Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday Letter 2014

There's not a letter here yet, but there will be.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Elevated Train Platform, December 9, 2014

Almost 9:30 and the sun is shining, the day well on its way to the 75 degree high that has been promised to it. I have my pants legs rolled up for the vitamin D, and this combined with a hat and too many bags results in people looking at me twice--discreetly--before they sit near me.  Until they see clean white of my shirt, notice my shoes aren't too worn, they have to consider that I might be homeless, or I might be crazy.

First one pigeon, then another, lands on the cement platform. Their heads duck and bob as they peck, peck at I don't know what, until I look closer and see the small crumbs glistening in the sun like grains of sand. Tan sand on gray concrete. The pigeons' eyes are orange with round black centers and their feet are a redder shade of orange with black tipped toes. Claws? Their feet are red-orange with black tips.

And then a man comes by, the real thing now: Probably homeless, Probably crazy his mostly-gray  frizzy and his clothes loose and touched by grime.  He comes up one set of stairs and strides the length of the platform yelling,

"You don't see me?
I see you not looking!
Ignore! Ignore!"

Which is maybe not so crazy at all. It happens fast, he walks fast and doesn't look right or left, doesn't look at anyone he might be addressing, doesn't burden anyone with dreaded confrontation. And then he's at the other end of the platform and down the stairs he goes, down to the traffic and the city.

And no one on the platform, standing and on the benches, looks up from their book or iPhone. No one's expression betrays the relief we feel that he's gone.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Curcumin for Colon Cancer

I think I have Chris' blog on my side bar--but I want to share this article specifically.  It's about a comparison study between curcumin and a chemotherapy agent called 5FU.  5FU was a large part of the chemo-cocktail that was proposed to me in 2004 in the wake of my colon cancer diagnosis.  I didn't end up taking it--opting instead for a nutritional regime that did include curcumin supplements.  It was a gamble at the time--one that seems to have paid off, and Chris' summary of the study explains why that might be the case.  I have fallen off the supplements lately, but just ordered the recommended type of curcumin he mentions--have to take the reminders from the universe as they come!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Not Sick Yet

Not sick yet, but it will be amazing if I'm not by the end of the week. My boss who was sick all last week and today has been working half days.  A still-sick faculty member just handed me a folder full of germ laden receipts she organized and labeled while home sick, and the crazy and / or really drugged out guy in front of me on the train this morning was ranting like a Shakespearean actor and I definitely felt spittle spray land on my hands and phone.  Here's to building up tolerance.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Blah Monday, but...TELEVISION!

In a minute I have to get out of bed.  When I do, I have to mix up the nasty, sea-water-tasting solution I will have to start drinking as soon as I arrive home from work.  I will put it in the fridge to chill, because chilled sea water is more palatable than warm sea water.  Still, dread.  I will be drinking into the wee-hours of the night in preparation for getting up early and going to the hospital for "the procedure." Blah.

On the flip side, if I can get through a minimal number of script pages early on, I will reward myself with... TV!  I still haven't watched the season finale of Extant  or dived into Amazon's Transparent (I did get to see the first two episodes at a screening, so I'm thinking I will like it). That's five hours, so probably more than enough, though I also have many saved episodes of Masters of Sex. That project might have to wait until after Paul's writing deadline on October 10.

By tomorrow at this time I will hopefully already be loopy from anethesia and recovering, planning my first meal...

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

October Stampedes

Woke this morning to find October bearing down upon me like herd of stampeding horses. "Herd" is not right, though. That's for cattle. It's morning and my brain is losing words, but you get my drift. I mean a large group of stampeding horses. Or other large animals that stampede. October has come really fast, is what I'm saying.

Where did September go? School started. Some folks at school decided to have conferences and parties every other week. There's nothing like a series of events to make the days go fast--the present flashes by while one orders food and reserves hotel rooms for the future.

And in the last week, there have been movies and screenings and plays and an out-of-town guest.
The plays have included Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate at the Pasadena Playhouse which was impressive but long, and Trip to Bountiful at the Ahmanson Theater which was really lovely and affecting.

The visiting friend was M, from grad school in Tallahassee, who has recently moved back to the states after several years abroad.  On Thursday we did a "Hollywood" thing--went to a pre-screening of The Judge, and saw Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall at the Q and A afterward. I never would have expected Robert Downey off-screen to remind me of my brother-in-law, but so it was.  On Saturday we went on an overnight meditation retreat at Monrovia Canyon Park.  It was meditation-lite, but it was pleasant and the park was beautiful.  We went on a hike the next day.  Monday I took off work and we took the train down town to the Grand Central Market, which is mostly a really big food court with some produce and chile vendors mixed in, and then we spent a couple hours at The Last Bookstore. And in between and during those things we talked a ton and got caught up on each others' lives.

And now it's October first, and the bedroom floor, which I had actually emptied enough to vacuum before M's visit, is an obstacle course of duffel bags, sleeping bags, and hampers full of un-ironed laundry. And of course, with all the recent excitement, I'm behind on screenplay pages.  My goal has been to turn in 10-15 pages a week, and for the last two weeks I've averaged 6-7, and I've also fallen behind on breaking the story in advance--which is kind of like clearing yourself a path to follow so you don't have to swing the machete as you write--so I've got some brush clearing to do in addition to covering ground.

Guess it should all start with a shower...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hot on a Sunday

When it's really hot on a Sunday, the coffee shops and the few libraries with Sunday hours are overrun with writers and students escaping their air-conditionless environments.  The Beverly Hills Library is one of those that is open, and I am one of those who has arrived, trolled the back room of tables to find a seat.  I avoid the leg-shakers and those who type like it's a revenge and find myself a nice spot, facing a large arched window with a small sculpture on a wooden plinth in front of it.  The light from the window means I sees the statue only in a kind of silhouette, but it appears to be a representation in bronze of Abraham Lincoln sitting on a bench, with his signature top hat on the bench beside him.  He seems to be resting his weary bones. Could he be worn out from the heat as well?

Outslide the window is a large pine tree, which is unusual for Los Angeles.  I always particularly notice pine trees when I see them here, as they remind me of my home state. Home town. Really the house where I grew up with a large pine outside my bedroom window.

Friday, September 05, 2014

I'm Diversified...

You might or might not have noticed that I have been writing less about writing on this blog. It does not mean I am writing less about writing in general. In fact, I am writing more about writing, such that I thought, "maybe I should have a place that's just about writing," and now I do.  It's at barringtonsmith.net.  It is where you will find all my ponderings about rejection,  occasional brags and humble-brags, experiences with "the business," and sporadic discussion of craft. 

Here I will occasionally talk about writing as well, but I will try to be less long-winded about it. I'm still trying to figure out the balance, because much of my life is configured around writing, so something called The Daily B will inevitably brush up against writing like a California King in a small room.  In the same way, what I write about writing can only be infused with my life.

After many more years than you would think--considering I identify as a writer--I am at last reading Rilke's Letters to a Young PoetRilke says (to the young would-be poet),
...acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all--ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself of a deep answer. and if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple "I must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
I like to think if it were denied me to write, I would probably not die. I would find something else to do, but I'm not sure.  I think my first instinct would be to write about the experience of having writing denied to me. And I have, for better or worse, built my life as if it were a necessity, even as I propose it is not a necessity. So perhaps I am the delusional alcoholic who says, "I can quit whenever I want."

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Random Ramblings as the weekend commences

End of the week, beginning of the weekend.  Weekends can be kind of tricky because they "feel" like weekends, but really, as a writer with a day job, there's some heavy lifting to be done on the weekends.  Up until today I had several quasi-plans for the weekend--these are plans that people have broached but then not really solidified, and they have about a 50-50 chance of just going away on their own.  I knew that I could only do about half the plans, but I don't like to be the person who always says no right away, and since I never know which plans will actually happen, I tend to wait and see.  Not infrequently, that strategy works out, but sometimes I have to back out something I thought would disappear but didn't.  Sometimes,  for group things like book club or wilderness I'll hang on right 'til the bitter end, assuming there will be a small cascade of last minute regrets until the the host will just cancel about two hours before the event.  Then I get to feel kind of self-righteous for not cancelling plus I get a block of bonus writing time...

All of this is not really main thing on my mind though--except to say that I got to postpone a bunch of semi-scheduled stuff guilt-free because I needed to leave the time available to hang out with my brother, who is moving to Chicago ("back" to Chicago, as we both spent some years there).  He was going to leave Friday, but some things changed and now he is leaving Monday, and so his schedule is all weird as he does things like return his cable box, wait for a truck to come take his car, meet with his subletters etc.  I will squeeze myself into whatever piece of interstitial time arises.

Omitting the netherworld of a weekend, leaving on Monday is like leaving  tomorrow. I have to say I'm pretty sad about it. That is the main thing on my mind.

Friday, August 08, 2014

My Brother is Leaving

My brother is leaving LA and moving (back) to Chicago. I'm happy for him, because it feel like a change, and it feels he's been looking for a change, but I'm also sad because he will be gone.  Although we are certainly different in many ways, in other ways, of my siblings, we have the most in common in terms of sensibility, and so in some ways he is the closest person I have to myself.

If they are not sudden, partings have a chronology.  At first one in aware of the upcoming parting but it is far away. You will see the person a dozen more times: the thrumming drum of the parting is muffled by all the times that stand between any of those times and the last time. A dozen times becomes several times, several times become a couple of times... and finally it is the last time--the time after which the person will get in a car or on a plane, or some metaphorical boat to the underworld and go someplace different and far away.

And the last time, the awareness of it being the last time floats and lands, floats and lands through your time together. You think "this is the last time," and then for a few moments you forget it is the last time, and then you remember and thing, "this is the last time."

In thinking of this and being sad, I am also being over-dramatic, because Chicago is hardly the ends of the earth my brother and I will certainly see each other a few times a year.  It's not like saying goodbye to our friends in Australia almost a decade ago, or like saying goodbye to my father the last time before he died. But I think maybe all the big goodbyes in my life have sensitized me to the smaller ones as well, like stubbing the toe that's been broken.  If I let myself remember, the small goodbyes are just rehearsals for the biggest goodbyes. In every case, with no exceptions, the big goodbye is out there, a gong echoing and reverberating through the years of  padding between then and now, saying "I am here."

Yeah--that's  weird metaphor juxtaposed with other questionable metaphor, but hey, I'm writing sad--because I'll see my brother on Sunday, and it will be the last time I see my brother before he moves away.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Let's Go for Three

Got a call from my doctor / surgeon yesterday.  "Surgeon" is perhaps not the right word for him, because we do a pretty good job of not using the word "surgery" for the minor procedures I've had this year.  Instead we call them "procedures." A "surgery" is defined by Merriam Webster as medical treatment in which a doctor cuts into someone's body in order to repair or remove damaged or diseased parts. So I guess it depends on your definition of "cutting into."  Does that refer only to cutting through one's outer epidermis?  Or does it also apply if another mode of entry to the body and organs is used, and then the doctor cuts and burns things away?  Unsure.

But earlier this year I went in for a colonoscopy and the doctor cut and removed "damaged or diseased parts." Unfortunately there was one area that was too complex for that procedure, so we had to schedule another procedure with another procedurist shortly thereafter.  The call yesterday was that procedurist explaining that although the procedure was largely successful, there was a tiny bit of the bad tissue "in the margin," so it would be necessary to go in and "clean that up," in a few months. Three procedures in less than a year is a new record for me.

With my history, of course the most important words are--and the doctor used them many times--"not cancer."  It's not cancer.  It's just tissue that might become cancer, except that we won't let it.

So, happy dance for that--always.

And yet.

There is always an emotional fallout from such phone calls.  News like this has a tendency to come just at those moments where I am thinking about making changes in my life. When I'm feeling "normal."  Literally, for the past week I have been making plans (and even taking actions) for "moving forward," telling myself that I am not trapped in any of the circumstances of my life, that I have a diverse skill set and I can find lots of interesting things to with it, I don't have to be stuck by pre-conceptions, I don't need to be tethered by any reality that is not of my own construction. These were the pep-talks I was having with myself.

The reminder of how parts of my body, while "not cancer" seem intent on becoming cancer is a reminder of how dependent I am on our health-care system.  That is a  reality that does not seem to be  of my own making.

Thus I am tethered.

I am tethered. If I feel there is injustice or ingratitude in a situation, I cannot escape it so easily.  I can't just fly away whenever I want and look over the landscape for something better.  I can make moves, but they will be constricted and complicated because tethered.  I can take the time to dig up the post and I can carry it with me. I can carry the post and I can walk. But I can't fly. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chemists Are Awesome

Paul and I took a long-weekend road-trip this past weekend.  We spent one day exploring Berkeley, CA, one day in San Francisco, and two days of driving.  Paul and I get along well on drives, so the whole thing was pretty fun.  We stayed in Berkeley with a retired faculty member from my job who recently retired and moved there. He and his wife were lovely hosts, taking us to Berkeley Pier, Aquatic Park, the Berkeley campus and down around Telegraph Avenue where Paul scored a Nutella crepe.

This was the first time I'd met the wife of our acquaintance. She had some good stories. She was born in Hungary but her parents had to emigrate because of World War II. She lived in Venezuela and Canada before the United States.

When she was young, and her family was trying to get out of the country (more worried about the Russians than the Germans at that point) her father, who was a chemist, had the idea to make long matches, which apparently were hard to come by--because he was able to use these to bribe passage for his family of four on a river-barge that carried them up the Danube all the way to Munich.

In Munich they spent several months in an ex-enemy camp, where her father built a still and made alcohol, which he could then trade for food to feed the camp.

Basically, her dad was like Walter White, but a good guy.

She also told another story about the camp that wasn't about her dad.  Somehow, the people in the camp had managed to get a live pig, which they expected to be delicious, but for some reason, the officials wanted to confiscate the pig (maybe they thought it would be delicious too).  The crafty people of the camp dress their pig up in a woman's clothes and sat him on a toilet in the outhouse.  The guards made only a cursory check into the outhouse, and did not recognize the pig. After they left, there was celebration, and, I assume that not long after bacon was had by all.

Just in case you ever need to know how--here's how to make a match.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Road Trip!

Yesterday, Paul and I embarked on a little road trip up to Berkeley and San Francisco. It officially started here:

 This is the restaurant's owner:

I thought his name might be Jack or Joe, but it was Mark. He explained that Jack was for "flap jacks" and Joe was like "cup of Joe". He was excited for our trip.

When I got to the car, Paul told me that he and his wife had started the place after their daughter died to have a place to put their energies. He'd read that on the internet! I was struck by how people are struck by misfortune and then keep living...and by how the discombobulating the internet is, making the whole world seem like a small town where you know things about people.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

After Life

Someone I know from my place of work died recently.  He'd had an interesting life: He'd served in the military then done well in academia. He married four times and had a number of children. As the person who processed his expense reports, I can say that in very recent years he spent months at a time in England and Italy, and that he ate well--like I imagine Henry the 8th would have dined if he'd had a per diem. His receipts reported spirits with every meal, and things like Shepherds Pie and quail.
For almost a year, the gentleman was ill and seldom visited our offices. The few times he came in, he seemed mostly peeved at his condition, which was revealing itself to be one with finite outcome. Upon his death, it has been his second wife, with the help of two various sons who has emerged to handle his large library, items in his office and the number of bills that he received to his work mailbox. When the mail began to transition and be address to "Executor of the Estate," I called to confirm that this was she. This was when she revealed to me that there was, as of yet, no formal executor--because there was no will!
I found this both surprising, and I guess, not.  On one hand, he had fair warning.  On the other, maybe he figured that after he was gone, it didn't really matter.  Maybe he'd had conversations and things were pretty much worked out in ways one can't see from a distance.
But as the person opening doors, filing paperwork and procuring boxes for family members trying to work their way through the rooms full of books, papers, thoughts and ongoing business that one man accrues in a life, I could only be struck by how little anyone seemed to be prepared for this eventuality. And really, the choice not to make a will, even given a good six month lead time, seems somewhat self-involved and presuming--qualities some might have discerned in him even before his death.
My father had a will, but it has still taken my mother years to go through the myriad of things left behind. She continues to go through things, purging and storing and making decisions largely, I think, so that we--their children--won't have to. Although it is hopefully decade away still, she is putting thought into things so that her possession and affairs will be as easily dealt with as possible.  Basically she is the opposite of presuming when it comes to such matters.
But the other night as I was thinking about this, I thought: What about my end of the bargain? An obituary seems the very least one could do in such a situation, and I realized I wasn't sure what my mother's parents' names were, or even where she was born! Since I was using a Southwest voucher and making an impromptu trip to Indiana, I decided it was time to do for real something I have been promising to do for a couple of years--try to ask the questions that in the future I will wish that I had asked.  And this time, instead of assuming that I could come up with some good questions, I consulted the internet, something like "How to Interview a Family Member," and of course, because it's the internet, found several articles on taking a Family History, here and here and here.  A lot of the questions are similar. I ended up with a double space list of three pages, and after dinner this evening, turned on the recorder, and we had Part I of a very interesting conversation!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Effort Certification

This is the a computer screen that I use at work.  It's kind of small, but maybe you can see that each of the items on all these lists are links to things you can do.  Some people might use a lot of these links. I generally use about two.kuali 1

For instance, I noticed the other day that I have never clicked on this link: "Effort Certification."  What is it? Is there a form I can fill out that certifies I have made an effort?kuali 2

I maybe never know, because it turns out I am not authorized to open it.
kuali 3

Thursday, May 22, 2014

When Nouns Become Verbs

I sometimes like it.

Probably not always. Most of the examples that I can think of off the top of my head have to do with emerging technologies. "Facebook me."  "I'll Google it."  These are okay--short and also specific, which I respect.  Though I'm not a fan of saying "google" for "search" if Google is not the search engine, as that is kind of misleading instead of specific.

What I really like--and what has me writing on this topic to begin with-- is when the language is used more playfully and willfully, so that it has poetry as well as efficiency.  I recently read Karen Russell's Sleep Donation and jotted down two examples:

"We moth along toward the lights."

"Moth along." Kind of great, right?  She's describing human beings at a night market.  It evokes a different visual image and / or sense of intent from "walking", or "traveling" or "moving"--this is more haphazard.  And there's mood too--a sense of danger, of bad judgement in action.  For a short phrase it does a lot of work.

Here's another: "She has to houdini out of her restraints."

Not just struggle or wiggle--though certainly we feel wiggling is part of it. But we feel that "she" has a willfulness, and intent to escape her restraints such that she is doing something a little outside the possible.  Like Houdini.
Do you salad or sandwich? The verbing of English

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hollywood and Highland, Friday Night

The short Hispanic woman selling blinking plastic light-sticks from a shopping cart offers a collegial fist bump to the guy in the wheel chair selling bunches of roses from his lap, then continues down the block.

A black man, so thin he swims in his all black shirt and trousers, break dances next to an oversize speaker. Popping, locking, giving it his all, beads of sweat on his bald head when he takes off his top hat with sequined, Shamrock-green band.

At the end of the song, no one puts money in his jar. No one buys roses, or light-sticks--not that I see.
But perhaps the night is still young. Maybe at a later hour, there are buyers on Hollywood Boulevard to complement the sellers.

This all takes place on the sidewalk in front of the America Eagle, with its clean glass storefront underneath the sign that exhort in block letters: LIVE YOUR LIFE.

Next to these words, a ten-foot photo of two women, elegant and gaunt, sylphs haunting a cool green forest. Their shoulder blades jut under loose, summer linen, hinting at wings.

The wheelchair guy moves to try a different spot. The black dancer searches his playlist for a better song.

The 217 bus comes and takes me away.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Thinking About the Weather

Los Angeles current temperature: 93. Wednesday's high: 99. Thursday's high: 99. Friday's high: 95.
For some reason "Like the Weather" from 10 Thousand Maniacs popped into my head.  An old favorite back in the day.  I had a tape, but never watched the music video of the song. Would it have occurred to to me how incongruous the performance is with the subject of the song? Maybe she (they) figured no one wants to watch you sit around and be mopey.  Or maybe the exuberance of youth was just too strong to be squelched.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YelgLoQMLE?rel=0&w=420&h=315]
I lift my head from the pillow and then fall again
I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my lip as if I might cry
And by the force of will my lungs are filled and so I breathe
Lately it seems this big bed is where I never leave
I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my voice as I cry
"What a cold and rainy day
Where on earth is the sun hid away?"
I hear the sound of a noon bell chime, well I'm far behind
you put in 'bout half a day while here I lie
With a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my lip as if I may cry
What a cold and rainy day
Where on earth is the sun hid away?
Do I need someone here to scold me?
Or do I need someone who'll grab and pull me out of?
Four poster, dull torpor pulling downward
For it's such a long time since my better days
I say my prayers nightly, this will pass away
The color of the sky is gray as I can see through the blinds
Lift my head from the pillow and then I fall again
I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
A quiver in my lip as if I may cry
A cold and rainy day
Where on earth is the sun hid away?
A cold and rainy day
I shiver, quiver, and try to wake

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Movie Update: Belle, Palo Alto, The Devil Came on Horseback

I'm behind on recording movies. I know I've seen a couple that I've forgotten about..Maybe it doesn't matter, because maybe hearing someone recite movies they've watched is about as interesting as someone telling you their dreams. But here's the last three anyway:Belle_poster
Last weekend Paul offered me a date night--since game night got cancelled-- and I picked the movie. Belle.   You should go see it.  It was really good. And it was directed by a woman.  I can't name a single other mainstream theatrical release directed by a woman this year. It's May. That's a pathetic state of affairs, just by the way, but should make it easy to support films by women because you only need to do it a couple of times a year. Here's a review from the Washington Post.

Last night I watched a documentary about Darfur called The Devil Came on Horseback. Also really good. Was I saying something in my last post about counting blessings? Darfur was a tragedy of such proportions there is nothing in my life to compare to it. There are people to whom fate has only been brutal. The thing with the Nigerian girls being kidnapped by the Boko Haram also falls into a similar category, and is really on my mind of late. It's made me curious about Nigeria.  I didn't see any documentaries about Nigeria at the library, however, so pulled some about other parts of Africa.
Tonight I went to a screening of Palo Alto, a film directed by Gia Coppola based on short stories by James Franco.  I almost skipped it, disheartened by a third generations of Coppola making a movie in my lifetime when it seems unlikely I'll ever make one (or have my collection of short stories published after I'm already an international film star). But then I decided not to be a hater--and it was free, so I went, and it was sweet. I'll attach some reviews below.


Lately I've been writing quite a lot, along with my co-writer.  In the last three weeks we finished a full draft of a screenplay, which is faster than I've ever written a first draft--but it wasn't pretty, and honestly neither is the draft.  Which is not to disparage it--you don't disparage a big lump of clay that vaguely resembles an elephant--it's not bad, it's too early for it to be good or bad.  Unless, of course, you put it on display with other people's more finished elephants, and say it should look like an elephant--which is (of course) what we have done, submitting applications to the Film Independent and Sundance Labs.  Whatever.  The deadlines were helpful in softening the clay and doing the initial elephant, so maybe that is the reward in itself.

The first deadline was May 1st, and the second was May 5th.  Even if you have drafted some of the materials, like artistic statements, synopses, and cover letters, the last days before these deadlines always involve a five and six hours sessions of revising and polishing, so by the evening of the fifth I was pretty fried--getting home a little late to start the prep for my annual round of "medical screenings" on the 6th.  Yes--those screenings.

I arrived at the hospital in my normal state--cleaned out and dehydrated--and realized we were doing an upper endoscopy as well as the colonoscopy, and discovered that since I apparently gagged a little on the tube the last go round, I was getting a deeper general anesthesia this time. They found a  few things in both stomach and colon to remove--which everyone seems to take in stride, but it's not my favorite--it makes me feel like there's some failure in the system.  Either I've been laxer in my diet, or my body is just getting old and deteriorating--my telomeres are getting shorter or whatever. I know  it's  both, though I only have control over one: I've been going with the flow, eating meat  just to be agreeable, giving in to my sugar cravings, and not juicing and eating a ton of cabbage.  The thought of re-establishing all sorts of discipline makes me tired, especially when my whole body is bloated from being inflated with air, and sore from being snipped at. I stayed home from work yesterday and went today.  This afternoon at my desk I was thinking, in words, that I feel like my life force is being sucked out of me. A few minutes later the doctor called  to say they needed to cut something out that they couldn't cut out on Tuesday, so I'll need to do it all again in a month. The thing they are cutting is "not cancer" which means I'm at the high-class problem end of the spectrum for being part of a demographic that is highly susceptible to cancer, but I'm throwing myself a very tiny pity party anyway.  In two weeks I'm also having and MRI and an x-ray to make sure that the back pain I'm having is also of the "not cancer" variety.  Let's all pray that I don't look back and wish for tonight's problems.  Count your blessings and be grateful for them, otherwise, when there's less, you have to look back and feel like an asshole.

Friday, April 25, 2014

When Nothing Seems Fair, How We Cope

In my last post I mentioned my friend who is having issues with his health and posted on Facebook the status, "nothing seems fair anymore."  His post got an overwhelming response, because he has so many friends who love him, and also, i think because they are words that hit a cord with all of us.  Because we all suffer, and we all cannot help but notice that some of us seem to suffer more than others.  And what is that all about?  How can we reconcile that we want things, but we don't get the things that we want--other people get them.  And the things we have, other people want:  Jobs, respect, human rights, health, economic security, freedom from fear and pain.

Last night I attended this mindfullness group I sometimes go to on campus after work.  We had a guest speaker who was talking about--well, various things--but one of them was neuroplasticity, and how we can form new neural pathways and change our temperments and the way we think and feel about events and circumstances. Apparently, we (humans) through evolution, have developed a negative bias when we look at the world, because back in the day it wasn't as important to remember all the nights that you ducked into a empty cave and had a nice nap or campfire with roasted elk-meat as it was  to remember the one time you ducked into a cave and found a bear inside. While running like hell from the bear and sleeping shivering in the cold behind a rock was an unpleasant experience, you needed to remember that in order to avoid the bear cave in the future, and to stay vigilant for signs of bear when entering a new cave.

Nowadays, the "negative bias" doesn't always serve us so well. If twenty people compliment your outfit but one person makes a snide remark--focusing on the negative thing might be unnecessary for survival, and just plain bad for your mood. All else being equal, why not think about the nice things that people said, and be happier, and maybe because you're happier, you'll be nicer, and maybe that will lead to better relationships...etc.

The logic goes (according to this guest speaker's summary of several books I haven't read myself) that in order to think about the good things, you have to consciously practice, until, with enough practice, your brain starts doing it naturally. (It all sounded related (or the same as) cultivating gratitude, which I've been a fan of since being introduced to it  a few years ago.)

The speaker  gave an example of an exercise where you find something pleasant but overlooked to meditate upon, like "how nice it is to breathe, to have enough air."  When she said this, I thought, "that's right! It is pretty awesome to breathe."  But then she kept talking--and this was not so much the teaching as just a thought from her life I think-- she said, "I have a friend who has cancer, and when we talked the other day, he told me he was having trouble breathing, that he couldn't get enough air anymore."

I think this was supposed to just shine a little light on how air is something to appreciate, but it kind of spiraled for me.  As my niece once told me at age seven, "we don't compare, because it doesn't make anyone feel good."  When depositing monthly paychecks for people at work that equals my annual pay, I've found it isn't happy-making to dwell.  On the flip side, thinking of starving children in Africa has never helped my appetite either.  This is not to say that one should live one's whole life with blinders, or ignore injustices and societal ills because we don't like to think about them. But in some cases, there is nothing you can do.  I can't help her friend breathe better. I can only feel deep sympathy for her friend--not a bad thing--there are other exercises designed just to help us be more compassionate -- but I'm not sure that it sets up a strictly "positive" neural pathway.

Instead, it reinforces a neural pathway that I think I've pretty much worn smooth with use--the awareness of suffering--my own and that of others. Having survived cancer twice, I've experienced some pain, I am frequently--habitually--grateful for the absence of pain, for every test result that doesn't predict the necessity for more pain.  I'm thankful for my everyday life.  And at the same time. I'm acutely aware that my state of blessedness is both temporary and has a random quality to it.  Aware that while my pain went away, and I healed, there are people--some that I know--who deal with chronic pain, who are suffering even as I am not suffering.  And whatever I choose to be grateful for today can be taken away from me at any moment.* Toward the end of his life, my father complained about not being able to breathe. It's not a big leap for me to imagine a day when I might not be able to breathe.

It makes me sad.  I hope that with practice, by the time that day comes, I'll think, "but look at the sun outside the window--isn't it great to be able to see the light?" and genuinely feel grateful for that. Gratitude coexists with suffering. We suffer because we've been given the gift of being alive.
Still, it doesn't always seem fair.

*As an example--I 've often expressed gratitude for the fact that I am a great sleeper, and thought it would be awful to be one of those people who wakes up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep. I am writing this now because I woke up at 2:30 AM, and I haven't been able to go back to sleep. So far, it's not as bad as I feared--but then, I haven't yet had to get through the day tomorrow.
Scroll back up and click on that "Neuroplasticity" link. It's a 2-minute video that's interesting.
The book being discussed by our speaker was called Hardwiring Happiness. (I haven't read it)
The author did a TED talk. (I haven't watched it because I don't want to wake up my husband)
You might be interested in this cliff's Notes Version (actually About.com) of the Buddha's views on suffering.

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