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

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Five Phases of Trial Prep

Playing in the background: The sonorous howl of a train whistle
Meters swum today: 1500

One of my Big Cases is going to trial. This hardly ever happens. I don't have the stats at my fingertips here, but only some tiny percentage of lawsuits ever go to trial - I think it's less than 1%. The rest settle or are dropped. I've been a paralegal for about 10 years now and I've been involved in probably about 20 trials. In fact I've only ever attended one, and I wasn't doing a whole lot of actual work besides checking to see which jurors were falling asleep (almost all of them). And, yes, that case did go all the way to the state Supreme Court, but my part was well over by then.

Now, mind you, lots of lawsuits settle the day before trial, or even the day of or a few days in. Far as I'm concerned, you get to that point, you might as well go for the gold with the jury because, honestly, all the work's been done. The rest is posturing. I don't have to do that - that's my boss's job. Anyway, for the uninitiated, here are the five phases of trial prep. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Phase I: Euphoria. Oh wow! One of your cases is going to trial! This hardly ever happens! (see above) There's so much work to do. Exhibits to list. Depositions to highlight. Witnesses to call. The adrenaline high kicks in and you're running on caffeine and sugar. Get as much done as you can; this phase won't last.

Phase II: Panic. Holy cow, there's so much work to do. It's impossible to get it all done. What's worse, all the people in the other cases you're working on seem not to know you're going to trial and they keep wanting things done, like, I dunno, returning calls and setting mediation dates and stuff. Add to that, people keep interrupting you every five minutes and pretty soon you want to hang a polite sign that says something like "F*ck Off" on your office door.

Phase III: Rage and despair. Your case stinks. You're going to lose. Your witnesses are all changing their minds about what they saw and at least three can't remember anything they said in their depositions. We should have settled months ago. The insurance adjuster won't return your boss's phone calls. He's throwing tantrums in your office door because the Chinese place sent kung pao squid instead of kung pao scallops. The other lawyers are Nazi drunkards, the judge is 16 years old and fresh out of law school and everything's starting to look like a bad episode of Boston Legal. Oh, and your client is now saying he's not sure the wheel flange was installed by Bob's Pretty Good Technicians, it might have been a guy from Bob's Topless Emporium down the road. Time to throw your boss, all the trial boxes, and yourself out the nearest window. Double points if you land on him or her and survive the fall.

Phase IV: Numb. You no longer know nor care what the case is about. Your boss has a seven word vocabulary and all of them are words you can't say in front of a jury. Oh, that's right, there's going to be a jury. God, you feel sorry for them. Two weeks of testimony on wheel flanges. Somebody please explain why we don't just duel to the death over these little disputes anymore. Wouldn't that be easier? Your boss makes you call the adjuster to explain that, really, there's not that much difference between a $6 million settlement and a $9 million settlement. It's only money, right? And hey, the trial costs alone will run - hello? Hello? Oh great. We'll have to go through with it, then.

Phase V: Euphoria. You've hauled the 58 trial boxes to the hotel room you'll be living in for the next month, set up the temporary shelving, hung the take-out menus in alphabetical order around the room and packed extra Gas-X in the tackle box you'll be taking to trial. You've sent your boss back to change three times and he/she finally looks almost presentable. You've got three extra sets of the opening statement notes on index cards and your laptop ran the presentation software more or less okay, with only minor glitches, roundabouts two a.m. this morning. Somehow it'll all hold together. You take a deep breath, swallow the rest of your double-shot sugar-free cinnamon dolce latte in a single gulp, toss the cup over your shoulder into the trash can and it's time to follow your boss into the courtroom. Four weeks from now this will all be a distant memory. The gavel bangs and it's showtime...

Well, at least I hope that's what Stage V will be like. I'm mired in Stage III right now. Two weeks to go. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Press Release - Dallas OA Convention




INFORMATION AT or 972-238-0333

This is the time of year people are talking about eating healthier and losing weight. For many people it's just a matter of changing some bad habits or starting a new diet, but for many others it is much more -- overeating is an obsession and an addiction that they cannot control.

Overeaters Anonymous (OA) was founded 49 years ago to help compulsive overeaters recover from their food addiction. The purpose of the Annual Convention and Unity Day is to inform, educate and inspire all those with a desire to stop eating compulsively and live in recovery as well as to link in thought and gratitude groups all over the world who are carrying the message of recovery to those who still suffer. Sponsored by the Dallas Metroplex Intergroup of OA, the convention presents speakers with many years in recovery, workshops, panels, and more.

PLEASE list this event in your calendar of events, community calendar, health section, or listing of support groups prior to the event to ensure that all who need it will see it. We welcome members of the media to this event, only requesting that you honor our anonymity requirements of no recording without permission of the speaker and no last names or faces shown to the public.

Jen adds: Anorexics, bulimics and others with eating disorders are welcome, please join us. This disease takes many forms and has many body shapes.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Who Are You People, And What Do You Want From Me?

Playing in the background: The U.S. Figure Skating Championships (ice dancing, unfortunately)
Meters swum today: Zero

If you haven’t yet treated yourself to “Slings & Arrows,” the Canadian comedy about a theater company with more than its fair share of problems, head over to Netflix and add a couple of episodes to your list. If you have, you’ll recall that Geoffrey Tennant, the famously insane director of the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, gets a little loopier than usual in Season Three and ends up seeing a therapist - well, a priest. Geoffrey has spent much of the series trying to deal with the ghost of Oliver, the former artistic director who got offed in the first episode of Season One. (No spoilers there; it was pretty much the premise of the series.) The priest notes that most artistic types have an ideal audience for which they do their art, and maybe Oliver is that audience for Geoffrey. This whole discussion would have been more beneficial for Geoffrey if Oliver hadn’t dropped in to listen, but hey, that’s what ghosts do. Or what Oliver did, anyway.

I imagine that more folks than artistic types have ideal audiences. There’s probably plenty of architects who design buildings to impress their sweeties and sharp-tongued waitresses who get into squabbles with customers just so they’ll have stories to tell at the next after-church social. Certainly Joan was going to law school to make her mother happy. And I–well, here’s where it gets interesting. Who the heck am I writing for anyway? Who is my ideal audience?

Stephen King suggested that for most folks, the ideal audience was someone you sleep with, or had slept with in the past, or hope to sleep with at some point in the future. For me, that would be Joan, but that wouldn’t work very well. Joan likes to read practically everything. I gotta admit I was a little worried when she first took the job at the public library; dropping an omnivorous reader into a building full of 1.3 million books on every subject imaginable would be kind of like me going to work at a cake decorating shop. Well, that part ended happily, but my writing doesn’t register much of a blip on her radar. I’m not hurt, though, because nothing registers much of a blip on her radar. She likes all of it all the time, or at least while she’s reading it. Then it’s forgotten because she’s reading something else, so as ideal audiences go, she kind of sucks.

Existential questions like this are always dangerous. If Joan isn’t my ideal audience, then who is? I went rummaging around in my mental Rolodex, where I found and discarded a number of possibilities. Kevin? No. He’s cool, but I don’t need to impress him. Some theoretical agent somewhere? If so, I haven’t found her/him yet. My writers group? No. We’re more of a mutual admiration society, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. So who, then?

I have this uncomfortable feeling it might be my mother.

Why would that be bad? Well, for one thing, my mother has absolutely no interest in my writing. She doesn’t even read this blog (and yes, she does know it exists). Does she need to be? I mean, does giving birth to a person require one to be interested in what that person is up to for the next 60 or so years? If Dr. Alfred Kinsey were my son, say, would I be interested in the life cycle of the North American gall wasp? Would I need to fake it if I wasn’t? I don’t have any kids, just cats, so it’s hard for me to say. I’m fascinated by my cats, though. My current question: Why does Caesar sit with his back to me while I’m meditating? Is he playing temple guard kitty or is he just embarrassed?

Well, that aside, I’m left with the question of what to do when one’s ideal audience isn’t interested in playing along. Does one try to find a new ideal audience? Can one even do that? Or is the ideal audience something you’re stuck with, like red hair and freckles, unable to be removed except by plastic surgery and toxic chemicals?

What is the audience for this blog? I don’t think a lot about that, actually. I just slop stuff out there and whatever happens, happens. Apart from the child abuse posts, though, which I just sort of need to get out there, I rather like to be liked. So who’s my ideal audience? Hello, guy in Bangladesh, whoever you are. Welcome back.

One of my other cats, Sparrow, just walked across the keyboard. She typed a rather impressive number of brackets with her left back paw, like so: {{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{ It appears that the question of who is my ideal audience will have to wait until another day. For the next thirty minutes, I have an audience, and she wants to be scratched behind the ears.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Days That Changed Everything. Part 1 of a Series

Meters swum today: 1500
Playing in the background: Michael Hedges, "Rickover's Dream" from Beyond Boundaries: Guitar Solos

I probably haven't told y'all this, but I'm a member of Mensa. If you're not a member of Mensa, you probably think we're some sinister cabal of supergeniuses who secretly run the whole world. Well, it is true that we're supergeniuses, but we have a hard time even running a meeting, much less the planet. We all think we're the only one in the room smart enough to be right. Still, Mensans are fun to have around once in a while. They play wicked card games at three in the morning, can talk until all hours about particle physics, and have conversations where you hear words like verisimilitude. (One of my writing teachers once said, "Never say 'verisimilitude' when you mean 'truth.') If you happen to be a Mensan and you happen to be in Dallas and you happen to go to the monthly meeting, don't bring up the Cave Man Diet. Please. But I digress.

This month's Mensa Bulletin (we call it the Mensabull round these parts) has a feature story called "The Day That Changed Everything." For all that we're this sinister cabal of supergeniuses, the stories were rather humblingly human. We had one guy who, having found and lost a series of college-professor jobs, took a last-ditch position on an ocean-going research vessel. He ended up meeting his future wife and finding his life's work. Another guy woke up one morning and took himself to an addiction treatment center - without the usual intervention of angry family members and law enforcement personnel, but with his employer's 18-wheeler, which he left in the parking lot. That must have been a hard one to explain.

So I got to thinking, do I have such a day, and if so, what happened? And as George Bailey would say, it's not just one day, it's a whole hatful. So here's the first one. I'll find the others when I can.

We gotta go back in time for this sucker, all the way to the latter part of 1940. Several divisions of the British Army, among them the 51st Highland Division, were bogged down near Dunkirk, fighting the German invasion of France. After massive casualties, the Division surrendered to Rommel, and the survivors ended up interned at a POW camp. As POWs they were treated somewhat better than the folks next door being burned in the ovens, but there still wasn't enough food or medicine to go around.

This was heading into the darkest part of the war, when it seemed that nothing could stop Hitler's machine. Even London Herself was being bombed and the Yanks wouldn't show up to help for another year. One of the officers, Lt. Col. Harris Hunter, figured out that his men were dying as much of despair as they were of hunger and disease. He ended up writing a dance with some of his men, which was then known as the 51st Country Dance.

Backing up a second. Dancing has a long and storied history in the British Army. The Scottish regiments in particular teach traditional Highland dances to all the new recruits. It's kind of part of their boot camp over there. I believe the Official Explanation has to do with physical fitness and mental dexterity, but if you ask me, they just like to look cool. This isn't the Lambada or freak dancing, folks (says Jen, showing her age.) If you've never seen Highland dancing, I'm not about to explain it. Next time a Highland regiment comes to town, go check it out. You Won't Be Sorry.

Country dancing isn't as vigorous as Highland dancing, but it's just as intricate and technically complex. Hunter got his men out on the parade ground dancing every day and that changed everything. At first they were dancing to hand clapping or someone beating time on an improvised drum. After a while, the Germans (who might have just been amused) got them a couple of musical instruments and, well, this isn't exactly germane to the tale. What is, is that Hunter kept insisting that his men needed to learn this dance so they could teach it to their wives and sweethearts. It worked. The men quit dying. The dance got back home to Scotland and was retitled The Reel of the 51st Division. When you see this dance done at a large ball or party, it's traditionally done with at least one set of eight men in honor of the Division.

I, Jen, have done a fair share of Scottish country dancing in my day. I even did some Highland dancing once, but that didn't take, which is probably just as well for all concerned. So fast forward to 1991. I happened to be in Scotland that spring. It was a trip from hell for so many reasons. My traveling companion was driving me nuts, for one. I got into a barroom brawl and ended up with a concussion, for another. It was also on this trip that Stuart Adamson kissed me, but we'll come back to that later. Anyway, we were in Inverness, way way up on the North Coast. We were running low on cash and I just happened to see a flyer that there was a Scottish country dance that evening. Scottish country dancing in Scotland. It don't get much more authentic than that.

So I dragged my reluctant traveling companion, who was grumbling about the expense, to this dance. I danced and she - well, that's not germane to the tale, either. Here's what is. One of the dances they called was the Reel of the 51st. I happened to like that one and I was standing up to find a partner when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was an old man, shorter than me, who was 90 if he was a day and could hardly walk. He said, "Miss, I don't know your name, but mine is Alec Wiseman. Gunnery sergeant, 51st Division. May I have this dance?"

Well, of course I danced with him. And he could dance. He could, as I mentioned, hardly walk, but he did the Reel of the 51st just fine. He'd learned it 51 years ago, in the winter of 1940, from Lt. Col. Hunter. And it kind of hit me, in a way that it hadn't before, that Big Two was a real war for these folks. Sure, lots of Americans died in the war, too, but nobody ever launched an air raid against Boston or New York City or--or Dallas. Nobody in the States had to send their kids to the country so they'd have a better chance of surviving. These guys were on the front lines from the very beginning, fighting what looked like a hopeless conflict against a bigger, better-equipped enemy. They won, but they didn't know that would happen in 1941. They didn't even know they'd be alive to see '42.

The other day Joan and I were reminiscing about our 2004 trip to London. I mentioned that I happened past an old building there and I saw a sign, in blue paint fading to grey, that pointed to the air raid shelter. In the middle of recounting this tale I suddenly remembered Alec Wiseman and the Reel of the 51st Division.

I'd never told Joan that story. After my traveling companion and I broke up, I'd sort of tried to forget everything that happened on that ill-fated journey to Scotland. Even the part about Stuart Adamson kissing me, which is a lot harder to think about since he, uh, killed himself. Now I'm wondering what else I might have forgotten, and how many Days That Changed Everything are still lying there undiscovered in the dust.

By the way, I haven't been Scottish country dancing in ages.

Myself I've Always Preferred The Number 19.

Meters swum today: 1500
Playing in the background: John Denver's "Calypso" (5th time through!)

So I saw a really interesting movie last night. I can't say as it was a good movie but it certainly held my attention. It's called The Number 23 starring Jim Carrey. I didn't know the guy could do a serious part ; he's forever stuck in my head as "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," holding onto a sliding glass door and opening and closing it while he, uh, yelled really loud. (I guess you had to be there.) By the way, if you see this movie on DVD, watch the unrated version. A whole lot more kinky sex. I'm just sayin'.

Anyway, Walter Sparrow (named after my cat?) finds a scrappy self-published book called "The Number 23" that seems to be based on his life. The number 23 of course appears multiple times as some kind of cursed or evil number that directs your life and, I dunno, haunts you or something. Walter becomes obsessed with the book and things rapidly deteriorate. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you but let's just say there's a creepy old haunted hospital, a madman, a dingy hotel room, a couple of dead people and a wife who knows something but won't tell. Again, I'm not sure it's a good movie but it's very effective. It's one of the best examples I've seen of nothing making sense until the very end and then everything falling together all at once, ala M. Night Shymawarmarrrrgh when he's being good.

Here's one of the "oh, wow, this writer is awesome" moments that won't give everything away: The whole adventure starts when a dog tag (Walter is an animal control officer) reflects up into Walter's face. Why is that significant? Well, toward the end of the movie something else reflects up into his face, and when it happens you'll say, "Oh my God." Or at least I did. Oh, and he gets bitten on the arm by the dog in question. Why is that significant? It's not, but he's clutching his arm in pain and then, at the end of the movie, he's clutching his arm in pain again and, again, you're gonna say, "Oh my God."

And of course it's a tale of obsession, and nothing obsesses me like obsession. I guess I'm fascinated by the concept because while I do get obsessed with things (video games being a chronic example) it never lasts very long. A few days go by and it's gone. (American McGee's "Alice" was the exception, but I wasn't obsessed with it constantly; I'd be obsessed for a few days, it would fade, it would come back, another few days and it would fade again.) Here we have a guy who's obsessed by the number 23, and clearly the obsession does not end. It goes on and on and on. Even having been in the fevered grip of "Alice" past 1 am on a work night, it's still hard for me to imagine being taken over 24/7 by a Grandiose Concept. Yes, I am a writer, thank you , and I do sometimes work 18 hours at a stretch, but I also sleep sometimes.

But I'm fascinated with obsession in other people. Why people join cults, for example. Of course, they don't think they're joining a cult; they think they're joining a church or a self-help group, but how very quickly it takes them over. The Buddha warned us about this sort of thing when he advocated the Middle Way, telling us to neither reject nor cling too tightly to things - yea verily, even ideas. Or maybe especially ideas. I've often wondered if we could maybe all let go of the notion that we're absolutely right about everything we think we're absolutely right about, we'd see how big the world really is, how much is out there, and how interconnected we are - whether we're right or not.

Anyway, check out the the movie. It's, uh, interesting.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different

Playing in the background: The soothing soporific hum of the dryer (which also helps heat the house in the winter)
Meters swum today: None. I've been sick.

So I'm reading a book called "Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution" by one David Loy while I mope around the house having fun with antibiotic side effects and catching frequent naps. It's not really a book of answers so much as it is a book of questions. Buddhism is an old religion, predating Christ and His fan club by about 400 years. Many of the "rules" that came out of Buddhism were a product of their time, like many of the Commandments of the ancient Hebrews, so how can we know which should still be followed and which can be discarded as incompatible with the modern world? And, again, it's a book of questions, not answers. However, one very interesting tidbit has crawled out of it and fallen into my lap:

The Dalai Lama eats meat.

Yep. Kundun himself. The unofficial Buddhist ambassador to the western world. The frick'n Dalai frick'n Lama. Not all the time, but occasionally he has to, for "health reasons," according to Mr. Loy. Now, it doesn't help that I'm running an on-again off-again fever and seeing scorpions in the bathtub (actually a wadded up piece of thread) and stuff like that, but this has totally shaken up my world view. I'm not sure where to go with it, apart from heaving a great big sigh of relief.

See, I eat meat. I don't like it that I eat meat, but I do. I have a pair of entangled medical issues, either one of which would make surviving on a vegetarian diet dicey at best. Combined, there's no frick'n way. When I first got interested in Buddhism I decided I'd become a vegetarian if it killed me, and it damn near did; I landed in the hospital twice that year and avoided a transfusion by about ten points on some scale or other. My doc told me I was crazy not to eat meat and I'd better rethink this, pronto. I got huffy at first and did a lot of grumbling about how I was going to die someday anyway and how would it help me or the world to stuff dead animals in my mouth so I could gain a few more years. Then I met Joan, and decided I had something to hang around for after all, and we adopted some cats, and--well, things got complicated.

So I eat meat. We both do. I've been trying to buy kosher meat and eggs from free-range chickens whenever possible (you wouldn't believe what they do to chickens; if you knew, you'd always buy free-range eggs). There's a guy married to a lady at my office who buys entire cows (and pigs and chickens) from certain select farms where they pasture their animals and let them roam around and don't sell them for slaughter until they've had a chance to live, breed and, you know, hang out a little. I can't afford his meat very often yet but I am working on it. I'd much rather the animal I eat have a decent life before I eat him. Or her. Or--whatever. But that didn't seem enough. I'm sure if you asked the animals in question, they really wouldn't care to die so that I could have dinner (unlike, say, the cow at the Restauarant at the End of the Universe that messed with Arthur Dent's head by walking up to him and saying, "What piece of me would you care to dine upon tonight, sir?")

But the Dalai Lama, Himself, eats meat. He's plainly wrestled with this same question and decided that, while it will never be "fine" for him to eat meat, once in a while he will do so because he must. And hey, I can do that too.

I feel so much better. Now about this stupid fever...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

...And He Is Us, Part II

Playing in the background: The soothing chuggity-chug of the washing machine
Meters swum today: None, 1300 yesterday.

Y'all may find this hard to believe, but once in a while I get negative comments on this blog. Some people even call me bad names. Check out the response to ...And He Is Us, below. Oh, wait, you can't because it's not there. I deleted it. And before you jump all over me for stifling interfaith discussion and discouraging conflicting opinions, let me just say that I had three (count 'em, three) very good reasons for deleting the comment. One, there's a big difference between enlightened discussion and throwing more fuel on the fire of conflict. If you want to engage in enlightened discussion, you should probably not start off your first sentence by calling the other person an idiot. Two, this here's a religious establishment and y'all need to act respectable. Three, this is my blog and I'll delete whatever I want. You wanna call me names, do it on your own blog.

That aside, though, this person did have a couple of valid points. One of them was that you don't often see Buddhists or Catholics or Seventh-Day Adventists hijacking airplanes (though one wonders what faith D.B. Cooper professed; I'd suspect some stripe of Protestant, but I could be wrong.) In fact, El Al, the state airline of Israel and by far one of the safest in the world, admits to practicing 'racial profiling' in its screening of passengers - specifically singling out young Islamic men. They can get away with that, in part because they're a small airline (this level of security is ridiculously labor-intensive) and in part because they're based in Israel, where the laws are different. This would never fly, so to speak, in the States. That rotten ol' "all men are created equal" thing in the Declaration of Independence is still causing trouble after 230 years.

Which leads us to this person's second point about the additional layer of personal responsibility one should be required to assume in a post 9-11 world. The person points out that if a family of white Southern Baptists had a discussion about airline safety prior to take-off, we never would have read about it. Anybody getting on an airplane in traditional Muslim dress should confine his or her conversation to English-language discussions of bunnies, flowers and Shakespeare. (The sonnets, not those violent plays.) Furthermore, this person says that the airline shouldn't have said, "We're sorry, here's your free tickets"; it should have said, "We're not sorry, you're banned for life and we're suing you for the cost of diverting the plane and delaying everybody for two hours."

Look: Airline pilots have always had wide discretion to decide who flies aboard their aircraft. Pilots have been known to remove people from flights for everything from making jokes about drunk pilots (following an incident at Heathrow, London involving a United Airlines pilot from the States) to wearing provocative buttons to not wearing enough clothing. The safety of everybody aboard is the most important concern, and the joking half-naked button-wearing passengers of the world can't be allowed to open emergency-exit doors in flight and stuff like that.

In this instance, the pilot did what the pilot was supposed to do; he (or she) reported the incident to the TSA. The TSA did what the TSA was supposed to do; it investigated, called in the FBI, and then determined that there wasn't a problem. The airline then did what it was supposed to do; it apologized and gave the family new tickets. The point of my post, which seems to have been lost on my commentor as well as the general public, is that it's not the airline that should be apologizing. In fact, let's put that in bold caps. THE AIRLINE SHOULD NOT BE APOLOGIZING. THE TWO TEENAGE GIRLS WHO OVERHEARD THIS NON-EVENT AND BLEW IT ALL OUT OF PROPORTION ARE THE ONES WHO SHOULD BE APOLOGIZING.

I can't imagine it's ever a good idea to jump on an airplane and begin a loud conversation about how Dan Simmons' last book, The TERROR*, really BOMBED and he better get himself a new editor or else he's gonna CRASH. But that's not what happened here. Nor here: This guy was told he couldn't get on an airplane unless he covered up a t-shirt** with Arabic script. (He sued and was awarded $240,000.) A man on a Canadian airliner was removed for praying before takeoff. He wasn't even Muslim; he was a Haisidic Jew. And in one celebrated incident, six Islamic imams who were removed from an airplane in Minneapolis were the subject of conspiracy theories that they staged the whole event as a publicity stunt. Right. I'm sure this mom and her son got themselves tossed off an airplane to raise money for autism research.

I always pray before takeoff. What should I do if somebody next to me thinks Om mani padme hum means "Death to America" in Sanskrit? Do Buddhist monks make other travelers "uncomfortable" because they're obviously wearing "religious dress"? How about Orthodox priests? They look pretty suspicious. Plus, they have long beards. Just like imams. Should we go past Flying while Muslim/Russian/Buddhist/Seventh-Day Adventist/Whatever to the much simpler Flying While Different and just get rid of everybody who isn't white, Christian and normal?

I like my idea better. Let's all just take a deep breath and relax. Om mani padme hum.

*Incidentally, I loved that book. I do think it could have been a couple hundred pages shorter, though.

**The T-shirt read, "We will not be silent." You gotta wonder if he would have received more or less money if the shirt had read, "Fly the Friendly Skies."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

...And He Is Us

Playing in the background: The sonorous tap-tap-tapping of a hammer on nails
Meters swum today: None. (1.4 km for 2009.)

Once in a while I wonder about us. We humans, I mean. For all we're brilliant beings and the apex of evolution (unless you count octopuses, and I, personally, do; next time around I wanna be a cephelopod) we still do some of the stupidest things imaginable, lots of which flat-out threaten our survival as a species. This isn't that kind of post, though. This is about more mundane stupidity: Tossing people off an airplane because of their conversation.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for tossing people off airplanes. Drunk and disorderly? Toss 'em off. Sick with something communicable and really dangerous, like multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis? Toss 'em off. Parents of small kids who haven't bothered to explain to said kids how one behaves in a situation where one is trapped with dozens of strangers in a small metal tube or don't bother to restrain their little darlings from running up and down the aisles, kicking the seat in front of them and screaming at the top of their lungs? Fergodsake, toss 'em off. I'd be for tossing off the kids, too, but by and large it isn't their fault. We're not born knowing how to be polite in public. We have to be taught. Woe unto us if the people we're born to can't be bothered.

No, what I'm talking about here is booting people who aren't causing any problems off an airplane because you don't like their conversations, their skin color, the way they dress or the language they happen to speak. What I'm talking about here is this Muslim family of nine, on its way to Orlando for a religious retreat, that got kicked off an airplane for the crime of (gasp!) talking about where it's safest to sit:

Officials said two teenage girls sitting nearby became alarmed when they heard Sahin remark that sitting near the engines would not be safe in the event of an accident or an explosion. The girls told their parents, who told a flight attendant, AirTran officials said.

Okay, let's back that up a sec. Hands up who's ever had a conversation about airplane safety. Hands up who's ever had a conversation about airplane safety on an airplane. I thought so. I mean, where else do you discuss airplane safety, a frick'n city bus? All you have to do is pick up the cute little card they stick into the seat pocket in front of you to start a discussion about airplane safety. Myself, I worry about all the things people don't discuss. Like why you shouldn't try to take your carry-ons in the event of an evacuation (the bags hinder the evacuation, and people die) or why you shouldn't inflate your life vest until you're in the water (the life vests are big and bulky, they make it hard to see, they hinder the evacuation, and people die). Look, I know airplane crashes are extremely unlikely, but I've been in several near-disasters and I can tell ya, you need to know what to do in those situations and why. The way you find out what you need to do is to listen to the nice flight attendant doing the demo, reading the little card, and (gasp!) talking to people.

I better back up a sec. My dad flies a light plane, a four-seater one-engine job. He's an ex-Air Force pilot and he taught students for years. If Mom happened to be busy and Dad had a lesson to teach, me and my sister went along for the ride. Among the many things that went wrong; the alternator died on us, we landed without power (several times), one of the students did an unauthorized barrel roll (that was fun, actually); the door popped open at 5,000 feet and we caught ice outside of Heber, Utah and landed sans radio or lights in the dark of night. And one time we almost ran over a coyote but that was kind of my fault. What I'm trying to say here is, big commercial airliners are safe. Stuff like this hardly ever happens. Besides, it all happened to me and I'm still in one piece.

Back to this family, though. It's hard to argue that they got tossed off the airplane for any reason other than their appearance and their conversation. That sucks rocks. If anybody should get tossed off an airplane because of their conversation, it's the half-naked blonde bimbos on the way back from Spring Break who loudly extoll the virtues of oral sex with Tim, or was it Jim, on the beach at Corpus Christi to the entire airplane, whether they want to hear it or not. Or the drunks on their way to Vegas who keep doing high-fives and waving their shirts over their heads to look cool. A Muslim family in religious dress, on its way to a religious retreat, just does not fit into this category.

The FBI and the Homeland Security officials who responded to this non-incident were, by all accounts, professional and polite. The airline, AirTran, has apologized and refunded the tickets to the family, which is only right. Still, I don't think it's fair to blame the airline or the officials. The people responsible for this fiasco are the two teenage girls, who "became alarmed," and their parents, who over-reacted to a single reported snippet of conversation (hearsay!), got freaked out because the people who were having the conversation Didn't Look Like Them, and ended up violating the civil rights of nine people, to say nothing of delaying everybody else for hours. Happy frick'n New Year to you, too.

So there you have it. When it comes down to bad behavior of the human species, in the end we can blame only ourselves, our own prejudices and irrational fears and unwillingness to just let things be what they are. I hope the teenage girls are good and embarrassed. I hope the parents are having a long hard look at themselves. I hope so, but I'm pessimistic. We keep doing this shit. Us, we humans, the whole planet. If I can figure out who's representing these people, I may just send them a written apology. I think they're owed one. Not by the airline, by us. We humans, the whole planet.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!!

Playing in the background: "Downfall," the feel-good movie of the 2008 holiday season, featuring Hitler going crazy in his bunker and one dutiful secretary writing it all down. In German with subtitles.
Meters swum in 2008: 170.2. YEAH!!! WOO HOO!!! GO ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In the words of the inimitable Alison Bechdel, "If you can't celebrate the new year, you can at least be happy that the old one is finally over." She was talking about 1991, but a lot of the same conditions apply. A Bush was in office and we were at war with Iraq, for one thing. The Democratic Party was about to sweep the country and put a handsome youngish guy in office, for another. Oh, wait, that part already happened. There was a float in the Rose Parade this morning from Anchorage, Alaska, and I was thinking, "Geez, what if McCain had won the election and Sarah Palin was riding in that thing?" (shudder) I mean, the mind boggles.

But, it's 2009, I just hung up my new calendar (Buddha in 96 eye catching colors!) and there's a lot to look forward to. Another 170 miles in the pool, for one thing (y'all think I can make it 180 this year? I'm gonna try). In 18 more days, the new guy will be President and, hopefully, we'll start to dig ourselves out of this mess we're in. It's entirely possible I'll find myself still married come March. Best of all, there's only one work day left before the weekend. Gotta love that.

A lot of folks seem to make what are called "resolutions" around this time of year. Things they're going to do differently or better, goals, ideas, stuff like that. Cool as this may be, it's still a setup for the Big Letdown on January 21. Didn't know that date was significant, did ya? Actually, the specific date is under debate. According to this article, the most depressing day of the year is January 21. Fellow British psychologist Cliff Arnell pinpointed the 24th. Why a specific day? The reasons vary. For most of the Western world, the weather is terrible. Here in Dallas we tend to have ice storms in January. I'fact our winter precip records are usually set between January 21 and 24 (take 1978, for example; 1.5 feet of snow on Jan. 22.) It's also a very dark time, just after the Winter Solstice, when the days are starting to get a tiny bit lighter but it'll be a month before anybody notices. The credit card bills from the Christmas season are starting to roll in. And, of course, by now most people who started off with New Years resolutions have discarded them. There's something about a daily five-mile run that sounds great on December 31st when you're drunk right before the ball falls in New York, but that sucks rocks at 6 am the following day when you're lacing on your running shoes to go out in the dark and cold.

Back when I did this, I had a surefire formula for keeping my resolutions. I would always make just one: to just wing it and see what happens. Without fail, I kept my resolutions every year. Howsomever, since I ain't gettin' any younger and the world's not exactly getting kinder, I have been undertaking certain attempts at developing better habits. We're not calling these resolutions, though. I don't wanna wake up on January 21st, take one look at a list of stuff I'm not doing and crawl right back under the covers.

In October, I decided to get into the habit of Writing In My Journal. Every Night. Without Fail. And it's going pretty well. I miss a night here and there, but overall, I'm logging the pages once more. Journal Writing is one of those things We People In Recovery are supposed to be doing. Something about gaining perspective or whatever the hell. I just like slopping my guts out on a page nobody's ever going to read and calling people names and being a bitch and so on without anybody finding out. Everybody needs an outlet somewhere.

In November I started Reading Some Scripture Before Bed. I haven't made it through that book of Buddhist scriptures my brother-in-law sent to me yet. Sometimes it's a paragraph at a time; the Book of Numbers is more interesting - but I am doing it most nights. In December I started entering what I'm eating each day into the online food journal, The Daily Plate. That hasn't gone quite as well but I'm not losing any sleep over it. If I miss a day I just pick it up and move on.

That last, I think, is the key to changing any habit. When it comes to the big resolutions people make (losing weight, quitting smoking, etc) it seems like if you mistakenly have an early-morning cigarette or eat a piece of pie, you tend to say, "Oh, fuck it" and go on with the rest of the pack (or pie). People aren't nearly as forgiving of themselves as they need to be. Okay, so you had that cigarette or that piece of pie. Doesn't mean you have to have the next one, or the one after that. Pick up and move on. Do better next time. It's got to be better to keep trying than it is to go back to something you know is going to harm you.

So anyway, here's my challenge to y'all. If you wake up on January 21 (or 24) and realize you're not doing the 15 things you wrote on your little list of resolutions, pick one that would help you the most and just start doing it, from that day forward. If you miss a day, who cares. Do it the next day. I promise, a year from now you'll feel a lot better about yourself than you will if you try to keep all 15 and end up saying, "Oh, fuck it."

Myself, my Habit To Change For January is to go to bed at 10pm on school nights, instead of staying up and, I dunno, blogging. And tonight is a school night, so I'm gonna say, "Oh, fuck it" and close here. Cheers!