Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Happy Fiftieth Anniversary!

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in early September. I sent a card, and, on the day itself, placed a congratulatory telephone call during which my mother observed, “Staying married is one thing. Staying alive is the other thing.”

In mid-August, my co-worker Emily and I had lunch at Marnee Thai. We’ve been working together for eight or nine years, and talk on the phone just about every day and sometimes two or three times in the same day, but this was the first time we’d ever gotten together outside work. After lunch, we took a walk at Ocean Beach, which was really nice. Usually it’s overcast near the water even when it’s beautifully sunny everywhere else, but that day it was exactly the opposite.

Not long after that, Emily got something she had really, really wanted for months but had despaired of getting, so if there’s something you really, really want, I’d be willing to have lunch with you at Marnee Thai. Maybe it’s some sort of magic charm.

Also in August, I went to Spirit Rock again for the nine-day concentration retreat, for the sixth year in a row. Usually this is the only retreat I go on, but this year, I went on the metta (lovingkindness) retreat a month earlier, and the combination turned out to be quite a powerful one-two punch, if I may employ boxing terms when speaking of meditation.

Toward the end, I had the emotional storm that I’ve had on pretty much every retreat besides the metta retreat, and once again, teacher Richard Shankman saved the day. We had an an hoc meeting the night before the retreat ended, after the evening dharma talk, and chatted for an hour, during which he said some extremely helpful things I wrote down and have thought of many times since.

The next day, during the closing, he repeated many of these things almost verbatim. On our way home, I mentioned this to the friend who gave me a ride to the retreat and she joked that after Richard told me all those things, he correctly realized “That was some good stuff!” and didn’t let it go to waste.

One thing he said was that aversion knows how to do only one thing: be aversive. As he correctly said, my own aversive feelings can just as easily be directed against me as against anything or anyone else. Also, one unexamined aversive thought conditions the next, until just about everything seems worthy of criticism or irritation.

I had a horrible example of the momentum of aversion within the past week. On that fateful morning, before I left for work, I heard Steve Inskeep “joking” on NPR about why a certain toxic mortgage bond was referred to as “she.” Ha. And ha. I immediately felt like sending NPR an email saying why I objected to that, decided to get over it, and then decided I couldn’t get over it.

Within the half hour, I was cycling to work when another cyclist passed me on the right, which happens every day, but then her friend inserted herself between us, about two inches to my right. I exclaimed, “Jesus Christ! That’s really too close,” which was ignored. I encountered them about six more times as we made our way along Market St., and I felt like making a few more remarks in that vein—this is partly why I never refer to myself as a Buddhist—but I knew I would vastly regret it, so I didn’t. That was something, anyway.

Unfortunately, there was to be a third episode of Angry Citizen before I made it to work. Oracle OpenWorld had started the day before, so Howard St. between Third and Fourth was closed, and traffic in the area had been redirected in a variety of ways, including that the left lane or two of Howard was blocked off with orange cones starting a half block east of Third St., at Hawthorne.

The entrance to my garage at work is in the area that was blocked off, so I was going to have to ride through it one way or the other. I could have waited until I was as close to the garage as possible before going into the blocked-off area, but just for the heck of it, I started into that area right at Hawthorne, despite the presence of a police officer, who stopped me, saying, “Whoa, whoa,” or some such.

I was already in a thoroughly bad mood, so while he was lecturing me about how cyclists are supposed to use the lane just like any other vehicle operator, I mumbled an oath (I can’t bring myself to type it here, but it started with "f") and walked off, wheeling my bike toward work. He called after me, with either sarcasm or good humor, “You’re free to go,” and I just barely stopped myself from yelling back, “I was always free to go!” (Yes, there may be some authority issues in my psyche.)

I felt aggrieved because I certainly know I’m entitled to a lane of traffic, and I take the lane in that very spot every day (except during Oracle OpenWorld), which means that a certain percentage of the time, I have someone driving right behind me, leaning on his horn. And then does a police officer run over to tell that motorist he’s out of line? Of course not. Is the police officer who instructed me that I must use the lane still there now that the vast tent city has been dismantled, or am I on my own again? I’m on my own again.

With the traffic all snarled up and motorists frantically jockeying for position, you could even make the case that the safest thing was for cyclists to get into the blocked-off area as soon as possible. But for those who are thinking that it’s unwise to swear at and otherwise be surly to someone carrying a big stick, I agree—for practical reasons, if nothing else—and am certainly glad that person didn’t bury his baton in my skull. The whole thing was Steve Inskeep’s fault.

All levity aside, I did reflect later on the sequence of events and how things could have been different. Maybe I don’t have enough serenity to start the day by listening to the news. Maybe I would have been in a calmer mood if I’d hadn’t been mentally drafting my note of disapprobation to NPR. Basically, my ability to go from really annoyed back to really calm on the fly isn’t that well developed.

Nothing untoward happened the rest of that day, after the morning of unusual ill temper. I don't normally go around swearing at people, let alone twice in one day. I did send a note to NPR apprising them that the reflexive linking of women with evil is old and tired and not really all that hilarious. Emily agreed that NPR needed to hear my opinion on this.

I walked to the library at lunchtime that day to pick up some books. Calm was restored at some point, and after work I meditated at the Zen Center.
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