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

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Talk Thursday: The Buffet Rule

Ah, you say. At last, Jen is going to stop fooling around and do something serious. She's going to talk business, high finance, politics. Explain how the middle class tax rates are higher than the tax rates on millionaires and how capital gains taxes are largely to blame. How instituting regressive taxes now, in the middle of a recession, will only cause a greater drag on the economy and cause more people to fall into poverty while causing millionaires to remain largely unaffected. Yep, that's what I have in mind, all right. Have a seat on the La-Z-Boy, pop open a bottle of Chateaubriand and pour it into your Waterford crystal glassware, because I--

HA HA HA HA HA!!! I knew I wouldn't make it through that paragraph with a straight face. I'm amazed I got as far as I did. No, people, I'm here to talk about food. The Buffet rule. Possibly the most important rule ever instituted in the life of Jen. The Rule is, or was, very simple: Stay the hell away from buffets. They're dangerous. Forget regressive taxes, we're talking regressive eating. Because, honestly, does anybody ever go to a buffet with a plan to have a nice simple meal and hang out with friends? No. You go to a buffet to chow down. To eat until it's coming out your ears, and then to stuff it back into your ears. If you don't knock down at least two thousand calories, you're going to have to stop at an Outback Steakhouse afterward and eat an entire Bloomin' Onion just to keep the universe from falling out of balance. It's all about the food, and as much of the food as you can possibly manage.

The first year I was in OA, I wouldn't have gone within a hundred yards of a buffet. I was having enough trouble with this whole idea of just eating enough food to, you know, live and be healthy, rather than enough food to feed India for a year. Going to a place with scads of food, lots of it being stuff I wasn't supposed to eat anymore (like a dessert table--who in hell needs an entire dessert table?) was just Right Out. Restaurants were trouble enough.

But then something happened where I had a Dr. House kind of epiphany. Our friends T and T wanted to go to the Golden Corral for dinner. (I dunno if you've ever been to a Golden Corral, but it's the buffet to end all buffets, bested only by practically every other buffet on the planet. Let's just say that beauty queens and supermodels do not eat at Golden Corral. Once in a while you might see a decent-looking dude, but he's usually there with his mom.) Anyway, I tried to talk them into the nice Mexican place down the street, but they were pretty dead set on Golden Corral. I think it was shrimp night, or something.

So I pulled up in my car and sat there for a minute. I couldn't believe I was going to walk into a Golden Corral, and I likewise couldn't believe I was going to walk into a Golden Corral and not eat two or three of everything on the dessert table. (Addicted to sugar, remember?) So I sat there, and I fretted, and then I started to have a conversation with myself as though both of us were rational adults. "Jen," I said to myself, "you live in America, in our time. There are going to be buffets. Someday you're going to be at a wedding or a business meeting or something, and there's going to be a buffet lunch or dinner, and you're not going to be able to avoid it, so you might as well start learning how to handle them, like, for example, now." And I thought about Buddha and the Middle Way, neither grabbing for nor pushing away, and I thought, "I would like to go into this restaurant, have a single plate of food, and enjoy the company of my friends."

And I'll be goddamned if that wasn't exactly what happened.

Since then I have been to other buffets. In fact, I went to a breakfast buffet with Joan last Sunday (took my own cute little container of sugar-free fake maple syrup so I could have pancakes). And while all of them have been challenging in one way or another, I've never been as intimidated by any of them as I was by that first Golden Corral. My friend Kellum took me to lunch at Afrah once and when he saw it was a buffet, he stopped and said, "Hey, is this okay? We can go someplace else." And I was able to say, "Yeah, actually, I think I'll be fine." Which was huge. I mean, I've had this eating disorder since I was about four, people. I don't even really have childhood memories that don't in some way involve food. And I'm a whole long way from cured, but that part of it--the buffet part--is worlds better.

Which, you gotta admit, is a lot cooler than high finance and tax rates. At least, I think so.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Talk Thursday: Dance in the Dark

Okay, that's really last week's topic, but I don't see this week's yet and I have exactly twenty minutes and another cup of coffee to churn out a blog post. Let's hear it for deadlines. People, I am pleased to report that the Web site I was managing for a certain nonprofit has been taken out of my hands, by popular vote, and placed into the hands of another, equally competent (probably more competent) person. My stint is done. It ain't my problem no more. Well, actually, it is in that I've got to get this new person the software and the passwords and everything, and show her How It All Works (oops, I said her--well, that narrows it down to 51% of the human race) but in a few weeks I can Wash My Hands of the Whole Thing. I have never in my life been so happy to hand over a task. Happy dance! (In the dark, where no one can see me and think I might be, you know, ungrateful to have had this Service Opportunity or something.)

You see, I have this disease, which I believe is hereditary. I call it Civic Responsibility Syndrome. My dad has it, too, and I think my mom and sister have a touch of it also. It's like this: If I join an organization, the odds are very good that within a year, I'll end up being President. Not by choice or anything; the job just tends to open up, and I just happen to be standing there, and and and. Which was why, when the opportunity arose, I volunteered to take over the Web site. (Western accent, quoting Seth Bullock from Deadwood: "I volunteered to be the building inspector because I didn't want to be the god-damned sheriff!") Yep, that probably says it all right there. If you're in charge of one thing, then you can't be asked to be in charge of the whole thing. And as they say (well, Alison Bechdel said it, anyway), "She who controls the details, controls the organization."

So. I am no longer in charge of the Web site. This is a good thing. Now, I've got to find some way to not be President, or anything else for that matter. This organization is awesome, but I'm fine with just being a rank-and-file for a while. Maybe forever. Because, well, people, I am having a hard time over here.

Yeah, it could just be one of those mood swings. Or it could be encroaching menopause (I've got some of the symptoms, and yes, I know I'm only forty-two.) But, seriously, things are not going well. I'm not getting to the pool on time, and consequently spending less time swimming once I finally show up. I've (ahem) gained ten pounds since Halloween. I've been on and off sugar, which messes with my meds and sends my brain into the outer stratosphere. This last week I've had an ongoing battle with cake frosting, which is the Jen equivalent of heroin (minus the projectile vomiting). I feel like aliens have possessed my body and are plainly out to kill me. All I have to do is start drinking again and--

No, that would be bad. That would be very very bad. You think sugar messes with my meds...

The trouble is, try explaining to anybody that you're addicted to sugar. They look at you like you're crazy. (Hi.) I mean, you need sugar to live. Everything you eat is eventually broken down into simple sugars. True fact, but large quantities of refined sugar still hit my system like--well, more like cocaine than heroin really, but cocaine addiction really doesn't convey the same sort of picture that heroin addiction does. Lack of needles, maybe. And no, just for the record, I haven't tried either one. Just going on What I've Been Told here. Given my lack of funds (my parents are rich; I am a salaryman, or salarywoman, whatever) and my tendency to abuse any substance available until it's gone, I think that's probably Just As Well.

So, anyway, I don't know what to do about this. Except what I've been doing; keep going to meetings, keep working the Twelve Steps, keep emailing my sponsor, blah blah blah etc. And stay out of the kitchen at work to the extent possible. I wish they'd move the ice machine closer to the door.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Talk Thursday: Meditating in Traffic

No, this isn't an approved Talk Thursday topic. The topic-o-meter is stuck again. Besides, who knows if I'd be able to crank out a genuine Talk Thursday column in the slightly less than thirty minutes I have here at Afrah tonight. Not my fault. Talk to the Dallas drivers, whose collective insanity made both the Tollway and the 75 virtually impassable this evening. One was at a dead stop, so I tried the other, which was at a slow crawl. Better than a dead stop, you say? Well, you'd say wrong. Apparently I annoyed the guy behind me, an oilman type driving a BMW, because he honked at me. As he pulled around me and roared into the other lane, I experienced a momentary thrill because he had to immediately slam on his brakes. That lane wasn't moving either. Ha, I thought. Serves you right, jerk. And immediately felt bad for being un-Buddhist-y. I should, of course, have wished him every happiness and a safe journey.

You know what I'm talking about. If you're a Christian, you've probably said or done or thought something less than charitable to somebody or about somebody and immediately felt guilty because that wasn't very Christian of you. Jesus would definitely not approve, in other words. Or Buddha, in my case. (Well, Jesus and Buddha. They would have gotten along.) But darn it all, we can't be saints 24/7. Sometimes we return to our inner cave man, and when that happens, we can just be mean-spirited little weasels.*

This sort of thing seems to happen quite a lot in traffic. I haven't exactly researched this, but I think it's a combination of being in a car, which feels about as familiar as being in your living room, and being terrified out of all reason. As Gary Numan put it, here in my car I feel safest of all. I can lock all my doors. It's the only way to live. You're anonymous, merely a shell of paint and metal zooming down the freeway. Or crawling down it, more to the point. Now add in the extreme terror (Watch! BMW guy pulling around Jen at great speed! See! Some idiot on a motorcycle popping a wheelie at 65 mph! Thrill! To the unrivaled stupidity of the guy in the pickup dragging a metal cart that's lost its wheels and is spraying sparks all over the freeway!) and it's only a matter of time before you get pissed off. As soon as the panic starts to fade, the angry rushes in. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's how-dare-you-scare-me. Maybe it's more like I've-been-made-a-fool-of. I'm not sure, but it definitely happens to me. Scared to pissed in 4 seconds.

Which is why, when they teach driver's ed in high school, they should teach meditating in traffic.

Not traditional meditation, where you sit with your eyes closed and your legs crossed. That'd be a recipe for disaster (though in Dallas, one might not even notice the difference). A kind of meditation that's even easier. As you drive, you take a breath and you let it out. You take another breath and you let it out. You don't take your eyes off the road, and you don't take your hands off the wheel. You just breathe, and you watch the traffic, and as long as your attention is taken up with traffic, and breathing, there's not enough room left to get scared, or pissed off. And if you start getting scared or pissed off, you take an extra long, extra deep breath and let it out slowly.

I do this. Practically always, when I'm driving, and I've been working on doing it when I'm just, you know, walking. At some point along the line, I stopped yelling at other drivers. Just stopped, after doing it from the time I got my license. One of these days, maybe I'll stop having un-Buddhist-y thoughts about other drivers, too. Or at least remember to think something nice about them when I catch myself doing it.

*Apologies to Zev and Scooby. I realize that real weasels are not mean-spirited.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Morning, 10 A.M., Sky Harbor Airport.

The day has been a smashing success so far. I haven't been killed, gotten lost, or been otherwise inconvenienced. Besides stupidly walking through security with a bottle of water in my backpack (can we say major oops? I'm lucky I wasn't strip searched) my trip through the airport has been uneventful. Somebody who works for American Airlines has explained to me how I got a first-class upgrade; it's a perfect storm of empty first class seats, frequent flier miles, who checks in first, and whether or not they're willing to part with a few bucks. And now I'm sitting outside a bar -- not open on account of it's Sunday and before noon --and writing this, while munching on a breakfast burrito the size of my head and some little fried potato thingys that taste primarily of salt. And sipping another bottle of water. And hoping to God that the woman behind me in the check-in line with the yappy Papillon is not on my flight.

But never mind all that. How did the speech go, you ask? Uh, surprisingly good. In fact we might even say shockingly good.

As I believe I mentioned, I had no idea what I was going to say. My sister tried to help me out. She wrote us notes about various time periods in my mom's life, certain facts that were interesting and pertinent, funny stories and so on. But I think what did the most good was when I broke out of the speech notes and said something like, "My mom likes things to run smoothly and be well-organized. She likes everything to have a plan. She likes everyone to get along. And then, she gave birth to me. I think this was a grand cosmic joke on someone's part. But on the other hand, maybe it was a test. Can she continue to have everything run smoothly and be well-organized while she's raising me? Possibly the most challenging child in the universe to raise, apart from all the ones that end up in jail? And I think she did a fine job. Rose to the occasion. Never shrank from a challenge."

At which point my sister grabbed the microphone back out of my hands (it was, to be honest, probably time) and tried to say something about how much it meant to her to have a mom that raised her to be an independent young woman. Tried to say it. She burst into tears instead. And that brought the house down.

We spent most of the rest of the party shaking hands with near total strangers and saying "Thank you" when they told us what a great job we'd done with this party. (My sister did most of it. I just showed up and helped decorate.) And was a good time had by all? Yes, I think so.

Anyway, my mom is 70. I'm 43 in June. My sister's 41 in March and yes, actually, both of us do a pretty good job of taking care of ourselves. And yes, that's mainly my mom's fault. She rocks. Happy birthday, Mom.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Talk Thursday (on Friday): The Challenge of Uncertainty

Hi all. I'm in Phoenix, or rather Chandler, which is a town outside of Phoenix. The occasion is my mom's 70th birthday party, and I just found out about half an hour ago that I'll be giving a speech. You know, one of those tap-on-the-glasses things where you stand up at the table and address the gathered company and try really hard to say something funny without embarrassing hell out of the guest of honor. This is hard enough to do at a wedding, where everybody's already drunk and won't be remembering what you have to say anyway. I get to do it at a birthday party, and who knows what sort of substances will be in play. My mom grew up in the 60s, after all.

So you might say I'm powerfully uncertain about what I'm going to say. In fact, you might say I haven't a single effing clue what I'm going to say. I will probably make it up as I go along, at which, actually, I am pretty good. If it weren't for extemporaneous speaking I'd probably not be alive right now (though any number of fiascoes, like the one in Sweden, might not have happened, if one must look at the minus side).

I am a creature of routine. I get up, do my fifteen minutes on the meditation cushion, fire up my laptop, cruise the headlines on CNN and MSNBC. Then I get into Word, write a little, maybe send a query letter or two or three, then power down and head off to work. Depending on what day it is, I go to the pool first. On the alternate days I'm found at the gym on my lunch hour. And I find it very soothing to know in advance where I'm going to be at just about any given hour of any weekday. Then the weekend shows up and all bets are off.

Most people like this sort of thing. The uncertainty of weekends is what makes them fun. Maybe they'll go to the lake and do some wakeboarding (I have no idea what that is, but a colleague of mine has recently become a fanatic, and it sounds like fun). Maybe they'll take in a few football games. Maybe they'll do nothing more exciting than catching a nap on the sofa. It's the maybes that captivate. For me, it's the maybes that bring on Fang, the Velociraptor of Sudden Panic. (For more on the dinosaurs that live in my kitchen, see this post.) Unstructured time? What in hell am I going to do?

So I end up doing what lots of people end up doing: I make lists. I make chore lists, fun lists, household stuff lists. I cross stuff off and feel like I've accomplished things. I leave myself notes, too, often at work: "First thing -- motion to compel; second thing -- Chronology." The idea is to bring order to chaos, to have a nice set of expectations to fill up that unstructured time. To challenge the uncertainty and chase Fang just a little farther away.

I am, of course, putting a Band-Aid on a giant gushing split artery. There will never be certainty. Life throws me and everyone else Derek Holland-style curve balls all the damn time. Sometimes you have to jump on a plane and fly to Phoenix. And sometimes you just have to run out and catch a movie. Or make a speech at somebody's 70th birthday party. I could try hiding under the desk in this hotel room, but I imagine they'd find me eventually. So I'll do what I resolve to do every New Years: I'll wing it and see what happens. Watch this space.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Now What?" She Said.

There comes a time in the life cycle of every novel, when the person writing it has to stop and ask herself just what in the fuck she thinks she's doing. For me, this usually hits around page fifty, when I have to start making the Big Momentous Decisions. Not whether it's going to be a comedy or a tragedy--most of my stuff has elements of both--but all the other ones I've been dodging while I was flying by the seat of my pants and just, you know, making it up as I was going along. Such as: Where am I going with this? The Lifetime Movie Channel or The Horror Channel? Is it gonna be an Oprah's Book Club reject or would it be more properly rejected by Fangoria? I mean, okay, we've established that our protagonist wants to kill himself, and we sort of know why, but what are we going to do about that? Is he going to snap out of it? Be dragged out of it kicking and screaming, like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life? (See this post.) Or is he going to be plunged into some crazy adventure, in which he has to keep risking his life over and over again, and when it's over he suddenly realizes he doesn't want to die anymore?

Knowing me, it's almost certain to be that last thing. But then we've got to get to how. What kind of crazy adventure? We're in Central America, so the possibilities are pretty darn endless. Hey, how about he goes swinging through the jungle, being chased by monkeys and Shia LeBouf, looking for a crystal skull so he can keep it out of the hands of the Russians? Oh, wait, that's been done. Badly.

And let's not forget about those other tangled threads of plot that I've tossed out there. That's the problem with just writing fifty pages and not planning anything. You end up with these little story lines that have to go someplace or else you'll have people asking you for the rest of your life what was the deal with the aunt and the lawn chairs, anyway, and there's only so many times you can say, "Oh, uh, the editor cut that part." Yeah, right. As if editors have that kind of power. Half the time you're lucky if they even catch your spelling errors. (And that's assuming I even have one. You would assume wrong. No agent, no contract; hence no editor--and I spell the word "the" wrong all the darn time.)

On the other hand, sometimes half the fun of all this is solving all the problems. If there's any one particular skill I have that Looks Good on a Resume, it's that I like to solve large complicated problems. And I'm good at it. What is a lawsuit but a large complicated problem? Scheduling a deposition? Same thing. Motion to compel? Line 'em up, I'll knock 'em down. And yes, writing a book is the largest, most complicated problem of all. That's probably why I do it. That, and my brain needs a regular vacation from this thing called Life. I'm a Buddhist, so no drugs, alcohol or gambling (or sugar--working on that, working on that)--so it's either this or watch a lot of television, and trust me, there isn't a channel out there worthy of that much attention. Except maybe SyFy on Horror Night, and even then they tend to show a lot of movies with titles like "Sharktopus in 3D." I mean, eesh.

December was kind of peaceful around here. I just wrote, churning out that first fifty pages. The Query Letter Express more or less ground to a halt. All the November Novel folks start querying on December 1, and nobody in New York works in December anyway, so there's kind of no point. But now it's January and I've gotta not only start working on the letters again, I've got to sort out what I'm going to do with this large complicated problem that I've dropped in my own lap. I'm sure I'll think of something - I always do - but for the moment I sort of want to distract myself with a video game or another online legal course or maybe just another decaf Americano with sugar-free vanilla syrup.

Okay, okay. You don't need to nag. I'm getting back to work, already. If you see Shia LeBouf, tell him to swing this way. Er, on second thought, I don't need to know which way he swings.