Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Today I Am the Queen of Swords

On Facebook, I have an "Inappropriate Tarot Card Readings" app. This is what was drawn for me today.

QUEEN OF SWORDS: One of the few women graced with the gift of having no emotions, the Queen of Swords can also see right through your bullshit. Lying to her is likely to get something cut off.


The Fray: "Over My Head (Cable Car)"

Gotta love the Fray, though the little boy is kinda creepy.

Back on We Go ....

Well, what can I say? You’ll remember that last May and early June I experienced a few uncomfortable weeks withdrawing from Cymbalta. It was an experiment; I’d originally been put on the medication for anxiety and mood swings, which my physician’s assistant attributed to perimenopause (because I had bad morning sweats at the time). When I quit drinking, the sweats went away (duh) and I felt tremendously better, coming out of the alcoholic fog. So I was thinking that perhaps I didn’t need the Cymbalta at all. I wanted to see if I could get through life totally drug free.

That didn’t happen. I do have a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, which, luckily, is fairly mild for me. It’s tough to explain how the symptoms present themselves; the easiest way I can think of to describe it is “having perpetual stage fright.” What’s heinous about it is that the anxiety attacks come of out nowhere: I can be fine one moment and two seconds later, my throat is getting dry, my knees start shaking, I start to feel light-headed, and my heart starts racing. It’s extreme anxiety bordering on panic. And for absolutely no reason. They come out of nowhere.

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize the symptoms when I start experiencing them, so usually I’m able to talk myself down. I take deep breaths; I remind myself it’s all in my head; I force myself to slow down at whatever I’m doing; I tell myself it will pass in a moment. It always does. When it happens in the classroom, I doubt my students even notice.

But those few terrified moments are hell.

Other people with a more extreme degree of this disorder suffer unbearably. Some stay confined to their homes (in which case agoraphobia is usually the diagnosis); some can’t take jobs that require dealing with the public; any job in which public performance is required gets taken off their lists of possible careers. Two famous performers who’ve admitted to their struggle with SAD are Cher and Donny Osmond. Medications and cognitive behavioral therapy have proven effective.

The thing that differentiates SAD from simple stage fright or panic disorder is that the anxiety is centered around the specific fear of being judged. Actually, it’s not so much being judged as it is being judged unfairly. I’m pretty sure this is just the way my brain got used to thinking when I was a kid, growing up with a stepmother that therapists have dubbed “an irregular person,” someone who was impossible to please and who withheld affection when I was found failing. And since I couldn’t be perfect, I was always found to not measure up.

I think it was the unpredictability of how she would respond to me that knocked me off any equilibrium I ever had as a child. Once I brought home a “D” in Geometry, and I was prepared for a whipping and to be grounded; she just said, “I don’t know why you have to take that nonsense,” and that was the end of it. Another time I brought home a “B” and I was punished for not getting an “A”—I guess it was a subject she thought I should do better in. I never knew her agendas (and nowadays, I think maybe she wasn’t even aware).

The human mind is full of mysteries that we’re only just now starting to unlock. Like brain chemistry: do our brains get screwed up on their own and we’re born with a chemical imbalance; or do patterns of behavior get the brain used to operating a certain way, and we get locked into that? Psychotropic drugs supposedly correct imbalances.

Think about someone with OCD: they have to have things a certain way or complete particular rituals or they become so upset and uncomfortable that they fly into a panic and can’t function. What about hoarders? If you try to remove something of theirs, even a magazine that’s years old, they panic. Your trash is their treasure. They need that magazine. What impulse in their brain makes them think that? That their life will unravel if that magazine is no longer in their possession?

The brain makes no sense.

In any case, my social anxiety has been creeping back over the semester, and I suppose it should be no surprise that as more stress enters my life, my body’s way of coping returns to the way it once was. I’ve had a few bad moments in class (still, they never notice); my back is a solid rock of tension; I’ve felt unsettled, unfocused, out of control. The one thing I don’t want to do is return to booze. There’s the old-fashioned propranolol (beta blocker) and Ativan (anti-anxiety med) that got me through so many years, but they make me tired and listless. No, I actually felt pretty good when I was on Cymbalta, after I stopped drinking. I was losing weight, I was exercising, I felt calm but all there, too. I don’t like feeling out of it.

Isn’t that just what wacky people do: they start feeling better, so they go off their meds?

So the experiment didn’t give me the result I wanted. I don’t thrive when I’m not on my medication. But that’s okay. I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m not a perfect human specimen.

There are some Old Timers in AA who insist that any kind of drug (beyond aspirin, cigarettes, or caffeine) are not to be taken or else you're not sober. I'm glad my sponsor doesn't think that way. [It's not like Cymbalta gives you a buzz or lifts your spirits (even though it is mostly known as an anti-depressant). It just evens me out.] But you know, I feel like if this is going to be a recovery blog, I need to be honest and put this out there.

I'm hoping it won't make one whit of difference to any of you.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Parody of Crystal Waters

Now this is funny shit. Seriously. What IS the name of that Crystal Waters song? You know, the "la da dee, la dee do"... no one ever knows the name of it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Relaxing in Bodega Bay

Chelle and I just got back from spending the weekend with her parents in Bodega Bay, which is about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco (depending on traffic). There's not much in Bodega Bay but spectacular views of the Bay, walking paths, and a slew of little art & gifts galleries, a surf shop, restaurants, etc. Since it's now crab season, we ate a lot of fresh crab. We stayed at the Bodega Bay Lodge, which is a bit on the pricey side but each room has a fireplace and a view of the Bay, and Chelle's mom treated me to an in-room massage, which I really needed. My lower back has been acting up again, and Dawn the Massage Therapist did a great job of limbering me up.

Remind me that I need to get my doctor to refer a chiropractor in my network, okay? Because I'll forget until my back starts screaming at me again.

Anyway, on the way out today, we decided to swing by the town of Bodega itself, which is actually about five miles away from the coast, off Highway One on the way to the 101. Why, you ask? Well, the town is famous for being the place where Alfred Hitchcock shot the schoolhouse scene in The Birds. The schoolhouse still stands and so naturally I had to go stand in front of it.

The movie clip I've posted below, but you'll see that Hitch took a few liberties with the reality of the place. The biggest is that the Bay is nowhere within viewing distance of the actual schoolhouse. And I sure as heck didn't see any big black birds. I didn't even see any gulls. Or sparrows. Not even a crow. I guess Hitch had to truck those suckers in.

Anyway, it was a nice, relaxing weekend, but I didn't get nearly enough papers graded. Sigh. I'd better stop stalling and get to it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

John Mayer: "Heartbreak Warfare"

This is a cool video. (I also learned a new term: augmented reality.) I admit I'm a little embarrassed to be posting a song by John Mayer, because I did nothing but snort at the music on his first album, but I'm 'fessing up: I do like this song.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mark Twain: Man of Zingers

Anybody who loves Mark Twain is probably just as excited as I am about the release of his memoirs. Twain dictated them in his later life, following no discernible order such as chronological, but rather one of "today I'm going to talk about what's on my mind." Thus he leaps all over the place. He also stipulated that his words not be released until 100 years after his death. So, he didn't hold his tongue. And let me tell you, in his later life, Twain was a crotchety old man. A smart, opinionated, and in many ways an angry, bitter, suspicious old man. Still, he's funny as hell and is a lion of American arts & letters.

I can't imagine editing the mammoth three volumes amassed, but the first volume is now on bookstore shelves and I've asked for it for Christmas. (That's another hint, Chelle.) Reviews are positive, and they all remark that Twain's political comments hold true to this very day, almost prescient. He's arrogant but often hits his target with a bullseye. Here's a Twain quotation from today's Chronicle:

"When I build a fire under a person ... I do not do it merely because of the enjoyment I get out of seeing him fry, but because he is worth the trouble. ... I do not fry the small, the commonplace, the unworthy."

You see what I'm saying.

Here's a link to the book at Amazon.com: Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1.

Tummy About to Burst?

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, why did I make so much? How the hell do I get rid of all this stuff? Why didn't they take some of this shit home with them?!

The fact is, you can eat only so much leftover turkey before you lose your mind, or stay perpetually asleep because of the tryptophan overdose (actually that's a myth. Chicken and cheese actually have more tryptophan than turkey. The after-Thanksgiving-dinner sleepies are due to the massive carbohydrate overload. Just sayin.) And here's another bit of day-after-Thanksgiving trivia for you: the number one day of the year for plumbers to have the most house calls is... you got it.


So, enjoy your turkey soup, your turkey tetrazzini, your turkey pot pie, your turkey sandwiches. Me, I feel lucky we had Turkey Day at my brother-in-law's, because that means we have no leftovers in the fridge that we have to nibble at for days on end. (Blessed are we, in many ways.)

Oh, and 'fess up. You know you had pumpkin pie for breakfast.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving


Dear God,
We thank thee for food and
remember the hungry.
We thank thee for health and
remember the sick.
We thank thee for freedom and
remember the enslaved.
May these rememberances
stir us to service,
That thy gifts to us may be
used for others. Amen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Crazy for Brandi Carlile

This is my first attempt to make an iMovie, so it's anything but perfect, but it was a fun project (and I'll do just about anything to put off grading papers). This is Brandi Carlile's solo cover of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" (written by Willie Nelson, actually). She and her band did their own acoustic opening set and then the Seattle Symphony came onstage. "Crazy" was the last song of the set, so at the beginning of the recording, that's Brandi joking that she will be going backstage to don her evening gown with rhinestones. I recorded the song at Benaroya Hall 11-21-10 with my iPhone, so ... you know.

The woman has pipes. Crazy pipes.

Will You Be in the Doghouse?

Do NOT give your partner a vacuum, a duster, a toolbox, a drill, workout equipment, diet pills, deodorant, and the like for Christmas or birthdays. It ain't cool. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Weekend in Seattle

Ugh. Vacations are draining. I woke up yesterday morning to a vision of Seattle covered in a light blanket of snow. Nope. Not dreaming. It was snowing, and traffic was snarled all over the city. They're accustomed to rain there, not the white stuff.

Still, I thought it was pretty until the cabbie informed us there was an accident ahead, and MaryLou and I sat looking at bumper-to-bumper stalled gridlock, and then it wasn't so lovely. (Look at those flakes falling through the back window. And no making fun of my hair. I'd had my head covered with my scarf since I didn't think to bring a hat.)

A couple hours later, I thought the snow was even less pretty when my plane got delayed as they de-iced the wings.

When I finally got back to San Francisco, I unpacked my suitcase when I got home, threw my dirty clothes into the hamper, crawled into bed, and struggled to keep my eyes open. At 8pm, I failed miserably and went to sleep. Slept straight through until the alarm went off at 6am. Oddly, I am still tired. As I write this, I am drinking a cup of Pike Place Special Reserve, a bag of which I purchased at the original Starbucks, and I still just want to lie down and take a nap.

Speaking of which, here is a photo of the lovely head barista (manager, maybe? tres chic) at that Starbucks, informing everybody waiting in line about what makes the original store so special. One, you can't get any souvenir Starbucks gear anywhere except HERE that has the original naked Siren (two-tailed mermaid) logo on it (you want boobs, you gotta go to Seattle--or, you can just zoom in on the photo to the left to look at the logo in the upper left hand corner). Two, you can get Pike Place roast anywhere, but not the Special Reserve (you want it, you gotta go to Seattle). Three, they use super-de-duper-woweee-amazing-machines at the original store--the ones that make better coffee via a much slower but much improved process, unlike most other Starbucks, where, apparently, the baristas are all unskilled and merely have to push a button. Fast, but nowhere near as technical and tasty. At least, this is the gist of what she was telling us. (Frankly, I didn't care so much; I was cold and just wanted my damn peppermint mocha.)

Other things I did in Seattle--well, there's the Brandi Carlile concert I mentioned in my last post. We went to the second Seattle Symphony concert on Sunday night (the first was on Friday), and it was good too, but I preferred the first night's. That could be because it was my first Brandi show, but I think I also liked the song selection that night better. We also went to the "secret" show at Neumos Bar that turned out to be not-so-secret. MaryLou did have a friend get to the show early and hold a place in line for us in exchange for a ticket (and then MaryLou also bought her a ticket to the next night's show as well), so we only had to wait, shivering, in the cold for about a half hour before doors opened. We managed to get a good viewing spot crammed up against the balcony overlooking the stage. The sound quality wasn't great, but some fun things did happen during the Neumos show; namely, not only did Brandi drag her sister Tiffany onstage at one point to sing, she was telling the audience about how she grew up in a home full of country music because her mother sings--and then, snap! She called her mother up to the stage for a version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man," and there is just nothing more hilarious than watching a cute little lesbian singing that with her mother. View below and see for yourself.

Other Seattle 'haps: we stayed at the Fairmont Olympic, which was a lovely hotel, all decked out in Christmas decorations (seriously, we came in late Friday night after the concert, walked through the usual lobby, and Saturday morning, the lobby had been transformed into a magical Christmas land). I don't know how that many trees went up in the span of about six hours, but it happened. Here's the main tree, and there were probably twenty more little (6 foot) trees circling the entire lobby.

Downstairs, by the front door where the valets are, there was also a faux fireplace, a tree, gifts, and a Santa checking his list. Ever the prankster, I had to get in on the action and mimic Santa. I have quite the "Bad List" going, let me tell you.

We also visited the Seattle Museum of Art to see the Picasso exhibit, where I furtively snapped a couple iPhone photos of some paintings, including the one to the left which I dubbed "Something I Ate and Lost."

And that's about it. There was the requisite walk along the waterfront and a visit to the Public Market at Pike Place where they tossed fish around, and a fabulous birthday dinner for MaryLou at Metropolitan Grill, which was recommended by Cathy the concierge, who, when she made the reservation for us, bought us a nice beef carpaccio appetizer compliments of the Fairmont. If I was still drinking, the wine list at the Met was drool-worthy--but we settled for steaks and the fixin's and a slice of 9-layer chocolate cake that the two of us could only eat half of.

All in all, a whirlwind trip and a fun weekend, but it's always nice to return to sunny California, hugs from Chelle, and happy meows from the kitties. Jerry is snoozing on my lap as I type.

And now it's time to get back to grading essays.

Better get a refill on that coffee . . . .

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Brandi Carlile with Seattle Symphony

In a word, Brandi Carlile was EXTRAORDINARY! This photo is of MaryLou and me before the music started; it's a bit grainy because it was taken with my iPhone, and my hair is totally flat because we got rained on, but here we are! Turns out the show was being recorded for a live album, so she sang a lot of foot stompers and bring-down-the-housers, including a moving cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (Brandi's voice with the accompanying harp was simply perfect). She also covered Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," Patsy Cline's "Crazy," and Elton John's "Sixty Years On." All else was original material like "Shadow on the Wall," "Dreams," "I Will," "The Story," "Bend Before It Breaks," "Turpentine," and "What Can I Say." I did capture a little video and sound recording on my phone, so if it turns out to be any good and if I can find a way to upload a sound file, I'll do that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Seattle, Here I Come!

I'm off to Seattle tomorrow to meet up with a good friend and go see both of Brandi Carlile's concerts with the Seattle Symphony. Also we'll see the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Museum on Saturday. Her birthday is Monday, so I'll have to think of a good surprise (which I am not about to write any more about here since she reads this blog.)

It's a S U R P R I S E!

I doubt I'll be blogging during the trip, though if I have photos and a spare moment, I may. Chelle is holding down the fort at home and, alas, will have to spend three nights snuggling with the kitties instead of me. Wouldn't you know our friend Sharla of The Second Race is vising Nocal this weekend while I'm away and is dropping by the house for dinner and to check out our "Horse Museum." Next time, Sharla....

In other news, Zenyatta will be retired to Lane's End farm in Versailles, KY, so another visit to bluegrass country will be in order one day to drop by and say hello to her. Lane's End is by appointment only, but usually the farms are pretty accommodating to fellow horsemen (horse people?) For sure it'll have to be when the weather's better. Micki, Janett, Matt, and Dawn, are you reading this? Make a note.

See y'all in a few days.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Heart: "Alone"

A live acoustic version recorded in Seattle. Nancy is a masterful guitarist, and Ann's voice has never been better.

Which World Do YOU Live In?

The world around you is a reflection of your reaction to the world around you.

- The Dalai Lama

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Paradox of Revenge

We recently watched American History X in class as part of a unit on racism and prejudice, and one question I always throw out to my students after the movie is: “So what do you think will happen now? Will Derek seek revenge for the Crips killing his brother?”

Of course, if you’ve seen the film and know what Derek went through—a neo-Nazi skinhead sent to prison for killing two Crips and learning in prison that race doesn’t determine who is and who isn’t your friend—you know the likely answer is “no.” If Danny was killed both as a gang initiation and as retaliation for his brother’s actions, what good would getting even do? Derek would retaliate; then the Crips would retalitate. Then Derek would retaliate. Then the Crips. And so on and so on, ad infinitum, ad naseum.

The point is, revenge never ends, and no one ever wins. And as Dr. Sweeney asks Derek at a pivotal point in the movie, speaking of all the hate crimes Derek had committed in his continual attempt to get even, “Has anything you’ve ever done made you feel any better?”

Derek realizes he can’t say yes.

Revenge is a hollow victory, and not just because it “puts you ahead” on the scoreboard for merely the briefest of moments. A person who takes revenge is showing the world that they’ve been shamed, or that they feel humiliated. The act of revenge is, in actuality, just an attempt to restore wounded pride.

Consequently, those who seek revenge force themselves to wear the mantel of a victim. They feel unfairly injured or wronged. At its extremes, a fired employee may go postal and show up at his old workplace with a shotgun to take revenge (note that he usually dies in the bargain). A scorned lover might get even by going on Craigslist and posting nasty things about her ex (to the rest of the world, she comes off as unbalanced and vindictive, a person with no dignity). A grade school kid who feels picked on by the class bully might seek revenge by sneaking into class after school and wrecking the bully’s science project (and when it’s found out who did the deed, guess which of the two will wind up expelled?)

The point is, these “victims” who seek revenge in an attempt to restore their pride usually wind up harming themselves more than the person they wanted to hurt.

That is the paradox of revenge.

Many have noted this paradox and commented on it:

•“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~ St. Augustine

•“There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” ~ Josh Billings (1818 - 1885)

•“In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” ~ Sir Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)

•“Live well. It is the greatest revenge.” ~ The Talmud

•“You cannot change the facts of the past but you can change the meaning of the past.” ~unknown

•“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968)

•“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” ~ A.J. Muste

•“Remorse cannot be coerced, it has to be discovered.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont

•“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

•“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” ~Marie Joseph Eugène Sue

•“Think through the consequences of your actions for the next seven generations.” ~ Native American wisdom

Revenge is a bitter pill. Heed your mama's advice about revenge NOT being sweet. It won't make you feel better, and if anything, it will only make you feel worse about yourself.

An Angel In Her Ear

Okay, it's really just a piece of cotton, but doesn't it look just like an angel perched in Zenyatta's ear? I can tell you what that angel is saying, too: "No need to retire, Big Girl. Next year's Classic belongs to you."

Just sayin'.

Photo by Steve Haskin.


I’m 436 days sober today, so I suppose the issue of relapse would come up at some point. Never fear; I haven’t fallen off the wagon. But on Sunday, I went to a meeting, and there was the inevitable shaken member of Alcoholics Anonymous who told of going out a few days prior and being frightened half to death by his own behavior. He claimed to have consumed five fifths over the course of a day.

Me, I’d be dead of alcohol poisoning if I ever drank that much. The worst that ever happened to me was downing nine shots in three Cadillac margaritas on an empty stomach, then two shots of Jack Daniels, then a beer, then one more Cadillac margarita, still on an empty stomach. At that point, I passed out and fell off the barstool I was sitting on. When I came to, a couple of friends were standing around, fanning me, and I opened my mouth to speak, but whoops. I puked. Fortunately it was mostly just liquid and bile since I hadn’t eaten. They dragged me to my feet and over to the bathroom where they cleaned me up, but when they got me back out into the bar, I couldn’t walk, another wave of nausea came over me, and I puked again. At this point, the paramedics showed up and hauled my sorry ass to the Emergency Room. “Acute Alcohol Intoxication” was the diagnosis…. Not exactly cute. The hangover the next day was horrible. And the experience was scary enough to prevent me from drinking-- for all of three months.

Five fifths would’ve killed me, but I saw some folks in rehab for whom that was a fairly normal day. It was nothing for them to drink several fifths and then take norcos or shoot heroin or smoke dope on top of that. I was among the lightweights of the boozehounds. So this shaken man with the ashen face and the expression of deep-seated fear… I had no reason to disbelieve him.

I imagine it was five fifths of sheer rock gut, not the good stuff, whatever he could afford to buy five bottles of. I’m sure when he cracked open the first bottle, a drink sounded like a great idea. I’m sure he didn’t figure he’d drink all five bottles, either. But with an alcoholic, a thousand drinks is never enough, and one is too many.

I’m reminded of a time I went to a women’s meeting in Burlingame one Sunday, and a butch dyke with slicked back hair showed up, looking tough enough to take care of herself even on the streets of the Mission late on a Saturday night. But when it came her turn to share, she began weeping. “My sponsor,” she cried, “went out two nights ago. If she can’t stay sober, how can I?” She’d been hitting meeting after meeting, praying non-stop, hanging on by a thread, desperate to not pick up that first drink.

And today my own sponsor told me of a friend, someone who’s been sober for six years now, who went back out just this past weekend on a trip to Las Vegas. Relationship problems set her off, and one more tiff was the thing that cut that tenuous thread. One drink led to the next, then the next, and the next, and she was off and running until FORCED to stop. Six years, gone, whoosh.

So the problem is, how do we keep ourselves from picking up that first drink? In a world where everybody drinks when things go wrong—after a stressful day, after hearing bad news, or when tragedy strikes, or when things go right--when celebrating, at weddings, on birthdays, on holidays. How can you not yield to the barrage of temptations that come, time after time after time?

In rehab, the answer for those who’d relapsed after periods of sobriety was the same: relapses happen when we let the program of AA fall by the wayside. We stop going to meetings. We stop doing the work of the Twelve Steps. We lose contact with our Higher Power. We forget what it was like when we were drinking. We start being ruled by our egos again. Pain, resentments, the things that used to “make” us drink, start consuming our lives again. In this frame of mind, we give in to the desire to drink. We say, “Fuck it.”

I’ve been sober only 436 days. So far, I don’t live in fear of relapse, but I know better than to get complacent. Alcohol is insidious—this disease of addiction is always whispering in my ear; cravings come out of nowhere. I have tools, like HALT: don’t ever let yourself get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. I have my sponsor, who would take a call from me at anytime. My sobriety is new enough that I can still remember vividly the horror of the last year of my life before I got sober, how truly fucked up I really was, how I thought and did things that made no sense. I’m one of the lucky ones, because the thought of drinking still makes me flinch; I loathe the idea of booze because I didn’t like what it turned me into.

But it won’t be this way always. One day the idea of having a drink—just one little drink won’t hurt me, right?--will come out of nowhere and seem like a good one. That is the day I need to be prepared for. I need to know that getting to the point of picking up requires a series of poor decisions, so that at any point in the series I can take action to prevent things from unfolding in a way I don’t want them to go. I don’t need to get in my car. I don’t need to drive to the bank to get money out. I don’t need to drive to the liquor store. I don’t need to pluck a bottle off the shelf. I don’t need to pay for that bottle at the cash register. I don’t need to drive home with that bottle. I don’t need to open the bottle. I don’t need to pour a drink. I don’t need to lift the glass to my mouth. I don’t need to swallow.

At any point, I can stop--if I just ask for help.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hitler Rants That Zenyatta Loses the Classic

If you haven't seen the Hitler rants on Youtube, you've been missing some funny stuff. He rants about what happens on Lost, he rants about American politics, he rants whenever he doesn't get his way. Here, Hitler rants because he'd had singled Zenyatta on his Pick 6 ticket.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Futility of Having Enemies

Recovering alcoholic or not, I can honestly say that at no time in my life have I ever considered another human being to be an enemy. Sure, there have been persons whose actions I dislike. There have been persons I think are assholes, or are ignorant, or selfish, or arrogant, or mean-spirited—some so much so that I have wound up disliking them--mostly because they do or say things that are hurtful or just because they’re a drag to be around.

But I have never considered anyone an enemy because of what that word really means: “One who feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes the interests of another; a foe.”

I consider this definition, and it occurs to me that having an enemy says more about the person who has the enemy, and nothing at all about the enemy herself.

Here’s how I look at it: if someone does something that bothers me, and if I try to talk with that person about it, and if we are unable to reach an agreement about mutual respect, or agree to just disagree about whatever it is and move past it, or agree to do whatever it may take to live with each other in this world, then I don’t see anything to gain by trying to punish them. That's actually kind of childish. Hatred is a big waste of energy. Plotting revenge is a colossal waste of time. And wishing ill on another is just plain bad karma—that crap does nothing but hurt the ill-wisher in the long run. You know what they say about it coming back to you threefold.

No, my habit, if the person and I can’t have a meeting of the minds, is to just walk away. I put that person out of my mind. They can go on with their own life, and I will happily go on with mine. And I will thank them to henceforth stay out of my business, as I will respectfully stay out of theirs. It's the best truce we can reach.

It’s really that simple.

Besides, as the Dalai Lama said, “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” I can’t really hate someone who has imparted a valuable lesson to me, even if the lesson is merely “don’t mimic this behavior.”

We're not here to fight each other.

We are here to serve each other.

Brandi Carlile and Roseanne Cash

Watch the full episode. See more Austin City Limits.

Did you miss this on Austin City Limits last night? Watch it now.

I'm getting psyched for my trip to Seattle this weekend. Gonna see Brandi play with the Seattle Symphony and check out the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Museum. "The Old Guitarist" is part of the exhibition, and it happens to be one of my favorite Picassos.

Toad the Wet Sprocket: "Walk On the Ocean"

Speaking of walks by the ocean, this is one of my favorite Toad songs. Video quality stinks, but the music is great. Every time I hear this one, I think about backpacking in Yosemite and how much I want to do that again ... as soon as I'm in better shape. Maybe by June?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Walk by the Ocean

It's 71 degrees in the Bay Area today, so Chelle and I decided to drive over to Half Moon Bay and take a walk along the beach. After that, we had lunch at Moss Beach Distillery.

I was telling a friend earlier today that sometimes I need the mountains, sometimes I need a forest, and other times I need the sea. Sometimes I just need to be reminded that my world can get pretty self-enclosed, and I get bogged down in daily irritations. It feels, sometimes, that life starts closing in on me. And in those moments I seek out nature because it returns perspective to me. I am just one tiny person on much bigger planet, and this planet is just one tiny dot in a very large universe.

The universe is vast, yet it consists of us, all the tiny elements that make it up, all of us a part of the ebb and flow, and every last one of us is necessary.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cee-Lo: "F*ck You"

I'm sorry, but this song and video just crack me up. I'm sure we laugh because we all know the feeling.

By the way, rumor has it that Gwyneth Paltrow does a passable version of this (singing "Forget You") on Glee next week.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Exile: "I Wanna Kiss You All Over"

OMG, remember this song? This song came out when I was in the tenth grade. Up 'til now I had never actually seen the band. The skinny guy with the long hair is freaking me out, the bearded guitarist can sing, the keyboard player acts like an automaton, and I can't quite figure out what Jesus with the mullet is doing. Enjoy!

Three Key Distinctions

I got this quotation from MrSponsorPants this morning:

"Sometimes I think there is but a molecule's difference between
helping and enabling...
between hope and expectation...
between faith and fantasy."

And yet the distinction between all three makes a colossal difference in how you live your life.

So, some clarifications on this Veteran's Day:

When you enable someone, your assistance helps them continue their bad behavior. When you help someone, your assistance does NOT support their bad behavior. Thus, we don't call in sick for our hungover spouse. We let him face the consequences at work, or minimally he has to take some responsibility for his bender and make the phone call himself. But don't be crazy. It's insanity to refuse to drive a drunk person home because you don't want to "enable" him. If you do that, you might allow him to kill some innocent person as well as himself. Go ahead and drive him home, or, better yet, call him a taxi and have him face the consequence of the cab fare. In any case, whatever you do, NEVER support an alcoholic or addict by offering them "psychological reasons" they drink or use...ie, unhappy life, a bad event, problems in a marriage, etc. They use because they're addicts. Period. There's no other reason. Alcoholics just love it when enablers excuse their drinking for them. When you do that, you might as well go ahead and pour them the next cocktail. Hell, make it a double.

When you have a hope, you are hoping for the best but you're not going to fall apart if you don't get what you want. People are going to do whatever it is that they want to do, and those things may not match up with what your plans are. So, hope; but don't expect. If you constantly have nothing but expectations, then you'll constantly be disappointed with everybody and everything. And you'll live in a world full of people who suck.

When you have faith, you have the knowledge that there is some bigger meaning to all of this and that there's a reason you're here, a reason you're given the challenges of everyday living in this modern world. You trust in yourself and your Higher Power enough to get you through the rough spots and you know that you'll receive guidance, whenever you need it, regarding how to handle the realities of this world. Faith keeps you going. But when you live in a fantasy world, you're divorced from reality. The biggest fantasy of most people is that they think they have (or should have) more control over situations or people than they do. The reality is, the only thing you'll ever have any control over is YOU. (The proof? Ever watch Survivor? Every last person who thinks he's in control of that game winds up being blindsided and kicked off the island.)

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Heart of a Lion

A self-empowered person chooses her own destiny. She knows that everything in life is a choice.

A self-empowered person puts no unreasonable demands on herself and is satisfied knowing she always does her best, no more, and no less.

A self-empowered person does not depend on others for her happiness, nor require their approval to feel good about herself.

A self-empowered person does not accept abuse.

A self-empowered person admits when she’s made a mistake and never tries to pin the blame for her errors on others. She sees mistakes for what they are--learning opportunities.

A self-empowered person does not give the gifts of love or friendship with conditions attached. Otherwise, they aren’t gifts.

A self-empowered person recognizes her own unique talents and utilizes them fully.

A self-empowered person empowers others and never attempts to bolster her own ego by bringing others down.

A self-empowered person can be physically wounded, but her belief in herself is unshakeable.

A self-empowered person is a loving, cuddly kitten with the heart of a lion.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Should Zenyatta Get Horse of the Year?

The short answer is "Yes."

All the fine reasons are given here: Zenyatta Has Earned Horse of the Year.

To those people who are insisting that the HOY always goes to the Classic winner, let me just point out that last year it went to Rachel Alexandra, and she never even ran in the Classic. Nope, it would be Zenyatta who won the Classic last year, but she didn't get HOY. Besides, this racing season, Blame lost to Haynesfield, and Zenyatta beat him in the Classic, too. And, the only reason Blame won (let's be honest) is that he had a clean trip and Queen Z did not. Had she only stuck her tongue out at the wire, she'd have won. Am I lying? Nope. She ran the better race by far. You just can't dispute that fabulous finish. She ran into traffic, and that's all about racing luck, not who is the better horse.

Regardless, history will remember Zenyatta. Blame ... well, not so much. Will the voting for HOY be fair? I guess we'll find out in January.

kd lang: "Pullin' Back the Reins"

Nobody, but nobody, is as pitch perfect as this woman.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On a Lighter Note ...

Because I have a dear friend who could use a good laugh today. Love ya bunches, hon.

Why Do People Hurt?

So I was waxing introspective yesterday about Zenyatta losing and wondering why on earth I wasn’t nearly as upset about it as I had thought I would be. After ALL that build up and joking trash talking… I had even posted here a few weeks ago (or maybe it was on Facebook) that I fully expected to cry if she lost, or cry tears of joy if she won. So why no tears?

I think I was anticipating my response based on how I would’ve reacted when I was drinking. Back when I was drinking, by the time race time came around, I would’ve been totally under the influence, and so I would have amplified any emotion I felt at the outcome. This time, I was stone cold sober, so all I felt was a little disappointment, and then some pride after all, because she had given it her all and almost got to the wire first. You can’t really fault that. There was no one to blame (but Blame. Sorry, I can never resist making a bad joke.) Days later, I actually feel proud of her and I know, with that incredible big run down the stretch, she proved what her detractors kept denying: she can totally race the boys on dirt. She beat Lookin At Lucky, she beat Quality Road, and had she not run into traffic, she probably would’ve beaten Blame.

Besides all this, I just have a total different attitude about expectations any more. I seem to have eased into a place of general serenity because I have ceased to have expectations. In their stead I have only hopes. There’s a world of difference between the two. Hopes allow for the possibility that you might not get what you want. Expectations don’t.

Thus, in AA, we have a saying: “Expectations are just premeditated resentments.”

And all of this got me thinking about hurt, and why we even feel hurt to begin with. The truth is, nobody has the power to hurt anybody else. The truth is, we’re only hurt when we have an expectation dashed. There is no other reason to be hurt. Feeling hurt means we had an emotional investment in an outcome. It’s nothing more than that.

But, man. It is painful and uncomfortable and awful to feel hurt. We hate the feeling. In moments, when hurt is fresh, we may be so devastated that we don’t know how we’ll ever recover from the blow. So, as often happens, in order to cope, to deal, to offset the pain a little, we’ll blame the person who hurt us. (I’ve blogged about this here.) Then things can get ugly. The person being blamed will understandably get defensive, and the person doing the blaming will refuse to admit to any responsibility for their hurt.

Then you’re stuck at an impasse until the hurt person gets over it.

So what gets us over it? It’s only when we stop playing the victim and OWN the fact that we had an expectation that we’ll get over it. If you can just admit you had an expectation, then you can look at what, precisely, caused you to have that expectation, and then you’ll realize that it wasn’t reasonable to have that expectation in the first place. Here are three examples of this principle at play.

• So, Jimmy wouldn’t commit to you after several months of dating? Why does this hurt you? The degree of your hurt parallels the level of expectation you had that Jimmy would commit. But how reasonable was the expectation? Did Jimmy even know you had that expectation? Besides, do you NEED Jimmy in order to be happy? Now, be honest with yourself: Aren’t you hurt because you failed to control Jimmy? Isn’t the real reason you’re hurt is that you didn’t get what you wanted? The answers to these questions may be unpleasant to acknowledge, and you might even be mad at me for challenging you to ask them of yourself, but once you can acknowledge them, your dashed expectations will lose their power. The feelings of hurt will drop away. You’ll own your part of it, and you will stop blaming Jimmy for the fact that you’re hurt.

•So, are you hurt because somebody insulted you? Why? Why does their opinion of you matter so much to you? The important thing is, are you happy with yourself? The point is, if you start expecting everybody to love everything you do, you’re going to be hurt constantly, because you have zero control over other people’s opinions of you. Besides, what they think of you has everything to do with them, and very little if anything to do with you.

• So, are you hurt because your best friend betrayed you and blabbed to someone else something you told them in confidence? Well, is it reasonable to really expect that another human being can keep a juicy tidbit of information to themselves? Yeah, not really, huh? They’re human, and you’re just silly for expecting that they might. Sure, it’s reasonable for you to have hoped that they would, but hopes aren’t expectations.

The point I’m really making is that your self-esteem should not be dependent on other people, so you shouldn’t hang your happiness on an expectation regarding others’ behaviors. When you do that, you wind up hurt.

I know all this is easier said than done, and I'm certainly guilty of spending most of my life having expectations instead of hopes. But stop having expectations, and you will be as flexible as wheat waving in a gentle breeze. When hit by a heavy gust, you may bend, but you will never break.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Darn it, She Didn't Listen to Me!

Actually, I'm not as bummed out as I thought I would be to see Zenyatta lose. She was on the wrong lead when she started out, but she's done that before and corrected. And the fact is, had Mike moved her a little sooner, or if she'd had one more stride to take before the wire, she would've gotten there first. It was so close! That's the thrill of horse racing.

So, we can blame Blame for ruining her perfect record.

That's okay, Queen Z, you're still the mare that has my heart. And glad they all came back okay.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hapless Tigger Gives Zenyatta Some Advice

"Okay, sweetheart, here's what ya gotta do. Break easily out of the gate; avoid all that nasty bumping. Stay to the rear, go to the rail, and jog along, saving yourself some ground. Let dem boys wear themselves out up front. Then just before the final turn, start your move to the outside. Try to not let 'em make you swing too far wide, 'cause you know they will. Just weave through 'em like you did last year. Then find your opening and LET 'ER RIP! Let's see what you've really got."

Of course, she had cotton in her ears and probably didn't hear a word I said.

Saturday Picks for Breeders Cup

Well, fillies and mares in general can be a lot less predictable than the boys (women: we're so much more complicated), so let's hope I can get a winning ticket today!

Race 5 (BC Sprint): I like Smiling Tiger and I hope Russell Baze doesn't mess up the ride. He's a great jockey, don't get me wrong, but he seldom wins the big races outside of California. I am really hoping he has better racing luck, because I've seen Smiling Tiger run a couple of times now, and that horse is FAST! He also just had a bullet over the track at Churchill Downs. Speaking of bullets, Big Drama had a nice one too, and this is a sprint. I also like Atta Boy Roy and will toss in Riley Tucker as well.

Race 6 (BC Turf Sprint): Turf sprints are a nightmare and this is a huge field. I don't think California Flag will win this year; his form isn't the same. You have to like Silver Timber, Chamberlain Bridge, Bridgetown, and Rose Catherine, who've all won multiple times at the distance. I might use Quick Enough, as well, as a longshot--he was in a dead heat with California Flag a couple races back, and Doug O'Neill is using P Val, who is the go-to speed jockey on the West Coast.

Race 7 (BC Juvenile): Well, you could safely single Uncle Mo if you care to eat a little chalk. But there are two other undefeated horses invading the US in this one: Biondetti (Europe) and Murjan (Peru). They should be tasty longshots. Then there's Boys at Tosconova, who has won over this track and matches Uncle Mo with the 102 Beyer.

Race 8 (Turf Mile): Come on, you KNOW I have to root for Goldikova! But if you don't want to single her, add Gio Ponti and then Sidney's Candy, who woke up on turf at Del Mar. He wired the field like it was nothing.

Race 9 (Dirt Mile): Everyone loves Here Comes Ben. Jerry Bailey was asked who his "best bet" of the entire Breeders Cup would be this year, and Ben was his choice. People like Tizway, too. (And did you hear that Hollywood wants to film the story of Mine That Bird? What?? Why??! Why is this horse even in this race??)

Race 10 (Turf): Behkabad, Debussy, Workforce, Winchester.

Race 11 (Classic): Duh. ZENYATTA!!!!!!!! (Okay, if you want to add anyone else, then it should be Blame and Lookin At Lucky. That will probably be my trifecta.)

Good luck!

Bizarre Happenin's at Breeders Cup

Today had to be the strangest Breeders Cup I've seen yet. I got a lot of seconds but some firsts as well, but that's not what's strange. Here's what was strange:

Calvin Borel went nuts after the Marathon! I have NEVER seen a jockey so angry that he lunged at another jockey in the winner's circle. Seriously, it took several men to get him off of Javier Castallano, and if flames really could shoot out of eyes, they were spitting out of Calvin's as they hauled him away to the jockey's room.

I don't know why he flew off like that, because if anybody had reason to clock Javier, it was Martin Garcia. From what I could see in the replays, Javier aimed his horse at a hole and swung into Garcia's path just as they were all starting to roll. Javier's horse clipped Martin's horse's heels, and Martin almost fell off the horse (seriously, he was out of the saddle). His horse then interfered with Calvin's and for a quick fraction of a second it looked like Martin might've landed in Calvin's lap had he not been able to keep on his mount. Needless to say, Javier's horse was DQ'd.

But this stuff sometimes happens. All I can surmise is that perhaps Calvin said something to Javier about it and however Javier responded, that just set Calvin off. That Cajun boy was dropping f-bombs left and right. Astonishing thing to see in racing at this level.

Oh, and so of COURSE Bobby Flay's horse won, after I blogged that I wasn't sure she was good enough to run with these. Open mouth, insert foot.

The last thing was something that bothers me: before the Ladies Classic, it seemed pretty clear that Life at Ten was not warming up well. I mean, Jerry Bailey and the ESPN guys were talking with the jockey, Velasquez, who was miked, and even he sounded concerned about the horse not being right. But they loaded her in the gate anyway. Sure enough, she breaks slowly, stays at the rear, just jogs along and shows zero interest in the race. I'm not even sure she finished. She didn't break down or anything (thank goodness), and my guess is Velasquez just pulled her up.

But the point is, if he thought she was off in ANY way, he should've at least called for the track vet to check her out. I don't care if it's Breeders Cup; you DON'T race a horse if there is any question about their soundness. I'm thinking Todd Pletcher and J. Velasquez have some 'splainin' to do. The commentators on ESPN sounded pretty outraged, and I don't blame them. I just hate it when dollar signs blind us to the welfare of the animal. This had the potential to be something ugly, and all I can say is that I'm glad it wasn't (though people who'd bet that horse are probably pretty pissed about it. I looked at her and canceled the trifecta and Super High 5's I had--am glad TwinSpires allows that.)

Okay, enough ranting. Now I need to go do a quick 'cap of tomorrow's races. Will post picks either later tonight or first thing tomorrow morning. Hope everybody had a profitable day!

And Now for a Short Break ...

Is your cat plotting to kill you?

This quiz is telling me I should probably sleep with one eye open.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Zenyatta in "Dream Race" Simulation

She takes on Ruffian, Seabiscuit, Affirmed, Barbaro, Smarty Jones, Rachel Alexandra, and other great racehorses (no Secretariat, go figure). See for yourself how Zenyatta fares.

Friday Picks for Breeders Cup 2010

The good news is that you can play $.50 Pick 4's and are thus able to go deeper in some legs. With that in mind, I'll pick four or five horses in each race and put my personal favorite in boldface. (In a magical kingdom, all the horses I like going off at the best odds will be the ones that actually win, but that never happens!) I'll also mention any horses I think are a "bet-against" (ie, a vulnerable favorite) and note any horses that I think are so good that you can just single them (e.g., Zenyatta in the Classic tomorrow).

Race 5 (BC Marathon): Eldaafer, Bright Horizon, Alcomo, Precision Break, A.U.Miner. I honestly don't have one I favor in this race, but I do think Awesome Gem and Giant Oak are vulnerable enough to not be worth betting at short odds. And in a race like this one, you'd better not leave out the European imports.

Race 6 (BC Juvenile Fillies Turf): Together is vulnerable in this one, so toss. I like Quiet Oasis, Kathmanblu, Winter Memories, Wyomia, and New Normal. You could even single Winter Memories and feel fairly good about it. The foodies among us will be cheering for Bobby Flay's horse More Than Real, but I don't know if the horse is good enough in this bunch. Crazy fillies.

Race 7 (BC Filly and Mare Sprint): I think Informed Decision is not the same gal as last year, but she is so good it's hard to overlook her. Still, I'm liking Secret Gypsy, Gabby's Golden Gal (Baffert-Garcia, watch out), Switch, and Rightly So. (There's also Evening Jewel and Dubai Majesty to throw in, too, if you have really deep pockets, which I do not.) I'm picking Switch as my favorite because even though she's been running in longer races, she's got some serious speed, Sadler has a good route-to-sprint win percentage, Sadler thought enough of her to put her up against Zenyatta, to whom she ran second. Plus he's had her out at Churchill Downs for awhile, working her over the surface.

Race 8 (BC Juvenile Fillies): well, I like AZ Warrior in this one. She woke up on dirt in the Frizette, and it's Baffert-Garcia hooking up again. Others: the undefeated Awesome Feather, Indian Gracey, and R Heat Lightning.

Race 9 (BC Filly & Mare Turf): Midday, Harmonious, and Plumania. Keertana might be a nice longshot, having raced 7 times over this same course and hitting the board 6 of those (winning three). I prefer Harmonious for silly reasons: she's a Wygod Cal-bred, and John Shirreffs is her trainer.

Race 10 (BC Ladies Classic): THE BIG RACE! If you're one of those persons who always bets lone front-running speed, then Malibu Prayer is the horse for you. My personal favorite is the Oaks winner, Blind Luck, although you can expect short odds on her. Havre de Grace is also a contender, and you can't really ever overlook a Shug-Phipps entry, Persistently. The other Todd Pletcher entry, Life at Ten, is worth considering as well.

Use these to cobble together tickets of your choosing.

If time permits tomorrow, I may also post actual tickets I do after any scratches are announced and if I have any changes to make to the above based on how the track is playing. (I did hear that it wasn't favoring speed earlier in the week.) Good luck!

UPDATE: Rightly So and Indian Gracey are scratches.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Excitement Begins! Breeders Cup 2010

The Breeders Cup clock is counting down! Here's Zenyatta taking a little gallop across the track. There are a zillion photos making the rounds of her arriving at Churchill Downs, schooling in the paddock at CD, grazing at CD, and hamming it up for fans in Louisville. Looks like there are plenty of folks out there pulling for her in the Classic, and that warms my heart.

Speaking of warming my heart, I was doubly pleased to FINALLY receive my Breyer Zenyatta today. Close up, you can even see her dapples.

Go, Queen Z, the West Coast belle of the BC ball! I will probably start 'capping the Friday races tomorrow after work, so look for me to post picks sometime tomorrow night.

What Is Love?

I've been thinking a lot lately about love, what it is, what it isn't, and how it operates in our lives. I've reached a conclusion: REAL love is separate from your ego. Real love doesn't demand conditions be met; it wishes only the best for the beloved. It arrives, considered, is accepted by choice; and it isn't just a lucky thing.

There's a quotation from Tenzin Gyatso I added to this blog a few weeks ago: "Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other."

Real love means granting the beloved total freedom. You grant them their full humanity and you don't try to control them or change them to better suit you. You love the beloved for exactly who they are, warts and cellulite, stubbornness and lamebrainedness--indeed, you love even their imperfections.

But it has to be a two-way street. If your beloved is not in the same place as you, then the fallout is an imbalance of power, vulnerability that is taken advantage of, abuse, disrespect, demands, and attempts to enforce conditions.

A lot of people talk the talk. But so few of us are actually able to walk the walk. Our insecurities, our clinginess, our egos get in the way. If your ability to be happy hinges on the presence of someone else in your life, then your need is greater than your love.

Love is a gift, given freely. When it is returned in kind, then it is a miracle.

Struggling with Step Three

 If you have trouble with Step 3 (and many of us do, with all that "God-talk"), my partner-in-sobriety Tedi has some excellent insights into how she made that step work for her. Click the link below, and enjoy the trip.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Jerry Brown Beats Queen Nutmeg

Well, since she didn't win, this will be my last chance to display my friend Stacia's beautifully Photoshopped image of Meg Whitman's face on the Quaker Oats box. This fine piece of creativity was forwarded and reforwarded every darn where, including a lot of hits one day from Health and Human Services over in Oakland, where clearly those fine folks found it pretty damn funny.

She has not yet given her concession speech, but I'm staying up for it just to see if she handles this decisive stamp of voter disapproval graciously, or if she takes a parting shot at her opponent.

California, we have a long road ahead of us, but I'm glad we're in agreement that lowering taxes for wealthy investors while gutting employee pensions is not the way to go; that deregulating businesses will not cure our ills and in fact tends to cause more problems than create more jobs (ahem Wall Street, ahem BP); and that inviting more corporate influence into public office is something that has not been good for this nation. NOT. GOOD.

Good luck, Jerry Brown -- you're going to need it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Congratulations World Champions, SF Giants

Nothing like finally bringing it home. The Giants won the World Series in just five games. It sounds like July 4th around here with all the cheering and firecrackers going off outside.

Now if Zenyatta can just win the Classic on Saturday, I'll declare 2010 the greatest year of my life!

(Well ... so far.)

The Power of Words, Revisited

What my mother used to say was that old chestnut: “If you don’t have anything good to say about anybody, don’t say anything at all.” I was thinking about this just this morning because I was finishing up the last of two stacks of essays—a job that requires me to be critical.

I can’t exactly hand papers back blank because I found nothing good to say (actually, there’s usually something positive I can say, and I always begin my end comment with that).

And, it’s also my job to point out flaws or errors and make suggestions for how to improve the next one.

Fortunately, I think my students know me well enough to know that grades and comments on essays aren’t personal. For one thing, I tell them this at the beginning of the semester: “Grades aren’t personal; they’re meant to be instructive. A poor grade doesn’t mean I don’t like you.” I even tell them that I’ve given A’s to papers I thoroughly disagree with and F’s to papers whose authors I actually agree with. It’s all in how it’s written, how well the thesis is supported. Has the writer done his or her job?

And this got me thinking about the “jobs” of the people in our lives, our relatives, our friends, our lovers, what is fair for them to expect of us, and what is fair for us to expect of them. This question is also on my mind because my friend MaryLou and I are reading The Reader together, in which the narrator faces a dilemma: he knows his former lover’s secret, one of which she is tremendously ashamed--she’s illiterate. Yet she stands trial for war crimes committed while she was a camp guard at Auschwitz, specifically for an incident in which she and a few other guards made the decision to leave Jewish concentration camp inmates trapped in a burning church. There was only a handful of guards; they didn’t dare risk freeing the prisoners and being overrun. But the other guards accused the illiterate woman of being their leader, the decision-maker, the one who wrote up the false report white-washing the incident. They, like Eichmann, were “just following orders.”

The narrator is stunned that his former lover decides, in court, on the spot, that she will accept their lie, the shifting of all the responsibility on to her, thus accepting a harsher punishment rather than revealing she couldn’t read or write. His dilemma becomes: Do I say nothing? Or do I intervene with the court and tell them the truth about her?

What would you do? Some people will say, it’s her decision to make since it’s her life. She didn’t ask you to intervene, so butt out. Others will say, she’s making a horrid choice—being illiterate isn’t a crime. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Accept responsibility for your part of the crime, but don’t take on all of it. So they will intervene for the sake of justice and to help out their friend.

I think both sides are valid. Who are we to play God and make decisions for other people if that decision goes against their wishes? It’s their life. On the other hand, what friend wants to see a friend suffer unnecessarily?

I can only conclude that the “right” thing to do will vary by the situation you find yourself in. For me, the bottom line has become: “What is my agenda here? What is motivating me?” Gathering as complete a picture as I can of a situation, can I make a determination about what is the most loving thing to do? Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to grant someone else their humanity, their freedom of choice. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to intervene---not by making decisions for the other person, but at least by talking to them about it, presenting them with your alternate view of their situation.

All of which brings me back to the power of words. Words that are used as barbs for the sole intention of hurting another: I think those were mainly the kinds of words the Buddha and my mother were talking about. These are never okay. Words that are intended as constructive criticism, like those I write at the end of student papers, are certainly okay. They’re even part of an implicit agreement we’ve made with each other when a student hands a paper in: they’re asking for my criticism and feedback, and I am accepting that job.

Words that have good intentions behind them (such as constructive criticism) but are not invited—that is, you haven’t been asked for advice or help—that’s different, too. And tougher to figure. Is it none of your business? Are you crossing a line? Are you willing to accept the consequences of crossing that line (for example, so offending a friend they walk away from you)? Or do you think the benefits to your friend, if they are able to listen, outweigh any negative consequences?

Typically you’ll avoid the latter unless it’s a life or death kind of situation. Nobody likes a controlling, meddling busybody. But other people will say, “Hey, this is what friends are for. You’re supposed to have each other’s backs.”

But the best of intentions can backfire on you, and even if your intentions are good, we all know about that road paved to hell. Some people just don’t take well any form of criticism or disagreement with them. I once watched, in a graduate student seminar, a woman (who is a fine writer) burst into tears when the instructor felt her first submitted draft of a story was severely flawed. I’ve seen people in AA meetings get into shouting matches with each other because somebody with some longer term sobriety dared to point out where another member might not be acting well. Heck, I’ve had things I’ve written on this blog taken as criticism when that wasn’t even remotely what I was setting out to do. I just process things and state my truth as I see it, even though I normally try to couch what I say with the caveat that I’ve done the same thing myself or that we all do at times. The way the human brain seems to work is something like this: give someone a list of ten positive things and one negative, and they’ll land on that negative thing like a duck on a Junebug. Yet, with a list like that, clearly no harm was intended.

Here’s a truth: When you open your mouth or pick up your pen or your fingers hit the keypad, the people on the other end can’t know what your intentions are. They will bring their own “stuff” to whatever it is you’re saying.

Sometimes people’s reactions to what you say, when those reactions surprise you, can also be quite revealing.

Is there a moral to all this mental meandering of mine? Not really, except that I’m reminded of the wisdom of the Four Agreements yet one more time. The first two deal directly with what I’ve been talking about here. The first agreement is: Be Impeccable with Your Word. Be aware of their power. Use words judiciously. Speak with integrity; speak the truth as you see it. Don’t use words as weapons.

The second agreement is Don’t Take Things Personally. Always remember that no one does anything because of you. Everyone else does things because of them. Resist the temptation to be affected by others’ opinions of you (or of what you think their opinions may be), because those things reflect on them, not on you. Understanding this will protect you from much needless anxiety or even pain.

As Celie in The Color Purple might say, Amen.