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.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


In just a moment, my younger sister is going to be 60, and I still cannot believe my mother, a vigilante so ready to shoot any come-on coming at her, named her for a movie star. My late great grandmother Hannah still had no namesake, yet my plain seeking mother reached for some Hollywood headliner she apparently adored. Nancy Carroll, she always added carefully, was a comedian. Maybe, my mother was hoping, with my sister in the house, life would finally become a lot of laughs.

My mother’s uncharacteristic grab at illusion was probably the outbreak of inheritance waiting in ambush, like the herpes virus that erupts as chicken pox or shingles. Her mother was an Olympic class movie fan, born shortly before her older brothers started owning nickelodeons. As a child—petulant and pampered-- my grandmother had free access to films. Then she married a man whose business gave her free entrée to any movie she wanted to see. So, still petulant and pampered, she spent her days in cinemas, entertaining herself, collecting reference points. She disparaged my every boyfriend for not looking like Cary Grant. And she never stopped blaming my father and me for my mother’s cancerous death, firm in the thought that with the right doctor—somebody like Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck-- there would have been a music swelling happy end, not that funeral she couldn’t forgive.

She did love my first job. I was a writer/editor for the sort of magazine today’s slick supermarket publications have become, a fan magazine. I churned out celebrity to force feed fantasy to people hungry for something other than reality. I interviewed movie stars: people who showed up in life 10 years older, 10 pounds lighter and 10 times less varnished than their screen persona. I spent hours carefully choosing photos so they would never reveal what would not be idolized, like being gay, alcoholic or aging. I am, I confess, that editor who purchased the first Ron Galella paparrazzi photos of Jackie Kennedy. I cropped all the cigarettes out of her hand so nobody would see that American idol had vices.

My grandmother died 17 years ago, but she would be so happy to know the world is now chockablock with people who prefer reel life to the real thing. Voters elected actors (Reagan, Thompson, Schwarzenegger) to actual public office. Teenagers try to be Fonz, a Power Ranger or deranged enough to try stunts from movies to shoot out headlines screaming: TV made me do it! Shoppers deplete the world's resources, desperately seeking the gotta have it product placed on screen or endorsed by some manufactured celebrity of the second. The Academy Awards get as much coverage as competition for the Presidency which itself is covered in a fan mag way.

Just as studio bosses changed ordinary telephone book names into John Wayne, Rock Hudson and Doris Day to perk up appeal, food salesmen tarted up the Patagonian toothfish into “Chilean seabass", the Chinese gooseberry into “kiwifruit.” Illusion is so where it's at, marketers re-mastered marquis brand magic by soundbyting IHOP and KFC. And now Hillary Rodham or Hillary Rodham Clinton or Hillary Clinton or Clapitol Hill or whoever she is this week is desperately seeking the same effect.

Restaurants serve the obsession with making life as photogenic as it appears on screen by becoming platter fantasylands and theme parks. I know from my days as a caterer, the demand for artificiality is so demanding, customers bitterly complain when grill lines on their sirloin aren’t as perfect as those painted on by stylists for magazines, movies and TV ads.

Who does not crave the razzle-dazzle effect of stories under total control and pictures constantly bright? Who has not Photoshopped to make reality look a lot better than it is, the way Hollywood flacks airbrushed the faces of aging stars for me? We have a health care crisis in part because the cinema’s ability to manipulate reality, now matched by the computer’s, makes consumers dare to demand preset perfection. No matter how much we eat, drink, sit, smoke, sag, age, rail against infertility or impotence, doctors are supposed to be magicians waving a chemical, scalpel or Xray wand to fix it -- like Picasa’s one hit does all ‘I’m feeling lucky’ tab. Then we live happily ever after, picture perfect as Dick Clark or Joan Rivers. If not, we sue.

Can you find in any newspaper or magazine a photo of anybody not in some wildly exaggerated happy pose instead of just being there as themselves? Just today, so help me Buddha, the cover of our Sunday paper magazine is an aging nun in her full regalia, gleefully wielding a yoyo and skipping high over the headline: What will become of the Sisters… ? My sister, as it happens, named her own kids the sort of perky names you get on cutsey sitcoms. An old friend prone to depression painted her entire house bright colors, as though this guarantees her an upbeat mood. I guess these equal the metastasizing of Smiley emoticons, or realtors snazzily “staging” property to move it fast.

This week, so many are so upset by the fade out of the Sopranos. People can’t let go. They need to know for sure what happened to that fictional family. We humans are inherently addicted to closure, some solid finale we can grab for ballast. This need to build life on bedrock certainty instead of shifting flow was probably once a trait selected for survival. But the silver screen has cemented us to it on such a need to know basis, today’s major news is not the real world mess in the Middle East or the Chinese destroying a new Buddhist statue in Tibet. It’s everybody talking, upbeat with relief, about somebody making a feature film that will finally tell us “what really happened” to the Sopranos.

Of course we know what really happened to Paris Hilton. How furious we are, denied the happy ending expected from someone so picture perfect, so souped up, so…American idle. When all you can bank on in our world is celebrity, people kill to be recognized, to not be that tree that falls in the forest unheralded in headlines. That's the magic of You Tube: life seems more snare drum than humdrum when you download yourself into the picture with Barack Obama or Brad Pitt. You can "broadcast yourself" --and be like Paris Hilton, famous for absolutely nothing but existing.

Except that Paris, recognized and heralded, proved that when you get there where it’s about your existence, there is no there there. She undermined the thrilling obsession with bright lights, big pretty. Paris had it all, the components of glamour Hollywood promises will make life all better—money, chic, blondness, name, youth, address. Yet in a flash, all that flash added up to was jail. Screaming “Mommy!”, the girl--like Oz, the great and terrible-- turned out to be pathetically human. She proved yet again: that really is all there is. And that turned out to be just unforgivable. Like my mother's death.

We should be careful what we wish for. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says in our hopes, we reveal our fears. Our obsession with the illusions of Hollywood indicate these have not much swerved from my grandmother’s. Ordinary life is not as good as it gets. Waking to the softness of a summer morning, biting into a homegrown tomato or holding a newborn baby is not all there is.

A definitive ending to the Sopranos would mean a clearcut finale could be engineered in our lives. Paris partying on would mean we could escape death and taxes, which is exactly what we want. Yet the more we want to escape the confines of life, to rise above it all, the more we fear we will not get there from here, and the more we suffer. Suffering is wanting things to be otherwise. That's why my grandmother was such a miserable person.

Anyway, truth, as they say, will out. The ending of the Sopranos and Paris Hilton came as close to reality as the screen can ever get. My mother’s life never did turn into a lot of laughs, and there hasn’t been much that’s happily funny about my sister’s either. She is two times divorced and sells real estate.

But then, it turns out Nancy Carroll's real life was not picture perfect itself. “How could you not love Nancy Carroll?” a recent internet account of her life begins. “She was absolutely adorable, and had a wonderful screen presence. At the dawn of the talkie era she was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, in such star vehicles as Honey, Sweetie, and Follow Thru. In sharp contrast to her public image, she had a fiery temper, and her unreasonable demands sabotaged her career. Paramount let her work out her contract in minor films, and by 1938 she was through in Hollywood.”

~Sandy Garson

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

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Sunday, June 03, 2007


I used to think of myself as comic relief in a world frantic for perfection. I am the human with a deflated resume, one who runs around looking for eyeglasses propped on her head, and has mailed a bill or two without the check enclosed. I swelled with pride when a hairdresser said if I were perfect, I’d be on display in a museum, instead of loose out on the streets. I didn't care that he was referring only to the cowlick he'd just left on my head.

Sadly, it is no relief to find myself out on those streets wandering up and down, wondering what the hell I am doing there. It took a week to remember one reason was to replace my new watchband. I needed three days to remember I went out to pick up dry cleaning. Yesterday I made a special trip to buy Caesar Salad dressing because I wanted to use the head of romaine I would have sworn to you was languishing in my hydrator bin, but I came home to find the bin a perfect picture of emptiness. I have become so terrifying Al Qaeda should hire me.

When Buddhists talk about impermanence, I mechanically nod “Yes” because I see it in changing marital status, car design and waist lines. I hear the opinions of TV commentators shift hourly, the call plans of cell phone companies even faster. Our culture just loves moving on. But now that impermanence has hit me, I can't believe it. Every second of my life feels like a new Survivor challenge.

My friend Joan calls the forgetfulness part “galsheimers”, the piling on of the way too much women have to do. We can’t help it: stuff slides off the periphery. This version of the absentminded professor is so great for misplaced car keys and burned pots, I blame galsheimers at least once a day. But it only goes so far, and that's definitely not far enough. The great ear I had for languages is so deaf after repeating six times How Are You? in Nepali, I can’t remember five minutes later how to say it. Also, it took three months to remember I completely forgot the birthday of a childhood friend, an event we have continuously celebrated for 40 years. And when I did remember, all I could do was scare the hell out of myself about how much stuff I probably didn't know I forgot.

It's scary that I actually spent last Sunday afternoon discussing with my friend Joan not the usual topics we chew on when we get together —writing, travel, men—but how her Mom had the real deal Alzheimer’s. That’s why she’s sure she knows how we can tell the difference between it and, say, minor dementia, or galsheimers. It was a really big phew! to find out wondering why you have placed yourself in the car and driven to a certain street because you have no idea what you are suppossed to need there is not at all the same as putting the silverware away in the car trunk because you’ve lost the ability to distinguish between a kitchen drawer and the car trunk. We drank to that.

Unfortunately, Phew! is not exactly what I uttered the following day as the plane lofted into space and I remembered that, for the first time ever in my well ordered life, I’d left the car rental papers inside the dropped off rental car, exposing my credit card information to the world.

My friend Susan, an artist, entered before I did this badlands where the chasm time cuts between your failings and your needs opens wide and clear. She is always trying to remember what she was going to tell me but, she said yesterday, what she can't forget even when she gives it all she's got left is how when she was on crutches after her skiing-eroded knee was replaced, and she was struggling to make her way out the back door of her local Peet’s, the manicured twenty-somethings with their long hair and lattes and baby strollers bigger than aircraft carriers refused to clear her way. “Why don’t you just go out the front door,” one snapped, “and not bother us.”

She must have forgotten about generation gaps. What came between my elders and me was the original one, manufactured by the new, benighted consumer culture all atwitter about packaging. The whole "not your mother's" concept was in fact enshrined in a clothing franchise called Gap and dedicated to the lucre that could be mined from everybody impulsively doing their own thing. That meant no forbearance for fore bearers, those slow moving know nothing slugs over 30.

My grandparents, who once curtsied to the Queen of England as honored guests, would shake their heads, unable to figure out why I was flying around to European cities and Mediterranean beaches the way they used to motor off to the shore or to Manhattan. They couldn’t fathom that thanks to a new technology called airplane, the world had become my neighborhood. That grandfather, normally a clear-eyed captain of industry, interpreted hippie long hair as the inevitable slackened demand that accompanied the rise in barbershop prices. My grandmother screamed how profligate I was when she heard I had paid $.27 for an individual can of tuna fish—the way I cringe and think life's gone amok every time I now pay $2.27 for the teeny can.

One thing still clear to my fast fading mind is that those older folks had their frame of reference ripped out from under them, like Charlie Brown’s football. Impermanence blindsided them with totalitarian vengeance. It just isn't clear how I got to the other side of that abyss, two gaps away, kissing my reference points goodbye. I am so not on My Face or You Tube or into rap hop or assault rifle mouths, I feel like a foreigner in my own country. I can't even find the brands and products I prefer because they're passe.

Did I fall through the gap because I don’t have the time young people have to navigate the edge? The basic business of looking the way people remember me has become a full-time job. I have to fight to remember so much stuff now: avocado on the face, oatmeal scrub, whitening toothpaste, the balance ball. Gotta keep moving to get moving. Have to keep the hair deceptively not gray, the nails strong, the hormones balanced, everything moisturized. And all this comes with me just trying to remember how I used to look.

Aging is a maddening marathon of challenges. Hair falls out of your head instead of off your legs. Your waist abandons you. Your eyesight lets you down. Languages, phone numbers, whole trains of thought fall out of your memory just as cartilage dissolves in your knees. You have to join the frequent fiber club. Right now I am in the middle of a metabolic tug of war between eat less or exercise more, hoping for a lose-lose-situation.

I am hampered by lots of unexpected do-it-yourself stuff. I may be alive and even lively, but I have become...well, forgotten. Nobody rushes to voluntarily pump gas for my car any more or take my dinner order they way they do for my god daughters. Nowadays nobody even holds the door. They forget everybody but themselves, keep talking into their cell phone and let it slam in my face.

The days of baby boomer age creep fill newspapers with advice about fitness for this great adventure race. Crossword puzzles are highly recommended, which is good news. I love crossword puzzles. I have been doing them since you could call the New York Public Library and get all the clues you needed to finish the big one in The Sunday Times before your friends who didn’t have the secret number (which, believe it or not, I still remember). But this is also bad news because somehow all those incarnations of Vishnu I could count on to fill the weird spaces and odd letter combinations have been replaced by hip product brand names or hip hop song titles I am clueless about. It always seemed safely normal not to be conversant with the 85th incarnation of a Vedic deity, but, frankly, not getting the title of last year’s Grammy rap winner makes me more terrified of being out of it than I already am.

Not long ago, on the day I drifted in and out of the bathroom before remembering I wanted to polish my fingernails, I had to look up a phone number I’ve dialed for years. It just went out of my head, so far out I couldn’t recall it. With excruciating horror I realized I had become my grandmother, who when she was around 93 phoned me in a huge tizzy and shrieked: “You have to do something, you have to help me!”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I just tried to dial Gladys (her niece), and I can’t remember her phone number. This is it. I’ve gone senile! You have to do something!”

What I did was laugh. And laugh some more. “Not to worry,” I said, unable to stop laughing, “If you were senile, you wouldn’t be calling me to announce it. You wouldn’t know it.”

Telling that story now, I can't, for the life of me, remember why it was so funny.

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

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.

Yours In The Dharma 2001-2007, Sandy Garson @copy: 2001-2007 Sandy Garson
All rights Reserved