his characters happy endings.

Aspiring writers should be familiar with the concept of deus ex machina for two reasons. First, they can avoid using it unnecessarily. Nothing ruins the excitement or verisimilitude of a good story like a cheap deus ex machina. Second, writers aware of the concept can use it meaningfully.

Yes, it can actually be a good thing for problems to be resolved in a contrived fashion. Deus ex machinas can be used for ironic or humorous effect, such as heroes escaping a monster because its animator has a sudden heart attack. They can also be used seriously to make a point, as in the final scenes of the movie Signs. In the climax of the film, a family survives a crisis due to an incredible set of coincidences… which begs a question asked earlier in the movie: “What if there are no coincidences?”

(Signs was quite a good film, but I will never forgive its director for what he later did to The Last Airbender. That movie, based on a truly superb television show, is a disaster no deus ex machina could save.)

Why am I writing about deus ex machinas? Well… I’m writing this post less than a day before it’s due. The subject of last-minute resolutions seems appropriate!