Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange

Dr. Strange

Now this should be fun! Benedict Cumberbatch stars in what’s being promoted as the most “mystical, magical Marvel movie ever.”

Dr. Strange was one of the lesser-known of the Marvel comics heroes, but as a kid, I bought many Strange Tales, which featured the “master of the mystic arts.” The character blended the superhero genre with Western and Eastern mysticism. Through high school and college, I found Dr. Strange as fascinating and surprising as Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, and maybe a little more accessible.

The spells Strange cast opened doors to alternate universes whirling with unknown worlds, mind-bending vistas, non-Euclidean structures, and beings that looked like they’d sprung from Picasso’s nightmares. And like James Bond, the good doctor often duked it out at Euclidean, but exotic venues. Stonehenge was the site of one spell-casting shoot out with an evil sorcerer. Loved it! No doubt many Boomers intrigued by the psychedelia that energized the worlds of Dr. Strange can’t wait for a nostalgic return. I know I can’t.

And no matter what other characters he plays, none will have a name as cool as “Benedict Cumberbatch.”

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Winter Solstice in Ancient Ireland

Meet Newgrange, an architectural, archaeological, and spiritual wonder of Neolithic Ireland:

Newgrange predates the great pyramids at Giza in Egypt by some 500 years and Stonehenge by about 1,000 years. When it was built, sunrise on the shortest day of the year, what we now call December 21, entered the main chamber precisely at sunrise. Experts say it is not by chance that the sun shines there.

The structure of the passage tomb was buried in earth for many centuries, until archaeologist M.J. O’Kelly began excavating it in 1962. He worked there until 1975. In 1967, he saw for the first time in thousands of years the dawn sunlight striking into the chamber on December 21. The light enters a perfectly placed window and hits deep in the tomb where the human remains were found.

O’Kelly wrote in his notes: “The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and casts a glow of light all over the chamber. I can see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back into the back of the end chamber.”

One thing the ancients had that we have in such short supply was a sense of connectedness, an emotional bond with our fellows and the great yonder. Imagine the thrill the ancient Irish felt when that beam of sunlight shot through the window into the main chamber where the remains of their dead resided. In that moment, the Irish worshipers felt powerfully linked to both the distant sun and long lost ancestors. The Winter Solstice sunrise merged the believer, time, and space.

That’s even more exciting than a Playstation for Christmas …

The Name of the Whatever

Philosopher Stone

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Selecting a character’s name is the first step in making that character come alive. Of course, no one has done a better job than Charles Dickens, who gave the world Uriah Heep, Polly Toodle, Wilkins Micawber, and, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge.

This article on iconicity, the harmony of a symbol (word) and its meaning, suggests that evocative naming is the key to understanding the world around us:

The oldest documented discussion about iconicity and its role in constructing words is the Cratylus dialogue of Plato 1997. In the dialogue, Socrates is asked whether names belong to their objects “naturally” or “conventionally.” Though Socrates admits that convention and usage play a role in the creation of names, he confesses that he prefers the view “that names should be as much like things as possible” (pp. 433–435).

So of course the character’s name is essential to understanding that character. That’s one of the key elements I focus on when outlining a new story. I felt good about the name Jon Barrett in Aztec Midnight, and with Cam Taylor in Cameron Obscura.

I’ve always been fascinated with word play, especially with people’s names. In college, the Resident Assistant of our dorm hall was Curtis T—–. His job was to monitor our behavior, which included making sure no young ladies were still in our rooms after 1:00 AM, a job he seemed to enjoy a little too much. I gave him a name that stuck until he graduated, even though he quit being an RA his sophomore year: Curtis Interruptus, a nickname we pronounced with a Bronx accent.

Terrorism, Hope, and Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge

I can’t help but think of what Christmas will be like for the 14 families who lost loved ones in the San Bernardino massacre last week, or for the families of the three who were gunned down at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facilities last month.

Even for those of us who were not immediately affected, there is still that haunting reminder of the needless suffering we, as humans, inflict on each other.

And yet — and yet — we should not let ourselves give in to despair. Tempted as we may be to concede that evil appears entrenched in the human heart, we cannot surrender our hope that there is a spark of good in everyone, a spark worth noticing and perhaps even cultivating as best we can. As hard as it is to imagine, I believe the shooters in both tragedies thought they acted for worthy reasons.

Robert Dear, Jr., the Colorado Springs killer, ranted in court, “I’m guilty. There’s no trial. I’m a warrior for the babies.” Twisted? Yes. Egomaniacal? No doubt. But even this murderer believed he was protecting the innocent and helpless.

As for Farook and Malik, we can only speculate that they considered themselves warriors for their faith. Nevertheless, whatever was churning through their minds when they abandoned their six-month-old baby and drove to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health with two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles and pipe bombs, their actions certainly warranted the swift and decisive response the SWAT team meted out.

That said, we cannot ignore the powerful forces that work on terrorists such as Dear, Malik, and Farook. Modern alienation devastates the isolated individual, and many dedicate themselves to what appears as a last, desperate effort to accomplish something significant and worthwhile. In his article, The Psychological Sources of Islamic Terrorism, Dr. Michael J. Mazarr of Georgetown University writes:

Mass technological life tranquilizes people, drains us of our authenticity, of our will and strength to live a fully realized life. The result of this process is alienation, frustration, and anger. A few themes stand out from this broad concept.

One has to do with the burdens of freedom and choice. By breaking the chains of tradition and conformity, modern life offers a bewildering, paralyzing degree of choice about everything from career paths to marriage partners to fashion. When you can potentially be anything, the existentialists worry, you may in fact be nothing — and have no identity at all.

Alienation from tradition and from others is not freedom, but a curse. In our frantic pursuit of material gain, we lose sight of life’s true purpose. No one has better enunciated the antidote than the protagonist of A Christmas Carol, that classic fantasy tale of Christmas. After the three spirits teach him what Christmas means, Ebenezer Scrooge makes his famous vow:

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” ― Charles Dickens, from his novella A Christmas Carol

Stubbornly seeking the spark of good that’s buried even in the heart of old Ebenezer Scrooge gives us hope, real hope, because very often we do indeed find that spark if we simply open our eyes to it. That insight into human nature makes for better fiction, too. The best literature can be a means to form and strengthen social ties because it helps us appreciate the hidden feelings of others. In my novella Aztec Midnight, the protagonist, Jon Barrett, must find and deliver an ancient Aztec relic to men who have kidnapped his wife. However, a local militia stands in his way — not because its members are evil, but because the relic will empower the drug cartels that terrorize them. Jon Barrett’s dilemma is one we can all appreciate.

Want to help make Christmas the season of hope it was meant to be? You can start by reading a good book. Or better yet – by giving one.

Balancing Creativity and Mental Illness

Medb

Where do writers get their ideas? Some say they spring from fevered minds. Those folks may have a point. There’s now scientific support for that view. From NewsMax:

Nancy Andreasen, a psychiatrist at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, studied writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and found that 80 percent suffered from depression, mania, or hypomania — compared to only 30 percent of non-writers.

Creative people tend to have adventuresome personalities and are likely to take risks. The high rate of mental illness in highly creative people could also be explained by a genetic predisposition to both creativity and madness.

Creativity involves combining new ideas in ways others have not considered. Sometimes when a person’s ideas seem too far off the norm, he or she doesn’t make sense and may seem mentally ill.

Hmm. A few names come to mind. Philip K. Dick. Robert E. Howard. Sylvia Plath. Troubled individuals all. And all talented writers.

But once again, science is just now discovering what astute observers have known for centuries. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Theseus scoops Dr. Andreasen by some 400 years:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Queen Hippolyta agrees with Theseus, adding that the “strange and admirable” often thrives within the grey and shifting border between madness and craft. I’d add that imagination is just part of what makes all art possible; it’s a skill — something that can be learned and honed — to make “airy nothing” into something concrete the reader can experience.