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Friday, December 30, 2011

Our Heart’s Desire

In the Connie Willis story “Miracle,” Lauren’s sister has accidentally summoned Chris, the Spirit of Christmas Present, from the Astral Plane.  He appears in Lauren’s kitchen, where he plants a tree in her kitchen floor, exchanges her preprinted cards for biodegradable ones with environmentally-conscious sentiments, and transforms the magnificent new dress--with which she was hoping to wow Scott at the Christmas Eve party—into one made from feathers and dried leaves.  She wishes he would just leave her alone.  Chris would be happy to leave, but first she must tell him her heart’s desire, so he can give her the present her sister wished him to give her in the first place.

Lauren rushes out to the stores and buys another dress (one not nearly as nice as the one she originally purchased), and at work finds more memos on holiday activities from the Personnel Morale Special Committee.  She’s missed a visit from Fred up in the Document department.  He’s been researching on how to help her exorcise Chris from her apartment, and he left word to say that he’s gone to the company library to continue working on her behalf.  She goes up to see him.  Along the way, the dreamy Scott meets up with her and announces that he’s cancelled his date for this evening.  Would she like to go out with him and help him buy all the presents for the office workers?  Meanwhile, Evie is reading a book called Let’s Forget Christmas.  Did Lauren know that the number of stress-related illnesses contracted during the holidays is seven times greater than during the rest of the year?  Did she know that four-times as many people commit suicide during the holidays that at any other time?  Does she know that six times as many people suffer from depression during the holidays than at any other time of the year?

Perhaps some better, more appropriate questions for Lauren to consider would be these.  Why do you still live alone?  Why are you pining after the dreamy Scott, who is never around when you need him, as opposed to dependable Fred, who always stands ready to assist you?  Why don’t you greet the manifestation of Chris—proof of the miraculous in your ordinary life—with more enthusiasm?  And most importantly, why can’t you tell him what your heart’s desire is?

While I would never embrace the slogan of the book her friend Evie is reading, clearly its writer is addressing some very real issues.  The holidays should be celebrations of all that is joyous in our lives.  Yet all too often they function as a microscope, magnifying any flaw or defect.  Thus, the brokenness and the sense of loss that we do our best to ignore during the rest of the year loom large in our vision, impossible to ignore.  

Too often, we have been beaten down so badly by life that the only way we feel we can cope with reality is by focusing upon the mundane tasks of existence.  We forget our dreams, we cease to think about what we would like to accomplish, we content ourselves solely with getting by.  Robbing ourselves of joy and any real satisfaction, we grow dependent upon others to provide these for us, and when they fail us, we grow frustrated, depressed, and even suicidal.  As Christmas draws near, let us use the season to contemplate not only how we can best express the wishes of our hearts.  Only by doing that can we look up again and discover our purpose in life.  Our mission.  Our destiny.  

Once our hearts are bursting with joy, we can share our message of hope with those around us.

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis, is available from Bantam Books.

Related Dragon Cache entries

Previous entries on “Miracle”

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas War

In the Janet Evanovich novel Visions of Sugar Plums, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is drinking coffee one morning when a stranger materializes in her kitchen.  Unlike Chris in the story “Miracle” by Connie Willis, this man is six foot tall, with an athletic body, long blond hair, and rugged good looks.  His name is Diesel.  While he introduces himself as the Spirit of Christmas, we eventually learn that his reason for being sent to Trenton, New Jersey involves more than just infusing Stephanie Plum with a dose of holiday cheer.  That is not to suggest that Stephanie could not use some help in dealing with the Christmas season.

Diesel finds no Christmas tree in her apartment: she doesn’t even own any ornaments.  Like Lauren’s friend Evie in “Miracle,” Stephanie complains that she doesn’t have the money or the time to truly celebrate Christmas.  She hasn’t sent out any cards, nor has she started shopping for presents, even though Christmas is four days away.  While she is too proud to admit this to Diesel, secretly she yearns to fully participate in the Christmas season.  She’d love to have a Christmas tree in her living room, a wreath on her door, red candlesticks on her kitchen table, Christmas music playing on her stereo, and her closet filled with wrapped presents for her family.  Instead:

“Every year I chased after Christmas, and every year Christmas barely happened.  My Christmases were always a mess of badly wrapped last-minute Christmas presents, a chunk of fruitcake sent home in a doggy bag from my parents’ house, and for the last couple years I hadn’t had a tree.  I just couldn’t seem to get to Christmas.”

I couldn't fit this tree
into my living room this year.
Some years I’ve been organized like Lauren in “Miracle,” mailed off my cards the first week of December, and purchased all my gifts for others well in advance of Christmas Eve.  Other years, like Stephanie, I haven’t even gotten around to decorating, my Christmas cards were sent off in a reactionary fashion (if at all), and gifts were barely purchased in time.  Some years I’ve felt like Chris in “Miracle,” that I could afford to just sit back, enjoy some eggnog, watch a Christmas movie, and enjoy the season.  Other years I’ve rushed about, desperate to mark all the items off the Must Do list like Lauren.  Yet each year had the same number of days (excepting one extra for leap years).  Nor did my preparedness (or lack thereof) and emotional state necessarily track with my work, family, and social demands.  What then made the difference in how I approached the holidays?

I grew up in a Protestant church, which followed the secular tradition that the Christmas season started on the day after Thanksgiving and ended on Christmas Day.  Later in life I discovered that Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians designate the four weeks leading up to Christmas as the Advent season, and view Christmas Day as the beginning of a twelve-day season that culminates in Epiphany.  These two traditions could not be more different: one sees Christmas as the end of a process, the other as the beginning.  

I’ve heard it said the historic Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung claimed that because Catholics lived the cycle of the church year, they were less neurotic than Protestants.  (Personally, I’ve never viewed myself as neurotic, but thanks for that insight, Carl!)  As Evie points out in “Miracle,” stress-related illnesses and suicides are more prevalent during the holidays than at any other time of the year.  Having practiced both approaches to the Christmas season, I can attest that each tradition has merit.  Advent not only acknowledges the tension that naturally arises with the end of any season or time period, but celebrates it.  “You’re facing stress arising from the imminent coming of Winter, the end of the year, and each year’s biggest celebration of life?” Advent asks.  “Great!  Embrace that apprehension: it’ll only make Christmas more enjoyable!”  Whereas the Protestant/Secular model argues: “Let us see the period leading up to Christmas as one of sharing love and joy with those whom we care about.  All of the stresses we face arise from our desire to express how much others mean to us.  So put up that tree, buy those gifts, hold Christmas parties, and enjoy Christmas now as we await the actual day of celebration and gift-giving.” 

"If you light it, they will come."

Each tradition has champions who will argue that their approach to Christmas is better.  The fact that we have two competing traditions illustrates the Christmas War that breaks out in our hearts during this season.  Christmas, coming at the end of the year, is a natural time to compare where we are now to where we were last year at this time.  At the same time, it signals the opportunity for the new beginning we all desire.  The Biblical story of God giving his son to the world serves as a metaphor for how much we would like to give those we love.  Yet, due to the constraints of time and money, the fragility or rigidity of interpersonal relationships and social mores, no matter how hard we try, it seems that we can never give them enough, or express to them adequately, how much they mean to us.  

Throughout the novel, Stephanie Plum will repeatedly try to do what she can to celebrate the Christmas season.  She will buy Christmas trees and presents for people, only to see them destroyed in any number of hilarious ways.  And yet, despite how all her attempts bomb, when Christmas finally arrives, it meets all the emotional and interpersonal needs she hopes it will address.  Our efforts may not be aided by a supernatural man who materializes in our kitchens and rescues us when our efforts fall short, yet one of the things I take away from the novel is that, as insane as her life is, at least Stephanie tries to celebrate the season and express her love to her family.  She doesn’t abdicate in the Christmas War: she keeps on fighting.  And because she tries (and tries, and tries), her efforts are rewarded.  

When Christmas comes, it can meet all our needs.

Whatever personal, family, and religious traditions you practice, I wish you success this year.  Whatever circumstances you find yourself in, may you fight your hardest to embrace the season, may you give your all for yourself and those you care for, and may you emerge victorious in the Christmas War.

Visions of Sugar Plums by Janet Evanovich, is available from St. Martin’s Press.
Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis, is available from Bantam Books.

Previous entries on “Miracle” by Connie Willis 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Achieving Our Christmas Goals

Chris, the Spirit of Christmas Present, has invaded Lauren’s home.  He decries her store-wrapped presents and the preprinted Christmas cards she has not even signed.  His insistence that he cannot leave her apartment until she tells him her heart’s desire for a Christmas gift complicates her schedule further.  She only has four days until Christmas, and still faces innumerable demands.  She doesn’t have time to deal with the presence of an unwanted Spirit, no matter how beneficial he believes his actions to be.  

Her coworker Fred has agreed to help her exorcise this unwanted Spirit, but so far he’s turned up no definite methods for doing so in his research.  She’s tried repeatedly to contact her sister, who accidentally channeled Chris from the Astral Plane, for advice on how to get rid of him, but so far her sister has not answered or returned her calls.  Finally, that evening Lauren reaches her on the phone, but her sister doesn’t know how to banish Chris.  She doesn’t have time to talk: she and the Maharishi are going off to Barbados to enjoy a harmonic divergence there on Christmas Eve.  Lauren tries to watch TV, but finds “It’s a Wonderful Life” on nearly every channel.  (Like Fred, she greatly prefers the movie “Miracle on 34th Street”).  Not only did Chris’ presence force her to cancel a date with the dreamy Scott, but also there’s no food in the fridge for supper: Chris has transformed her frozen entrees into bottles of Evian water, and drank all her eggnog.

"Hey Mickey, want some eggnog?"

She wakes to knocking on the front door.  She rises from the couch to learn that Fred has brought her breakfast from McDonald’s.  They find money on the table: Chris returned her preprinted cards and left her the refunded cash.  Fred fills her in on the research he did for her last night, but they’re still no closer to figuring out how to banish Chris.  Then she discovers that Chris has turned the beautiful dress she bought to impress Scott at the Christmas Eve party into one made from feathers and dried leaves.  Fred offers her suggestions on what to wear instead, and vows to do more research on exorcising unwanted spirits for her.  After he leaves, Chris appears.  He can’t understand why she doesn’t like her new dress; he sees it as superior in every way.  After all, it’s made by the Brazilian Indians, and is completely biodegradable.  

If only he would go away and stop complicating her life!

Lauren has worked hard to purchase the perfect gift for everyone on her list.  She’s been looking forward to wearing her new dress to the Christmas Eve party at work.  Chris’ actions throw her carefully ordered schedule into chaos.  Flustered, she gives Fred his Secret Santa gift early, and in person, judging that she might not have time to do so later.  She can’t even watch her favorite Christmas movie.  When did the holidays become a season to be endured rather than enjoyed?  

In the introduction to her collection of Christmas stories, Connie Willis argues passionately why “Miracle on 34th Street” is a far superior movie to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  I have to wonder: Is Ms. Willis trying to make a point by how Lauren always switches the channel when she finds “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the TV?  Each of us has been given a great gift: a life to live out in any manner we choose.  Regardless of our social or economic status, surely we should view the holiday as more than targets to meet and jobs to be completed. 

Let us see the holidays as a time to celebrate the wonderful miracle that is our lives.  

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis, is available from Bantam Books.

Think of all we can create with our
wonderful and miraculous lives!
Related Dragon Cache entries

Previous entries on “Miracle” by Connie Willis 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Uncle, Hercule Poirot

As I rode the London Underground this morning, I wondered if we had been wrong to select Florin Court as a worthy destination.  As I walked London’s busy streets, my feet, legs, and entire body aching from the previous day’s explorations, I could not help wondering if my journey was pointless.  Why travel out of one’s way merely to gaze upon the outside of a building once filmed by a TV crew, after all?  Yet there was no sense in changing course now.  For whether it made sense or not, whether I could justify or even explain to myself why I was doing this, I felt as if I was visiting an old friend, perhaps even a member of my family.

I was going to visit the home of my kindly old uncle, Hercule Poirot.

We linger on Poirot's doorstep.

In the early seasons of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” every time we see Poirot in the office of his fifth-floor flat, we are first shown the front of an apartment building bearing the lettering “Whitehaven Mansion.”  Thus we feel grounded: Poirot lives here; this is where his friends and clients visit him.  Through his meticulous craft, the actor David Suchet breathed life into the fictional literary detective.  Certainly Hercule Poirot accorded everyone he met with understanding, kindness, and respect.  Were I in trouble or distress, I knew he would not disregard me.  Like a kindly old uncle, he seemed a person who would always feel for me, whatever my situation; he would always respect me, encourage me, and believe the best of me.   Even if such a person dwells in a fictional realm, should we not honor such loyalty and affection?

Like literature, TV and film weave their magic.  At the beginning of the episode “The Third-Floor Flat,” we see children playing in the park across the street from Whitehaven Mansion.  Cars toot their horns as they thread their way through pedestrian and vehicular traffic.  One of the green tea huts that cater to London cabbies is parked outside, and customers line up to purchase food and drink.  Such a scene suggests that Poirot, while smart and financially well off, is still a man of the people.  He does not hide himself away from others; he remains in the center of London.

The park before Whitehaven Mansion

To reach Florin Court, we had to walk down a narrow street that seemed little more than an alley.  Vehicles were parked diagonally before it, leaving only a narrow space through which delivery vehicles and residents’ cars may pass.  The park, while nicely manicured, was fenced around, and only residents possessed a key to the gates.  The trees had grown tremendously in the last two decades since the TV show began filming: it was impossible to photograph the building from straight on.  Unless we clambered over the wrought-iron fencing, we could not stroll through the small park.  The building was there, albeit with different lettering over the front door.  Everything else was different.

As we headed off to our next destination, I wondered whether the exertion and time involved in visiting Poirot’s home had been worth it.  I could not say, definitively, that it was.  Yet, I felt as though I had paid my respects to someone whom I loved and admired.  For the building possessed Hercule Poirot’s elegance and style.  I could imagine him living there, looking out of those curved-glass windows.  At least now I would know the reality behind the TV crew’s historical recreations.  When I watch such episodes as “The Third-Floor Flat” in the future, I know I will feel a little something special.  For I have visited the home of someone I care about.  I have dwelt with Poirot as he chatted with his friends, consulted with clients, and solved his cases in his Art Deco-style flat.  While fictional, Whitehaven Mansion has become a place that I regard as home.

Now, if only I could stroll through the park!

Related Dragon Cache entries

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Religion as Social Glue

"I've been infected by the plague!  Unclean, unclean!"

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, humanity has been infected by the Quarm plague, a devastating psychological disorder that forces people to draw into themselves, lock themselves away in their homes, and in some cases even dig holes in the ground to hide in.  Ling, who suffered through the plague but emerged whole, has traveled to the planet Veden, whose Hindic population seems immune to the disease.  Yet, cut off from his family, as well as Sabal, the game that functions as the heart of his religion, he takes Rhandra as a lover and tries to see if other spiritual ways than his beloved Sabal are open to him.  Sadly, the Temple of the Madi, the pinnacle of Hindic culture, seems decadent to him, and he is rebuffed when he attempts to join one of the religious groups in the city of Kalic.
At night, he worries that he has abandoned his family back on Earth to no purpose.  In his dreams, his wife Angela, and his children Chark and Romana are hiding in holes in the ground. 

With Sabal, once such a fulfilling aspect of his spiritual life, having failed to protect him from the Quarm plague, and with incidents of violence and mental illness rising on Veden, he begins to see religion as little more than social glue: useful for holding society together, but little else.  What then can fight off the Quarm plague?  His investigations at a dead end, he delegates more work to his assistants, and lives a more isolated existence with Rhandra.  Hungry for sensation and meaning, he goes on wild romps across untamed areas of the planet.  Here was excitement, where legendary beasts lived, and “giants who sucked in the thick air and broke men like eggs.”  Here was meaning, real and tangible: the fight for one’s life.  As Ling describes it:

Life on the edge...

“In the jungle we surprised something and, rather than retreat, followed the sounds of its thrashing.  It was a scorpion, two meters long with a curled stinger like a deer horn.  It could run as fast as a horse.  I shot to the side of it three times and then had to put a bolt into the scampering legs.  Rhandra took a long time getting to sleep that evening.”

...can be fulfilling for awhile.

These adventures, as exciting as they are, suggest no strategies for fighting off the Quarm plague.  Fleet operations slow down or stop as the psychological disease infects more and more worlds.  Then a man on Veden of weak religious background and with few family ties is diagnosed with the plague.  The alien disease begins to spread across the planet.

While aspects of one’s spiritual life, such as meditation and prayer, can function perfectly well in isolation, religion is built around the communal experience.  The truth is that sometimes we need a change.  While Ling is searching for something to replace his beloved Sabal, I question his decision that the Temple of the Madi offered nothing but decadence.  Clearly the participants were gaining something from the teachings, practices, and interactions that occurred there.  Yet Ling was looking for something that would fill the void inside him in the exact same way that Sabal had.  So many religions, and even individual schools or denominations within religions exist because they address our spiritual needs in a different fashion.  Just as those within a group must embrace a newcomer’s differences, so those looking for fulfillment and enlightenment must embrace a group’s differences.  Otherwise, union cannot take place, and spiritual needs cannot be met.

I search out a new church, and a new experience.

When the brand of religion that we grew up with loses meaning for us, it is tempting to think that all flavors or brands are the same.  But seeing religion as devoid of meaning, as mere social glue, will not fill the void we feel.  Those who seek fulfillment and enrichment must not only search for it, but also be willing to embrace something that they might have rejected in the past.  As Captain Kirk put it, one must “boldly go” where one has not gone before.

Related Dragon Cache entries:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Saving the Environment at Christmas

In the Connie Willis story “Miracle,” the Spirit of Christmas Present (also known as Chris) has materialized in Lauren’s apartment.  He explains that her sister didn’t know what to give her for Christmas, so with the aid of the Maharishi Ram Das, who was instructing her in trance-meditation, she accidentally channeled his spirit out of the Astral Plane.  Chris asks her what she wants for Christmas, but Lauren doesn’t have time to think of what she wants right now.  As he tours her apartment, he decries her store-wrapped presents, and changes Lauren’s preprinted cards into a Christmas tree growing out of her kitchen floor.  Lauren hurries back to her office, where she learns that she’s just missed out on a visit from the dreamy Scott, but she has no time to dwell on such disappointments.  Instead, she goes to visit Fred in the Documentation department, as he played the magician at last year’s Christmas party.  She doesn’t know him very well, but she was able to drum up a conversation with him last year at the Christmas party.  In him she finds a kindred spirit, as he’s the only other person she’s met who agrees with her that “Miracle on 34th Street” is a superior movie to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

While Fred doesn’t actually know how to do magic, he is intrigued by her dilemma.  He takes her seriously, suggests that Lauren call her sister to see if she can banish Chris, and agrees to research what might be involved in exorcising the spirit for her.  On the way back to her office, the dreamy Scott sees her, and asks if she can go out with him tonight to help him buy the presents that Santa will hand out to all the office workers at the Christmas Eve party.  Unfortunately, not only does she have an unwanted spirit camping out in her apartment, but also Fred has promised to get together with her this evening to help her figure out how to banish him.  She suggests that they do it tomorrow night, but Scott can’t: he has a date.  How could a day that started out with such promise have devolved into one filled with such complications and disappointments?

"Ho ho ho, little office worker!  What can Santa do for you?

That evening, she returns home to find that Chris in her apartment.  Not only is he wearing a “Save the Rain Forest” T-shirt, but also he has decorated the tree in her kitchen with handmade, biodegradable ornaments created by the Yanomamo Indian from byproducts of the Brazilian rainforest.  He stands ready to give her a present, but until she knows her heart’s desire, he can’t leave.  Chris vanishes when Fred arrives.  In addition to the tree, Chris has replaced her preprinted cards with ones printed on recycled paper using vegetable inks.  The cards bear this heartwarming message:

“In the time it takes you to read this Christmas card, eighty-two harp seals will have been clubbed to death for their fur.  Happy Holidays.”

Unfortunately, Chris has also changed the video for Fred from “Miracle on 34th Street” into “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  

Our Glorious Season of Excess

I’m not an environmentalist, nor am I advocating that we share his taste in Christmas cards.  I’m not even against all the wrapping paper and excess packaging associated with our annual festival of gift-giving.  I love driving around on December evenings, wasting gas as my wife and I look for the ultimate electricity-consuming outdoor decorations.  But perhaps Chris has a point.  If we’re going to use extra energy and utilize more materials that will get dumped into the landfills after the holidays, perhaps we should take a moment to remember that we are all stewards of this planet.  As we indulge in this glorious season of excess, perhaps we should consider how we might make our lives less wasteful during the rest of the year.  Perhaps it’s not big thing—maybe it’ll just be one small act that others will see as inconsequential—but every effort counts.  After all, what better gift to give the next generation, than a planet in at least as good a shape as the one that we have been entrusted with?

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis, is available from Bantam Books.

"Okay, I'll read you 'Miracle' again."
Related Dragon Cache entries

Previous entries on “Miracle” by Connie Willis 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hercule Poirot’s Family

In the episode “The Third-Floor Flat” of the TV show “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” Hercule Poirot suffers from a lingering cold.  His secretary, Miss Lemon, forces him to breathe in the vapors from a steaming bowl, with a towel covering his head, for a period of time that seems unendurable to Poirot.  He hungers for a case, something upon which to focus his “little grey cells.”  But, as with the preceding days, no appeals for help arrive via the mail or the front door.

The Mailbox outside Poirot's flat in Whitehaven Mansion

When he braves the walk from his apartment building to the mailbox, he wears a hat and coat, with the collar turned up to shelter his breathing.  His friend, Captain Hastings, arrives in a car he has just returned to perfect working order.  He declares that Poirot is in a bad way, and invites him out to the theater tonight.  When Poirot declares that he is at death’s door, and that a murder-mystery play is hardly sufficient to revive his little grey cells, Hastings suggests a wager: If Poirot can guess the villain before the final act, the Captain will pay him ten pounds.  

During the intermission, Poirot concludes that the only person capable of poisoning the sherry, and therefore murdering the woman, was the butler.  As he and Hastings talk, Poirot notices his beautiful young neighbor Patricia from the flat below him.  Then they return to the play, in which a police inspector reveals that the murderer was not, in fact, the butler.

Poirot returns to Whitehaven Mansion
In Poirot’s flat in Whitehaven Mansion, he argues that the playwright did not give them all the facts.  He also muses that his little grey cells have failed him.  Perhaps his failure to correctly interpret the playwright’s clues means that his best days as a detective are behind him, and he should retire.  Just then, he hears a strange creaking.  He opens the coal hatch in his kitchen, looks down the chute, and sees the two men who accompanied Patricia and her friend to the theatre hauling themselves up using the rope-and-pulley system.  It appears that Patricia has lost the key to her fourth-floor front door.  Unfortunately, the men miscalculate, and enter the third-floor instead, where they discover the body of Ernestine Grant.

As he walks up the steps of Whitehaven Mansions, Chief Inspector Japp warns his men that this is where the famous Hercule Poirot lives.  Despite his fondness for the Belgian, he knows that the detective will question his findings.  Indeed, when Japp determines that the killer was named John Fraser, and Poirot asks if he can visit the third-floor flat once more, Japp tells him that there is nothing to investigate this time.  But at the pleading in the Belgian’s eyes, Japp gives in, knowing that in handing Poirot the key, he risks the man overturning his conclusions.

When Ms. Lemon tells me of Poirot's
cold, I agree to visit another time.
By the end of the story, Poirot determines that the murderer is Patricia’s fiancĂ© Donovan, who attempts to flee the building.  Hastings proves instrumental in catching the fiend, but in the process, his beautiful car sustains great damage.  (Poirot graciously pays Hastings his ten pounds for losing their bet, which the Captain can put toward repairs).  Far from being upset at being proved wrong, Japp seems proud of Poirot for solving the crime.  And the next day, when Ms. Lemon brings Poirot a steaming bowl and a towel, Poirot tells her that such ministrations are no longer necessary.  For, with his friends’ help, he has solved a mystery, and prevented a murderer from escaping justice.  This success has buoyed not only his belief in his own abilities, but banished all physical ailments.

The TV dramatization focuses just as much upon Poirot’s personal difficulties, and upon the role his friends play in helping him through them, as it does upon the plot of the murdered woman.  In so doing, Poirot becomes a real person.  In repeatedly showing how Poirot helps his friends, and how they in turn help him, we sees the little Belgian as so much more than just another detective who unravels the most complex puzzles.  He is someone who cares for others, and hence someone whom we can care about.  

Whether they belong to the police, function as private consultants, or work in some other capacity, Literature and TV are replete with characters who spend their lives solving puzzles.  Most will be forgotten; a few endure.  But for me, the diminutive Belgian detective stands head and shoulders above all others.  As this story demonstrates, he cares about those who are hurt by the actions of the heartless.  Perhaps that is why Ms. Lemon and Captain Hastings care for him and treat him like a member of their family.  Perhaps that is why production of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” begun in 1989, continues to the present day.  

Perhaps that is why Agatha Christie is the top-selling author in the English language of all time.  

“Agatha Christie’s Poirot” is available on DVD from the BBC.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Embracing The Different

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, Ling’s status as Fleet Commandant makes him the top empire official on Veden.  As such, he receives invitations from all of the planet's high society.  Yet he cannot forget how those of the more dominant Mongol race were waiting to pounce on any opportunity to depose him.  When Tonji’s challenge led to his court-martial, and later, when he was forced to brave the dangers of the Flinger in a mere lifepod, it became clear to him that his minority status would always separate him from those of the majority race.  Why should the upper crust of another society value him more highly than his own?  So he does the unthinkable: he declines invitations to visit and join the important social organizations on Veden.

At Rhandra’s urging, he visits the Temple of the Madi though.  There he speaks with the woman who seems to represent the pinnacle of Hindic religion and philosophy.  He listens to lectures on the conservation of vital fluids, watches adepts learning to control their heart rate or body temperature, and watches students attempt such fantastic feats as walking on water.  He asks the Madi,” You believe Yoga can counter loss of phase?”

“Perhaps, in time,” she responds.  “But that is surely not the point.  These things must be realized with the heart and spirit, not merely with the mind.  It may take you a while to come to such knowledge.”  

Although she offers him membership, Ling declines.  He sees what occurs at the Madi’s Temple as little more than cheap tricks, pseudo-rationalizations, and reliance on images and Gods.  While the Hindic religion might once have offered peace and serenity, he sees the current form as decadent.  Was this because of the Quarm?  Had some manifestation of the alien plague, which had not yet attacked the people of Veden, nevertheless exerted a subtle influence upon the religion that might have helped the planet’s inhabitants defend themselves against a loss of phase?

Certainly Fleet is losing their war against the Quarm.  The alien race was striking further into the heart of the Empire.  Ling’s worries about the family he left behind on Earth increase.  Had he left them behind only to die?

While he might have survived the Quarm plague, he knows he is not whole.  Every morning he wakes up, his head dizzy, and pervaded with a strange listlessness he cannot banish.  Before the Quarm attacked humanity with the plague, he drew solace from the meditation and group perception involved in Sabal.  But the game of Sabal is not Solitaire: it can only be played with a group.  Nor is it easily learned: it is a skill learned over time, a craft that must be practiced daily for years before it can provide the solace and enlightenment Ling yearns for.  But might other spiritual ways beyond Sabal, and the Madi’s decadent form of the Hindic religion, be open to him?  

One morning, when listlessness overwhelms him, Rhandra tempts him out on an excursion into an older section of the city of Kalic.  Ling is amazed by the rich tapestry of life which surrounds him.

“The streets were a jumble of rickshaws, herds of panting water buffalo, camels straining under huge bundles, cows meandering.  A gang of cortically augmented elephants shuffled in the dust, doing roadwork without human supervision.  Along the river Brahmins and Sadhus and Hindics on pilgrimage were bathing, wringing water from their oiled hair, praying rhythmically, brushing their teeth, doing yoga exercises.  Votaries danced, clacking.  Temples lined the narrow twisting streets that smoked with dust.”

In this environment, Ling spots a crowd that has gathered around a savant.  His assistant Majumbdahr is always urging him to see more of Hindic culture, but Rhandra suggests he not try to join this group.  As Fleet Commandant, he has the right to go anywhere, and yet those who guard the savant will not allow him to join the crowd.  Instead, Ling is rebuffed, forced to leave.  As Ling walks away, he tries to hear what the savant is teaching the crowd, but all he hears is the distant murmuring of voices.

Those of us who are in a community sometimes feel as though demographics are all important.  To function well with the group, a good member has got to dress, act, and speak in the prescribed manner.  Anyone different from the norm cannot possibly belong or add to the group experience.  Just as there are reasons why Ling is turned away from this particular group, which he will learn in time, there are understandable reasons why we occasionally turn others away.  Perhaps we do not physically prevent outsiders from joining us, but often we surround our hearts with an invisible wall, and refuse to tear it down unless the visitor can demonstrate, beyond all reasonable doubt, that he will "fit in."  

Shouldn’t we open our hearts to all, and willingly embrace the different?  Isn’t that why we join groups to begin with, so that we may be made stronger, more effective, and more whole, by interacting with others with differing gifts and abilities?  If we cannot do this, if we cannot embrace the different, then we prove ourselves just as decadent as the more monolithic human cultures being destroyed by the Quarm plague.

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