Dispatch from the Daily Commute

A few days ago I was reading the introductory chapters of a book on the core philosophy of Buddhism (if you care, it’s called Buddhism: Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen). I was intrigued by the importance Buddhism places on living in the present moment, being fully aware of your situation at all times as it is, rather than as you want it to be, as the key to “awakening.”

This morning, as I crawled along I-285 on the morning commute, I figured it was as good a time as any to try “awakening” myself.

I have had a few, rare moments of true enlightenment in my life. It hits you like a lightning bolt, and for a brief moment you see things in a new way, feel a greater perception than that of yourself and your finite existence. This morning definitely did not feel like one of those times. But I made some interesting observations nonetheless.

My first observation was a pair of bumper stickers on a Toyota Corolla. Thanks to the Superman vision I get from my new glasses, I was able to make both of them out. One said, “My kid and my money go to Duke.” The other, “I live in this car so my kid can go to school.” Great message. It’s nice that you care enough about your kid to support them in their pursuit of advanced education at a prestigious school like Duke, but I do detect a hint of resentment there, eh?

Next up, the car dancer. You know how it works: You spot a car ahead of you that seems… well… not to be pursuing the enlightenment that comes from a full awareness of the present moment. The car lags behind the flow and then surges ahead, weaves side-to-side, and shakes strangely. As you get closer, you learn why: The driver of the car is reliving the excitement of a weekend spent “clubbing,” with music blasting, head shaking, hands everywhere but where they should be… on the wheel. As long as this person manages to keep a few neurons focused on the road ahead, everyone is safe and witnessing the ecstasy can be amusing rather than life-threatening. Fortunately, today that was the case.

At this point, the traffic started to snarl, and I found myself spending the majority of the remaining, excruciating crawl to the office staring at the back of a Lincoln Blackwood. Now this is something someone has to explain to me. I hate to sound like a stale Jerry Seinfeld stand-up bit, but what’s the deal with these new luxury SUV-truck hybrids?

Luxury SUVs are a strange enough concept as it is. I don’t expect to see too many Lincoln Navigators really navigating anything other than Peachtree Street. At least back in Minnesota it makes sense to have 4-wheel drive in an urban environment. In Atlanta, where we get one feeble snowstorm a decade, seriously, what is the point?

Concurrent with the development of the luxury SUV came the SUV-truck hybrid. You know, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac (where’s the “k”?), the Chevy Avalanche, etc. It’s the El Camino of the 21st century. But then, the worst… the luxury SUV-truck hybrid. It started with the Cadillac Escalade EXT. Basically, take a Chevy Avalanche, lose the cheap, charcoal-gray molded polycarbonate trim, add some of the characteristic chiseled edges that are the hallmark of Cadillac’s “innovative” new designs, throw on some faux gold trim, and you have it!

The Lincoln Blackwood is an even greater mystery. It looks more like a truck than the Escalade EXT, but that begs the question, why on Earth would you want a luxury pickup truck? Isn’t that a complete contradiction? Pickup trucks are inherently utilitarian vehicles, but how much utility can you really get out of them if you’re afraid of dings or paint chipping? I stared at the back of that Blackwood for several minutes, pondering this question and wondering how it could lead to enlightenment.

And then, it hit me. As we rounded the curve approaching “Spaghetti Junction,” direct sunlight struck the back of the truck for the first time, and I finally noticed that the sides of the truck really are black wood, or at least an elaborate woodgrain veneer.

At this sight, I understood the full nature of the situation, and at last achieved some small semblance of enlightenment.

I was expecting there to be a logical reason for the things I was observing. That was my folly! Thousands of people cramming onto the arteries of a city at once, morning and night, racing to-and-fro, accumulating “stuff,” basing their value as human beings on their ability to spend money on useless “utility” vehicles, working a job they loathe all week just for the next opportunity to hit the nightclubs on Saturday night (sounds a bit like Tony Manero), or sending their kids to an expensive university, apparently just so they can complain about it to complete strangers. As SLP posits in her dissertation prospectus, why bother?

Of course, these are things I knew already, things I had already pondered in the course of my life. But it’s easy to get swept up in that parade of the mundane, the minutiae of daily life, or to chase hollow symbols of “status” and “success,” and never really live.

At least, that’s what I’ll say until I get enough Benjamins to indulge in a bit of the bling-bling myself.

Reflections on Spring, in the Year 2003

Part I: The Fictionalized Account

Andy awoke with a start. His head was throbbing violently and his limbs were curled awkwardly about his abdomen. What had happened?

It must have been some kind of chemical attack. Andy, disoriented and in pain, struggled to his feet and surveyed the vast, empty landscape surrounding him. The harsh light from above made the entire world look like a blank, white void.

Andy spotted Carl a short distance away. He was lying, motionless, doubled-over. Andy moved as quickly as he could, struggling to coordinate his cloudy mind and malfunctioning legs.

Was Carl dead? There was no time to find out.

One thing was clear to Andy: survival depended on getting out of there, and fast. He tried but found himself too weakened by the chemicals coursing through his body to lift Carl, so as a last resort he fastened Carl to his leg and began to drag the heavy, motionless body behind him.

Andy spotted a large metallic object ahead, and determined it was their best chance for shelter. He made off in the direction of the object as quickly as he could in his present state, but just as he reached it, a huge, unfathomably strange arm reached out from above and lifted the object, moving it away and leaving Andy and Carl, once again, defenseless and exposed.

Part II: Wednesday Morning in the Kitchen

Spring has returned to the Atlanta area, and with it, the other inhabitants of our kitchen… ants.

It is fascinating to watch spring make its first tentative steps in February. Weeks of cold, drizzly days and frosted-over nights break abruptly with a balmy, sunny day. Almost invariably on such a day I will notice an ant or two has come to explore the kitchen countertop, but by nightfall the temperature dips below 32 degrees and the ants disappear again to wherever it is they go (assuming they are still alive at all).

And then, it hits. Suddenly, the nighttime lows are not below freezing anymore. I don’t arrive at my car in the morning to find a thin layer of frost to melt or scrape away. It’s not long before the crocuses, long-disappeared over the fall and winter, sprout once again from amidst the pine bark and bloom.

That’s when the throngs arrive. As abruptly as the crocuses reappear, so do the ants. Scores of them. Long queues of them marching across the countertop single-file. Until I finally just can’t take it anymore and I head to Kroger for some ant baits.

The baits I got this year are a different brand than I’ve used before. I can’t really tell if they’re less or more effective. Maybe they are more cruel and torturous than the old brand. Maybe they just weren’t meant to be placed on the countertops. All I know is, I have never seen the dead and dying, writhing ants under the effect of whatever’s inside those little black deathtraps before.

This morning I went to the kitchen to prepare my coffee, and I noticed a strange, sad, oddly compelling sight. One ant, apparently in some deal of pain itself, but still mobile, had somehow attached one of its deceased (or nearly so) brothers to its hind leg and almost appeared to be attempting to drag it to safety beneath the large metal cup-thing (what would you call that, anyway?) that we keep our cooking utensils in.

Not entirely sure I wanted these poisoned ants to die in close proximity to our cooking implements, I moved the cup a few inches away. The dragging ant stopped for a moment, apparently trying to determine what to do next, and eventually began once again to drag its compatriot toward the cup. Normally my first instinct when I see ants on the counter is to squish them or send in the blitzkrieg of Windex and paper towels, but I felt some remorse for my usual merciless assaults upon the citizens of the ant community. I let the ants be, and went about my business.