Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Deus Ex Machina*

*a.k.a. G_d from the machine

There’s a literary plot device known in Latin as deus ex machina. Originally from the Greek apò mēkhanês theós, and used in Greek plays, we have many examples from Judeo-Christian stories. I’m thinking of the biblical story of Job, where the philosophical discussion and events are resolved by the appearance of G_d from the whirlwind, and all is resolved and restored. It is not resolved by the main character, nor by any of the other characters’ actions. In fact, that is the very point the book of Job is making.
In literary analysis this has come to stand not so much for divine intervention as for the addition of an unexpected event or character not organically coming out of the story. Such things do, in fact, happen in real life. But in modern storytelling, where the heroism depends on humans conquering life’s obstacles, it often feels contrived and unsatisfying.

In the how-to circles  it's a no-no. If I read or heard it once, I have heard it many times. We don’t do it anymore.

Oh, really?

I suggest we do use it, and use it everywhere. This is where fantasy comes in. A whole genre devoted to coming up with world building rules that zig-zag between life as we know it and fantastic elements popping in conveniently to work their magic
You need the main character to get in somewhere where they can’t possibly? — Introduce, and then give ‘em, an invisibility cloak. Voila! Harry Potter, anyone? Why didn't we know about this magical invisibility thingy all along? Because we just needed it now, silly.

The same for magical realism, a genre I am partial to as a reader and a writer. Think of the uses of time-travel, not in the form of scholarly research, but a device where the main character actually gets to hop in a few centuries back and even retrieve a long-lost object.

Deus ex machina hasn’t gone away. If anything, it is used more than ever. We just have other names for it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thank YOU

It’s that wistful time of year, when I am giving thanks, or trying to.

 Thanks for what I have. That is obvious: a roof over my head, something to eat on my plate, something to cover my nakedness, and something to do.

Thanks for what I don’t have, which would not have been good for me:  various health issues, loss and desolation, and many more things I feared that didn’t materialize.

Thanks for being here, still. Like a wise old man once told me: “They give me a day, I take it.” Last I heard he is over a hundred years old, and just got a birthday greeting from the president.

But most of all—
THANKSGIVING Week, and I feel propelled to thank you.
Thank you for reading this, and thank you for comments you have made in the past. You let me know I was not alone.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My Life as a Torte*

*Inspired by Nora Ephron’s
MY Life as a Meatloaf
Re-reading Nora Ephron is a treat, no matter how many times I’ve read her before. She didn’t blog, per se, but she is called “the original Blogger” by some.
Turns out that a friend who opened a restaurant named a meatloaf dish after her. It bore no resemblance to any meatloaf she had made or eaten before, but it was fantalicious, and people complemented her on this gourmet version of a down-home lowly staple.
Then the chef changed, the dish changed, was moved to Tuesday nights only, and eventually disappeared from the menu. Ephron saw an analogy to her life, and life in general. You have your day, your heyday, your recognition, the fade out, and then you’re gone.
Four years after her death, Ephron still lives, and some meatloaf recipes carry her name and are still googled daily. But what didn’t quite apply to her life, turns out, does apply to mine.
I, too, had a dish named after me.
Long ago I managed the storefront of a gourmet pastry shop. The owner-chef was a genius, and while she insisted on never making a down-home cookie (no chocolate-chip) and never calling a cake a cake (she only made tortes, please!)  the cakes, ahmm, tortes, were as incredible tasting as they were gorgeous. Tasteful in and out.
She made some classics, but also came up with original concoctions. One of those she named the Mirka Torte.
It was not my favorite, but it was up there. Layers of Cake (torte!) speckled with shavings of dark chocolate and orange rind hugged an orange sabayon cream, a sort of fluffy custard, and a thin strip of cark chocolate ran in between. It was light, beautiful, and as it turned out, quite popular.

When I married she made our wedding cake, and of course it was The Mirka Torte. When my step-mother asked her why she named this composition after me, the answer was that it is both a simple and straight-forward, as well as a subtle and complicated composition. Just like its namesake.

“You really know Mirka well,” my step-mother said.

Two years after its debut, and long after we had worked together, I ran into this cake on a dessert menu at a fancy restaurant. It was still named Mirka Torte. No one knew why, but that was just fine.

And then it was gone. Like all ephemeral things, it had its day, and then it slipped into the night.

Which is as it should be, to make room for others.

But for a moment there I had a whiff of the Nora Ephron thing. It was nice.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

I Voted

Just this--
Not only am I all right with your voting differently from me, I'm all right with your choosing not to vote. Choosing to not choose is also a choice.
Just sayin', because plenty of people think it's their place to shame you. I don't. I just try to do what I hope is the right thing every day, and keep on keeping on.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Where I live, the seasons are barely delineated. Call it year-round spring, and you wouldn’t be far off. But we do our best to pretend to have, at least, two seasons.

Winter is ushered with a change of bed quilts, from the light colored and thinly stuffed to the heavier, darkly rich hued kind. 

When my kids were little, the content of their dresser drawers would change— with lighter clothes placed at the bottom and sweaters floating to the top. New pairs of socks would replace the odd unmatched singles of last year, and sandals got pushed to the back of the shoe drawer.

In truth, we can just about wear any of the clothes any time, and the bedding would not make a real difference either way. But we pretend we can’t, really, in order to have the illusion of change. Unlike folks who have what we here call “real weather,” we don’t change our tires to snow tires, and we don’t use antifreeze. We don’t need to get the snow shovels from the back of the garage, and we have no use for thermal underwear. For those who go on ski weekends— their gear is specialized, but this was never part of my life in California.

But one seasonal thing is not a pretense for me. One word sums it up: SPICES. Specifically— Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and that thing we call allspice, which isn’t all the spices mixed together but a kind of pepper from a West Indian tree.

Sure, you can use these in summer, and people of “real weather” think of these seasoning as ushering Fall. But in some mysterious way I find a strong urge overtakes me to start spicing and baking and stewing and sprinkling with the above as soon as November comes.

That’s today. Can you smell it all the way from my kitchen?

As the gingerbread is baking and the pumpkin soup is simmering, I reflect on how this relates to writing stories. I don’t want to write the same story over and over. I mark a new story with new and distinct words and expressions. In this way I know I am entering a different territory. Words, used like seasoning, tell me I am here and not there, and should address perception differently.
 Just as I will now dress differently.

If this sounds like a stretch, just come over and get a whiff. I’m not kidding.