Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Are Toilet Seats White?

(Dedicated to Otto von Bismarck)

Why are toilet seats white?
Why do we sleep flat at night?
Why do we retire at sixty-five?
Why are we hooked to tubes to stay alive?

Oh, Otto, can you tell me true
Why do we do the things we do?

How I came to write "The Day the Universe Spoke"

In Missoula, Montana, in 1980, during a period of great stress for me and my daughter -- we were very poor, I had decided to go back to college in order to try to find a career that would suit me and pay enough money for us to live on, and mentally I was at my wits' end -- I walked twice a week to see Joann, a therapist at the University of Montana.

One day, as I walked north to the university with Mount Sentinel on my right, it felt as if the mountain were talking to me. I kept hearing words inside my head. They were like a refrain, and they wouldn't go away. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it, chalked it up to an overactive imagination, but I felt great! I danced the rest of the way.

For a long time, the mountain kept repeating the words, over and over and over again.  Then, one day, in the college cafeteria, I had lunch with a friend who was having a great deal of trouble with her marriage. As she ended her story, the mountain's words came to me, and I reached out and took her hand and repeated the words. Her face lit up and we both laughed and cried and felt a lot better. Her problems, my problems weren't solved, not by a long shot, but we both felt that there was hope.

Eventually, the words began to form themselves into a story. The story stayed in my mind until it wouldn't be content to stay there any longer. It wanted out. That's how I write. The story just pushes itself out.

Eventually, I realized that the mountain represented the Universe or God or Life or Love, whatever word works for you. But He or She did not tell me the ending to the story until several years later when I was living in Houston. I had tried to write endings -- many of them -- in my head and on paper. None of them felt right.

When the right ending came, it came with a shock. A very dear friend who was going through a great deal of pain, trying to understand where the pain came from, and trying to find a way out. She told me what her life had been like as a child and a young adult. Today, I don't remember the details, but I remember the heaviness I felt when she left.

As I tried to go to sleep, I tossed and turned and finally began to dream. In the dream, my friend became part of the story the mountain had told me so long ago. I watched my friend come alive in the dream, watched her move through the story to what seemed an incredibly painful, hopeless ending. I remember screaming that it wasn't fair, that it didn't have to be that way.

Then, the ending changed and it was wonderful, glorious. I woke up and ran for paper and typewriter. When the story was finished, I slept like a log.

But I never gave the story to my friend. After all, it was rough, the ending wasn't perfect. The story needed a lot more work, and who was I to think that my story was good enough for others to share. I buried the story the Universe had given me.

And the Universe was not pleased. He or She made me pay a painful price for hoarding the gift. But, as I wrote in a little poem in 1979, the Universe never gives up. 

This is my humble attempt to share the gift that was given to me. I hope that in reading it you will find a gift as rich as mine. 

And will share it.

The Universe is rich and wide
Full of wonderful things
And YOU are one of them.

Hypo-Manic-Depressive Me

In the 1970s, while living in New Jersey and working in Philadelphia, I suffered two severe nervous breakdowns.  I was hospitalized for two weeks for the first breakdown, until the psychiatrist gave up and released me with lots of prescriptions for serious drugs.

Those drugs resulted in the second breakdown, for which I was hospitalized for six weeks at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia.  I was assigned to doctors who realized, with me, that drugs did not work for me.  I had to solve the problems myself.  And I chose to solve them over the next thirty years, slowly.

The initial diagnosis at the Institute was "hypo-manic depressive with schizoid tendencies."  When I discontinued outpatient treatment and moved to Missoula, Montana, in July 1979, the diagnosis was "normal and neurotic."  I had just one prescription -- for anxiety.  And when money in Missoula ran out, I discontinued that prescription cold turkey. 

Today I am slightly bipolar. I need to work constantly on finding balance, perhaps because I am a Libra.

I moved to Houston in July 1984.  Below is an except from a letter I wrote to family and friends in December 1988, before I became the Tunnel Lady or started Discover Houston Tours.  The thoughts I express are as true today as they were twenty-three years ago.

When I teach or consult or train with someone and share with them what I have learned, the bottom line is always the same. I get to know them. I have no choice but to listen, not to their words, but to their actions, to their expressions, to their fears, to their pain, to their dreams. Then I begin to work with them, one at a time, as if on a drawing, to reveal to them the picture they have painted for me. And when their eyes begin to light up -- with knowledge, with recognition -- I feel an incredible high and I am paid for my efforts more than any money could ever pay.

And I am hooked by that high. It forces me to go on looking for another high. Another person to train, another problem to solve. And the quality of that high -- the joy, the lightness, the honey-sweet pleasure that flows through my veins and explodes in my mind and my heart all at the same time -- makes anything else second best.

I find that when I attempt to settle for second best -- when I tell myself that we all must be realistic and settle, that life cannot be a continuous high -- I discover several feelings: a sadness that I cannot stay high all the time, exhaustion from concentrating so hard, and relief because I don't have to be that high all the time. Worst of all, I experience a terrible depression because I want to feel that high more often; it feels so good and other feelings pale beside it. I am addicted and I want to feed my addiction.

Best of all, I feel peace remembering the high, remembering how I got there, knowing I can get there again, and knowing I can rest and recreate the energy for the next experience. I feel peace in accepting that attaining the high and experiencing the joy and then taking the time to recreate are what I was meant to do with my life.

I experience all these feelings, good and bad, acknowledging that all of them are necessary parts of the same whole. In order to have the highs, I must have the lows. The task now is to find out how to recognize the lows quickly, then work on moving out of them quickly and into the peace where I would like to spend a lot more time than I do now.

TM: The Hong Kong Noodle Company

How you absorbed me unconsciously
Into your experiential encyclopedia
Over rice and tea

How I delighted glimpsing through
The tiny cracks of mystery
Protected by your frenetic facade
Over wine and beer

Why did no slip of paper predict
The final joust
Between dilettante and desperado
Over nothing

(c) Sandra Lord, March 30, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sometimes the paranormal is a blue and silver car instead of a scary ghost

A few years ago, a young girl who had taken one of my ghost tours sent me an email asking me if I had ever seen "paranormal stuff with your own eyes???"

Because I am asked that question a lot, I thought I would reply here.

As for seeing the paranormal with my own eyes -- no, I never have. I have only seen orbs and apparitions on digital cameras.

But everyone has a different sensibility for the paranormal. Many people who have taken my tours tell me about what they have seen or heard or felt. Amazing stories!

However, I did experience one beautiful and unexplainable event. I don't know if you would call it paranormal, but it was amazing for me.

My mother died in 1962 when I was 21 -- it was very sudden and unexpected and I was very upset, as were my father and brother and grandmother.

I was in my senior year in college and the year before, my junior year, I was lucky enough to study in Geneva, Switzerland. I met a young man there from another country who was studying to be a diplomat. He drove a little blue and silver Renault Dauphine. We took lots of trips in that little car and fell in love.

He had to continue his studies in Europe and I had to return to the United States. We never saw each other again. 

My daughter and granddaughter know him as my true love.

The day my mother died, my father gave me permission to call my true love long distance. That was a very big thing then -- you had to go through international operators and it was very expensive. I called my true love using the telephone in our kitchen, where there was a window over the sink looking out onto the street and the buildings across the street. It was early in the morning and there were no cars parked on the street.

As I cried and told my true love what had happened, he was his wonderful self and comforted me. Five minutes later, we hung up. 

I walked to the window over the kitchen sink and looked outside.  Parked across the street was a little blue and silver Renault Dauphine -- just like the one my true love drove in Europe.

I never saw anyone get in or out of the car. It just sat there for several days, until my mother's funeral was over and it was time for me to return to college.

Then it disappeared.

Monday, March 21, 2011

End Game: Remembering Mildred & Playing Solitaire

I didn't have any tours scheduled this week until Thursday, so I thought I'd get caught up on back-logged work.

Instead, I've been playing computer Solitaire almost non-stop for the better part of three days, trying to regain a score of 43%.

Why, I wondered, as I clicked and clicked and clicked and clicked on red and black video cards, was I playing this stupid game. 

This morning, after playing over 100 games, it hit me.

I was determined to concentrate hard enough to figure out winning patterns so that I could get to 43%. Instead, I got End Game messages enough times to keep my score firmly at 42%.

What was so important about getting to 43%?

My friends, relatives, and non-friends often describe me as a control freak. I know how I seem, but the truth is that I struggle daily -- as I have these last three days -- to stay in control. Maybe that's what a control freak is -- someone who is NOT in control but wants to be.

So, for three days, I have gotten up with grand plans, turned on the computer, and loaded up -- Solitaire.

My brain empties. I stare at the screen. Click. Click. Click. Click.

The computer screen has been my sole social companion for the better part of a week. It has told me, variously:

There are no more possible moves. What do you want to do?

End Game.

Return and try again. Click Undo on the Game menu to reverse your last moves and try again.

If I click on End Game, the top of the screen reads:  Sorry you lost this game. Better luck next time.

At the bottom of the screen are three choices:  Play again. Restart this game. Exit.

For three days, I chose Play again. Since I discovered computer Solitaire on March 30, 2010, I have played 1,288 games, winning 548, for a win percentage of 42%.  Still 42%.  Trust me, at one time, I averaged 43%.  I'm trying to get back to a better place.

By lunch-time today, it occurred to me that there was something more at work here. Why had I not turned on my cell phone, not looked at my emails?

Because I’m tired of Discover Houston Tours. I want to do something else. I want to have fun.

But, DHT is fun.

Not the business part.

So, what do you want to do instead?

The screen read – again -- End Game.

I thought of Damien Hirst's sculpture which I discovered in 2007, appropriately enough, in the basement tunnel of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Law Building.

The sculpture has three main sections. The center section shows male and female skeletons suspended back to back, the male skeleton on the left and the female skeleton on the right.

Hirst’s piece of death is a cold medical display cabinet of glass and stainless steel (6’ x 12’) housing on its glass shelves row after row of stainless steel tools created for the purpose of poking, prodding, and cutting human tissue. Alongside of these tools . . . are the prepackaged consumable products of sampling, collecting, and cleaning. Every item is new, unused and commercially fabricated with the exception of the two dangling remnants of tool-making, language-oriented, bipedal primates, homo sapien sapiens. All soft tissue is absent, only the bones remain. These two sets of bolted together bones are suspended back to back. . . . They call to mind how one mate will quickly follow the other into the shadow of death. The smaller of the two, the female, is marked with the anatomical muscle and tendon insertion and origin points, information required for the neat dismemberment of remains for the purpose of study and/or disposal. In spite of all the iconic meaning culturally embedded in these remnants, the skeletons are subservient to the awesome undulating forms of the medical instruments with their horrific functions. The instruments are simple machines. They require the application of a mechanical force to operate; this force is the human hand, the hand of the living — the living dissecting the dead. Hirst’s choice to encase tools of dismemberment and the human remains are a cold reminder of one’s own mortality. The strong conceptual basis of End Game is enhanced by the material seduction that becomes perverse as I, the viewer, become the voyeur of my own death. . . . As I stood there . . . two gray haired couples (75 years old) entered the space. Immediately one of the husbands laughingly and loudly exclaimed to the group, ‘Yup! We’ll be there soon enough.’
My friend Mildred died suddenly on Monday, April 5, from an aneurism.

Dan Duncan, the richest person in Houston, died from a similar cause on March 29th. He seemed to be in good health but, even though he had more money when he died, I firmly believe that Duncan led a much more difficult life than Mildred.

I suddenly realized that I was feeling very vulnerable, very out of control.

Duncan was 77; Mildred was 82. I’ll be 70 in October.

Mildred’s life was full and she was in excellent health. She and her husband were active in their church and community, they square danced, she stocked the shelves with literature at the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Visitors Center two days a week.

I once asked Mildred for a list of the ten most-asked-about topics at the Visitors Center. I still have that list somewhere. It was to be the basis of my guidebooks. Guidebooks so expensive to write and publish, I can’t sell them for what they cost me. It’s a dilemma I continue to wrestle with.

I didn't find out about Mildred’s death until I received an email from the Visitors Center on Tuesday morning, so I can't blame Mildred for my Solitaire obsession on Monday. But I can thank her for inspiring me to click the Exit button and start this blog.

Update: March 21, 2011. I'm now averaging 50%.  Although I still miss Mildred and think of her every time I go to the Visitors Center, I'm not so worried about my End Game.

First Day of Spring -- Wandering Through Hermann Park

On Sunday, March 20, 2011, the first day of Spring, I escaped from the computer and took my little camera for a ride on MetroRail to the Memorial Hermann Park/Houston Zoo Station, where I exited and walked into Hermann Park. 

I was too late to tour the Japanese Garden Center -- it closes at 6 p.m. -- so I photographed some of the gorgeous white azaleas bordering the garden.

I walked along the reflecting pool north to the Sam Houston statue, where I met some tourists from South Africa and told them to look for significant dates in Sam's life in the archway under the statue.  

I headed over to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where the azaleas are in full bloom.

I love the Houston Garden Center but never seem to have time to wander through it, so Sunday was my chance. I walked from west to east and exited onto Hermann Drive and rode home, totally refreshed.

Later that evening -- and on into 1:30 a.m. -- I created my first "movie" of the flowers and shrubs using Picassa.  Every time I watch it, my blood pressure goes way down.

I hope you find the First Day of Spring as calming as I do.