The only difference between samsara and enlightenment is attachment.
My friend Iris hails me at the Mendocino post office and says, “You know how my car got stolen from my driveway, so I had to get another one? Well, the police found the one that got stolen. In Ukiah. They ticketed it every day for a week until some genius ran the plates and found out it was stolen.”
Iris lives in the hills a couple miles off the beaten (paved) path and always leaves her keys in the car since it seems highly unlikely anyone will venture up the long dirt road to her dog-infested driveway and steal her old car. But someone did.
“Was the car damaged?”
“Not at all,” she says, smiling in amazement. “Just ran out of gas. And here’s the cool part. The thief left the key on the seat along with my fanny pack and my really good binoculars. He only took a little cash and my Swiss Army knife. Oh, and he left his empties: a vitamin C drink and an Odwalla Smoothie.”
“He went through your stuff and selected what he needed?”
“That’s what I thought, too,” says Iris, nodding. “I have this vision of a guy living on the edge and really needing to get back to Ukiah. So he borrows a car he doesn’t have to hot wire, leaves it at his destination, and takes what he needs to enhance his survival. The police are hot to catch him, but I hope they don’t.”
For some reason, Iris’s story brings to mind the last time I was audited by the IRS. I’ve been audited twice for the only times in my life I made more than thirty grand in a year. When I asked the young auditor why they were wasting their time auditing a small fry like me rather than rich people, he said, without batting an eye, “Because rich people have really sharp accountants and tax attorneys. We have much better luck going after you do-it-your-selfers.”
They go after us. The vulnerable ones. The ones who can’t afford expensive money jugglers.
I enter the post office and find a notice in my box from Blue Cross, recently renamed Anthem (as in Anathema), informing me of a forty percent increase in my monthly payment. The notice contains no explanation of why my premium is being raised so dramatically, and since I have never used my health insurance except as a psychic buffer against the fear of losing everything should a medical catastrophe befall me, I can only assume the sickening spike is simply extortion. They know it is highly unlikely I can get health insurance elsewhere, so why not go after me?
This extortion letter puts me in mind of a cartoon several people sent me eons ago when I was a neophyte on the writer’s path. In the cartoon, a well-fed, well-heeled fellow is showing off his mansion, tennis court, swimming pool, and bikini-clad trophy wife to an envious guest. The caption reads: “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the Great American Novel, when it suddenly occurred to me: Why not write the great American extortion letter?”
And that cartoon always puts me in mind of another favorite sent to me by at least twenty people: Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse typing, “Dear Sirs, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, you’ll just have to come and get it.”
But I digress.
I go from the post office to Corners where I purchase two tomatoes, a little bag of cashews, a loaf of bread, a dozen mushrooms, a chocolate bar, and a hunk of sheep cheese for a grand total of sixteen dollars. As I find myself (just for fun) calculating a forty per cent increase in my total, I overhear two Cornerites discussing the sudden absence of certain products due to the growing number of companies going out of business. (Do-it-yourselfers, no doubt.)
The sad truth is that we are at the very beginning, not the middle or the bottom, of an economic decline unlike any we have ever seen in our lifetimes. I walk out of Corners imagining thousands and millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens reduced to states of desperation in which an unguarded car containing a bag or two of groceries would prove irresistible.
As if on cue, a homeless man I know greets me at my truck. “Hey, man,” he says, smiling hopefully. “Recognized your pickup. Haven’t eaten in two days. Help me out?”
I give him two pieces of bread, half my cheese, and five dollars, and then I calculate forty per cent of five dollars and give him that, too.
“It’s grim, man,” he says, eating ravenously. “Fuckin’ meltdown, man.”
Not quite ready to go home and write outraged letters to Blue Cross and my corporate congress people and corporate state legislators, I decide to chill by getting a sandwich and going to the beach. As I wait for my ham on rye in the lusciously warm Mendocino Market, I read a newspaper article about Obama’s plan for a Bad Bank in which the government will take over all the toxic investments of the criminals who bankrupted the nation. By the government’s own calculations the Bad Bank will add a trillion dollars or more to the swiftly mounting national debt. Obama says he hopes this Bad Bank will get the few remaining banks (run by the same criminals who created all the toxic investments) to start lending money (gotten from the government at zero interest) to small businesses and people for six to ten per cent interest.
And I wonder: Why doesn’t Obama’s government lend the money directly to the people? Why go through extortionists? Why doesn’t Obama’s government take over Anthem Blue Cross and put that mob of crooks and sadists out of business for the good of our nation and democracy and his daughters’ futures?
By the time I get to the beach my thoughts have frazzled into a snarl of anger and sorrow. I think of my recent three-minute eye checkup that cost a hundred and ten dollars, my auto insurance going up as the truck gets older, gas prices rising as crude oil prices fall, baseball players making twenty million dollars a year, movie stars making twenty million per movie, and millions of people without sufficient food or health care, and I’m too upset to eat my sandwich.
So I set the tasty comestible on a driftwood log, take off my shoes, and go wading in the shallows to cool my blood. And just as I’m starting to let go of the sorrows of the world, a great outburst of shrieking and crying turns me around in time to see three gulls and a raven fighting over the last few scraps of my sandwich.