Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Never Give Up

If we are demoralized, sad and only complain, we’ll not solve our problems. If we only pray for a solution, we’ll not solve our problems. We need to face them, to deal with them without violence, but with confidence - and never give up. If you adopt a non-violent approach, but are also hesitant within, you’ll not succeed. You have to have confidence and keep up your efforts - in other words, never give up. —Dalai Lama

   When I was hired as editor of Epilepsy Advocate magazine almost seven years ago I knew next to nothing about epilepsy. I did have a great interest in neurology, however. My mother had been diagnosed with dementia and, although it's a very different condition, I realized the mind's function was a complex mystery that I wanted to learn more about. Thanks to the honesty, courage and confidence of a group of people who live with epilepsy, I've learned a lot—not just about the inner-workings of the brain, but about the inner workings of the heart. I've learned what it means to never give up.
   Epilepsy is a neurological malfunction of electrical circuits in the brain. Seizures may be caused due to a congenital condition or for no reason at all. That's what makes it so scary. There's no one definitive cause, and there's no absolute cure. For these reasons, despite significant advances in treatment within the past thirty years, the stigma and misunderstanding of epilepsy still exists. (Read more all about seizures their effects here.)

  Although I no longer serve as editor of Epilepsy Advocate, earlier this month I was invited to attend an epilepsy conference with a number of my friends who I had come to know through the pages of that magazine. It was work, but for me it was also a wonderful reunion. 

   Over the years, many of these remarkable people graciously shared with me details of their seizure episodes and how those seizures effect their lives and the lives of the people they love. Some were misdiagnosed as children, accused of having seizures on purpose to get attention or thought to be "slow" or otherwise less than "normal." Some suffered from such severe and frequent seizures that they could not drive or work and became isolated. The stigma of the condition often leads to bullying, discrimination and some downright ugliness. Depression is a common co-existing condition for people with epilepsy for both emotional and biochemical reasons.
    Even after an accurate diagnosis is made, finding treatment to control seizures often means trying different antiseizure medications at various doses. If a person is experiencing multiple types of seizures that happen in more than one place in the brain, it can take years to get the right combination of meds. And sometimes the medication's side effects are as bad as or worse than the seizures. Surgery is sometimes an option when drugs fail to work. And surgery means have a part of your brain removed—scary to say the least.
    My friends have been through it all, but regardless of their individual experience, as they related their epilepsy stories and their latest accomplishments, a common theme came forth: My life is not what I once thought it would be, but it is good—or maybe even better than I imagined.
   Despite experiencing what most would consider a devastating set-back, they found the good in their situations and rewrote their own stories. In other words, they made a conscious decision to accept reality and then change what they could—their perspective. They kept going, sometimes changing their tact, but never giving up.
   One Advocate dreamed of going to law school. When the stress of her prelaw workload triggered her seizures, she had to rethink her dream. Now she's in graduate school and plans to work for a non-profit. She wants to use her knowledge and experience to help others. She has no regrets. She doesn't have time for regrets. Life is too precious.
   And there's the mom who's son has had seizures all his life. In the delivery room, the doctor told her he wouldn't survive. When he literally came back to life after his breathing stopped, she was told he wouldn't walk or talk. Today, that very talkative, active boy is fourteen and hasn't had a seizure in over a year. Going through the journey of finding a treatment that controlled his seizures was not the life any mother wants for her son, but this remarkable young man shares his story wherever he goes—and his peers see him as a hero.
   There's the minister who, at age 35, suffered from an out-of-the-blue case of encephalitis that almost took his life and left him with epilepsy. He had to relearn his children's names—and how to walk and how to read. He now teaches college and is the author of several popular books that focus on acceptance and gratitude.
   And there's the single mom of three whose first tonic clonic seizure almost ended her life. She's now back in school getting yet another degree and working as a life coach.
   Epilepsy doesn't define these people. They've found ways to go about their lives making the best of what has at times been a difficult—even life threatening—situation. They are also grateful for the good days—the days without seizures, the days when they can do remarkable things like drive a car to work or play with grandchildren or study for an exam—things they couldn't do when their seizures were not under control. (Click here if you'd like read more stories about these remarkable men and women.)
    I've learned so much from these Epilepsy Advocates. They have provided me with perspective and showed me that no matter what occurs there is a way to find the good. I hate that my friends have had to suffer and see their loved ones suffer. I hate that there is no cure. But I love these people for their bravery and their gentle yet fierce passion for helping others accept their own realities. These individuals are living examples of how facing one's problems can transform lives.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hold the Sprinkles

Jack was six years old when the ice cream shop opened its doors down the street. He thought a piece of heaven had descended into his backyard. It became almost impossible to walk past the thick aroma of sugar and cream without succumbing to its intoxicating sweetness. Like most folks in our neighborhood, I fell thrall to the ice cream shop's oh-so-Mayberrry appeal.
   One day after school, we popped in for a cone. As Jack pondered the abundance beyond the glass freezer case, the man behind the counter doled out ice cream to a nice family of four. Each received a scoop or two of their favorite flavor and then chose toppings. I watched in awe at the ease in which the mother paid for her family's treats. She didn't once wince at the selections being made. She didn't tell her children to only order one scoop or limit their toppings, nor did she grumble and argue when the man behind the counter tallied up her total. She seemed almost—dare I say—happy to shell out almost $25 for their treats.
Jack still enjoys a good cone of Superman.
  As the family lapped at their confections, Jack stepped up to the counter and chose a flavor called Superman—which is actually less of a flavor and more of a color combination (red, blue and yellow.) The man behind the counter scooped up a mound of the sweet, frozen stuff and pushed it into a sugar cone.
   "What do you want on top?" he asked.
    "Ah ... I don't know ... " I said.
    I swallowed hard as Jack eyed the mounds of cookie crumbs, gummy worms, M&Ms and almond brickle available to top his cone. I glanced up at the menu on the wall. Of course I wasn't surprised to see that a single scoop cost $2.50. Going out for ice cream at a locally owned sweet shop has it's own merit, so I tried to set aside my usual "I can buy a half-gallon for the same price" mentality. But realizing that a spoonful of the bright-colored candy would set me back another dollar—the retail price of an entire container—triggered a deep-seated response that I hadn't touched on in a while. My distress at the over-priced non-pareils was so palatable that the nice family of four surely heard my pocketbook squeak as it tightened.
    I admit my aversion to overpriced treats is—no matter how righteous—not an enlightened response in this day and age, but it's one that's hard for me to shake. I was raised by parents who grew up in the Depression. When I was a kid, we rarely went out to dinner because my Mom insisted "we could make it at home for so much less—and it will taste better"—which was pretty much true. (And BTW, my Mom worked full-time, so it would have been a lot more convenient for her to go through the drive-thru at Wendy's.) On rare and special occasions we stopped for McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken or to get a soft-serve cone from the Taste-T-Freeze. To my recollection we never sat down at a "nice" restaurant as a family when I was a kid.
   Of course, all childhood experiences are shaped by our own limited perception. I can appreciate now that my parents—wisely—decided not to spend their hard-earned money on eating out. Going to dinner at a restaurant wasn't a priority for them. They chose to spend their money on other things, such as sending their four daughters to parochial school. We were a family of six and the economic benefit of dining at home was significant.
   Today, I admire my parents' mindful spending habits. In fact, something about that frugality must have seeped into my DNA. I'm the woman whose oversized handbag is rattling with contraband candy as she climbs the steps to take her seat at the cineplex. It's not that I can't afford to buy that over-priced candy bar, soda or snack. I'm just wired to not overspend to the point of compulsion. (There are those who are worse. I know a man who carries his own individually-wrapped slice of American cheese in his pocket so he can save a quarter when he dines at Hamburger Heaven.)
   You might think my thriftiness an admirable trait, but in fact this inability to part with my money can be debilitating. My neurosis can rob me of enjoyment of a pleasant moment. I often wonder what it feels like to be one of those blissed-out, spend-thrift moms who dole out dollars for sprinkles and jimmies without a second thought. I admire people who freely and happily shell out $25 for candy, popcorn and a coke at the movie theatre without imagining all the popcorn and Cokes and candy—and yes, gallons of ice cream— that same money could buy at the grocery store. There are a lot of benefits to being mindful, but when it comes to spending money, I often wish I could just turn off my overzealous mental analysis, kick back, order the jumbo popcorn combo and enjoy the show.

   That day, standing before the ice cream counter my palms began to sweat. I wanted to say, "Yes! Load us up with sprinkles!" and watch Jack's delight, but I just couldn't. I was willing to pay $2.50 for an ice cream cone and even throw the extra fifty-cents into the tip jar, but to spend a dollar on sprinkles undid me.  Jack, oblivious to my affliction, awaited an answer, his blue eyes dancing in the glow of the sneeze guard.
   "That'll be all," I said to the man behind the counter.
    "But I wanted sprinkles!" Jack wailed.
    I sighed. What should I do? It was just a dollar! A dollar ... that could buy a lot more ...
    "Just a minute," I said to the man.
     I turned to Jack, leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Jack, those sprinkles cost a dollar. You can have the sprinkles, or you can have a dollar."
   Jack's eyes widened.
   "I'll take the dollar!" he said.
   I smiled and turned back to the ice cream shop man.
   "That'll be all," I said.
   Outside the ice cream shop as red, blue and yellow cream dripped down the front of his t-shirt, Jack proudly tucked the dollar in his pocket with sticky fingers. I wish I could say I taught my son a valuable lesson. I wish I could tell you that he took that dollar to Regions Bank and deposited it post-haste, then sat there and watched the .0002 interest turn it into ... $1.0002, but that was not the case. My inspired solution didn't do a lot to heal my over-priced-candy-aversion either, but maybe someday Jack will remember what I did and appreciate his thrifty mom—just as I appreciate mine today.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Salvation for a Football Agnostic

A few weeks ago, Jack borrowed my iPhone and returned it with new wallpaper. Apparently in order to shield me—or perhaps himself—from ridicule, he took down the cute photo of our cat and installed an image of an Arkansas Razorback. I honestly think he'd prefer telling his friends that his mother is Buddhist than admit that I just don't believe in football. Yes, in a state where folks are defined by their denomination in the church of SEC,  I am a football agnostic.
   It's not that I don't appreciate college football, I'm just not sure it exists for me. For example, when crisp, fall weekends roll around, I'm more inclined toward attending pumpkin patches and fall festivals than watching match-ups on ESPN. Last weekend was no exception.
Finding common ground with  Jack
becomes more of a challenge every day.
Just getting him to pose for a photo with his
Mom proves difficult enough!
 Image taken by Stacey Allen
   On Friday evening Jack invited his friend, Joe, to sleep over on Saturday night. He's almost 12 now and at the age when kids generally make plans to get together and then ask their parents. This is somewhat of a shift in power from the good ol' days when parents made playdates with other parents and then informed their child of the event. I like Joe so I didn't give it much thought. I texted his mom and we made tentative plans for him to come over the following afternoon. Jack was happy and I felt like a "good mom."
     But the next morning I began to regret my compliance. Jack would spend the day anticipating Joe's arrival, counting the minutes until Joe got there and the fun could begin. Once Joe got to my house, he and Jack would hole up and play video games, occasionally emerging to ask me to make Rice Krispy Treats or popcorn. And that's all fine and good. I really like being the Mom who makes warm chocolate chip cookies at a moment's notice. I relish being the cool Mom who lets her son have a friend over and doesn't interfere with their time together, but this weekend, I realized I didn't want Joe to come over on Saturday night.
   Jack's dad and I share custody, shuttling Jack back and forth between our homes throughout the week. But over the past two weeks, I hadn't really spent a lot of time with my son. Weeknights are now filled with after school activities and homework assignments, and the previous weekend was the middle school homecoming dance, and Jack spent the night with Joe.
  I was happy that Jack had friends and a social life, but in the process of trying to fit into the Super Mom costume I set aside my feelings and needs—and perhaps shortchanged Jack's as well. I'm so willing to please, that I often forget that being Super Mom also means saying no and doing what's best for both of us. It was only 10 a.m. and there was plenty of time to reverse my decision. As much as I don't like to disappoint anyone, I picked up the phone.

   "Change in plans," I announced to Jack after I called Joe's Mom and cancelled the sleepover.
    "Aw! Why can't Joe spend the night?" Jack asked, peering over his Kindle game of Angry Birds.
   "We'll have him over next weekend," I said.
   "Okay," said Jack.
   And that ... was that. No drama. No fits. No outrage about what a bad mother I am.
    "I thought we'd do something together,"I said. "Your choice."
   "Anything?" Jack asked.
   "Well, within reason," I said.
   We talked about going to see a movie or going to the zoo, but then Jack mentioned the Georgia/LSU game, which—of course—I had no idea was on ESPN later today.  Jack is a Bulldog fan. Sure, he pulled for Auburn and then Alabama when they took their turns at the BCS Championships, but his loyalty lies just east of the state line with the state of his birth, Georgia.
   "It's no big deal," he said, knowing my lack of interest in the sport—and my lack of cable television in my home. "But I sure would like to see that game."
   "Okay!" I said. "We can make that happen."
   Jack was happy, and, strangely, so was I.   
   "But we'll have to go somewhere to watch it," Jack said, dubiously.
   "No problem," I said. "Sounds like fun."

   We decided on a family-friendly pub within walking distance of my house. It was a beautiful fall day, warm but without the oppressive southern humidity. By the time we arrived at the pub, the game was already in progress. We sat down at a table near a large TV and settled in to watch.
   Jack brought me up to speed on who was winning and how much time was left in the quarter. He explained to me what it sounds like when a stadium full of Georgia fans starts barking like their mascot. We shared a cherry cola and Jack ate chicken fingers while I enjoyed a fried green tomato sandwich. And during the commercials we talked about all sorts of very important things; How we preferred thin, crunchy french fries to thick, steak fries; about the homecoming dance and the girl Jack asked to meet him there;  about his friend, Joe, and how he might move out of town next year because of Joe's mother's job. Mostly, Jack taught me about football.
  The game was exciting. First Georgia was in the lead and then LSU scored. Jack told me what the penalties meant and he accurately identified whether the LSU quarterback would pass or run it before he made the play. I liked watching football with my own personal color commentator.
   In the fourth quarter when LSU pulled ahead by four points, Jack groaned but did not give up hope. Then the Georgia quarterback drove the ball down the field and threw a perfect pass for a touchdown that put them back in the lead. With less than two minutes on the clock LSU took possession of the ball and I found myself holding my breath and covering my eyes in anxiety over the outcome. When the clock finally ran down, Georgia had held their lead. Jack and I leapt to our feet and cheered.
  During our walk home, we recounted the most exciting moments in the game. I realized I had more fun watching that game with Jack than I'd ever had watching sports on TV, except maybe when I watched the World Series with my Dad. As we strolled home, enjoying the cool fall evening, Jack's hand swung down and grasped mine. I smiled. If I done the easy thing and let Joe spend the night as planned, this afternoon would not have happened—this moment would not have happened. And if I hadn't given myself over to Jack's love of the Georgia Bulldogs, we would not have shared this wonderful time together.
   "That was an awesome game," I said. "I really enjoyed watching it with you."
   "Yeah," said Jack. "Can you believe Georgia won? Oh my God!"
   We walked for a while holding hands.
   "Hey, the Alabama/Ole Miss game is on now," Jack said. "Do you want to meet Jason at the Mexican restaurant and watch it together?"
   "Sure," I said. "Sounds good."
    I had to laugh at myself. I was willing to watch not one, but two college games concurrently in one afternoon. "There's nothing like a convert," my Dad used to say about those who joined the Catholic church later in life. Yep. Just like that, it was a conversion—and one worth a lot more than two points, at that. I found the best reason ever to believe in football.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sorry! The Game of Sweet ... Karma

One of the many things I love and appreciate about having a child is that I’ve ben given license to play games again. On many nights we set aside our electronic devices and turn off the TV and settle in for an old-fashioned game night.
Tonight Jack selects Sorry! The Game of Sweet Revenge. It’s not my favorite game but at least I have a chance of winning this game, unlike with Monopoly. Jack is a Monopoly wunderkind, a prodigy. He buys up every property he lands on and puts up houses and hotels with lightening speed—all the better to bankrupt me. But with Sorry, the playing field is leveled because, although there is some strategy involved, we are both equally at the whim of that little thing Buddhists call karma, otherwise known as the law of cause and effect.
   Although it's unlikely Parker Brothers created this board game with the thought of teaching Buddhist principles, it's one of the best examples I know. In case you don’t remember, the objective of Sorry! is to get your four pawns around the board from your Start point to your Home. Movement is predicated not by a die roll but by directions from a deck of cards, which you take turns drawing. The revenge aspect comes into play when you choose a "Sorry!" card, which allows you to exchange one of your own pawns from Start and with an opponent's pawn that's already circling the board, thereby increasing your chances of winning and your opponent's chances of losing. For this reason, the game can become rather heated, especially when playing with four people where choices must be made about who is bumped back to Start and who continues around the board. It's natural, of course, to seek retribution on those who have thwarted your success—rounding the board, that is. But that's not karma.
   Karma is not a sense of tit for tat. Karma certainly is not revenge. Karma is act and outcome. It is neither good or bad, vengeful or just. Karma, quite simply, is a logical progress. If this, then that. And whereas you can control your action, but you have no control of the outcome. Same goes with Sorry!
   As Jack and I play, every move becomes an action that places our pawns in position to win or lose, but there is no way of knowing if the move will mean victory or ruin. Our game progresses quickly, and in no time all Jack's pawns are rounding the board. Two are already at Home and the others, well on their way. 
My pawns have not been so fortunate. I only have one rounding the board. The others seem hopelessly stuck at the Start. (You have to draw a one or two to advance from base.) Jack seems destined to win in record time. But then I draw a combination of cards that places two and then three of my pawns in position to enter Home. Drawing a Sorry! card, I send one of Jack's pawns back to the Start and my final pawn is out and nearing Home as well.
   "Agh! Mom! How could you do that to me?" Jack cries. "I was so close to winning!" 
He picks up the affected pawn and dramatically throws it across the table.
    "It's nothing personal, son," I say. "Besides you never know how things will turn out. I was lagging way behind just a few moments ago. Now I’m in the lead, but that could change again, right?”
“I guess,” Jack says.
   He grudgingly rights the pawn and we continue our game. In my mind I dance a secret victory dance. I’m in the lead. My fourth pawn sits in the "safe zone," just three spaces away from Home. I am poised to win ... until Jack draws a two (which allowed him to get the pawn out of Start and provided him with a second turn). On his second draw he turns over a four, which allows him to move back four spaces. Now, without having to round the entire board, he is within eight spaces away from Home.  Just like that, he’s back in the game, but I’m still one card away from winning
   I draw my next card. A four. Back four spaces. That puts my last pawn seven away from the Home goal.
   "Oh no!" I shout.
     Jack snatches up a card from the deck.
     "Ha!" he cries.
     He throws down an eight. Exactly the number of spaces he needs to guide his fourth pawn into Home. And presto! just like that, Jack wins. I shake my head.
   "That was amazing!" I say. 
Jack  grins and does a little dance around the table.
“Let’s play again,” he says. "Best two out of three!"

   How many times in this life have I thought a setback was a travesty? How many times in life have I whined and cried about something that didn't go the way I planned? I act as if I my plan is the best, most ultimate solution and then become discouraged because it didn't pan out. In my limited perception, how many times have I scowled and tossed my pawn across the table, only to discover that the very setback I cursed was exactly what needed to occur to provide me with the best possible outcome? A lot. 
Playing Sorry! reminded me that most of the time I don’t know the outcome of an event or action and I should not try to judge it as being good or bad, advantage or disadvantage, gain or loss. Better to see the wisdom in accepting that no matter the outcome, it is not permanent. Throwing my pawns across the board will rarely help me and only serves to disrupt me from making the next logical move.  Who knew that I could learn about karma and the nature of impermanence during Game Night with my son! 
Will Jack learn these lessons as we play best two out of three? Perhaps. Will he learn to take life as it comes from observing how I handle disappointments, setbacks and change? Most definitely.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wisdom Tooth

Facing the inevitable can be difficult. Especially when the inevitable is a wisdom tooth that finally—after 50 years—requires extraction.

   I've been fortunate about my teeth in general. I am one of those obnoxious people who did not have a cavity—until now. Although I could have benefited from braces, my teeth came in straight enough to not require them. Suffice to say, I also haven't had a lot of experience with oral surgery, so the prognosis of the wisdom tooth's ultimate departure left me feeling quite anxious. Of course there's an answer to anxiety in the medical world—and it's not meditation. It's called anesthesia.
   While setting up the appointment I discovered my options, or lack thereof. Insurance doesn't cover general anethesia for a simple, single wisdom tooth extraction. Either I needed to have more teeth taken out, or I could pay an additional $500 out of pocket to be rendered unconscious for the procedure. My referring dentist didn't think general anesthesia would be necessary. So I made the appointment and opted for nitrous (happy gas!) but no general.
   The night before my appointment, I was scared. I knew it was senseless to worry about the procedure before hand, but like my 11-year old son Jack, I suffer from fear of the unknown.

Earlier this month, Jack had to have four baby teeth extracted in preparation for his braces. When his orthodontist told him that the teeth had to go,  the poor kid turned a lighter shade of Casper.
  "But I don't want to have these teeth pulled!" he cried.
   "I'm sorry son, you don't have a choice in this," I said.
   "Is it gonna hurt?" he asked.
   "Honestly? Yes, it will," I said. "But just for a few seconds and then it will be over."
   These were not exactly the words he wanted to hear, but I decided to go with the truth. And sometimes we have to do things that are unpleasant. We do difficult tasks because they are the right thing to do and in our best interest. That's an important lesson to learn. It's part of growing up. Still, I didn't like the thought of my son suffering.
   "Jack, thinking about it is the worst part," I said. "Remember when you first got braces? You were really scared about that, but it turned out to be not so bad, right?"
   "Yeah," Jack said grudgingly. "That was no big deal."
   "And remember how scared you were about getting your immunizations for school this year?"
   "Yeah," Jack said, a little less grudgingly this time. "It wasn't bad. And I got four stickers!"
   "This will be the same way," I said. "You'll see. Just try not to obsess over it, okay?"
   I let this sink in and Jack returned to playing Hay Day on his Kindle.
  "Hmmm. Wonder what the tooth fairy pays for four teeth at once?" I said. "This might bankrupt her."
   Jack hadn't thought of this. The idea of a windfall brightened his mood.
   "Really?" he said. "How much do ya think she'll pay?"

  Now it was my turn. I tried tame my monkey mind, but as the hours ticked down towards my appointment, I could feel my anxiety levels rising. I was grateful Jason was off work and could drive me to the doctor's office. Even if I wasn't having general anesthesia, which would require a ride home afterwards, having him with me was a comfort. Plus, he made me laugh.
   After what seemed like hours, I was finally called back to the procedure room. The doctor reviewed my x-rays and confirmed that the extraction was a simple one.
   "A lot of people choose to have general because they don't want to remember what happened," he said. "With nitrous and local, you won't feel anything but you'll remember it."
    With that he left the room and the nurse proceeded to prep me by starting the flow of nitrous oxide. In moments a warm feeling crept into my chest. I breathed in deeply and breathed out, trying to employ some of my meditative methods. Frankly, I was stoned without much effort.
  Then something rather unexpected happened. The nurse, who I just met, launched into a story about her boyfriend. She told me about her trust issues and how every other guy she dated had cheated on her. She hoped this guy was different. But what if he wasn't? They'd been friends for years. She really wanted things to work out between them, but she couldn't stop obsessing over whether or not he was being honest with her. She went on and on as I sat helpless and stoned in the dentist's chair.
   When the doctor came back to administer the local anestetic, the nurse stopped her chatter. After he left the room, she picked up the story where she left off.
   While the numbing agents kicked in, she continued her story. I offered my opinion a few times but my tongue was so thick and heavy that my words came out garbled and funny. I closed my eyes and listened to the nurse prattle on.
   Under a different circumstance, this outpouring of TMI would have been annoying but today I welcomed her drama. Focusing on her misguided romances helped keep my mind off the needles and surgical instruments. And even in my nitrous-induced euphoria I was reminded how often I'm inclined to focus on someone else's problems to ignore my own. But today was an example of how taking the focus off my own thoughts was the perfect way to get through a difficult situation.
   When the doctor returned to extract the tooth, the nurse stopped her chatter again. He asked me to open my mouth and I felt him applying pressure to the ailing tooth. He pulled and I felt a slight release and it was over.
  The doctor left the room again and the chatty nurse took me for a second x-ray to make sure they got the entire tooth.
   "Thank you," I said, through my gauze-stuffed, numb mouth. "You really helped me get through this. I hope everything works out with your guy."
   "Thanks for your perspective," she said. "It's good to get outside your own head, you know?"
    "Yes," I said. "You're right, sometimes it helps a lot."


Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Custodian

The long humid days are beginning to fade. The promise of fall is in the air. The change in the weather reminds me of my first tentative steps into Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center around this time three years ago. Yes, I was uncomfortable as the people around me touched their foreheads to the ground in a full prostration ... three times. And I felt downright foolish reading a prayer that included the phrase "Ho Ha Ha Ha Ha Hum." But for some reason I returned each week. 

So how does a Catholic girl from Little Rock, Arkansas become a Tibetan Buddhist? I'm not sure. There is something about Buddhism that's familiar and comfortingMaybe the warm, earthy aroma of incense reminds me of attending midnight mass at Marylake Carmelite Monastery outside Little Rock. It could be the candles. Or maybe the Tibetan chants remind me of the Catholic priests who chanted in Latin on special occasions. Catholicism and Buddhism do have similar philosophies (such as "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself."). But unlike Catholicism, Buddhism doesn't have a deity and isn't an organized religion. It's a practice, a way of living life. The Buddha (who was not God) taught his followers to question everything, to take nothing for granted—and this appealed to me since I had a lot of questions.

My interest in finding a spiritual practice began back in 1992 when I was still employed at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. I hadn't been to church in years but I felt the tug (guilt?) to have some sense of a spiritual life. So I did what I always do when I want to make a change: I shopped. 

I bought copies of the "Tao te Ching" and "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" and "The Celestine Prophecy." I was intrigued by what I read, but I was too wrapped up in my corporate career and all the perks of being part of the media biz to do the required inner work. I liked drinking and smoking and partying with my friends. I was 30 years old and invincible. And yet, I knew there was that illusive "something" missing. The missing thing tugged at my heart, but I looked outside myself for the answer. At first I thought it might be my biological clock ticking, but I didn't particularly long for round-the-clock feedings and diaper changes. It did occur to me that if I could just find the right guy, everything in my life would fall into place. And yet when it came to men, I was the Goldilocks of dating. They were too much of this or not enough that. No one was "just right."
You know when you work with the best in the biz (as I did at
TNT—from left, Tom Wages, me, Scot Safon and Laura Dames)
and you still feel "something is missing," then that something
isn't going to be found in an office.

I kinda, sorta wanted to believe in God, or at least have faith in a divine power who could be held accountable in this world. "All I know is that I don't know," I said in a most Taoist way. I read "The Road Less Traveled," and "Soulmates," and "Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet," and "The Gospels According to Jesus," but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was missing.

One evening I sat in my office cubbie, trying to determine how many 1/2 page and 1/4 page ads I could buy in TV Guide to promote the latest TNT's Original Movie. It was VERY important that the numbers add up and I was determined to stay at my desk until I had it figured out. Other people were hard at work in the office too. It wasn't unusual for employees to work late into the evening. But the glow of florescent lights began to dim as one and then another coworker said good-night.

After a while, I thought I was alone. I kicked off my little black pumps and stretched my legs. For some reason I brought my copy of the Tao te Ching to work that day. I had a few friends who were also into spiritual pursuits and we often discussed our beliefs or lack there ofs. I picked up the book and began to read. I was so engrossed that I didn't register the sound of someone coming down the hall.
  "Working late?" a male voice inquired.
  I looked up with a start and saw the smiling face of one of the building's custodians. He was a big man, at least six-foot tall and older, maybe in his 60s. He might have been menacing save for his grin, which was broad and genuine, like that of a child's. I didn't know his name, but I saw him from time to time when I worked late. He pushed a large trashcan on wheels in which he collected the yogurt containers, candy bar wrappers, wadded up memos and various office flotsam.
   "Hi!" I said. "Yes. Working late again."
    I reached beneath my desk to retrieve my small trash can and handed it over to the janitor.
   "What are you reading?" he asked.
   "Oh, this? It's a book on eastern philosophy."
   "The Tao te Ching?" the janitor said. "That's a good one. I just finished reading a really good book about Buddhism."
   "Yep, I got into it a few years back,"he said.
   We talked for a while about the books we were reading and our thoughts on Buddhism and Taoism and life in general. 
   "Well, I better let you get back to work," he said. "Why don't I bring you that book? I think you'll like it."
   "Sure," I said. "That would be great."
   Then the custodian pushed his trashcan down the aisle, continuing his rounds.
   "Who knew?" I thought.

I worked for about thirty minutes more and then decided to head home and finish my report in the morning. The next day when I walked into my office, I pulled out my desk chair and found a copy of a thin paperback entitled, "Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand."

I thought I would read the book and then return it to my new friend, but I had a hard time comprehending the text. I found it confusing, as though it were written in another language. Buddhism can be explained in simple terms, such as "the science of the mind," or "the practice of loving kindness in everyday life," and I understood those ideals. But each time I picked up the slender text and opened its yellowing pages, I could not wrap my mind around its words. The black type jumbled before my eyes as though it were written in Sanskrit rather than English. Finally, I put the book on my bookshelf ... and forgot about it. 

When I saw the Buddhist janitor again,  he asked me what I thought of the book. I shrugged and said something like, "It's good but really deep," and left it at that. I didn't want to admit that I didn't understand it. After a while, I stopped seeing him in the evenings when I worked late. Maybe I avoided him, or he was cleaning another building or perhaps he left Turner to become a guru. Our paths just didn't cross again. A few months later, I quit my job to pursue my bliss, which was to become a writer.

Months past. And I realized ... I had no idea how to become a writer. I began to doubt myself. What if I didn't have the talent to write professionally? I felt I was alone and I feared I would always be alone. Again I looked outside myself for answers. 

Soon I met a man. He was an artist. I fell in love with the way he painted light. He asked me to marry him. We started planning our life together. We rented a bungalow and settled into our life. I thought I had everything I wanted. But years went by and I began to feel dissatisfied. We had a beautiful baby. For a time I was very happy. But then years went by, and the dissatisfied feeling, that nagging tug, began to surface again ... 

That was three years ago.

In August 2010, a 47-year-old lapsed Catholic (me) walked into a Buddhist Center in Birmingham, Alabama in search of answers. I was still looking for those Big Answers. You know the ones. The answers to the questions that mankind has sought since we first gained consciousness. "Why am I here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What is my purpose?" "What happens when I die?" "If my life is so good, why can't I just be happy?" "Why do I feel so f---ed up?" "Am I grasping for something that doesn't exist?"

As I parked my car in the lot of the non-descript strip mall where the Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center was unceremoniously located, I considered turning around and driving to TJ Maxx for shopping therapy instead. But I took a leap of faith and walked inside. Although I had no idea what I was doing there, I realized I was asking the right questions at last.

After three years, I still attend Losel Maitri's services and discussion groups every week. I've become one of those people who prostrates and chants. Buddha's teachings have encouraged me to become more mindful of my actions. I have learned that my thoughts can be the source of dissatisfaction — or happiness. I accept that all things change and I try not to label those changes as good or bad. Today, I'm more present with my family, friends and colleagues. I'm learning to appreciate the journey of life and the beauty in the world. Buddhism has taught me that my perceptions are limited, and that there is always a positive side. Yes, I'm still asking questions, but—20 years later—the custodian's book is finally starting to make sense.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Starts and Stops

After more than 30 years, my college pals and I still get together once a year.
Last week, my college girlfriends held our annual reunion. This year was special. We traveled to Cabo San Lucas to celebrate our collective 50th birthdays. The first night we sat out on the balcony of the seaside condo getting caught up on our lives. Wine flowed and laughter filled the warm evening air. After a while, one of the girls fished into her purse and produced a pack of Virginia Slims. Everyone laughed and groaned and began to reminisce about our college days.
    The exact moment I first lit up a cigarette still plays like a little movie in my head. I wasn't at a beer bust at the SAE house or drinking coffee in my dorm room to pull an all-nighter. I was alone, sitting on a scratchy, tweed Salvation Army sofa in the living room of my off-campus apartment. I moved off campus to save money on room and board. My roommate, Susan,  graduated the previous spring and secured a job managing the campus grill. We met during our work study assignment the previous year. I was a member of Chi Omega sorority, styled my hair with hot rollers and wore Polo shirts and too much eye make-up. She was a hippy chick with long blonde hair, who preferred the natural look and wore faded blue jeans and long cotton skirts. She said things like, "That's cool, man." She smoked pot and cigarettes and loved the Grateful Dead. I admired Susan's easy-going style and when it became evident that we were both looking for a roomy to share expenses, we decided our differences were a good fit. We moved in together the fall of my sophomore year.
   My Mom helped me move into the apartment. Her face clouded when she saw Susan's cigarettes and sniffed the odor of tobacco smoke that already hung in the air.  
   "I wish your roommate didn't smoke," she said quietly. 
   "Oh Mom!" I said in that awful defensive tone that teenagers use when they are trying to deflate parental concerns while knowing damn well that their parents are right.
   "It's a bad habit," she said. 
    "Yeah," I said. "But just because she smokes doesn't mean I'll take it up."

   A month later I sat alone in the apartment listening to Sting's "Every Breath You Take" playing for the 2-billionth time on Susan's stereo. My eyes were red and puffy from crying over the boy who didn't call, or the D+ I received on my French test, or something equally as tragic. Susan's Merit menthols were on the coffee table along with her lighter and an ceramic ash tray that was already half-full of butts. Many of my friends smoked, but I abhorred cigarettes. Had never even tried one in high school. I thought they were smelly and gross. I downright hated the things until the moment I slipped a Merit from the pack, placed it between my lips, lit it and inhaled.
   I sputtered and chocked and spit out smoke. Did people really enjoy this? I inhaled again tentatively. This time I didn't pull the smoke so deeply into my lungs. I held the minty smoke in my mouth and exhaled quickly. My head felt fuzzy and I lay back on the sofa and continued to puff at the thing, watching the glow wink and fade, occasionally flicking the ash into the ash tray. My stomach felt a little queasy. Why did people think smoking was so great?
   I inhaled too quickly and the smoke burned my throat and lungs. I coughed, expelling a noxious cloud. In a moment I inhaled again. I finished the cigarette, stubbed out the butt in the tray, lay down and closed my eyes. When I woke up, the room was dark, the apartment, quite. Susan was out with friends after her shift at the grill. I reached for her Merits and shook the pack until another cigarette tumbled out. I lay back and lit it, watching the tip's glow. I was alone. That's how it started.
   Soon I smoked at beer busts with along my friends, and I smoked over late-night cups of coffee and morning coffees too. I smoked after finishing a meal. I smoked after finishing a cigarette. For a long time I didn't buy my own. As long as I didn't buy them for myself, I wasn't a smoker, right?  I stole them from my roommate or bummed them from friends, and begged them from strangers. On holidays and other occasions when I went back to Little Rock to visit my family, I'd make up excuses to get out of the house. I'd take a walk or drive to the grocery store so I could have my fix. When I had to buy a pack, I nervously saddled up to the checkout counter and prayed that no one I knew saw me while I ordered up a pack and made the transaction. One day I bought a carton of cigarettes at Montesi's grocery store  and the cashier looked at me and said, "That's funny, you don't look like a smoker." 
   "I'm not!" I laughed. "I just ... smoke ... sometimes." 
   Deep down I knew the truth: I was hooked.

   Over the years, I quit many times. In 1990, I took a job with Turner Broadcasting and retired my lighter for a while. Ted Turner's father died of lung cancer and the infamous cable maverick instituted a policy whereby employees had to sign a statement promising not to smoke. Of course, I'm sure there were insurance considerations involved, too. Some employees (like those who worked in New York, where everyone smoked in the office) ignored the policy altogether. I tried my best to keep to my promise to Ted, but working for Turner was often stressful and I found myself alone in my apartment waiting for the phone to ring, or some similar anxiety and would prompt me to don my sunglasses and walk into the local convenience store to score a pack of Marlboro Light 100s.
   Before I became pregnant with Jack, I quit again. I thought this time it would be "for good." Throughout my pregnancy the mere whiff of cigarette smoke made me want to puke. After Jack was born, I felt great and was proud of myself for ending a very bad habit. 
   But being a parent is stressful. Once Jack stopped breast feeding, I decided there wasn't much harm having a cigarette now and then. I'd wash my hands, even shower before rejoining my baby to avoid exposing him to second-hand smoke. At first I only smoked at night after he was tucked in his crib. Then I started smoking when I took breaks from writing. My husband smoked too and we'd sit up late at night having a cocktail, discussing the day and smoking. Soon I was smoking again in the morning with my coffee (the best cigarette of the day!) I smoked when I was overly tired from lack of sleep because Jack was sick or cranky or just happy and being a baby. I smoked because we were selling our house in one city and moving to another city. I smoked because I had too much work. I smoked because I wasn't busy enough. You get the idea.
   Years ticked by and I continued to hide my habit from my son, who was now old enough to catch me in the act. I found myself perched in a corner of the patio behind our house puffing away to get my fix. If I heard footsteps or the backdoor swing open, I startled and tossed the lit cigarette under the porch. Often I sat outside late at night, smoking and staring up at the stars, waiting for something to change.
   When my life did change well that was stressful too. Separating from my husband and filing for divorce triggered all those feelings of insecurity and anxiety that first drove me to pick up a Merit. I was alone again after 15 years. And I was right back on that scratchy, plaid sofa, isolated and feeling depressed and overwhelmed.
   I sought solace in Buddhism. I was drawn to its practices but for one little hang-up: the Buddhist Precepts (sorta like the Ten Commandments) specified no intoxicants. You don't have to give up all toxins to practice loving kindness (BTW alcohol, caffeine and porn are all considered toxic) but I felt like a hypocrite as I drove to the Buddhist center puffing away on my Marlboro Lights. Slowly, I began to accept reality. I'd smoked on and off (mostly on) for 30 years—and I still didn't think of myself as a smoker. And I wasn't a smoker. I was addicted to nicotine. I was an addict.
   With almost the same trepidation I felt when I bought my first pack of smokes, I edged up to the pharmacy counter at Walmart to purchase my first nicotine patches and gum. They were expensive, but cigarette prices had gone up too. The economics of smoking went against my thriftier instincts—another indication of how hooked I was on the stuff.  But it didn't take me long to realize I could smoke while wearing the patch. Likewise, chomping on nicotine gum was satisfying for a while, but it didn't preclude me from lighting one up after I spit out the foul tasting chew.
   I moved into my new house and felt this was surely the time to replace bad habits for good ones. Although I was alone much of the time, I was in a new environment and I promised myself I would make a fresh start in every aspect of my life. Buddhist practice is about becoming aware of ourselves, our thoughts and motivations. And as I continued to grow in my understanding of my anxieties and fears, I started to see that smoking was a problem for a very different reason above and beyond its health effects. I once read a definition of addiction which went something like this: "Addiction is anything that separates you from the people and things you love." When I smoked, I physically removed myself from the presence of my friends and family. When I smoked, I took time away from my writing and work. When I smoked, I separated myself from my convictions and my spiritual practice. Yes, I had a physical craving for nicotine but the greater habit to overcome was my compulsion to remove myself from all that I valued.
    I became desperate enough to try acupuncture, but the stress of being used as a human pin cushion only triggered my urge to smoke. At last, I resolved to seek medical help. A few weeks before my 49th birthday, I went to my doctor and asked her for a prescription for Welbutrin.
   I'd been on Welbutrin years before. The side effects made me feel woozy and deadened my libido, so I stopped using it even though it had been effective in removing my desire for cigarettes. In truth, I didn't want to admit to my doctor that I smoked. And I certainly didn't want my insurance provider to find out I was a smoker. Ironic. Quitting smoking is the No. 1 positive change I could make to immediately improve my health, decrease the chance of heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer—and yet I was reluctant to quit because I didn't want to be penalized financially or stigmatized by my insurance provider.
  The Welbutrin worked. Yes, I felt like my head was going to spin off into space during the first week, but once the medication was fully in my system, it was as though someone had flipped a switch and I no longer craved nicotine. Welbutrin is also an appetite suppressant, as well as being an anti-depressant, so I didn't morph my oral fixation into overeating.
   After my three month prescription ran its course, I felt confident that I no longer needed or wanted to smoke. I'm happy to report that I haven't smoked since November 22, 2011, but the triggers are still there. I still want to smoke when I'm stressed out, or tired or frustrated or just having a bad day; or when I'm driving a long distance, or drinking coffee, or sipping wine or sitting out on a star-filled night, or find myself home alone feeling a little left out. And the old cravings still kick in after a big, satisfying meal, or when I'm hungry and don't have time to eat. The only difference is this: Now I choose not to give into the urge because I no longer want to separate myself from Jack or Jason or my friends and family or anything else that I hold dear.

  I sat on the balcony with my friends. More than thirty years since we met in college, there we were back together again, falling into our former roles and patterns. My friend placed a cigarette between her lips and lit the end. Immediately I was surrounded by the warm aroma of tobacco and. I remembered how the pleasant sensation of lightness crept into my brain. I could have easily reached across the table and taken a cigarette for myself. I was a little buzzed from the wine. I wanted to smoke! I really did! But I did not want to return to that unhappy place. I didn't want to fall back into the habit. Besides I wasn't on that scratchy sofa feeling forlorn and alone. I was in a beautiful place. I was secure and happy and surrounded by lifelong friends.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

New Eyes

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. —Marcel Proust

    I knew there were plenty of clubs, bars and coffee shops in Manhattan, but I never realized how many playgrounds there were until I took Jack there two years ago.  I also discovered that for a few bucks, I could spend a pleasant afternoon in Central Park watching my child joyfully learn to create gigantic soap bubbles with a long loop of rope and a bucket of suds. 
Jack learns to create bubbles ...
   Yes, I'd been downtown countless time, but it took traveling there with Jack to get me to Battery Park. 
   "Do you want to take the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty close up?" I asked.
   "No," he replied. "I'm good right here." 
   We sat on a bench together eating warm, soft pretzels, staring out over the Hudson River. We discussed our game plan for returning to a few choice shops in Chinatown that had the best deals on Pokemon cards before catching the subway back uptown. 
 ... and karma.
   If you had told me twenty years prior that a parkside snack shared with an nine-year-old would be more satisfying than all the gourmet business lunches and dinners I'd enjoyed over the years at the likes of 21 and the Four Seasons, I would not have believed you. But that was one delicious pretzel.
After our successful trip to New York, I promised Jack we'd go to Los Angeles where some of his cousins and second cousins reside.  I waited until he was a little older so that the three hour flight would not be to tedious for him, for me, and for the hundred or so other passengers on our flight. And this summer, since Jack graduated from elementary school and my crazy publishing job came to an end, I decided it was time to travel west.
After months of anticipation and planning, the day for our big vacation finally arrived. With no direct flights between Birmingham and LAX, we departed Birmingham at 7:30 a.m. and flew to Houston. 
   We had two hours to kill before boarding our connecting flight to Los Angeles. Our vacation had officially begun and that meant a Dunkin' Donuts breakfast of chocolate covered doughnuts with sprinkles (for Jack) and a poppyseed bagel, toasted with butter (for me.) We settled in to dine at an empty gate area so Jack could charge up his iTouch. By the time we finished, we still had an hour and forty-five minutes left before reporting to our gate. 
   "Whaddaya want to do now?" Jack asked.
   At 9 a.m. Houston Hobby's Central Concourse was not the epicenter of entertainment. We'd have to create our own fun. Thinking of the three hour flight ahead of us (and all the sugar Jack had just consumed) an idea popped into my head.
   "Let's see who can get to the far end of the concourse first—without running," I said. "Ready? Go!"
    Jack was just a few yards ahead of me, walking as fast as he could—without running. As he turned to check his lead, he grinned a chocolate-covered doughnut smile. I feigned a grimace and quickened my pace, rolling heel to toe as I took long strides and pumped my arms like a speed walker. When Jack turned his gaze forward, I broke the rule and ran to catch up. I was just few feet behind him when he turned and saw me. I reached out my hands dramatically to grab him, and we both burst out laughing. 
    Just as I was about to touch his shoulder, Jack trotted ahead of me again. We dodged and weaved, taking care not to upset the elderly or to rouse the attention of airport security. The very thought of being caught by me made Jack laugh, which made me laugh, and so the gleeful contagion spread. 
   Back in the good ol' days (before the tragedy of 9/11 and the security crackdown) I made it a habit of sprinting down airport concourses to make my flights. I rather prided myself on getting to to gate just as the flight was boarding rather than languishing in the waiting area with the rest of the corporate shmucks. But now I was either out of practice, out of shape, or both because even speed-walking Jack easily outpaced me.
   "I won! I won!" Jack gloated when I huffed up to the concourse's end a good two minutes behind him. I was out of breath.
  "Whatcha want to do now?" Jack asked.
   "I dunno," I shrugged. "Let's walk back toward our gate and check out the shops."
   We still had plenty of time before our flight, so we stopped in every Hudson News and gift shop along the way. Jack considered purchasing a Beanie Baby bear in a cowboy hat or a coffee mug shaped like a boot. 
   "Pace yourself," I said. "This is just the Houston airport, we've got all of Los Angeles and San Diego ahead of us, and you've only got so much to spend on souvenirs."
   We made our way down the concourse, and stopped by the food court to consider the options. That's when I noticed an exhibit displaying colorful drawings and paintings created by children. 
   "Let's take a look," I said. 
   "But there's a candy store," Jack said, pointing to a bright kiosk just ahead of us.
  "We'll go there next," I promised. "C'mon, let's find our favorite paintings."
   We walked around the exhibit, pointing to the artwork we liked best. Some of the pieces were quite good. Small tags revealed the names and ages of the young artists. Many of the children were Jack's age, some much younger, a few older. 
   First Jack liked a magic marker drawing of a Panda. I could have guessed he'd pick that one since he's held a love of that gentle, endangered species since he was a baby. In fact, our trip to the west coast included a much-anticipated stop at the San Diego Zoo where Giant Pandas reside. But then he saw an image of a football player and named that as his favorite instead. 
   After some consideration, I chose a watercolor of called "The Tortoise and the Hare" painted by an eight-year-old girl. The watercolor had run a little and pooled in the rabbit's ears and in a spot that must have been his nose. There was something about the bunny that made me smile. I showed Jack my favorite painting.
   "Yeah, that's a good one," he agreed. "Now can we go?"
   We were about to leave the exhibit so Jack could see if Natalie's had the new green apple Skittles when I saw a sign that explained the exhibit, which was entitled Making A Mark. The artwork had been created by children with cancer.  There were post cards on the table and travelers passing through the airport were asked to write notes to their favorite artists, who were receiving treatment at Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers. The reality washed over me. Some of these children, many of whom were my son's age, were very ill. 
    How many airport exhibits like this one had I rushed past because I was too consumed by my own concerns, or by work or my crazy love life or God knows what else? If not for trying to amuse Jack during our time in airport purgatory, I might not have seen this one either.
   I picked up two postcards and handed one to Jack.
   "Let's write notes to the kids whose art we liked best," I said.
   Jack really wanted to get to that over-priced candy but he agreed to fill out a postcard. I thought for a moment and then wrote a note to the Rabbit Girl. It went something like this: "I love your painting. It was my favorite on in the entire exhibit at the Houston Airport. Watercolor is really hard but you did a great job. I particularly liked the way you painted the rabbit. Thank you for sharing your talent. You really made me smile. I am in the airport traveling with my son and we both hope that you feel better soon. Love, Brigid."
   Jack had already placed his note in a cardboard box on the table by the time I finished writing to the Rabbit Girl. I wondered how she was doing and if she was still very sick. I said a prayer for her and her parents and dropped my note in the box with the others. Then I looked at the works of art one last time and said a prayer for all the children and their families, especially for their mothers. And I felt very, very grateful to be in this airport with my healthy son, flying to California on a big adventure. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Other Shoe

Monday, July 15. I have new assignments coming in. Jack started band camp at the middle school he'll be attending in August and he's doing well. Jay and I spent a fun (if busy) weekend in the mountains. Okay, I'm just going to admit it: My life is good right now. There, I said it. Why do I hesitate to broadcast that things are good? Perhaps it's because I'm fearful that if I'm too boastful about the good in my life, something bad will happen just to take my happiness down a peg. Even as I write this, I'm holding my breath just a little waiting for that other shoe to drop. You know the one. It's the 400 pound loafer that comes crashing down just when you think you're in the clear.  Or maybe it's a boot ... or it could be a flipflop.
   Regardless of the type of footwear, just what does this saying mean? Apparently the adage was coined about 100 years ago. Here's the origin as related on worldwidewords.org:

A man comes in late at night to a lodging house, rather the worse for wear. He sits on his bed, drags one shoe off and drops it on the floor. Guiltily remembering everyone around him trying to sleep, he takes the other one off much more carefully and quietly puts in on the floor. He then finishes undressing and gets into bed. Just as he is drifting off to sleep, a shout comes from the man in the room below: “Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!”

"Waiting for the other shoe to drop" means something adverse has happened and there's a very likely chance that some other bad even will occur soon because of a direct relationship between the two occurrences. As in, you have two shoes, so if one hits the floor with a thud, it's reasonable to anticipate that the other one is gonna thud too.
   But if I'm making good choices and doing good work and there's no reason to believe that anything adverse is about to happen, why do I still anticipate the worst? Answer: The Upper Limits Theory.

   In their book, "Centering & the Art of Intimacy", Gay Hendricks and his wife, Kathlyn (both psychologists) write about the phenomenon they call "the upper limits." This law of human dynamics states that we can only stand so much happiness before we undermine ourselves and find something about which to be miserable. The authors contend that we derail our happiness as adults because we learned as children that happy occurences are often followed up by unhappy or humiliating ones. For example, you win the spelling bee, but trip on your shoelaces on the way to pick up the trophy.
   Of course, Buddhism teaches that our suffering (or dissatisfaction) in life is caused not by an event but by our perception of the event. When I attach my happiness to a particular outcome, I'm bound to be disappointed. The dropping of that other shoe is inevitable, so why decide that it's bad? Why take it personal? Why lament over something that is completely beyond my control?

Friday, July 19. On Wednesday I banged my head on the Upper Limits. Doh! Although Buddha never said, "If you want to be happy, never, ever read the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) provided by your insurance provider," if he had Blue Cross, he might have made that the Ninth Fold in his Eight Fold Path to Enlightenment. Suffice to say, I read mine. Turns out I owe $1200 for lab tests sent by my doctor to a lab outside my Blue Cross network. Ouch! Suddenly I'm spiraling downward in a funk. Yes, I'll appeal the claim and maybe, just maybe I'll get some relief on that bill, but nothing takes the wind out of my sails like an unexpected major expense.
   I've learned from my Buddhist practice that becoming emotionally bent out of shape over setbacks doesn't help anything. I don't always lose it.  Sometimes I can turn a loss into a win without much effort at all.
   For example, last week, the power went out during a big summer storm. Jack had a friend spending the night and pretty soon the boys had run down the batteries in their game devices. Luckily, I found a big flashlight in the basement (thanks, Jason) and we opened the cupboard in the living room that holds all the board games. No batteries required. Had the power stayed on, the boys would have holed up playing Minecraft all night and I would have contented myself lounging in bed watching "Glee" on Netflicks.
   But this adverse condition produced a great outcome. I love board games, always have, so I was not-so-secretly thrilled that the boys were enthusiastic not just about playing, but about including me. First we played Monopoly, which went well until Jack's friend realized that Jack was about to take him to the cleaners. (Jack's a Monopoly shark.) We switched to Yahtzee, which we were content to play until the power came back on five hours later at 11:30 p.m. We all cheered as the utility man restored the lights and—even more important—the air conditioning. Then Jack made a request for the one board game I abhor.
   "Let's play Life!" he said.
   Have you played The Game of Life lately? You start off with college debt. Then you're asked to randomly choose a job and move around the board into the shark-infested waters of law suits and mortgages. Plus you're heaped with expenses depending upon the number of plastic children you add to your little plastic convertible. Oh, and you have to pay taxes and losing your job means selecting a whole new career. Windfalls do arrive, but in the form of winning the equivalent to America's Got Talent. And no, I am not making this up! I find the whole thing depressing.
  "No thanks," I said to Jack. "I'm living that game, I don't need to play it."
   "You always say that," said Jack.
   "Because it's true," I replied.
   With the power restored, the boys plugged in their devices and returned to the electronic world they were building in Minecraft while I sorted the play money and put away game pieces. At least in Monopoly there's only one shoe. And when it drops, it might land on Boardwalk or Park Place.