Monday, December 29, 2008

A Merry Christmas, Indeed

I historically have thought of Christmas as a time of angst and tension -- as something to be gotten through rather than enjoyed. However, in keeping with my relatively recent commitment to renounce struggle as a way of life, I decided that this year would be different. "The holidays don't actually have to suck; this year I'm choosing to see them as good and fun," I told myself. And I meant it. And it worked!

Last Thursday was spent cooking for and spending time with most of my somewhat unorthodox, but completely lovely, family circle: my fiance's three children, my fiance, his ex-wife, her boyfriend, and his mother. It was just the eight of us, and I think that a good time was had by all. My parents and brother were in NC for the holiday, and I missed them very much (this is only the second Christmas that we have not spent together), but I had a nice chat with all of them and felt that we were together in spirit.

This Christmas for me was about thanksgiving more than anything; in fact, my urge to say "thank you" to the powers that be was even stronger on Christmas Day than it was on Thanksgiving. One of our family members who had been in the hospital for several weeks was released the Tuesday before Christmas and was able to join the family celebration on Christmas Day. This was, for all of us I believe, the very best Christmas present imaginable. The oldest one of our ranks had been through a serious illness earlier in the year, but she made a recovery and was in fine form on Christmas Day, which was another wonderful blessing.

It may sound trite, but there really is no greater gift than having your loved ones alive and well and spending a very happy and convivial day together with them, is there? Gifts purchased at the mall or over the Internet, while good in their own way, pale in comparison to having a good time with people you love.

Thank you, thank you, for letting us have such a wonderful Christmas this year. May all the joy and well-being of that day remain with us as we head into 2009.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

O, Helga Natt

As those who know me well can attest, I'm neither a Father/Son/Holy Ghost believer nor a fan of the schlocky Christmas music that all the restaurants and retail stores insist on playing from Halloween to New Years. I also am not a big fan of the tenor voice and generally would much prefer to hear a good bass-baritone. However, this version of "O, Holy Night," sung in Swedish by the late Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, is a piece of Christmas music to which I can happily listen over and over again. Hearing this particular version of this lovely tune makes me think that maybe there is something holy about this night after all, although I might disagree with my Christian friends about the source of that divine nature. Even if you're not a fan of Christmas, Christmas music, or operatic voices, I suggest that you give this one a boy scout try. Merry Christmas to all my blog friends!

P.S. The last time that I posted a Jussi Bjorling song, I didn't blog again for a month. This time, however, I plan to return to the blogosphere in a few days!

Friday, December 19, 2008

'Tis the Season

As promised, here are some pictures of our Christmas decorations.

(Almost the whole tree)

(The whole tree)

(Crystal star)

(Another crystal star)

(Three favorites)

(An ornament from my grandmother)

(Yet another crystal star and a blue glass ornament from LR)

(A Purple Heart, of a different sort)

(A blurry view from across the street)

(A clear view from across the street - check
out Jacob's glowing eyeballs in the upper left)

(A very blurry view from across the street -
artistic, don't you think?)

(Lincoln the cat, who needed to take a nap after "reading"
Black's Law Dictionary)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Roof Update

After finishing my last post, I called three roofers and left messages. P, who owns a small roofing company in my neighborhood, called me back within half an hour, was at my house about 10 minutes after we spoke, and had the leaky spot (as well as a couple other spots that looked sketchy) patched up about 15 minutes after that. Today it rained, and the patch seems to be holding.

One interesting thing that P said was that the leaky spot looked like a recent and deliberately made hole. I say that this is interesting because a kind of bizarre handyman who's doing work for some of my neighbors offered to clean my gutters the week before the leak made itself known. He seemed a little off to me, but he was working for two of my neighbors and his fee seemed pretty cheap, so I told him to go ahead with the gutters and also asked him to assess the overall condition of the roof while he was up there. He said that I needed $7,000 worth of roof work, which he said that he would be happy to do for $3500. He said that I needed the work to be done immediately or "water was gonna come bustin' through." He tried to pressure me into hiring him on the spot by lowering his price to $2500 and repeating his dire prediction, but I said no, that I needed to get some other opinions and estimates before I shelled out that kind of dough. He said that roofers were not trustworthy and did not know what they were doing and then lowered his price to $2000. Needless to say, my initial instinct about this guy kept getting stronger, and I was beginning to regret even the gutter transaction.

Well, the next time it rained, the water indeed came "bustin' through" what P said was a small hole that appeared to be deliberately made with something about the size of the blunt end of a nail. Hmmmm. J and I, who both are conspiracy theorists at heart, had been wondering to ourselves, as we rigged our bucket solution, if the bizarre gutter cleaner perhaps had taken steps to ensure that water did in fact bust through. P's statement makes us think that maybe our conspiracy theory was not so far off base after all. One day, maybe, I will learn to trust my gut and not hire people who seem shady, even if they do offer to clean the gutters for cheap.

P did agree with the shady guy that I need quite a bit of routine maintenance on my old flat tin roof (scraping and painting, plus one gutter needs to be either repaired or replaced), but I will have to wait for a 2- or 3-day stretch of weather that is both dry and above 40 degrees F for that. That probably won't be until spring, which is fine because it gives me some time to get a couple more estimates (although I really liked the guy who came out last week). P guarantees his patches in the mean time. I should mention that P's estimate for the maintenance work just arrived, and it is less than the shady guy's lowest bid.

OK, enough talk about leaking roofs and conspiracy theories. Next up: pictures of the house, which we finally decorated for Christmas this weekend.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Listening to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain. . .in a Whole New Way!

I love rain. I especially love sitting in my upstairs den and listening to the rain hit the skylight and echo in the chimney as I sit by a nice warm fire, ideally with J and the dogs nearby. That is exactly what I was doing last night when, from my perch on the couch with Amos the dog, I started to hear yet another rhythmic sound. It didn't take long for the origin of this new sound to occur to me.

"Uh oh," I said to J, who was finally getting around to writing a new post for his blog.

"What do you mean, 'uh oh?,'" J replied.

"I mean this," said I, as I pointed to the ceiling, which looked like this. . .

. . . except that last night there was water dripping through the seam that had just opened up (toward the bottom of the photograph, between the water stain and the attic hatch). The water hitting the marble-top table just underneath that seam was the new rhythm of the falling rain that I had just discerned, much to my disappointment.

J and I, both being resourceful individuals, quickly located and brought upstairs a ladder and a bucket, and J was able to place the bucket under the leak, which luckily was reachable through our small attic space. Our solution looked like this:

Eventually the drip through the den ceiling subsided, as J and I enjoyed the rest of our evening by the fire secure in the knowledge that we had done everything within our power at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday to contain the leak. Eventually we went to bed, listening to the non-stop pouring rain and hoping that our little blue bucket would be large enough to contain the overnight leakage.

Seeing my attic for the first time in many years inspired quite an exciting dream last night. I dreamt that, unbeknownst to me, I had a whole top story consisting of two bedrooms, a bathroom, and small kitchenette area. To top that all off, there was a door at the back of the third story that opened outdoors onto a staircase leading to a grassy backyard, complete with a garage! The newly found elements of my property were in pretty rough shape, and there was a squatter living in the attic who I had to toss, gently but firmly. (And to think -- all this time I thought that all that bustling I continually hear overhead was just squirrels!) Just as I was contemplating big plans for my newly-discovered third story (can you say mega master suite?) and reveling in the fact that I had a decent-sized yard with off-street parking (in real life, of course, I have neither), I awoke to the sound of Lincoln the cat throwing up on the bedroom floor.

After we (in this case really meaning J) had dealt with the cat mess, J and I were thrilled to discover that the bucket indeed had provided sufficient damage control overnight. However, I must confess that I was crestfallen to find that the attic still looked like this. . .

. . . instead of the spacious fixer-upper of my dreams. I pretty much figured it would still just be the same old meager attic that I had seen the night before, but you can't blame a girl for checking to make sure, can you?

Now I'm off to call an assortment of Capitol Hill roofers. Wish me luck, and sunny skies, until some roofer can find time to show up and hopefully provide a better fix than the blue bucket.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thank you and Farewell to the Sock Puppet Woman

Today I said thank you and farewell to the Sock Puppet Woman.

A convergence of several events and revelations over the last two days got me worked up into an incredible snit on this topic, which in turn brought me back what I believe to be some universal truths, which in turn brought me to a place of peace. The whole story is a long one, even by my standards, and a couple parts of it would risk revealing the SPW's true identity. I therefore cannot in good faith tell all (it is at moments like these that I wish I had chosen to blog anonymously -- sigh, sigh), but I will tell some.

The part of this story that allowed all the other important pieces (including all the insights contained in the comments on my initial SPW post) to click together and present a solution was my walk around the cemetery this morning with one of my favorite dog-walking Bodhisattvas. She reminded me of some things that I have believed for a while now, namely that all human beings are connected to one another (whether or not we like or recognize it, we are all one), and the peskiest bugaboos that we have with one another present us with the most powerful opportunities to learn and heal. "When you think of this person, hold her dearly in your heart, knowing that you are essentially the same, and say 'thank you, Precious Teacher,'" said the wise and wonderful Xine. That, combined with my long-standing suspicion that a large part of why I have trouble with the SPW is because she reminds me a great deal of myself in certain respects, somehow allowed all that venom that had been gnawing away my solar plexus to drift away. I felt incredibly light and at peace as feelings of compassion for a fellow human being who is worthy of happiness and respect filled the space that the venom had just left.

When I got home from the dog-walking cemetery, I reached out to this particular Precious Teacher as a person instead of a sock puppet. It is possible that this action may pave the way for a new and genuine friendship -- wouldn't *that* be something -- depending on if and how she responds. I think it is entirely possible that I could learn as much from this person, as a person, as I learned from her in her guise as the SPW, and I also think that perhaps she could learn a thing or two from me. Regardless of the response I get (or lack thereof), just knowing that I am able now to reach out to this person with a kind and open heart makes me feel a whole lot better.

So, thank you and farewell Sock Puppet Woman; hello Precious Teacher and, I hope, Friend. Although I don't know what on earth I'm going to do with all the time and energy that this recent development frees up! Maybe I'll finally get back to work on that novel. . . . (: )

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rest in Peace

(Congressional Cemetery at Dawn -- 12/07/08)

I went back to the Mexican/Salvadoran restaurant last night, and the waiters told me that the man who collapsed on Saturday night had died. The cops stopped by the restaurant later Saturday night to inform the wait staff of this outcome and interview them for details. Apparently no one knows who the guy is yet. Whoever he is, or was, may he rest in peace -- it sounds as if his life was a hard one, and his exit certainly wasn't pretty.

When I was in the restaurant last night, I reflected back on the experience of Saturday night and some interesting things came to mind. The first has to do with the book I am currently reading, Many Lives, Many Masters, by Brian Weiss. One friend loaned me this book a while ago after a discussion we had at the dog-walking graveyard about reincarnation, and another friend's theory that the Sock Puppet Woman situation has to do with past-life karma inspired me to read it. The book is about an Ivy League psychiatrist (he makes a point of flaunting his "certified smart" credentials to deflect those would tend to dismiss his story as completely crazy) who decided as a last-ditch attempt to hypnotize a patient who had not improved despite 18 months of traditional therapy -- he hoped that during the hypnosis he could regress her back to her childhood and uncover some traumatic event(s) that would shed light on her current problems. Over time, Weiss concluded that when his patient was hypnotized she not only remembered her childhood in this life but also remembered past lives. At first he was very skeptical about the past-life thing (he is a serious Ivy League doctor and scientist, remember!), but after several regressions in which the woman produced very intricate details concerning times and places about which she consciously knew nothing, Dr. Weiss started to give some credence to the past-life idea. Anyway, just before the man collapsed on Saturday night, I was reading the part of Weiss's book in which he described how his patient's hypnotic memories of "passing over" into the spiritual state between her human lifetimes were virtually identical to the typical description of a near-death experience -- floating above the dying body, ceasing to feel the physical pain of death, and approaching a white light, e.g. I thought it was interesting, maybe even a little spooky, that I was reading about that topic literally minutes before seeing someone closely approach his death.

Another thing that I thought was interesting (this will be shorter than the last point, I promise) was that almost immediately after the paramedics carried the man out to the ambulance and the wait staff cleared away all the mess associated with the man's collapse and the efforts to resuscitate him, other customers started to stream steadily through the door, just like any other Saturday night. This I found interesting on two fronts: (1) it was such a clear example of how life, as they say, indeed does go on when souls leave its plane, and (2) it made me think that I was the only non-wait staff (or family-member-of-wait staff) customer during the traumatic episode for a reason, because by the time I left the place was pretty busy.

In conclusion, I would like to say a big "thank you" to all of you who have commented on the last two posts, both of which deal with uncomfortable situations -- your insights and support have been very helpful -- and I also would like to clarify how I feel about the relationship between the Sock Puppet Woman and watching the man die. A couple of you yesterday opined that the tenuousness of life was precisely why the SPW should be viewed as important for all the lessons and insights that she offers, rather than "silly," which was the word that I used when contrasting the two situations. I actually agree with that point and think that "silly" was an unfortunate choice of adjective on my part. What I meant to convey was the sense that the SPW, although of deep importance to me here in this life for the reasons the two commenters identified, is, like everything else in this life, an impermanent phenomenon. Even if reincarnation really is how it works and my situation with Ellie indeed is a karmic thing, that karma either will be resolved in this life or get carried over in some form to the next. But this iteration of it that resides within my current being is just as ephemeral as everything else. So, it would have been more accurate for me to have said yesterday that watching a guy die brought home to me that the SPW situation is, like life itself, not solid. Or something like that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Life and Death

(Sunrise over Congressional Cemetery -- 12/07/08)

Last night I had an early dinner at one of my favorite Capitol Hill restaurants. Just as I was finishing my food, another diner starting spitting up and struggling for breath. Shortly thereafter, he was unconscious. The wait staff thought that he was choking, so they simultaneously called 911 and began the Heimlich maneuver. I put one comforting hand on the man's back and another on the shoulder of E, the restaurant owner -- I've known E for years and could tell that he was trying hard not to panic.

The Heimlich attempts were to no avail, but the DC Fire Department paramedics arrived within about 2 minutes of the 911 call. They hooked the guy up to a heart monitor and began to go to work on him right away. He had a faint pulse and his breaths were coming very few and far between. The paramedics first checked his throat for blockages, and apparently he wasn't choking after all. The wait staff and some of their family members, who were dining at the restaurant and who had been keeping the man company, said that the man pointed to his head and was trying to say something but couldn't before he became unconscious. They said that he had arrived at the restaurant drunk and ordered a rum and coke (the wait staff provided coke with no rum) and steak. Apparently the man once frequented all the Mexican/Salvadoran restaurants on the Hill and always arrived alone and already intoxicated and had a history of not paying -- all the other restaurants now refused to serve him. Despite his familiarity to the wait staff, no one knew his name, and he didn't have any formal ID -- just a collection of business cards and handwritten notes.

The man's story was pieced together by the waiters and their family members while the paramedics were cutting the guy's clothes off, hooking him up to the monitor, and performing CPR on him. I have to say, I was impressed by the paramedics -- I had never seen them in action before, and it was something. The whole time I kept trying to send positive energy and calming thoughts to the man, and E and I stood together with our arms around each other's shoulders for emotional support. I was the only non-family member dining at the restaurant at that point, although I've been going there so long that I think they all kind of think of me as family by now -- everyone was holding onto someone else with one arm and clutching his or her own chest with the other. It was really difficult to stand there and watch someone who was going to die without some serious medical intervention.

The paramedics were keeping the man alive, but he was not getting any better, and his heart rate became scarily low whenever they weren't pounding on his chest. After what seemed like forever but was probably only about 4 minutes, the paramedics put the man on a stretcher and took him to an area hospital. E said that he would check on the man today and give me a call, but so far I have heard nothing. I will post again once I get word.

I think that I always appreciate how tenuous our human lives are -- they are impermanent, very brief in the grand scheme of time, and can be whisked away in a moment, sometimes with no warning whatsoever -- but events like last night (which is the first time I've been present for an emergency medical call) put that into an even starker perspective. Last night also has made me think about how silly my obsession with the Sock Puppet Woman is by contrast.

(Amos & Jacob among the tombstones at dawn -- 12/07/08)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Sock Puppet Woman . . . or not?

This is one of those posts in which I am going to show one of my less noble (OK, totally ignoble) sides and in the process may well ruin anything in the way of a good opinion that any of you out there might have of me. I'm going ahead and publishing on this topic anyway, though, in the hopes that some of you who don't lose all respect for me by the end of the post might be able to shed some light on this situation.

Did you ever really hate someone's guts? I mean really, viscerally, on a cellular level just flat-out despise them? I feel that way about one person, and the feeling has been eating at me. I've talked to two friends about this state of affairs recently, and both of them wound up laughing hysterically as I described my feelings. Apparently the thought of me harboring this kind of animosity toward another human being is very funny. Or maybe it was the repeated claw-bearing gestures and meowing and hissing sounds that accompanied my description. But I digress. . . .

Funny or not, it is highly unusual for me to feel such deep dislike for another person. Normally I genuinely like people. There are a few folks whom I find mildly annoying at first blush, but I'm almost always able to find redeeming qualities in them and focus on those instead. After a while, I come to really like these people and can't remember why they ever annoyed me in the first place. Then there are a few people whom I kinda sorta don't like, but I figure they must have redeeming qualities, too, even if I can't see them, so I let the dislike go and if I must deal with these folks I am able to do so kindly. But there's this one person who I continue to despise with an intensity that is almost scary, especially in light of the fact that this person has done absolutely nothing to harm me and at this point I don't even have occasion to see her any more.

For a long while now I have been trying to uncover what is at the root of this venom, with the hope that understanding the reason for this unprecedented negativity will allow me to find some peaceful resolution, which I genuinely, almost desperately, desire to do. I know that this hatred lurking within myself harms me a lot, I don't want to hate this person (or any other person, for that matter), and intellectually I can come up with all kinds of techniques that should allow me to change my emotional response. Yet despite all this rational knowledge, I cannot, or more accurately as yet have not, let this animosity go.

This person, I'll call her Ellie for convenience, is someone whom I knew from a previous job. I didn't really know her that well, but our paths crossed from time to time. My first memory of her is of observing her getting coffee with her supervisor in the cafeteria on a fairly regular basis. The first time I saw her, before I even heard her speak or had any inkling of her personality, I had a very strong "I don't like her" reaction. Then I heard her sucking up to her boss, which deeply reinforced this initial reaction. Brown-nosing is one of the traits that I like least in humankind, so this first set of cafeteria observations did not leave me favorably disposed. Later, after being in several meetings with Ellie and interacting with her socially on a couple of occasions, I concluded that her success at her job was due largely to her brown-nosing efforts (along with what I will concede are a good memory, excellent organizational skills, and a professed "passion" for her subject matter), because whatever intellect inhabits her skull is a not a very sophisticated one. Sucking up occasionally is bad enough, but relying on that tactic to climb the corporate ladder, and succeeding, is one of those things that drives me absolutely crazy. Especially when, as in Ellie's case, I have genuine affection and respect for the person who is chiefly responsible for the promoting -- that part of the whole dynamic tends to make the rub here even stronger.

As offensive as sucking up is, I don't think that's at the root of my intense dislike, for several reason. First of all, the initial pang of dislike preceded the observation that Ellie is a suck-up. In addition, I know many other people who suck up to the management, but I am nonetheless able to be quite fond of almost all of them despite that; if I'm totally honest with myself, I know that I have had moments of sucking up, too (not proud to admit that, but as long as I'm baring my soul here I figured why hold back?). Last but not least, I understand that people get promoted and/or get high performance ratings all the time based in whole or in part on sucking up instead of true merit -- people who are undeserving according to my standards rise to the top with alarming frequency (look at George W. Bush, for crying out loud!), and although I admittedly don't like that fact, I also don't let that particular form of injustice eat me up inside or otherwise keep me awake at night.

So, if it's not the fact that Ellie has her lips all over the asses of those higher than her in the food chain at work that disposes me to dislike her, what on earth is it? She is cute, but so am I, so I don't think it's that. Her boss clearly has a good opinion of her, but her boss also has an equally high opinion of me, so I don't think it's that. I think that Ellie might have outperformed me at a meeting once (although others have disagreed with me on that point), but that kind of thing happens to the best of us, especially those of us who hold ourselves to impossibly high standards, so I don't think it's that. She is successful at her job, but according to most ways in which people measure success where she works I was even more successful, so I don't think it's that.

I saw a totally wonderful pastoral counselor for around a year, during which the Ellie situation eventually presented itself as one of my more difficult issues. "This woman," my counselor said, "is a sock puppet." Meaning that for some reason I need to have a nemesis character in my life and, probably for all her brown-nosing combined with all the reasons discussed in the previous paragraph, Ellie makes a really convenient choice. However, this past year for me has been about giving up struggle as a way of life, and I can tell you that at this point I don't want a nemesis. Honestly, I don't. I'd pay good money to get rid of this one and never have another.

I am ashamed of myself for still having these feelings toward Ellie, and I would like to get through them so that I could at a minimum feel neutral toward her, and maybe even in time come to genuinely like her. Toward that end, I have tried to work through, one by one, all the more deeply-seated psychological reasons that Ellie might be a sock puppet so that I could burn the sock, so speak -- maybe she and I have similar emotional wounds and I use her as an alter-ego to beat up so that I don't ostensibly flog myself; maybe she reminds me of things I see in myself but don't like; maybe she perpetuates the (wrong-headed) notion, which I learned in childhood and believed for a long time, that I need a competitor in every aspect of my life; etc., etc., etc. Although I have successfully used this kind of rational enquiry to get to the root of other issues that troubled me, it has been to no avail with Ellie, the Sock Puppet Woman. Which has got me to thinking that maybe she's not a sock puppet after all -- maybe there actually is a reasonable basis for my negative feelings, even if I haven't identified it yet.

When she finally stopped laughing and crying at the same time, the friend to whom I relayed my situation yesterday said, "Wow, there's a lot of bad past-life karma at work there! A lot!" (For the record, I think that my friend's laughter was great, because it helped to defuse my highly-charged negativity and also because it somehow confirmed for me that this kind of behavior is indeed so out of character as to be laughable, i.e., I am not really a bad person at heart. Laughter really is the best medicine sometimes.) I tend to like this explanation a lot, because it does seem to provide an underlying reason for what seems like such a bizarre and irrational reaction.

My regular readers are a source of great wisdom and insight, and y'all have helped me a lot in the past (especially when I was having all those crazy dreams). If any of you managed to read all the way to the end of this post and are still speaking to me, I would love to hear your theories about why I feel this emotion and what I can do to reach a place of peace.

OK, enough. It's time to go have my Saturday margarita lunch.