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

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's A Wonderful Town, George

Playing in the background: "Wings to Altair" by David Arkenstone

I love "It's a Wonderful Life." I watch it every year on Christmas Eve, all three and a half or so hours of it (with infomercials) and sob all the way through the last reel. Yeah, it's kind of sentimental and smarmy, but you really don't get the full emotional impact unless you watch it from the beginning. It's kind of like Sibelius's Symphony No. 2 in D-minor that way; the fourth movement is momentous, but you won't really understand it unless you watch the whole thing all the way through. (Get a copy of Symphony No. 2, preferably a nice Deutsch Gramophon pressing, and sit down with it for 45 minutes, uninterrupted. You will totally see what I mean.)

In case you recently arrived in America and they don't have TV or the Internet where you're from, here's the story: George Bailey, all-American family man and failed businessman, misplaces a lot of money belonging to his business on Christmas Eve (through no fault of his own). Facing bankruptcy and scandal, he considers suicide. Enter Clarence, Angel Second Class, who shows George what life in his home town of Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never existed. It's not a pretty picture. By reel's end George wants to live again, is restored to his life, and there's a big redemption that I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you. Believe it or not, the film was a flop when it first came out; the subject matter (suicide) was one of those things we don't talk about in 1946, and the fact that it was set on Christmas Eve relegated it to the "Christmas movie" category and it got little promotion. But this is a wonderful little movie. Every time I watch it I see something I hadn't noticed before.

This year, I noticed something that totally shocked me. George Bailey actually did everything he set out to do with his life.

Well, not in literal truth. George, again if you haven't seen the movie, dreams of seeing the world, going to visit lots of exotic places, and then to college, where he's going to become an architect. "I'm going to build things. I'm going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm going to build a bridge a mile long." Instead he ends up stuck in Bedford Falls, running the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan, the only competition to rival Mr. Potter's bank and, for the most part, the only place ordinary folks in the town can get mortgage loans. This is what I mean, when I say that George did what he set out to do in life. He builds a town.

Mr. Potter's rent collector, a "scurvy little spider," explains this to Mr. Potter in a pivotal scene; "You can't ignore this Bailey Park anymore. Dozens of pretty little houses, each one worth twice what it took the Bailey Building and Loan to build." Back up a second, there. Dozens of pretty little houses. George didn't build skyscrapers or bridges, he built dozens of houses, and made a huge difference in the lives of dozens of families. See what I mean? He built a town.

As for seeing the world, no, George never got to do that. But he saw a world. He saw a world nobody else had ever seen before; the world without George Bailey, where Pottersville (no longer Bedford Falls) had become a place of gin joints and strip clubs, all his friends were leading wretched lives, Bailey Park was never built and perhaps most important, his brother Harry died at the age of nine and never grew up to become a war hero and save the lives of hundreds of soldiers. After seeing a world like that, you can't wait to get home. And so George came home - having done everything he set out to do. Weird, huh? That Frank Capra was a pretty sharp guy.

(Side note: George Bailey also got me through paralegal school. No, really. The stuff we were reading was so dry I needed a glass of water before I even sat down, and the only way I survived it was to imagine George Bailey reading it out loud to me. Jen as Jimmy Stewart: "Now, when we have a contract, we have first an offer, then an acceptance, with consideration. Minus any of the three elements, a contract is not a contract." Mr. Smith from "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" also works, but George Bailey does it better.)

I bring this up for two reasons. One, it's Christmas. Two, practically all of us have dreams we never lived out. I, for example, have never moved to El Salvador and taught the dharma out of a little temple somewhere in San Marcos, thus doing my bit to spread Zen through the Spanish-speaking world. Nor have I written the book that will change publishing forever (well, I have, actually, but I haven't gotten it published yet. Still working on that though.) But I've done small things that I hope have helped some people somewhere, and maybe injected some new ideas here and there. Y'all are reading this, you tell me. But again, y'all are reading this. I haven't bored you senseless yet.

So anyway, I'd like to propose that this Christmas and on into the New Year, we stop kicking ourselves for the skyscrapers and mile-long bridges we never got around to, and take a look instead at the towns we built. George Bailey did, and look what happened to him. The rest of us don't even need to consider suicide first.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Christmas, Already

Playing in the background: "Earthlight" by Deuter

It occurs to me that there kind of isn't a Buddhist equivalent of Christmas. At least, I don't think there is; I'm kind of a casual Buddhist - the Buddhist equivalent of a Christmas and Easter Christian, I guess. I know there's one big holiday in the spring, which is your Lunar New Year or your Wesak or whatever it's called in your part of the world, and any number of smaller festivals scattered around, but I don't know of one around now-ish. Maybe there's a Winter Solstice holiday or other. By the way, I love the Solstice. It means the days are going to start getting longer again and there's some hope that light will return to my benighted corner of Dallas. But I've already ranted about how much I don't like this time of year, so, onward.

A colleague asked me yesterday if I celebrated Christmas. I kind of blinked a little and said, "Sure. I celebrate everything." Which was a typically flip answer but still true. I have a li'l Christmas tree up (more of a bush, but it looks pretty) with gifts under it, and we're having friends over for dinner on the appointed day, and so forth and so on. But if I'd grown up in a Jewish household, I'd probably have had up a little menorah and other Hanukkah decorations two weeks ago. I mean, it's a tradition. Even if it doesn't have a part in one's current religion, that doesn't mean one can't celebrate at the same time as the rest of the world.

By the way, Christmas isn't really a Christian holiday (!) Well, not in the sense we think of it. Christmas as we celebrate it was once called Yule, and in preChristian Britain it was the pagan festival where the Oak King kicked the Holly King's butt and reigned over winter. Which was why you decked your halls with boughs of holly and threw the Yule log on, Uncle John and drank wassail and went from house to house singing. When St. Paul showed up in Rome, the Roman equivalent got drafted into a new holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, who was probably actually born in April, and probably in about 4 or 5 B.C. and not the year zero, and who probably, knowing the guy, wouldn't have wanted a big festival for himself. Christmas celebrations were banned for several years when Cromwell was dictator of England on the grounds that they were pagan, and so when they came back, they came back in a big way, and that's why a comparatively minor Christian festival is this big universal hoo ha of presents and good cheer and "It's a Wonderful Life." And that's your history lesson for today, thankewverymuch.

I know a lot of nonChristians get annoyed when people wish them a merry Christmas. I also know a lot of Christians who get annoyed when people wish them "Happy Holidays," seeming to obliterate the above-referenced hoo ha in favor of some bland insignificant good time being had by all. And while I sympathize on all counts, I'd still like to suggest, in the spirit of the season, that we all just LOOSEN THE HELL UP about what holiday it is and think about, for a second, what "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or "Scintillating Solstice" actually means.

I mean, you say it all the time. You say it to total strangers. You say it at the post office, to colleagues you try not to speak to the rest of the year, to casual friends at parties. I'd like to postulate that "Merry Christmas" is the rough seasonal equivalent of "Have a nice day," said with about the same amount of sentiment and for about the same purpose; a social salve to soften the end of an interaction. And if you don't get het up when people tell you to have a nice day, why lose one's cool when one is wished a Merry Christmas? Or Happy Holiday? It don't mean anything different, folks. It's just an expression of goodwill. And let's face it, goodwill is one thing we could all use a lot more of these days.

So Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Scintillating Solstice. Happy Hanukkah. Merry Kwanzaa. Joyful Buddhist-holiday-to-be-named-later. Celebrate everything, says I.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jen The Walking Pharmacy

Playing in the background: A D&D game. I'm just watchin'.

So how goes this living with bipolar disorder, you ask. Well, let me tell you. You'd think, having had this my whole life, I'd be used to it by now, but since I've only Officially Had It for a few months, it's a whole new deal. Evidently what happens when you have this is, they port you off to a psychiatrist and said professional tinkers with whatever meds you've been taking (providing you've been taking some) or gives you some to take (provided you haven't been taking some). If you're very lucky, you start feeling better immediately, stop crashing up and down on the ol' mood roller coaster and everything's grand from then on. If you're not so lucky, it takes ages to sort out what you should and shouldn't be taking, and in the meantime you muddle along with weird moods and moments of panic as best you can.

I mean, I could be wrong here, but I think the whole medication parade is trial and error. In my case, it's a trial. I came into this mess on 150 mg of Zoloft, ostensibly for depression. Unfortunately, it was at least partially causing my fits of hyperfertility, ie, mania. So they started reducing that. Immediately I crashed out of my mania and started getting depressed, so they threw Abilify into the pharmaceutical cocktail and slowly increased the dose. I was in a real funk for about a month, until the dose of Abilify started to make a difference. But I began having an Issue with anxiety, as in, having great big whooping panic attacks, usually at work, usually accompanied by a stomach ache. So now I'm on a medication for anxiety. Which is definitely working but I've somehow ended up kind of blah, uninterested in most everything beyond an initial (and generally forced) five or six minutes of enthusiasm. We'll be addressing that on Tuesday.

What's my biggest complaint? The medication for anxiety. And which one do I probably need most of all? The medication for anxiety. Here there be dragons.

Mind you, I have no problem taking the Zoloft. Taken it for years, and okay, it's a lower dose, but it does its job and I can sleep at night (yay!) Abilify, fine, no issue there, even if it's classed as an "atypical antipsychotic". And all this time I thought I was rather a typical psychotic. I'm okay with the cold meds I've taken for like years, literally. No problem with the iron supplements either. But this anti-anxiety medication. I'm really having an Issue with having to take the stuff.

I have always, always, always had Issues with anxiety. My mom remembers when I was a small kid I would have panic attacks about whether or not we'd run out of gas before we got where we were going. (Ah, but she thought I meant the car. I actually meant the whole planet. I was just ahead of my environmentalist time, is all.) And witness my adventures with query letters. I can very easily work myself up into any kind of imminent end of the world type fears about practically anything with very little provocation. But I'm still very annoyed that I have to take an anti-anxiety medication. Somebody look up "irrational reactions to needing to take medication" and see if my picture's there anyplace.

Yes, I'm taking my meds. Why everyone feels it necessary to ask me that, I dunno, but in case anybody was wondering, the answer is yes. Even the anti-anxiety one. Which I hate having to take.

So anyway, that's how it's going. Maybe things will iron out after the holidays.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Beef With "Criminal Minds"

I have a beef with Criminal Minds. I don't often have an issue with TV shows; I mean, there's a lot of really bad ones out there, and rather than pick on the bad ones I'd like to watch the good ones. But I've been subjected to two "marathons" in the last two weeks on A&E, and I've come to really have a beef with it.

I want to like this show. I mean, it's got Mandy Potenkin in it (or it used to, at least.) He was Inigo de Montoya, for crying out loud (You keel my father. Prepare to die.) Plus, it's about a team of experts doing the thing they do best better than anyone else. I live for that stuff. It's why I bother watching "Top Chef" and "Project Runway." One of my favorite movies was "Sneakers." I'd probably love "Inglorious Basterds." But I still can't like it. It makes my disbelief suspenders fall off. I hate walking around without my disbelief suspenders.

In case you haven't seen this show, "the team" is called out on cases where there's a potential serial killer in a community. They determine who the killer is by the way serial killers are known to behave, such as the always-impressive statement to the press, "The killer is a white male between thirty and forty years of age." Apparently serial killing comes with maturity. There's always some last-minute glitch where they're trying to save the latest victim before some terrible fate befalls her (like being tortured, on camera no less, with electric shocks in one episode. Nice.) And in the end they get their man (it's always a man) and there's some Lesson to be Learned From All This, pronounced in resonant tones by Mandy Potenkin or his replacement and usually quoting some historical personage or other. I mean, it's your standard crime show fare, with some extras.

But here's where they lose me. The serial killers on this show always go after pretty, rich and successful women. Business owners. Happy housewives. Hollywood stars. They get abducted from their homes, their cars, their businesses. The message is obvious: If you're a woman, no place is safe. If you're a pretty, rich, successful woman, your days are numbered. It's only through the power of the (mostly) male Behavioral Assessment Unit that you're allowed to exist at all. Hell, you turn up dead all day long.

Which, in case you didn't know, does not at all reflect reality. Serial killers may be all kinds of things, but one thing they tend not to be is stupid. If they're going to go on killing people, which is what they want to do, they have to not get caught. That means they have to not kill rich powerful women. They need to kill prostitutes, runaways, old people, kids in poor neighborhoods who don't have the means to mount a "Find Caylee" campaign. This doesn't mean prostitutes, teen runaways and poor kids don't have as much right to live as the rest of us. Any living being has the right not to be tortured and murdered, including the aminals that I have to eat for food (but that's a whole 'nother blog post). But serial killers tend to hunt people that aren't going to be missed. Rich business owners, happy housewives and Hollywood celebs don't really tend to fill that bill very well, if you get my drift.

In Buddhist terms, a serial killer is sick. Not in terms of being mentally ill - most of them aren't, at least according to the show - but in terms of being fundamentally disconnected from all other beings. For a Buddhist, the worst thing you can do is kill a human being, because human beings are the only critters capable of reaching enlightenment. Well, I beg to differ on that count - I'm sure my cats are enlightened, and no doubt there are plenty of blissful dolphins, chimpanzees and other higher primates - but anyway, killing humans very very bad. Killing lots of humans? Unbelievably bad. Anyone who would do that is very sick and in need of healing. Yep, Buddhists would not be afraid of serial killers. They would feel very very sorry for them and want to teach them how to meditate. Which may or may not keep them from getting killed, but, you know.

I gather, again from the show, that most serial killers are sociopaths. That is, those rare human beings born without any sense of moral consequence, or what we'd call a conscience. For a Buddhist, this would be like living in hell. If you can't feel compassion for other beings, there's no point in being alive.

Here's the other thing, though. These conscienceless individuals are comparatively rare. The ones that become serial killers are even rarer (most of them figure out early in life that breaking laws = not getting things I want, so they don't graduate to killing people and instead settle for being your annoying neighbor or the colleague who can't shut up about whatever he can't shut up about.) Your odds of being killed by a serial killer are slightly lower than your odds of being eaten by a shark, killed in a plane crash or struck by lightning. Yeah, the guys make good boogeymen, and yeah, I cheered when "The Silence of the Lambs" won Best Picture just like everybody else, but it just don't happen all that often. You'd never know this from watching Criminal Minds, though. The killer is always across the street, down the row, watching from the park, hanging around your back yard at night. Once again, you are not safe. Particularly if you're female and have any sense of personal power - don't worry, it'll get knocked out of you by the end of the episode whether you survive it or not.

So that's my beef with Criminal Minds. I mean, hey, don't take my word for it. Go watch it if you want. Just know the facts are slightly different than presented. Sorry, Mandy Potenkin.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Holly Daze

If it were up to me I'd cancel Christmas. I know that sounds, well, kind of Grinchy, but let it never be said I suggested EVERYONE ELSE cancel Christmas. I'd just like an opt-out card, please. This time of year sucks. It's dark, it's cold, it's miserable, lots of people are mopey, but there's this societal expectation that we're all supposed to be happy and jolly because, after all, it's the holidays. In fact, try writing a blog post like this and see what happens. (I'm waiting.)

I don't know where this got started. I'd imagine around 2,000 years ago, but in fact it's probably closer to a couple hundred years ago, and I suspect the motivation was not to celebrate somebody's birthday but to sell products. Certainly that seems to be the primary motivation these days. This is probably the worst economic year in the U.S. since 1991, maybe even since 1929, yet we're all still supposed to charge out there and go Christmas shopping. With what? I'm tapped. I'm doing good to get presents for my closest friends and relatives. My colleagues can forget about it. I might make them cookies if they're very lucky. Most likely it'll be cards all around. If I can find some cards. Maybe I'll make some on the laser printer.

Yes, I have a tree up. Well, more like a bush. It's about 3 feet tall and pre-lit. We're all a little that way. I might get some lights out there. Some lights would be cheery. But I, personally, am not cheery. I'm just not, okay? I'll be cheery when the Solstice passes and it starts getting marginally lighter.

You're getting the picture, right? This season is anywhere but jolly for a lot of folks, whether they're bipolar or not. Suicides go way way up before Christmas. (Take Stuart Adamson, for example, who took his own life on December 16. And he had all the money in the world, could have gotten some help, etc etc.) People drop dead in hospitals, especially the days immediately following Christmas, at a prodigious rate. And lots of us plod around the country to visit relatives we may love but don't like very much, fight a lot with them and crawl back home even more mopey than we were when we left. (And out several hundred dollars, not counting the $40 or so bucks for the privilege of hauling a bag along.) Oh, did I mention I was tapped? Dry tapped, even. Skipping the trip this year.

So anyway, if you know somebody who gets mopey around Christmastime, don't try to cheer them up or wish them a happy fucking holiday. Just pat them on the shoulder and say, "Hey, dude. I'm here." That's worth a lot. Heck, that's more of a merry Christmas than most Merry Christmases.

By the way, for Ann and all my Jewish friends, happy Hanukkah. And if you're not happy, that's just fine and dandy. Wait a few months and have a fine Purim.

Also by the way, if you don't think the death penalty is appropriate for teen "sexting" (that is, kids, usually girls, too young to know any better sending cell phone pictures of themselves sans clothing to people they like, usually boys - apparently a common practice, though illegal, that has occasionally resulted in the kind of extreme adult overreaction of prosecutors charging both under-fifteen parties with disseminating child pornography) you might want to read this.