Sunday, June 30, 2002

'mists of avalon'

I read "Mists of Avalon" about ten years ago, and I honestly wish I had saved my money and my time. In addition to Zimmer Bradley's routine misportrayal of Christianity and paganism, and in addition to her ridiculous sexism, I thought the story completely failed to do anything that would make it work. Ygraine's characterization was inconsistent; the plot meandered and went nowhere, even as it sometimes promised to bring significant events; and the characters were so effing extreme they completely failed to be believable.

The idea was sound -- tell a story about the transition from Celtic Britain to Christian Britan -- but it failed to be fair, accurate or representative. The other idea -- tell the Arthurian Cycle from the POV of the women -- also failed, since Zimmer Bradley shunted the women off to the sidelines throughout her whole book. There was a little promise of intrigue, but so little happened with it.

One of the finest contemporary retellings of the Arthurian legend I've ever read is Gillian Bradshaw's Gwalchmai trilogy -- "Hawk of May," "Kingdom of Summer" and "In Winter's Shadow." Mary Ellen Stewart's Merlin trilogy also is good, and her sympathetic portrayal of Mordred in "That Wicked Day" is fascinating, though the book lacks the appeal of the trilogy.

Zimmer Bradley's book? I'm amazed it was published. It's even worse than "Jane Eyre."

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

israel and palestine

I read an interesting opinion piece in The Sunday Star-Ledger last week about the new policy Sharon is pushing. In hand with the traditional offer of "Give us land, we give you peace," Sharon is offering the Palestinians the deal "If you take our peace, we'll take your land."

The problem is that this is a game with nightmarish stakes for everyone, and I wish that something would happen to resolve the situation sensibly, but I have no idea what that would be. The hatred is deeply ingrained on both sides, ties into religious zeal and such a vested part of the culture that it would take tremendous effort to break away from it and make peace.

One might think that after nearly 40 years the young people at least would be able to look at the situation and say "These other people my age are not to blame for this situation; most of those who are to blame are already dead" and accept the status quo, but that remains difficult for many groups of people to do, especially where there is a strong sense of solidarity and national pride, just as many of my grandparents' generation still hate the Japanese for Pearl Harbor and just as many will grow up hating Muslims and Arabs because of 9-11.

Another point many are overlooking is that the land Israel is being pushed to "give back" is land that Israel won in the Six Days War, when it was attacked on all sides and drove back its attackers. I'm hard-pressed to think of examples where any other nation so attacked was then pressed to give back land it gained during the war, in exchange for peace.

Sunday, June 23, 2002

father mulcahy

A religion professor I had back in college had a rather interesting take on Mulcahy. The padre, he said, is representational of how many Americans view religion: Nice and pleasant, but generally uninteresting and useless in the real world, except maybe for Last Rites or other moments where you need comfort.

Pretty much sums up Mulcahy's character, actually. I remember one or two episodes where they tried to give him some character, and it was still people like Hawkeye who gave him any meaning, by telling him what to do.

I always considered Father Mulcahy to be one of the least interesting characters overall. Even now that we have the first season on video, my opinion remains the samem even with the limited characterization I'm noticing.

the heartbreak of foster parenting

I knew when I got into this situation that I was setting myself up for heartbreak, but that hasn't made the heartbreak any less painful. His parents recently received unsupervised visits, and in the next couple weeks will be taking Isaac for the entire day to the zoo.

As usual, I'm torn on this. If Isaac is returning to his biological parents, he needs to be refamiliarized with them. On the other hand, I think the state is rushing things and is failing to consider what level of progress his parents have or have not made. Every time he's been away for a visit with them, he comes home grumpy as hell, won't eat or sleep properly, and invariably has regressed at least a month in one problem behavior area or another.

I won't unload here in a public forum, but this entire experience has been emotionally draining for me and will be long after it's over, no matter how it's resolved.

Saturday, June 22, 2002

caller id vs. the telemarketers

Caller ID has done a great job at reducing the volume of telemarketer calls we get. They all come up as unknown caller, so we don't pick up the phone until we hear a familiar voice on the answering machine.

My best friend has a device that sends a disconnect tone across the phone line whenever he picks up the phone. Telemarketer computers get the signal and mark the line down as inactive, purging it from the database. It seems to have no effect on other calls, though.

trees folo

Alas, my good fortune was not to last. The apple seedling has died, and the willow never rooted properly after all either.

The walnut tree actually isn't a walnut tree either. I'm not sure what kind of tree it is, actually, but the walnut seedling I did have was dug up and turned under when I planted a bunch of wildflowers in a heavily shaded raised bed in my back yard.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002


Eurydice is a character from Greek mythology who had the misfortune of being bitten by a poisonous snake on her wedding day. Her husband was Orpheus the balladeer. Unable to accept his bride's death, Orpheus descended into the Underworld and asked Hades and Persephone to let Eurydice return to the land of the living with him.

Persuaded by the power of his music -- which was strong enough that it eased the suffering of the damned and even caused the Furies to weep -- Hades agreed to let Eurydice return to the surface world with Orpheus on the condition that Orpheus walk straight out and not look back the entire time. Eurydice, he told Orpheus, would follow him like a shadow.

Orpheus walked for hours in silence, hearing no evidence that Eurydice was following, and wondering if Hades had lied to him. At last he reached the entrance to the surface world, convinced he had been lied to, and he looked back -- just in time to see Eurydice's shade disappear back into the Underworld. Orpheus later dies when he is ripped to pieces by the Bacchante, the Women of the Frenzy, devotees of the god Bacchus.

I don't recall who wrote the tale originally, possibly Ovid includes it or a version of it in "Metamorphoses." I suspect it is one of the myths that is cited within another work as a moral lesson to a tragic character who completely misses the point and is destroyed by the same character flaw that ruined Orpheus.

It was retold in the Sandman trade paperback collection "Fables and Reflections," with slight modifications to fit Neil Gaiman's ensemble of characters -- Morpheus, Dream of the Endless, is Orpheus' father, rather than Apollo, for example -- and was published separately as "The Song of Orpheus," I believe as part of the regular "Sandman" comic in DC Comics' Vertigo line.

My personal favorite retelling of the story is "Sir Orfeo," one of three poems written in a dialect of Middle English spoken north of London and away from the court of Geoffrey Chaucer. "Sir Orfeo" was discovered along with two other Middle English poems of which we have just one copy, all written on the same scroll, "Pearl" and "Gawain and the Green Knight."

The forgotten author of "Sir Orfeo" et al turned the story of Orpheus and Eurydice into a more allegorical story, although nowhere near as painful to read an allegory as Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" or most other allegories, for that matter. In this story, Eurydice is taken away suddenly by the elf-king. Orfeo, who in addition to being a balladeer is also a king, leaves his kingdom in the hands of his steward and wanders off into the forest, essentially driven mad with his loss.

While he is mad, Orfeo wanders into the elf-king's camp and sings so movingly of his loss that the elf-king restores Eurydice (whose name in this poem temporarily eludes me) to him. Reunited with his queen, Orfeo then returns to his kingdom, disguised as a wandering minstrel to test the character of his steward, a rather popular theme in Medieval literature.

The steward honors the minstrel for the memory of his departed king, at which point Orfeo reveals himself and is restored to his former glory, his wife at his side, and makes the steward his heir. Like I said, despite its allegorical nature -- Orfeo for Christ, Eurydice for the church -- it's a neat version of the story.

Friday, June 14, 2002

father's day for foster dads

I have three reasons to celebrate Father's Day this year. The first is 2½ years old and has been calling me "Daddy" for over 18 months. The second reason is due Nov. 5, and probably won't call me anything for a while. The third reason is a little boy who is not my son, but to be honest, I couldn't love him any more than if he were.

Let me tell you about Isaac. He arrived at our house in mid-January. As soon as he was put down, he ran across the floor full-tilt, waving his arms at eye level and excitedly screaming, "Eeee!"

In less than five minutes, he had fallen down so many times I lost track. He nearly pulled a potted plant off the window sill, and he tried to put more than a dozen things into his mouth, ranging from my daughter's toys to leaves from our aloe plant to a bone the dog had just been chewing.

That was my initiation to the world of foster parenting.

Over the next few days, other problems became evident. Even though he was 23 months old, Isaac could barely stand, let alone walk. When he did walk, he found cars more interesting to watch than where he was going, so he fell what seemed like five times a minute.

Also, Isaac rarely smiled. His preferred facial expression was an utterly blank one in which his mouth hung open and drool streamed out. When he became upset or frustrated, he would twist his face in anger. He seemed to possess no other expressions.

And while my daughter, Evangeline (a little more than three months older than Isaac) could speak in mostly comprehensible sentences, Isaac's vocabulary essentially was limited to two clearly recognizable words: "tickle-tickle-tickle" and "gootchie-gootchie-goo."

Our situation is hardly unique. There are 4,775 foster homes in Iowa, with 193 located here in Mercer County. These foster parents provide homes to 128 children in the county, or to 6,679 children statewide. While two-thirds of foster children statewide are black, like Isaac, in Mercer County the figure jumps to 72 percent.

My wife and I decided to become foster parents when Isaac's mother, who had started attending our church a month earlier, had her children taken away for severe neglect and for failing to provide adequate supervision.

"For us to put a child in foster care, we can do it with the parents' voluntary consent, we can do it with a court order. Third, we can do an emergency removal and then go to court," said Joe Delmar, a spokesman for the state Division of Youth and Family Services, which runs Iowa's foster care program. "Usually, we'll be directly involved with the family for some time. There may be other issues."

When a child is in foster care for 45 days or longer, a child placement review board must look at the situation and determine whether the situation truly is in the child's best interests.
"There's a whole system of checks and balances," said Delmar.

DYFS subjects prospective foster parents to a thorough background check, including references, a criminal background check that covers the past five years, and a check for any records of child abuse.

"Once (the foster parents) complete all the background checks, they are required to go through a course," said Delmar.

The course includes 24 hours of training in foster parenting, with an additional 14 hours required every two years, to keep current. The instruction addresses issues that parents might encounter in foster parenting, such as children with emotional problems or with severe physical challenges or needs.

My wife and I bypassed this requirement by taking part in an alternate form of foster care signed into law in January. Under the kinship care program, relatives and family friends also may become foster parents at the request of the child's parents, provided they pass the necessary background checks.

"The rationale with kinship is it's important for a child to have some sense of continuity," said Mr. Delmar. "The kinship program was established to encourage relatives to step forward and raise a child, but the most important thing is maintaining continuity for the child."

Beyond that, differences between kinship care and regular foster care are largely pecuniary. My wife and I receive $250 a month from the state for taking care of Isaac, a sum we plan to invest for his education whether he remains with us or returns to his biological parents.

Under the regular foster care program, foster parents receive $412 a month for children up to 5 years old, $444 for children 6 to 9 years old, $464 for children 10 to 12 years old, and $516 a month for teenagers.

"The levels go higher if the child has special needs or is HIV-positive," said Delmar.
The state also provides Medicaid coverage for the children, regardless of the program they are placed through.

In past years, children could languish in foster care limbo for years, unable to be adopted by their foster families yet uncertain whether they would ever return to their parents.

In 1997, the federal government passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which limits the time children are allowed to remain in the system. Under the provisions of this act, if a child spends 15 out of the past 22 months in foster care, DYFS must file for a termination of parental rights and put the child up for adoption.

"A lot of our adoptions are foster parents adopting their foster children," said Delmar. "If the foster child becomes clear for adoption, they are given a chance to adopt the child."

In Isaac's case, this would mean he could be eligible for adoption by March 2003. My wife and I already have told DYFS that we would be willing to adopt him if we are allowed.

Still, even with 6,679 children in foster care in 2001, there were only 833 foster parent adoptions that year. This does not necessarily mean that the foster parents' involvement with their foster children is at an end, although it usually does.

"We have had some cases where, after a child has returned home, the parent reached out to the foster and continued to involve them," said Delmar. Such arrangements are solely private and are not monitored or arranged by the state.

For those children who do return to their biological parents' custody, a DYFS caseworker is supposed to check on the children periodically to ensure that their home situation is still satisfactory. If it is not, DYFS will reinvolve the courts and could ask for the children to be placed in foster care again.

"It's not uncommon — maybe a quarter of the time — that a child who's been in foster care needs to be taken back out," said Delmar.

Isaac has made considerable progress in the five months he has been with us. Because I usually take him to walk the dog with me at least once a day, he has reached the point where he rarely falls down, and when he does, it's usually deliberate or the result of inattention, rather than inability.

He has gone from expecting us to feed him to feeding himself with a fork and spoon. His vocabulary, while still limited, is growing steadily; it has already reached the point where he is stringing words together into two-word phrases.

And one of the most visible areas of improvement is obvious as soon as he smiles. Because he does smile a lot these days, and it's a smile often mixed with laughter. One thing he's not allowed to do, however, is to call me "daddy," not even on Father's Day, because that's a name that should be reserved for his biological father.

"The relationship would be similar to an aunt or an uncle's relationship, someone that the child can love or trust, but you don't want to step on the rights of the parents or guardians and cause any confusion to the child," said Delmar. "The balance is really maintained on the individual level."

For some foster parents, that means arrangements like respite care. When the foster parents are traveling or going on a family vacation, DYFS can arrange a temporary foster home for the child for as long as the foster family will be away.

Not everyone is comfortable with that. My wife and I aren't.

"Others want to open their heart a little more and push the boundary back," said Mr. Delmar. "It really depends on the comfort level of the foster parent."

As with most parents, our thoughts continually return to Isaac's future. Beyond the next few months, his future is uncertain.

This Father's Day will be a bittersweet one for me. As much as I love Isaac, he is not my son. The goal of foster parenting always is to take care of somebody else's child until they're ready to take the children back and care for them again. Only about one foster child in six is put up for adoption. The rest return to their biological parents.

It's entirely possible that on Aug. 15, the courts will decide that Isaac's biological parents are ready to regain custody, and he will be gone from our lives as suddenly as he came, leaving a hole in my heart the size of a child.

"It's difficult for our foster parents who have become close to their foster children," said Delmar. "We always try to remind them there is no guarantee of adoption. With foster care, it's understood that it's temporary and the main goal is the foster child's happiness."

Copyright © 2002 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, June 10, 2002

reluctant antichrist

It's such a tragedy isn't it? Here we have a man who doesn't desire greatness or infamy, who will cling on to his privacy and low position in society with all his might, but his destiny is too great to be resisted. Slowly, bit by bit, he is forced out into the limelight, and the mantle of world dictator is thrust upon him, followed by crowds shrieking their adulation and offering him their worship. And all the while, he shouts, "No! I don't want all this -- I just want to sing!"

Sunday, June 09, 2002

temper, temper

What's the best way to handle a child's tantrum?
  1. Begin playing tuba solos very loudly to drown out the noise
  2. Use the crying for a new answering machine message
  3. Psychoanalyze the child, focusing on his relationship with his mother
  4. In a calm, quiet voice no one can hear, explain why tantrums are wrong
  5. Record the tantrum as a sound wave and e-mail it to a friend
Actually, we have discovered with our foster son that one of the most effective ways to discipline him is to cover his eyes.

For the first two years of his life, Isaac's primary means of stimulation was visual, since no one ever talked to him or took an interest in his development. He hates it when we cover his eyes, so that's become one of our preferred discipline techniques: Behave, or we won't let you see for a minute or two.

Saturday, June 08, 2002

nuremberg files

I'm sure most people who pay attention to the abortion debate are aware of the ongoing controversy surrounding the so-called Nuremberg Files web site.

This is an ostensibly pro-life site that targets doctors who perform abortions. The site lists the names of the doctors, along with personal information such as their license plate numbers, addresses, and so on. Some of the doctors appear in Old West "Wanted" posters, as though they were desperados and outlaws, and whenever one of the doctors dies, the site crosses them off.

Columnist John Leo has an interesting take on the issue as it pertains to free speech, and implied threats. That groups like Planned Parenthood perceive a threat from the site is at once both obvious and understandable. On the other hand, no threat against abortionists is stated directly and no one is urged on this web site to kill the abortionists designated with "wanted" posters.

"Poor taste" doesn't begin to describe this sort of tactic. Such web sites clearly are meant to intimidate the abortion providers in question. If those responsible for posting the site claim to be Christians, I'd have a hard time agreeing that they're representing the character of Christ through such tactics.

It's going to be interesting to see how the Supreme Court handles it. My first inclination is to support free speech/free press, even in cases where that freedom is being abused, but no matter how the court rules, this case is going to have some far-reaching aftershocks.