Sci-fi Icon, Octavia E. Butler (and we’re over Covid)

Book-lover/library-lover Octavia at home. (c) Patti Perret/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Please note: From the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for your kind wishes for my husband and me while we were sick with Covid. Fortunately we’re well now and hope you and yours are staying safe. For anyone who thinks Covid is a simple flu, this is absolutely not the case. While it may start off mildly, it can quickly take a terrible turn. Please get vaccinated if you have the opportunity. Our doctor advises us to be as careful as ever as no conclusive evidence confirms that having been ill with it has gives us one iota of immunity, especially against the newer versions arising.

Savaged by self-doubt? Dry spells getting between you and your goals, including ones for writing your novel? You and I have brilliant company!

A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Octavia E. Butler, the first African-American woman sci-fi writer, wrote herself many pep talks. She suffered through crummy jobs (potato chip quality control, anyone?) and years of crappy pay to attain her writing aspirations.

Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Talk about paying off! She was the first science fiction author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship’s “Genius Grant”! And she was a multiple Hugo Award and Nebula Award winner!

One of Octavia's many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
One of Octavia’s many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

All that and still she continued to work hard at bolstering herself. Proof is within her donation to The Huntington Library’s Art Collections in Los Angeles, a collection ranging from extensive drafts, notes, and research materials to more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, essays, correspondence, ephemera, and assorted books.

Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Born in Pasadena, CA, on June 22, 1947, she grew up poor. She watched her single mom endure racism and classism while cleaning homes to raise her daughter. Octavia towered over her classmates and grappled with dyslexia.

Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Her peers bullied her for not being more like them. As an only child most comfortable among adults, she spent her time at the public library, reading, and writing. Later she attended writing classes and workshops. Check out this cool interactive link the Los Angeles Times created regarding her stomping grounds.

In a 2000 interview for the New York Times, she said, “When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”

In 1979, with the publishing of Kindred, she chartered fresh territory for how to relay history. The protagonist is an African American woman who vaporizes from the Los Angeles apartment she shares with her Anglo boyfriend. She careens between the pre-Civil War slave era and back, a harrowing ride to put it mildly. Did Octavia dream of the present, when these days mixed couples are common and now high school teachers assign Kindred to their students?

Photo of Science Fiction novel writer Octavia E. Butler near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.
Octavia near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.

Octavia was taken from us in 2006, at a far too young 58. She was staving off depression and writer’s block to finish a trilogy that remains incomplete. Her fans continue to grow.

Her advice to writers: Keep writing, no matter how you feel about your work.

Three months before she passed away, here she chatted with investigative journalist Amy Goodman, who heads Democracy Now (a fantastic video and radio news show, by the way) and co-host Juan González.

This fellow blogger’s post features 15 anecdotes about Octavia. Within it, a video link includes an interview with another stellar African-American woman sci-fi and fantasy writer, N. K. Jemisin.

How do you reckon with self-doubt?

COVID, Friendship, Writing, and Books: We’re better

It’s official — as of yesterday, I can smell the cinnamon in my oatmeal and taste hot chocolate — hurrah! Smelling flowers is uplifting — but no longer worrying that I could be snuffed out by toxic air or spoiled food? — mega-hallelujah!

Senses, mwah and mwah! Please don’t ever leave me again! Here’s to hoping that a benefit of COVID will be more research spent to help all who have limited abilities to smell or taste…

Illness is dreadful, but now that I’m securely on the other end of it, I see it provided me some upsides. For one thing, it’s reminded me how beyond-lottery-winner-fortunate I’ve always been in regards to wonderful friends — and that includes you, dear reader. Most strangers are merely people we haven’t yet had the opportunity to become friends with, no?

Besides appreciating the kindness of pals and soon-pals, I wish I could say I completed extensive writing on my “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat” novels, but my writing energy was nowhere to be found.

However, sitting and lying about  enabled me to do some reading. Without revealing plot points, here are my reviews of four books I’ve just finished. When I review books I appreciate, I notify the authors. Occasionally they email me back 🙂

Cover of "Earthlings" by Sayaka Murata

Earthlings: A Novel by Sayaka Murata

Pardon the gray matter, but my brain just exploded. This book is like nothing I’ve ever read before — and I read a lot of books and genres.

Picture Sayaka Murata’s earlier book, “Convenience Store Woman,” as a string of firecrackers that cleverly illuminates how soul-sucking capitalism can be. “Earthlings” is akin to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when 80,000 people vanished in the blink of an eye and 200,000 mostly civilians perished.

Equal parts sci-fi, reality, magical realism, comedy, horror, satire, and gore, she says this is her other-worldly response to a Japanese health minister’s announcement. In 2007, he said, “The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head … although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”

Granted, there are beaucoup reasons “Earthlings” isn’t for everyone — but I have no time for those who’re simply offended that the story isn’t as cutesy as the iconically Japanese cover. The same goes for reviewers who lament the dearth of “likable” characters. For Murata, no one is all-good or all-bad, and no gender or age has it easy. Surely when Murata named an essential character “Yuu,” she knew the meaning of “you” in English.

Cover of "Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends" by Jenn Bane and Trin Garritano

Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends by Jenn Bane and Trin Garritano

This is a wise and chatty culmination of what the authors learned as co-hosts of their “Friendshipping” podcast. Their mantra: “Friendship is a skill.” Indeed, it’s one that merits continual honing, for which they offer great suggestions.

Cover of "The Listening Path: the Creative Art of Attention" by Julia Cameron

The Listening Path: the Creative Art of Attention by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron’s 12-week manual, “The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” is ultra groundbreaking to creatives of any ilk. Each non-fiction book Cameron has published since then reiterates much of her original teachings — but for me, the repetition often works. This newest text is a 6-week DIY course that emphasizes the value of listening to each other, our environment, and ourselves.

Cover of "The 90-Day Novel" by Alan Watt

The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt

Good chance Julia Cameron fans will enjoy this, given that there are a few similarities. If Cameron doesn’t resonate, you still may find this bread-crumbs/inside-to-out writing approach useful.

Are you reading or writing lately?

Our COVID + Carrot Delight Cake Healthier Recipe by Khashayar

Our COVID Healing and Carrot Delight Cake Healthy Recipe by KhashayarEver crave a treat that tastes decadent but is a bit healthier? Get your veggies and good fats with this brownie-like moist loveliness.

Khashayar came up with it just before the two of us came down with COVID-19. (Here he first contracted it and here I got it too and here is how it went after this.)

Thank goodness COVID-19 hasn’t affected my ability to write and read, aside from the days it weakened my sight and energy. We’re much better, wake each morning slightly less raggedy than the one before in terms of feeling totally human.

It has a week since I’ve been able to smell and taste. If I hold my nose to a jar of cinnamon powder or a bottle of lavender oil, absolutely nothing registers. Taste is down to an occasional three notes of flavor. They’re subtle and offer no complexity. If something is super salty, ultra sweet, or blazing hot, they’ll call like old friends from a place so distant I can hardly hear them.

I tried sniffing a bottle of bleach… nearer = nothing… nearer = nothing… short of sticking my nostril right over the spout, a revelation terrified me. How easily I could accidentally truly damage myself without these two senses. How easily anyone could! My heart goes out to all who suffer this.

I try to rev my appetite by conning it that texture and temperature are flavors. My clothes haven’t gotten too baggy yet. I try not to stress over whether things will always be this way.

Ah, yes! There is indeed another note of taste I neglected to tell you about! It’s the most important one; the love Khashayar infuses into all of his cooking rings loud and clear…

Ingredients

2 pounds carrots
2 cups regular white sugar
2 cups white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon nutmeg
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup olive oil

Topping

2 cup greek yogurt
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 350 farenheit degrees.

2. Mix together all the dry ingredients: carrots, sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

3. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and milk.

4. Combine all the above with the melted butter and olive oil.

5. Pour the batter into a 13″ x 9″ x 2″ baking dish.

6. Bake for an hour or until a toothpick inserted into it comes out clean.

7. Let the cake cool.

8. Stir topping ingredients together: yogurt, honey, and almonds.

9. Slice the cake and serve with a dollop of the topping. Garnish with fresh or frozen berries (frozen like they’ve been powdered with sugar as they thaw). It also gets a nice chewy crust when heated. If you prefer it warm, don’t add the topping until it’s out of the oven.

Hungry for more? Khashayar has lots of other recipes such as a great hot soup, a crunchy salad, a fruity dessert, an entree, and this appetizer and this one.

Do you have a favorite healthier dessert?

Now I have COVID-19…

Photo of da-AL and K-D.

Now I, too, have COVID-19. My husband came down with it last week, ahead of me. He’d just tested positive when I wrote of his illness here (and here’s how it progressed and here’s our latest news.)

At the time, he was only somewhat uncomfortable. Quickly thereafter, he got really ill.

Very very very fortunately, just this month he’d found employment that provides excellent health insurance. Moreover, only a couple of days earlier, the health plan started offering monoclonal antibodies treatments to “patients who qualify.” Lucky him, he got sick sick sick enough to qualify.

Three mornings, he spent hours getting to the hospital, having his blood tested, taking medications including steroids, and sitting with an IV drip. The first day he felt the worst of his life, could hardly stand to get out of bed, and could barely eat or drink. By days two and three, he was markedly improved. It’s been a few days since, and he’s not entirely over it, but he’s definitely (knock on wood) out of the woods. Now he wishes the pounds he initially lost on the “COVID diet” weren’t creeping back. Thank goodness his sense of humor is returning.

As for me, the first day he fell sick, I felt crummy too, but mine passed within a couple of hours. I hoped it meant my body had faced down the nasty bug. A few days later, still feeling fine, hi ho hurrah, I tested negative. Then a few days later, woe is me, positive results of a retest came in shortly after I became feverish and headachy and yucky and… (okay, I’ll stick with keeping things polite) and it didn’t go away. I’m still not entirely great, but I hope I’m done with the worst of it.

How fortunate I am to have decent health insurance, a nurturing husband, and the generosity of dear people.

Now indulge me a moment on my soapbox:

Know anyone who’s anti-immigration? Invite them to find a predominantly white hospital and tell them good luck with that. The medical professionals who’ve helped my husband and me were overwhelmingly first and later generation immigrants. I’d rather not contemplate where we’d be without their hard work, dedication, care, bravery, and on and on…

Definitely, if everyone wore masks, neither my husband nor I would have gotten COVID-19. Wishing you and yours excellent health.

Have you ever changed a bigot’s mind? At least I can be one less person who allows them to think it’s okay to spread hate and divisiveness…

Me and COVID plus Imagining a New Place by novelist Chris Hall

‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, "Song of the Sea Goddess." Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.
‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, “Song of the Sea Goddess.” Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.

Writers get to build whatever world they please — sometimes our novels bend the truth only somewhat — other times they invent entire new gallaxies.

My works in progress, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are set in fictitious towns within Los Angeles during 2002 and 2003. Back then, COVID-19 didn’t exist…

Note: Earlier this week, my husband became feverish and unwell. Turns out he has COVID-19. He’s doing his best to get well while I feel healthy and am awaiting my test results. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been super careful. I’m letting you know this as a reminder that one can never be too conscientious about avoiding this severe illness and about working civically to help contain it. (Here’s the follow-up, and here’s after that. and here’s the latest.)

Deciding on setting and histories and all that goes into storytelling is chancy no matter what an author chooses to create. There will always be fans and foes. To be a novelist requires enough passion to outrun the discouraging thoughts that can torment us.

Chris Hall has been wonderfully prolific over the last few years. She’s published three novels and a short story collection! Originally from the UK, she describes herself as “a compulsive story-teller, cat slave and hen keeper.” To sample her short fiction, fan fiction, mini-series, and poetry, as well as to follow her on her various social media, check out her website.

“Song of the Sea Goddess,” her most recent novel, is set where she lives now, the Western Cape of South Africa. Here she describes why she decided to depict a South Africa different from how it is in real life…

Author Chris Hall.
Author Chris Hall.

“From the Writer’s desk” by Chris Hall

Writing a novel is not just about telling the story. There are other considerations that come into play. I’d like to share with you why I was motivated to write a book set in South Africa. In particular, why I chose to paint an idealised portrait of the place and why I drew on the overarching theme of environmental destruction, rather than dealing with the gritty issues of race and poverty in my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess.

The Setting

When it came to writing this, my fourth novel, I was determined to set it in my adopted country, South Africa. I’d been living near Cape Town for almost ten years and the time had come to give voice to the people around me. I’d also decided it was time to transition from historical fiction. It was time to write in the moment, but at the same time include elements borrowed from the ancient lore of the African continent, which are written on cave walls and embedded in the landscape.

I knew I needed a setting to match the story I was about to tell, although the story hadn’t really even begun. Then, at the beginning of 2019, while staying in a small town on our very beautiful west coast, while I sat by the banks of the Berg River and watched the little boats going past on their way out to sea, I was moved to write a story about a fisherman with a little boat.

Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall's kitty, Luna.
Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall’s kitty, Luna.

The Characters

I’m a lazy novelist. I let my characters emerge and develop and play around in my mind. Even before they are fully formed, they are always desperate to run to centre stage and act out their parts.

But there has to be a starting point.

A few of my key characters are based on people I met when I first came to live in South Africa. People whose backgrounds were unfamiliar to me; people who come from what are euphemistically called ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’ (as if their communities are not still disadvantaged in this country, which has the most polarized society on the planet).

I could have written about some of their struggles, about the conditions in which they live, about the poverty and lack of opportunity that characterizes their communities, of how they’d suffered under apartheid, but as I got to them better, I realised that none of them wants to dwell on any of that.

So I decided I could give them better lives, locate them in a much more pleasant place and put a positive spin on this beautiful country.

I mixed them up a bit, taking a little bit of one and blending it with another, but their voices are true and their characteristics mirror real life in many respects. There’s a nod to some of the darker side of people’s lives with Sam’s flight from the Cape Flats’ gangland and in the history behind Jannie’s tattoos from the notorious ‘28s’ gang.

On the lighter side, several of the comical incidents, like when Auntie Rose loses her false teeth down her pants’ leg, are little events that actually happened. The food that the Aunties make and sell in the novel is based on recipes that I tasted and talked about with people. The love of food and the common ground we found over cookery has cemented several friendships in my new town.

The Theme

Concern for the environment is a theme I continue to return to in the short fiction and poetry, which I write on my blogsite, and while watching a TV documentary about water pollution, an idea began to form in my mind for the backdrop to my novel’s narrative. Water is in short supply in our country anyway, but what if the rivers were threatened? And what would happen if the forces of nature were moved to fight back? Soon my emerging novel would take a new and interesting turn.

My love of the landscape and ancient lore of the country that I now call home will continue to feature in my work. I’m already embroiled in a sequel to Song of the Sea Goddess, where myth and magic will once again be awakened in the little coastal town where the great river flows from the purple mountains into the southern ocean.

Visit Chris' site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.
Visit Chris’ site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.

Have you ever created a new world?

The Henna Artist’s bighearted Alka Joshi on saris, plus my wedding henna

“When’s the last time you read something unapologetically pro-choice — & that’s as empowering as it is romantic? Me? Never. Can’t wait for Joshi’s next book! Wish there were more novels that discuss pro-choice issues head-on. Enchanting story set in 1950s India from women’s point of view about the choices we’re given and how much we can make with them. Audiobook narrator Sneha Mathan is marvelous!”

~ My review of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi for Amazon and Goodreads

I absolutely adore books (after all, I’m writing two)! Whenever I finish reading an exceptional novel, I review it on Goodreads and Amazon. Sure, not all stories resonate with me. As a tender-hearted author, I know too well the blood/sweat/tears that even a crappy book demands, so I don’t review those.

Then I email the novelist to thank them for making my life more thoughtful and maybe even fun. Ditto for any audiobook performer involved. Some thank me back, and on the days my stars are truly aligned, they agree to contribute to Happiness Between Tails.

Anyone who doesn’t read The Henna Artist is missing out. Clearly it’s written by a generous spirit. Just glance through Alka’s website and Youtube channel, where she lauds other authors to the extent that poses with their books! Here she is, holding Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic as she says how grateful she is for it. Btw, I love that book too, so she’s got good taste to her credit as well lol 🙂

Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert in a video.

Allow me to digress a moment: Henna, oh, henna, you magical green powder! You enhance my hair, and you make lovely tattoos!…

Photo of da-AL's henna-tattooed hands. The day before I got married, I went to Los Angeles’ Little India for these gorgeous henna tattoos.

They’re far more forgiving than the permanent ink ones, and brides aren’t allowed to do housework until they’ve worn off…

Photo of my henna tattooed hands and feet. I needed just the right sandals to show off my enhanced tootsies!

Dusting off my photos to show you these provided an excuse to reconnect with Chris Miller, the super-talented photographer (check out her Instagram too) who was beyond kind to gift them to my sweetie and me. Back when she shot them, we both worked for the Beach Reporter, a Manhattan Beach community weekly. I reported on Hermosa Beach and, In addition to her work as an event fotog, at the time she was the publication’s photojournalist.

Wedding party photo of Khashayar and da-AL. It seems like yesterday when you’re having fun…

Back to our esteemed guest: Alka was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. At the age of nine, she moved to the U.S. As a Stanford University grad, she’s worked in advertising and PR, and owned a marketing consultancy. On top of all that, she has a Creative Writing MFA from Cal Arts San Francisco. The Henna Artist is her first book. In way less than a year, it’s a huge success! The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is set for July, plus the third book in the trilogy for 2022. And — she’s an executive producer for the novel’s upcoming Miramax TV series!

Read on for her thoughts on women in India. Note that it’s not just India — unfortunately, I’ve met women architects in the U.S. who encounter discrimination here too…

Alka Joshi, author of Alka Joshi, author of “The Henna Artist” and more!…

“The Sari vs. Modern India” by Alka Joshi

In January 2019, the Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon, just outside New Delhi, received an email from the registrar to attend a convocation.

Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon's news bulletin board. Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon’s news bulletin board.

It requested formal dress: “trouser, coat and tie for men” and “saris for women.”

Students wear western clothes. Students wear western clothes.

This sparked a lively, funny, albeit very polite, conversation on WhatsApp among the female faculty, who normally wear trousers, Western blouses/tops, or salwar kameez (long tunics with legging-like bottoms) most days.

“I may not wear a sari…I don’t even own one!”

“I do not even know how to wear a sari.”

“[I’m] not against saris. But at 7:30 in the morning, especially when I’m not used to it is definitely a challenge.”

“Can’t tie one at 7am and drive…and get through the day!”

“No sari. Impossible to wear and report at 7:30 in the morning.”

“Why a sari at all?”

“If the women must wear a sari, wouldn’t a *dhoti be more in sync for the men?”

*(Now mostly worn by village men, a dhoti is a white cloth from five to seven yards in length, wrapped loosely around the legs and tied in a knot at the waist. While dhotis have gone out of fashion, saris are still a mainstay of female couture for weddings, special occasions and family gatherings.)

This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home. This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home.

“We are all sensible enough to know what to wear. Most of us might even have worn saris to the event without being asked. But when you tell us exactly what to wear, we are going to have something to say,” laughs Monisha Sharma, associate professor. “Our Dean, who is female, told us to just look as smart as we do every day, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching. Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching.

In addition to teaching in the Architecture school, these women are working architects. At construction sites they are often greeted with curious expressions: Can women really be architects? Are these women here to tell us what to do?

One professor told me that she had organized a site visit to a factory for her students. When they got to the site, the founder only responded to the junior male faculty who had accompanied her, choosing not to acknowledge her at all. 

Similarly, a female architect who was managing a project for her father’s structural engineering firm was not being consulted by the construction team until her father ordered them to talk only to her. She was, after all, the project manager and the only one who could answer their questions.

Architecture Professor in India. “At 7:30 in the morning, I don’t have time to gather and pleat a sari. It’s a lot of work!”

To someone like me, who’s been raised in the West since the age of nine, it’s surprising that the women’s reaction is not anger (that would have been my response, along with bewilderment and confusion). 

Instead, the Indian women laugh it off. “We have already made our mark in our profession,” they say. “We don’t need to hit them over the head with it.”

At the convocation, the female faculty wore Western trouser suits. Not a sari in sight.

There’s more than one way to make a statement.

Are dress codes unbiased where you work?…

Mythical Greek Inspo for Writers (Made Easy) by Dionysius

Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792
Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792

Melodrama, romance, intrigue, mystery, mysticism, pragmatism — oh, wait, not the last one… If you’re looking for inspiration for writing or for reading excitement, check out Greek mythology!

Goddesses and gods, mortals, the blending of both — doesn’t that sound like Stan Lee comicbook territory? Surely he sorted through ancient myths to fashion superheroines and superheroes. Star Trek and Star Wars makers must’ve too.

Admittedly the Greek tales of olden times can be challenging. Every poetically written story is jam-packed with enough intrigue to rival a binge-watch of Days of Lives, a still-running daily soap opera that first aired in 1965 and I once upon a time worked as an extra for… but that’s another story.

South Carolina blogger Dionysius has the same monicker as the multi-cultural god/superhero who oversees everything from wine to fertility and ecstasy to madness. Some argue that Dionysus the god is really Jesus. Our guest, Dionysius, created his New Classical blog “to create a new contemporary literature deeply rooted in classic literary traditions… not to repeat old and dead literary traditions, but to rediscover what is living and vibrant in them today.”

Read on for a peek into how Dionysius sees classic literature… 

Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 - 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia. Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 – 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A brief summary and analysis of Euripedes’s “The Bacchae” by Dionysius

Summary

Prior to the events of The Bacchae, Dionysus is born from the love affair of Zeus and the mortal Semele. When he is born, his mortal family denies that he is the son of Zeus and refuses to give him worship. Dionysus then leaves Thebes and journeys to the east, where he gathers his cult of female worshippers, the maenads. The Bacchae opens when he returns to Thebes with his maenads to take vengeance on his family. He starts by luring the Theban women, including his aunts, into the forest around Mt. Cithaeron, where they join the maenads. This angers Pentheus, the king and Agave’s (Semele’s sister) son. After Pentheus fails to arrest and subdue Dionysus and the maenads, he is lured into the forest by Dionysus’s offer to look at them. In order to watch the maenads without being noticed, Dionysus tells him that he must dress as a woman. Pentheus complies and imitates the image and mannerisms of the maenads. When he arrives, his body is torn apart by them and by his own mother. Under the spell of Dionysus, she carries his head through Thebes, parading it, thinking that it is the head of a lion she caught during a hunt. When she is made aware of what she has done and whose head she’s been carrying, she falls into grief. The drama ends with Dionysus casting her and the royal family out of Thebes.

Maenads – The Mystery of Woman

Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366 Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366

The Bacchae revolves around the mystery of difference. Particularly sexual difference and cultural difference. This is seen clearly by the depiction of Dionysus’s maenads. That they are a cult of women and that Dionysus gathered them in the east is of significance here. In The Bacchae, the feminine, or the idea of Woman, takes on the form of the unknown. Like a woman behind a veil, there is mystery, temptation, and fear associated with the maenads. This is portrayed most clearly by the way Pentheus relates to them. At first, it is with fear, responding to the maenads with force and violence. Then, when it proves that the feminine is impossible to control or subdue, when the captured maenads escape his prison and most definingly when Dionysus(posing as a young mortal priest) himself escapes, Pentheus gives in to temptation at Dionysus’s first request to take him to look at the maenads. He goes as far as to dress as a woman and imitate their dances and appearances.

The temptation that is displayed here is twofold. It is the temptation not only to satiate his desires by seeing the bodies of the women, but also and more fundamentally, to be one of the maenads and experience their enjoyment. While the first temptation fits into a traditional male standpoint of desire, what is significant about the second temptation is that he is not merely taking the maenads as an object of desire, rather his desire is to assume the subjective position of the maenads, of “Woman” and their feminine enjoyment. What is revealed here is that his anger at the maenads was all along based in his own envy of their enjoyment.

Pentheus never understood what the condition for this enjoyment was.

The very condition for the sublime bliss that Pentheus sought after is a primordial unity of being. An overflow of life and nature. It is because the maenads abandon their individual identities and place in the Theban social order, that they can participate in this primordial unity. Their individuality is suspended for the tribal enjoyment of dance, ritual, hunt, and fertility. They participate seamlessly with nature and become a part of the overflowing development of life. Beyond the enjoyment that Pentheus sought, the “[…] Sweet streams of honey dripping,” this condition, is also at the same time the condition for an inhuman terror. This is displayed most clearly when he is torn apart by his own mother and the other maenads.

Unseen Essence

Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons

What must be remembered is that what appears as purely negative in tragedy also has a positive dimension. This is the pinnacle of Greek tragic wisdom. Why does Woman present itself as the apocalypse of man in this tragedy? It is because of an original betrayal of the feminine reality committed by the mortal family of Dionysus. By his entire family when they initially rejected him, and by Pentheus when he returned. This is what causes the breakdown of the Theban social order and the revenge of Woman.

In the same way that Woman is a constitutive element of the reality of sex, including the reality of man. The Dionysian rituals that the maenads take part in, that return to a primordial being and oneness, are constitutive of the Theban social order. It is even the root of the Theban social order. The unconscious reality of Thebes exists as the basis for its conscious and institutional realities.

It is precisely because the rituals of Dionysus exist outside of Thebes, in the rituals of the maenads on Mt. Cithaeron, that it is the base of Theban society. It is precisely because the maenads are all women whose rituals are constitutive of the male Theban social order. And it is precisely because the maenads come from the east that they constitute the western social order of Thebes. Dionysus and his cult are the external essences of Theban society. Essence, unlike appearance, is always unseen.

Dionysus of the Night

Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons

The place that Dionysus dwells in is the contradiction between appearance and essence.

Dionysus embodies this contradiction. He is returning from the east, and yet he was born in the west. He leads a cult of women, and yet he is a man. He is divine, and yet his mother is mortal. This contradiction is like the black of night, where one thousand stars shine. The failure of his mortal family to respect it, and to respect their own essence, is what leads to the breakdown of Thebes.

Visit Dionysius at his New Classical blog, his Twitter page, and his Facebook page.

I’ve always wanted to put on a cape, stretch out my arms, take a running jump, and whoosh! — feel the wind in my face, inhale the fragrance of treetops as I soar high into the clouds. Picture me Super-da-AL or Winged Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louver’s entrance.

What superpower would you want?

Got Inner Critic(s)? Meet Annie’s and mine

Charles Schultz, the creator of “Peanuts,” did other stuff besides that comic strip. It’s said he battled his own gang of gremlins. Lucy, the psychiatrist from hell, for one…
Charles Schultz, the creator of “Peanuts,” made other work besides that comic strip. It’s said he battled his own gang of gremlins. Lucy, the psychiatrist from hell, for one. (Peanuts image courtesy of pixy.org)

My inner jerks specialize in novel writing. Inner criticizing is just the beginning — they’re outer and everywhere.

A tongue-twisting ditty to be sung to whatever tune strikes your fancy:

“Here a critic… There a critic… Everywhere a crit, critty, critical critic…”

Moreover, mine barge in with droves of friends.

Have you got any? If not, how the heck do you pull that off?

I could list mine for days and days: Why you takin’ so long with them books you keep talkin’ ‘bout? Ya really gotta do that instead of this or those things or them stuff right now? Lookie here, there’s this to do that’s way more pressing and tons more fun! You’re wasting your time, so scrap that durned project already, just quit it. What in tarnation gave you the notion you could write anything of interest to anyone but you? People are just being polite when they compliment your work, don’t you know that? Who in their right mind will want to read your novels, much less spend hard-earned cash-ola on them? Seriously, if they do, they won’t finish them. And if they finish them, they won’t talk about them. For sure, if they talk about them, they won’t say anything nice. And promotion — you gotta be kidding me! — what do you know about that?

Some days, those are the nicer things I tell myself.

Read on, and you’ll see how Annie, a blogger from the United States east coast, makes perfect sense when she encourages us to name our inner critics.

Like my own name of da-AL, mine has a hyphenated moniker. “Them” goes by “A-Holes.”

How about you? What’s your inner demon(s) named? Maybe yours and mine could meet for drinks, get really plastered together, and meantime leave us alone for a spell?

More about today’s guest: Annie is a writer of many things, including poetry. In the past, she has even earned some real money from her writing! Here’s her advice — and a question for which I have no answer but send her lots of good wishes in solving it — for all of us. She blogs about whatever she pleases, including stuff that makes her and maybe us laugh…

Annie, a blogger and professional writer, gives her inner critic the one-two punch!
Annie, a blogger and professional writer, knows how to give her inner critic the one-two punch!

“My Attempts to Play Nice With My Inner Critic” by Annie

Whether or not you practice mindfulness meditation, as I have for several years, you are probably familiar with the voice known as the Inner Critic. It’s that part of us that says: “I’m such a dope!” “I’ll never be what I hope to be.” “How could I have done that?” “I just don’t measure up!” “My father/mother was right/wrong about me.” “Sure, I’m doing fine, but that’s because people really don’t know that I’m winging it.” “I’m not bright enough, attractive enough, witty enough, kind enough, tall enough, thin enough, tough enough, strong enough, sensitive enough, thoughtful enough…”

You get the picture. That negative voice has long been with us, often from childhood, from societal messages, maybe from a single cruel teacher, and on and on. I was raised by two loving parents. My mother felt I could do no wrong, but I still recall my father casting a questioning eye on my report card and asking: “What’s this A-minus?” 

The origins of the Inner Critic form a complex topic that I’m barely touching on here. But I know that I’m still the A student who goes nuts when autocorrect incorrectly changes “well” to “we’ll”—and I fail to catch it! Is that worth an iota of energy or distress? Of course not.

The Inner Critic certainly interferes with the goal of mindfulness coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Nonjudgmentally, indeed!

Several years ago, I wrote an article about mindfulness for an online women’s magazine. One of my interviewees was Sharon Salzberg, a renowned mindfulness educator and author who cofounded the highly regarded Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with two other giants in the field.

Salzberg’s special area of interest is lovingkindness, which begins with one’s self and then extends outward in ever larger circles to loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and the entire world.

Salzberg, who has written that her childhood troubles started her on a path that led to Buddhism in India decades ago, said she is constantly aware of her Inner Critic. How to deal with this negativity? She suggests giving your Inner Critic a name.

She named hers Lucy, after the famous Charles Schulz comic character who tells her hapless friend: “The problem with you, Charlie Brown, is that you’re you.” I asked her if I could adopt Lucy, and she agreed.

But I soon realized that borrowing someone else’s inner critic doesn’t work. I needed my own. I named her “Flibberty,” which is short for “flibbertigibbet.” That’s a Middle English term for a flighty, excessively talkative person, a gossip.

One of the reasons I’m happy with Flibberty is that although she’s a pain in the gut (that’s where I experience stress), her name includes the word “liberty.” I know I must free myself from the heavy burdens that Flibberty sometimes bestows upon me. 

Mindfulness practitioners learn that you never try to fight with these negative forces; doing so simply enlarges their impact. Rather, you seek peaceful coexistence. When Flibberty rears her officious head, I say, “Oh, there you are, Flibberty. How ya doing?” That’s generally enough to move my mind into a better place.

Lately, however, perhaps because I’m essentially housebound due to COVID-19, Flibberty has been flitting about in my vicinity quite a bit. I’d call her a “FlitBit” who’s gauging my absence of activity, rather than the reverse, but then I’d be exposing my propensity for bad puns. I’d never want to do that!

Flibberty covets my desk. She tells me I’m being ridiculous, working in such a messy space. She laughs knowingly when my TV remote won’t work because the old New Yorker magazines are piled so high on the table in front of my couch that they block the signal.

Now here’s the tricky part, and I welcome your suggestions. I often write blog posts that require research, and I type them on my computer before cutting and pasting them into my blog. I then add the printouts of my collected newspaper and magazine articles—and my printed out computer entries—to the piles of previous papers that surround me.

The piles are increasing in both numbers and height. Some are approaching the tottering stage. 

Have you heard of the Collyer brothers, who hoarded books, newspapers, and other items to such an extent that when their bodies were found, they were surrounded by 140 tons of stuff? 

I haven’t reached that level, but I do wonder whether my Inner Critic’s reminders about what I’m failing to do with my papers might actually be positive after all. So I say, “OK, Flibberty, let’s attack this pile.”

I pick up a bunch of papers, look through them, wonder what to do with them, and set them aside. And then I tell Flibberty that I appreciate her concern, I really do, and I will get to them in good time.

I feel so much better. Flibberty is quiet.

But the piles are flourishing—testimony to my diligent work. And still…

If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I might hire an organizer to help me through this mini-crisis. If I were bolder, I could just throw all the papers into the shredder and move on. (Never mind, Flibberty; forget what I said about being bolder.) 

And thereby hangs my dilemma. Can you, kind readers, presumably some of whom are better organized than I, provide some common-sense suggestions concerning what I do and do not need to keep for posterity? I want to ensure that the contents of my blog are intact as a legacy for my family.

Or will you encourage me to just say, “Screw it, Flibberty. We’re doing fine. We can both relax.”

In other words, am I using Flibberty as a balm—or an excuse?

Flibberty and disorder notwithstanding, my wish is that you, we, and the entire world be filled with lovingkindness…

Annie

How about you? Got an inner critic to comment on below?…

Holidays Capote-Style by da-AL

Gentle and cruel, personal and universal — writer / novelist / artist / actor / personality Truman Capote captured the holiday season to a “T”-ruman in his “A Christmas Memory.”

A lifelong bestie of another of my beloved authors, Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird” renown, Truman grew up queer during times when that wasn’t allowed. Hell, it’s still not allowed, not really despite the two-steps-forward/one-step-back strides that humanity has been making lately.

Truman Capote at 23, thanks to Wikipedia.
Truman Capote at 23, thanks to Wikipedia.

I happened upon Truman’s “A Christmas Memory” by chance. It’s part of his book, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s: a Short Novel and Three Short Stories,” the whole volume of which is mind-blowing. His print version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is nothing less than enchanting for how it captures the heartbreaking nuances of love and friendship, particularly between a gay man and a straight woman. (Incidentally, another book I adore along those same lines is “The Object of My Affection,” by Stephen McCauley. That novel as well is much more profound in print than in the film.)

Poster for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" from Wikipedia.
Poster for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” from Wikipedia.

Please don’t judge “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by its movie version. It’s stunning because of Audrey Hepburn, her iconic dress by Hubert de Givenchy, and so forth — but its racism toward Asians is deplorable. Moreover, it’s nowhere near as deep as the fabulous book. Unfortunately, Truman seems to have actively prostituted his masterpiece novella to Hollywood. Why? Was it due to his tragic and increasingly alcoholic life?

Truman Capote, four years before his too early death. Thank you Wikipedia
Truman Capote, four years before he passed away. Thank you Wikipedia.

The story in its p.r.i.n.t.e.d. form reminds me of how this whole pandemic situation has upended our holiday season, yet in some ways “righted” them. This year I’m extra thrilled that my dear ones are in good health. I’m happier for the smaller gestures. Living “sheltered-in-place,” I’m reminded that even though we can feel alone, we never really are.

Writer/novelist/artist/actor/personality Truman Capote.
Writer/novelist/artist/actor/personality Truman Capote.

No matter how poorly we feel and badly we are treated, one kindred face can make all the difference. Here in this vintage video, Truman doesn’t tell us this — his story enables us to feel it…

How are your holidays unique this year?

Recipe: Diana’s Tiramisu by da-AL

How's about a slice of tiramisu? Here's how...
How’s about a slice of tiramisu? Here’s how…

Do angels exist in everyday life? Indeed, Cousin Diana was one. Her life was far too short, but such can be the case with the sweetest among us…

Photo of Cousin Diana.
Cousin Diana.

Years ago, when my husband and I visited her in Italy, she prepared a fantastic multi-course vegetarian meal that ended with this nirvana-inducing tiramisu. Diana Ferretti Ruberti. Upon our return to the States, Diana sent me the instructions and helped me with it over the phone.

Recipe can evoke great memories…

Born in Argentina, she moved to Italy as a teenager and later worked as a teacher, married, and raised three great kids. Diana was lovely in every way and an amazing cook!  Her son, Stefano Ruberti, generously lent us these photos of her. Diana with her husband and small children.

Tiramisu Recipe

  • 8” x 8” x 2” serving dish or pan
  • 3 medium eggs, extra fresh
  • 2 cups strong coffee, either lukewarm or cold. Decaf and instant work great.
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee granules to stir into pudding
  • 8 ounces mascarpone, which tastes like an amazing cross between butter and cream cheese.
  • 3.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate chunks, 72% to 99%. Grated, or knife chopped, or put the chocolate into a plastic bag and take a hammer to it.
  • 24 regular-sized ladyfingers

Optional Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange rind
  • unsweetened cocoa powder to dust over the final layer

Before You Begin

  1. Assembly takes anywhere between half an hour to an hour, depending on how fast you are around the kitchen. It won’t be ready to eat for another six to twelve hours, as it needs time to set in the fridge. I like to prepare it the night before, then serve it the following afternoon with milk or coffee — or wine!
  2. Review the recipe and visualize the best way to organize things.
  3. Then you’re ready to lay out ingredients and tools such as bowls, pan, whisk or mixer, and mixer or blender for pudding, stuff you’ll use to grate chocolate.
  4. Unwrap ladyfingers and put them into a separate bowl.
  5. Raw eggs are called for and chocolate melts when it’s manipulated too much, so I like to keep things cold and work steadily.

Mixing the pudding

  1. Egg whites: in a separate bowl, whip until stiff.

    Bowl of whipped egg whites.

  2. Yolks: in a separate bowl or a blender, beat in 1/2 teaspoon instant granulated coffee, mascarpone, and sugar. Now’s the time to add any “optional ingredients.”

    Egg yolks beaten with marscapone, sugar, and a little coffee.

  3. Fold egg whites with egg yolk mixture.

    Fold egg whites with egg yolk mixture.

Layering into a pan (you’ll be making 2 layers)

Layer #1

  1. One at a time, dip 12 of the ladyfingers into the coffee liquid and use them to line the bottom of the pan. It’ll take a little practice to figure out how long to let the cookies soak. Too little, and they’ll stay stiff. Too much, and they’ll dissolve. Either way, though, it’ll still be tasty.

    A lady finger being dipped into coffee.

  2. Top the cookies with half of the pudding.

    The 1st layer of cookies covered with half of the pudding.

  3. Finish the first layer by sprinkling half of the chunked chocolate over it. Now it’s time to do everything the same for the second layer.

    Finishing the first layer by sprinkling half of the chunked chocolate over it. Now it's time to do everything the same for the second layer.

Layer #2

  1. Same as above, dunk another twelve cookies in coffee and stack them over the first layer, all in the same direction as the first bunch.

    Dunking the rest of the cookies in coffee, then layering them in the same direction as the previous ones.

  2. Fold any loose sugar from the cookies into the remaining pudding, then spread everything on top.

    Covering the second layer with the remaining pudding.

  3. Complete the second layer with what’s left of the chunked chocolate. Dust with cacao powder, then cover and refrigerate at least four hours (longer is better).The second layer for the tiramisu completed with what's left of the chunked chocolate, and dusted with cacao powder, then chilled for at least 4 hours.

Serving it…

Once it has been refrigerated for at least four hours, cut it into squares — It serves 9 to 12 lucky people. If there’s any of the yummy liquid at the bottom of the pan, spoon it over pieces. Keep any leftovers refrigerated and eat them within three days. Tiramisu, once it’s set in the fridge, freezes wonderfully and is also delicious served frozen or thawed!

Tiramisu makes any day a holiday!
Tiramisu makes any day a holiday!

Does a food or special recipe remind you of a loved one?