Sunday, February 28, 2010

Working Out Sore Muscles

A few days ago I caught myself moaning over sore muscles - the various bits of me that had been hibernating all winter and were rudely awakened by the first round of hard work in the early spring garden. As I limped around the house groaning, my mind did what it usually does: it started to make connections of all sorts based on the sore muscles paradigm. The place where my thoughts finally ended up startled me.

First, I realized that I'd recently been working out some figurative sore muscles at the computer. You see, the freelance editing I do is fairly rote and rarely requires much imagination or creativity, even when I'm reworking someone's fiction. Mind you, I enjoy it or I wouldn't do it. Still, it's a totally different process from writing my own stuff.

My fiction composition, however, is a beast of a different order. In order to come up with something my agent will actually accept (and not laugh at, though he's usually kind enough not to laugh in my face) I often have to stretch beyond my current limits as a writer. This generates sore muscles of a different sort, especially if I haven't pushed myself in a while.

Now, I've been writing for a very long time.
When I was a child it was easy to come up with new ideas, new ways to approach a story, new characters and conflicts. Often the concepts came faster than I could write them down. Of course, my ability to compose something an adult would be interested in reading is another thing entirely. But write I did, eagerly and often. Have you ever noticed that kids don't get writer's block?

I began to wonder why that is. Of course, children don't have deadlines and bills and big-world stress, but they do have something few adults can claim: the ability to look at the world with fresh eyes. Kids aren't cynical, even when they've been through hell. They don't have to learn to think outside the box because they haven't yet realized there even is a box. They're the ultimate problem-solvers because they don't restrict themselves to a prefab, agreed-on mindset.

So as I stretched my garden-weary sore muscles, I also began to stretch the muscles of my mind. How long has it been since I've looked at the world, really looked at it as if I didn't already know what was there?
We're always telling each other to 'grow up.' Maybe, in some instances, we need to do the opposite. Sure, the bills still need to be paid, deadlines need to be met, the dishes need to be washed and the toilet scrubbed. But in among the duties of adulthood I'm planning some time to find that child-mind I know is still in me somewhere, eager to explore the wonders of existence. Won't you come play, too?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Under the Radar

OK, I admit it, I'm fascinated by the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue. I keep paging through it, finding more odd things. Right now I'm fixated on the Drug Department. You could order just about any kind of medication, including laudunum and paregoric, by mail, no questions asked. Hypodermic syringes, too. Of course, these things were perfectly legal at the time. Other things weren't. I ran across one particular item that really rocked my head back. Let me quote you the entry:
If you know much about herbalism you'll recognize this as a powerful abortifacient formula; note the postscript that says, "With useful information and instructions to ladies concerning their troubles." Troubles, indeed. Bear in mind, abortion in any form, for any reason, was illegal at this time; but here we have the Sears catalogue selling an abortifacient formula right there on the second page of their Drug Department section, in between Kidney & Liver Cure and Little Liver Pills.

Here's the thing: Herbal knowledge was much more widespread in 1897 than it is now. It was taught in medical schools, handed down from one generation to the next and considered part of a normal person's basic life instruction, sort of the way we now teach our kids to take aspirin for a headache. Most people reading this catalogue would know that "Female Pills" and "Pennyroyal Pills: The Standard Female Remedy" did not describe a benign formula to help with mood swings or some such.

I also found a copy of the Aurora Daily Express from March 1, 1901 with an ad for the aforementioned pills. Here they're described as 'a reliable and safe monthly regulator.' Indeed. I bet, if a woman took those pills once a month at a particular time in her cycle, she'd never have any...problems. Ahem. So what gives?

I'm thinking, women probably used these pills as birth control out of desperation. Technically they're not a contraceptive, since pregnancy would occur and then be terminated. I've seen modern instructions for using cotton root as birth control in much the same way these pills would have been used. It would awfully hard on a woman's body, but not as hard as repeated unwanted pregnancies, I suppose. Upwards of ten children wasn't at all unusual in 1897. Poor women; no wonder they died young. In an era when most information about birth control (condoms, pessaries, the rhythm method) was ruthlessly suppressed, this might have been the only available choice for many women. Wow.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Dissatisfaction Dance

Why is it that so many of us are dissatisfied with our bodies, our hair, our skin, our jobs, our homes? Is this some sort of perverse training society secretly instills in each of us to keep us from being happy? Is it a species-wide case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence - or over the septic tank, as Erma Bombeck so helpfully pointed out?

What triggered this line of thought? An NPR article that showed up in my Facebook feed: Fashion Week's Latest Trend? Plus-Size Models. At first I weighed (pun very much intended) the various aspects of the thin-vs.-fat, healthy-vs.-unhealthy debate. Then I realized that for virtually any point of view you might find, there is someone who can reasonably argue against it. In other words, if you listen carefully to the discussion, you’ll be dissatisfied with your body no matter what size you are. And don’t even get me started on the long list of friends and relatives, male and female, who spend tons of money to perm straight hair or straighten curly hair. Or the ones who are always looking for a new job - or romantic interest - because the current one isn’t good enough.

At first I thought this was a recent phenomenon, perhaps an outgrowth of aggressive multimedia marketing or information overload. Then I picked up a copy of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue. I bought it, along with the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue & Buyer's Guide 1895, as resources for our family’s living history activities and also to supplement my daughter’s home schooling. And guess what? It’s full of stuff you can buy to fix the things you dislike about yourself, your clothes, your house, you name it. You were expected to have lots of these bits of dissatisfaction, apparently, more than a century ago.

My daughter, a tender 10-year-old, was at first distressed at the ad for The Princess Bust Developer and Bust Cream. Then she laughed a lot. There’s also the Princess Tonic Hair Restorer, a wide variety of corsets (for men, women and children!), arsenic wafers to lighten the skin, and all variety of stuffed pads for men and women to tuck under their clothing and fill out various problem areas for a more fashionable figure.

Then I picked up another book and discovered the fad diets of the 18th and 19th centuries; these were mostly to gain weight, not lose it, since plumpness was fashionable and considered healthy at the time. Soon after, I discovered that ancient Roman men and women plucked body hair (ouch!) and dyed the hair on their heads to cover gray. The Romans also had a thriving market in anti-wrinkle creams and potions to fade age spots and freckles. I wonder, did prehistoric peoples dye their skin and hair with powdered pigments because they were dissatisfied with their looks?
This twisted history lesson really gives me pause. Maybe it’s inborn. Maybe there’s some sort of genetic glitch in humanity that makes us want what we don’t have. I have to admit that it took me 40 years to learn to like my hair and quit perming and dyeing it. I’m learning to be happy with my body, to accept what I have in life at the moment and appreciate it. But there are still those little, creeping, nagging thoughts of “wouldn’t it be better if…”

What does all this dissatisfaction do to us over time? It’s got to have a negative effect, a sort of quiet gnawing at our insides. I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year on January 1 but I’m taking the opportunity now, at Chinese New Year, to make a single, simple resolution: to allow myself to be satisfied. I’ll probably be fighting against eons of human tradition and millions of bits of genetic code, but I’m going to put my heart in it. We’ll see how it turns out.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's That Time of Year Again

It's that time of year again. I mean the time when it's still freezing cold outside but the crocuses are starting to poke their colorful little heads up through the frigid earth beneath the crabapple tree. The birds chatter excitedly as they pluck the last crabapples off the aforementioned tree, a favorite stop on their way back to their northern summer grounds. (Yes, this really is a photo of our ornamental crabapple tree at this time of year - no leaves but still plenty of fruit for little birdie snacks.)

I spend whole days at a time planning my garden, deciding which veggie will go in which plot, when I need to plant them, which seeds I need to buy and which I still have saved from previous years. And according to my family, I become annoyingly bouncy and cheerful and plaster way too much insipid cuteness all over the house (baby kittens peeking out of overall pockets, anyone?).

What is it about the tender reappearance of life out the quasi-death of winter that turns otherwise normal (give me the benefit of the doubt, OK?), responsible adults into fizzy-headed, giggling schoolchildren who skip around humming happy songs? I mean, this is the 21st century. We know that the world isn't going to end in winter. We know spring is coming every year, like clockwork. What gives?

Maybe it's just instinct. Sure, we carefully condition the air in our homes and cars so we can't tell whether it's winter or summer until we step outside. We use electric lights so we can't tell what time of day or night it is without looking at a clock or out a window. We cover our windows at night and ignore the changing moon (can you tell me how many days away from new or full we are today?). We take advantage of every imaginable kind of modern technology to obliterate the cycles of day, month and year - to pretend that everything is the same all the time. But it isn't, and something deep within each of us still knows that.

Sure, we can tell the change of seasons these days pretty easily by the changing displays of consumer goods in our local mega-marts: first pool toys, then Uncle Sam hats and sparklers, school supplies, purple glitter cats in witchy hats, then plush reindeer with ornaments hanging from their antlers, followed by the current display of chocolates in red heart-shaped boxes and greeting cards with lewd jokes in them. In a few more days the shelves will be stocked with multi-colored plastic eggs and wind-up walking chicks. I stand in those aisles, staring at the overwhelming display of 'seasonal goods' and wonder, "Isn't there something more?"

Of course there is.

No matter how hard we try, we can't extinguish the tug of the cycles on our bodies, our psyches, our innermost being. Close the curtains, turn up the air conditioner, turn on another light, it doesn't matter. Like it or not (and I happen to like it), we're all inextricably linked with those cycles. We're a part of the system, not apart from it. Call it Gaia, quote Ecclesiastes (to every thing there is a season...), however you want to frame it, you can't deny it.

So every summer I'll laze around, feeling luscious. Every autumn I'll become energized in an almost desperate way. Every winter I'll go a little quiet and soft. And every spring I'll stick pastel fairies and cute little kittens all over the house.