Friday, May 30, 2008

Stealing a Centipede's Life and Other Buddhist Parenting Hypocrisies

I was trying to get the key in the back door when I heard my son furiously stamping on the porch. I turned around and saw him stomping on a bunch of tiny ants.


"I'm killing these ants," my son said and stared at me round-eyed.


"'Cause they were moving around."

We stared at each other.

"Were they hurting you?" I asked.

"No," he said, his eyes getting bigger and more troubled.

"Well then why did you kill them?"

"I don't know. I just did."

We stared at each other.

"You know, once you take an ant's life, you can't give it back," I said.

"I didn't mean to!" he said, eyes getting bigger and sadder, the full impact of his actions now dawning on him.

"You need to be careful about killing things. It's stealing life, and you can't give it back. Those ants weren't bothering you, they weren't hurting you, and you killed them forever."

"I'm sorry!"

Now he looked like he was about to cry. My work was done. Time to reel him back in from the edge.

"It's okay. But just promise me you'll never kill anything that's not harming you, okay?"

"Okay, Mama! I will never steal an ant's life again!"

Buddhist lesson for the day: Check. Awesome parenting: Check.

Fast forward to yesterday morning. As I'm putting the finishing touches on my shimmery face, I hear my son begin to whimper in the hallway.

"Mama, there's something SCARY in here!"

I freeze, mid-dusting of bronzing powder and feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I walked into the hallway with my make-up brush held out before me like a switchblade.

"What is it?" I asked, nervously looking down the hall.

"THAT," my son pointed to the floor at the end of the hallway.





"AHHH!" I yelled and jumped straight into the air.

"Oh no!" my son yelled and ran into his room where he started to cry.

I have an enormous and well-documented phobia of centipedes. I have even discussed it in therapy. It's that bad. I usually cry and scream and run away. I have had several shriek-y battles with them involving Edge shaving gel and other people's shoes. I once saw the granddaddy of all centipedes take a free fall from the ceiling and land on my husband's chest. I had to divorce him after that.

THAT bad.

So in this moment, my fear putting me on full-tilt irrational panic attack mode, and my weeping son beckoning me to be strong, I was caught. Fortunately my love for my son enabled me to get out of my freak-out-induced paralysis, and I went to his room and hugged him.

"It's okay, baby. It's just a centipede. It's a scary-looking bug and mama is afraid of them too, but I will get it for you."

"IT'S SCARY AND I DON'T LIKE IT!" he wailed.

"Mama is going to be a super hero and get that centipede for you," I said and marched out of his bedroom in search of a shoe I didn't care about.

I held the ratty flat sandal I use for gardening out before me. I felt like I was going to throw up, but I lunged forward and squished the huge, hairy, wriggling beast.

"GAH!" I yelled, shuddering as I heard it crunch.

"Did you get it, Mama?" my son called, still sounding weepy.

"I got it!"

He came out and stood next to me, and we examined the remains of the beast.

"What are all those things?" my son splayed his fingers out to represent the multitude of legs and grimaced. I grimaced in return.

"Those are its legs," I said.


"Seriously," I agreed.

"What do you call that thing? Anemone?"


"It's not going to get me any more?"

"Nope. I killed it."

We stood in silence, watching our fallen enemy. He had been a worthy opponent.

"I only kill centipedes. Nothing else," I added.

"Only centipedes. Not ants."

"Right," I said.

I'm totally certain if there had been centipedes in India, the Buddha would have put a disclaimer on that whole "Do Not Kill" thing. I'm sure of it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Make Cream, Not War

The coffee creamer war is over.

For a long time, during the dark ages here at the agency, we had to buy our own coffee. Many a gray employee tromped down flights of stairs to the belly of the building, to a windowless "cafe" of sorts, next to shipping and receiving, and a lone ATM. There you could buy a cup of coffee for a dollar, and if you filled up five punches on your coffee card, you could get a free one.

Oh man, that got me. Kremlin-Gulag Agency was so stingy, whereas my former employer (YES-IT'S FREE, Inc.) brewed vast vats of Starbucks brand coffee and plied us with free Twix and Kit Kat bars. But the sun shone down on we weary advertising hacks, and a golden coffee maker was bestowed upon us from our now-benevolent ruler.

*Cue angels choir*

No sooner had the serfs sated themselves on free coffee, they began to fight amongst themselves. Some of us brought our own creamers, of varying flavors and fat contents. We brutally scrawled our names on the containers, in large angry-Sharpie-medium-point print.






Despite the clear demarkations of our cream, there were thieves amongst us. Soon notes were taped to the cabinets in the employee kitchen, and ominous floor-wide emails were sent, admonishing the greedy peasants for stealing from their neighbors.

"IF IT DOESN'T HAVE YOUR NAME ON IT, IT'S NOT YOUR CREAM!!!!" the messages hollered at us.

It sort of made me want to steal other people's cream, despite having my own clearly-marked cream. Maybe other people had better cream if theirs was being stolen? I mean, sure I bought the fat-free, but everyone knows the full-fat tastes better. Maybe if I stole it the fat grams wouldn't count? Plus the idea of stealing cream, right there in the middle of our corporate town square -- anyone could catch me! What if they saw me adding a huge dollop of "SALACIOUS BEE" cream to my non-salacious cup?

Oh, the very thought of it gave me the tingles.

But I didn't do it. Because of the Buddha. He's always telling me not to do bad things. But my co-workers, non-believers that they are, went on stealing from one another, and the hatred grew. We now passed one another in the cube-corridors, slit-eyed and suspicious.

"Good morning!" Salacious Bee would chirp.

"FUCK YOU!" I would scream back at her, my guilt from coveting her cream as clear as the florescent lights above.

Kremlin-Gulag Agency was in a bad state of affairs. Rather than bringing joy and peace to the agency, the free coffee had brought hatred and in-fighting amongst the formerly peaceable copy writing and art directing plebes. I trembled in my cube, afraid to venture out into the now-lawless second floor. Though I hadn't noticed anyone stealing my cream, I lifted it carefully each morning -- shaking it, listening to it, trying to determine if any of those bitches had sipped at it.

I'd become someone I no longer knew. It was with a heavy heart that I walked to the coffee maker yesterday morning. Resigned, I opened the refrigerator and braced myself for the hate-speech scrawled across cartons of half-and-half.

But wait.

What's this?


A message like a sweet call from an angel on high! I looked past the note, to rows and rows of assorted International Coffee Creamer bottles. There was Southern Butter Pecan, Irish Cream, Vanilla, Hazelnut, so many flavors, both fat-free and full -- I stood in the open door of the refrigerator and wept.

Oh, I wept like a new-born babe.

For it was as the Buddha always said: "Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law."

Salacious Bee came around the corner and our eyes met, mine moist with tears.

She opened her arms to me, wide-open in her forgiveness. I walked to her and stopped a few feet short.

"Don't fuckin' touch me," she said with a grin.

"As if! You freak!" I said, and nodded my head.

Peace had returned to the agency. Through love, not hate.

Namaste, my bitches.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If You Can't Make Yourself Happy, Make Someone Else Happy

Such a non-Western concept:

If you are in pain, despair, sad or drenched in suburban ennui and you can't see your way clear of it, make someone else feel good. Oh how we bristle against it! "What? What about ME! I'm the one who's not happy! I need attention! I need love! Me! Me! Me! Screw you! You should be making ME happy, dammit!"

Yeah. See how far that gets you.

Years ago, hell, possibly ten years ago, my therapist gave me this self-same advice. I was in a pit of misery so deep, I could hardly breathe. I spent nights battling demons, battles I mostly lost. Battles that left me in a dark bathroom, my head resting on the cold porcelain of the toilet, weeping. I wept until I was weak, and then I wept some more. I stretched myself out across the tile floor and fell asleep there, more nights than not.

No one ever came to save me from myself. And clearly, I was in the grips of a beast that would not let me go. Make all the jokes you want about eating disorders, I know it's the hip thing to do, what, with all these celebrity anorexics to choose from -- but quitting an addiction is brutal. It doesn't matter if your addiction is a drug, alcohol, food, pain or righteous denial -- you need it to get you through the night.

It took me ten years of therapy to quit over 18 years of being bulimic.

I waged a private war against it, and it was a bloody war that took no prisoners. I lost more battles than I won. I reached out for help and was shoved away. I had nothing but shame and despair to comfort me, and an impassive husband who just didn't want to hear about it.

Had I known my husband was battling his own war -- a war he would lose -- perhaps things would have been different. Or perhaps not. Who am I kidding? Nobody expects the Alamo, or schizophrenia, for that matter.

I was sitting in my therapist's office one day, one of four visits each week, grabbing my head, rocking back and forth.

"I just can't make it stop. I just can't make it stop."

I was losing it.

I couldn't stop the pain. Chronic, excruciating mental pain. It never fucking let up. I walked around in the real world like a puppet, I moved my arms and legs and performed for the people throughout the day. But all the while, a constant torrent of invectives, slurs, hate-speech played in my brain.

"Sometimes, if you can't do anything to make yourself feel good, it helps to make someone else feel good," my therapist stated.

In that moment, I hated him.

"What about me! Who's going to make ME feel better!" I wailed, and then laughed at my own ridiculousness.

He laughed too.

"Maybe you can make you feel better."

Well that pissed me off.

"Achhhhhhhhhh," I said, making the sound of disgust in the back of my throat like we do in my family.

But I tried. Tentatively that night, as my husband and I lay in bed, I reached out and rubbed his back. I rubbed and rubbed, touching him for the first time in months. I stroked his back until he fell asleep, softly snoring.

I did this for a week. Seven nights of selfless love and kindness.

He never once touched me. He never once acknowledged it.

I felt lonelier and sadder than ever.

"It doesn't work!" I yelled at my therapist.

"Maybe you need to try it on someone else. How about your students?" he suggested.

So I did. Gave up on the husband, and began spending late hours at school. I let my students hang out in my classroom, laying on my carpet, staring at the ceiling. We dubbed it "Carpet Time" and I listened to them bemoan their various outcast states.

And we laughed.

And I felt better.

Last night I took my son to Toys R Us and bought him a cartload of toys for no damn reason other than the fact that I was depressed and lonely and couldn't make myself feel better.

"Can I have that golf set?" he asked.


"A T-ball set?" he asked again, giving me an incredulous, sidelong glance.

"You got it."

"Can I be a policeman?" his jaw was now hanging open in disbelief.

"Of course you can."

Oh, we loaded up that cart. All those toys, all that happiness, cost less than $50.

"You want to go to McDonald's and eat dinner?" I asked.

"What's Old McDonalds?" he asked.

So I took him and bought him a we ate fast food. Then he played on the giant PlayPlace, with the florescent lighting humming above us and the faint whiff of children's sweat and urine.

He was ecstatic.

Though I counted down the minutes before I could take him home and douse him in a hot shower, I couldn't help but laugh with him in his joy.

I did that. I made that happiness happen out of thin air.

When they named it a "Happy Meal," they weren't kidding. I just didn't realize that the happiness of the meal wasn't limited to the consumer of the meal. Turns out the buyer gets some of it too.

Just like my therapist said. All those years ago.