We Should Have Stayed in That Cave

[[very mild spoilers season 1 and season 4]]

After much procrastination I finally am watching Game of Thrones. I tried watching the first episode way back when. I thought it was stupid and boring. Too many plot lines, too many characters, the costumes silly. I couldn’t keep anyone straight. So many dark haired men in leather armor! So many women in bad wigs and sumptuous gowns! Borrring.

Then my husband announced we have a temporarily free subscription to HBO, and with it HBO GO via roku. HBO! They have a lot of good documentaries! And indeed I watched a few, including one about a veterans’ suicide prevention helpline. Did you know a US military veteran or active serviceman kills himself at the rate of roughly one man per hour, every day? That’s more fatalities than the recent wars put together. Anyway it was very well done, very sad, but too short. I hate short documentaries. They always make me feel cheated.

But there is no dearth of Game of Thrones. Since I never watched it before I theoretically had six seasons to plow through. It was so stupid last time you watched it (I said to myself)! But maybe you would like it this time around (I also said to myself). After much inner deliberation I pressed PLAY.

I still thought that first episode was stupid, however, Tyrion (the amazing Peter Dinklage) snagged me in his dialogue with Jon Snow. All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes. Such nuance, gravitas and wry humor in one man! Peter Dinklage, as they say in The Station Agent, is THE MAN! So I kept watching.

I still thought it was silly, perverted, way too violent. Could you please spare me yet another chopped off head? SO much sex. Gay sex, hooker sex, sadist sex, incest sex, underaged sex, interracial sex, rape after rape. I’m no feminist but I shudder to think how women would fare if George RR Martin ruled the world.

Yet… somewhere mid season one I was hooked. It wasn’t just about Dinklage anymore. I was asking my son (a rabid GOT fan) questions. How did Tyrion meet Ser Bronn? Why exactly did Daenyrus kill the black guy? I was in tears over the kidnapped baby dragons, and further along wept as Jon Snow cradled a dying Ygritte in his arms. We should have stayed in that cave Jon Snow

So would I recommend this series to my gentle readers? Uh, not sure. It ain’t exactly family programming, though apparently every family on the planet has watched it. It is a brilliant story, or rather a series of brilliant stories within other brilliant stories, the characters are beautifully villainous and multifaceted, but somehow I’m left with the same feeling as having eaten a sicky sweet, overly rich slice of cake when the credits roll. Gird yer stomachs men, and forward march!

Birds i’ th’ Cage

As I lay in bed last night thinking about my lovebirds (stage left), I realized what they reminded me of: my favorite quote from King Lear, when Lear and his daughter are set for execution, and Lear delivers the following speech in an effort to comfort her.

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.
*
cordelia
*

Advice for Writers

My husband has worked on the business side of publishing for many years; after years of overhearing his work conversations, I believe I’m semi-qualified to offer the following advice to aspiring writers.  Some of this advice applies to artists/ illustrators as well (especially #2). However, allow me to point out the proviso that I am neither a publisher, nor a writer, myself (unless message boards count).

1) NEVER tell a publisher you have a “magnus opus” or a “huge” body of work to show them. They’ll assume you’re nuts and not worth dealing with.  If you do have a magnus opus, extract the best chapters or storylines and submit those (but don’t reveal it’s part of a magnus opus, until if and when they show sincere interest!).

2) If you’re over the age of 28-30ish, and are truly talented, but your success has been hampered by alcohol or drug abuse, be prepared to fake a credible cover story as to why you have not achieved success (make up a fake illness, a non-dramatic crisis, you were busy raising children, etc.).  If a publisher sees very high quality writing or art cross their desk, yet the person is 30+ and unknown, they will immediately assume that person has a substance abuse problem and thus is not worth dealing with.  This is especially critical if you’re looking for work that involves deadlines.

3) Write commercially and track trends.  If vampires are popular, write a vampire story.  If talking pigs are popular, write a talking pig story.  Watch bestseller lists and browse bookstores, paying close attention to the display tables. Publishers pay $10,000 per spot on those flat tables at Barnes and Noble, so you can assume any books placed in the premium spots are trending and worth imitating.

4) Look for ghost writing or anonymous writing opportunities.  Oftentimes publishers will “reverse write” a book, where they come up with the idea, then hire an unknown writer to churn it out. This is less glamorous than publishing your own idea, but it will pay, and afford you some resume-worthy writing experience.  It might even behoove you to send writing samples to editors with a cover letter stating you’re looking for ghost writing opportunities, and you’d be happy to write any ideas that might be in development.  Keep in mind that if the book is a hit, the title to the intellectual properties is still held by the publisher, so you will see little, if any, profit.

5) Submit to smaller publishers; they’ll be less likely to blow you off.  The larger publishers have so much volume crossing their desks that it’s easy to be lost in the avalanche.  If you’re an extrovert, don’t be afraid to cold call editors after you’ve submitted work– but don’t be annoying about it.

6) Be open to different formats and artforms.  Don’t overlook comic books; a comic book script is short, and if high quality can attract the attention of a comic book publisher.  Even if your script isn’t made into a book, you might be tapped for a future project.  Try your hand at screenplays, fiction, nonfiction, and so on.  If you typically write for young adults, try writing for adults.  Try your hand at a self help or instructional book.  Don’t lock yourself into any single format or genre of writing.

7) Be wary of length (see #1).  Anything over 200-300 pages will raise eyebrows.  Most readers don’t want huge volumes anyway (Harry Potter notwithstanding).

8) In general, avoid looking weird and unstable when approaching a publisher.  If you are weird and unstable, do your best to tone it down.  Dress conservatively and don’t say anything ridiculous.

9) Ride coattails and write parody.  Keep an eye on what movies are in production, that will hit movie theaters years from now, and write a similar story and shop it around with a note that the related X movie will be coming out.  Parodies can include character names and plotlines without violating copyright laws, which allows you to feed off the name recognition of the original property.

10) Write for pre-existing captive audiences.  Sci-fi, vampires, and evangelical christianity are good examples of this: built-in audiences that so love the genre or topic, that they will gladly give an unknown a try.  This is especially good if you’re self publishing online.

11) Write erotica for women.  Erotica sales have skyrocketed ever since the introduction of e-readers.  Women can now buy soft porn without embarrassment, and the numbers indicate they’re gobbling it up.

12) Write romance for women.  Romance is the #1 selling genre in the United States (if not worldwide?), and the majority of the romance readers are women.  Women, in general, buy more books than do men.

13) If all else fails, self-publish electronically, but be careful about disclosing your self-publishing past to a real publisher, who tend to see self-publishers as losers.  The exception to this is if a self-published author has managed to attract a large fan base; then a publishing house will be happy to work with him or her.

14) For cold submissions, try something outrageous (but not offensive) that might catch the publisher’s eye.  Publishers tend to see a lot of the same stuff, so if you can produce something unique, bizarre, yet high quality, it might receive more eyeball time than the typical fare.

15) Don’t despair when you read about publishing going the way of the dodo.  While the internet has demolished paper journalism, book sales are still thriving, and if anything, are simply being augmented by ebooks (which, of course, is still a form of being published!). Remember, people thought VHS would mean the end of movie theaters, but people go to the theater more than ever, in addition to buying, renting, and streaming films.  It’s your job to keep an eye on the kind of books that are selling: 50 Shades of Gray, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid have sold untold millions of print and electronic copies, and have made their authors fabulously wealthy.

The Swoon Hypothesis

The Swoon Hypothesis is an interesting, if controversial, theory that Jesus did not in fact die on the cross, but was rendered unconscious either by natural means (the stress of his wounds and dehydration) or by drugs administered while on the cross. Shortly after losing consciousness, the theory goes, he was removed from the cross by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, who treated his wounds and tended to his needs.

A dispassionate reading of the texts lends some credence to this unusual theory. First and foremost, it is clear that Pontius Pilate sides with Jesus against the priests and repeatedly cajoles him to answer the interrogation in a manner that might quell their wrath. Pilate also recognizes Jesus as a legitimate king, refusing to change the placard reading, “King of the Jews” to “He claimed to be King of the Jews,” at the chief priest’s request.

We also know that while on the cross, Jesus was administered medicated vinegar via a sponge. The gospel states this was vinegar infused with hyssop. If Jesus was indeed administered a drug at any point to render him unconscious, this would have been an opportune moment. Indeed, it is immediately after ingesting this vinegar that he loses consciousness, and apparently dies.

The Jews, at this point, ask that the legs of the crucified prisoners be broken to hasten their death, but seeing Jesus already dead, the centurions spare his legs. Famously, at this point, a Roman soldier spears his side and “blood and water” pour from the wound.

spear

Again, following the swoon theory, this would make sense. If Pilate himself were protecting Jesus, the soldiers might have been under order to spear Jesus non-lethally, and then, possibly, to spear a concealed container or bladder of water to make it look like he bled out. At this point, Joseph of Arimathaea– who, significantly, had spoken to Pilate directly about removing Jesus’ body– and Nicodemus (most likely Nicodemus ben Gorion, one of the richest men in Jerusalem) arrive on the scene, carrying linen, aloe, and myrrh.  As is well known even today, aloe is an herb used to treat wounds, as is myrrh. Linen, of course, could be used to bandage wounds. Joseph quickly secrets Jesus’ body out of sight. This all happens on a Friday evening.

By Sunday Jesus is discovered, alive, by his disciples, and he continues to spend time with them and teach.

My impression is that most proponents of the swoon hypothesis put forth these ideas to somehow prove that Jesus was a charlatan or deceiver. But isn’t it just as plausible that the events of this theory unfolded– if they did indeed unfold in this manner– to save the life of a great teacher, much like Yochanan ben Zakkai faked his own death, and was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin, only to later establish a Torah academy under the auspices of the Vespian? We are told that Jesus went on to accomplish so much after his resurrection that “if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written.”

So we can conclude the following, even if the swoon hypothesis is true.

1) This was not necessarily the act of a charlatan and was necessary to save his life. Even if Pilate had released him, the sanhedrin would have eventually found a way to kill him.

2) Jesus still suffered devastating physical injuries– Thomas touches both the wounds in his hands and side after his resurrection.

3) It would still be nothing short of miraculous to survive torture and crucifixion under these circumstances.

4) Technically speaking, Jesus still would have “risen from the dead.”

The swoon hypothesis adds the interesting ripple of a sympathetic Pilate who, possibly in collusion with his soldiers, protects Jesus’ life. It’s also possible that Jesus’ supporters, including Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, acted alone, though the text points to cooperation with Pilate.

This theory begs the obvious question: if a drug was administered to feign death, what drug was used? Pufferfish poison (tetraodontidae) is one drug that can cause people to appear dead. I once watched a documentary where a man described being in a morgue after accidentally ingesting pufferfish poison; he’d been declared dead yet was conscious and fully aware of his surroundings, all while completely paralyzed. I have no idea if this chemical would have been available or even known in ancient Palestine. He also could have been administered an opiate; sponges soaked with opium were used as a crude anesthesia during ancient surgery.

sponge

Note the sponge over the mouth.

Remember, Jesus is administered the infused vinegar via a sponge.

Faith and analytics don’t always operate hand in hand. So while I might have faith that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, analytically I see pointers in the text indicating something different may have transpired. Does this necessarily tarnish the legacy of Jesus?  In the cheesy, if action packed, “DaVinci Code” film, Professor Langdon and Sophie speculate about the implications of a “human” Jesus who might have had children; would this crush people’s faith, or enforce it? They conclude that a humanized Jesus would, if anything, draw people closer to faith, despite what religious authorities might have us believe.  And of course, in reading about these theories, you’re not obligated to believe any of it; it’s an interesting mental investigation, if nothing else.

resurrection

 “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Mythos

My husband had his first mention in The Hollywood Reporter yesterday. This isn’t exactly Steven Spielberg Hollywood we’re talking about– more like “Hitler Zombie IV” Hollywood, but still, Hollywood! This was a long time coming: he’s been working in comic books since he was twelve years old– we have pictures of him at scifi conventions in Manhattan, surrounded by talent many times his age, all looking down on him (he was short) with great deference. He would rent tables at these conventions and hire talent to sign books and sketches, taking a cut from each sale. How he got these guys to work for a twelve year old is a little puzzling, and why the artists didn’t just band together and rent their own tables is even more puzzling, but in sixteen years of eavesdropping on his work conversations, I don’t get the impression artists are the most organized bunch.

He’s explained to me that back in the day (late 1970s to early 1980s), scifi conventions were not the star studded events they are today. It was just a bunch of nerds wandering around fold up tables in shabby rented rooms. Church basements were a common venue.

Fast forward to today and you have events like the ongoing San Diego Comic Con, or the NYC Comic Con at the Javits Center, which draw throngs of stormtroopers, celebrities, nerds and scantily dressed women into rooms so packed there’s barely room to breathe. Comic books weren’t cool back when my husband first started, and I’d argue they aren’t cool today and are still considered nerd fodder. But their intellectual properties are beloved the world over, having yielded box office phenoms like Spiderman, Iron Man, X-men, and so on.

My husband speaks eloquently on this issue. He explains comic books– or rather, their characters and stories– are the mythos of our age, much like the Odyssey was the cultural pulse of ancient Greece, or the Jesus story the saga of Roman occupied Palestine. He likens Superman to Jesus, though I think Moses might be a better comparison. I believe the bad guy in “Unbreakable” soliloquizes on this topic, comparing comic books to Egyptian hieroglyphics, though my husband’s take is that storytelling is one of the deepest aspects of our humanity. After all, animals don’t tell stories, though they do communicate. But unlike prose, comic books maintain the ancient art of storytelling through pictures, which would go back much further than ancient Egypt, back 25,000 years or more to the swirling cave paintings of Chauvet and forward in time to the great European Cathedrals depicting Bible stories in reliefs and stained glass.

So in that respect, comic books have always struck me as more “raw” than a novel or film, because they promulgate the timeworn genre of static visual storytelling. And judging from the massive response the world has had to comic book movies, the archetypes they depict are something ingrained in us all, or, if I can borrow a phrase from scripture, something written on our hearts.

Swiss Family Robinson: Not PC

I’m a sucker for survivalist stories (like “Adrift“), and I’m also a sucker for happy family stories (like “Little House on the Prairie”). So how I’ve gone nearly 40 years of existence (that’s 3,000 in bunny years) not having read “The Swiss Family Robinson” is quite simply beyond me.  The warlord bequeathed his unread copy upon my oldest daughter on her 8th grade graduation. Unread, because I don’t think anyone in her class bothers to read anything (except my daughter, who is a prolific reader).

I’m a hundred or so pages into the tale, and I must say this is a very un-PC piece of literature.  So un-PC that I’m surprised it ever made it onto a schoolroom shelf (but then again, we are talking about the warlord here). Mr. and Mrs. Robinson give their kids wine to drink, make them tote guns, make them pray, and, they refer to indigenous people as “savages” and black people as “negroes.”  They also let their two guard dogs attack whatever, whenever, eventually fashioning spiked collars for them, to protect their necks while they’re busy mauling local wildlife.  If I may quote Mrs. Robinson:

“As I looked at my two young sons, each with his gun, and considered how much the safety of the party depended on these little fellows, I felt grateful to you, dear husband, for having acquainted them in childhood with the use of firearms.”

I dunno… sounds to me like Mrs. Robinson is bitterly clinging to her guns and religion.

Yellow Bird

I made quite the find last night: the entire text, online and free, of the 500+ page Henry Schoolcraft treatise on American Indians, published in 1851.  Far from being dry, I have found books from this era, on this subject, to be quite readable, informative, and spellbinding.  When I found Fanny Kelly’s captivity narrative I quite literally could not stop reading, and read the entire volume over two days.  Mary Rowlandson’s narrative is equally fascinating, though readers should be forewarned that both volumes contain some graphic descriptions of horrific and heartbreaking violence.  I haven’t read enough of Schoolcraft’s book yet to give it a violence rating, but so far it is more adventure tale than harrowing survival story.

I’m sure you have all heard that during the pioneer days, the Native Americans would use every last bit of buffalo they killed while the whites would just take small pieces and wastefully leave the remaining carcass to rot.  As it turns out the Native Americans did this too; in Kelly’s book she describes slaughter-like attacks on buffalo by the Sioux, and instead of carefully curing and preserving every last inch of the animal (as we’ve always been told the American Indians did) they would instead just take whatever piece of meat suited them for the moment, then abandon the kill.

After watching “Into the Wild” about the true story of Christopher McCandless, I think I understand why both the whites and American Indians did this.  In one particularly poignant scene, McCandless, who by this point is bordering on starvation, manages to shoot and kill a moose.  He immediately sets to work trying to slaughter and preserve the whole animal, understanding he is in a race against time before the meat goes rancid from maggot infestation.  Well, he fails– the flies win– and he ultimately loses the entire animal and all its potential food.  It would have made more sense to simply slice off sizable but easy to butcher pieces of meat, and cook them immediately, abandoning the rest of the animal.  I would hate to think these legends of whites wasting hunted buffalo had any mental impact on him.  We will probably never know.

But I’m sure both the Sioux and the whites understood the nature and dangers of fresh meat, and without immediate access to curing or cooking the entire beast, they removed what could be safely consumed for that meal, and abandoned the rest.

Another striking facet that rises from both Kelly’s captivity narrative and Schoolcraft’s work are the number of interracial marriages between white men– usually soldiers or hunters– and Native American women.  Kelly describes the Sioux women becoming “fort wives” to the white soldiers, and the women would return, in secret, to the tribe, when and if the white wives ever joined their husband at his station.  The Sioux recognized these marriages as legitimate, but the biracial children often suffered bullying and ostracism if they ever did rejoin the tribe.  Kelly is even “given” one biracial girl named Yellow Bird, to replace her daughter who had been scalped and killed in the raid that led to her captivity. Kelly describes the biracial children as physically weak, and unable to keep up with their full blooded Sioux peers.  Perhaps this is because the fort wives did not practice the habit of infanticide of sickly infants, as Kelly describes the Sioux performing, as a sort of rudimentary eugenics.

Schoolcraft himself was married to a biracial woman, and only one chapter into his book he encounters a white hunter married to a Native American woman.  Given that these events all take place in the early to mid 1800s, it surprised me that white men would be so open to interracial marriages (and not just sex) with Native American women over other races.  I don’t know exact numbers but I believe the rate of interracial marriage between whites and blacks was near non-existent at this point in history, though sex, and rape, did take place between the two groups, resulting in biracial children who often suffered a similar ostracism.

Anyway, if you like reading about history or survivalism, I recommend all three of these online texts for your predilection.

SiouxDelegation1870

Some members of the 1870 Sioux Delegation.

Bruchko

Last I night I reread “Bruchko,” an autobiographical account of a missionary from Minnesota, who decides he is called by God to help the Amazonian tribes of South America.  He embarks to Columbia with little money, no official missionary sponsorship, and no real knowledge of Spanish or the indigenous Amazonians.  With astonishingly few supplies (his only footwear was a single pair of tennis shoes, for more than a year in the jungle) he eventually finds his way to the Motilone, an indigenous tribe in the Venezuelan Amazon.  The Motilone, at that point (1962), were an uncontacted people, still living as hunter gatherers with stone age technology.  They had killed or seriously wounded a handful of oil engineers, and their first encounter with Olsen nearly leaves him dead.

He endures incredible hardships living among the Motilone, but he eventually gains their trust and forms strong friendships with members of the tribe.  He teaches them about basic sanitation  (the Motilone had no concept of restrooms, and rarely threw out their garbage) and pilfers medical supplies from a Venezuelan doctor working for a petroleum company, which he administers to his new friends with the help of the local witch doctor.  He goes out of his way to remain respectful to their customs and language (but not their religion, which, of course, he seeks to change), and helps set up schools, health centers, and agriculture.  The trend of education has continued to this day, with a number of younger Motilones obtaining university degrees and going into fields like medicine and law.

Regardless of what you think of missionaries, or what your religion or lack thereof might be, “Bruchko” is an incredible tale of survival and dedication.  The dangers Olsen endures are so harrowing, and his path so death defying, that the book is not unlike “Adrift,” and really needs to be made into a movie.

bruce_olson

Mr. Olsen in the jungle.

The Way of the Pilgrim

“The Way of the Pilgrim” is an anonymously written 19th century Russian book that probably would have been relegated to obscurity were it not for the fact that J.D. Salinger mentions it in “Franny and Zooey.” “The Way of the Pilgrim” has far reaching influences in Salinger’s writing. In fact, if I were an academic type (which I’m not) I would write a thesis about how “Catcher in the Rye” is written as a dystopic “Way of the Pilgrim.”

It is not known if the book is autobiographical, or if it is fiction written as autobiography. My impression is that “Pilgrim” is indeed autobiographical; there are clumsy narrative tropes that a fiction writer would not use, even if trying to make something sound autobiographical. As the books proceeds it sometimes sounds more like notes to self, than prose. The overall tone of the narrative is inconsistent, almost as though the writer grew tired of writing at certain points (in that respect, it almost reads like a proto blog). And the many snippets and vignettes of life in rural 19th century Russia are either too bland or too bizarre to be fabricated. The earliest known manuscript was present at Mt. Athos in the 19th century, and in the course of the narrative, the pilgrim encounters a monk from Mt. Athos. It is very possible that when the pilgrim finished his writings, he put them in the hands of this monk (who in the book, is fluent in Russian and Greek).

So what is the book about? It is about interior prayer, which, as you discover in reading this book, is no simple or small achievement. Just like yogis have to study endlessly and tediously to gain their wisdom, so does a pilgrim have study and pray endlessly and tediously to achieve enlightenment. “Enlightenment” here means prayer without ceasing– prayer that continues even in sleep– a sort of Christian nirvana state. At one point the pilgrim recites the Jesus Prayer 6,000 times a day until he achieves a state of “prayer consciousness.” But this is not good enough, and he wanders years (and six more chapters) beyond this point to achieve greater understanding, humility, and perfection in prayer.

The book can get repetitive and abstract but somehow manages to remain interesting. However, the book is so complex and philosophical that I would have to share my meager thoughts and observations on a chapter by chapter basis, which I hope to do in the near future.

Lev Nussimbaum

I am reading an interesting biographical book, “The Orientalist,” about Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish author from the Caucasus, who fled from the Bolsheviks to Germany where he eventually converted to Islam.  Apparently it was fashionable, in intellectual and artistic circles, to convert to Islam during this time period (early 1900s)– much like it is trendy for artists and intellectuals to embrace Buddhism or Hinduism (in the form of yoga and meditation) today.

Nussimbaum may or may not have been the author of the beautiful book, “Ali and Nino: A Love Story,” about a young Muslim man from the Causasus who falls in love with a Christian girl.  The novel paints a stunning and rich historical portrait of life in the pre-Soviet region, where, apparently, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in fairly secular harmony, in a world where the arts and academia were esteemed.  This, of course, is the region of the Kuzari, whose nobility converted to Judaism en masse in the 9th century.  They are considered “wild jews” as they did not convert under Talmudic or rabbinical auspices, though they did later adopt Talmudic study.  In fact, I have read that anyone with a “levite” or “kohen” type surname can credit the Khazar conversion, as it was only their ignorance of halacha that allowed then to adopt these family names.

After the Nazis invaded Austria, Nussimbaum (who used a variety of pseudonyms and aliases, including Mohammad Essad Bey) fled to Italy, where he died of a blood clotting disorder at the tender age of 36.

nussimbaum