A Comic-Con footnote

Outside Comi-Con 2014, San Diego Convention Center. I was standing outside the convention center for Comic-Con 2014 on Saturday -- it was hot and noisy, and waiting for the traffic signal to change was even more unpleasant because of the Christian evangelicals positioned at various crosswalks.

As we waited to cross the street, they blasted our ears with their mini-speakers. All of us, they announced, were headed to H-E-double hockey sticks if we didn't accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. A fiery punishment awaits  all unbelievers.

Unbelievers, at Comic-Con? I thought. Really?

There was plenty of belief on display inside and outside the venue. I didn't dress up, but tons of people did: I saw witches and scarlet witches; zombies, vampires, and angels with elaborate, feathery wings; gladiators, King Arthurs, and Game of Thrones characters; manga girls and X-boys, and, of course, your traditional superheroes, too.


comic con attendees


It reminded me of something that Robertson Davies wrote in his essay "The Novelist and Magic" :

The people I pitied, without despising them, were [those] innumerable fellow-citizens who have no focus for their faith, but in whom the roots of faith are still alive, and who seek hungrily and foolishly for something to do with the power they feel, but do not -- even in the vaguest and most superstitious sense -- understand.

That's what I saw all around me: a hunger for something. Comic books and superheroes have always tapped into the roots of religious faith. They ask you to believe in things unseen, like time-travel portals and invisible space ships, or mysterious loners with the power to change the world.

If you saw the movie Man of Steel, you may recall that some of the dialogue describing Kal-el's purpose has a strong biblical ring to it. I can't tell you the exact lines, but there are several moments when Superman's purpose on earth is described in explicitly messianic terms ... the hero sent from the heavens who can save the world even though he's rejected and feared.

man of steel movie poster

So, when those preachers said the attendees didn't believe in anything, they were wrong. The capacity for belief was everywhere, even if it was being invested in looking like Iron Man or the Hulk instead of what they were talking about.

If they'd been a little less scolding, if they'd taken a more interesting route -- like, for instance, describing Jesus as "the Bible's ultimate superhero" -- that sort of humor might have won them some listeners.

Instead, we were all just waiting for the traffic signal to change.


Wondercon and my 401(k): at Call of the Siren

Mystic moments: Taliban poetry and more

sunlight-cloudsWhat's the purpose of poetry? A news story made me think about that question again. It also made me take a fairly recent book down from my shelf that I haven't looked at in a while, Poetry of the Taliban, edited by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (Columbia University Press). The Times of India reported that a university in Kerala pulled a poem from a class syllabus that had been written by an Arabic poet who's a former Guantanamo Bay detainee with alleged links to al Qaeda. The poet, Ibrahim al-Rubaish, composed the poem, "Song from Guantanamo" (for more information on this poem and the poet, see the two links at the end of this post) and it's included in an anthology that's a part of that college course in Kerala.

What I wanted to know, obviously, was what the poem said: What was behind the university administrators' decision? What had disturbed them?

The news article doesn't quote from the poem, but it does include an interesting point about the reasons behind the decision to pull the poem:

The Dean's report, without commenting on the literary quality of the poem, said it would be against moral values to prescribe a poem penned by a person who is said to have terrorist links, the sources said.

It sounds like the decision was based more on  the poet's alleged associations than on a specific message in the poem. (I'm sure there are plenty of people more familiar with this news story than me, and if you're reading this post, I'd welcome your comments and clarifications!) When you read the poem itself in the links at the bottom of this post, you'll probably conclude the same thing.

That brings me to the Linschoten/Kuehn book. It isn't about this situation, but it still seems relevant for this discussion, and that's why I wanted to share it with you.

Before I left my last job, that book arrived at the Times editorial offices and I kept it. Its title intrigued me. What did the poems say to their audience? I expected 200-plus pages of verse attacks on the West. There are certainly fierce, rallying cries like these lines from "Blood Debt":

Today, I write history on my enemy's chest with my sword, I draw yesterday's memories on today's chest once more.

But I also found other poems of intense spirituality with no hint of any political or military context:

I have opened my mouth in prayer, You have brought down your blessings In order to make my body blessed, To have the problems resolved. The spot on my heart makes a candle like the sun...

A preface to the book declares that "it is no exaggeration to say that in the ever-increasing archive of studies on the Taliban only a miniscule number have attended to the movement's aesthetic dimension..." Linschoten and Kuehn have certainly addressed the need for this kind of aesthetic study with their invaluable book.

But I also think their book not only helps us to understand the poems they've collected -- composed in the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 world -- but also situations in the world like the one involving the university in Kerala. The editors (and the translators of the Taliban book) have provided us with a deeper level of knowledge that can only help the world community -- and our common future. With that in mind,why not keep the poem in the Kerala syllabus and accompany it with context? The stakes remain the same, don't they?

My friends, I welcome your comments.

Books of death: new in bookstores

balloonist When Julian Barnes writes about losing his wife to a brain tumor, he writes instead about the adventures of 18th and 19th century balloonists. It makes for the most unusual kind of memoir -- and it highlights how truly difficult it is to express what we're feeling when one of our loved ones dies.

The loss goes deeper than any words can reach, and that may be why Barnes turns to the early history of ballooning in his forthcoming book "Levels of Life" (Alfred A. Knopf). He's able to speak of the harrowing experience of losing his wife, Pat Kavanagh, only in terms of something else.

Joyce Carol Oates recently weighed in on the U.K. edition of the book in the TLS. She called its approach and perspective "unorthodox" -- but she means it as a compliment. I can't help but agree. Most memoirs of death and dying sound the same. I think we've all lost loved ones, right? If it's a loss from illness, there's an existential formula you just can't escape: symptoms, diagnosis, terror and treatment, slight improvement and hope, sudden decline, death. Grief. Every book about such a loss can't help but sound the same. The Illness Industry is mercilessly efficient.

I think that's why Barnes has recorded his own sorrow in such an "unorthodox" vehicle. He avoids the formula. His love for his wife, and the meaning of her loss, deserve more than the typical formula. His pain is still there, between the lines, hovering at the margins. He doesn't directly confront it for many pages. Still, as we read about the excitement and perils of hot-air ballooning in the pages that precede, we can feel his grief indirectly in passages like this one:

In August 1786 -- ballooning's infancy -- a young man dropped to his death in Newcastle from a height of several hundred feet. He was one of those who held the balloon's restraining ropes; when a gust of wind suddenly shifted the airbag, his companions let go, while he held on and was borne upwards. Then he fell back to earth. As one modern historian puts it: 'The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out on to the ground.'

I'll risk saying it -- isn't that how you feel when someone you love dies? Like you've been ripped off your feet and driven into the ground? If it were just a book about ballooning's history, I'd call this a colorful anecdote. In a book about losing his wife, it means so much more. This is also Barnes at his best. Something to pre-order at your neighborhood bookstore for your fall reading.

Also this season...

endings happierYou can tell from the title that Erica Brown's "Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death" (Simon and Schuster) isn't coming from the same personal sense of loss as Barnes' book. Instead, what Brown gives us is an excellent overview, a little in the Mary Roach vein, of death and dying in the contemporary world. Bucket lists, ethical wills, cremation or kafn, last words, final forgiveness, suicide and survivors -- it's all here. A scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Brown capably navigates a myriad number of topics and issues connected with the Great Beyond. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Brown marshals a compelling amount of information to illuminate an often gloomy subject. Hence her book's title. The fact is, she reports, "the grim reaper is not always grim."

bright abyss coverChristian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is about what Wiman, a published poet, thought about after being diagnosed with cancer. His book assembles several essay meditations, full of poetic allusions and excerpts from world literature, on his struggle to understand his faith in the face of his mortality. What he realizes is that faith, true religious faith, is something different from what's taught in church on Sundays. It's "tenuous, precarious," he says. "The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility."

The zen of sleep: new in bookstores

Zzzzzzzzz: Joseph Emet applies Buddhist principles where we need them the most. Every day, we're at war. The mind has plans, the body has different plans. The time when we're most aware of this war is when we climb in bed at night.

Buddhist practices are applied to just about everything in a flood of new books--and is that a good thing? I'm not always sure. I worry that too many Zen-is-the-answer books will dilute the beautiful appeal of Buddhism.

On the other hand, one book that I do recommend, in spite of its self-helpish-sounding title, is "Buddha's Book of Sleep: Sleep Better in Seven Weeks with Mindfulness Meditation" by Joseph Emet (Tarcher/Penguin). This is a book we'd all benefit from reading (and it's short -- about 142 pages).

In case you don't agree, start keeping a tally of TV commercials for Ambien, Tylenol PM, etc. That might change your mind.

Emet's focus is simple. He offers breathing exercises and meditation techniques; he also provides some insights (but never lectures) about the human condition. Take, for example, the following:

"The mindfulness mantra 'Be here now' is as appropriate as a practice theme at night as it is during the daytime. It is our thoughts that keep us awake. When we are in the past or in the future, we are in our thoughts. When we are here now, we are in our senses."

So, the point is "to be in the now" when you shut your eyes -- not review the day's events or worry about a big presentation tomorrow.

"The mind is constantly taking over from the five senses. That's how we end up being mentally somewhere else. The mind is like the bully in the playground: evolution gave us this bully. Our large and powerful brain has many advantages, but it also has a downside. The bully body checks the five senses, it takes over, and before we know it, we are in the past regretting something, or reliving some experience that happened five years ago. We might also be in the future imagining things, worrying about what might happen, or daydreaming about a pleasant possibility."

I've never thought of my mind as "the bully" before, have you?

Emet's book isn't an intensive exploration of Buddhist practices: If you want something more rigorous, you should go elsewhere. On the other hand, he's trained with Thich Nhat Hanh in France and is the founder of a mindfulness center in Canada. Very respectable.

That's why I suggest his book as  -- ah, forgive me for this pun -- ideal reading for your bedside table.

Namaste, beloved friends.

Big expectations are a two-edged sword, er, wood chisel

Edge of a chisel blade, detail. Well, the Siren hasn't been calling over the past few days -- too much playing catch-up with tasks and goals for the new year.

I'm sure that plenty of you can relate to that (although you have been far more faithful to your blogs than I, my dear friends).

Yesterday, in the middle of a hectic day, I dropped everything and turned to David Esterly's book for some mental relief. I wrote about Esterly in my last post -- he's a carver who tackled some daunting restoration work and wrote about it in his lyrical semi-memoir "The Lost Carving."

I just needed a mental palate-cleanser, and this passage did the trick for me:

Now when I break something the wood is usually sending a different message: the problem here, it's saying, isn't your technique but your design. The composition you've drawn asks too much of wood, no matter how adept you may be with a chisel. You've persuaded yourself that a spray of leaves has to arch across the grain just so, because it answers to that other spray over there, or because it adds richness to effect, or simply because it's beautiful; but an aesthetic triumph can't change the temperament of wood. When writers use similar arguments to justify an unneeded beautiful sentence, editors famously tell them to "kill their darlings." If you're a carver, the wood sometimes kills your darlings for you.

The grace of such writing is its metaphysical quality. Sure, it's about a woodcarver's experience, but the lessons he's learned can apply to any of us.

There's a temperament to more than just limewood: This realization comes easily when you're in the midst of filling out a to-do list (as yours truly has discovered).

So, as you're planning out a busy 2013, and piling the work on your plate, just remember: Be reasonable.

That's my advice to you, my readers. Take it easy on yourself.