Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

If I Were On The California Supreme Court, I'd...

Meters swum today: None.
Playing in the background: Steve Roach, from "InnerZone"

A. Resign.
B. Sue the Mormon Church for emotional damages.
C. Hold a press conference for the sheer pleasure of calling everyone in the state an idiot.
D. Quit the legal field and start managing a heavy metal band, on the logic that I can certainly hang with a better class of people in the music business.
E. All of the above, plus go on a rampage up and down Huntington Beach in a station wagon, yelling "Put your shirt on!" at all the muscley bodybuilders.

My sister and I used to play "Thankless Jobs" on long car trips when we were teenagers. The goal was to come up with the worst job ever, not because it called for Mike Rowe but just by its sheer impossibility. Executive director of Planned Parenthood of Utah. Professor of religious tolerance at Baylor University. Chair of a peace conference between Libya and Scotland. Stuff like that. You can now add to our list Justice on the California Supreme Court. In the wake of Prop. 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California some 18,000 marriages (including mine) too late, the Justices are being asked to consider some challenges to the vote. Here's a quick look, from my nonlawyer nonconstitutional perspective, at what they're being asked to do.

The main petition, filed by some couples, the ACLU, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, alleges that the language of Prop. 8 is not a mere amendment to the state Constitution but breaks new ground entirely and is therefore a revision of the Constitution. This is angels dancing on the head of a pin, but it's a big pin and they're substantial angels. The difference is that a revision of the Constitution requires jumping through a lot more hoops. (Details here.) Based on the outcome of the vote in November, Prop. 8 would never have survived as a revision.

The problem with that argument? Well, the Court already had a look at that whole "revision vs. amendment" thing back in July and decided that Prop. 8 could still go on the ballot. One would like to think they wouldn't have let an amendment that should have been a revision go on the ballot. The Court also rejected a challenge on the ballot wording from some pro-Prop. 8 supporters, who argued that the ballot shouldn't read, "This initiative would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry." After all, all they were doing was defining marriage as "only between a man and a woman." I dunno, I guess "eliminate the right" sounded too mean or something.

Now here's the problem. By approving an amendment, if it wasn't illegal, the voters essentially excused the Court from hearing the case. So the fact that the Court is hearing it presents an existential argument as well as a legal one. Can you hear a case on a law that, by itself, is out of your jurisdiction? If a liberal falls in the forest and no one is around, is he still wrong? I think they can rely on a broad reading of Marbury v. Madison if they have to, but it's still an interesting question. I mean, if the Supreme Court does something illegal, who do you appeal to? she asked ungramatically. And if they decide that Prop. 8 was in fact illegal, can they really throw out a valid election result, even if it was bought with other people's money?

But the trouble is just beginning. If they hear this thing and uphold Prop. 8 as a valid amendment, they'll have to decide whether the 18,000 plus marriages are valid or not. Jerry Brown, the California AG and arguably the man you go to in a situation like this, says they are. Trouble with that, though, is that you end up with 18,000 married gay couples and lots of other gay couples who can't marry which would, of course, create two separate classes of people that are treated differently under the law. Which is against the California constitution. Here we go again. Besides, the text of Prop. 8 says that "only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized," which is kind of hard to argue with.

Naturally, the supporters of Prop. 8 have already demanded that the Court nullify those marriages, which will be hard to do for two reasons: Firstly, only the parties to a marriage may move to nullify a marriage. The state can't annul your marriage unless you ask it to. Secondly, all the marriage license applications were changed after the summer of 2008 to read "Party A" and "Party B" instead of "Husband" and "Wife" or "Bride" and "Groom". So how are you supposed to figure out which ones were two girls or two boys? I mean, sure, "Tiffany" and "Elizabeth" are a dead giveaway, but what if you have "Pat" and "Robin"? Or "J'kari" and "Lyric"? Even "Jen and Joan" is by no means a sure thing; "Joan" is an accepted spelling of "John" in the Pyrinees region between France and Spain. I mean, what are they going to do, throw out every marriage that happened in California between July and November? See above re: The State can't annul your marriage...

On the other hand, if they decide that the 18,000 plus marriages were not valid, then they've just put the State of California into the position of having committed massive fraud. Remember, all those marriages were legal at the time. Thousands of people coughed up a license fee, among other things, because they were legal. If they are now illegal, you've just passed the first ex post facto law in the history of the country - itself unconstitutional under Article I of some national document or other signed in 1783. The injured party in this case would be California. You'd have to hit the cosmic reset button, pretend none of this ever happened, and just watch the lawsuits roll in.

Think about it. The state would have to return scads of license fees to scads of couples, refund the fees for filing of deeds (if you're living together and you get married, you need to record a new deed on your house, if you own one), and very probably pay expenses, or, as we legal folk like to call 'em, "damages." In our case that would include the airline tickets and the cost of the DVD, and we could probably also argue for the disastrous meal in Balboa Park that followed. In short, it could be millions, in a state that's gonna run out of money in two months.

It's a clusterfuck of cosmic proportions. And you think your job sucks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead!! Bring Out Your Dead!!

Playing in the background: An episode of "Good Eats" on the Food Network
Smelling delicious in the background: Joan's Schadenfreude Pie (recipe)
Meters swum today: 1400

For some reason, my posts about child abuse don't seem to be all that popular. I can't imagine why that is. Since my blog might get axed by The Network if I'm not bringing in the ratings, let's talk about something more palatable to the general public: The Black Death. A couple of days ago, The History Channel ran a fascinating special on the only thing to kill more Europeans than Adolf Hitler. Here's the link. I stayed up way too late watching this thing. It was utterly fascinating and terrifying.

This is an electron-microscope picture of Yersinia pestis, the little bacterium that caused this big near-extinction-level event in the 1340s. If you read your history books, you know that the little bugger hitched a ride on rats by way of fleas, which infected humans by biting them. It causes three diseases, bubonic plague (30-70% mortality rate), pneumonic plague (same disease but you catch it from an infected person instead of from a flea bite; 95% mortality rate) and septicemic plague, the Black Death (100% mortality rate). The septicemic version may be the end stage of the first two, or it may be its own disease. Whatever, it kills you very fast, sometimes within a day. You probably know that half of Europe (and Asia and the Middle East) died of this thing. I knew that, too, but the implications hadn't really dawned on me.

I started thinking about that while I was watching the program. Here in Dallas we have about 1.3 million people, give or take. If even 10% of those folks dropped dead (and this would be within a matter of days, or maybe weeks on the outside), that would be 130,000 people. How in hell do you bury (or cremate or--whatever) 130,000 people? Where do you find enough gravediggers, enough fuel for the funeral pyres? That number was staggering enough, but half of Dallas? Dead within weeks? Good God, that's over half a million humans. That's just about unfathomable.

Let's try something smaller. There are about 50 people working at my law firm. 25 of them would die. Joan works at the big library downtown which has about 400 employees. 200 of them would die. You can fit roughly 3,000 passengers onto the typical cruise ship. 1500 of them would die. My typical OA meeting has around 20 people. 10 of them would die. Start crunching these numbers and you get an idea of how utterly devastating this disease must have been for the people who were alive then. Everybody lost loved ones, friends, children, parents. What's worse, they had no idea what was causing it, and if you didn't get better by yourself, there was nothing anybody could do for you. Weirder still, nobody knows if the disease finally went away because there weren't enough humans left to spread it effectively, or if it just mutated into a less virulent form. Waves of bubonic plague went through Europe roughly once a generation until the 1700s, when rat control and better sanitation put the brakes on transmission. None of them were as deadly as that first wave, and again, nobody knows why.

This got me to thinking about the stock market. (Bear with me, it'll make sense in a minute.) Like pretty much every other person who had any money in a 401k, I've lost roughly a third of its former value. At least on paper. In real life, the stock market always comes back, real property always appreciate in value, and investments always gain over time. The question is, how much time? A year? Twenty? Fifty? If you bought stock in Ford Motor Co. in the 1920s and held onto it since then, you'd be a multigajillionaire today. Unless, of course, Ford Motor Co. tanked in the meantime and its stock became worthless. This can and does happen, which is why those financial gurus are always saying to Diversify Your Investments.

What's interesting about this particular market crash, though, is that everything is losing value. Not just stocks but also commodities (plunging gas prices may be great for consumers, but they suck for petroleum futures investors), bonds and other bland, boring, supposedly-safe investments. Across the board, everybody's losing money. At least on paper. Like Europe during the plague years (aha! There's the connection!) everybody knows somebody who's lost their life savings, their job, their house or all of the above. And just like in the plague years, people are losing faith in their institutions - the banks and financial houses instead of the Church, but it's the same sort of deal. If J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch can't give us good advice during a crisis of this magnitude, then what the hell good are they? Why bother listening to 'em anymore?

Though many priests acted heroically during outbreaks, a fair number also behaved badly, refusing to help the sick or give last rites for fear of catching the disease. Likewise, many financiers are behaving badly now, committing fraud, grabbing bonuses and bailing out with what they can. The end result after the plague years was the Renaissance as people began to think in radical new ways, and, eventually, the Reformation, when the whole Church got upended in the name of different views on divinity. I dunno what the end result will be when the economic plague finally goes underground, but it would be cool if it could be a different kind of Renaissance, based on commodities that actually hold value and not mortgages that never should have been made in the first place.

Horrible as it was for the human race, the survivors of the plague picked up and moved on. In fact, in a lot of ways the plague had a happy ending. With so many folks dead, a lot of land changed hands. In Italy for the first time, there was enough food to go around, and people were able to plant luxury crops like tomatoes and olive trees, leading to what we think of as Italian food. Labor shortages led to the inventions of things like the Gutenberg press. Survivors and their ancestors also had a kind of limited immunity to a number of diseases, such as smallpox and AIDS.

I'fact that last deserves its own paragraph. Even though AIDS scared hell out of everybody in the early 80s, it's really not that easy to catch, at least, if you're of European stock. You can get it, theoretically, by sleeping with an infected person once, but in real life most people catch it through multiple encounters or by injecting it directly into a vein, ie, through a shared needle. Condoms prevent transmission most of the time. (Hysterical pronouncements of God's wrath on the homosexual community aside, as far as I know, no woman has ever given AIDS to another woman. Every lesbian who has it got it from a man, or from blood. Does this mean lesbians are God's chosen people? Hmm.) However, if you live in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India, none of the above is true. AIDS has burned through communities like a bush fire and the death rate is ridiculous. It's highly communicable and some scientists even theorize it's gone airborne. Why? No one knows, but one theory is that sub-Saharan Africans never got the plague. That Sahara Desert being in the way thing. They didn't get the immunity that us northern European plague survivors have.

So, financially speaking, what does this mean? Well, I'm hoping it means we'll be a little more immune to bullshit financing schemes. That we'll ask a lot more questions about the regulation of the banking industry. That we'll invest in sustainable crops, energy that doesn't kill us, hybrid cars (or better yet, mass transit) and other things that people need to live decent lives. That instead of kneeling and praying when the flagellants come through town, flogging themselves into hysterics, we'll actually stop them and say, "Guys, you're making yourselves weaker and you're going to be easy prey for an infection. Cut it out, now." Or, more directly, "Guys, don't bail out of your 401k. You won't do any better on your own and ten years from now you'll feel like an idiot."

Beats hell out of burying 600,000 bodies, or, harder still, figuring out how to take care of millions of adults living to the age of 106 with no income and no Social Security.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book o'the Decade: The Sociopath Next Door

Meters swum today: 1400 (yay!!!!)
Playing in the background: Somebody's boom car and the twinkling of Christmas lights

Gotta talk about child abuse again, or rather child murder. If this subject depresses you, skip this post. I'm talking about Caylee Anthony, the second-most-popular Google search this year (just behind Britney Spears, which says more about we Americans as a people than we perhaps want the rest of the world to know.) This is the two-year-old who disappeared in Florida roundabouts last May, but wasn't reported missing until July when her grandmother called 911 and reported that "it smells like there was a dead body" in her daughter's car. Extensive coverage here- I'm not a fan of Fox News but they've been all over this story from the beginning.

Caylee's mother, Casey, has been charged with killing her and lying about her disappearance to authorities. I won't go into the whole deal here, but Casey spun a number of increasingly bizarre stories about what happened to Caylee. She left her with a babysitter and then couldn't find the babysitter's apartment again. No, the babysitter kidnapped her. No, she's living with some couple in Tennessee. She didn't say anything about alien abductions but that might have just been an oversight. Then there's all this plot about human decomposition found in the trunk of the aforementioned car, Internet searches on how to make chloroform on the family computer, various "sightings" of Caylee at shopping malls and on airplanes, and then of course the discovery of a child's body about 500 feet from the house. Which is almost certainly Caylee, or another two-year-old who's the exact same size and has an identical hair color and who's been dead for the same amount of time.

I gotta be honest with ya, when the child's body turned up my first thought was, "Okay, her mom couldn't have killed her. No murderer would be that stupid." Then some famous criminologist or other came on 20/20 and stated that women who kill their children typically either keep the bodies (ie, in a freezer) or dispose of them very close to the house, where they can watch over them. Later in that same episode of 20/20, they broadcast a particularly telling conversation where mom Casey called her parents, Caylee's grandparents (and there's a whole ridiculous sidebar about their behavior in this sordid tale, but that's too long for this post) from jail.

I got chills listening to this recording. (Here it is, about three minutes in. Watch the whole clip, though.) Casey is asking her mother when she thinks she'll get out of here. Her mother points out, logically, that if she hadn't been lying to the police all this time she wouldn't be in jail in the first place. Casey gets mad and demands the phone number of someone named Tony. Casey's mom passes the phone to Casey's friend Kristina, who's obviously crying. The woman says, "Casey, if anything happened to that little girl, I'll die. Do you understand? I'll die." There's a space of silence, followed by a long-suffering sigh, and Casey says, "Oh my God. Calling you guys, a waste. A huge waste."

So what kind of person would behave this way? Well, The Sociopath Next Door, is what kind. The FBI profiler on the clip above talks about antisocial personality disorder. Sociopath does it one better. This is my new book o'the decade, a telling and cautionary tale about people who don't have a conscience. They seem to be born without one, just like some people are born without wisdom teeth or ethmoid sinuses (or both, like me, though I have an extra nipple by way of compensation). These people are capable of behavior that most of the rest of us wouldn't think of doing, or at least wouldn't do, because, uh, we'd feel bad. Sociopaths don't feel bad because they can't feel bad. It's not only that they believe themselves to be the most important person on the planet, they believe that nobody else even exists - except to the extent that other people can provide them with things they want.

Casey Anthony fits this pattern so well, her picture might be on the front cover. That chilling phone call. The comment from a detective who tried, unsuccessfully, to find Caylee: "Casey lives ten minutes at a time - if she runs into an obstacle, she just turns and goes another way." The FBI profiler guy: "This person has probably been this way her whole life - she's been manipulating other people since she was a child." Caylee's grandparents, who keep insisting Casey couldn't have hurt Caylee (of course not, their little girl can do no wrong). And of course the pictures of Casey dancing at bars during the time Caylee was missing, to say nothing of text messages that refer to Caylee as "that little snothead."

The thing is, not all sociopaths kill people (though most serial killers are probably sociopaths). Some of them live pretty normal lives, rarely harm anyone and keep their lack of emotion to themselves. Some of 'em are your weird uncle Harold or that annoying lady across the street, and apart from being weird or annoying, they're not really dangerous. I had a friend once who openly admitted that she was the center of the universe, that she basically had no regard for other people, but she liked having company and so she invited people over and didn't do anything very obnoxious to make them hate her. I found her intelligent, funny and very strange, and while we're not in touch, I don't exactly regret having known her.

I'm no psychologist, but my guess here is that whether your average sociopath becomes a serial killer or a halfway normal person or just your weird uncle Harold has a lot to do with upbringing. A kid with no conscience, who figures out early how to manipulate his parents to get what he wants, gets very good at it by the time he's a young adult. After eighteen-odd years of practice, I imagine it's no big deal to kill somebody who gets in your way, or who has something you want and won't give it up. On the other hand, a kid with parents who won't tolerate this crap and insist that the kid be nice to other people has a much better chance of turning out halfway normal. Even if you think you're the only person who matters, you might be able to figure out that not everybody else feels that way. You might start mimicking normal interaction simply because it's less trouble. If you're a sociopath, it's all about you. If it's easier to get what you want and avoid punishment by treating other people well, you're more likely to do those things.

All that said, Jen is gonna play armchair criminologist. This is what I think happened to Caylee Anthony: Sociopath mom Casey probably couldn't find a babysitter for some hot date, so she took Caylee with her, dosed her with chloroform, and stuck her in the trunk. This probably wasn't the first time she'd done it. In fact, it was probably almost routine. She'd come back to the car, Caylee would wake up and start to cry, and she'd remember, "Oh yeah, I left the little snothead in the trunk" and take her back out. This time, she either gave Caylee too much chloroform or something else happened and instead of waking up and starting to cry, Caylee died.

Remember, Casey has no regard for Caylee or anyone else, so she probably thought, "Kid's being quiet" but didn't have any concern or apprehension. In fact--and this is the part that really upsets me--she might have forgotten Caylee was there. I'd even go so far as to say that Casey only bothered to open the trunk when Caylee's body started to decompose. Rotting bodies smell bad. She doesn't want a smelly car, so she gets rid of Caylee. That's it. Kind of like taking out the kitchen trash the night after having fish for dinner. Of course she's not remorseful. She can't be. She can shed a few tears at a hearing because that's what's expected of her, but there's no real feeling behind it.

I dunno if I'm right, but if I am, here's what we're left with. We have a cute little girl who never really had a chance, who's dead if not from abuse, then at least from neglect. We have two grandparents who are plainly delusional, who are convinced that their daughter couldn't have killed Caylee when most of the rest of the planet is more or less convinced that's what happened. (Tried in the media? Oh yeah. Move over, O.J. and Scott Peterson; this is the slam dunk to end all slam dunks.) We've got cops, detectives, lawyers and court officials who have to deal with all this, and it wouldn't surprise me if some of them end up finding another line of work when it's all over.

All of that is tragic, but consider the other tragedy in the corner of the stage: the grown woman, the mother, who will never be able to love or be loved. She's in jail, which is no doubt the best place for her, but I'm feeling a sort of weird pity for her and people like her. What must it be like, to go through life like that? What can you look forward to, in a world where any real measure of happiness comes from your connections to other people? I'm thinking life without parole might be the cruelest thing we can do to this woman. I'm thinking the death penalty, in contrast, might be too kind.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My stupid oral surgery is finally over.

Playing on the iPod: Jonn Serrie, "And the Stars Go With You"
Meters swum today: Zip. Banned from the pool until tomorrow at the earliest.

Sorry for lack of blogging but I spent most of Tuesday unconscious, most of Wednesday asleep, most of Thursday feeling sorry for myself and the majority of today trying to snap the hell out of it. I had the surgery. It wasn't bad. I'm a little sore and I have to take meds and antibiotics for a few days but I'll live. I don't even remember much of it, except one time when I became aware that somebody was pounding something metallic on the inside of my mouth. It didn't hurt but it was loud. Another time somebody poked me to open my mouth for one of those X-ray bite wings. That's about it until I came around at the end. I was still covered up with drapes & stuff so I apparently woke up a little early. There was a heart monitor across from me, beeping away, and I discovered when the heart rate dropped below 50, an alarm would go off. (I remember doing this when I was a kid in the emergency room once. It's not all that hard, just breathe veeeeery sloooooowly, exhale for twice as long as you inhale and think about something relaxing, like a sleeping cat.) After I did that twice, the assistant shook my shoulder and told me to cut that out. Just when I was having fun, too.

So why so gloomy, you ask. Well, I hate being messed with. Pounding something metallic on the inside of my mouth qualifies as messing with. I hate missing workouts. (I haven't been to the pool since Monday and the chlorine content in my blood is getting low). I hate pain meds. Yes, they're sometimes your best friend, but I never react well to them; they either upset my stomach, make me dizzy, make me fall asleep every five minutes or, in this case, all three. Percocet is the sole exception - I can function close to normally on that stuff - but doctors hate prescribing it because it requires that three-part controlled substance prescription and probably the pharmacists call the DEA as soon as they fill the order; "Psst! Yeah, it's me. Doctor X just wrote another prescription for Percocet!" Which is funny because lots more people get addicted to Vicodin. Ultimately, though, I am a creature of routine. Mess up my routine and I just don't know what to do with myself.

Am I inflexible? Maybe, a little. What I also am, is a large nebulous mass of free-floating anxiety. Yes, there are medications for this and yes, I do take one, but medicine is a mere splint on a broken arm. You still gotta go to physical therapy, keep the cast dry, keep from bearing weight and refrain from sticking anything in there. My swim team works out on Saturdays and about every other Saturday, I haul myself in at seven in the morning when I could still be asleep. I don't think this is dedication so much as a hedge against the long span of unstructured time that weekends can become. Yeah, unstructured time is nice, but when you're a large nebulous mass of free-floating anxiety, what you want to do is structure that time.

So here's the routine; get up at an ungodly hour, go to the pool, get dressed, go to work, work, come home, make dinner, do some household chores, relax for a while, maybe get on the computer and write something or take in a TV program, go to bed. Repeat the next day. I don't swim every day, it's more like every other day, but you get the idea. I'm also pretty standard about my approach to food - I have Issues With Food which is why I'm in OA - and my meals don't vary much from day to day. Two of my primary food groups are fruit and lean meats, and at the moment I can't eat either one of 'em. Lack of teeth. Or rather, a lack of functional teeth.

Today marks Day Four of my routine being messed up. In addition to not getting to the pool, my work day got interrupted by one of those instances of forced socialization that we call the Employee Christmas Party. A fine three perfectly billable hours got dumped down the drain in this exercise, in which there was good food, some door prizes (I won one) and a lot of pretending to have a good time. It's not that I don't like my colleagues - I do, for the most part. I just don't wanna like them for any more hours a day than is actually required and definitely not from the other side of a very small table. To say nothing of there being tons of food I can't eat (chew) and tons more food I probably could eat but don't because I have Issues with Food (see above).

Well, anyway, I finally have the all clear from my dentist that I can get back in the pool tomorrow, provided I don't experience any pain or popping noises in my right ear (or, I guess, the left ear, but he only mentioned the right ear.) So things should be improving directly. This is a great relief, not only to me but to Joan, who's had to put up with me for the last week. A patient patient I ain't.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Buddhist Scriptures, part II

Playing on the iPod: Deuter, from "Ecstasy"
Meters swum today: None.

Much to my relief, the Buddhist scriptures are getting better, or at least less flowery. I guess you can't really blame Buddhist scriptures for following a Hindu tradition, since Buddhism grew out of Hinduism. I had a religion professor in college who said that Buddhism was Hinduism backwards. I dutifully wrote that down with the rest of my notes, but in retrospect I think that's too simple. Buddhism and Hinduism are more like different ways of looking at the same thing. One way has long wordy descriptions, a fascinating pantheon of gods and goddesses and conversations with sacred animals. The other way involves a lot of sitting around, doing nothing, and looking at the floor. I like that one because it's easier, but both require you to be nice to people and to respect other beings. Both favor meditation. There are a lot of similarities.

So what I'm reading now is the Pali Commentaries, and we've just touched on the Five Precepts. Kind of like the Ten Commandments, I guess, and pretty darn decent rules for living:

1. To abstain from killing other living beings
2. To abstain from taking that which is not freely given
3. To abstain from immoral sexual behavior
4. To abstain from using words that are not true, or practicing deception
5. To abstain from using intoxicants (some texts say "abusing intoxicants")

From there, the whole deal gets broken down into strict detail. Take the first one, for example. In order to violate this precept, you must have A. A living being. B. You must be aware that the being is living. C. You must intend to take the life of this being. D. You must then take the life of this being. Without all four of these, you haven't violated the precept. If you stepped on a bug, say, that you didn't realize was a bug (say it looked like a leaf or something), then you couldn't have formed the necessary intent to violate the precept. Sounds a bit like a jury instruction, doesn't it? "Was the defendant aware that the plaintiff was a living being? If yes, go on to question two. If no, sign this form and return it to the bailiff."

No. 3 is particularly interesting. In order to have immoral sexual intercourse with someone, the someone must be A. a man (this was written for monks, who were all men at that time) or B. any one of ten different kinds of women; prostitutes, concubines, slave girls who were also concubines, wives of other men, daughters of business associates...and the list goes on. One must refrain from "entering into" any of these persons. Now, since I don't "enter into" anybody, so to speak, can I say I've never violated this precept? On the face, at least, it looks like the anti-homosexuality statutes of Victorian England that barred sex between men but didn't have any specific rules for two women. Which makes me wonder if the guys who wrote the Pali Commentaries even knew that lesbians existed.

I haven't abused any intoxicants since 2005. Which, you have to admit, is a long time.

Since I told a Catholic joke yesterday, I'll tell a Protestant joke today. A Catholic priest goes to visit his Protestant pastor friend. They talk for a while, and then the priest asks if he can use the church phone to call God. He calls God, they talk for a while, and the priest asks how much the long distance charges will be (remember those?) The pastor names some astronomical figure. A few weeks later, the pastor goes to visit his priest friend. While he's there, he asks the priest if he can use the church phone to call God. He calls God, they talk for a while, and the pastor asks how much the long distance charges will be. "None," says the priest, "it's a local call."

Okay, I admit I heard it the other way round. But still.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thus I Have Heard...

Meters swum today: 1450
Playing on the iPod: "Kiss Me" by TinTin

There's an old Protestant joke where a Catholic comes across a Protestant and says, "What's that you're reading there?" The Protestant says, "The Bible." The Catholic says, "Oh, how is it?" Which is not to say that Catholics are stupid, but that the Catholic church didn't expect its members to actually read the Good Book, at least in the grand tradition. It was the job of the priests to tell the parishioners what they needed to know. To be fair, though, most people didn't know how to read for the majority of the Church's history.

By the time the Reformation rolled around, literacy was wider spread and Protestants were expected to not only read the Bible but to figure out for themselves what it meant. That whole "no intercession between God and humankind" thing. Which may have seemed like a good deal when the Reformation first started, but one of the end results was the splitting of the Christian church into a bunch of surly little denominations, each certain that its interpretation of the Bible is the right one. Of course, the Catholic approach has its own problems - lots of wars started in the name of Biblical rightness, among other things - but letting the priests decide does have a certain elegance to it.


I bring this up because I'm kind of a Catholic Buddhist. I've never actually read the Sutras, the legends and the other source material of things Buddhist. I mentioned this to my brother-in-law and he sent me a copy of Buddhist Scriptures, the Penguin Classic edition. I've been making my way through it over the last however many nights before going to bed. (I did this when I was a good Christian, too. Read my little copy of "Light for Today," scan the relevant Bible verse, ponder its significance, blah blah blah.) I haven't gotten to the Sutras yet, but I'm a little worried that I'm not even gonna make it through the legend of Shakyamuni. I dunno if it's the translation, the fact that this edition is from the 195os, or what, exactly, but I gotta ask: Is all religious literature this boring? I made it through all the "begats" in the Book of Numbers without this much aggravation.

I mean, the story of Shakyamuni is pretty cool. And in case you've never heard it, here's the five second version: King hears prophecy his son will become a great sage, would rather have a warlord, shelters said son from anything negative, son finds out as an adult that people get old and die, freaks out, leaves the palace and becomes a wandering mendicant in search of some way to conquer suffering; almost starves to death, takes some food from a pretty girl, sits down under the Bodhi tree, meditates, penetrates to the heart of existence, discovers that all things are temporary, decides that's fine, conquers Mara the god of Death and becomes Buddha the Enlightened One, refuses Nirvana until even the grass is enlightened and spends the rest of his life wandering and teaching.

In this particular version, though, Shakyamuni is in more danger of flowery Hindu turns of phrase than he is of suffering and death. I mean, shortly after giving birth his mother is so transported by joy that she goes directly to heaven. Nice, right? So why did it take an entire chapter to tell us this? To say nothing of the fact that the rest of Buddha's post-enlightenment life gets wrapped up in about two paragraphs. He's born, he's enlightened, he dies. Wait a minute. Didn't the guy live into his eighties? Didn't he pass along many life lessons to his followers? This is kind of like Jesus going straight from the manger to the cross and then rising from the dead just long enough to say, "See ya" while Mary goes straight to heaven on the trail of long elaborate descriptions of what she happened to be wearing at the time.

Well, maybe it gets better. Maybe all the stuff Buddha taught about is in the Sutras. I hope so, or I'm going back to Buddhist Catholicism on the next bus.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

This Stupid Oral Surgery I Have to Have

Meters swum today: None.
Playing in the background: The iron whine of the train horn as it seems to rumble through my very back yard, rattling the windows

Roundabouts April of 2007, when I was semi-employed by Legal Network and one of my time-traveling neocraftsperson friends, Tammy, was my boss, I started getting a toothache. Owing to the messed-up nerves in my face (sinus surgery; another long story) I couldn't tell if it was a top tooth or a bottom tooth. Whatever it was, was seriously pissed off, and drinking hot coffee didn't help matters. I called my dentist, who called in a course of antibiotics, and saw me at his office as soon as he could squeeze me in. Turned out to be a top tooth. An emergency root canal followed, during which I found out that nitrous oxide makes me sick as hell, and being upside down messes with my equilibrium. Being upside down and on nitrous oxide - my dentist deserves combat pay. I hope he has a good carpet cleaning service.

About a month later, I was peacefully munching on a bagel when the tooth in front of the troublesome tooth suddenly came away with the bagel. Whether the root canal destabilized it or whether it was just its time to go, we aren't sure, but in any case, this tooth had a frick'n peg stuck out of it. It wasn't a real tooth. Boy, was I ever surprised. I didn't even know I had false teeth. It must have been very old.

The same dentist told me that the crown - for it was, after all, a crown - was so degraded that there wasn't any way he could put it back in. I'd need oral surgery to yank out the old root and replace it with a dental implant. He quoted me a price and I about threw up on him again. (You gotta remember, this is very soon after the first debacle, which had to be paid for with Lady Visa and Master Card, and it wasn't exactly cheap. And I was unemployed at the time. When it rains, it really effing pours, at least when I'm around.)

So I did what an unemployed and broke person would normally do under these circumstances; nothing. The root was still there, after all. The other teeth weren't jockeying for position. Yeah, I had this great gaping hole in my gum (and a missing tooth, just incidentally) but that was no biggie; I've chewed on the left for years. I mean that politically. Metaphorically, too.

That was, hmm, a year and a half ago. Since then my dentist has been bugging me to get it fixed every time I see him. Something about having a great gaping hole in your gum not being the best thing for your immune system. Something about possible abcesses and brain cancer and heart disease and terrible messy ways to die. I've been stubborn, though. Something about having to come up with five figures to get it fixed. I'm cheap that way.

Well, recently I went and got a second opinion. The second guy is quite adamant (you ever wonder if that's where Adam Ant got his name? Adamant, Adam Ant, get it?) that I need to have it fixed, and as soon as possible, but he gave me a much better price. Only four figures. I mean, four figures is better than five figures but geez Louise, it's still a lot of money. Though not, as Joan has pointed out, near as much as it would be if the stupid thing abcesses and has to be fixed on an emergency basis. That would probably be five figures and then some.

So sometime in December I'm going to have oral surgery. About which I am powerfully not happy. I'd talk myself out of it again but Joan would kill me, if the great gaping hole didn't get me first. Which is metaphorical of something or another, I guess. Let's ask Adam Ant.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks, guys.


Sorry we got you into that mess. Hope we have you out soon.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Who Wants To Be A Hundred Thousandaire?

Playing in the background: Something from "Celtic Solstice" by Paul Horn
Meters swum today: 1600

Sorry for lack of blogitude lately. Impending holidays, end of month stuff at work, watching GM executives fly in their private jets to request a $15 billion bailout from Congress, stuff like that. Black Friday is the day after tomorrow and I'm not planning to buy a bloody thing. The merchants of the world seem to know this because somebody from Harry & David just called me on my cell phone, wanting me to buy lots of Tower of Treatses to send to my relatives. They even knew the names of said relatives. Please note that it's not Big Brother, its Big Brothers, and their names are Harry & David. They also seem to have my cell phone number, which is a closer guarded secret than President-Elect Obama's Blackberry PIN.

While all that was going on, though, I formulated my very own economic stimulus proposal. I'll be forwarding this to the powers that be later on, so send along your comments. Here's what I'm thinking. $700 billion there, $15 billion there - pretty soon it starts to look like real money. A while back, the Feds in their infinite wisdom sent everybody $600. Well, most people, if you were up to date on filing your taxes and you weren't a criminal or behind on your student loan payments and your last name wasn't Bin Laden and you didn't look like a Democrat. Did it help? Of course not. Why? Because it wasn't enough money.

Look, nobody I know is gonna blow $600 bucks unless they know there's more coming. Hand me $600 and I'll make a payment on the stupid oral surgery I have to have (more on that later). If you actually want me to buy consumer goods, I gotta be content that I can buy consumer goods, send them to all my friends, and not worry about paying off the bills after Christmas.

What we need to do here is send Americans off on the greatest Christmas shopping spree ever. I'm proposing we send every adult American in the country $100,000.00. (I'd say every single American, but you know if you send a teenager $100 grand he'll just blow it all on video games and a new Ferrari.) Seriously. 100 grand, tax free, spend it however you want. That'll stimulate the old economy, all right. Harry & David will be rolling in it. House prices will skyrocket. People will rush to buy new Saturns. GM will turn a massive profit for the first time in decades, and the executives will be spared the untold humiliation of having to fly commercial instead of taking their private jets. Oh, and fewer people will get laid off, too.

How much will all this cost? Not as much as you might think. There are about 303 million people in the U.S., according to the CIA's most recent estimate. About 225 million of those folks are over 18 (Jen's best guess based on the age breakdown provided.) 225 million x 100,000 equals a mere 22.5 trillion. Heck, that's less than half of the entire world's gross domestic product in 2007. Pocket change! Besides, what comes around goes around; we'll buy Chinese TVs, Japanese cars, British DVDs, European whatever-they-make-in-Europe and clothing assembled in Mexico. We'll take vacations in France and Italy, water ski in the Bahamas and hike the Australian outback. Call it a massive global redistribution of wealth. And as always, America should be the starting point. We already consume 25% of the planet's goods, why not just make it half for a little while?

And just to show what a patriotic American I am, Jen does hereby pledge that when she gets her hundred grand, she'll buy a house. In Ireland. Right after she pays off her dental surgery.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nightmare in Guyana

Meters swum today: Zero.
Playing in the background: The soporific sounds of the dryer

This has been a strange day. I mean, it was pretty ordinary as far as I went to work, did work, came home, made dinner and all that. The strange part is that thirty years and a week or so ago, I came across an issue of "Time" Magazine that had this photo in it.
Granted, there were other photos. There was even that one dramatic aerial shot of hundreds, almost a thousand bodies. But this is the one I remember. This group of people, maybe a family, that look like they all lay down on the ground to take a nap, with their arms around each other.

It was a strange day to be alive. I was nine, and concepts like "mass cult suicide" (actually more like "mass cult murder") had yet to make their way into my brain. As clearly as this photo stands out, though, I don't remember the adults talking about it. I don't remember it getting discussed during Current Events in school. I wonder why. I lived in Salt Lake City and Jonestown came right on the heels of the Emmanuel David murders. 1978 was a great year for mass cult suicide/murders all the way round.

Which led me to think about the unthinkable. If there's a good definition of "unthinkable" in the dictionary, it probably mentions Jonestown. And 9/11. And -- well, things that are unthinkable, so I can't think of any more. Back in 1993, during the seige of the Branch Davidians in Waco, one journalist after another kept mentioning that "nobody wants this to turn into another Jonestown." The unthinkable had become thinkable. What's more, it had become a household word, bandied about in every weird story of cult activity from the Mormon compound in Eldorado to the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, Japan.

9/11 was a little more recent and unlike Jonestown, I remember where I was when all that went down in New York. I'd heard something about a plane crash on the way to work but that was all. Somebody in my building lobby told me what had happened (I was in San Diego and there was a three hour time delay) and I remembered thinking, "He must have that wrong. When I get to my desk I'll log in to CNN and find out what happened." Only when I got to my desk I couldn't get on to CNN because everyone else was on CNN and - well, then my building got evacuated, as did all of downtown. No airplanes flew overhead for days.

In our most recent election campaign there were dire warnings about what might happen if one candidate or another was elected. "What would we do in another 9/11 if so and so was in charge?" ran the tag line of one scary ad. Another 9/11. Even typing that gives me pause. Because of course there could never be another 9/11. 9/11 was unthinkable.

If I think about it long enough, though, I come up with a whole long list of unthinkable things that have happened in my lifetime. A secret prison on a remote island in which torture and abuse are routine, where no charges are filed and the so-called trials are rigged, perpetuated by my people, in the name of my so-called safety, and supported by elected officials of my own party. A nonwhite nonold person being elected President (because it's totally cool doesn't make it any less unthinkable; move back in time ten years and ask if it could have happened then and you'll see what I mean). A little girl in Austria, locked in a cellar by some whacko for eightyears. And as soon as something unthinkable happens, something else happens that makes you realize how thinkable it really was all along.

Less than a year after the little girl bolted for freedom, another little girl in the same country emerged from a different cellar after 24 years and 7 children, forced on her by her own father. If that's not unthinkable, I don't know what is. But just wait. People who can think the unthinkable end up on the side of history. Something else like this will happen. There's another little girl locked in a cellar somewhere, waiting to be found. And another mass cult suicide/ murder brewing somewhere, somewhen. It's thinkable now.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How I Spent My Saturday, by Jen.

Playing in the background: The dishwasher. Nice beat. You can dance to it. I'll give it a seven.
Meters swum today: Zero.

I spent Saturday morning and part of the afternoon at a protest in downtown Dallas with 1200 of my closest friends. The event was part of a string of pro-gay-marriage rallies being held all over the country in protest of California's passage of Proposition 8. That's me on the left with my hastily-painted sign (actually, it turned out okay) and Joan on the right with the much cooler sign.

Here's a better picture:

I actually didn't want to go to this thing but I'm not sorry I did. The sound system wasn't all that great but there was a lot of yelling and cheering and so on. A couple of counter-demonstrators appeared on the other side of the street with a big ol' wooden cross and a megaphone (why the conservatives always have better sound systems, I can't understand) and we drowned 'em out by saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Really really loud.

Some shots of the crowd:

Here's a link to the Dallas Morning News story about the rally. Yes, they actually covered it, will wonders never cease.




Afterward we dispersed through the plaza in front of City Hall.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post-Election High

Meters swum today: Zero. 1700 yesterday though.
Playing in the background" "Audio Visions" on DirecTV Music

Maybe my excitement about Obama winning the election has finally surpassed my gloom about Proposition 8, or maybe it's just a beautiful fall day in Texas, but I feel really good today. I had a great day yesterday I went to the pool, then to the Maria Kannon Zen Center and sat for an hour. I may hang out there more often. One thing I don't like about Awakening Heart is that they talk too much!! I get very shy in religious situations and I'd just rather sit and be still & know God and all that. In Zen they face the wall, don't speak, and just chant a little at the end. Which is really nice sometimes. It's very quiet there too. For a brief spell in college I hung out with the Quakers and they're big on silence, also.

After the Zen center I went to a write-in at Half Price Books and wrote a lot, about 4000 words or something of my November novel, which is really a tremendous amount. Also sold a box of books which paid for about half of Tammy's birthday present. Oh! And they had these Buddha journals for sale!! I haven't seen em since last year and the one I got is long since filled up. I just got one but I should have grabbed three or four. I'll go back next week after I get paid. I also had a tiramisu at the coffee shop which is just about the best thing I've ever tasted in my life. (Did I ever tell you how I first met my brother in law? Trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about I said, "I hear you're a Tiramisu Buddhist." He said, "No, Theravada. Tiramisu is an Italian dessert." How embarrassing.)

Went home afterward and took a nap, after which Kellum came over and gave a us a massage. Followed by T&T and pizza. Followed by the movie "The Edge" on FMC - Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin get lost in the wilderness and square off with Bart the Bear (featuring Bart as himself). Extraordinarily well-acted and well done. The music is also just unbelievable. I may try to track down the soundtrack.

Sorry to go on and on. It was just an awesome day. Today I am doing laundry and that is also fine. I might rake leaves later and that, too, will be fine. Not the Tyranny of Fine but fine anyway.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Blue in a Red State

Meters swum today: 1700
Playing on the iPod: Paul Horn, from "Celtic Solstice"

What with all the excitement and a nonwhite nonold guy getting elected to lead a nation of 300 million mainly nonwhite nonold folks, the whole Prop. 8 thing in California barely got any press. In case you haven't heard yet, it passed. Which means what exactly? Well, it changes Article 1, Section 7.5 of the California Constitution to read as follows: Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Which means what exactly? Well, that two men or two women can't marry each other in California. (I guess the two men could each marry one of the two women and they could all set up a household together, but that might get a bit complicated.) So gay couples can't get married in California anymore.

So, what happens to all the folks, like me, who got married between the time the California Supreme Court said that gay couples had to be allowed to marry, and now? Well, that is the million dollar question. Nobody really knows. Some legal scholars are saying all those marriages are void. There's a big argument about whether a marriage can be annulled by anyone other than one of the participants but I won't get into that here. Attorney General Jerry (Gov. Moonbeam) Brown states that he believes said marriages are valid. Which means that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California unless you happen to be one of the 18,000 couples who got hitched between last May and now, and yours is valid but nobody else's is.

That may make legal sense but the logic is lost on me. The only really good analogy is laws against black and white folks marrying each other, which were on the books in most states within my lifetime (and I ain't 40 yet). If California had amended the constitution to read, "Only a marriage between two persons of the same race is valid or recognized in California," but then stated that anybody who happened to already be in a mixed-race marriage was okay, would that make any sense?

If you're wondering how in hell this law got passed in the first place, I turn you to the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, which is putting the blame squarely on the Mormon Church. The group Mormons For Marriage (an odd moniker for a group of people that tends to marry four or five wives at a time) raised a ridiculous amount of money to fund ads with cute little girls coming home from school and saying, "Mommy, they told us in school that two little girls can get married when they grow up, is that true?" Too bad the anti-Prop 8 folks didn't run ads showing the same little girl coming home from school and saying, "Mommy, we're studying the California constitution, and it says that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in California, why did they put that in there?"

But I digress. Click, if you will, on the next link, which will take you to Invalidate 8. Not only is this group raising money to fight this new law, they're doing it with a fine sense of sarcasm. For any donation over $10.00 (I sent 'em $25) they will send a postcard to the president of the Mormon Church, Thomas Monson, which reads as follows:

Dear President Monson:
A donation has been made in your name by _________________ to “invalidateprop8.org” to overturn California's Proposition 8 and restore fundamental civil rights to all citizens of California. The money will be donated to legal organizations fighting the case and to support grass-roots activities in support of full marriage equality. Although we decry the reprehensible role the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leadership played in denying all Californians equal rights under the law, we are pleased a donation has been made on your behalf in the effort to overturn the discrimination your church members helped enshrine in the California Constitution. Given that throughout its history the Mormon Church has been subjected to bigotry, we hope you appreciate the donation in your name to fight religious bigotry here in California.


When I was in high school, a friend of mine got a check from his uncle for graduation along with a note that read, to the effect of, "If you cash this, you will be accepting that capitalism is the only real way to freedom and that all of your socialistic ideas are crap." He cashed it and sent the entire amount, which was considerable, to the American Communist Party in his uncle's name. I imagine the poor guy is still on their mailing list.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dear President-Elect Obama:

Meters swum today: 1700
Playing in the background: An episode of Ghost Hunters

Hey, congratulations, guy. You're going to be the leader of the free world. I know you're gonna get advice from everyone and God, but hey, it's never been like me to keep my mouth shut when I have something to say. So here it is, Jenz Advice For About-To-Be Presidents About How Not To Screw Up. And I'm not charging you a cent (though if there's a line item in the budget about encouraging Buddhism in the Bible Belt, I have my grant application all ready. Just ask me.)

First and foremost, get good advice. A President has a pretty thankless job sometimes - blamed for all the problems in the known universe, laughed at by editorial cartoonists, and not even paid all that well, when you consider what upper level managers are paid by private corporations. You get an even bigger mess to clean up, coming in on the heels of the worst Presidency in history and inheriting a country in a sorry financial pickle. So it can't possibly hurt to hedge your bets. While you're hiring your economists and your military guys and your historians and your various political honchos, get on the horn and find yourself a good professor of social psychology or anthropology, or better yet, one of each. Then, when you make what seems like an intelligent suggestion and all hell breaks loose (like Jimmy Carter suggesting to the German ambassador that they lower their interest rates to drive up inflation, say) you can get an answer that makes sense. My sister majored in anthropology and applied sociolinguistics, whatever that is, and I can't count the number of times I've called her up and said, "Okay, this happened at work, and I did this, and that was clearly the wrong thing to do, what would have been the correct thing?" You'll need folks like this. You might need a real clinical psychologist, too, and it can't hurt to have a meditation teacher around. Give me a ring if you want recommendations, I has 'em.

Secondly, keep your nose clean. I know that sounds like common sense, but it's amazing how rare common sense actually is. Get caught doing anything that even looks like it might be illegal and that'll be all anybody talks about for six months. Nixon didn't get in trouble for organizing the Watergate break-in; he got in trouble for trying to cover it up. Clinton didn't get in trouble for fooling around with a young intern; he got in trouble for lying about it under oath. You can avoid the whole mess by just doing the right thing, because it is right. It isn't as much fun but it's a lot easier for everybody. Oh, and on the subject of interns, you might wanna just avoid them like the plague. If you can't do that, at least arrange to not be alone with one of them. Two's company but three's the rule. Well, I think it's a good rule.

Thirdly, don't run off and do something, even if you think you're really good at it, if it's not what the country actually needs. Examples abound, but again, Jimmy Carter and foreign policy, George Bush (senior) and starting a war in the Middle East, Ronald Reagan and economics, and George Bush (junior) - pretty much everything since 2002, except armadillo hunting.

Fourth item: Stick to your guns. I can clearly remember the day Bill Clinton started to lose his luster. He'd announced that he was signing an executive order to stop the military from sacking all of its happy people. All of Congress erupted in a storm and demanded that the matter be brought to a vote, because happy people have no place in the nation's military. In one of the many interviews that followed, Bill said, "Well, we don't want to be seen as condoning somebody's lifestyle." Soon after this he caved and gave us the utterly disastrous "Don't Ask Don't Tell" rule. What should Bill have done? Signed the damn order. Why? Because he said he was going to sign the order. And because it was the right thing to do. Would Congress have had a fit? Absolutely. Would it have voted to nullify the order and restore the old "When Bored, Look For Happy Witches And Sack 'Em" policy? Quite probably. But that's not the point. If Bill had signed the order, then been overruled by Congress, he would have looked like the good guy. This has nothing to do with whether or not happy people should serve in the military and everything to do with doing what you say you're going to do. The second Bill made that remark about condoning lifestyles, he was starting to backpedal. We all saw it. It was embarrassing, and we started to lose faith in the guy.

Fifth and finally, get real about the national budget. This is a personal preference, but I'm gonna suggest it anyway. Look, we all grew up asking our folks for expensive toys. We all got told, "No, honey, we can't afford that" once in a while. There's not a thing wrong with standing up, addressing the nation and saying, "No, honey, we can't afford that" war with Iran, that Guantanamo prison, that bailout for the financial industry, that sending all the good jobs overseas thing. Everything costs something, and some things cost too much in terms of money, time, or friends in the international community. We get it. We're not toddlers, even though we act like it sometimes. Tell us the truth and we'll respect you. I promise.

That's about all I have to say. Again, I have some personal preferences (close Guantanamo Bay! Civilian trials for everyone still held there! War crimes trials for everyone who worked there all the way up to Donald Rumsfeld! Declassify Area 51 and show us all the cool reverse-engineered UFOs they've been building out there! Shut down the secret CIA prisons overseas! Apologize to Iran for 1953, and to pretty much all of Central America for the entire 1980s! Quit pissing off the French! Tell Vladimir Putin to get over himself!) but I'll save those for another time. Good luck, Godspeed, and om mani padme hum, dude.

Very truly yours, Jen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

November cometh...

Meters swum today: 1350
Playing in the background: The soporific sound of the dryer

Well, gang, it's National Novel Writing Month again. If you haven't tried this you really should; it's fun. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Why? Well, because. Seriously, if you can write a novel in 30 days (and I assure you that you can; if I can do it, so can any reasonably well-trained orangutan) what else can you do? Heck, could be anything.

Here's my node. Check in on me from time to time, see if I'm keepin' up the old word count. What's my novel about? Why, it's about a Buddhist ghostbuster. I'm serious, it was all I could think of. I'll be posting excerpts there too.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who ya gonna call?

Playing in the background: Odd silence. I wonder what the cats are up to...
Meters swum today: 1800

It occurred to me last night that Buddhists would make lousy ghostbusters. I'm a big fan of the History Channel and its ilk (though I'm not sure I should use the word ilk; I don't know what it means. Joan said once that she could not drink ilk because she was actose ntolerant. I guess that's good enough for me.) There was this program on called "Amityville: Horror or Hoax?" talking about the world famous house with the creepy eye windows that caused such a sensation in the late 1970s. On this show was a panel of experts, lawyers, witnesses, "paranormal researchers" and their ilk (there's that word again; I wonder if an ilk is some kind of evil spirit) arguing about whether the house was really haunted. Or possessed by demons. Or whatever.

Quick recap in case you weren't alive in the 1970s (you know who you are!): Ronnie DeFeo, a disaffected malcontent with a grudge and a shotgun, murdered six of his family members in the aforementioned house one night in 1974. Shortly after, 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville went up for sale, cheap, and George and Kathy Lutz, a young couple with three kids from Kathy's prior marriage, bought it. Spooky stuff started happening. The Lutzes lived there for less than a month before being chased out by what they said were ghosts or demons. Media coverage ensued. Movies got made. People started suing each other (ending in a famous case before the California Supreme Court, Lutz v DeLaurentiis 211 Cal. App. 3d 1317 (1989), in which it was determined that the title of a work could not be copyrighted. Remember Lutz if you ever wanna title something All Quiet on the Western Front.)

Even us diehard horror movie fans have one or two films that actually scared us. The ones where we left the lights on all night and had bad dreams anyway. The kinds of flicks we swore (however dishonestly) we'd never watch again, we'd get a different hobby, maybe start doing beadwork, learn to knit, whatever the hell. The Amityville Horror, the 1979 version, was just such a movie for yours truly. (The 2005 remake didn't do it.) I saw it again about a year ago and it still scares me. Yeah, it's not very well acted, and plenty of it doesn't make sense, but there's something about having that kind of thing in your house with you that just gives me the screaming meemies. After Amityville I thought I'd never be that scared again. Then the creepy little girl with the long stringy hair crawled out of the TV set in The Ring. But let's not talk about that. It was traumatic enough the first time.

So I'm watching this show on the History Channel, and getting creeped out again (I slept with a lamp on). They had on these self-proclaimed demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who proclaimed that this house was "a ten" on the scale of most haunted. I can't speak to the Warrens' religious affiliation but they were some stripe of Christian, probably Catholic or variants on a theme. They commanded the demons in the name of Jesus Christ to leave them alone and stuff like that (I kind of doubt that would be the right line of dialogue for, say, a Hindu.) That's when it occurred to me that a ghostbusting Buddhist would be all kinds of antithetical.

For starters, a ghost in the Buddhist pantheon is more of a state of mind than an actual being. Buddha talked about "hungry ghosts" as a condition where you want more and more of something but nothing will satisfy you (a classic portrait of addiction some 2500 years before the term made its way into the lexicon). There are other kinds of ghosts, spirits and minor demons, but they tend to be personifications of ignorance and illusion. Mara, for example, is the Buddhist "god of death," but he's more a tempter and distractor than a nasty ol' house haunting demon. Plus, he can be scared off if you offer him a cup of tea. Buddha did this lots of times.

Second, at least in theory most Buddhists would approach a ghost or demon the way we approach everything else; with killer friendliness. There's an old Zen story about a monk who was living by himself in a cave. One day a bunch of demons moved in. He tried to chase them away, but they wouldn't go. Finally he shrugged and said, "All right, we'll all live here together." At that, several of them disappeared. He began fixing meals for the other demons and tried to teach them how to meditate. Several more of them disappeared. The nicer he was, the quicker they went away, except the biggest and nastiest of the bunch. That one hung around until the monk, out of all patience, finally put his head in the demon's mouth. "Here, eat me, you look hungry," said the monk. And the big bad demon disappeared, too, leaving the monk in peace. The moral: Love your demons. Take good care of them. Give them what they want (generally, to be loved and listened to, regardless of how much they may insist what they really want is, say, lots more booze) and they'll go away. Or at least become easier to live with.

So picture, if you will, the Buddhist ghostbusting monk, walking into 112 Ocean Avenue. Flies appear out of nowhere; the ghostbuster smiles at his fellow beings and invites them to make themselves at home. A sense of terrible oppressive fear sits uponst the chest of the ghostbuster; he sits down, meditates and practices holding his fear in his arms and listening to what it has to say. Slime starts pouring down the walls like tears; the ghostbuster extends his compassion to the weeping slime and all the grieving beings that have ever existed. The Devil Himself storms into the room and tries to get rid of the annoying monk; the monk goes and gets the Devil a comfy chair and starts making him tea.

On second thought, maybe that would work. Mara didn't like tea, either. But I think I'd still have to recommend the Catholics if your house should ever become infested with demons. They know more about that stuff than we do. And don't forget to ask your insurance agent about their demonic-possession policy before your next renewal.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sarah Palin Wants To Start World War Three.

Playing in the background: The soporific sounds of the dryer
Meters swum today: None. Did 1800 yesterday tho.

Sarah Palin wants to start World War Three. That's why she wants to be Vice President. Her church pastor thinks it's the End of Days and she 's convinced God told her to poison McCain as soon as she gets to the White House and then launch nuclear attacks against just basically everybody. Then as the fires burn, God and Satan will come down here and duke it out for the remaining souls. Says so in the Bible. She thinks its her destiny. So just remember, voting for McCain is voting for a religious psychotic with her finger on the trigger. If you want humankind to survive the next four years, vote for Obama. Paid for by Democrats for the Hell of It.

Not that this is true, of course. I made it up. Well, it could be, but that would be an amazing coincidence, even for me. And are Democrats for the Hell of It paying for this ad? Again, that would be an amazing coincidence. I made them up too. I guess I could make up a check from them, but it would bounce. Imaginarily speaking, I mean.

This whole election campaign people have been making stuff up about the candidates. Stuff with no basis in fact. Most of 'em have been about Obama, so I used Sarah Palin as my bad example. Here's some more: Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen. (Well, actually he is; he was born in Hawaii.) Sarah Palin wants Alaska to secede from the United States. (She spoke at a couple of meetings of some group called Alaska First!, from which I guess you can extrapolate the rest.) Barack Obama is a terrorist and a closet Muslim who will institute immediate Sharia in the United States. (I'm not sure where they came up with that one, but let's think about it for a second - women the property of their male relatives, birth control and abortion illegal, homosexuals taken out and shot, public religiosity compelled by law - why would that be so bad? Isn't that what the Radical Right has been demanding for years now? Oh, wait, wrong God. Silly me.)

The problem with all this stuff, as amusing as it is for someone who can't believe a word of it, is that there are people out there who will believe it and will vote accordingly. The other problem is, the more nonfacts get thrown around in a campaign, the more real, troubling facts get ignored. Here's some real, troubling facts, with links to the major news organizations who carried the stories with video where possible:

Sarah Palin's kids have frequently traveled on Alaska's dime. This may not be illegal according to the state of Alaska but it does raise ethical questions. Barack Obama's former pastor has made some public statements that many people (including me) find disturbing. A guy doesn't have to agree with everything his pastor says (my last Lutheran pastor frequently refered to certain city officials as "assholes", which, however true, is a bit disrespectful) but enough of this stuff and folks start to wonder why he didn't break with that church sooner. Joe Biden has made many idiotic statements in public - examples abound but I think my favorite is "You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.... I'm not joking." And John McCain, who claims to be a "maverick" and has repeatedly stated "I am not Bush", voted in favor of Bush's policies 90-95% of the time.

Not everyone will agree with me on this point, but at the end of the day, I think we have four qualified people running for high office. John McCain, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are all U.S. Senators and honorable men. Sarah Palin is the governor of the largest U.S. state, which also may have more oil reserves than Texas and North Dakota combined. You may not agree with their politics, but none of them are fools. We could do (and have done) a lot worse.

So what I'm sayin' here is, don't not-vote for Sarah Palin because the State of Alaska flew her kids around. Don't vote for her because you don't like her policies, her face, her view of library books, her vision of an all-white, all-rich America or the fact that she shot Bullwinkle (okay, it wasn't really Bullwinkle). Don't vote for her because you've thought about it for five seconds, not because some AM radio host tells you not to vote for her. I'm sayin' if you hear something like, "Sarah Palin wants to start World War Three," you might wanna check it out before you check the ballot box. And you might wanna also not-vote for her because she's not running for president; John McCain is. In case you didn't know that.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fear of Mel Gibson


Meters swum today: None. Day off.
Playing on the iPod: Moby, from "Ambient"

I just got an emailed article from my aunt that triggered another round of "why aren't human beings logical". No doubt Mr. Spock asked that same question a lot. The article was about a guy who was investing in beans and rice so he could survive the coming financial apocalypse. Apparently, like the apocalyptic Mormons of the 1970s, the monetary doomsayers of the Oh Ohs, have to have two years of food stashed in your cellar for the end times, or the next time the stock market bottoms out. I used to know an apocalyptic Mormon family and spent much of one fine spring afternoon watching a conveyor belt carry clods of dirt up out of Lynette Gandre's basement as the cellar was constructed. Conveyor belts are fascinating when you're eight. So are dirt clods. If the whole end of the world message was lost on me, there were always nuclear wars about to happen, evangelical Christian Gods about to smite all nonbelievers, killer flus, alien invasions and any number of other ways the world could end to scare hell out of everybody.

Myself, I've always been dubious of anybody who thinks they know how and when the world will end. I call it apocalyptaphobia, which could be confused with fear of Mel Gibson. By the way, if you haven't seen Apocalypto yet, what are you waiting for? It's like Star Wars in the jungle with a twist ending that'll blow your mind. Yeah, it's unbelievably violent, and worse than that, it's morally ambiguous, but that's the point. When your world is ending, what behavior is acceptable? Is it okay to kill people who are going to kill other people? What about stockpiling food in your basement? Good on your family, but what happens when your hungry neighbors come and kill you because you have food and they don't? Do you have a rifle? Is it bigger than your neighbor's? If not, are you going to get a new one? Is this really survivalism or just materialism on steroids?

Anyway, what I find so interesting about this fear-of-the-end-times thing is that people seem to expect it to unfold like a Hollywood disaster movie. Whatever the cause, be it nuclear bombs, running out of oil, alien invasions or gay marriage, people seem to expect that citizens will run screaming through the streets, rioting, burning buildings down, and dodging the ineffective but suitably scary Army guys who show up too late to really help and yell interesting stuff like, "Calm down, Ma'am, we're in charge here."

Look, I dunno about you, but I don't think it'd happen that way. I think it's a lot more likely that things would get gradually worse, which for us first-worlders means gas would get too expensive to drive a block to the Quickie Mart, we wouldn't get our mangoes from Argentina in January and we might not have cable TV anymore. Absent a mass killing-off ala Big Steve's The Stand, we'd probably just adjust and move on. We lived in civilized society for about 20,000 years before the advent of the cell phone, and I imagine if they all disappeared one day, we'd just kind of shrug and find some other way to communicate.

The other day they quoted some guy in the paper I no longer read, stating that he was embarrassed to have to drive a Volvo around when all his neighbors still had Mercedeses. (Here's the world's tiniest violin...) Would somebody please explain to me why not being able to buy the big house in Plano with the excellent school district and a Jag to get to and from downtown Dallas registers just as high on the fear factor as the nuclear bomb? It's like when contemplating the idea that the American way of life is not sustainable and we'll all need to cut back so everyone else can have enough to eat, most people would rather I bring on the alien invasion. I don't get that. Okay, I know, people are not logical. People are not logical. People are not logical.












Fascinating...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Day Warren Zevon Called My Bank

By Jen. All rights reserved.

Meters swum today: 1500
Playing on the iPod: Machine Love, "Olvine"

Just after I stopped being a lowlife college student and started being a lowlife clueless 20-something, I worked at Bank of America's Credit Card Service Center in glorious east Phoenix, Arizona. I was one of those annoying people that called you when you fell behind on your payments. If I ever called you, I apologize, but you have to admit I was a lot nicer than any of my colleagues. I never raised my voice. I never threatened to sue you, repossess your cats or paint "Cardholder X Is A Deadbeat" on the sidewalk in front of your son's school. (All of which is totally illegal but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.) I always believed everything you told me. If you said you couldn't make your payments because space aliens had abducted you and stolen your ATM card, I said, "I've heard that does happen, sir. Do you think they'll beam it back in time for you to send me ten dollars next week?" Seven-fifty an hour, in case you were wondering. We were supposed to get bonuses, but it never happened.

Anyway, when things were slow, we'd take regular customer service calls. We'd always ask the nice cardholder for his or her name, the last four digits of his or her Social Security number and one other thing - usually date of birth or amount of last payment. You'd be amazed how many folks didn't know either one. So one afternoon this guy called and gave me his last name as "Zevon". I pulled up his account and asked, "Uh, Warren Zevon." "Yes, ma'am." "Warren 'Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner' Zevon?" A pause. "Well, most people say 'Werewolves of London,' but, yeah. That's me." "I've always been a Roland kind of guy," I said, and he laughed. (Aside: The bad guy in Mindbender, the psychic psychotic assassin, is named Roland. Coincidence? Yeah, actually. I named him after a synthesizer.)

So I asked him what I could do for him, and he told me, and I did it, and he thanked me, and before he hung up I said, "Would you mind singing me the first verse of 'Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner'?" He said, "Sure. If I remember the words." He did, and for a second there we were off in Mombasa, battling the Bantu to their knees - to help out the Congolese.

I saw Warren "live" in 2001, just before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was kicking off his world tour at a club in San Diego where I once saw the Chieftans. I remembered thinking that he and his band were a little off but they were obviously new to working with each other, and by the end of the tour they ought to be great and I couldn't wait to see him again. Unfortunately, that didn't happen (see above re: terminal cancer). Word of warning: If you're a singer/songwriter and I like you, expect to die young and tragically. Warren Zevon, Stuart Adamson, Gordon Lightfoot -- oh, wait, Gordo just died on stage. Well, it was tragic.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jesus Loves Me As I Sleep

Meters swum today: 1600
Playing on the iPod: Ray Lynch, from The Sky of Mind

I had a nice dream the other night. Usually I have dreams and they flit right through my head and disappear. There are exceptions (remind me to tell you about the "Tree of Life" dream sometime) and They Must Mean Something, Roger but I have no idea what.

Anyway, I used to live in Salt Lake City, and in this dream I was back there visiting the church I grew up in (Zion Lutheran near downtown, in case you were wondering). The inside had been redone but it was otherwise the same. The service was already going - in fact they were serving communion - so I just sat down quietly in the back. A guy nudged me and said, "Go on up for Communion." I said, "Oh, I shouldn't. I'm a stranger here." He said, "There are no strangers here. Go on." So I did. Instead of those cute little machine-stamped wafers, they were serving this sweet honey bread and a kind of wine that, unlike every wine ever invented, didn't immediately make me want to throw the heck up (wine and I, we never got along that well).

When I sat back down the guy said, "Hang around after the service. We're going to sing songs." The service broke up and I started seeing all these people in the congregation that I knew, or used to know, or something. Some of 'em I could actually give you names and faces (Christina Obermann! Third grade Sunday school with Mrs. Utzinger!) and the rest were just those people you know in dreams even if you don't know them in real life. I kept walking up to people and saying, "I bet you don't remember me." The response was always, "Of course we remember you!" and usually a hug. "Welcome back! Will you be in town long?" I kept trying to say that I was just passing through. Was I? No idea.

So after all that we all sat around the piano and this pastor came out. I remember him pretty clearly because he was so goofy-lookin'. I mean not ugly, but he had a "shock" of red hair, kind of a beaky nose, wide eyes and, well, acne. Obviously very young and very into this being a pastor thing. He sat down at the piano and said something along the lines of, "Well, it doesn't matter how we got here, or what happened to us before we got here. We're all here now, and that's what's important," and then he started playing a hymn (I think it was Crown Him With Many Crowns). I woke up during the singing.

This Must Mean Something, Roger. You don't spose God's trying to tell me I'm part of the great human family, albeit in a rather Christian sort of way? I've had dreams about that church before and they're always very pleasant (which contrasts with the time I spent there in real life; I sort of hated it, actually). You grow up in a religion and it sticks with you, whether you stay that religion or not. I've more or less accepted that I'll always have Lutheranism as kind of a background color in my life. That's okay, really. I mean, it's part of my history. Buddhists wouldn't have any problem with my also being a Christian. It's the Christians who would get all upset.

Well, anyway, was a nice dream. If I ever figure the rest of it out, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This Is Your Brain On Free-Fall.

Meters swum today: 1600 (and 140 miles for the year!!)
Playing on the iPod: Kellum's massage CD (thanks, Kel!)

I'm reading The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, ex-Thai forest monk, leader of the Spirit Rock Center in San Fran and all around cool guy. I'd make this my new Book O'the Decade but when I did that with Traffic I never did finish the darn thing and this one is too good to miss a word. In the chapter I just read, Kornfield relates how after he got to Thailand and started hanging around with the forest monks, he developed some numb patches on his arms and legs. Numbness can be a sign of, among other things, leprosy, and yes, folks, leprosy does lurk in the rain forests of Thailand. He got himself into a tizzy of concern about this until he realized that the numb patches kept moving around. Which meant it probably wasn't leprosy. All that worry wasted on nothin'.

Jack and I, we were cut from the same fold. I wonder if his folks are Scandinavian, too. I got an email yesterday from one of my boys (all my lawyers are my boys, no matter how old they are, and yes, some of them are women) that seemed to ask in a snarky manner why I hadn't done a particular thing. Distress set in at once. When was I supposed to have done that? Had I spaced on it? Had I just misplaced it somewhere? Geez, was I in trouble? Was this going to cause problems with what the lawyer was supposed to be doing? Would it jeopardize the case? Would it jeopardize my job? They wouldn't fire me over something like that, would they? Well, would they?

And so on. Given a chance to bolt down the vast hallway of anxiety I rarely say no. And this is with Zoloft. You shoulda seen me before the stuff. I finally wrote a note and stuck it in my Buddha Box (you twelve-steppers out there know that there's such a thing as a God box - well, mine does the same job, it just has a different being stuck to the front). Once you stick something in the Buddha Box you're supposed to quit worrying about it. Well, usually. I guess I worried about it less.

Anyway, I got to work this morning and there was an email from my boy - "No worries, the other attorney had it in his file." Great. All that worry wasted on nothin'. The gist of the chapter I was reading, which I somehow failed to absorb, is that you can't believe everything your brain tells you. It's your brain's job to come up with stories, ideas and worst case scenarios. I guess it wants you to be prepared for anything, but a lot of being prepared for anything means missing what's going on right now, this minute. Like The Raphaels on the iPod behind me, or the warm sweater on my shoulders, or the flickering lightbulb above me (I'm hard on light bulbs). Which just goes to show something or other. Maybe Jack explains it in the next chapter.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Strange Days, Indeed

Playing on the iPod: I dunno, but it's totally cool and has a lot of fast-moving strings. Probably Phillip & Pam Boulding.
Meters swum today: 1800

It's eerily quiet in downtown Dallas. I had a lane all to myself at the pool this morning, and the parking garage was half-empty. I ran into about three people walking to my office and my phone hasn't rung once. I finally asked the receptionist where the hell everybody was. She told me it was Columbus Day and at once I got it. Of course! Everybody's hiding someplace because they're expecting smallpox-infested genocidal slave trading Spaniards to land on the coast and start burning down the forests! No, she said, looking at me like I was crazy, it's a holiday for most people. Oh, I said. Right. I knew that.

Anyway, you could do worse than quiet in Dallas. My sister's coming to see me in a few weeks and I'm trying to figure out what would be the quintessential Dallas experience. I guess I could drive her through downtown, maybe on Main Street so she can see tall glitzy high-rises on one side and abandoned buildings on the other. There are a lot of things about this town I actually like, but it's kind of soulless. It's all about extremes. Oil money and Dust Bowl poverty. Mercedes limousines and homeless persons. Cowboy boots and Armani suits. And quiet law firms on Monday mornings.

Winter's coming and the external cats are getting fat. They start eating like pigs right about now so they can have a nice layer of blubber for when it's cold out. I usually start giving them kitten food, which is of course nice and rich. Why they just won't frick'n come inside, I can't imagine.

I have no big plans for the holidays. I cannot afford big plans at the moment. I did have leftover pasta for lunch, though, seeing as it's Columbus Day. Does that count?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Malaise in Three Languages

Meters swum today: 1600 (a mighty mile)
Playing on the iPod: The Immersion Foray, "The Icarus Theory" (who are these guys? I love them!)

I went home early yesterday. I can't tell you how often that happens but it is spelled N E V E R. I have been known to stupidly come to work with a fever and only go home when it becomes obvious, based on the dancing stapler and swirling computer monitor, that I'm not in my right mind (I start hallucinating at 101 degrees).

Yesterday, though, I had a headache, my shoulders were sore, my neck felt like it needed "cricking" and I was just kind of generally miserable. I had a flu shot Wednesday and I was blaming that, but there was some other stuff going on. It was more of an emotional state, almost, than a physical one, and it's kind of hard to explain but let me sum up: "Law firm this. Law firm that. Blah blah blah. Who the f*ck cares. Sue 'em all and let God sort 'em out."

Not exactly the world's greatest attitude, right? When I feel that way I hide in my office and just try to work through it. Between that and the headache and so on, though, I couldn't concentrate, so I finally did leave. Went home, curled up on the sofa, applied cat topically, felt sorry for myself. I felt picked on. Like somebody was nagging me, though no one was. Kind of like, "Okay, the world economy is tanking, we're running out of oil, my bankrupt government just dumped 700 billion it doesn't have on an economic bailout that's not working, I'm surrounded by people who are going to vote for McCain not because they want four more years of this crap or think he'd do anything to get us out of it but mainly because they can't admit, even to themselves, that they won't vote for a black man, which means my people, though I love them all, are blithering morons, and bigots besides, and not worth the affection I waste on them." Joan picked up comfort food (burg, fries, small caramel sundae) and we ate and I felt better. Maybe my caramel sauce quotient was just low.

Anyway, I went to bed early, woke up early this morning and today I feel fine. Went back to the pool, even, swam a mighty mile, and ran right into the woman who was arguing with my teammate about whether Obama would do what world leaders want because he is weak.

It was kind of awkward. I sang at her, if you'll recall. "Um, hi," I said. "Were you the one singing the other morning?" she asked. "Um, yes," I said. "You sing very well," she said. "Um, thanks," I said. (Still waiting for her to mention Obama.) She asked me how many years I'd been studying German. In German. I said, "Nein, nie sprechen sie Deutsch." Which means, "I don't speak German."

She laughed. She thought I was kidding. I had to explain, no, really, I just speak a few phrases of it, I learned the song syllabically. I don't think she believed me. She never mentioned Obama. It was kind of spooky though. I really don't speak German but I understood her perfectly. Something like that happened last Sunday, too, when Kellum, who's studying Danish, said something (in Danish) that meant something or other (I forget what) and I laughed and said, "Oh, wow, it's the same in Icelandic." For the record, I don't speak Icelandic either. I have parents and grandparents, though, who speak both German and Icelandic and I'm wondering if I maybe absorbed some of the language in utero. Or heard 'em spoken when I was very young. Well, anyway, it was a bit spooky.

Diese Anwaltskanzlei. Diese Anwaltskanzlei. Blah blah blah.