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Archive for July, 2013

General Zod“Kneel before Zod!”

That’s General Zod’s timeless line from 1980’s Superman II, the one line that escaped the film and, like a criminal from the Phantom Zone, has invaded the pop-culture lexicon. What makes the line work (other than Terrence Stamp’s total ownership of the role) is this play on “Zod”/ “God.”  Superman, of course, will never kneel before Zod… because he answers to a Higher Power.

Now, we all know Supe doesn’t belong to any specific church or order.  He wears a big “S,”, not a crucifix or a Star of David. He’s a secular hero, not a sacred one.  On the other hand… well, consider the following:

In 1988, back when Superman was a spry fifty-year-old (as opposed to the just-as-spry seventy-five-year-old he is today), writer Gary Engle published a piece entitled, “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Nifty title, for an equally nifty essay, chock full of intriguing insights– about the significance of flight, about Clark Kent’s “American heartland” values, about Superman’s status as an intergalactic immigrant.

But Engle’s most fascinating point (for me, anyway) is his observation that Superman, ultimately, is more than a bird, more than a plane, even more than America’s-greatest-hero-bordering-on-patron-saint.  Superman is, in fact, an angel.

 Engle uses a little etymology to make his case. As any Fan of Steel knows, Superman’s name on his home planet of Krypton is Kal-El.  What’s not as well known is that his name was originally Kal-L, but writer George Lowther modified the name in 1942, in his novel The Adventures of Superman, the first novelization of a comic book. (Lowther also changed the names of Superman’s birth parents, from Jor-L and Lora, to the now-canonized Jor-El and Lara.)

Why is this simple change, from “L” to “El,” significant?  As Gary Engle points out in his “So Darned American” essay, the suffix “-el” in Hebrew means “-of God.”  He mentions many Old Testament names that end with “-el,” including Ishmael, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Samuel.

Engle then points out that many angels also have names that end in “-el,” including Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel and Michael, (My obsession with Paradise Lost really came in handy when I read that, as Milton includes all of those angels and more: Abdiel, for example, is the angel who initially joined the rebel angels but then re-joined the good guys. What’s interesting to me is the name “Lucifer,” Satan’s name before he fell from grace; just the fact that Lucifer does not have a name ending in “el” suggests that, even when he was in heaven, he is somehow different from the rest of the angels.)

A quick Wikipedia search confirms Engle’s assertion about the many members of the heavenly host who have names ending in “-el,” from Ariel to Zadkiel. Even Azrael was the name of a wicked angel long before he was Gargamel’s cat in The Smurfs. (Noticing that the the word “angel” itself ends in “-el,” I did some sleuthing; it turns out the word derives from the Greek “angelos,” meaning “messenger, one who announces.”)

But it’s not just his Kryptonian name, sayeth Engle, that reinforces this idea that Superman is an angel; his uniform also contributes to the whole seraphic package, especially his cape.  Engle notes that Superman’s cape doesn’t have a clasp of any kind but is almost a part of him; the cape “hangs, when he stands at ease, in a line that doesn’t so much drape his shoulders as stand apart from them and echo their curve, like an angel’s wings.”

Initially, I didn’t necessarily buy this aspect of Engle’s argument.   The “Kal-El” thing was convincing, but the “cape as angel’s wings” thing? Less so.   But then I stumbled upon the following painting:

Archangel Michael 2
It’s Italian painter Guido Reni’s “Erzengel Michael” and it was painted in 1636, approximately 300 years before the birth of Superman. But check out what Michael is wearing: a skin-tight blue tunic with some sort of red capey-thing behind him.  Look familiar?  Here’s another painting
Archangel Michael pic
It’s Luca Giordano’s “Archangel Michael Overthrows the Rebel Angels,” painted in 1660.  Once again, Michael is wearing a red-and-blue costume reminiscent of the earlier picture and in anticipation of Superman’s costume.  (For what it’s worth: although Engle doesn’t say anything about these paintings in his “So Darned American” essay, he does call the archangel Michael “the one perhaps most like Superman.”)

Were the creators of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, fans of Italian art or otherwise influenced by these paintings when conjuring up their hero?  Probably not.  But the similarities in the costumes does make you wonder.

Superman can be compared to other religious icons. For example, some say Superman is like Moses. (Baby Supe’s escape from Krypton just before it explodes parallels the story of the infant Moses, whose mother placed him in a basket and sent floating in a river to escape the slaughter of the children.)  Others compare Superman to Jesus Himself. (Both come from the heavens by their fathers to help save the world.)  Me, I like the idea of Superman as a guardian angel, one who fights for justice, who looks out for the oppressed, and who never, ever kneels before Zod.

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School’s out for the summer! This glorious time of year ushers in one of my favorite things… summer reading. While taking my boys to the library last week to pick out some books for our local library’s Summer Reading Challenge, I thought about some of my favorite books from childhood.

Anne Green Gables
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
In Anne I found a true “kindred spirit.” Someone who saw the world through the same romantic lens that I did. Her adventures were amusing, heartwarming, and just plain fun. And as an added bonus: Gilbert Blythe – my first fictional crush.

wolves willoughby

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Just like the cover suggests, this was the probably the first “dark” story I read as a child. I was enthralled by every page: the faraway setting, the dangerous storyline, and the put-upon heroines—Bonnie and Sylvia—trying to escape the prison-like orphanage they were sent to by the cruel Miss Slighcarp.

Henry Reed

Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service by Keith Robertson
My favorite in the Henry Reed series, Henry and his friend, Midge, start up their own babysitting business. Pure fun and wackiness.

Katie John

Katie John by Mary Calhoun
Ten-year-old tomboy Katie John moves from California to Missouri when her Great Aunt Emily dies and leaves her parents a huge, rambling house in the country. I loved being taken along on the adventures as Katie John made friends, explored the countryside, and got into lots and lots of trouble.

Secret Language

The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom
Nordstrom edited classic children’s books like Charlotte’s Web, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Where the Wild Things Are. I loved her sweet story about two girls at boarding school who invent their own secret language. As a child of a much less glamorous public school, it inspired me to create my own secret language. I still remember it to this day. Meest efin puoya anack lerugifo itil utuom.

Secret Garden

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
As an adult my favorite stories are always the ones in which the main character is transformed in some way. This is probably the first transformation I had the pleasure to discover. (And as I kid, I think I loved any book with the word “secret” in the title.) After her parents’ death, Mary Lennox leaves her home in India to live with her uncle in a dark and brooding English manor. Just as Mary’s secret garden blooms with the help of some great friends, Mary herself blooms with new life and spirit.

Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Even though she wasn’t a typical, lovable character, there was something in Harriet that I could connect with. She was real and honest, and she lived her life through observations and written words. A true introvert, just like me.

100 pounds popcorn

100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz
Andy and his sister find a 100-pound bag of popping corn and start up their own business, only to find it’s not as simple as it seems. I loved seeing these industrious kids solve problem after problem in their quest to be entrepreneurs.

Ramona the Pest

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
Beverly Cleary captures the essence of childhood with humor, heart, and a delightfully spunky main character.

westing game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
I wrote about this book in our very first blog post. I still contend that it’s one of the most clever books ever written. I re-read it every year.

There are many, many books I’m leaving off this list… but these are some that came immediately to mind when thinking back over youthful summer’s spent lost in books.

What favorites do you remember from childhood?

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chainsYesterday, as part of my first day at summer school, I played the Police song “Message in a Bottle”– which I then heard on the radio on my way home.  Got me thinking about something I had written a few months ago but never posted, a piece about “synchronicity”– the phenomenon, not the Police album!  

One morning, several months ago, I woke up with “Dreams” on my mind.

I’m not talking about the remnants of the Sandman.  I mean the song “Dreams,” by Fleetwood Mac.  For some reason, I woke up earlier than usual that day— without the aid of my alarm, I should add—with the chorus of that song (“Thunder only happens when it’s raining”) in my head.

Now, I’m not the biggest Fleetwood Mac guy out there.  I like them, sure, but in the way that everyone likes Fleetwood Mac.  (I don’t even own a copy of Rumours!)  I’m such a casual fan, I didn’t even know for sure that the song was called “Dreams.”  In fact, I first thought the lyrics floating through my freshly-awakened noggin were from another Fleetwood Mac song, “The Chain.”

About a half-hour later, I’m driving to work, flipping the channels on the radio, stopping on the “classic hits” station.  And what’s playing? Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”

Now, would this be at all noteworthy if I had, say, Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” on the brain and then heard it on the radio?  No, because that song is still played quite often; I’d wager some stations exclusively play it.  But “Dreams” is no “Call Me Maybe.”

“You should look at the lyrics,” people said when I told them about this curious incident. “Maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.”  And it is: I think the Universe is reminding me about synchronicity—the phenomenon of two or more unrelated events occurring at the same time, seemingly by chance, what Carl Jung described as an “acausal connecting principal.”

Synchronicity isn’t scientific, but it’s real.  Jung (who actually coined the term, in the 1920s) wrote extensively about it.  His most famous example involves one of his patients, who was describing a dream in which someone gave her a piece of beetle-shaped jewelry.  At that very moment, Jung heard knocking on the window; when he went over, he found an actual beetle, trying to get in.

(Interesting aside: Jung described this patient as “psychologically inaccessible”—a tough nut to crack.  But after the incident with the beetle, she opened up, and their sessions become more productive.)

The truly unusual thing about synchronous events is that they are not that unusual; they happen all the time.  I personally can think of two more incidents from the past year, both of which also involve songs, that attest to the legitimacy of synchronicity.

Exhibit A:  Last summer, on my birthday, I wake up to music coming from my sons’ room. They’re tinkering with the clock radio we just bought for them, and they land on a “Back to the 80s” show; one of the songs I hear is Ratt’s “Round and Round” from 1984.

So I get up to go for a run, set my iPod to “shuffle,” and listen in confused wonder at the very first song that randomly comes up, out of 800-plus songs: “Round and Round.”

Exhibit B is even freakier, because it’s a three-parter:  a few months after the Ratt episode, I’m in my car, heading to the mall, and from out of nowhere, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” pops into my head.

I’m sure you see where this is going: I get to the store, and “Human Nature” is playing on the PA system.  And when I get back in the car, what do you think I hear on the radio?

Now, some may dismiss these examples as insignificant coincidences. And I’ll agree with the half of that; there’s nothing particularly significant—nothing earth-shattering or serendipitous—about hearing a song on the radio.  But coincidental?

Just the opposite, in fact: synchronicity hints at the Grand Design just beneath the surface of everything.

Jung said that synchronous events give us a glimpse into the “peculiar interdependence” that exists between the world and all those who inhabit it—and I agree.  Think about it:  in 1976, Stevie Nicks wrote “Dreams” in California; more than thirty-five years later, on a random Thursday, some Connecticut DJ decides to play that song, on the same morning I inexplicably woke up thinking about it. Now, I don’t know Stevie Nicks or that DJ, but in that moment, through that song, we’re connected.  Linked.

Speaking of links: I have a fitting coda to “Dreams” story.  Later that same afternoon, I was again in my car, listening to that same classic hits station, when another Fleetwood Mac song comes over the airwaves: “The Chain.”

Nicely played, Universe.

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