Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hanging On

I have lost a lot of time these past few weeks slavishly working in the kitchen. I've filled so many jars with pickled asparagus, rhubarb date chutney, apricot jam and peach jam, I've run out of space to store them.  I've got rhubarb pie in the freezer. It's about to be joined by a chard/spinach pie. Another jam session in a minute: strawberries. I am such a pig I nabbed two extra luscious pints from the local farm.  I can't let go.

I have been making jam for 45 years and pickling for 35. It's become a habit, a reflexive response to summer. I started when there was no fresh food supply in winters of the frozen north, but my life changed since then. I get all the fresh food a body needs in January from local farms in California. Yet I still rush to preserve.

Nowadays I end up giving most of the jars away as gifts. There are actually folks who wait for them, expect them, can't get enough of them. They got me thinking I was slaving away for others--and the glory of their praises. It's nice to be wanted.

I do a lot less than I used to. I have learned the hard way. Decades ago famed salmon still swam into the Kennebec River of Maine and everyone flooded the fish markets to get it for July 4. It was then or never because the Kennebec salmon only swam up to spawn for two weeks. That was that. Two weeks was no time at all for such delicious fare, so I got attached to the idea of eating it. I decided I would save salmon. I researched, asked and tried for years to freeze it in such a way that it would taste like fresh fish but not even freezing it in a block of salt water as some experts advised made defrosted salmon taste good. Fresh Kennebec two week salmon would not let me hang on. 

Then there were those little cold water shrimp that ran up the Maine coast every January filling boats up to the knees of the crew. You could buy pounds of them for nothing and you knew they'd make great shrimp salad in July if only you could hang on to them. I remember a lot of snowy night discussions about whether it was best to freeze the shrimp cooked or raw, with or without shells, in salt water or dry, because no method gave them the succulence of freshness. An Indian friend finally resolved this dilemma for me. "When they come into season," she said, "I eat as many as I can every day that I can until I am so full and sick or them, I don't want to see them for another year."

Now suddenly with a bizarre Eureka! I look at all these jars crowding my counter and closet and see what I have been doing all these years: still not letting go like that. The Buddha said impermanence (aka change) was the ultimate cause of all suffering and pain. Samsara is our continually repeated (aka habitual) effort to stop it, to attach and hang on to what's merely passing by.  After decades on the meditation cushion, I discover the kitchen is the place where you can actually get it. Seasonal local eating, that's the mantra of impermanence right there. Waxing ecstatic about fresh strawberry rhubarb pie in June-- such a long wait!, eyes lighting up at a pile of Georgia peaches or Jersey tomatoes--yes again! Phew!, gorging on corn fresh from the nearby farm and never again until its fresh from the farm again next year, that's the practice. Impermanence doesn't get any clearer than this. Especially when you so easily see yourself trying to hang on.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Friday, May 29, 2015

Nepal Horror Update

 A private truck piled with tents, tarps, blankets and food donated by private citizens was ambushed and commandeered on its way to Dohkala, one of the most devastated and hardest to reach areas, by non other than the local government agents, claiming the villagers ahead didn't need the stuff so they were going to keep it.   This fits in with the traditional pattern of denying the existence of the mountain people and thus denying them all goods and services.

Tents, tarps, blankets and medical supplies being flown in by private groups and citizens around the world are now sitting still in the cargo hold of the Kathmandu airport where local government officials are demanding a 46% import duty on everything. right now, our school has over 100 kids sleeping under leaky tarps, needing those tents.

It is very hard as a Buddhist to have respect for those who have NO respect for others' lives. I really do wish someone would pile the entire government and its venal bureaucracy into the path of the next oncoming landslide so the Nepali people could be freed of such abominably needless suffering.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

All Shook Up

Nepal's double earthquakes weren't just another headline to read and turn the page. They devastated "my people", places and faces I know and love, and schlep there to help. So the news was a landslide that buried everything else I had in mind.

It awes me how other people have gone on with their lives, Netflix queues and inane Facebook postings of sayings and dog photos as though nothing at all has happened. It's been three weeks since the first horrific shock waves and I'm still digging out of the rubble of other people's lives. Just moments ago, I dialed and woke my trusted taxi driver who a week ago woke me begging for help. His beloved father, a penniless aged widower, was sleeping in his field with no hope for shelter or food. And it was teeming rain, with bouts of lightening, monsoon season at hand. I figured Rembo, Rembahadur's chosen nickname for himself, wouldn't mind waking up to good news for once. Waiting for him at Western Union was half of the $500 he needed to make his dad life-saving shelter.

I already had $100 hand delivered by a mutual acquaintance, the best I could do. Still it ate at me that this was nowhere near enough to meet the dire need of someone I knew. All he needed to save his father's life was $500, and he'd reached out to me, with desperate hope.  Not being able to fully help upset me so much, l had to swallow my perennial misgivings about asking others for money and reach out. Waiting for him at Western Union was the contribution of four others who understood like I do that while Rembo works 12-14 hours a day driving a tiny, meticulously clean, white Suzuki cab, he is an honest man caught in the web of evil that is Nepal. No matter how hard he works, the price of basics often gets so ridiculously inflated by extortion and corruption, he can barely pay his own little family's bills. He has no savings but he is very proud to manage to scrape together enough tuition for his son to go to a decent school where he is flourishing in sports, English and computers. He wants the boy to have a decent life--hopefully outside Nepal. That shouldn't be a problem since the country's major export is its citizens. The earthquake is not the only disaster they flee.

Nepal is a failed state, disgustingly so. The media continue to refer to it as impoverished. It is that in spades because its deeply rooted palace elite continue to suck the life out of it.  They have such a parasitic stranglehold that beyond Kathmandu where they live in a luxury the earthquakes didn't dare upend, basic public decencies like electricity and water, roads and schools don't really exist. Every time Rembo drives me an hour outside the city to my guru's main monastery in the mountains and we turn off the paving onto a rutted dirt track, he grunts like the gearshift and apologies to me. "Sorry ma'am for the bumping but this is a road to a Buddhist place and those high Hindus in Kathmandu, they don't care about that." Indeed, the road to the great ancient stupa of Boudhanath, one of the city's more lucrative tourist attractions now that the government charges tourists to see it, was never paved until the late King had some ceremonial reason to go there.

The malign neglect comes with absolute refusal to acknowledge the existence of whole other regions of the country, especially its higher elevations with ethnic Tibetan people paying tourists adore, the people whose ancestors who created that stupa government lackeys are now profiting from. The Kathmandu Brahmins call them "bhotia", a miserable slang word for trashy outsider or foreigner. Merchants in Kathmandu refuse to serve them and airport passport controllers most often refuse to let them pass. 

These regions and people were hardest hit-- many places obliterated by the two quakes, and, even with some international media limelight shining (long yayThe Guardian, NPR and Al Jazeera), they have yet to receive one iota of public help. The government turned back heavy- lift British and Indian helicopters that could've rained supplies on that disheveled terrain, in good part to monopolize the helicopter fleet and profit from renting planes to all private do-gooders desperate to get up there, lucratively relieving the government of responsibility to do its own job. They kept the American choppers waiting on Okinawa for three critical days. I heard government officially forbade Buddhist monks to continue their massive and heroic rescue and relief efforts across the Kathmandu Valley because it didn't like the optics of maroon clad Buddhists doing what the Chinese clad Hindu police should have been doing.  Well, here is one of my favorite photos of the period: our nuns at work while the Nepali police, as usual, stand by watching. 

Extortion, graft, corruption and venality are so everyday ho hum endemic in Nepal, its police, army and patronage bureaucrats make Afghanistan seem a sainted paradise. Those humungous fees trekkers pay for Everest go into their pockets, never ever to the Sherpas who face the brutal climbing challenges or to basic services for their villages. Nepal is the only country I know that you cannot send a package or stuffed envelope to because it will never reach the recipient. It's a country whose security police search your purse because they want the money and jewelry they're likely to find in it; I've had to slap hands over the years and scream on my way to the departure lounge. The UN Commissioner is begging countries to give more given the mega scale of the disaster but nobody's chipping in. Help is not on the way because they know the drill. The day after the quake, some NGO or UN person found all the relief supplies do-gooder governments sent for the minor 1988 earthquake stockpiled in an army warehouse. Others quickly discovered new supplies just flown in for free distribution to the devastated were being siphoned off for friends of the government who were selling the rest to the needy for exorbitant prices. And then there was the sudden edict that all aid money had to flow through the special Prime Minister's Fund. That cut everything off at the pass.

So you can't blame a hardworking family fellow like Rembo for his crushing poverty. The Nepali people are in truth exceptionally artistic, smart and strong. They are the legendary Gurkhas and ingenious Tamang who carved steep mountainsides into the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling. They are the brilliant Newars who crafted the wooden houses for which Kathmandu is named and the iconic statues and thangkhas that fill the Buddhist shrine halls of India and Tibet. They are the IT geniuses on HB1 visas in all major US cities, stalwart builders of Middle East pleasure domes, and purveyors of pashmina--their word that's now ours. On top of talent without end, they are generous to a fault. Stories about homeless refugees rooting through rubble to round up firewood and a pot so they can offer passing relief workers a cup of tea are not surprising. It's why there's a tsunami of NGO's flooding the land and why so many of us care deeply about this misbegotten country. 

That's compassion for you. 
And there it is to the left: small school kids packing donated supplies bigger than they are to send on to others who have nothing. Ignoring the damage to their own residences, the older children, monks and nuns in our sangha have been equally engaged, trekking to their home villages with supplies, digging neighbors out of rubble, providing medical assistance and distributing what food they could find. 

These are the "bhotia", the very people that magnetize people to Nepal. And as usual they have been impeccably magnanimous. The Buddha should be proud. The magic of human splendor is very alive in all that abominable misery.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Words of my Perfect Teacher

 Fresh from His Holiness the Karmapa, speaking in Kingston, NY:

Religion is a set of beliefs and traditions handed down, whereas spirituality is personal exploration and experience. The problems begin when spirituality becomes a religion ... and becomes "mere conformance with tradition and custom" and loses its ability to transform us.

Out of the mouth of my beloved Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche:

Devotion is the same as confidence, if you have one hundred percent confidence in Mahamudra, you will have one hundred percent diligence. If you have fifty percent confidence, you will have fifty percent diligence. Here, we are talking about Mahamudra, but this function of devotion is actually common to all endeavors, whether spiritual or mundane. The more confidence you have in something, the more you will put into it and the more you will get out of it.

Soha! (That is Tibetan for Amen.)

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Ktichen Conscious/Conscience

On his current American tour, His Holiness the Karmapa has been speaking at the most elite universities and high tech campuses, preaching his gospel of compassion for each other, for all sentient beings and for the Earth our mother. Most recently, at Harvard, he called out apathy: "The most dangerous thing in the world is apathy... I urge you to feel a love that is courageous --not like a heavy burden, but a joyous acknowledgement of interdependence." 

Well, I urge you to start where it's easy to find love: the kitchen, hotbed of apathy yet seedbed of joy (think yummy meal shared with friends or family).  We have to start there because eating comes so naturally, so instinctively, we take it for granted. Maybe we've learned to be mindful of the words coming out of our mouth, but what about the stuff going into it? Yes we're waking to seasonal, local and independent farmers but that's only the tip. We are totally blind when it comes to seeing the bigger picture. 

So the kitchen is a great place to open eyes and minds--and mouths, to create positive change: in our health, our attitude, our world. Food love doesn't even require that much courage. The only ingredient we need is focus--and it doesn't cost money. 

Let's start with the fact that nobody can solo in the kitchen or be alone at the table. The whole world is in the act.  Recipes come down from grandmothers or theirs. Yogurt came from nomads who lived more than 3,000 years ago. Carrots came from farmers in Afghanistan, potatoes from the Incas of Peru and ketchup was cloned from a Cantonese sauce. How about the dairy farmer who milked which cow to create that carton of yogurt? How about whoever scooped up the olives that made the oil or who offloaded it at a U.S. port? They are all part of the entree going into you. Ramped up awareness of the back and forth of the food we personally process is the fast track to seeing how interdependent we all are. Venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a whole book about just this, starting with the sun ray that hits the soil that someone tilled.

Wake-up alarms now ring faster and louder than ever. Just read last week's headlines. Burmese workers kept as slaves in Indonesia's export fish industry. Mexicans denied even beds and toilets while harvesting all those cheap fruits and vegetables in your supermarket. One fifth of California's dangerously disappearing water supply still going to raise alfalfa to feed beef cattle for your burger. Amy's Kitchen, a supposedly organic processed food purveyor now owned by giant General Mills, recalled thousands of its products fearing listeria has contaminated them. And finally, scientists not on Monsanto's payroll link Roundup to cancer and fertility issues. Earlier an MIT scientist linked it to all the trouble people seem to be having with wheat gluten because the entire industrial US wheat crop is doused with Roundup two weeks before it is harvested, so you're getting a whopping dose of glysophate when you eat commercially baked bread.

So it comes to this: cheap, convenient, carefree or conscious, compassionate and, ok, to use today's favorite term, frictionless or efficient. Everything we eat comes from somewhere starting with soil and solar energy, ending with human hands running on food fuel and combustion engines running on fuel that comes out of the Earth. So diet choices change everything. We vote every time we open our mouth to eat, every time we toss something into our shopping cart or garbage can, every time we pay at the chosen checkout, every time we willingly go to a farmers' market and pay extra pennies to know who actually gave us our daily bread, every time we decide to skip the beef and order polenta. Buying out of season imported fruits and fish just because you feel like having summer cheap peaches in January is support for the most abominable slavery of others. Constantly eating meat supports ripping down the last forests, ripping out the oxygen supply and ripping up the great rivers. 

We change the world every time we eat. We can choose not to feed on out of season imports, but rather to wait for tomatoes and blueberries until locally in season, to eat spaghetti with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables instead of steak, to buy in bulk instead of chemically toxic cans, to choose hearty lentil soup and grilled cheese sandwiches over chicken salad. We can have the courage to stop being apathetic and acquiesce to our convenience addiction by making our own meals instead of letting some mega corporation feed us to its bottom line. And when we stop letting our egos be fed by all those enticements on bottled water, a profit stream sucking real streams dry.

It's not that hard to wake up to what's going into our mouth instead of sleep walking through meals as though they don't matter. We just need the courage to think focusing on our eating habits as  worth our time as, say,  Game of Thrones or March madness or malling or other trumped up diversions.

I suppose it also means coming to grips with the suspicion that we just can't have it all--all the time.  That's a pretty big deal.  Being limited really takes courage. Are you okay with that? His Holiness is. He  prescribed limits for himself when he became a committed vegetarian. 

I recently met a middle aged couple trying to meet their daughter's challenge to live trash free. It's not that hard, they said, when you make the effort to think about what you're doing. They buy in bulk or fresh from a farm. They get milk in returnable glass bottles instead of waxed cartons and buy nothing in clamshell packaging. They were quite pleased with this accomplishment. 

Of course I'd like to tell you I've got this down pat; His Holiness would be proud of me. But that's a ha ha, in my dreams. I am so the Kleenex queen that when I die, people are going to find half used tissues in every pocket and purse I own. Also, I am not about to give up toilet paper any time soon. But I am trying in my way. I do not buy imported out of season produce, imported or farmed fish, packaged eats except for an occasional can of soup to open at midnight when I return from a trip. I am a 30 year farmers' market veteran. I struggle to be creative enough not to generate garbage from vegetables and fruits, not to waste food in any way, and even though I still do a bit, it's less than before. This is en-couraging.

I don't patronize restaurants that present food as entertainment or status. I don't go to burger joints or steakhouses anymore. I came from a family that ate meat twice a day, but I don't eat much now.  I didn't go cold turkey. I just stopped eating slabs I have to "butcher at the table", as Asian people say of Americans. A few meals a week, I throw snippets in to flavor a dish. Yes, it is harder to think up a meal when I can't just "throw a burger on the fire" or eat a roast chicken for three days. Frankly sometimes it's a real pain. I get tempted. You have no idea of the tug of war in my mind in markets some days when I cruise the meat counter and feel longing. But I can make a clean get away. Thanks to the world's plethora of tasty traditions of vegetarian cooking, I manage (pasta e fagioli, anyone?). According to all the latest tests, my health is perfect.

His Holiness' idea of compassion is no meat eating, littering or environmental degradation. It's awareness over apathy, consciousness of where things come from and where they go and how we direct that traffic because, as he says, everything is interconnected. The kitchen is a great place to understand that just as a meal is a joyful way to acknowledge it. If no longer eating a rib-eye with my Caesar is a burden, I am learning to grin and bear it. I think this is what His Holiness means.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Feng Shui of Food


If you let her, Mother Nature can table train you. She’ll teach you that the wisdom of being in the moment is as vital for your body as it is for your mind. So forget the calorie count and nutrition percentages. Ignore what some diet guru and the Federal Government say every other week, and put down those fruits from Chili and Ecuador. What matters most when you eat or plan a meal is GPS: where you are right now. The food that fuels your body should sync it to your time and place on Earth. Otherwise it gets off kilter, which invites dis-ease.

Tablecloths, TV shows and touts can cover up but cannot change the true meaning of food. Eating is the act of fueling your body to produce energy. Being table trained—or intelligent, means every time you “fill ‘er up”, you calibrate that fuel to produce clean energy: qi or chi that flows through you unimpeded by dams, deluges or deficits.  It’s not rocket science. It’s just acclimation: letting your body “friend” its surroundings by eating local, seasonal foods that match it to the air, water, soil and bacteria that pervade it.

Feng shui, the Chinese science of positioning, literally means wind/water. The motion of those two elements controls all energy on Earth, including what creates the climate and the resulting food supply which controls the qi of human beings. Feng Shui is supposed to create a friction-free intersection of the physical with the invisible all around it, breaking barriers to harmonious energy. Its mantra, location location location, is typically applied to design, but Feng Shui applies to eating habits as well because food is the energy exchange from the outer world to your inner one. Eating is its intersection, which is frictionless when your body blends with its environment by ingesting edibles from it. That’s the secret behind eating local yogurt to protect your gut in foreign lands, and why ingesting farmers’ market food produced by local soil, water and air actually strengthens you.

Like feng shui, Chinese medicine comes from Taoism, particularly its insistence that intuitive wisdom, the invisible voice that prompts us to do the right thing, rises from where we digest things: the stomach. It’s hard to argue against this when you instinctively reach for coffee to wake up and hot chicken soup to fight a cold, when you reflexively counter summer heat by eating lots of cold food and react to the chill of winter by turning on the oven to make slow-cooked, rich and fatty stews.

We just know these things. And Mother Nature is forever clueing us to change our diet as the seasons change. Right now when sunlight has lengthened and the air warmed, she delivers asparagus, dandelion greens, fiddleheads, green garlic, mushrooms, nettles, pea shoots, ramps, rhubarb, and scallions for us to indulge in. These first responders to the reboot of solar power transfer the go-go energy that propels them to burst through thawing soil to you just when you need it most: to spring out of the cold, dark lethargy of winter. That’s why we speak of “spring tonic”, foods that fill our body with sunshine so their force is with us. This is science not poetry: their green color comes from chlorophyll, a medicinal marvel molecule that soaks up, stores then releases solar energy.

When we get too much of it, when summer’s heat bakes the body and sweating dries it up, Earth delivers watery foods: berries, melons, cucumbers and tomatoes to rehydrate the body. But even that cornucopia is not enough. Our sun-roasted joints and muscles need a lube job, so Nature increases enrollment in her schools of oily fish like salmon, bass, bluefish, mackerel and sardines. Don’t you somehow find you prefer fish to roast beef in August?

What’s more, almost every country on the sun-baked Mediterranean beats the searing heat with a tasty repertoire of what Turks call zeytinağlı, "olive oil food": summer vegetables steeped in oil and served hot or cold as a side dish, appetizer, snack, even meal. The best known is probably the Turkish imam bayildi, the eggplant dish famed for that name: “the priest fainted”, because, it’s said, he was overwhelmed by how costly all its olive oil must’ve been. Stuffed grape leaves (dolmades), ratatouille, bean plaki, that oily “salad” of green beans with tomatoes and dill known as fasolakia, even hummus, these are all deliberately intended for summer eating.

The chill of winter requires food that warms the heart. Yearning for heavy meats and their fat that heats the body as it metabolizes, we keep the fire going to slow cook by braising or roasting. We absorb the Earth’s minerals stored in all those root vegetables that grew slowly as they soaked them up. We help others keep their body heat by offering cookies and cakes made with spices known to warm the stomach: cinnamon, ginger, clove.  We indulge in foods that have been fermented, which miraculously adds vitamins they didn’t inherently possess: relishes, pickles, sauerkraut, aged cheeses, and the cacao bean turned into chocolate, the gift of choice to fire up the heart on mid-winter Valentine’s day.

Because historically dis-ease indicates a body alienated from its surround, Ayurvedic, Chinese and Greek medical systems consider time, place and age crucial to accurate diagnosis. Their pharmacy is ordinary food prescribed or prohibited according to yin/yang, “humors” (hot, wet, cold, dry) or body (small/cold, muscular/fiery, big-boned/phlegmatic)—all principles of balance, inside with out. Before the famous part of his oath, “Do No Harm”, Hippocrates said: “I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment… .”  Mother Nature tries to train us to apply beneficial dietetic measures too, by providing lots of option for local seasonal eating—if only we’d notice.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Now It Can Be Tolled

(This is an unusual entry for me but I want to spread awareness and raise consciousness. Feel free to share, copy and reprint.)

The removal of human toll collectors from the picturesque Golden Gate Bridge has now provided a stunning view of how dystopia happens. In less than two years, the handover of responsibility for a public necessity from a public authority to the private sector shoved bridge crossers from simple and predictable traffic backups into a nasty, Orwellian world of lawsuits, impounded cars and petty extortion. In 2014 alone, nearly a quarter million drivers had to pay penalties for supposed toll evasion, five times higher than the last year drivers paid a human. Another 16,000 drivers were “accidentally” mailed violation notices with late payment penalties already attached.

Users of the bridge, aka consumers, had no say in the switch from the outstretched hand of human beings to the faceless arm of what now turns out to be Xerox Corporation. The loudly touted reason was the same as it has been for turning over prisons, schools, parks and other public property to the private sector: saving money. Going electronic was going to save the Golden Gate Bridge Authority $1 million a year in employee salaries and benefits—not those of its executives of course, just those who have face time with the public.

The implied message to the public was: at least your tolls won’t rise. Never mentioned was the cost of going electronic: $117.5 million paid to Xerox to operate toll collection, the unspoken cost of demolishing the toll gates, severance packages, and now, it turns out, additional money for a consultant to “help Xerox fix its problems.” No explanation why taxpayers are obliged to fund the incompetence of Xerox. Or why tolls went up another dollar anyway.

The lollapalooza of the deal for Xerox was getting to outsource the real dirty work of toll collection to drivers. People who simply crossed the bridge suddenly became its unpaid workers. We couldn’t just hand over the money and move on. We were now solely responsible for making sure the crossing fee got paid to wherever and whomever it was supposed to go whenever some Orwellian machine spit out the bill, traced our whereabouts and sent it.

DIY toll collection has proved horrifyingly Kafkaesque for visitors, tourists and out of the area residents--anyone without a local transponder. Sometime their whereabouts turn out to be dead wrong, saddling them with penalties for a bill they never got. The third week, I crossed in a rental car, unable to use my transponder because each must be registered to a specific license plate. Driving nonstop through the gate caused a moment of stomach churning bewilderment, but I was just following orders. When I returned the car, I handed the clerk an additional $6 for the toll. She pushed it back, saying: “Oh no. We don’t deal with tolls. That’s your responsibility.”  Well, I thought, twice I was ready to pay. It’s no longer my problem.

What did I know? More than a month later the bill came to Enterprise Rent-a-car. That company then spent its time going through records to identify the renter at that particular moment and sent that info on. By the time I finally got the bill, it had late fees, penalties and threats. Not worth more of my time for a fight; I sighed for le temps perdu and sent a check.

Xerox Corporation counts on padding its bottom line with people like me making these unwarranted petty payments rather than protesting them. Its contract allows collecting fees from every violation, which any idiot can see gives Xerox endless incentive to gin them up. Their highway robbery has already taken such a toll, a local attorney had to file a class action lawsuit. A local news investigator specializing in consumer complaints had more than enough to air a chilling segment in February documenting thousands of drivers who got unwarranted toll evasion notices even before they got the original bill notice. They got huge, ongoing impossible-to-resolve penalties, partly because there is no person to resolve them, and partly because Xerox profits by letting penalties pile on.

The poster child of the TV segment had spent 16 months, sometimes as long as an hour at a time on phone hold, trying to clear accumulating charges for a one time trip from the north bay to the south bay, $6. He could not afford to give up his fight because it turns out that Xerox reports toll evasion to California’s DMV, and the state does not question this private company. Nor does it not allow any citizen to re-register a car unless all “fines” are fully paid.

Despite the fact that he actually paid was acknowledged, no telephone clerk at the private company claimed the “power” to expunge his public record of its mounting penalties. After 16 months, someone did dismiss the false penalties-- except the charges mysteriously re-appeared the following year on his DMV file, forcing him to launch a whole new fight to clear his name again. Fairness, hearing, due process have all gone the way of human toll collectors. And the DMV has become a revenue agent for Xerox.

We are stuck with no escape from this nightmare. Those of us who lack the swimming skills of a Navy Seal do not consider crossing the Golden Gate Bridge optional or a lifestyle choice, even some kind of take or leave it offer like the Triboro Bridge for which there are alternatives at 59th St and 34th St. As the only direct public highway over the huge bay that cuts into this section of the California coast, it is painstakingly hard to avoid. The Golden Gate Bridge is a public utility.

For that reason, frequent commuters who cross with a transponder thought the organization whose name is emblazoned on it, FasTrak, was public. After all, it is the only option. The TV Investigation revealed seemingly public FasTrak is private capital corporation Xerox. Whichever so called public servant made the decision to do away with human toll collectors evidently has since been so embarrassed, particularly by those 16,000 “accidental” violation notices, the Bridge Authority fined FasTrak $330,000 for failing to provide any semblance of customer service. That, the TV reporter said, “merely scratches the surface of what we’ve uncovered.”

I got one of those notices. Twice I had to wait on hold 20 minutes to find out why, since my car is equipped with a working transponder, I suddenly got a toll evasion notice for one out of several bridge crossings within two weeks. FasTrak had no explanation or apology for how that or the double 20-minute hold time could’ve happened.That's 40 minutes of my time totally wasted.

These revelations have filled me with a chilling, nightmarish dread about a DIY $4.30 toll for a very short stretch of highway connecting freeways in the Denver area. There, flashing signs warn of a toll but tell you to keep driving: your license plate is somehow being photographed. It was spooky and it turned out to be scary. About six weeks after taking that short stretch of road, I got a bill, its due date past. I paid the day it arrived. Two weeks later I got another bill with extended late fees and evasion penalties. The following week I saw my toll payment check had been cashed. A month later I got yet another ominous toll evasion notice with even higher penalties. I sent back a copy of the cashed check with its tracing number…

What’s most shocking about all this is how quickly the handover of the Golden Gate Bridge brought what some call Republican dystopia to a most Democratic place. And how the abuse has been ignored although it has been, as the TV reporter said, “staggering.” People who feel smugly elite enough to think themselves insulated from well-publicized depredations and indecency in privately run prisons, schools, parks and student loan programs can no longer avoid them if they need to drive on America’s highways or bridges. “To save money”, more and more have been turned over to the vaunted faceless private sector. Yet nobody has asked the obvious questions: who exactly is saving money? What is the toll?

P.S. Last night, in March, TV news showed pictures of cars, trailers and trucks being smashed —32 in a year—trying to keep up the nonstop pace going through those old booths for tolls.

PPS: Yet another penalty bill has come again for that Denver road for the toll I already paid. $4.00 that just won't quit.  

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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