Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rules of the Road (En Ra Ha!)

Engaging in minor economic fiddling as my financial Rome burns, I took a defensive driving class for which I paid $22, cash. Thus I will lower my auto-insurance premiums by 10 percent for several years. There were about 20 of us in a gray room. Mostly men, many immigrants, all of us very well behaved and attentive. Over the six hours in which we took turns reading aloud from our booklets and discussing the contents and filling in blanks, we were graced with two breaks, a free slice of pizza, and the option of Pepsi in a small plastic cup. At the end we got an evaluation sheet on which we were to jot down what we had learned. Nothing, I thought at first. But then I felt sorry for the instructor, so I wrote "useful reminders" and "anti-lock brakes."

Or maybe I should have answered "air bags." We saw video that showed us how they could explode out of the steering wheel and break your arm if you draped it across the wheel. Or if you illegally put your baby in the front, the erupting bag could slam the baby in its chair into the passenger seat--and if that gruesome impact didn't happen to crush every bone, the airbag might suffocate the infant. I have definitely learned why everyone was so upset about Britney.

They didn't have stuff like that when I was young. We didn't have air bags. I'm sure many millions more have been saved by the wonders of air bags--and they do seem pretty wondrous--than have been damaged by their impact. There is no need for me to lapse into my usual grousing about the dark underbelly of betterment.

But what was the true answer to that question? I was actually thinking about that days later. Well, there was something, but it wasn't the kind of answer they'd have wanted. I learned that one can discover the raw material for philosophical inquiry in the least likely settings. I could imagine an essay question, something like this: Consider the function of rules and standards in anecdote 1, 2, or 3--or all three. Discuss.

Herewith, in reverse chronological order:

3. In hour six, we open to a page headed: "Things Other Drivers Do That Irritate Me." For example, 2. Hesitant passer. 4.Passing, then slowing. 5. Overcautious left-turner. 10. Speeding up when being passed. And so on.

Is your blood pressure rising? Mine was.

The room stirs. We all lean forward, ready to share.

But our instructor, a mild-mannered fellow who may actually have a pocket protector, has larger aims. "What is a moral value?" he asks. "The right thing to do, you say? Okay. A code of ethics, maybe?

"So, what happens when our moral values are in conflict with things on the road? Speed, being cut off? We experience rage and frustration."

Moral values? That's the cause of road rage? Who'd a thunk? I realize I'm shocked at the turn things have taken. And besides, my jaw's still clenched from remembering that Brinks truck I lost a stand-off to at the merge to the tunnel. And I would have won, if he hadn't almost taken off my mirror. Geez, did I hear that? Is he actually making some kind of deep Buddhist case for the relinquishment of attachment to one's sense of righteousness?

Our humble instructor flicks on an old Dateline segment (Jane Pauley!) in which one driver in prison for repeatedly shooting and finally killing another driver explains that he'd done the only thing he could do given the wrongs he had suffered. According to the booklet, 66 percent of all fatal collisions involve some form of road rage.

2. Q. How far do you need to park on either side of a fire hydrant?

A. 15 feet.

Yeah, I think, contemplating all the times I shaved it down to 10, and how wide is a hose?

"I'm a fireman," says a voice from the back of the room. "You want to know why that rule exists? Because the engine is just less than 30 feet. If it has 30 feet, it can pull into the curb. If it's out in the street, the ladder truck can't pass. And then there's no rescue. It costs lives."

"I didn't know that," says the instructor.

The room falls deeply silent.

"You know the most frequent violator parked in front of the hydrant?" says the fireman.

No one does.

"Police cars."

1. "Here we go again," says the guy behind me. Gray hair, slicked back. Gruff, gregarious manner. Harley-Davidson jacket.

"You've taken this before?" I ask.

"Oh, yeah. I've gotta screamin' yellow sportscar."

He sounds so excited it's hard not to smile.

The instructor goes over the violations point system, informing us that it takes 11 points to get a suspension, and then there's a rising scale of fees required before you can get your license back.

"It's allll about the money," says Harley man.

It turns out there's another reason for taking this class besides lower rates: You can get points taken off your license.

"How many?" asks the instructor.

"FOUR! You get four off so you can get four more!" the guy yells, gleefully.

I feel a little chill.

"Yes, you get four off every 18 months. You can erase points you already have, but you can't use it as a credit against points you're going to get."

"Eighteen months?" the guy mutters. "Eighteen months?"

He pulls out his phone. "Hey, when did I take this thing last? You gotta find out for me. Right now."

There's a pause.

"Oh, shit, 11? 11 months? I gotta get outta here."

And he does, in a hurry.

Drive safely, dude. Please.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Walt, Dizzily

Tonight I went to the yoga center again. We were doing a book group on the Bhagavad Gita. Here's a sample of Sri Krishna, an incarnation of God, from the Eknath Easwaran translation:

I pervade the entire universe in my unmanifested form. All creatures find their existence in me, but I am not limited by them. Behold my divine mystery!

The room is full. There are probably 20 or more people there. We are spread out in a circle on a polished wooden floor. Mostly women, a few men, scattered about on blankets and bolsters. We begin with a solemn period of meditation, everyone oriented toward the two flickering candles in glass canisters at the the center of the room. As soon as we break off the meditation, some sock-clad person making a beeline toward the snacks will indavertently send the candles skittering across the floor. After filling our hands, our napkins, our plates, we will discuss.

Ardent practitioners, concerned parents, seekers, lapsed Catholics, Capricorns and Scorpios and a handful of us on the cusp on Gemini, who knows what else is going on in the room. There's a woman inspired by the Gita to consider a study of comparative religion and a man who chokes back a sob as he reads a passage about spiritual wisdom. The home-baked cookies circulate, and the box of chocolates, and the gourmet popcorn and those vinegar potato chips. Offerings spread out on paper napkins. Seltzer, juices, Honest tea, wine in plastic cups.

I don't actually know what anyone in this room is after. I myself have resolved never to aspire to enlightenment. At moments like this, when Oneness (the Unmanifest) is in the air--these seem to be exactly the moments when I find myself surging in love with this world and all its grief and particularity. When it's all over, someone suggests that in the future we could try reading other kinds of poets, like maybe Whitman. "That's a crazy idea," announces a woman rolling on her back in some kind of upturned-beetle pose, somehow without causing offense. I think about Whitman on the way home. It's a crisp night with stars. You could eat the air. There's only one line I know: "I contain multitudes!" This reminds me of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and Leaves of Grass.

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d; 25
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow, 30
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.

That's Crossing Brookyn Ferry, snatched from Wikipedia. I swear that's the only spiritual experience I ever have--walking over the bridge (which he didn't walk; that was a ferry!) and feeling him and all his people and seeing what I do the way I do because he told me to. I love the way he piles up the specifics. All that he saw that is no longer there is there because he reminds me it once was; all that I see I know he would feel; the masts are gone and the seagulls remain, but who knows where even they will be a hundred years hence. My heart bursts every time.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Day One

You could call this notes from a failing perfectionist. Or: notes from someone who after years of agonized questioning has observed that one person's perfect is another person's version of being a total jerk. At any moment, who is to say?

A week ago I chatted with an acquaintance who'd gone to Antarctica. The whole thing was thrilling and she was glad she'd gone and at the same time horrified. She said it was so familiar and at the same time so unfamiliar. She said that when you walk out in to the snow you sink in up to your shins, or deeper. And the holes don't go away. And this is a problem for the penguins: they are falling into our footprints.

This, you might say, is one more good reason for not starting a blog. The horror of footprints.

And then yesterday I went to a yoga class. A man had just stepped in off the street to ask for a class schedule. He was brand new to yoga. "There is a class right now," said the director. "Are you coming to that?" He said yes. "Now, that is a lesson for me!" she said. "Just jump right in!" She introduced him by name, and he seemed to do very well, because from whatever position I had flopped into on the floor, I could hear her calling, laughing: "Very good, hey-you-off-the-street!"

Or words to that effect. It's the blogosphere, you don't have to get anything exactly right, isn't that so?

So here we go.