Thursday, June 22, 2006

Bless the beasts and the children

Last Sunday at Promontory Point I saw two rabbits in a challenge for territory. Their posturing brought them out of their rocky warren into the open, where they stayed for longer than was wise.

People saw them. The first, two young men, tried to surround and corner them against the rocks.

A couple with a dog noticed them, although they had retreated to some shelter between rocks. When the man, who was walking the dog, realized he'd spotted rabbits, he turned the dog around to point out the warren. The dog sniffed anxiously around where the rabbits were wedged and started to get excited. The man pointed this out to the woman, who laughed. Teasing animals, even your own pet, is apparently amusing, never mind the undoubtedly terrified rabbits.

Later, two small children came along. I noticed them staring intently between the rocks and asked them if they could see the rabbits. They said yes and asked me what they were doing. I told them that the rabbits were hiding and that they might be looking for food. At that, both children tore leaves off the weeds and tried to tempt the rabbits out, with no luck. They soon gave up.

Only the children showed curiosity about and empathy for the rabbits. Unlike the adults, who knew their actions would be distressing to the prey animals, the children seemed less interested in demonstrating their mastery over the creatures than in finding out what they were doing and what they wanted. By trying to lure the rabbits out with food, they hoped both to see them better and to give them something to eat—win-win, so to speak.

I hope that, in 10 years, and 20, those children still have a sense of connection with fellow creatures, even rabbits.

But then I remember that the two young men, the man with the dog, and the woman who laughed also were children once. What kind?

Sunday, June 4, 2006

Spreading infection

If you're old enough to recall certain comics and TV shows, you'll recognize the old style of top-down management, epitomized by cigar-chomping bosses named things like "Mr. Abernathy," who said such things as, "Crumblebottom [no title], if you don't finish that report by five o'clock, YOU'RE FIRED!"

We've come a long way, baby. At some point, someone discovered that an inclusive, cooperative approach is more effective than an autocratic, coercive one, and that two or more heads are better than one. People work harder and better when they have a stake in the work and the outcome—and it could be an emotional rather than a merely financial one. People who work out of passion or at least commitment do a better job than those who collect paychecks. And people who value others foster a more productive environment than those whose self-interest is their ultimate—and sometimes—sole objective.

It doesn't take earning a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale or Stanford to understand this.

Yet there are still those who don't.

The results are not surprising. People work the fewest number of hours they can get away with, while the problematic leaders wonder why they are not putting in extra hours to meet poorly planned deadlines—because they have no stake in doing so. They also have no desire to spend any more time than necessary in an openly hostile environment where their suggestions and opinions are neither required nor requested, where projects are managed through nagging and pressure, and where providing sincere positive feedback is perceived as a waste of time. Bandages have been applied, but the infection continues to seep out from underneath and to poison everyone.

At this point, no one feels motivated, and no one has the time, energy, or will to do good work, let alone their best.

It makes me think of a gangrenous limb. It may have served you well when it was healthy, but now it is killing you. You hate to cut it off, and you may delay the decision as long as possible in the hope that the spread will stop and that some or all of the limb can be salvaged, perhaps with the loss of some functionality. You can't imagine life without that limb or how it can be replaced.

At some point, though, you have to decide. Amputating the foot may save the leg.

A decision needs to made soon, or there will be nothing left to save.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Only women bleed

I read that birth control is being jury rigged and refined and that the result will be that more women will not be inconvenienced by unwelcome, unwanted periods.

As a woman who has many, varied symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (water retention, breast soreness and back pain, odd bursts of energy, frequent urination, moodiness, and bouts of depression), as well as dysmenorrhea, I should be excited about this possibility. Even though I am surely close to the end of my menstruating days, I should be happy that young women today, and of the future, women like my nieces, will not have to endure 420+ periods, including the discomfort and mood swings of PMS and the cramps of menstruation, if they choose not to.

To physically active women, or those who travel, not having periods with which to contend must sound like a marvelous thing, one of those wonders that seem to make life simpler and easier, something that women have been hoping and waiting for. Indeed, the women quoted in the article thought that preventing periods is highly desirable and that life is better without them.

But I'm not one of those women.

I am a female animal, a human female. I menstruate. It is as normal for me to have periods as it is for me to require air and water. Take away my period, and all that goes with it, and am no longer myself; I am not even sure I am still woman. I am a human female with a dysfunctional reproductive system; whether I use it or not as intended is not the question. I cannot imagine dismissing something that defines me—and my gender—so easily, without a sound medical reason, such as severe or extraordinary pain or bleeding. For me to feel like woman, to be a woman, my body must be allowed to behave as it was designed to do.

A gynecologist who prevents her own periods is quoted as saying, "There's no reason you need a period." That's an arrogant and presumptuous blanket statement. There are known health benefits of having regular periods, and artificially manipulating the menstrual cycle and hormones has known health risks. Even for women who are not trying to have babies, there could be and undoubtedly are reasons to have periods, inconvenient as they can be.

At a time when there is a growing interest in traditional medicine and its focus on whole-person wellness, we are trying to disconnect our reproductive system from the rest of our body. I suspect it's not that simple.

Perhaps the reason to have periods is because it's natural for us to do so.

In The Mists of Avalon and The Forest House, Marion Zimmer Bradley's pagan priestesses revere the goddess and their connection to her, to nature, and to another through their "moon cycles"; a woman's period is a sacred time that is part of her link to creation. It is, literally and figuratively, her creative force.

Or it's a mere inconvenience, to be suppressed artificially.

Do we really need this level of control over our bodies and our lives? Can we consider the wisdom of "correcting" Nature only when she truly proves flawed, for example, in the case of disease or impairment?

Only women bleed.

And sometimes not even them.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Review: The Forest House

The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Recommended.

If a book or movie is successful, you can expect a sequel. In the case of The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley had begun with the culmination of the Arthurian tale—Arthur's rule and death. With little of mythological interest to tell after Arthur, Bradley turns to his ancestors for her first prequel.

The Forest House, set primarily during the rule of Domitian (81–96 CE), is the tale of two people and two peoples. First, there is Gaius/Gawen, son of a high-ranking Roman official and his now-deceased Briton wife, and Eilan, daughter of an influential Druid, granddaughter of the Arch-Druid, and aspiring priestess. They represent the invading Romans and the native Britons of many tribes and lived in a world that is changing.

The Roman empire, overextended and increasingly dependent on its provinces for manpower, is on the decline. Briton, defeated but rebellious, is making its last stand. At the same time, the exotic Eastern religion of Christianity is taking followers from Rome's patriarchal and Britannia's matriarchal pagan beliefs. Like the Romans and Britons themselves, these religions coexist under an uneasy truce; as Joseph of Arimathea tells the priestess Caillean, "Surely then you know all the gods are one God," which she completes with, "and all the goddesses one Goddess."

While the Arch-Druid and the old High Priestess Lhiannon, together with Gaius's father Macellius, contrive to keep the peace, Eilan's father, Bendeigid, and her foster brother, Cynric, who is the result of Roman atrocities against the priestesses of Mona, want both to exact revenge on the Romans and to drive them off their island. Against this setting, the ambitious Gaius and the equally ambitious Eilan meet and fall in love.

Bradley sets up the history well, with touches that show how Britannia has slowly but inevitably succumbed to civilization. As one character notes, it has been decades since wolf- or bearskins have been available in the marketplace. Bradley establishes a good sense of time and place, although Caillean's story of her indifferent mother with too many children to care for seems to introduce modern sensibilities.

The characters and the plot seem more influenced by soap operas than by history or realism. Neither Gaius nor Eilan appears to be a well-developed, consistent character; in fact, the senior priestess Caillean is the only complex character whose beliefs are clear and whose behavior follows them. The Arch-Druid, Ardanos, wishes peaces at all costs, but the motivation for the strength of his conviction, which leads him to suggests killing his own descendants, is never clear.

The most puzzling aspect of The Forest House is the practice of the goddess religion and its role in keeping the peace. Neither Ardanos nor Bendeigid seem particularly faithful to it, and Caillean and many of the priestesses know that Ardanos changes the goddess's message delivered through the oracle of the High Priestess when he translates it for the common people. Bradley makes much of the Arch-Druid's manipulation of the oracle, whether delivered by Lhiannon or his granddaughter Eilan, but does not offer any detail about what he changes, why it angers Caillean and others, or why the goddess allows it. Ardanos is painted as manipulative and shady, but without details it is difficult to judge him or what he does. Only once does the goddess bypass him, and it is to state the obvious—that the world is changing, and that the Roman and British people will become one whether they wish it or not.

As in The Mists of Avalon, Bradley refers obliquely to Atlantis. She also mentions the idea that Caillean, Eilan, and Gaius have lived before and will live again, but the significance is never revealed, unless it is meant to explain Arthur as the once and future king. Without a story of Arthur's return, however, this seems an insignificant plot point that is given more significance than it seems to warrant.

At some point, the plot comes to a halt and struggles for some time. Events happen that are necessary to expedite the conclusion, but they take a long time to unfold and are not interesting on their own. Eilan talks about the importance of her "work" at the Forest House, which seems to be primarily to speak at the festivals for the goddess, who is reinterpreted anyway. Gaius marries, has children, travels, and meets influential people; this part of the story seems especially protracted and tedious. As they grow older, both Eilan and Gaius become more self-righteous and less likable so that, by the end, I found it difficult to care about the fate of either one. It is the Irish Caillean, who is sent to establish a new home at Avalon, who remains interesting and true to herself.

The Forest House is a pleasurable but disappointing novel that offers few surprises and, unlike The Mists of Avalon, adds little of note or interest to the Arthurian legend.

Thursday, 1 June 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Basic creative writing

I don't know whether to be excited or frightened. About a month before my 45th birthday, I signed up for a University of Chicago Graham school noncredit class—basic creative writing.

I have taken a few other continuing education courses, two on copyediting and one with Roger Ebert on film noir. In the late 1990s, I enrolled in an online course on short story writing, but for various reasons I didn't become as involved as I should have and did not finish it.

So this will be my first serious (I hope) attempt to unlock my creative abilities. I admit it—I need help.

That's really the heart of my problem; I am not convinced I have any abilities. If I do, they have been buried so deep for so long that they have probably atrophied, asphyxiated, and rotted away by now, leaving behind me, a shell of a human being with no talents to call her own.

Often I feel like I deserve no more than to be a corporate wage slave, and every effort to rise above that lot, to do something worthwhile, would be wasted. At other times, though, I feel like there are important things to be said or revealed, or contemplated, but I can't think them all through. They, like so much about life, elude me.

I don't know what this class can or will do for me. I don't expect it to turn me into a good writer, or even a competent one. I do hope that it does, or at least that it helps me find my voice and perhaps some stories to tell. Finally.