HAPPILY NEVER AFTER
This idée fixe is a mountain I cannot get over. Thinking I should win American idyll, aka full frontal summer vacation, I make myself miserable, hard headedly stuck on that childish hope in the happily ever after that always made my aunt snidely snap at whiny and peevish complaints: “…then we all had ice cream and went to the seashore.” I am not alone. George W. Bush wanted to be in Iraq when it was smoking hot and today the Sunday papers are brimming with news that his vision thing also got trumped by the reality thing. I do not get what I want; he got what he wanted-- but it didn’t turn out happily ever after as he supposed. Much happened that was not supposed to. All those suppositions trampled to death by reality sent vexation his way too. Expectations will get you if you don’t watch out.
What do you expect? Suffering is wanting things to be otherwise and as the Buddha said, life is suffering. It is baddd: birth and decay, disease, death. But with our obsessive aversion to pain we get on the path from first to last expecting a picnic. The nasty genius of our totalitarian corporate culture has been to profit handsomely from our expectation of finding reality at Match.com, by craftily deluding us with all that sunny “have it your way” fluff that so painstakingly omits hints of ants, wasps or thunderstorms. Its focus on our focus launches all those suppositions that with the right purchases life is going to be a magic carpet that unrolls just the way we think it ought to, perfectly matched to our bubbly desires and the carefully chosen soundtrack on our IPod. Forever after too of course.
That’s why I’m behaving like my five-year-old niece in a teary tantrum because the plump, juicy burger of ground sirloin I’d served her using my great grandmother’s German recipe couldn’t possibly be a hamburger when it did not look like the flat dry patties she got at McDonald’s. Or the two very annoyed homeowners who separately phoned the property management office last month demanding the trees in their front yards get cut down because they aren’t supposed to spend time cleaning leaves out of their gutters.
Me and my supposed to, George W. Bush and his are not fetched so far from those planned communities where unplanned storms and renovations and destructive ADD kids keep popping up like crabgrass making unsoothed neighbors contentious. Or the stock broker who insists the market only goes up for which people blindly invest everything and then, whaddya know, it tanks and they raise hell. Those stations the train of thought parks in at the end of my line are the lawsuits, headlines and politics of people who really think they can Botox decay away, eat heirloom locally grown sun ripened tomatoes all year round and consider death not a necessary consequence of life but a dreadful medical mistake.
Leave it to the French to have a word for consuming passion, even this one to have the world my way: they say “on reve debout” —we dream standing up (walking around). The Buddha knew it too. Each of us, he taught, lives as an actor in daydreams, trapped in a bubble of our own supposing instead of living free in the world as it actually turns. Often we are puppets of habit, for familiarity is a super duper that forces us to brazenly presume that what we are used to is what has to be. Children in abusive families usually grow up to create their own abusive families because that’s all they know. I once had a boyfriend complain that I couldn’t make meals right and right turned out to be the way his mother made them. A teenage visitor from Wisconsin freaked at a bunch of baby bananas, insisting they weren’t normal because bananas are supposed to be longer. I had to explain that maybe the Chiquita bananas in Wisconsin supermarkets were all a longer Central American size but people who had the habit of eating bananas grown, say, in India where they are normally short would find long his Wisconsin bananas weird.
Then there is carry-over. Coming upon a person who looks like somebody I know, I automatically suppose the dead ringer will behave just like the lookalike. A young friend of mine refuses to let me fix her up because her sister’s life was nearly ruined by a scamming Lothario so all men are supposed to be untrustworthy. My grandmother spent almost all of her 98 years enthralled by moving pictures, going to them constantly and by the time I came along, movies had become her reference manual and life was playing dirty tricks. How come none of my boyfriends looked like Cary Grant? Why couldn’t my sister fix her hair like Sandra Dee? Who did the maid think she was: Pearl Bailey? Why wasn’t my uncle more like Gregory Peck? And then when her daughter/my mother died of cancer, she brutally blamed my father and me for not finding the right medical hero because in the movies she would have been saved.
Since then a whole entertainment fixated nation unable to distinguish between the fiction of the screen and the facts of life elected an acting President and most recently an acting governor whose virtual Terminator image was supposed to be the virtue necessary to ram the political logjam called California. The most pathetic part of the whole O. J. Simpson murder soap opera was the labor class belief that he couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong because having that much money is supposed to make everybody happy ever after.
We also stagger through life totally blinded by the shoulds, oughts and musts that Pema Chodron calls our personal agenda memoed to a universe that could care less. Fashionistas painstakingly organize their wardrobe because you’re not supposed to wear white after Labor Day or stars with stripes; fascists painfully re-organize their country because women are supposed to live buried alive in fabric from head to toe. SUV/Hummer drivers are all screaming their ego off because gasoline is not supposed to cost almost $4.00 a gallon and seekers of organic food scream Foul! when filling whole supermarkets everywhere with it requires unorganic industrialization. The newspaper says it’s not supposed to be blazingly sunny in San Francisco in July and hey, cosmos, you’re supposed to have turned Iraq into an instant replay of American democracy--at least the kind before the coup d'etat of 2000.
This is why we have become a litiginous culture of complaint. Did you hear the one about the San Francisco couple who sued their landlord for a rent reduction because the city utility jackhammering out in the street was disturbing their peace? Or the nouveau riche whippersnapper in Sausalito so sure he’s entitled to an unobstructed view of the bay, he’s trying to force the City Council to make all his neighbors cough up $60,000 each to have the utility lines dropped under ground, even the old timers whose Social Security checks won’t add up to that for five years? And all those suburban parents storming the schools because their college-bound brats are supposed to get all As? What really freaks me out is that so many tourists complained about not seeing the ocean along every mile of Route One in Maine that the State actually spent a second thinking about a miraculous wonder bridge from Portland to Penobscot Bay.
Genuine travelers of course never put their suppositions in their suitcase; they travel light and get far. That way they find only serendipity, never disappointment. Buddha means the awakened one, Buddhism to wake up and smell the delusion. Enlightenment is in fact sometimes expressed in Tibetan as “collapse of delusion.”
Frankly I just wanted my bad mood to go away. In the Dharma, if you can’t change your circumstances you are told to change your mind. So I put on a big lavender colored tea party straw bonnet I never think of wearing and went to the bay. I walked as I always do along Crissy Field’s gravel path but this time I also took my shoes off and waded off the beach into the tidal pools of warm salt water where little kids were splashing. I didn’t care that I got wet. I got a little sun tan on my arms and ankles and started to feel so much better. Then I drove over to Chestnut Street, stood in line and bought a scoop of Mitchell’s mango ice cream. I was walking down the street in my big straw hat window shopping, licking the last trace of it off the plastic spoon when I realized what I’d done. I drove home giddily humming that old Mick Jagger lyric: “you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” The Dharma urges us: Be here now. Then we all have ice cream and go to the seashore.
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