Saturday, October 25, 2014

On Buddhism and Being a Bitch

By Mahlia Lindquist

Every morning I do a short meditation and set an intention for the day. The intention is always the same: Mahlia, don't be such a bitch.

I’ve been doing this on and off since I started attending workshops at the Shambhala Center in Boulder over ten years ago. The workshops all have similar themes, such as the value of mindfulness, acceptance, non-attachment, generosity, kindness, compassion, and contentment. 

The basic message is that the world is a better place when we all play nice. In Buddhist talk it’s called “non-aggression.” 

Another Buddhist tenet is Karma. According to the law of Karma what we think and do will come back to us in this or another life. Gawd, I hope not.

While skeptical about Karma, I agree wholeheartedly that non-aggression is a good thing. Unfortunately, it's a challenge for me because I’m pretty sure non-aggression precludes being bitchy.

Due to my natural disposition, combined with the ravages of menopause, I am no more able to go through an entire day without being a bitch than endure a day without coffee and wine. The only difference being that whilst I don't see the point to a caffeine/alcohol free day, I am curious what it feels like to be sweet for an entire 24 hour period. 

Yet, after ten long years of starting the morning with an intention of sweetness, I can’t get it right. I think my many years of failure has something to do with the fact that most humans are basically jerks.

(See? I can’t even manage to keep my blog posts bitch-free.)

Other than the human race, nothing makes me crankier than meditation retreats. The workshops are sort of like the gym, dull. However, in both cases, showing up takes the edge off my edge, and so I show up.

The theme of my first retreat was “Basic Goodness.” Like most Shambhala workshops, this one involved a lot of sitting and breathing. At some point over these weekends, the teacher meets with each student privately to see how things are going. But, the teachers don’t actually ask the question right off.  They beat around the bush, like one of those maddening Zen koans (you know, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)

When it was my turn, an assistant led me into the “sanctuary”  (a fancy Buddhist term for the type of room common folk refer to as an “office.”) The teacher, Walter, motioned for me to sit down and then ... absolutely nothing. Nary a word. He just looked at me expectantly.

Conversation being one of my few core competencies, I normally help out in these ackward situations, but after sitting around all weekend I wasn’t in the mood. Besides, something about this dude’s attitude struck me as aggressive. 

And so I just stared back, my face a mask of blank but roiling with annoyance inside.  Each minute felt like an hour. 

During those eternal moments, my thoughts took a violent turn: Could I whack Walter over the head with the marble Buddha head on the desk and make my escape? If caught, would Shambhala notions of forgiveness mean Walter wouldn’t press charges?  Maybe it would knock some sense in to him so that he would act normal?

So far, my propensity for crazy bitchiness has been limited to ugly thoughts and tough talk, so I did not actually bitch slap Walter. I just stared back as my mind carried on like an episode of Criminal Minds.  

Suddenly, a voice outside the ones in my head: “So, how’s it going?”

Walter spoke!

Gratefully abandoning my criminal mind, I considered the question. The truth was that “it” wasn’t “going” anywhere. After sitting around and basically examining my belly button all weekend, I expected a wondrous epiphany. I had paid my $90 by god, and I wanted my enlightenment. 

I didn’t experience an epiphany or feel enlightened. I just felt bitchy. 

I tried to explain to Walter,  
Well, crossing the street today, a Hummer passed in front of me, and my first thought was, ‘asshole,’ so things are pretty much status quo from when I started sitting around and breathing at the Shambhala Center two days ago. In short, this whole weekend seems like a colossal waste of time and money.

A few more moments of our mute stand-off. Then Walter smiled broadly and said, “Yes, exactly! People who buy hummers are real assholes. Now we’re getting somewhere! " He looked at his watch, "Mahlia, it was lovely to chat with you, but our time is up. Will you please send in the next student?”

What in the hell Walter was talking about? Was he talking about buddhism, karma and/or being a bitch? I still don't know.

What I do know, is that on the off chance that Karma is a thing, for me it is going to be a bitch. Just to cover my bases, tomorrow my sincere intention is not to be such a bitch.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Backpack is Butch

By Mahlia Lindquist


Lopsided relationships. One party gives time, energy, love and affection without expecting anything in return.  The best the other half can muster is to perhaps graciously receive that which is freely given.  

These types of relationships bring to mind a teeter-totter, with the large jowled class bully sitting on one end, huge rump firmly planted on the ground. His scrawny, oppressed counterpart hanging in the air at the bully's mercy. 

I was never interested in this type of unbalanced relationship. Both the giver and receiver strike me as pathetic in their own way. Yet, here I am, in a relationship where I adoringly look down the see-saw at someone who looks up at me with mild indifference. 

Answering calls or texts in the company of others is rude, and so I generally don’t do it. However, if my special person graces me with a call or message, my response in instantaneous.  I send texts, leave loving messages, and imagine all experiences would be enhanced if we were together. 

For every 10 thoughtful gestures I make, I receive one response.  Yet, even the most cursory acknowledgment arouses a warm, fuzzy feeling of delight.

At the same time, I am plagued with angst and desire for approval: 
Darling, what do you think of my new haircut?  I just read this book, I’d love your opinion. Did you get a chance to read the blog post I wrote last week? Of course, I understand that you are very busy, but if you get a chance...
I am talking here about my daughters, ages 20 and 17.  

My girls used to look to me for advice and approval. They painted pictures, wrote poetry, and blessed me with thousands of unsolicited hugs. I was the person they most loved, admired and wanted to be with on the planet. 

I don’t recall when things changed, but now the girls are each at the bottom of the teeter- totter, in control, while I dangle up above, an ever shrinking dot in their consciousness.

It’s the same for my friends with young adult children. The first thing we discuss over lunch is what the kids are up to, with other interests taking a distant second in terms of  favorite topics of conversation. My friend, Meesh, observed that while our children will forever be the center of our universe, the day comes for all parents when we are no long the sun around which our offspring orbit.

As it should be. 

But still, it’s hard. Especially for someone who finds it excruciating to be on the high end of the teeter-totter.


The role reversal between me and my daughters puts me on edge. It's gotten so bad that I even feel anxious about my taste in backpacks. 

My younger daughter, Zoe, needs one. The timing is perfect, as I bought a new pack on my summer trip to Boulder after having left my old one in Miami.  I didn’t mind buying an extra, because I figured Zoe would use one of them for school once we were back in Miami. 

As I went about choosing the new backpack, I looked for one I imagined would meet with my sweet girl's approval. I decided on a sleek basic black model at REI made by Patagonia.*  “Functional, yet hip,” I thought, and smiled with anticipation over my impending slam dunk. I mean, how could I get a backpack wrong?

Readers who have parented a teenager already know the ending to this story, and it's a sad one.

I was wrong about not being wrong. 

Because I am oblivious and because Zoe didn’t have the heart to say, “mom, the backpack sucks,” it took awhile to comprehend how pitiful my aspirations. I had to learn the hard way that I would never know the pleasure of seeing my beloved carry the sleek basic black Patagonia backpack. Something I chose for her with every ounce of love and devotion in my soul.

The truth revealed itself at the glitzy, cheesy and crass Fountainbleau Hotel, on Miami Beach. The guests there are a veritable zoo of humanity, including hookers, convention goers, tourists from Iowa, drug dealers and, as I have previously recounted, many women with Brazilian Butt Lifts. We walked in, me with a small black rolling suitcase and seemingly innocuous backpack, Zoe with her “my mom is so embarrassing” expression. 

Even after years of being the unwitting cause of my kids’ humiliation, it still pains me to be that parent. I have indulged in many delusions over the years, including one that I am so wise, fun and cool I would avoid the fate of legions of other parents. My girls would never roll their eyes after hearing one of my stories for the 100th time. They would never lock themselves in the bedroom, headphones in, to tune me out. They would never be embarrassed to be seen with me. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

But still, I try.

That's why, at the Founainbleau I did a quick scan to see if I had committed any of my usual cringe-worthy faux pas: nondescript attire; no ponytail; no loud talking; no dumb jokes or unnecessary conversation with hotel staff. No obvious violations. 

 Yet, I sensed something amiss.

As we walked across the enormous bling ladened lobby of the Fountainbleau, Zoe lagged behind. Even a person on the up end of the see-saw has her limits, so I lashed out, “what is your problem?” Zoe replied, “well, um, it’s the backpack, it’s sort of embarrassing.”  I nodded toward a guy with a backpack passing us that very moment, and suggested that a backpack is a common and convenient way to carry personal items for a weekend getaway. 

Although it clearly pained her, Zoe explained that the actual problem wasn’t backpacks in general, but mine in particular.  I resorted to teenage talk: “Wait, what? WTF?” She hesitated, but after having tactfully avoided the backpack issue for a couple of months, she could hold back no longer, “sorry mom, but your backpack is butch.”
Me: Butch? What does that even mean? Please say you aren't turning into a homophobe. Oh, woe is me, where did I go wrong? 
Her: Geez mom, please don't cry or call me a homophobe. I just don't want a freaking butch backpack.
Zoe's current backpack is a squat grey one purchased at Target. Despite the lunacy of her opinion, like a battered wife, I actually tried to figure out where I went wrong. What was it that made my backpack butch, and hers hetero?

I may as well have tried to understand the meaning of life, why reasonable people listen to Rush Limbaugh ... or why some of us willingly hang-out on the high end of the teeter-totter. 

Not Butch

*Astonishing fact for Boulderites: Miamians are unimpressed by a Patagonia label. Indeed, most people here have never heard of Patagonia or REI. I know, inconceivable.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Annie and the Angel of Doggie Death

 By Mahlia Lindquist

Our dog Annie, a Bichon Frise, died last week. Named after the Little Orphan, she was 16.  At the time Annie came into our lives, I was getting divorced, Dylan and Zoe were 5 and 2, and it was 3 months before we left our life in Miami to start anew in Colorado. 

One of the many books I scoured on how to help kids through divorce suggested a puppy.  Due to what can only be attributed to mid-divorce psycho syndrome, a puppy actually sounded more reasonable than, say, a gerbil or therapy.  So I busied myself finding the perfect non-allergenic puppy* to compensate my children for what was suddenly a way less than perfect family.**

Even in my addled state, I knew I should get a rescue dog. Though wrong and irrational, at the time a rescue dog represented damaged goods. If my kids couldn’t have a perfect family life, I would at least see to it that they had a perfect, undamaged puppy. Cuddly, adorable and non-shedding, Annie seemed to fit the bill.

My sisters and I wrapped the tiny fluff ball that was Annie in silks and presented her in a ribbon laced wicker basket to Dylan on her 5th birthday. It was a magical moment the kids still remember. What the girls don’t recall is the hell I endured with that dog.

Like our fractured family, Annie was not the model puppy.

She was a yapper and biter from the get go. She snapped at every outstretched hand, especially children who could not resist reaching for what resembled a cute stuffed animal. Annie also launched into high pitched barking tantrums and hurled herself at the fence for every passing pedestrian. I was constantly in fear of getting sued by furious parents and we were the bane of our new neighborhood.

Our puppy was also a housebreaking nightmare, the white carpet in our rental a tapestry of yellow stains. The dog trainer suggested more walks. I was used to Miami weather where kids only needed to wear sunscreen and bug spray; in Colorado, counting the time it took to get the kids into coats, gloves and hats, walking the dog became a full time job. Inexplicably, whenever we returned from a walk, Annie added another stain to the carpet. The trainer insisted the problem was me and the puppy was not to blame. 

The verdict was in: in addition to a failed marriage, I was also a failed dog owner.

I complained bitterly that what the divorce books should have said is: the last thing you f*cking need when going through a divorce … when you weep every day … when you are moving across the country with a toddler and kindergartner … when you can’t wait to get the kids to bed so you can drink copious amounts of wine … the very last thing you need is a puppy. 

At least that’s I thought at the time.

What I think now, is that Annie was exactly what all of us needed. Her cranky disposition toward strangers never extended to the girls, even when they treated her like a rag doll. They dressed her in bonnets, booties and dresses, stood her up to dance, subjected her to tea parties, and strapped her into strollers. She endured all with stoic patience and even
devotion.  When the kids fell asleep and she had the opportunity to escape their clutches, Annie slept by their side. 

Annie was a salve during a painful time.

That’s why, despite not being a dog person (as confessed in a previous post,) I loved Annie. It’s also why, when she died, I wailed in sorrow.  Why, though she was 16, deaf, blind, and suffering, I was not ready for her to go.

When I discovered Annie had died, I called my ex-husband, Paul, who said all of the right things and insisted on leaving work to grieve with me.  As I waited for Paul, I fretted over what to do with Annie’s body.  With a quick google search, “dead/dogs/freaking out/what to do,” I found my answer.  Humane Dog Disposal, Inc.

I called and sobbed into the phone. The woman on the other end kindly explained my options. The least expensive was immediate removal followed by disposal in an “unmarked” grave, which unfortunately included roadkill.  The second option, significantly more expensive she apologized, was removal followed by “private” cremation.  Payable by cash or credit card. 

Annie, our princess, laid to rest with a bunch of squashed raccoons and possums?! Never. She was going out with dignity. 

When I pictured dignified, I did not envision Mark. He was 6’3” and arrived to remove Annie in a bright hawaiian shirt, bermuda shorts and flip-flops. Mark was our Doggie Angel of Death.

Despite his cheerful attire, Mark cried as he carried Annie away.  His tears gave mine pause. While I appreciated his empathy, Mark’s display of emotion felt an infringement on my own heartache. No longer thinking about Annie, I wondered if Mark cried all day as he escorted deceased pets to the “other side.” Weird.

Then it got more weird. Mark felt moved to mournfully recount the day his family dog died….

The extended family were all present. Mom held the dog on her lap as she was euthanized, unconcerned about warnings the dog would poo as she died. Afterward, before even cleaning herself, mom gently washed her dog because “no dog of hers was going to the grave dirty.” Then she informed the family the burial would not be until the following day, because she wanted to sleep with her beloved dog one last time. Dad would have to sleep on the couch. 

I was stupefied. My own grief forgotten.  All I could think of was how Mark’s story gave new meaning to the term “TMI.”

But wait! Mark hadn’t even gotten to the weird part, the point of his story. 

“The most amazing thing,” he said, “is that our dog was also a Bichon Frise and her name was Annie!”  The coincidence was not exactly a miracle, I thought,  considering the vast number of Bichons on the planet and the likelihood that many of them would be called Annie — an apt name for a small, adorable, curly-haired dog. 

Finally, Mark presented Annie’s death certificate. We could expect her ashes by mail in 2 weeks. Mark assured us it would be Annie’s ashes, not those of some random poodle or possum. He confided that his more unscrupulous competitors actually do not take care to return the correct ashes.  

After Mark left, Paul and I shared a moment of stunned silence. We agreed that Mark was crazy and speculated whether he tearfully recounted the story of his Annie to every Bichon owner who crossed his path. 

I was recently in Boulder for a weekend of meditation where I thought a lot about our Annie. I thought about how she was a hiker/guard dog/playmate/coyote fighter/lapdog extraordinaire, and felt grateful she had been part of our family. I also thought about how we let the groomer put ridiculous looking ribbons on her ears, purely for our amusement, even though Annie hated them and hung her head in shame. I felt guilty about those ribbons, along with other transgressions I can't bear to put to paper.

During a break from the mediation workshop I passed a man walking a Bichon. Unbelievable! She looked exactly like Annie. I stopped to pet her and asked the dog’s name. “Abby,” replied the man. Impossible! Practically the same name. Voice cracking, tears streaming, I recounted the day Annie died. I asked the man if he didn’t think it a miraculous coincidence that my dog looked exactly like Abby and their names were were so similar. 

The man looked at me like I was crazy, took Abby’s leash, and slowly backed away.


*Note to parents with asthmatic, allergy prone children such as my otherwise perfect Dylan, there is no such thing as a hypo-allergenic dog. Dylan wheezed and sniffed her way through childhood, though she has always insisted Annie was worth the misery.

**Note to new parents who, like I was, are smug with the certainly that their children will always eat organic, non sugary foods in a TV free, plastic free, anger free house and otherwise experience a perfect family life — good luck with that.