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.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


My “stepsister” phoned on Monday, sounding weak, and told me she was undergoing daily radiation treatment again, this time near her brain on a pressing mass newly found. The treatments, barely minutes long, did not hurt or impair her ability to drive to them. And she had yet to feel significant side effects. The pain was essentially emotional: she was having a very hard time digesting what was happening to her, to her body.

Years ago, this seemingly delicate woman had deliberately turned herself into a flawless mountaineering machine to grind away the sense of powerlessness endowed in her by too many tragedies. Now here was another one. It was not clear whether her overwhelming emotions were being triggered by the horrors of the daily physical attack of medical war machines, or by terrifying intimations of mortality. Whichever the means, the end was the same: fear that destruction of her body signaled destruction of her self.

When she and I reached the breakthrough age of adulthood, Our Bodies, Our Selves was the title of the best selling breakthrough book. That phrase remains the best expression of the tenacious and deeply held cultural belief that my body is me. I blink, I stink, I drink therefore I am. We hold this my body myself idea so dear, we live as devoted slaves to our own flesh and blood, dedicated with passionate vengeance to literally saving our own skin. The amount of effort and money spent to peddle and purchase cosmetics, cleansers, crèmes, pharmaceuticals, massages, personal trainers, diets, spas, jewelry, plastic surgery, hairdressing, waxing, manicuring, repellents, deodorants, perfumes, fashion, luxury mattresses, gazillion thread count towels and heated car seats is even more obscene than the staggering amount burned up by fossil fuel. It’s hard to escape the perpetual propaganda of the newspaper style sections, celeb talkathons, the rapidly proliferating pack of glossy magazines dedicated to Self, Allure, Vogue, Details, Hairdos, Glamour, Men’s Wear, Black Beauty, Fitness and Vanity Fair. And so, when she needed to find another job, a well-regarded executive secretary I know spent a small fortune to get her teeth whitened.

We don’t seem to grow out of this. Last week at her 75th birthday dinner, a friend volunteered that she was thinking about having her eyebrows tattooed, maybe getting permanent eyeliner too. She was getting too depressed seeing herself in the mirror every morning, not looking like who she feels she still is. Three of her old sorority sisters were going together to get cosmetic tattooing the following week. Maybe she should too? What did I think?

I had known about eyeliner tattooing since an Asian friend did it in Bangkok maybe five years ago. In truth, from time to time I did think about doing it myself. (I do look better if liner makes my eyes look bigger and wider apart.) But every one of those thoughts was cut off at the pass by the thought of the relentless campaign waged by my long deceased mother to prevent me from doing anything for cosmetic reasons. I couldn’t try on makeup or even shave my legs living under the rule of a woman who rooted harder for Miss Congeniality than for Miss America, who when I was four had agonized for days over whether or not to send me into eye surgery whose benefits would prove to be slightly more cosmetic than therapeutic. I am a woman who spent the first twenty years of this life force fed the philosophy: it’s not how you look, it’s who you are that matters.

My mother’s fierce attacks on appearance for appearance sake were waged in counterpoint to the new prevailing Post War philosophy: packaging. Consumer culture was taking hold, rooting in the idea that presentation is everything. It is in fact the only thing. So long as the box looks great, nobody will much care what’s inside. So our can-do society has by now done all it can do with style, even turning life into it. We’ve taken this train of thought so far, I just read in the Sunday magazine, we’ve come to an epidemic of shiny packaged, good looking, have-it-all lifestyle teenagers committing suicide, self mutilation, or committing themselves to counseling centers, because of emptiness pains inside.

Due to my mother’s insistence on thinking inside the box, I know a lot about music and I can paddle a canoe, I can make apricot jam and make sense of modern art, I can grow perennials and help younger people grow up. I know how to do things and to be in the world. Yet I lost my waist again a few months ago—this seems to be an every decade thing now—and since that first telltale button didn’t reach the button hole, I’ve been obsessively complaining in the words of the birthday card I used to buy by the dozen: you get a little older, you get a little wiser: personally I’d settle for taller and thinner. It sucks that gravity sends gravitas down to my waist and thighs when it could just quietly bulge my brain.

The Buddhist in me has taken sides with my mother, telling me to get over it, get on with it; I am missing the point. The Dharma runs major anti-appearance campaigns. It insists all appearances are empty; there is nothing there in any of them. We’ve got to get beyond appearance to get to truth. But this is so difficult for us that scientists, who’ve got beyond to quantum physics and now quantum gravity which really proves there is no there there--nothing bolstering appearance, these folks can readily talk about the nothingness of things but cannot apply the logic to themselves, their own planned obsolescence bodies. Breaking up is indeed very hard to do.

Science, in fact, keeps driving His Holiness the Dalai Lama crazy, insisting that consciousness is just brain matter, that this very elusive animation that distinguishes us, is an intrinsic part of the physical body. His Holiness represents the ancient wisdom in opposition to this modern my body myself theory. Buddhism believes our body to be one thing: mere relative appearance at the momentary intersection of ever changing causes and conditions. Our consciousness—our distinguishing cachet—is quite another, although not a “thing.” Sometimes the analogy is that your body is the “carma” for your karma, a kind of rental vehicle in which your energy gets through this life, dropping it off at death and hopping into a new one for the next life. In other words, your animating energy, your consciousness, your karma, is a continuum. Energy is never destroyed, it is only reconfigured or rerouted.(This helps to explain the "miracle" of prodigies like Mozart and incarnations like the Dalai Lama.) Your body is temporary housing, packaging bound to decay into the elements of wind, water, earth.

I sympathize with my stepsister, for even after 20 years of meditation practice, I am still fighting that decay. I like to tell myself, since part of my Dharma practice is to visualize myself as a deity, and those goddesses on the thangkas are all dolled up with flowing silks and jewels, I can't stop hair coloring, facial scrubs and manicures now. I, in fact, made the senior monk at my teacher’s Sarnath monastery bats by cajoling him to fix the failed electrical outlet in my bathroom, insisting I couldn’t possibly envision myself as a goddess without a few blows by my hairdryer.

Of course, those who are fully committed to Dharma have no hair, which stops silly obsession with the physical body. Giving up hair symbolizes giving up concern for physical appearance. This creates space for focus on your consciousness, or interior energy, your karma or who you are, as my mother used to say. This is that sense my 75 year old friend had that her body had aged while something inside her hadn’t, the feeling I have that while my waist has thickened I’ve stayed the same. It is habit that steers this energy, that teaches it how to perform. So changing habits, or as we say, changing your mind, changes your karma and thus the circumstances your body gets to travel in. Meditation practice is all about looking very hard into this inner activity, trying to steer it in a wholesome, positive direction.

Without a body, we wouldn’t have this opportunity to work on ourselves, our potential for transcendence. So in the Dharma, the human body is considered precious. You need to take care of it, so the mind is free to work. This is not a prescription for liposuction, Botox or monkey glands. It means the Buddha does not recommend starvation, flagellation or extreme asceticism as spiritual practice. These cause obsessive focus on the physical. Extreme focus on the physical, whether too much or too little, will always prevent the urgent business of guiding your consciousness to realms beyond the tangible.

It is, as I keep saying, hard to come unstuck, unglued in a good sense. I spent last weekend listening line by line to a teaching on how to do this, being reminded that through attachment to my body I had among other not nice things stolen the lives of hundreds of creatures so I could have dinner. I heard the more you try to cosset and save your skin, the more sensitive, peevish and dissastified you become. "Because of attachment to our bodies, we're terrified by even little things." And then I walked outside into the 104 degree heat, and worked up an even bigger sweat after the scary thought that rattlesnakes were somewhere on the land between me and my car. My body could be bitten at any moment!

And so the next day my stepsister phoned with her own fears. I told her I was trying to push past my stupid panic about the rattlesnakes, embracing my anxiety to see up close and personal just what it was all about: fear that damage to my body would destroy myself, terror of losing my physical being. Maybe the radiation room was a good place for her to try that too. Going to the places that physically scare you is a very profound Buddhist practice, one for realizing that while they are dependent on each other, your body is not necessarily your self.

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Monday, June 19, 2006


My teacher, Thrangu Rinpoche, likes to say that revenge is very bad for your health. I cannot argue now that I’m the one who fell flat on her face in a garage darkened by my vengeful refusal to replace even one of the three light bulbs the golden-haired consumers downstairs burnt out because they can never be bothered turning them off. I wanted them to fall and suffer from their own self absorption. Now I'm the one in Bandaids.

And I get to watch the gloating down there in the district of mumjumbia over the assassination of a Jordanian man named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Evidently he was disturbing the minds of the powers that be there, wanting blood rather like a mosquito, and because we'd rather that he like mosquitoes would get out of our way, we took a big swat—talk about Raid! We had 57 in two days--and bombed the bejeezus out of him. Assassination is an Arab word. We showed them how well we learned it. The warlords of the Christian right (who could be the Christian wrong)supersized that old eye for an eye tribal retribution recipe by hunting down and brazenly killing a Muslim thug, then bragged their brains off about it with proud photos and press conferences. Ever anxious to offer wisdom, the media hunted down the relatives of his ostensive American victims, finally finding the wife of a far removed cousin of one dead hostage who said smugly: “Evil has been dealt with and I’m glad we triumphed.” Twas an evil for an evil.

My teacher says the problem with revenge is the problem of substance addiction: it feels good in the moment. You get high getting your way, then the bubbles fizz out and reality oozes in: you will need more because the other guy is going to want his revenge back on you. Ready or not the bogey man will get you if you don’t watch out. So you get taken hostage by anxiety. You flay yourself to shreds with fear: your stomach churns, your sleep fails, your body’s tense, your mind’s distracted and/or haunted—all of it draining your immune system making you even more vulnerable to biological attack, an extra added distraction.

This gets bad for economic health. Sometimes you get so nervous you build extra fortifications or hire guards or curtail your own freedom. That’s why we get to strip down to our underwear to get on an airplane, paying for the privilege of this security measure. We can’t get our own money out of our own bank without two dozen passwords and three dozen testimonials for our signature; why any minute we could see the great wall of Canada on our credit card statement. We have potholes on the highways, potheads in the schools, potlatch for the gun industry, potshots at the Geneva Convention that protected us too and all our money poured into various schemes of so-called defense of a country that is literally falling apart at its seams. Japan and Germany were the countries who triumphed in the 60s because they were the two forbidden to take revenge. Look on China and India, ye superpower falling down and be scared. Be very scared.

Yet American bumpersticker wisdom is: Don’t get mad, get even. Al Qaeda hitmen killed several thousand people, so we’ve gone ahead and killed more than twice that, the number of American dying in Iraq due to Bush revenge coming closer every day to the number killed by Bin Laden. That guy has his secret training camps so we have our secret gulag. In the world community we have come to be the cheese stands alone: a country as much a pariah as Iraq because we’re a country whose leader has sunk just like Saddam and Osama to being another harmer in the dell. I haven’t yet heard Bush praying aloud for heavenly virgins but that leering and loving attention to all the gory details in the photo of a blood stained dead man come as close to prurient as Al-Zarqawi did in his pornographic lust for violence.

We should be careful what we wish for. A bunch of black minded Middle Easterners blew up two Manhattan buildings so we in a black mood destroyed two countries —neither of them theirs. We blasted away any semblance of civilization in Iraq and any semblance of civility in America where everything we treasured as our cachet has been eroded or corroded by wire taps, torture, Executive evasion, wolf cries of secrecy, budget grabs and disregard for the financially challenged. Down here at the lowest common denominator, we so don’t want the tired, the poor, we celebrated Father’s Day with our patrimony in tatters: damn the Constitution, the Statue of Liberty, full speed ahead! We have taken care to destroy the so-called infrastructure of Iraq and if you read the daily news about schools, parks, levees, highways and train service here, you know we’ve done a damned good job of that here too. The Avengers cooked up the idea that democracy had to be spread around so they took it from here and carried it like some pot luck offering to the Persian Gulf where Iraq had an anaphylactic allergy reaction, making such a mess that nobody has it any more. So now we’re even steven.

It took Comedy Central to point out we do not show pictures of our own dead in Iraq because that could cause big protest but we did not hesitate to so proudly hail and parade the head of our enemy--just the way fearsome naked savages used to do. As it happens, American comedy is concocted from the pitfalls and pratfalls of such pettifogged arrogance. “How sweet it is,” Ralph Cramden crooned to Ed Norton as they plotted resentful vengeances years ahead of Archie Bunker. We laugh at the cartoon torments of Tom and Jerry, Donald Duck, Elmer Fudd. It’s funny how rage so distorts your perception, like fog on your eyeglasses or windshield, you never see when you rush to revenge what you’re doing or where you’re headed—like for that fall in the garage. None of the suicide squad who blew up the World Trade Towers was Iraqi, nor was Al-Zarqawi. These guys were all made in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt but we blew up Iraq. Americans are so obsessed by convenience that since Saudi Arabia could blow our economy to smithereens in a nanosecond—talk about an inconvenient truth-- we went for the easy scapegoat, leaving our enemies good to go and us more insecure than ever. Wile E Coyote should have it so easy.

When asked what to do in the face of serious aggression, my teacher pauses with perfect comic timing, shrugs with a shy smile and says: “I don’t know. I fled.” This refers to the thousands of Tibetans who ran from the Chinese onslaught of genocide, leaving their bitterness behind. A young friend who is a poet just went “home” to Tibet where she found an old monk her family had known. He was about 30 years old when he was taken to prison and was in it for 18 years. He thus has no family now, she emailed. She asked if he gets upset thinking of those lost prime time years and he said no, we Tibetans are simple people. If he spent this time looking back he could not enjoy this freedom now.

Funny how the non-revenge of simple Tibetans turns out to be sweet. The Chinese did not win a Nobel Prize: His Holiness the Dalai Lama did. Neither Mao nor Deng is the reigning king of hearts of the Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese: the Buddha is because they are major supporters of the Tibetan Buddhists in exile. Even funnier is how something as horrific as the obliteration of Tibet wasn’t all bad in the end. If the egg had not been cracked, the dharma would never have leaked out to feed the minds of so many Westerners who so greatly benefit from it. Tibetans’ loss has been our gain because they put it behind them and went on. Now we have pain relief and stress management programs based on their techniques for meditation, modification in the behavior of depressives and prisoners due to their psychological insights, startling discoveries in science coming from their ancient texts.

I spent Father’s Day at a retreat studying one that is 1,200-year-old and explains how to become a truly happy person. The text by an Indian named Shantideva is called The Way of the Bodhisattva or good hearted one and it is basically a cost/benefit analysis of human behavior with regard to what makes us feel secure enough to be happy. The chapter that morning was Patience which begins this way: Hostility destroys all moral conduct, charity and reverence for wisdom that has been achieved over a long long time. No evil is there to approach hatred…Men of anger have no joy, forsaken as they are by all peace and happiness.

You can find up to the minute commentary on this in today’s headlines and soundbytes. My teacher’s commentary is: if we haven’t foreseen the results of being angry, when we are harmed by someone we will react with great anger. We will not realize the harm brought about by our enemy is minor in comparison to the harm coming from our own vengeful attitude. The usual example is that you so want to hurt someone, you pick up a hot coal and throw it. But the person ducks and goes away scot free while from contact with hot coal, you have to suffer the burn mark on your hand. (Or a fall in the garage.) The Christian commentary is: turn the other check although those Fundamentalists just butted right in.

Shantideva’s text goes on to say we should not even get angry with those who attack the symbols of our culture (in that case Buddha statues like the two at Bamyan, in our case two trade towers) because they are ONLY symbols of our pride in it: the culture continues on in us—unless we choke it out with our own anger—all of us turned into suicide bombers. In which case we’re left with nothing but the virgin territory of devastation, fear, vulnerability, hopelessness --all of which translate into dis-ease and that, as we know, is not so good for your health.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006


It has been a revelation to me that Tuesday was supposed to be so unspeakably horrible that a mother-to-be in Massachusetts was quoted in the San Francisco newspaper for saying if her baby didn’t come out quickly, she would close her legs rather than have a child born on June 6, 2006 which is 6/6/06. How was I to know that three sixes means Armageddon horror brought on by an Antichrist when I thought they were just heralds of full house in poker or a near book in Go Fish. I can’t even make the digits in supposedly unlucky 13 add up to that.

Until Comedy Central Tuesday night and the newspapers Wednesday morning, I had no idea that I should have mightily panicked when like three cherries on a slot machine these three numbers of the Apocalypse showed up together on a calendar. They’ve actually got a name for this terrifying moment: hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia — fear of the numbers 666. Revelations 13:18 says: “Let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, it is six hundred and sixty-six” and we’ve suddenly got a date with the devil, the Antichrist, Mr Triple six. Or apocalypse now. The six shooter big Bang! Bang you’re dead! A visit from the beastly Antichrist is evidently so scary that the beauteous Reagans had their Bel Air address changed from 666 St. Cloud to 668.

As it happens, that particular little Revelation 13:18 starts with words that seem to have been left out of the day’s sound and fury: “This calls for wisdom.” According to the news reports, the wisdom of acknowledged Biblical scholars is that this 666 is simply a coded numerical reference to the reigning despot Nero (reigning 0057-0068) whose beastly behavior heightened what was seen as an ongoing struggle between good and evil. The wisdom of CNBC about that struggle is the triple digit hype loosed upon the world was a Hollywood marketing maneuver for a horror film, The Omen, (a re-make) being launched that day.

It was also a rogue evangelical reverend’s merchandising mayhem for his new novel The Rapture. The wisdom of the evangelical website is Hang On! The rapture index is at 156, which it calls “fasten your seatbelts” time. The bogeyman is on his way and he's gonna get us if we don't watch out. Well, if we’re all going to get carried away (and that is the third meaning my trusty old dictionary assigns to the word rapture), I offer this wisdom: Okay Jesus, buckle up!

The wisdom of the Buddha is that we are talking about a stretch of space and time that defines a single orbit of Earth around the sun: let’s call it “a day.” It is just like any other day except that we decide to call it something special to single it out: Tuesday or Friday, March or June, 4th or 7th. The one that caused all the fuss is the plain one we happen to call the sixth day of the sixth Roman Catholic month of the 2006th Christian year. It was only the third day of the week if you think a week starts on Sunday or it was the second if you think it starts on Monday when your job does and no matter what you think it wasn’t the same day at the same time everywhere the same in the world. It was already half over in Japan when it started in New York.

Miraculously no matter where we were at what time we all survived this deadly threat. What rapture! (That’s the primary meaning my trusty dictionary offers: ecstatic joy.)

On that proverbial other hand, Tuesday was also the tenth day of the fourth month of the Tibetan year of the dog. The tenth day of any Tibetan month is considered sacred: all virtue is doubly rewarded, all wrongdoing gets double demerits. It is thus a day on which devout Buddhists are likely to make offerings or free an animal from the food chain. Moreover, the fourth month of the Tibetan year, Saga Dawa, is its holiest and because awareness of all actions should be intensified, many devout Buddhists practice a Lenten-like ritual of abstaining from meat, eggs, fish and all other forms of sentient life for its 28 days. The reason for this holiness is that Tuesday, the sixth of June, was also celebrated on the Western calendar as the birthday of Gautama Siddartha, the Shakyamuni Buddha. So it was a kind of triple points day for the good guys.

Tuesday, June 6th was my Tibetan god daughter’s birthday and I wanted to take her out for dinner. Since she was adhering to vegetarianism for Saga Dawa, finding a festive restaurant was tricky but I triumphed in choosing a new south Indian eatery recently listed among the 100 best eating establishments in the Bay Area. What I was truly afraid of that day was that this place was devilish enough to not take reservations and parking would be nightmarish. But as fate would have it, we both got legal parking very close by, the hostess gave us a very good table with very little wait and by mistake the waitress brought us ice cream for dessert which she then volunteered as a gift, not even knowing about the double birthdays, Tashi’s and the Buddha’s. It was a nice dream come true: good times rolling.

On Sunday, June 4th, friends in Denver (a widower and his daughter) had phoned in the wake of the father’s birthday to announce that he was going to move into the Senior Center near his poker game, doctor’s office and favorite deli. I told the daughter I found her father’s enthusiasm remarkable; this was yet another example of the inspiring resilience displayed at the death of his son, and then his wife. He was going to sign the lease on Tuesday.

On Wednesday the daughter emailed to say her father had changed his mind about moving into a place where people go to die. It was all too much doomsday. Thinking she was stuck on 666 I cybershot back what Tuesday had meant to me, whereupon she sent this message in reply:
"Well my dad fooled us all!! The move has been bothering him for months with sleepless nights but he did not say anything to me because he thought I would think he was crazy. I wish he would have said something sooner which would have made this process much less painful for him. He is now happy and sleeping again, as well as I. This was stressful for me too …

My father got enlightened or had his aha! moment on the 6th and my long awaited new project came to fruition on this special year of 6/6. I wish the news would give this alternative perspective on the rewards of merit on 6/6 instead of the doom and gloom version!"

Et voila! As it says in six sixes Deuteronomy 30:15 (30 = five 6s; 1+5=6):
“See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Choose your rapture.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006


At the start of the weekend marked to celebrate Memorial Day, the moment we are asked to honor war veterans, one of my childhood friends phoned sounding shaky. “I know you’ve been through this, so tell me it’s going to be okay,” she said, seeking re-assurance that she could survive selling the house she’d been living in these past 30 years in order to move to a small apartment for which a local friend had magnanimously offered her a deal.

The pain barrier seemed to be that over the decades both her financial and familial circumstances had diminished, leaving her thoroughly dependent on the modest income free-lancing could generate. Most of it was now devoted to keeping up the property so she was feeling strangled. Yet not being able to hang on to that big house, empty though it was, made her feel like a failure, a person who could not keep up and was being pushed out, a woman whose life was turning out to be worthless as she was confronted by unplanned change.

My friend wanted to know how in my own unexpectedly reduced circumstances I had soldiered bravely on three years ago after reluctantly letting go of my beloved sea view property on a sunset bay in Maine. When June and August showed up, the confines of a San Francisco condo had chafed but the income from the rescued bank account was the spoonful of sugar that made the medicine go down. I did, I reminded my friend, what I had to do although uprooting is so terrifying a prospect, it took me two years to get the guts. Then however, even as a nouveau pauvre, I managed to “go home” by renting a house for two weeks. Not chained by repairs, gardens or guests I got out to do more than I ever had. Until I set myself free I didn’t know what I’d been missing, what else was out there.

I told my friend I thought I had been towed to forward motion by my grandmother who without much ado died weeks short of her 98th birthday in 1990. She liked to say the reason people found her astoundingly vigorous and vibrant was that she couldn’t be bothered digging up her past; she was way too interested in what was happening now. Thus at 93 she showed up with her first shoulder bag and matching heels, quipping “just like Linda Evans!” The Biblical take on looking back is being turned to stone, which I suspect means feeling paralyzed, just as turning into a pillar of salt probably poetically means to be so blinded by your own tears you can’t see ahead and end up stuck on start. It’s dangerous to look back when you are forced to go forward because looking over your shoulder you can’t see where you’re headed so you’re destined to trip and fall.

The Buddha’s peg on which all this hangs is of course “impermanence.” There is no point hanging on when nothing hangs around long enough to grasp. At the root of the meditative and logical analysis Buddhism prescribes is the stunning discovery that absolutely everything is composite, a continual flux of circumstance coming together, coming apart, coming together in a completely different way, coming apart ad infinitem. One atom slides out of the molecule and everything irredeemably changes. Those shifts in cells--that reconstruction of the body every seven years— may be imperceptible but a growing child or a shrinking senior is not that subtle. The river flowing by is a different collection of water molecules every nanosecond yet we think of it as the same old Mississippi that just keeps rolling along. Lobsters grow too tight in their shells and shed them just as snakes do their skin. The soccer Mom van gives way to the two-seater sports car, the tree gets cut down but sprouts shoot out, the four bedroom house is suddenly an empty cage to which a friend is chained. Nothing is forever—except impermanence.

We are all veterans of a war on this reality. Attachment which seems to slow the pace of change can taste good like sugar so we get addicted. Then breaking up is hard to do. Others have pointed out that I maintain friends from childhood although we have no current common ground and communication can thus be stilted. I am much more candid and concerned with friends who share more recent phases of my life, who share some commonality with the person I happen to be now. Yet for tradition or history I don’t let the old folks go. Frankly, I used to feel guilty pushing passé people out to and over the edge of my circle, but years back a lawyer friend suggested that my mind can outgrow people just as my body can no longer fit into certain clothes, so there should be no shame in giving them away. I started practicing that and it seems the acquaintances most easily let go are those, as the song sings, always getting back to their same old used to be, the ones who haven’t changed although I have.

We all know seemingly functional people who sit in the shelter of a rundown romantic relationship collapsing from leaks, rust and mechanical failure merely because it’s still there defining their landscape. After all, it is a bother to locate another place and way to be. Change calls for courage to shake off habit, faith to shake up life, stamina to shake free. None of it is convenient especially when the culture insists (since it has the aphorism) the devil you know is better than one you don’t. Unknown uncharted waters are scary when you already possess a navigation chart based on experience of where lurk the obstacles that could sink you. Inertia thus becomes the platinum denial card, for something feels better than nothing, even if that nothing is actually the blank space in which something fresh can and will arise.

As it happens, when my friend phoned I was in the midst of a relationship crisis of my own, not with a mate but an airline. For a decade I have been going steady with United and I am so faithful I’ve become Premier to them. I have their credit card, special phone number, frequent flyer miles and piles of 500 miles upgrades to use in the highly unlikely event that there should ever be two classes of service on the mini planes that fly these “commuter” routes. They take my money and hug me for it with early boarding and legroom. Together we’ve gone many times to Asia and the coast of Maine, to Guatemala, Vancouver, mountain villages of Colorado and Manhattan Island.

It was a fine working relationship until about a year ago when to my dismay United started to become inexplicably and increasingly abusive. For the trajectories I wanted they demanded almost double the banked miles they led me to believe. They started fixing their planes on my time—a consistent lot of mechanical failure with not even an ice cube for my wait. They stopped sharing meals with me to the point that I couldn’t get a can of mineral water because they didn’t have any. They told me to do my ticketing myself on my computer and charged me when I couldn’t because their site doesn’t work right. Then yesterday their credit card statement announced my due date had been moved up—so perilously close to the arrival date that late fees would be inevitable; was this not Jaws playing “gotcha!” ? This morning I found out they wanted $600 for simply changing the return date on a ticket six weeks away, making it cost more than a trip 6000 miles longer.

The worse part is they don’t want to speak to me anymore. Dialing that special number gets me either a relentlessly grating, unctuous robot squiring me from frustrating question to question or an unskilled Asian who, for example, when asked how many miles from the Mileage Plus program a certain route required, had to speak to his supervisor and fully three minutes later came back to say the geographical distance was 2,645 miles each way. What kind of partnership is this?

Obviously United does not understand me any more. It keeps offering me all sorts of foolishness like executive level concierge service for a hefty membership fee and ways to spend my accumulated miles without airtime—which means they don’t want to see me aboard. Meanwhile Jet Blue wants to please me knowing I just want to be carried between two points with trace elements of my dignity and bank account in tact. But I’m so used to United that I’m angry I now have to spend time and energy dealing with the problem of finding a new carrier where I won’t have the perks of loyalty for a while—and that special seat in my case is a medical necessity. I thought this part of my life was under control yet it’s begun continually popping up like Bozo the clown to punch me. The insecurity is making me cranky because I have more shit to pack into my day. I feel as powerless and pushed out as my friend.

I reminded my friend that 30 years ago her beloved home had been new and strange and unreflective of what she had subsequently made it; thus she could remake the new place in her own image as well. Soon it too would feel like “home” all over again. My heart no longer hurt for that sunset seal view property because I now had nearby a magical little cottage I’d imbued with its own captivating charm. The problem was, of course, that due to the strain in my old relationship I couldn’t easily get there from here and that is what I yearned to do.

Between me and my heart's desire was...well, me! I had to remind myself that maybe it was time for me to part ways too. Last year I'd had a first date with Continental who treated me quite well. One or two more flights and I'd be back basking in familiarity, maybe even privileges. I'd be a decorated veteran. If only I could make myself move on, this could be a very memorial day.

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