Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review: Lady of Avalon

Lady of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. New York: The Penguin Group, 1998. 380 pages.

Lady of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley picks up where The Forest House ended. Avalon has been established under the leadership of high priestess Caillean in the shadow of the holy Tor and close to the Christian brotherhood at Inis Witrin. The first book follows Eilan's son Gawen and his contribution to Avalon, the second establishes Avalon's active role in the politics and future of Britannia, and the third focuses on characters familiar to Arthurians—Vortigern, Vortimer, Viviane, and Taliesin and the Merlin of Britain.

Although the mythology and history are rich, the material is squandered in these nearly plotless, barely connected stories. While Avalon tries to preserve the degenerated wisdom that remained when Atlantis sank into the ocean, the world is being torn apart by the oppression and instability of empire and waves of barbarian invasions. Caillean, Gawen, and the daughter of the fairy queen, Sianna, save Avalon, then their successors extend its influence outward to manipulate kings, princes, and military leaders. In spite of the sacrifices and losses, Britannia seems no better off; Rome clings to it, and the barbarians keep coming. There are important victories, but they seem contrived when the goddess is called on to frighten off the Saxons, and they do little more than provide a break in the onslaught. The plots are so minimal and the useless details so many that it's not clear to what extent Britannia's rebelliousness and vulnerability contributed to Rome's decline and fall.

The goddess religion of Avalon is murky at best. Unlike in The Mists of Avalon and The Forest House, the magic here is unquestionably real; the visions are not drug-induced hallucinations, and priestesses invoke the goddess to deter the enemy. The "ancient wisdom" seems to be centered on the power of the earth (focused along leys), the seasons, and reincarnated souls like Gawen, Sianna, Dierna, and Carausius. Practice of the religion is as ordered and artificial as the rule of Rome, with strict rules and elaborate rituals that owe more to the human predilection for control than to the concept of nature and the earth. Even the most natural of emotions and acts, love and non-ritual sex, are forbidden. Young men and women are drawn to Avalon, but their passion is poorly articulated, especially when they cannot know the mysteries revealed during training and initiation. There is nothing special about the character or intelligence of the many of the Druids and priestesses called to Avalon; why are they singled out to preserve the ancient wisdom and mysteries?

While the plots and the secondary characters are weak, the real problem is that so many of the primary characters are selfish and unlikable. Gawen, the "Pendragon" and "Son of a Hundred Kings," from beginning to end is unremarkable, displaying predictable rebelliousness and nobility at the expected moments. He is so susceptible to suggestion that "the priest's words had tainted the Druid ways as well." Dramatically and childishly, he exclaims, "You both want to possess me, but my soul is my own! . . . I am leaving to seek my kin of Rome!" His soul mate, Sianna, has no more personality than Waterwalker, whose role is to pole the Avalon barge. High priestess Dierna does not seek the obvious path, proving the fairy queen's point: "But I do not know what the purpose is, exactly, and if I did, I would not be allowed to speak of it; for it is often in working for or in avoiding a prophecy that people do the very things they should not." We are told that Teleri, who is weak, pliant, and passive, is destined to become high priestess of Avalon; why would the goddess, the Druids, and the priestesses choose someone so unsuitable for such a position? At her worst, high priestess Ana is egotistical and petty, especially with regard to her daughter, Viviane. Is it Ana or the goddess who says, "I would gain nothing. I already have everything."? For reasons that are never explained, the enigmatic fairy queen insists that her daughter become a priestess of Avalon, and it is her line whose members impose their will on events rather than that of the goddess, proving their human side stronger than their role as conductor of magic. Of all the major characters, only Caillean, Taliesin, and perhaps Carausius are likable, revealing both human weaknesses and a greater wisdom. Although it is strongly hinted that Carausius is a reincarnation of Gawen's soul, they are different enough that it raises the question of what these souls are and why only certain ones return again and again, while others are "once born." The whims of the god and goddess, as channeled through these souls and through the Druids and priestesses, appear to be as illogical as those of any human.

Without a solid plot driven by strong, sympathetic characters, Lady of Avalon lacks the touches of historical and magical drama that made The Forest House at least interesting. Although the novel reveals some of the reasons for the decline of Avalon and the goddess religion, Lady of Avalon adds little essential to The Mists of Avalon.

Sunday, 29 June 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Hyde Park's weak hippie

The sign on an empty storefront announces that "In a few weeks there will be a fruit and vegetable store here." Below are sheets of paper with an invitation to make your desires and preferences known.

Someone requested varieties of that comfort fruit/vegetable, cheesecake. To clarify, "vegan" is penciled in nearby.

Another soul would like "bears, coyotes" to be sold. Someone helpfully noted that these items are "not vegan!"

One person would like to buy "ORGANIC—LOCAL!" Someone pointed to this request with an arrow and editorialized, one imagines somewhat sadly, "You're a weak hippie." Is this because the first writer is not fortified with pesticides and growth hormones?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wacky weather and dragonflies

After I picked up Hodge, who, I am told, was well behaved (I assume this is relative to his typical behavior versus relative to that of a normal cat), I went to Bonjour for coffee and sat inside. I noticed some cloud buildup in the west, and the temperature seemed a bit cooler when I came out.

On my way back, the sky to the east was mostly sunny, but a dark cloud loomed directly overhead, and when I reached Hyde Park Boulevard at 55th Street, the westerly wind began driving large, scattered drops of rain into my back and backside. A couple across the street held their umbrella straight in front in a defensive posture, but when it's this windy, you're simply going to end up wet with a torn-up umbrella.

The light changed, and I continued on. East of Everett Avenue, the sidewalks were dry—they weren't even blotchy from the large, erratic raindrops. I looked back to the west and saw that the sky was clear in the same spot where the black rain cloud had hovered just minutes before. I wondered if it had moved over the lake that quickly and had stopped spitting rain as it moved.

This evening the wind has picked up, knocking over the pool and lawn furniture with abandon. Now the temperature is comfortably cool, and I would like to sit outdoors a while longer even as I batten down tea glass, notebook, and everything else that seems weightless to the gusts.

When I first came out, I spotted an enormous dull green dragonfly with a purplish "tail." It tried to settle on one of the evergreens, but at that moment the wind kicked up and thrashed the bush around so much that I thought the dragonfly had had to let go or had been beaten to death by the flailing limbs.

During a brief lull, I was startled to see it take off and fly straight toward me, just a foot or two away. I thought it would dart past me, but it latched onto me, right in the middle of my left chest area, if you can picture that. "Great," I thought, "if anyone sees me they'll wonder why and how I'm nursing this giant dragonfly. 'Do you often walk around with a huge dragonfly attached to your chest?' they'll think, and perhaps even ask." How could I answer that, asked or unasked? Fortunately, my dragonfly friend and I were quite alone.

I love dragonflies and normally would enjoy the opportunity to see one so close at rest, but this seemed a little too intimate. With an unconscious, indiscernible movement, I persuaded the dragonfly to seek shelter somewhere more stable.

Nonetheless, perhaps it will bring me better luck.

Dream: Tests of fortitude

The Partridge Family was performing in an auditorium. I liked the music, which was new. When I saw people with signed CDs, I decided to get one, which required going on stage during the performance. I felt shy, but steeled myself to do it.

To get to the stage, I had to work my way across two narrow ledges and pick up a magazine with each successful step sideways. It was harrowing and time consuming, and I wanted to quit, but it was the only way to get the CD that I now wanted badly. In addition, this ledge crawl appeared to be the only way to get to the bathrooms.

As I made it from the right side of the first ledge to the left and was trying to figure how to take the step up to the next ledge to work my way back, I became aware of several things. First, the audience perceived me as a mentally deficient child who couldn't do such a thing, so they mocked me. Many of the magazines in my hand were duplicates, which seemed unfair, and the next one was a silly fashion/celebrity publication in which I had no interest. I lost track of why I was stuck on the ledge.

I looked up and could see one of my objectives, but not the bathrooms, which had become unlabeled, moving targets. David Cassidy looked the same as in the television series, even to his hairline and style, but sometimes his face was worn with the ravages of late middle age. Danny was still a child as though decades had not passed. Was that Danny Bonaduce? It looked exactly like him, but surely he could not be stuck in perpetual pre-adolescence.

The CD had "19" in the title, and I never knew how I obtained it or whether it was worth it.

I was with some friends in a contraption at the bottom of a steep hill. By the use of pools or some form of mechanical leverage, we were able to extend our physical strength to "walk" the contraption beneath us up the hill. We soon found that it was surprisingly easy.

As we progressed, to the left and right we could see prisoners performing day-to-day activities and tasks. Some wore white long johns with yellow polka dots, while others sported different patterns in various colors. Some were lined up at what appeared to be a general store, which seemed to be an unusual haunt for prisoners. Others appeared to be taking care of houses or gardens. As we passed, they would stop what they were doing to stare at us. It was then that I became aware than I and the other women were naked, which now seemed to have been a foolish idea on my part. I couldn't understand why we had, at my suggestion, done something that would leave us surrounded by prisoners, nor could I imagine why they left such a vulnerable group alone. Suddenly I was afraid.

At the top, I realized that getting down the hill would be the harder task. How could we control the contraption's descent on that steep decline?

A man offered an elephant to help us. I did not trust the elephant, who looked at me with preternaturally human eyes. I said that one kind of elephant has gray eyes, while the other has brown—but then I remembered a third kind, which made my neat point ridiculous. The elephant continued to eye me in a meaningful way; I could not read its thoughts, which at the least seemed to bode further difficulties for the group but especially for me. I didn't know what to do, and again I was afraid. Somehow we began our descent.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Time and relativity

I'm on the train returning to Chicago after what feels like the shortest vacation I've ever had. I slept more than I meant to and didn't do some things I intended to , but I don't regret that as I have before. I did what I could and enjoyed it without feeling bored, at a loss, or disappointed. Now the weather has turned hot and humid, so perhaps it's best that I've gotten all that walking out of my system. When I get home, unpack, clean up a bit, and return to work, time, or my perception of it, will slow down to its normal, boring speed.

After eating at Casey's Tavern last night, we visited Ann Arbor Too, which, like its sister bed and breakfast, is charming, albeit in a different way. The contemporary and discreet range successfully share the kitchen with a vintage pot-bellied stove that dominates the scene. A deck overlooks a lush green park, and a south sun room serves as the breakfast room. As my friend said, this house would be lovely in winter, too.

Yesterday we drove to Tantre Farm, where she has a share. I tried the Seascape strawberries—sweet, and the peas—crisp. We visited the chickens, which were enjoying the shade, along with turnips and strawberry tops. We also stopped to look at the cows. On the way back, I spotted a turkey vulture flapping around someone's yard and several goldfinches flitting back and forth across the road with their characteristic up-and-down movement.

The next time I find myself succumbing to the inane concerns of small, controlling minds focused on the insignificant and oblivious to what matters, I must remember the goldfinches and the relativity of time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Post-birthday blues

I don't feel blue, but for the first time since Sunday the sky is wholly overcast and the rain more than intermittent if not constant. I don't mind rain and clouds, and sun causes me all kinds of problems, but at this time of year I prefer the partly sunny or cloudy of the past few days to complete gray. One damp woman, carrying a plant purchased at the farmers' market through the rain, saw me, laughed wryly and said, "My umbrella's is in the car—right where it belongs!"

Yesterday afternoon I celebrated my natal day by contacting the gynecologist, who told me Ignatius is 10 cm, one of his friends is 9.5 cm, and the third is large. She said that they're about the size of a small medicine ball, although I'm not sure if she meant individually or combined. While my weight, which makes me a poor candidate for surgery, could be causing my lower back pain (a relatively recent development), she said that common sense would indicate that all that crowding could be affecting my bladder. Both back and bladder are interfering with my ability to walk as much as I would like, alas.

She referred me to the brochure she'd given me, so now it's up to me. I'm still undecided, but I sent an e-mail inquiry via Ask4UFE to the radiologist. Now I suppose I should make a list of questions with my own spin.

We walked through a dense, young woods last evening, the kinds of woods that birds don't favor—not enough open spaces. The lack of clearings didn't faze the mosquitoes, which usually leave me alone. When they do bite, generally I don't suffer much effect. This evening, however, I was a mosquito magnet, and now I have enormous red welts on my thighs and calves. It was a great excuse to sink into a comforting bubble bath with my current reading material and relax.

This morning, I headed for Falling Water, walked quickly through the farmers' market lest I be tempted, and ended up at Café Verde, still my favorite place here. A man next to me told his friend that all he knows personally of the woman who will be his new boss is that she is "very smart and very competent."

I don't know who he is or what he does, but I envy him.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"I'll cry if I want to"

Mr. Wolf is correct—it's my birthday, a date I hide from my day-to-day acquaintances and highlight on my Web site. Thank you to those who sent greetings.

I am celebrating by experiencing one of the pains of middle age—perhaps a rite of passage of sorts. For a while my lower back has been expressing unhappiness, and my abdominal region has been feeling tense and full of pressure. Both seem to have become worse recently, while my need for handy facilities has grown. It all makes being a pedestrian tourist somewhat difficult and painful, and my body seems to be telling my stubborn brain the same thing my friends have: "Get the UFE done already!" I hope my discomfort isn't merely psychological because my awareness of increased within a couple of weeks of my conversation with the gynecologist. I would like to think I'm not that susceptible to a little suggestion.

In my planned rambles today, I found Hollander's and spent too much there, then bought J. a T-shirt at Peaceable Kingdom. The "Dog Person" version was unavailable in his size, but "Cat Person" was. Heh heh heh. "Message, Spock?"

I finally came to Sweetwaters Café on Washington and thought I should have gone into the one in Kerrytown. For some indescribable reason, which could be familiarity, I think I prefer Café Verde. It could be because it feels less polished and more subversive than Sweetwaters, and it's a little more tucked away.

Bob and Pat mentioned their second bed and breakfast, Ann Arbor Too, which also looks wonderful. Bob said that a bus stops there, frequently during the university's year, so it wouldn't be impossible for me to stay there without a car. It sounds delightful—an 1842 farmhouse adjacent to Miller Nature Area. Perfect for me.

I'd better start saving for my next birthday. Fortunately, it comes only once a year.

Aside: As I was leaving, I found the fairy door at Sweetwaters, then backtracked and saw Peaceable Kingdom's.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dream: The lost pencils, and a "good tired"

Both yesterday and today I've been unusually tired. I didn't get much sleep Saturday night. I wanted to do some writing and reading on the train, but after I had settled in I couldn't stay awake. Even sitting up in an uncomfortable position, I fell soundly asleep. This morning after breakfast I fell asleep, and then again this afternoon after I had gone for a walk and eaten a portobello mushroom and mozzarella sandwich at Café Verde. Even Love Buzz coffee and Earl Grey tea couldn't keep me conscious. I hope I don't sleep away my time here. The room, The Maine Woods, is comfortable, and the weather has been what my Pennsylvanian parents called "good sleeping weather." My stressed body has noticed.

At Borders, of all places, I found four-color Camel pencils from Japan, as well as "Be Goody" lead pencils, also from Japan. The latter have an eraser end, but no ferrule. It's an interesting and sleek design, and they write fairly smoothly and darkly, too.

At Motte and Bailey, I found The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw published in 1970, clearly never cracked open and therefore read; a similarly pristine copy of Gondal's Queen: A Novel in Verse by Emily Jane Brontë published in 1977 by the University of Texas Press; and an unloved library edition of The Oxford Book of Children's Verse published in 1973, complete with the stamped name, address, and phone number of a previous owner.

After lunch (grilled portobello and mozzarella sandwich at Café Verde), a brief stop at People's Food Co-op, the haul back, and some reading and writing on the balcony, I slept and dreamed that, as I was trying to get up and get off a bus, I noticed some of my favorite pencils missing from my case. I'm under the impression that I held the bus and made a fool of myself by getting down awkwardly to look under the seats, which I sensed didn't endear me to my seat mate or other passengers. Then I finally got off the bus and found myself isolated on a quiet country road. The next thing I remember, someone had asked about the long-delayed development brochure, and the responsible person had a shouting fit and nervous breakdown over it.

After eating A.'s pizza, we watched Sweet Land, which, aside from being a love story, represents the foibles and the strengths of a small community, and how one can overcome the other. The scenes in set in 1968 were very evocative for me; Inge's hair and glasses reminded me very much of a friend of my mother's who happened to be not of German ancestry, but Norwegian. I do not know if her coffee was "too black."

After I came back, I couldn't sleep for a long time, but I also couldn't stay quite awake, either. I am what my parents would call a "good tired." Perhaps I should simply give into it and enjoy it when I can, even if it is during the day.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dream: The royal wedding, and all aboard

This morning I dreamed that I was looking at paintings that appeared to depict a Russian royal wedding and that it was vital that I put them into the correct order. I did not know whether they should be arranged chronologically or in some other order. In the middle of the stack I came to a magnificent full-length portrait of a woman in an ornate costume (the bride or her mother?) and thought perhaps she was meant to be the culmination of the series. I had a feeling that, if I didn't get the order precisely right, something very bad would happen to me. Then a light started flashing beyond my closed eyelids—my alarm—and I woke up thinking some catastrophe was about to occur.

The early Sunday morning alarm was to get me up in time for a trip to Ann Arbor. I'm on the train now, passing through a cross section of countryside that probably represents a good portion of the eastern and midwestern United States—family farms, small towns, and industries of various sizes. In minutes you can pass everything from fields, trees, taverns, decaying houses, and bland new subdivisions to massive concrete smokestacks that put food on the table and a blight on the landscape and the soul.

As industry grew and promised a higher quality of life for more people, did anyone question whether this was any way to live? I remember a story about a place in Brazil where the air quality was so poor that the writer's lungs began burning within minutes of getting off the plane. The lungs burn; the soul sickens; the animals die or disappear. Is this the fit legacy of general prosperity?

Unbeknownst to me, my dad lived a double life. Early every morning for 26 years, or nearly 30 percent of his life, he went to work at the Ford Stamping Plant in Lackawanna, New York, an industrial city south of Buffalo dominated then by Ford, Bethlehem Steel, and the rails that carried their shipments. The few times I went to or through that part of Lackawanna I must have felt like I had entered an alien world where all the beauty of nature had been completely supplanted by the ugly dreariness of steel, concrete, and pavement.

And every night he came home to a trailer facing an open field and backed by woods in which deer, rabbits, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, and other animals thrived. He saw owls a few times; occasionally I heard whippoorwills. When we went to the butcher's, they'd give us suet for the snowbirds, and we'd buy enormous bags of birdseed at the feed store or grocery. Watching the antics of the chickadees or cursing the aggressiveness of the blue jays gave both my parents great joy—a joy they could not have found in Lackawanna.

I have to remind myself that I can't completely disparage industry, although I can lament some of its lasting effects. Without it, and unions like the UAW, men like my father might not have earned a living wage, been able to provide their wives and children with health and dental care, and had enough to live on during retirement (for my father, 23 years). In areas where industry has come and gone, the blight is felt the most—the negatives without the benefits.

It's easy to forget about or ignore industrial blight when it doesn't surround you—out of sight, out of mind—or when it blends into the urban landscape. From the vantage point of a train, as it travels through different human settings like a bit through layers of sedimentary rock, it is impossible not to compare and contrast the smokestacks of Hammond, Indiana, with the forest, fields, and farms of south central Michigan. Life on a farm is hard and uncertain, but there is a natural rhythm to it combined with an indefinable emotional satisfaction. Life in the shadow of the factory is also hard and uncertain, and the reward is to be able to provide for the family. In that shadow, however, how many wither and die inside?

As I see decaying or abandoned mills, plants, and other remnants of the age of industry in my train travels, I wish that we could reclaim the land—tear down the concrete and steel and let nature rebuild. But there is neither the money nor the will to restore the land, and so the Rust Belt grows ever rustier—part of our legacy to our future.

Monday, June 16, 2008

World Naked Bike Ride Chicago: June 14, 2008

Saturday J. took me to Geja's Cafe for my early birthday dinner. We chatted with the waiter between the oil and chocolate courses, and I mentioned that, while I love everything, the cheese fondue is my favorite. He put on an appalled/insulted look and said to J., "Let's ditch her so we can have the chocolate all to ourselves." Fortunately, I was allowed to finish the meal.

As we headed toward Lake Shore Drive, we encountered a massive group of naked or mostly naked people riding toward us on bicycles. Body paint, pasties, and other adornments had been applied in a dazzling number of creative ways. Partway through the pack, about a half dozen Chicago police officers (fully uniformed) provided a bicycle escort. All of the officers were grinning, some bemusedly and some sheepishly as though they were thinking, "I signed up for the force to protect the public from drug dealers, gang bangers, and evildoers, not to hang around with naked Yuppies on bikes!"

After 10 minutes of not getting anywhere very fast (our idea had been to see some of the fireworks at Navy Pier), J. turned into a side street, admitting that all that nudity had become very distracting.

I didn't see any signs indicating a theme, but it wasn't difficult to find the event online. It was World Naked Bike Ride Chicago, the local version of an international effort to promote cycling and human-powered transportation and to protest oil dependency.

Dress is as "bare as you dare," with the caveats that it's best to get bare as part of the mass and that the police can be particular about exposed female nipples and male and female genitals. The idea is that it's hard to ignore naked people on bikes. On this night the police seemed willing to overlook both nipples and full frontal nudity. Otherwise, they would have had to arrest hundreds of people for doing something that doesn't hurt anyone. At that time on a Saturday night, children should be in bed, and adults offended by the human body may need counseling because we all have one.

The Naked Bike Ride looked like a lot of fun, and if the logistics were more realistic I would consider participating. I would. Seriously.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dragonflies, catbirds, and dogs

A couple of weeks ago in the garden at The Flamingo I saw a butterfly with muted orange, black-spotted fore wings and dark or gray hind wings clinging to the vines and soaking up the sun's rays. I've seen this kind before, so I assumed it would be easy to find in my field guide book or online. I still haven't found it, although it has to be a common species, nor have I seen it again.

When I've walked out here in the last couple of weeks I've sent a half dozen dragon- and damselflies darting to the left and right, back and forth. I seldom get to see them clearly, although I've caught a glimpse of metallic blue on one damselfly and metallic green on another. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only person who notices them as they fly about, and if the children appreciate these jewels on the wing as much as I do.

Last week I noticed a catbird trying to get a grip on a branching twig with its bill. The first time I recall seeing a catbird was in my cousin's yard. I heard the mewling of what sounded like a desperate cat, but when I looked all I could see was a long-tailed gray bird. I should not be surprised to see one here; they were pretty common in the wooded areas at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Sunday morning a thunderstorm with high winds and heavy rain drove in a man who'd taken his little dog for a walk. The walk turned into a run as sheets of rain came down and the sky flashed, and the little dog could hardly keep up with the master. When you see the sky turn green and feel the wind pick up, take it as a sign that Fluffy can find relief at the nearest lamp post or tree, and real "walkies" can be put off a while longer.

Now, after a sweltering day that threatened storms for much of the afternoon, the air has cooled and the sun is setting here even as it rise somewhere else, and thus ends my weekly respite from the weird and not-so-wonderful alternative reality.

The plot to murder Ignatius, part two

Before I left the gynecologist's office, I made an appointment for an ultrasound for the next morning. Later it occurred to me that I hadn't been told to drink lots of water beforehand. I was even more confused when the administrative assistant and the ultrasound technician both asked me if I needed to use the bathroom.

"Don't you need the person to have a full bladder so you can see?" I asked the technician. I told her about my previous experiences.

"No, we don't have to do it that way anymore," she replied.

As she went about her preparations, the back of my mind mulled this. The technology hadn't changed that much, so I was mystified by the change in direction. Hesitatingly, I asked what was different now that a full bladder is no longer required.

"With a vaginal ultrasound, a full bladder would just get in the way," she explained.

A vaginal ultrasound? I'd never had one and wasn't going to now, I thought, as I eyed a wand sticking up from the machine with suspicion.

I told her I wanted an abdominal ultrasound only.

"Well, that's a problem because I won't be able to see what I need," she said, explaining why and adding a discreet reference to the size of my stomach.

"I won't have it done."

"I'm not comfortable doing an abdominal only because it's not going to show what we need to see."

"And I'm not comfortable with a vaginal ultrasound."

After a few rounds, it became clear we had reached an impasse.

She paused in her preparations, and I could see her mentally weighing how to handle this. I couldn't be talked or forced into a vaginal ultrasound, yet I wouldn't there if the gynecologist hadn't wanted a look. She sighed.

"Tell you what," she said. "I'll look to see how much water you need to drink, and we'll try it."

So she looked. And looked again. And kept looking without stopping to have me drink water.

"Can you see anything?" I asked.

"Yes. I can see your left ovary, which is good. Your uterus is so large that this is going to work out fine. The only thing that the vaginal ultrasound would have picked up that this can't is your cervix, which your doctor can see during an exam." She paused and said brightly, "See, the patient knows best!"

"I don't know anything," I said, "except that I wouldn't like a vaginal ultrasound."

She laughed. "No one likes it!"

She told me there are two fibroids to the left and either a third large one or a large cluster of several smaller ones. She gave me the measurements, which I was not in a position to write down. I remember, I think, three inches by four inches and four inches by four inches for two of them. Cumulatively, the measurements would be about 10 inches each way. She confirmed my doctor's estimation that the uterus is the size of a 20-week pregnancy. With ruler in hand, I can see why that would be considered "enormous" or "huge" and how it might cause bladder and other discomfort. Next week the gynecologist will tell me what she thinks.

A UFE is starting to look like a possibility . . .

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The plot to murder Ignatius, part one

At last, after two missed appointments due to bad timing, I met my new gynecologist. Like many contemporary physicians, she has ditched the traditional unisex lab coat and practical shoes. She has opted to sport a dress and heels, both of which looked uncomfortable to me.

Her assistant performed the usual preliminaries (height, weight, blood pressure) and asked me if I wanted her to be present during the examination. I am not sure I understand why having Stranger 1 in the employ of Stranger 2 present while Stranger 2 examines me would be desired. Having one stranger checking out your nude, vulnerable body seems uncomfortable enough without a witness.

The doctor met with me in her office, which was decorated with appropriate texts (Complete Gynecology), family portraits and candids, and knickknacks. Despite the touches, it didn't reveal any personality. Even the family photos could have been anyone's family photos, a thought that makes me sad. On the surface at least, we are not as unique as we like to think.

She asked the usual questions, then the conversation turned to my primary interest—Ignatius and his fellow fibroids. Her recommendation is a uterine fibroid embolization, or UFE, in which "microspheres" are inserted via the femoral and uterine arteries to block or decrease the blood flow to the fibroids (a form of slow fibroid murder). While not a surgery, the procedure is not without risks, of course, which I have to weight against the discomfort to which I seem to have become accustomed. I could carry on without a UFE, although Ignatius and company are showing a disturbing tendency to grow. On the other hand, a number of women say that they felt immensely better within days of their UFE and that they are glad they had it performed. As Virgil says, something that large can't feel right. And who doesn't want to feel immensely better, especially when they have a vague feeling they don't feel as well as they could?

Then we moved to the examination room and got down to business. At the sight of my scar, she expressed shock. "I thought you said you had an appendectomy? That's a big scar!" (Curious, I later measured it; it's about seven or eight inches long and one-eighth to one-quarter inch wide.) I explained my understanding of what happened, which is that my "hot potato" appendix was hiding demurely behind my bowel, necessitating a search-and-rescue party. Now even I wonder why it required an incision the length of two hands side by side.

Her first attempt with the pap smear was unsuccessful because the swab was too short, or, as she put it, "You have a long vagina," which, I think, qualifies as one of those things one doesn't need to know about one's own anatomy.

She must have struck the proverbial pay dirt with the second attempt because for an eternity it felt like an enraged pit bull had a very sensitive internal part in the grip in the grip of its sharp teeth and powerful jaws. I bit my lip. I tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress groans and even a tear or two. Finally, the pit bull let go. I'm sure I would have remembered that much pain during previous samplings! I blame Ignatius.

After the breast exam, always fun when I'm in the throes of PMS, it didn't take much effort for her to find my uterus, which is "huge." ("Enormous" or "huge"—take your pick. I gather that it's a bit larger than the norm.) Naturally, between the fat and the fibroids, she couldn't feel my ovaries—they've been in hiding for several years. Clearly an ultrasound was in order.

Next: Fun with the ultrasound technician.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dream: Möbius strip

For a long time I'd been walking to the opposite "corner" of an oval to catch a bus. The walk was long, and I was often late, but the bus was going in the right direction from this location. Someone told me (or I may have noticed) that I could go to the nearest "corner" because the traffic flow on one half of the oval was oriented one way, then its orientation switched to the other direction on the other half. I could not figure out how this worked and kept trying to turn the oval into a ribbon. Perhaps my dream self was trying come up with a Möbius strip.

I was in the kitchen of a house when I heard knocking on the door. I couldn't bring myself to answer it, although I could see shadows on the other side of the curtain. Eventually I would have to let them in. I hoped that they would believe me when I said I hadn't heard them.

I was in a dark, empty room that resembled a holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Across the way, a plane buzzed in from my right and slammed into the back wall's corner. A tiny man ran away down the length of the wall screaming; he may have been on fire. After he disappeared, there was silence, then a helicopter flew in from the same place and slammed into the same place. This time, the man who ran away screaming stopped just before he would have disappeared and fired a high-powered rifle at me. Stunned for a moment, I could think of only one way to escape—through the back door of the trailer. I imagined hiding in the woods, but thought that he could track me down through sound and breathing. Or did I need only go through the back door? I was paralyzed by indecision.

Banded demiselle damselfly

Banded Demiselle Damselfly
Originally uploaded by Lins~


Originally uploaded by Lins~

Earth in perspective

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.
Here's the story.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Got milk?

In May I underwent my favorite annual ritual—a physical exam. This year included an EKG, which I passed. My physician is disturbed mainly by the size of my uterus, which she thinks is in the area of a 20-week pregnancy. I'm sure the gynecologist will have an opinion about the size when I see her next week. Until now, I had not thought that Ignatius (the largest of the fibroids) and his muscular friends were causing trouble save for the frequent bathroom trips, but now I am not so sure. There's a possibility Ignatius and company may be contributing to the pain in my lower back and in my legs, and now I realize that I've become used to a feeling of fullness and pressure around the middle that is not normal. My doctor is not convinced my wait-and-see attitude is the best course of inaction, given that menopause may be a few years off.

I received my lab test results with a letter from the physician. For the most part, they were acceptable, except for one: my vitamin D level is "extremely low." The reference range is 32 ng/ml to 100 ng/ml, and my level is <7 ng/ml. She helpfully included a prescription for ergocalciferol—one a week for six weeks and one every other week for the following six weeks. Then she will retest me and recommend a supplement.

I wonder how long I've had this deficiency (perhaps over the winter only?) and if it might be responsible for some of the muscle and joint aches that I have become accustomed to. I'll see how I feel in 20 weeks. I would be happy if vitamin D makes a difference.

Someone mentioned that vitamin D has become the media's fad vitamin, replacing the somewhat discredited E. I hadn't noticed this, but the next time I looked at the news headlines online, I noticed an entire section on a study that showed a high percentage of children to be deficient in vitamin D. Children—and me!

Dinner with the University of Chicago Class of 1983

On Friday, I went to the University of Chicago Class of 1983 dinner hosted by the university's president, Robert Zimmer, and his wife. I don't know what possessed me to sign up for it, which I did before I knew that any of my friends would be there. Aware that I would know at least two people, I managed not to back out.

First, there was the question of dress. My wardrobe, suitable for a reclusive life, lacks style and variation. I had a vague idea that this might be a dress occasion, but wasn't sure. One of my friends called to ask, "What are you wearing? I heard that people get dressed up, but I also heard some wear jeans." By then I'd already decided on slacks and my dragonfly blouse—dress casual, more or less. I figured that if I were the most underdressed person there, those who remembered me would not have expected anything else.

I didn't expect to recall anyone outside my immediate circle, which was very tiny, and perhaps a few people from the dorm. As I peered at name tags during the reception, I was surprised by how many of those names, if not faces, jogged my memory—possibly more names than I remember from high school. I also ran into the man I'd sat next to at graduation. I mentioned that we'd laughed together at President Hanna Holborn Gray's ponderous delivery of her speech. Then she seemed ancient; in reality, she was only 53—six years older than we are now. How time changes your perspective.

When I'd gone to my 10- and 20-year high school reunions, I'd been fascinated by how much people had aged even in 10 years, how many men had lost most of their hair, and how many people had added padding. The combination of sedentary occupations, relative affluence, packaged and prepared food, and complacency seem to age the body in that way, turning even lean teenagers into rounded adults. I observed this on Friday, but I was also struck by how few were significantly gray—L'Oréal for women, Grecian Formula for men?—and by how few of the men were bald.

At these reunions, I've also seen wide variety in the rate at which people age. A few people at my 20th high school reunion looked 10 years older than everyone else. I don't mean aging caused by exposure to the elements, like lines, leathery skin, and powdery look that come from being in the sun. Some facial structures simply seem to succumb more rapidly to gravity.

I noticed this, too, at the reception. Between mature stoutness and aging of the face, some looked very mature. On the other hand, I recognized a woman at my table instantly—not someone I had known personally, but someone who had lived in the upper house—simply because she had changed so little. At least in the light of the tent, her fair complexion was unlined and firm, and she had avoided putting on that bit of padding that can make one look uncomfortable in one’s own skin.

At 10th reunions, people seem to fear comparison—that they will feel ashamed of their lack of accomplishments,t that their career or title is not lofty enough, or that they won't measure up in some way, especially to people perceived as popular overachievers, who in turn may feel that they haven't lived up to their promise or expectations.

After 25 years (and probably much sooner), people have accepted who they are and what they have done; status matters less. A few classmates provided biographies listing impressive careers or academic or social recognition, but the talk at my table was mostly about shared memories—late-night runs to Harold's Chicken, relationships, apartment living after the dorm, and restaurants and bars.

I remembered one man across from me, too far away to talk to, as well liked, although I didn't know him. Afterward, he came around to say he was sorry that we didn't get to talk during dinner. When I said I recalled him although I was sure he must not know me, he said that of course he did. I was skeptical, but he seemed so sincere that I understand why he is liked.

I don't have a lot of memories in common with anyone. I didn't go out much or explore the neighborhood, I didn't have many friends, and I didn't participate in much of the social or academic life. Years later I finally understood what life there could have been for me and how I could have grown had I been more sophisticated and outgoing, and less overwhelmed and depressed.

As we were waiting for our ride, I mentioned that, during my first year, I had attended a sherry hour with Eudora Welty as the guest of honor. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, she took a shine to me and spent a significant amount of time talking to me. That conversation should be engraved on my brain and heart, but it isn't; at the time I didn't know who she was. As odd as that sounds, it's true. I knew that she was a writer, but that's all. Later I understood that I had received once-in-a-lifetime encouragement in literature from an American writer whose stature might equal that of, say, a Brontë or even Austen, and I hadn't been able to appreciate it.

That anecdote sums up my college experience. I had countless opportunities to hear from world-renowned intellectuals and influencers, and I frittered them away out of ignorance.

The day after I asked one of my friends if she noticed how things that had seemed so important then had proven to be insignificant and how the angst over them now seems almost silly. Her response didn't answer my question, but it echoed a page in the memory book. She said she had come here as one of the top students in her school only to find herself one among many and that she kept challenging herself. I didn't really quite follow the rest, but I felt a similar sense of opportunities not understood or not taken.

Will I go again in five years? I am more likely to, if I can. I don't want to keep making the same mistakes.

Male ruby-throated hummingbird

Male Ruby-throat
Originally uploaded by The Nature Nook

Friday, June 6, 2008

Dream: Splintered spying

The killer flatworm and the animated piece of splintered wood first alerted me that this was no ordinary situation.

I was in a restaurant talking to a man preparing food. A piece of meat tore cleanly, and inside he found a flatworm that did not look natural. While I wondered how he could be so calm about finding something so disgusting in the food, whether there were parasites in everything else, and what I should do, I suddenly had a prickly feeling that this was not what it seemed. Perhaps realizing that I was onto it, the parasite became animated as he was starting to examine it.

Awareness hit me that I was a spy about to engage in an extraordinary life-or-death battle. A flat splinter of weathered gray wood appeared to be my ally and my source as I struggled to understand what it was trying to communicate to me. This situation, in which any living thing or inanimate object could become a friend or enemy, was surreal, or it involved advanced technology. Even as I tried to comprehend this, I saw ketchup bottles unscrewing their own caps and attacking people, although I could not tell which side they were on. I was afraid that when they squirted someone in the face, that person's face would melt.

I was peering into something dark, and dead eyes peered back at me. I could see the dim outline of a cartoon-like tiger and a black animal. Someone, perhaps the splinter, was telling me that wildlife was being poached, and now I understood that I had to stop it.

Slowly, subtly, the animals came back to life or were reanimated, and they killed an entire group of tiny people. When I looked down at the carnage, it appeared to be blobs of red and green modeling clay, and someone was saying that we had to be more realistic than that. Could this be a movie set? I felt surrounded by enemies, animal and inanimate. How could I know who or what to trust in this bizarre world?


Originally uploaded by JodieBean

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dream: Fiery train apocalypse

I was outdoors, perhaps at a farm, and found myself talking to boys from high school. They had been bullies, but because this was a reunion I hoped they had grown up and would not torment me. I could tell by their looks and attitudes, though, that they had not. For an unknown reason, I was compelled not to get away from them.

I mentioned glasses, but realized that the pair I was wearing didn't match the ones I was describing. I noticed that "Eddie's" were Silhouettes like the pair I was describing, only larger. To find common ground (or a target?), I mentioned that my dad would never believe that such small lenses could work, and he said that his father would agree. I felt uneasy, waiting for him and the others to do something to me.

A black, roiling cloud filled the horizon. I thought that it must be a tornado, but then I saw that the source was a steam engine. It appeared to be intact, but there was so much smoke that I thought the apocalypse must be nigh. The engine pulled forward as though to move the danger away. It was hauling hundreds of boats of all sizes, styles, and colors. Hundreds of people waved and cheered among the boats like nothing was amiss, then I saw the clowns among them. Now there was no trace of the explosion and fire from the engine ahead.

I remembered my own trip coming up in a few weeks and thought, "Surely Amtrak won't use a steam engine," mentally picturing a streamlined diesel engine. Remembering the uncanniness of the smoke, I was afraid.