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

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.


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.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Jen here: Ordinarily I'm against lending my precious piece of bandwidth to any other writer, but I'm going to make an exception. This is from John Gibbons who writes for The Irish Times.

SAILORS RARELY blush, and bankers never say sorry. Last weekend Anglo Irish Bank chairman Seán Fitzpatrick warned that the banking sector would fall unless the Government bailed it out. In June 2007 the same Fitzpatrick ridiculed Irish politicians for their "corporate McCarthyism". It was, he said, "time to shout stop. The tide of regulation has gone far enough . . . our wealth creators should be rewarded and admired, not subjected to levels of scrutiny which convicted criminals would rightly find intrusive."

Another "wealth creator", Richard Fuld, chief executive of collapsed US investment bank Lehman Brothers, did appear to squirm for a moment on RTÉ's evening news earlier this week as details of his income were put to him. In the last eight years he has pocketed $310 million - almost a million a week - as reward for his reckless gambling with other people's money. And all with little or none of the intrusive scrutiny Fitzpatrick finds objectionable.

Former Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died in August, had unique insights into the best and worst aspects of capitalism and communism. "Self-limitation is the fundamental and wisest step of a man who has obtained freedom," said Solzhenitsyn. It is, he added, "also the surest path towards its attainment". English philosopher Bertrand Russell captured the concept elegantly: "To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness."
And in a world of economic turmoil and overshadowed by a rapidly unfolding sustainability crisis that threatens our very ability to survive the 21st century, is it time to ask:

Have we had enough yet?


A 2004 study by the World Health Organisation into emotional distress in 15 countries delivered some surprising findings. Nigeria is a far poorer country than the US, yet fewer than 5 per cent of its population were suffering from emotional distress, compared with over 26 per cent of Americans. Commenting on the study, psychologist Oliver James observes: "Whilst poverty fosters survivalist materialism, it does not result in illness. Materialistic values cause emotional distress only when countries, or classes within them, become affluent."

Our most fundamental needs as humans are to feel secure; to be part of a community; to feel competent and to feel autonomous and authentic. The affluenza virus, James argues, impairs our ability to meet each of these needs. Paradoxically, the widespread social distress, depression and anxiety caused by affluenza is, he believes, crucial for the success of our current economic model of growth-based capitalism.

We strive to fill the void in our lives by consumption, as "it holds out the false promise that an internal lack can be fixed by an external means". We medicate our misery, James suggests, "through buying things".

A principal vector of this virus is television. A study from Fiji is revealing; prior to 1995, the country - where a full female figure is the cultural norm - had no television, and bulimia was unheard of. Within three years of the arrival of television, 11 per cent of young Fijian women were bulimic. The link between television viewing and the obesity epidemic is no less compelling.

All along Dublin's M50 you'll see the latest manifestation of our inability to say stop. The business parks that back on to the motorway are now dotted with self-storage companies. In the US, self-storage facilities now offer 2.2 billion sq ft of storage space. That's 78 sq miles of storage - an area three times the size of Manhattan Island, and all to pack away the mountains of goods that people keep buying but physically can't fit anywhere in their own homes.

A Bank of America analyst described self-storage as a "critical prop to global growth". In a nutshell, if you can't physically fit any more stuff in your house, you might have to stop buying things you don't need - and then the world economy collapses.

The world of consumption and consumerism is a world of disconnection. We are detached from the lessons of history, "because the world of more reviles yesterday, disdains today and preaches an obsession with some mythic perfect tomorrow", says Naish. This also extends to our collective indifference to the pauperised lives that four in five people in the world endure, and how our obsession with more means less and less for them, and for the environment as a whole.

The things that truly enhance our lives - family, friendships, good neighbours and health - have one thing in common. They can't be bought. As an antidote to angst, singer Bobby McFerrin has this timeless advice: don't worry, be happy.

© 2008 The Irish Times

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Out of the Political Closet

Meters swum today: 1500.
Playing on the iPod: Rob Whitesides-Woo, "Mountain Light"

This morning I found myself clinging to the side of the Jaccuzzi and singing out loud in German. Before I get to that, however, I'm for Obama. Hope that's not a big shock to anybody. If it is, take a deep breath, sit down, and drink a glass of water. Better? Good.

I came to Obama late. I was for Edwards for quite a while. I thought he was too pretty to get elected, though as it turned out, something quite a bit south of his face would have kept him out of the Oval Office. Look, I'm all for having as much sex as possible, with as many people as possible, for as long as possible, with the caveat that A. everybody involved is a consenting adult and a willing participant, and B. whenever there's a penis involved, a condom is used. However, once you walk down the aisle and say "I do," that should be it. You just took a vow, to yourself, to your partner and to the greater society. To be brief, fool around before you're married, not after. Most especially, don't cheat on your wife while she's being treated for terminal cancer and father a child with another woman. Okay? That's unconscionable. That's just Right Out. Most especially do not do this while running for President.

That aside aside, I was for Hillary, even voted for her in the primary. But as it turned out, I'm glad Obama was the nominee. I think he's the better choice for lots of reasons. It's starting to look like he might even have a shot at winning this election, which means we the people would be less screwed over than we would be if the other guy won, at least in my opinion. So now you know. My home state of Texas will probably go with the other guy (though some polls are saying it'll be close), but myself will be casting the vote for the handsome black dude.

Back to this morning and the Jaccuzzi. Apparently we had a debate last night, which I missed because I was out for dinner with our time traveling neocraftsperson friends and then rummaging around under my bed with Tracy looking for my missing ring (she found it! She rocks! More on this later.) As I was doin' my stretches I heard a woman arguing with a member of the swim team. Little snatches of her diatribe floated into my concsciousness. Immediately the Squirrel Committee fired up (those are the voices in my head; one of them sounds like my mother, one is probably Joan and I'm not sure who the others are) demanding I respond at once. Meantime I hung onto the Jaccuzzi wall, trying to stretch faster (this is not possible) while whispering to myself, Do not go over there. Do not get involved in that conversation. Do not start arguing with total strangers about who they're going to vote for and why.

Then the lady said, "...and the world leaders want Obama to win because they think he's weak. They think he'll go along with them," and something in my head just kind of went snap! The Squirrel Committee swung into overdrive. Yeah? What's wrong with cooperating with other world leaders? Did you know the U.S. uses 25% of the world's natural resources when we only have 4%? Where do you think we're getting the rest of it, out our asses? Do you realize eight years of Republican financial policies has caused stock markets to crash all over the world, you stupid bimbo? Did you further realize that since we share the same planet with other people we might wanna learn how to get along with everybody? I clung to the Jaccuzzi with fingernails and teeth. Do not go over there. Do not get involved in that conversation.

And then,for no apparent reason, I burst into song. I learned Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" syllabically in German for a choir thing when I was about 14. I'm sure my rendition was passable at best. Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium! Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, Dein Heiligtum!!

An odd thing happened. They stopped arguing and stared at me. Imagine that. I got up out of the Jaccuzzi, still singing; Deine Zauber binden wieder, Was die Mode streng geteilt!! By the time I got to Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo Dein sanfter Flügel weilt I was safely in the shower. The Squirrel Committee had fallen silent. So had pretty much everybody in the locker room. Nobody applauded, thank God. No thrown tomatoes either. Just silence. And sometimes the silence is best.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

BreastStroke Revisited

Playing on the iPod: Something from "Celtic River" - sounds like "Irish Rover"
Meters swum today: 1400

Well, folks, it's officially been a year since I started swimming with Dallas Aquatic Masters. I remember because I came in on Breast Stroke Month (which I thought was some porno thing) and now here it is again. Wow. One year in the water.

For the record, breaststroke is like the weirdest stroke in the pool. I'm a butterfly gal myself (move over, Michael Phelps, and take your wingspan with you). It's slow (how do they race with this thing?) and the leg motion is probably the least efficient way to maneuver through the water that has yet been invented but a lot of people like it. I guess it's okay. It's just not violent and noisy like butterfly. As a fan of Stiff Little Fingers, I like violent noisy things.

Aside: We can thank SLF for creating an entirely new category of music for Joan. Formerly she had but two: that which she liked, and that which didn't make her run screaming from the room. SLF makes her run screaming from the room. Way to go, boys. Keep on growling.

Anyway, the breast stroke kick is done as follows: From lying flat on the surface of the water, pull your knees under and forward until they're at roughly butt level. Then kick out your feet in a pigeon-toed manner whilst keeping your knees together. Then, and only then, do you spread your legs to do the rest of the kick like a frog. If you're having trouble visualizing this, it's because it makes no logical sense. I mean, watch a frog. Does he worry about where his feet are? Whether they are pointed in our out? No. He just frickin' kicks with 'em. But anyway, if you do it right, you will have these nice little aches running up and down the outsides of your calves for the rest of the day, probably from forcing your feet into that pigeon-toey motion.

Oh, I forgot, you're supposed to do the frog kick part of the kick at the exact same moment you're pushing your arms out and around. If you can time it exactly,you'll scoot across the pool like a water skeeter on steroids. If you're me, though, you do the kick first and then the arm thing, and instead of scooting like a skeeter you kind of, I dunno, lurch like a lumbering lycanthrope. (Do werewolves swim? Probably. To be honest, though, I just threw that in there to keep the alliteration flowing.)

Well, maybe I'll get better at it. My calves are aching on the outside, for one thing. And speaking of wolves, Joan and Kellum and Suzy and I are going down to The Woodlands on Saturday to get up close and personal with a few of 'em. I'll send pictures.