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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jen, Jimmy Carter and A Lachrymose State of Affairs

I notice I often start out a blog post with, "Most people don't..." and then go on to explain how I am not most people. Well, we already know I'm not most people, so let's just skip all that and get directly to the point. Yesterday I met President Carter, took some lousy pictures of the guy with a shaky cell phone cam and made a public mess of myself. Okay? Okay. Moving on:

Mr. Carter has a new book out. It's called "White House Diary" and even though I'm only into early 1977, it already has my vote for
the next Book O' The Decade. There's what you remember, there's what you think you remember, there's what they told you in school, and then there's what actually happened. Jimmy Carter was the first President I was aware of, the first campaign I followed, the first time I picked a favorite, and the first time I announced anything remotely resembling a political point of view. According to my mom, I walked into a dinner party around the time of the Democratic National Convention in 1976 (shortly after the Freedom Train blew through town but before Mr. Carter clinched the nomination) and announced that I liked Democrats better than Republicans because they didn't wear suits and they were real people. I was, I think, about eight. Well, look, folks, I probably wasn't talking about Walter Mondale or Teddy Kennedy. I was talking about the guy who would eventually walk from his swearing-in to the White House, the guy who started out as a peanut farmer in Nowhere, Georgia. Mr. Everyman Himself. James Earl Carter, Junior. Jimmy to his friends. And we were all his friends.

Okay, say what you want about his presidency. He was in a bad spot from the get-go (a bit like Obama) and he didn't get a lot of cooperation in making the bad situation better (a bit like
Obama). Foreign relations stuff distracted him from very real
battles at home (a bit like Obama). But was he the worst president in history? Hardly. Harding. Jackson. Hoover. Just to name a few. And has a better man ever held the office? Uh, no. (Sorry, Obama. You're close, though.) And has there ever been a better ex-President? I don't think so. Hard to imagine George W., or even George H.W., spending his retirement time making sure the poor have a decent place to live. And has he retired? No, he has not. He's got to be in his late eighties/early nineties, and it doesn't appear as though the guy has even slowed down very much.

All of these were reasons that brought me to Sam's Club (of all places) in Grapevine, Texas (of all places) yesterday evening. Not being a member of Sam's Club, I'd snagged a copy of the book from a local Barnes and Noble. I got unbelievably lost on the way there; my directions sucked, traffic was insane and I ended up driving around a hospital parking lot going, "It has to be right here someplace" until I chanced to see the Sam's Club sign. On the other side of the freeway. Naturally. I finally got there just after they'd let the crowd (and it was a big crowd; probably two hundred people by my guess) go in. We were all shepherded through a fire door in the back of the building, guarded by Secret Service guys (very obvious in their formal black suits) and local police.

Now, a quick word about me and Sam's Club, or any big box store, or pretty much any situation with large quantities of people, goods and noise all crammed together. SO not a winning situation for me. I tend to have meltdowns. Had one at the State Fair a couple of weeks ago, in fact, on the Midway. Too hot too loud too many colors too many people too much noise too much everything arrrgh. Usually when this happens I freeze up, Joan notices and says, "Is everything okay?", I say "NO!" and start flapping my arms like a deranged penguin attempting flight and Joan grabs me and steers me to someplace quieter before I completely freak out. If Joan isn't there, of course, the freezing-up is not interrupted, and I just get steered around by whoever's there and say "yes, ma'am" and "no, sir" a lot until it occurs to me that if I got out of here I would not be freaking the hell out and then I find a door and run for my life to someplace safe, generally the car, where I lock myself in and hide until I calm down and can once again act like a rational human being.

So there I was at Sam's Club, already a stressful situation, made worse by the layers of security, and about to meet Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter was on the other side of a row of barrier tape, some ten or so feet away from the crowd. His minions took the books away from us, and the Secret Service guys checked them to make sure they weren't loaded before they took them to his table. He signed the books while the minions indicated which person they belonged to. He looked up from each book to the owner and thanked them for coming. I'm already well into the "yes, ma'am" and "no, sir" phase at this point, and I probably looked like a scared rabbit across the barrier tape when I said, "Thank you" to Mr. Carter, got my book and let myself be herded over to the little section that was set up for the taking of photos. I was still
standing there, blinking a lot and clutching my book as though someone was going to take it away from me, when I realized that I didn't get to say what I came there to say. Which was a shock. Up until that moment, I didn't know I'd come there to say anything.

So I got back in the line, which was shorter now. The Secret Service guy tried to take my book and I held onto it. "I just need to say something," I said. He started to frown. "Nothing bad," I added in a hurry. He was still frowning, but he went up to the table and said to Mr. Carter, "This young lady wants to say something."

Young lady. Dude. Ya flatter me.

So I leaned out as far over the barrier tape as I could go without falling on my face and I said, "Mr. Carter, you've been a hero of mine since I was nine years old, and a lot of people breathe a lot easier because of everything you've done. Thank you."

He looked surprised. He blinked. He said, "What a nice thing to say." And then he smiled at me. Pa rum pa pum pum.

I managed not to really start bawling until I was locked in my car. But it was a close thing.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Talk Thursday: Things That Make Me Go, "Hmmm ..."

  • Why did they name them the Texas Rangers when plainly the whole state does not root for them? I mean, there's the Houston Astros and the Fort Worth Cats and who knows how many other local teams. Course, the Arlington Rangers sounds kind of wordy and the Dallas Rangers is just plain geographically inaccurate, but still.
  • Why does the main pitcher for the Giants look like a 17-year-old surfer dude? He's gotta be at least 26 in real life. Plus it's awfully cold to go surfing off the coast of San Fran, though I imagine people do it. (Heck, I did it in San Diego and it was pretty cold there too.) Seriously, a nice haircut and maybe some facial hair and he'd look much more mature. Give it some thought, my prepubescent pitcher friend.
  • Why is it, exactly, that I've been feeding feral cats in my back yard for like six years now, and only in the last month have I managed to attract the attention of raccoons? I mean, not that there's anything wrong with raccoons, I just don't want them in my yard. Or my house. Or my attic. Or...
  • Is there some ratio of amount of annoying your annoying co-worker is to amount of time they spend with you? Ie, if they can only spend a little time with you, do they ramp up the amount of annoying to maximum, whereas if they're going to hang out in your vicinity for hours, they dial the annoying back to a moderate amount?
  • Why does calling in sick so you can sneak off on a job interview make you feel so much more guilty than calling in sick to sneak off to a ball game?
  • Observation: Both Lutheran Christianity and Buddhism teach that attaining nirvana and/or going to heaven are obtained by doing very little; in Lutheranism, by accepting God's grace, and in Buddhism, by sitting around, doing nothing, and looking at the floor for a long time. So if I was once a Lutheran, and am now a Buddhist, am I theologically consistent, or just lazy?
  • Observation: Cats are not allowed on the table at my house. Yet, I let my big boy, Caesar (@carpefelem) sit on the table behind the laptop when I'm writing. So does this make me a bad mom? And if so, can I get around it by promoting him to chief editor?
  • Observation: Everyone in the waiting room in my psychiatrist's office is, by the sheer fact of being there, a little bit crazy. Why, then, do we each slouch into chairs and hunch into little individual bundles of mild hostility and distrust and eye each other as if we might attack at any moment? I mean, it's not like it's exactly a contest. We'll all be the same amount of crazy when we come out the other side. Maybe it's to scare the normal people.
  • Do the fish in the aquarium in my psychiatrist's office gradually go insane as they're exposed to so many crazy humans, or does the aquarium glass protect them? And how can you tell one way or the other, seeing as they're, you know, fish?
  • Why, in the name of all things holy, am I incapable of going to the post office like a normal human being? Yes, I know, I'm not a normal human being. There's no need to rub it in.
  • If there really were an Antichrist, would he be tall and have horns and a tail, or would he be more subtle and crafty and look more like, I dunno, Karl Rove?
  • What is it about office parties that causes everybody to revert to their high school personas? We have the grumpy intellectual, the handsome but vapid guy who says "dude" a lot, the girl who'll do it with anybody, the quiet girl who wishes she was the girl who'd do it with anybody, the rebel, the popular kids, the losers, the band kids who sort of hover on the fringe of acceptability, and then the office manager, who somehow ends up being kind of the den mother, I guess. Me, I'm the one with the behavior so unpredictable people say "Hi" and then flinch, not sure if I'll say "Hi" back or suddenly feel some pressing need to run straight into them or, worse, the nearby wall. It's like I never left.
  • If meditation is really good for the brain, why aren't I cured yet?
Okay, I'm out of hypothetical questions for the time being. If anybody has an answer for the one about the fish, I'd like to know. Sincerely, I'm feeling bad for the clownfish and the loach.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mini-post: Raccoon Update

Just thought y'all might want to know I no longer have a raccoon in my back yard.

I now have two raccoons.

Thank you, thank you. Be here all week.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We Interrupt This Blog For An Important Announcement...


I mean, in case you didn't hear the scream, or something.


Okay, enough of that. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Talk Thursday: Mea Culpa

I don't know what the hell is wrong with me.

Well, actually I have quite a list. But let's keep it simple, shall we? This particular I-don't-know-what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-me is about that whole writing thing. That I'm supposed to be doing while I'm waiting for the Powers That Be to get done reviewing all that stuff I did since New Orleans and maybe, possibly decide it has merit and should Go Farther. Best thing to do while waiting to hear back about your book? Write another book. Everybody says so. Somebody says so, anyway. Well, mea culpa for being an overachiever, but I seem to be writing about four of them at the moment.

Honestly, I don't know how that happened. It's gotten to where I just open a file and start typing, having no idea which one I'm in or where I am in it. I read back over the last couple of sentences, say "Yeah, that sounds good," and then just go. No attempts to avoid crummy sentence construction or adverbs or all those other pitfalls that lure the unwary. No attempts to think, even. Just typety typety type type type. And whatever comes out is what comes out.

Some of you may be familiar with the #amwriting hash tag in Twitter. When I actually remember to use it, it's a beautiful thing. Once you type in the hash tag, you can click on it and see folks around the world who are #amwriting at the same time you're #amwriting (sorry if that helping-verb thing is bothering you, but it's not my hash tag.) Part of the #amwriting deal is that you're supposed to tell everybody what you're working on, though, and for me it hasn't been that simple. Nothing I'm working on (and I use the term "working on" in the loosest way possible here) has anything remotely resembling a structure yet.

Other folks who use this #amwriting hash tag seem to know what they're doing. "#amwriting a blog post." "#amwriting Chapter Three of my novel." "#amwriting #amediting section two so I can move on to section three tomorrow." That kind of thing. If I tried to do that it would sound something like, "#amwriting something or other about Loki, Skadi, statues coming to life in downtown Dallas and the potential apocalypse our mothers warned us about." Yeah. That would sound great on the back of a book jacket. Or better still, "#amwriting about why Buddhists would make lousy ghostbusters, a crazy cat lady, a former alcoholic and her gay would have been husband." Sure, why not? "#amwriting something or other about a missing musician and a great big lawsuit involving a roof collapse, which are somehow related, but I haven't figured out how yet." Yeah. Or how about, "#amwriting something I shouldn't be writing about the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of the protagonists of the book I wrote that hasn't been published yet and may not ever be, so this is probably a colossal waste of time, but if it ever is, this'll make a nice follow up, " Oops. That's probably more than 140 characters.

Honestly, is it too much to ask of your subconscious that it be able to fit the basic concept of whatever the hell you're writing into a Tweet-sized block of logic? I mean, seriously, would that kill it? F. Paul Wilson was so good at this in New Orleans. He got The Keep down to three words: "Nazis and vampires." Even Damnable, which got wordier, didn't faze him much: "Special Forces soldier who knows he's going to Hell discovers he's the only thing that can keep the rest of the human race from going with him." (Actually, that might have been Schwaeble. Well, it was neatly put, anyway.) And even beyond the whole neat-parcel-of-a-concept, how about having one of them running at a frick'n time?! I'm scatterbrained enough as it is, people! I do not, repeat, do not need what little time and energy I can devote to writing yanked four different directions. I just don't, okay?

But, ultimately, it comes down to this. I'm the owner of the brain. I don't believe in muses or the breath of God blowing through my fingers or any of that claptrap. Not that I understand how it all works - I'm happy enough that it does - but somehow I'm responsible for it all. So, ultimately, it's my fault that I'm scatterbrained. And I can't for the life of me figure out why being scatterbrained holds any advantage for yours truly. When I'm scatterbrained at work, I take a frick'n Ativan. I can do that. I have a prescription. But there's no prescription for scatterbrained writing.

Except, of course, more writing. You know, just keep cranking it out and hope it makes sense eventually.

Oh joy.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Going Out Even Further On A Limb...

Or Why My Current Place Of Employ Is A Five-Star Hotel, by Jen.

Reading back over my last blog post, it occurred to me I might want to explain why, if my Annoying Co-Worker is right about a lot of his complaints, I'm okay with working at The Firm. Because, honestly, it could sound like I'm just resigned. (He'd probably call me brainwashed.) And that's not it. I've been in this biz for a little over eleven years now. I've worked in firms and I've worked in firms. And here's a list of the stuff that's NOT going on at my firm, but has gone on at at least one of the other firms I've worked for, and maybe more than one.

(Let's face it, I gotta change some minor identifying details here. Yes, the First Amendment and all that, yes, blog boldly and blog often, etcetra, etcetra, but as I believe I may have mentioned, I like my job and I want to keep it, and I'm kinda adverse to getting sued, or worse, hunted down and shot, so just in case, I gotta do what I gotta do here, folks. And if you're an attorney, and you think this blog is about you, you're so vain.)
  • None of the attorneys at my firm scream at people, call them stupid, make references to their sexual prowess or attractiveness or in general act like three-year-olds in nice suits.
  • None of the attorneys at my firm indulge in weird forms of sexual harassment, for which they apparently feel they will not be busted, such as trying to discuss different forms of Japanese bondage pornography with their paralegals.
  • Nobody at my firm is sleeping with anyone they shouldn't be sleeping with, making a Big Deal out of it, and using it to manipulate other persons into getting things that don't normally come with his or her position, like, I dunno, free parking.
  • To the very best of my knowledge, and I have a lot of knowledge, nobody at my firm is doing anything illegal out of the back room.
  • Everybody at my firm, from the senior partners to the newest young case managers, is expected to uphold certain ethical and professional standards. These ethical standards are even (gasp) written down in a book in case any questions come up later.
  • Nobody at my firm carries a concealed weapon.
  • Nobody at my firm has ever asked me to forge a signature on a document.
  • Nobody at my firm has ever asked me to notarize a signature when I didn't see the person sign the document.
  • Nobody at my firm has ever asked me to notarize a signature after he or she blatantly forged the signature of the person who was supposed to sign the document right in front of me. (Remember that thing about ethical standards?)
  • If there's some kind of internal gossip loop in my office, my cube is in the corner it's the farthest from.
  • Nobody at my firm has ever demanded that I draft and/or file a motion whose sole purpose is to harass the other party. (Yes, this did happen at one particular place I worked. A lot, if you'd like to know.)
  • Nobody at my firm has ever asked me to come up with 160 billable hours in a month that only had 120 working hours, without working any overtime. (Two words. Im. Possible. Er, unless you heard that joke about the attorney who dies and goes to heaven? And he says to St. Peter, "There must be some mistake, I'm only 37 years old." And St. Peter says, "That's strange, according to your billable hours, you're 109."?)
  • Nobody at my firm has ever sent me threatening emails from a bogus address and then laughed at me when I didn't get the "joke."
So does this mean everything's rosy? No, not exactly. Bad stuff happens. Senior Attorney and I had one disastrous mediation where everything that could have gone wrong did, about half of which was my fault, 40% of which was the fault of my predecessor and 10% was just the fickle finger of fate, as it were. I felt bad about that for days. We were also gearing up for a trial, putting in ridiculous amounts of time on it, and it all suddenly ground to a halt when the court postponed us one month on its own motion. The assistant manager doesn't seem to like me very much (I once asked the receptionist if it was because I was a woman, a lesbian or a Buddhist, and she told me it was because I was a carbon-based form of life). And yeah, there are definitely favorites among the field, and I'm not one of them. But, as I just said, since none of the above are going on, I'm fine with it. If that makes me a happy little worker bee, well, fine. But otherwise, just call me Been There, Done That in Dallas.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Talk Thursday: And Amidst All The Clamor...

You know, sometimes I get tired of writing this. Well, not tired exactly, but sometimes I get a little concerned. I don't know what all it's safe to write. Strange question for a white American child of privilege typing words on the Internet, neatly under the banner of the First Amendment, but there it is. Who's reading this stuff, anyway? Anybody important? Anybody who might get riled about something, call me up, give me a hard time? Like my boss, for example? Will I get in trouble if I talk about work? Or am I nice and safe, as long as I restrict everything to lofty concepts and diatribes at things I have no control over anyway?

By the way, we're relatively safe from my parents. They won't read this unless I actually take the time to send 'em copies of my entries. Don't know why, but there we are. I've been updating them on the raccoon situation, but I tend not to send them entries that contain the word "fuck" more than once. I have an image to maintain, here. I'd hate to be seen as the daughter who talks, uh, just like her dad.

Anyway, I'm gonna talk about work today. Every office has an Annoying Co-Worker, and of course I've got mine. Amidst all the clamor of ringing phones and grinding paper shredders and grinding copy machines that sometimes act like paper shredders and "Who in hell drank all the coffee?!" and "JEN!! Get Mr. Burns* on the phone! RIGHT NOW!!" comes this little bundle of Bad Attitude. I'm not sure how it became my good fortune to become his personal confidante. He has a Bad Attitude because he's afraid he's going to get fired. What I haven't told him, but would if I had the guts, is that he almost certainly is, and what's dooming him is not his work, or lack thereof, but the aforementioned Bad Attitude. I'm not kidding. An office can tolerate just about anything but rampant negativity.

Here's what happened. This person went on medical leave for several weeks, which is how I got hired in the first place. I was filling in for him and working mainly for one junior attorney. A couple of weeks went by and another paralegal, who worked for a much more senior attorney, got fired. Senior attorney, because he was senior, grabbed me and said, "Forget those files. Work on my files." Which I did, because A. I had no choice and B. I tend to be an obedient person where there's money involved. More Senior Attorney and I didn't mix well at first but now we get along fine; I think he didn't like change and we each had to warm to the other's sense of humor, and there were a few crises along the way, but there are always crises in law firms. Meanwhile, junior attorney didn't have anybody working on his files for a couple of weeks there, except me when I had a few minutes, which I didn't, very often. It was kind of a protracted exercise in crisis management.

So guess what happened. Annoying Co-Worker came back from medical leave and immediately got blamed for everything that possibly could have gone wrong while he was gone. Put another way, junior attorney had decided he liked me better, but he couldn't have me back because he was junior attorney. So he took it out on Annoying Co-Worker. Is this fair? No. Is this right? No. But there are two ways to handle it. One is to take a deep breath, remember one's sense of humor, and just do what one can until Junior Attorney calms down and remembers that Annoying Co-Worker was fine for the past year and a half and nothing's really changed. The other way is to develop a Bad Attitude. Uh, yeah. You guessed.

So for the past two months, Annoying Co-Worker has been coming into my cube on a near-daily basis and complaining about everything that's Wrong With The Firm. This is not handled right. That is a blatant show of favoritism. The other thing doesn't make any sense. Furthermore, this guy is out to get him and that lady doesn't know how to run an office and none of this would have happened if he hadn't asked for a raise, which just goes to show how utterly unfair this is, and by the way, he specifically asked this other person to change this here policy and it still hasn't been changed. Well, about that last thing I had a moment of insight. I mentioned to Annoying Co-Worker that the name of the firm is X and X, and the other partner is married to an X, and the manager's name is X, and unless his last name is X, which it is not, he's not going to win this argument. This made all the impression of a fingernail on hard steel. Since then I've more or less quit giving advice. Wise men don't need it and fools won't heed it, as my old great-aunt Maude used to say.

In all seriousness, if they weren't going to fire him back when all this started, they are certainly moving that direction now. And so I listen to Annoying Co-Worker trash-talk the place I work, which just incidentally I really like in spite of its weirdness, and wonder what in hell to say. Besides "Shut up, already!!" which isn't exactly polite. It bothers me because I really don't have any complaints. Most of the things he says about The Firm are true, but they don't bother me. Why? I don't know. They just don't. Maybe because I have simply Accepted Reality and he hasn't. Not everybody is cut out for every kind of job, and this may just not be his.

Here's the part that does bother me, though. Talking to him reminds me of talking to myself about ten years ago. I remember being at least that stubborn, that pigheaded, that quick to pick fights I couldn't win with managerial types who were in positions of legitimate authority. I remember doing some pretty damned outrageous things, and why I didn't get fired for half of them, I have no idea. I must have really been a good worker because honestly, I was out there. Maybe that's the reason I quit trying to help. I came into the situation with unclean hands, as it were. But, one might point out, I grew out of it. (The meds sure helped. So did the Buddhism; for one thing, I no longer drag my bad moods to work with me and dump them on other people. Buddhists consider that kind of behavior to be the height of rudeness. Would that everyone else thought likewise.)

So maybe he'll grow out of it. Maybe it's just a phase. Maybe. Possibly. Except that I'm 41 and he's 53.

Book o'the Decade Alert! I started Mockingjay, Part Three of the Hunger Games series, last night. Part two, Catching Fire, ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. It would not hurt to have Mockingjay around as you wind down the last couple of chapters. I'm just sayin'.

*Mr. Burns is a fictional client. He did not get into a car accident, in which he was not injured, and we did not sue anyone on his behalf. He makes a darn handy cover for things that happen in real cases, though, which I'm not at liberty to discuss otherwise. Thanks, Burnsie.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How To Catch A North American Raccoon. Maybe.

Thought y'all could used an update on the raccoon situation. After my brilliant failure at the whole trap-and-relocate-under-cover-of-darkness thing, I was content to just Let Things Be. Hey, she's cute, she's fuzzy, she wasn't getting into the garbage (no doubt because of the availability of cat food) and she didn't seem to be rabid (wary of people, respectful of cats). Plus, she wasn't bumbling around in the attic, though we did hear her scuttle across the roof a few times. Raccoons play hell with attics. I've never been in my attic, but I imagine I'd notice if a raccoon was thumping around on the ceiling.

Unfortunately, my idiot neighbor, who just incidentally is an idiot, has become privy to the situation, and as is typical with this guy, he is Not Happy. No doubt the raccoon is also in his yard, maybe getting into his trash, and probably splashing around in his illegal, unpermitted, unfenced pool. Or maybe just chewing on stuff, I don't know. In any case, he came out of his house a few mornings ago (the neighbor, not the raccoon) and asked Joan if the raccoon was ours. As in, a pet. Joan narrowly missed exclaiming, "What the fuck?!" which was what I would have done, too, probably. I mean, honestly, who would keep a raccoon as a pet?! They have sharp teeth, sharper claws, and they're really fierce when they don't get what they want (as my somewhat mauled bin of external cat food can testify.) Idiot Neighbor went on to say that since she worked for the city, she should get rid of the raccoon. Joan pointed out, politely I might add, that she worked for the city library, which isn't generally known for handling wild animals (unless you count homeless persons). "Well, can I shoot it?" Idiot Neighbor asked. Now he's asking Joan for legal advice. He must have us confused. Joan told him, correctly, that it was against the law to fire a gun within city limits. He stomped off in disgust. Now that we know his M.O., which begins with him wanting us to do something for him, usually at our expense or at least not at his and then ends with him stomping off in disgust, he's not as intimidating. But he's so not my favorite person. He's also an idiot, in case I haven't said that already.

However, there's still a risk that he might actually shoot the animal. If there's any justice in the world, he will miss, put a bullet right through the side of his illegal, unpermitted, unfenced pool and render it useless. Still, I don't want Madame Raccoon to get shot, so after a series of phone calls around the Metroplex, I finally got hold of a guy named Matthew Evans, whose company, A Wildlife Professional, gave me instructions on how best to trap a raccoon. Once we've caught her, they will relocate her to a wildlife preserve, the location of which he was not at liberty to reveal but it was about twenty miles from here, and he does have a license to do so. The charge will be $75. Eminently reasonable, says I. (His email is if you live in the DFW area and you have a problematic raccoon.)

So here's what you do. Get a Havaheart trap from Home Depot or Lowe's (we already have one from all that feral cat trapping).Get several cans of sardines and cat food. Open one of the cans of sardines. Pour the oil outside the front of the trap and on the bait pan. Put the can of sardines, open but otherwise undisturbed, clear in the back of the trap behind the bait pan. Open the can of cat food. Scatter the cat food around the mouth of the trap, inside the trap and leading past the bait pan. Weight trap down with bricks, rocks, bungee cords or anything else that will hold it still.
Set trap. Go inside. Wait.

If you catch a cat, or something else, let it go. Cats are too smart to get caught twice. Usually. If the raccoon is able to tip the trap or otherwise get to the sardines without getting inside, try again with another can of sardines. The law of averages says sooner or later she will not be able to get at the sardines without going inside. Try this for a week. If unsuccessful, and only if unsuccessful, give Matthew a call and proceed to Phase II.

So last night I set the trap with sardines as instructed. This morning I opened the door at six a.m. to find not a raccoon, but one very confused cat inside the trap. It wasn't one of my externals; it was one I'd never seen before, a calico with a tabby ringed tail (not unlike a raccoon, actually). Only after I'd opened the trap and she'd shot across the lawn like she'd been launched from a gun, probably never to be seen again, did I notice that the can of sardines was outside the trap, empty. I got an immediate mental picture of Madame Raccoon reaching between the bars of the trap, grabbing the can, passing it hand to hand to herself down the length of the trap and hauling it outside to munch on her treat. She also knocked over the external food bin again, just for good measure.

Well, that's okay. It's the first night. I'll try again tonight and see what happens. Hopefully my idiot neighbor will be passing out drunk around eleven and won't remember he's supposed to go raccoon huntin'. Did I mention he is an idiot?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Talk Thursday: A Proclamation To The World

Gee, that's nice and subtle. But, that's the topic and I'm stuck with it, so I might as well roll with it, as my old Great-Aunt Maude used to say. Everybody ought to have a proclamation to the world, and here's mine:

In all seriousness, though, if one were to take all the Sutras and the commentaries and the koans and the writings of Confucius (just for variety) and the poetry of Li Po and throw it in a blender, and if one were to pour the resulting great big philosophical mess into a pot and try to boil all of Buddhism down to its most basic essence, this is about what you'd be left with. Buddhism teaches that the quickest way to make yourself completely miserable is to get attached--to things, people, theories, ideas, concepts. Why? Because everything -- things, people, theories, ideas, concepts -- is temporary. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same.

If you're hanging on for dear life to, say, a girlfriend who's trying very hard to be nice about breaking up with you (and I've been on both sides of this equation, so I know of what I speak), the best thing that can possibly happen is that you're going to make both people miserable for a longer period of time. The worst thing that can possibly happen is that you get arrested for stalking, which can be very embarrassing to explain to potential future employers (and potential future girlfriends.) But that's a very real risk if you can't just get over it, already, and let go. Same story if you cling to an object that you simply must have that, by the time you can afford it, no longer makes any sense in the context of your life. I see a lot of men, for example, who are by God going to own an open-top Ford Mustang even though what they really need, what with the wife and three kids, is a nice mini-van or SUV. I see women do the same thing with certain pieces of jewelry and pricey outfits.

And ideas--good God, don't get me started. I have an aunt and uncle who almost literally had to hold their noses to vote for John McCain in the 2008 election, but they had voted Republican their entire lives and they were not going to vote any other way no matter how bad they thought their candidate was. (Not voting at all apparently wasn't an option, either.) And I'm not saying they were right or wrong to vote the way they did, but the very idea that they couldn't not vote for the guy, however much they disliked him -- that's attachment, all right.

Now, this can be taken too far the other way. I've run into Buddhists who like to play "more unattached than thou" (kind of a variant on Christianity's "holier than thou," I guess). These guys (and they are mostly guys, for some reason) do strange things like chop their little fingers off to prove how unattached they are to their bodies, or walk 200 miles to a monastery (living off the kindness of strangers, and whatever they find along the way) to meditate for a year, hoping there will be room for them when they arrive because phoning ahead for a reservation is playing hell with the fickle finger of fate. Yeah, I agree; that's a bit weird. To push something away is the opposite of clinging to it, but either way you're still controlled by that thing.

So the Buddha, being a pretty sharp guy, came up with a little thing he called The Middle Way. The idea, if I understand it correctly, is to neither cling to things, nor push them away, but just let them be what they are. It's kind of like standing in a stream. You don't try to hang on to any particular water molecule; you just sort of let them all flow around you.

Take people, for example. They will come and go like the tide. Enjoy them while they are around. Don't chase after them when they're gone. They'll either come back or they won't. Things are sometimes harder; everybody has a thing they prize above other things, and it's hard to cope with the reality that the thing will fall apart someday and be worthless. (Take my BlackBerry. Please.) But ideas are probably the hardest of all. Trying not to get attached to ideas, just letting thoughts flow through your brain and not pouncing on them and carrying them off like a cat with a feather toy, is sort of the mental equivalent of standing on one foot on a peaked roof during a thunderstorm and yelling algebra equations at the sky.

Fortunately, there's this thing called "meditation." Do it every day for forty or fifty years, and supposedly, you too can just let thoughts flow through your brain. Or so they tell me. I'm not yet attached enough to the idea to become convinced. But then, I've only been at it for four or five years at this point. I'm still a youngster. Would I speed things up if I trekked overland 200 miles or so to a monastery and checked in for a year? Maybe, but I'm unattached to that idea. Seriously. Frickin'. Unattached.

To wrap this up, the world would be a lot more peaceful if we could all become a little more unattached from the things that drive us the most crazy. Like, say, traffic. And politics. And maybe money. And look, America could use a Buddhist president. Next time out of the box, we ought to give that some serious thought.

In the meantime, get over it, already. Yes, you know who you are.

Quick Book o' the Decade plug here for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It's been a very long time since a book made me cry. I'm halfway through the second book in the series, Catching Fire, and it just keeps getting better. Check it out. And don't get too attached to any of the characters. I'm just sayin'.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reflexive Application of the First Precept

I've been thinking about suicide a lot lately. Okay, calm down, I didn't mean thinking about committing it. It's just that there seems to be a lot of it around. My friend Sally just went to a funeral for a woman, about my age, who killed herself. Some college kid in New Jersey jumped off a bridge after a makeout session between him and his boyfriend got broadcast on the Internet by his roommate. (I think I'd just strangle my roommate and plead justifiable homicide, myself. Not a jury in the world...) A thirteen-year-old hung himself here in Texas after school officials allegedly ignored years of bullying and harassment. And last week, four soldiers at Fort Hood killed themselves. (This is the Fort Hood where the Army psychiatrist freaked out, went on a rampage and shot 37 people last year.) So it's kinda captured my attention. We're also coming up on the ninth anniversary of Stuart Adamson's suicide, which I know I've bitched about on this blog at great length. For the record, it's against the rules to kill yourself if you've ever swapped smoochies with yours truly. Bear that in mind, the other eight or nine of you. The penalty is getting bitched about on my blog for all eternity.

I found out recently that people with bipolar disorder have the highest rate of suicide of any kind of mental illness, and probably the rate is even higher than is generally known. People with bipolar disorder, you see, tend to do things like drive too fast, get into rollover accidents and crash into telephone poles, go BASE jumping and hanggliding and things like that. It's called "thrill-seeking behavior," in which you kill yourself purely by accident, versus killing yourself on purpose, which society kind of frowns upon. (When I was talking about the funeral with Sally, for example, we spoke in whispers, as though someone might overhear.) But for all the frowning, people still do it. I even had one in my immediate family; my grandfather, who was dying of M.S. and decided to hurry the process along with a 12-gauge shotgun. Cause of death was being minus most of his head. Or lead poisoning, if you prefer.

Anyway: The First Precept for lay Buddhists is to refrain from the taking of life. This is why you don't often see Buddhists eating meat or stomping on ants or advocating for the death penalty. But ask ten Buddhists how a Buddhist views suicide and you'll get twenty different answers and forty deep discussions. Actually, that's the standard formula for Buddhist views on everything. In general, though, since you're gonna be coming back anyway unless you're fully enlightened, suicide is considered an inappropriate behavior. It causes grief for your friends and family members and it makes a big mess. It's in the same vein of taking your personal suffering, anxiety and grief and dumping same into the laps of some innocent parties, like some of my co-workers do every darn day when they come to work in a bad mood. That's a big bad Buddhist no-no. In short, while it's not a mortal sin in the Catholic-guilt sense of things, most Buddhists would consider it kinda rude.

But that's just in general. It's not hard to find examples of Buddhists who condoned or committed suicide. The Buddha himself didn't have a problem with monks Vikkali and Channa committing suicide when they were dying of painful illnesses, even though the other monks argued for keeping them around a while longer. And then there's the monks who marched in front of anti-government protests in Tibet, India, China and Burma. They must have known they'd be the ones most likely to get hurt or killed. Now, one might argue they put themselves first in the line of fire to protect the lay people further back in the crowd, but how about the guys who set themselves on fire to protest religious oppression in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? (No, I'm not gonna include the famous photo, but you can go see it here if you're really interested.) So does suicide violate the First Precept only if you don't have a good enough reason? And who gets to decide what a good enough reason is, anyway?

And if you start questioning the actual definition of suicide, things get even less clear. My mother-in-law, for example, died of congestive heart failure. That was obvious. But what was interesting, as we found out when we started clearing out her apartment, was that she stopped taking all of her medication about a week before she died. Which, considering most of her medication was for her heart, was basically inviting said heart to stop beating. She knew this; she was a nurse. So was her death a suicide, or did she die of natural causes? Does refusing medical treatment count as suicide? Or does suicide only apply to things like jumping off bridges? Or is there a ratio of, say, forty percent suicide to sixty percent natural causes? (I've always thought, for example, that Stuart Adamson's death was seventy percent suicide and thirty percent accident. I'm still convinced, on some level, that he was sure it wouldn't work and was just trying for the hell of it.)

So the First Precept, as applied to oneself, is a little fuzzier in its application as it appears on the surface. This is not surprising to me. All of Buddhism, and especially the Precepts, is fuzzy in its application. The Precepts ain't commandments, folks, as much as I'd sometimes like them to be. They require that most terrifying thing when we speak of religion: Rational thought.

Personally, I believe there are three circumstances under which suicide is acceptable. The first one is dying of a painful disease and not wanting to wait around for the inevitable, kind of like my grandfather. Double points if the treatment is very expensive and/or if your illness is taking a serious toll on your friends and family members. The second one is if you really, really screw something up, and it gets a lot of people hurt or killed, and the only way you can really atone for it is to die. (I'm thinking in this case of an aircraft mechanic who forgot to take the tape off the pitot tube before a 737 took off from Lima, Peru; the plane crashed in the mountains because the altimeter wasn't working and all 230 people aboard were killed. If I were that mechanic, yeah, I'd definitely have considered suicide. Luckily, if I screw up at work, the worst thing that can happen is that we may be out some money.) The third and final circumstance is if you're about to be tortured for information that will get all of your friends killed. But that's not a circumstance I'm ever likely to encounter, unless of course a rival law firm decides to kidnap me to find out what I know about, say, the Burns case. And that doesn't happen very often in Dallas.

Fort Worth, maybe, but not Dallas.