I’m An Outlaw

I know there is some contention about whether there is such a thing as monthly quotas for traffic tickets, but I will mention that it just happened to be March 31 this past Wednesday, when I took an ill-fated turn down a side street near school, erroneously thinking there was a chance the universe might grant me a free parking space.

I knew it was a mistake as soon as I made the turn. Up ahead police lights whirled atop a patrol car as the cop stood writing a ticket to a kid on a bicycle. Down the intersecting side street, something else was happening, also involving a cop car. My thought was, I don’t know what’s happening here, but I need to extricate, and go pay my seven bucks at the Shrine.

The car ahead of me at the stop sign was tucked over to the right hand side, but wasn’t moving. Was he waiting to turn right? Or maybe he was about to try to park? I waited a couple of minutes and when nothing happened, I moved around him, and pulled to a stop. With a clearer view of the intersection. I saw maybe he was just waiting to turn, but something was happening in the road. Rather than try to reverse back behind him, I crossed the intersection. And then I heard the sirens.

“Are you in the habit of driving on the wrong side of the street?” Asked my friendly neighborhood policeman.
He explained–I’m not sure why–that his job is only to investigate accidents and give tickets. Maybe he  intuited that I might question whether a cop in South Central L.A. (or anywhere) might have something more important to do with his time. Apparently not, since he only investigates accidents and gives tickets. When I went around the car in front of me “half your car crossed the center line of the street”. (Note there was no painted center line.)

“I’m sure he’s just running the plates. He won’t give you a ticket,” said my carpool friend, Conor. I shook my head despondently–if all a man does is investigate accidents and give tickets, and we weren’t an accident (thankfully), well, you can pretty much guess where it’s heading.

I’ve decided that just to get my money’s worth out of the system I’m paying for with my ticket, I will try to figure out how to contest it. I believe it involves a trip to court, which sounds fairly exciting, but is probably some guy at a counter, that you have to pre-pay for your ticket in order to see. I’ll probably also cry–which I don’t look forward to. I cry way too easily, and not on purpose. You hear women talk about getting out of things by crying, but that has never been my experience. Maybe it’s because I don’t get big, luminous eyes that shine as the tears well up. When I cry, my face instantaneously gets all red and blotchy. My eyes swell up, and my nose fills with snot. I don’t think a red blotchy face ever caused a man’s heart to melt. It’s like trying to manipulate someone with your hives.

But, good writing comes out of understanding suffering. And in my life, I don’t experience a lot of real suffering. My life is not really hard–I make it harder by worrying a lot about it becoming hard, and with my career choice and my existential angst, but hell–I’m lying in bed on a Saturday morning writing this blog.

Since the cost of the ticket exceeds my parking budget that I already can’t afford, on Thursday, I decided to boycott my car, and ride the bus. There are two options for buses going to USC from near our house. There is one bus that is a straight shot, but only comes every 42 minutes and you can never trust it not to have arrived five or more minutes early and have passed you by. The other route involves two buses route–but the buses come every 8-15 minutes for most of the day, so it’s a safer bet. I’ve always played roulette with the first route, but decided that with my new, heavy bus use commitment, I should choose the more dependable, two-bus option.

And I learned something interesting about the current L.A. bus system: When I last lived L.A. and rode the bus, they had these things called “transfers” so that if you had to take multiple buses, or if you needed to –hop off one bus to go a store, then get on another to continue to your grandmother’s house, you could do that for a surcharge that wasn’t as much as the original ticket. It turns out the city abandoned “transfers” seven years ago. So now you pay $1.25 for every bus. My travel expense for a round-trip to school is thus $5.00. How do actual poor people ever catch up–ever?

On the way home, I asked the bus-driver what happened to the transfers. Apparently they felt there was too much misuse of them, too much money changing hands with the bus driver (like they couldn’t just make it part of the machine). Then he commented on how expensive it is for people these days just to do the basic things. He said, “They just need our money. It’s not really for the the people.”

Hey! That’s just how I’ve been feeling. I think that’s why I feel a flush of connection when I ride the bus that I rarely feel in my car. I look at the guy across from me asleep in his seat, and I get it. I’ve been so tired like that, and so happy to be able to sit and rest. I don’t know him, but in a vague way I can imagine his life when he gets off the bus.

I don’t feel the same connection with the hidden driver of the  Audi with the tinted glass that races by me (passing on the right) on the freeway. I can’t get into how he’s feeling. I mean, judging from how he drives, I can imagine how he’s feeling, but what I imagine doesn’t make me more compassionate.


I woke up this morning thinking about how soon after I was first diagnosed with cancer, I went to see a lecture by Buddhist teacher Soygal Rinpoche. He gave us a visualization to work with that was about a Buddha floating over your head, who poured a kind of golden elixir that would enter the top of your head and slowly fill up your entire body, (kind of like a plastic honey bear). He told a story of a woman who was trying to find healing, and so she carried this visualization into her life. When she took a shower she imagined it was the golden elixir that washed over her and healed her, when she breathed the air, it was a golden air that entered her body and healed her. When I was sick, and since then, I have tried to work with idea. When I eat food, I take a mental moment to be thankful “for this food which nourishes and heals me.” It is hard to do sometimes, when I think I am eating poor quality food—which is easy to think, because when I researched about the causality of cancer, so much information about our food is bad news: Pesticides on the plants, antibiotics in the meats, mercury in the fish, toxins in the water etc. So I try to choose the best quality food I can, when I can–organic, healthful, prepared well is optimal. But at the same time, it’s not always convenient or possible and I don’t want to categorize half the world as poisonous to me—even if it is. Because I do believe our thoughts can help or hinder us in a search for balance and health.

It becomes a mental tightrope to have good thoughts and yet not ignore reality completely. This is not unlike living with the likelihood of disease. What is the phrase? Live like you will die tomorrow but plan like you will live forever? If I plan to live forever, of course I should be in school now. I will have forever to reap the enjoyment of writing, and to pay off the loans. If I was to die tomorrow, then I probably should skip it. Part of the enjoyment of a project like grad school comes from the idea of a goal at the end, if I knew I’d never reach that goal, then certainly I would just spend the last day goofing off with family, maybe writing a farewell note to friends—which is the kind of stuff you should do anyway, which of course is what the saying means to begin with. You should not neglect spending time with family, you should tell people what they mean to you. And yet, if you are going to live longer, then your friends will eventually get tired of farewell notes delivered everyday, they would like to plan a camping trip next summer or dinner and a movie next week. In everyday life, we are wired fro the future.

And then, what about the in-between land that the saying conveniently ignores? None of us will live forever, and very few will die tomorrow. Especially in the life of a cancer survivor, one is more often faced with the dilemma of “How do you live like you will die in five years?” Should I set aside worldly considerations, or do I gamble that maybe in that time I might achieve some small portion of what I’d hope to achieve in my life. Many poets and musicians die young, and if they had known, and decided to chuck the whole artistic enterprise because of that, the world would be poorer for it. (Although they might have lived longer after all, because often the art itself seems to be one of the main stressors). But to embrace this ‘cram it all in” philosophy, is like living an accelerated version of what is already our modern day stressful lifestyle.

For me, I guess the pole that I hold on to for balance, as I walk my tightrope, is gratitude. It is easy to be grateful for one day, or for more. One can be equally grateful for frozen pizza covered in salicates, or an eight-dollar, all organic green drink. I can be grateful for the air, even when it’s smoggy, and grateful for my loved ones, even when they’re pissy. This does not make me unaware of the differences between things, it doesn’t remove the obligation to make decisions. It simply changes the emphasis, and in some way that is hard to explain, that changes everything.