Finding Nirvana Through Extreme Amusement Park Rides

I spent my childhood in Southern California, the land of cheap thrills: Universal Studios, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain. In 1978, when I was nine years old, one of the tallest and fastest wooden roller coasters in the world opened at Magic Mountain in Valencia.

My 48-year-old grandmother, who loved coasters, stood by my side in the long line for Colossus. My brother and grandfather stood behind us, trying to find an excuse to not ride as they watched the train cars speed by the tracks above us. They stared longingly at the “chicken exits” positioned along the queue route, which I felt compelled to tease my brother about. Once on board and restrained by a flimsy buckle seat belt and single metal bar, the side-by-side train cars ratcheted up to the top of the first hill. You could see out over the entire park from halfway to the top. My brother was just ahead of me in the train to my right. I held my arms high over my head, preparing for the first 100-foot drop, while my brother clung for dear life to the bar in front of him with his eyes closed. We had obviously inherited different genes.


For the next two and a half minutes, Colossus rumbled and swayed as we careened along the turns and climbed another 100-foot hill speeding down it at over 60 miles per hour. I sashayed off the ride, exhilarated, eager to go again, which I did. My brother staggered off and threw up.

In my earliest-thrill-seeking memory, I am five years old and tying the shoelace-like straps of a too-large canvas life vest around me. After sneaking into my vacationing neighbor’s backyard, I planned to run and jump into their swimming pool. I didn’t know how to swim, but I loved swimming pools. I knew the neighbors were away, and this was my chance to try out their pool. We had one of those pop-up pools with the flimsy sides and only three feet of water. I was tall for my age, and I wanted to experience “the deep end.”

Running from the lawn to the water’s edge, I jumped as far as I could and landed in the middle of the 8-foot end of the pool. The so-called life vest immediately swam up around my head, completely useless and unreasonably heavy. It seemed to serve no purpose. I kicked my legs and splashed my arms crying and yelling. As I started to sink under the vest, my uncle scaled the six-foot concrete brick wall between our yards and dove in after me. He grabbed me around my waist and pulled me out.

BigWheelAfter I learned how to swim a couple years later, I rode my brother’s Big Wheel trike around and around our apartment’s swimming pool, pedaling faster with each circuit. When I finally reached escape velocity, I turned the plastic handlebars sharply to the right, launching myself and the trike into the middle of the deep end. For a moment, I was suspended in the air, flying, until the Big Wheel and I made a tremendous splash. I floated, still seated on the trike for a few seconds before starting to sink. Grabbing hold of the handle bar, I swam with one arm pulling the Big Wheel out of the pool with me. When I encouraged my brother, who could not swim, to give it a try, he did not land on the water upright as I promised him he would. Instead, he and the Big Wheel immediately tipped over, and I dove in after him as he started to sink to the bottom.

The summer before Colossus opened, I also discovered how to do a back flip off a swing set. I would swing as high as possible, then wriggle onto my back, threading my ankles around the chains above me, so I was essentially upside down on the swing hanging on by ankles. Then, I would sway my body to keep momentum, and, at just the right moment, release my feet and flip over backwards off the swing to the ground. My mother hated when I did this.

My days as a daredevil were numbered, and I soon outgrew my yearning to do back flips off high places but not my love of coasters. In the year 2000, I stood in line with my step daughter for nearly three hours to ride the newly opened Millennium Force steel roller coaster at Cedar Point in Ohio. The Millennium Force was briefly the tallest and fastest complete circuit roller coaster in the world. With a top speed of about 93 mph, a 45-degree lift hill, a 300-foot drop, and over-banked turns, it was well worth the wait for the 2-minute, pure zero gravity thrill.


A couple years ago, my husband, son, and I went to the Glenwood Springs Adventure Park, and I rode the longest alpine coaster in Colorado. The speed of the coaster, which you control, is not what thrills. It’s not that fast, actually. The thrill is in the g-force felt at the curves in the track and the fear that the coaster, which is a personal sled of sorts attached to steel rails, will go flying off the mountain. I knew, intellectually, that the manufacturers would not create a ride that people could perish on. There would be no profit in that. But I could make up stories, newspaper headlines, perhaps in Japan where they love fast rides, in which someone did not make it down the mountain alive — his or her coaster flying off the edge of the world. I might fly off the edge of the world. But, I didn’t. Instead, I rode that edge again and again, daring myself to not pull back on the brake as I came upon the hairpin turns, trusting the coaster to hold me onto the track while I let go of control.

This year, we returned to the adventure park, and I rode a ride that scared me in a way I had not anticipated. After my roller-coaster-riding-Big-Wheel-flying-swing-set-back-flipping youth, I was surprised. I had never been so scared. The Giant Canyon Swing sounded like a peaceful way to view the Colorado River valley below, suspended over the edge of a mountain, gently swinging into thin air. But, no. This ride was far from peaceful or gentle. They should call it: The Canyon Thrust of Near Death. For one, the swing does not swing. Swinging would imply a certain passivity. A gentle push, then release as the device glides through the air of its own volition. Second, this ride had no release and did not glide, of its own volition or otherwise. There was only brutal force.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI climbed onto a plastic bucket-like seat that was formed to my body, curving under my thighs and behind my back. The middle-aged man operating the ride pressed a thick, round, padded bar down hard on my abdomen. I was glad I peed before getting on the ride. Facing out toward the canyon and staring down 1,300 feet below, only a few feet from the mountain’s edge, I tried pulling up on the “belt” as hard as I could to ensure it really was secure. The operator came back around and checked the belt again. Now, the newspaper headlines started writing themselves in my brain: “Woman and child die tragically in mountain adventure ride — pneumatic lock failure to blame.” I suddenly didn’t trust this restraint. I longed for a good, old-fashioned seat belt with clips and buckles or, at the very least, some redundancy.

But, it was too late for second thoughts. The so-called swing started to push. The loud, tree-size piston pumped and thrust us forward, out over the valley. So far, so good, but then, it pulled back, harder than it pushed, then thrust out again with even more force. This time, when we “swung” out over the valley, my son cried out in a threaded voice, “Mom, I can’t breathe.” I turned to look at him seated next to me, and he looked scared. The g-force took the wind out of us. When we were pulled back again, I was gratefully for how tight the pneumatic bar was across my waist, as surely Newton’s first law would have me flying into the world’s largest hot springs pool below (hopefully into the deep end).

When we were pulled back the second time, we were turned completely upside down suspended for a moment at zero gravity. Again, grateful for the bar, the newspaper headlines still flashing in my head, I realized, “I must surrender. I am either going to die or not going to die, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I may as well enjoy the ride.” As we hurled forward the third time out over the yawning valley below and then up to the clouds, I exhaled audibly, so Daniel could hear, “Aaaaaahhhhhh.” As we were pulled back and upside down again, I breathed in deeply, “Mmmmmmmm.” With each push and pull, I breathed. I surrendered completely. I let go of living or dying. I actually enjoyed it, like those back flips off the swings when I was eight years old, only going 50 miles per hour.

Even now, writing this, my hands start to sweat, and my heart races. I did not ride the swing a second time. That moment of surrender stayed with me. I am a woman in control, most of the time, or so I think. I seldom let go. And, yet, when faced with death or the possibility of it or simply the inability to get out of an insane amusement park ride, I realize I have two choices: freak out and scream the whole time; or let go and breathe. I have never been a screamer. I am the one who throws up her arms in sweet surrender. Aaaaahhhhhh. Mmmmmmm. In that moment, as I gave into whatever would be, I was no longer in the movie of my life. I glimpsed the frame’s edge.

Long Lasting Radiance

Seasonal high today! Did I hear 76 degrees? Too warm to wear a hat. I finally need to do something about the grey roots which are suddenly not blending any longer. Wasn’t it just three weeks ago I tried to sweep them under a carpet of Warm Cappuccino?

The box of “Dark Chestnut” beckons to me. My friend Rivvy, afraid to do it herself, shoved the box into my hands the other day saying, “Take it. It’s a gift.” I snatch the box eagerly, like a piece of chocolate, for my hair — a promise of gorgeous, chocolate-coated hair.


  • Covers 100% grey hair
  • Intense, long lasting radiant colour
  • With active vegetable ingredients

I’m not sure what the active vegetable ingredients will do for my hair. Make it healthier? More wholesome? Orange?


  1. Put on gloves.
  2. Pour bottle A into bottle B and screw on cap.
  3. Attempt to unscrew top from bottle B cap with slippery gloves.
  4. Remove gloves.
  5. Remove cap from bottle B.
  6. Insert cap from bottle B into mouth and bite down hard on top and twist with teeth.
  7. Unscrew loosened top with bare hands.
  8. Replace cap on bottle B.
  9. Put on gloves.
  10. Apply colorant to roots.
  11. Nearly blind self with errant drop of colorant.
  12. Set timer 10 minutes. Avoid getting colorant on stove clock buttons.
  13. Notice dark black blotches on face around hairline.
  14. Blot dark blotches with soapy cloth.
  15. Apply rest of colorant to hair.
  16. Spill colorant on blouse, sink and floor.
  17. Remove hot sticky gloves.
  18. Set timer for 20 minutes.
  19. Play Angry Birds on iPhone.
  20. Achieve 3 stars on level 10. Death to pigs!!! Hear the birds cheer!
  21. Miss the timer beeping. Shit. How much time has passed?
  22. Jump in shower, wash and apply conditioner.
  23. Run out of hot water allowing conditioner to set.
  24. Rinse conditioner shivering under cold water.
  25. Use hair dryer to warm up.


Yes!!! Dark chocolate hair!!! More orange at top – perhaps result of active vegetables. Made a mess in the house. Nearly blinded myself and over-processed, but that was the pigs’ fault. Nonetheless, my hair is dark dark dark (except that one grey spot I missed at my right temple).

Dark like 80% dark chocolate. Dark like the dark Irish.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Friends in Pajamas

The other great thing about waking up in your forties is being able to look around at all the great friends you’ve managed to attract. They are there for a reason. You are all old enough to know what you like and don’t and are less likely to take shit from just anyone. So, if you’re going to take shit from someone in your life, it’s going to be from people you like taking shit from. These are the really cool people you call your friends.

Take, for example, last night.

A new friend, a mom from school, a practicing Buddhist, invites me to a talk by her spiritual teacher, Lama Tsultrim. This female Lama is a stunningly beautiful woman in her sixties. You can imagine her being drop-dead gorgeous in her twenties and wonder how she could have ever survived being a spiritual teacher in the 1960s without dozens of men falling in love with her. Maybe that was the secret to her success in addition to her easy-going attitude and sense of humor.

Her rap on this particularly warm early March evening was on the history of Prajñāpāramitā, the nature of mind, and the co-arising of emptiness and appearance. She spoke about the history of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras also known as the “Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom.” Written around the 1st century BCE, the myth (though the Dalai Lama and others would scoff at this being called myth) is that Nagarjuna, the founder of Mahayana Buddhism and one of the most important Buddhist philosophers after the historical Buddha, was given the Prajñāpāramitā teachings by a water serpent who was guarding the bottom of a lake. I don’t know if it’s the high altitude or all the hours of emptying one’s mind during meditation, but the Buddhists have great imaginations from which arise these fantastically vivid and memorable stories. If you’re going to introduce one of the most pivotal teachings of Buddhist history, by all means, acquire it from the king of the water dragons!

I listened to this talk, smiling and sitting crossed legged on a zafu next to Anne who looked very tired. I felt relaxed and at ease. Having grown up sitting on cushions in front of spiritual teachers, being in rooms full of people thinking deep thoughts is like coming home. I can relax and let the wisdom bathe me a bit. I may not practice meditation, but I like the idea of practicing meditation, letting my mind view my mind, having “discursive thought,” as Lama Tsultrim described, dissipate into the emptiness that leads to gnosis, the sword which cuts through duality and allows you to see that emptiness and appearance are one and everything is possible. This experience of mind meeting mind is ineffable. The ability to conceptualize it and pin it in place impossible. How cool is that? It’s so like quantum physics.

By the end of the talk, I needed a drink. I had been coveting the Lama’s bubbly water with fresh squeezed lemon juice all evening. I called my friend Dee who was having a rough week to find out if she was off work yet. We met at the corner bar. I ordered a bubbly water and lemon. Together we ordered tequila, on ice, with a squeeze of lime and talked about her Buddhist boyfriend’s desire for her and his newly acquired housemate to get along. We talked about all the difficult situations we confront in our lives and how challenging it is to be vulnerable and not guarded.

Inspired by Lama Tsultrim’s talk and a second round of tequila, I proceeded to give Dee a Buddhism 101 lesson, which, summed up after five tequilas between us, as:

Be curious
Express empathy
Be vulnerable
Don’t defend yourself
When all else fails, and you can’t find anything nice to say to someone, just say, “Bless your heart,” with all the sweet sincerity of a good Southerner

We all need tools to deal with life’s challenges. I have a sonic screwdriver. I like to dance, occasionally drink tequila, and use too much hot water taking long baths. Difficult situations require Upaya, the Buddhist word for “skillful means” or the most expedient way to reach your goals. Dee’s boyfriend would like her to use this discord with the housemate as a learning opportunity. I imagine Dee would like to tell him to shove his Buddhist good intentions up his ass and bitch slap the housemate (well, that’s what I imagine doing, but that’s another blog post). However, this would not be practicing Upaya. Or maybe it would be if her end goal was to be lonely or seen as a bad ass.

I looked up Upaya on Wikipedia on my iPhone 4 as I noshed on onion rings. As far as I could tell, the best way to approach the situation was for her to think about her own end goals and the “expedient means” by which she might reach them. More tequila, please!

Filled with a feast of fried foods and tequila, we found this moment together so full of possibility and humor that we posted it on Facebook, but we couldn’t get the wording right, so we kept posting it and deleting it, the ineffability of it making it impossible to be caught in a status update (or maybe I’d had too much tequila and couldn’t type for shit). We walked back to my house and rewrote the status update about Buddhism and tequila and vulnerability and compassion a couple more times, joking about how we were going to get home (which was funny only to us since we were already home).

Immediately, three friends commented on the final post, writing, “Don’t drive. I will come get you.” I laughed so hard rolling on the floor and pissing my pants. I was home, and I had friends, right at my fingertips, who would come running to me in their pajamas, no questions asked, to save me from myself.

I love my forties and the friends I’ve found in them.

(I don’t know how any of this relates to Prajñāpāramitā and whether I’ve managed to acquire any useful wisdom or have simply transcended it all together in fits of giggles. I’ll take the giggles for now.)

Believing in Something

It happened. I thought I was immune. The last time I felt it coming on was in the mid 80s and early 90s when I worked for a software company called “Quark.” The floors of the eight-story building were named after planets. We attended Star Trek movies en masse. I called myself a Trekkie, but I realize now that was a lie. I never purchased paraphernalia or quoted lines except, “Live long and prosper,” and everyone did that.

While most of my friends got sucked into cults, like The Moonies, Scientology, Divine Madness, or became disciples of Hindu gurus and Buddhist teachers, I maintained my hyper-critical, individualistic distance. I participated in groups, but I never joined them. I never became a disciple, a follower, or a member. Instead, I became a very curious atheist.

Until now. It started innocently enough. We found a Roku box in the garage. It contained free streaming Netflix. My husband, son and I queued up Dr. Who Season 5 featuring Amelia Pond as The Doctor’s companion. That’s what they are called, “Companions,” the women who roam the universe with The Doctor, always with a high level of sexual tension but never any real action. 

I don’t know why we chose to watch Dr. Who of all the thousands of free digital movies we could have viewed instead that night we installed the box. I had purchased a VHS set of the Tom Baker Years in the 90s, but I never got around to it. With the 50th year anniversary approaching and all my Dr. Who fan friends raving about the Christmas episode, perhaps I thought I should show an interest.

Now, at 44 years old, for the first time in my life, I am, I think, exhibiting symptoms of a fan, the one true believer. What are the symptoms, you wonder? The first red flag was when I felt irresistibly compelled to purchase a Sonic Screwdriver. Given, I was experiencing a lot of stress. Our roof had leaked over the summer, and the contractor cut the headers of our house to fit the windows he ordered too large. I was convinced the roof was going to collapse on us at any moment. Not to mention the asbestos. I don’t want to think about the asbestos.

IMG_5523I thought the Sonic Screwdriver would help me cope. I could wave it around and fix things or unlock mysteries, if only in my mind. I was ready for the first time since my teen years to suspend disbelief and engage in magical thinking. However, I had to wait three long days for it to be delivered, since I had rationally restrained myself from paying extra at Amazon for overnight shipping.

The night I ordered the screwdriver and agonized over whether I should have paid the extra shipping, The Doctor lost his! But, upon discovering it was missing, he said, “Don’t worry, I have an app for that!

Genius! I immediately located the Sonic Screwdriver app in the App Store and purchased it. Every Sonic Screwdriver that has ever been shown on Dr. Who is in the app. You can mix and match bases with midsections and pointers and choose different sound effects and animation. It would get me through the long weekend and the visit with the structural engineer.

The next red flag was more subtle. For Valentine’s dinner, I purchased a cream tart and salmon patties. We watched Dr. Who Season 3, the Utopia Episode. I started to think of lines I wanted to remember, like, “Maybe later, Blue.” I texted my friend who was attending the 50th anniversary DW con (that’s what fans call The Doctor Who Convention) asking her if watching DW on Valentine’s night was romantic. She felt it was because it’s a turn on. Hmmm…actually, I did find the omni sexual immortal guy pretty cute.

I was about to fall asleep later that night when I realized that cream tart and salmon patties are just one deep fryer step away from custard and fish fingers.

I have participated in my fair share of darshans, pujas, meditations, group therapy, vegetarian love feasts, and ecstatic dance over the years. But, in my 40s, science fiction is exerting its power over me more strongly than any guru or so-called spiritual teacher. I am more likely to buy a Tardis to place on my desk than a singing bowl, or a Doctor Who doll than a Buddha statue. I find deep comfort in the commandments of The Doctor:

“Do everything I tell you, don’t ask stupid questions, and don’t wander off.”

It’s a bit cult like, I admit, but I have amazing faith in a man who knows how to deal with cracks in the universe, speaks five billion languages, protects the planet Earth from complete destruction repeatedly, has the power to regenerate, and looks jaunty in a fez.

Who needs God when you have The Doctor?