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.

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!"

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , 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 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved