Thursday, December 25, 2008

US Air employees - an opportunity to practice altruistic compassion

December 22.
For the past several months, I have been studying and attempting to follow practices outlined by His Holiness, the Dalai Llama in his book, How to Practice: Guide to a Meaningful Life. The message is simple, though the accompanying practice is rigorous and difficult to sustain.

Morality comes first. ‘Help others’ is the basic moral precept. ‘If that is not possible, refrain from doing harm.’ Morality provides a context in which concentrated meditation becomes possible. Concentrated meditation, practiced with discipline leads to ‘calm abiding of the mind,’ in which one is no longer ruled by afflictive emotions, especially anger. Empowered with a mind of calm abiding, through further disciplined practice, it is possible to attain wisdom. Fundamental to wisdom is a deep understanding of the ‘emptiness of inherent existence.’ Wisdom provides a context in which the ultimate goal, Enlightenment, can be attained. Enlightenment may not be attained in a single lifetime, however. It may require many lifetimes of disciplined practice.

I am still struggling with the first step, altruistic compassion towards others. Reading over my earlier posting, “Flying South with US Air....” was a reminder that my progress along the road to Enlightenment, so far, has been very limited. My message was filled with anger, primarily directed toward human beings who, like all human beings, want happiness and do not want suffering (the Dalai Llama’s words).

On my return trip, I vowed to do better. To say that altruistic compassion necessarily has the power to change life’s circumstances in the short-term would be naive. But the US Air employees with whom I dealt did seem much pleasanter, and even more efficient. My trip was far more enjoyable.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

A marriage paradox

I was speaking with my daughter’s boy-friend last evening. He and my daughter have been close for several years. They have considered marriage, but not yet taken the plunge. “It wouldn’t change anything,” he told me. “We care about each other, care for each other, enjoy our time together, but still live independent lives. How could that change? My experience in two marriages, both more than twenty years in duration, had been different, I told him. Marriage is a serious commitment that does change a relationship, ‘for better or worse.’

He then recalled a conversation with a friend, about how guys and girls view marriage, that confirmed my view. “Guys and girls view their relationships differently,” he said. “A girl marries a guy, loving some things about him and disliking others. She figures that after marriage, she can change him to be the way she wants him to be. A guy, on the other hand, will often marry a girl because he loves her exactly the way she is. He doesn’t want anything to change. The paradox is this. After marriage, the girl changes. she can become a very different person. The guy, on the other hand, stays pretty much the same as he was.’

My daughter joined the conversation and said, “When a girl friend tells me she has fallen in love with a guy ‘who has potential’ and wants to marry him, I know there is trouble ahead.”

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A good death

After greeting me at the airport thursday night, my daughter shared sad news. Kenya, the 130 lb. Rhodesian Ridgeback (dog) whom she had raised from a puppy was in failing health. She had decided to put her down, the next day.

When we arrived at her home. I could see that it was true. Kenya had no strength in her back legs. She could not walk without assistance. It was impossible for her to go outdoors to relieve herself unaided. Walking, with assistance, was painful. Cancerous tumors, in remission for two years, had grown. Climbing up on a bed or couch to snuggle (Kenya may have been the world’s largest lap dog) was out of the question. To provide comfort her my daughter, I and her boy friend took turns snuggling with her on the doggie bed. My daughter slept with her most of the night.

Our appointment at the vets was at 11:30. We spent most of the morning with Kenya, snuggling, helping her to go outside and plying her with favorite treats. Despite the ravages of old age and disease, Kenya had not lost her appetite or her good humor. At 11, we helped her into the back of a Honda element and began Kenya’s last journey. She had always loved to ride and was in good spirits, despite occasional twinges of pain.

The veterinarian's office was the friendliest I have ever seen. The examining rooms were cozy, decorated with straw furniture and painted in bright colors. The doctor, an attractive woman in her mid thirties, was warm, understanding and compassionate. She had taken care of Kenya for several years. She provided some favorite treats, explained the process and asked my daughter to confirm her decision. Then she left so we could spend a few minutes more with our friend. Kenya lay on her blanket, resting peacefully.

The doctor returned with a sedative and the IV that would administer an overdose of barbiturates. Kenya lay peacefully after enjoying one or two final treats. The process was over in a few minutes. A stethoscope confirmed that her heart had stopped. The doctor left and we spent a few minutes more in the cozy room with Kenya’s still body. She seemed peacefully asleep. Then we went out to lunch and celebrated a good life, well lived.
The next day my daughter and her friend buried Kenya’s body in a secluded garden spot. I went for a long bicycle ride on the Pinellas trail, stopping for lunch on the way. When I returned home, a florist was making a delivery. The veterinarian's office had sent flowers and a note of sympathy.

When I die, I pray that I, too, can have a good death. Like Kenya’s.


Perversion of capitalism - flying South with US Air

A trip South to visit my daughter provided an opportunity to experience US Air’s new check-in procedures. In the name of efficiency, these have achieved a new low in customer service. Except at the First Class check in position there are, apparently, no check-in options, other than on-line. When I approached a designated economy class location, the passenger agent behind the counter interrupted her conversation with a neighbor to point to the adjacent electronic Kiosk and said in a somewhat sullen tone, ‘check in there,’ This was fine for IT literate passengers, but what about about the elderly, the IT illiterate or those without credit cards? Perhaps US Air management hoped they would choose another airline. More likely they had not considered this possibility or just didn’t care.

Personally, I don’t find a $15 charge for a checked bag to be more than a minor annoyance, though I wish US Air would simply increase the price of the ticket by $15. Other passengers disagree and react by being as sullen and put-out as the passenger agents and, at the end of a long day, the beleaguered cabin attendants. The predictable result is that passengers seek to have ever-larger bags pass as ‘hand baggage.’ Overhead compartments quickly fill and the aisle becomes congested with passengers looking for space or seeking to cart their ‘carry ons’ back to the entrance to be checked. This inefficient process evokes more hostile exchanges on both sides about the $15 checked baggage charge. Once the plane was loaded, the attendants are subjected to the further indignity of charging for amenities: $1.00 for bottled water, $2.00 for a soft drink, $5.00 for a snack box and $7.00 for a mixed drink. I passed on these as a matter of principle. No doubt the attendants were grateful when I and many others made this this choice.

As I left the plane, I found myself having flashbacks. It took a few minutes to place them. My US Air Flight had rekindled memories of times that I worked or visited in communist era East Germany and Hungary during the 1970s and 1980s. In that era virtually all ‘customer service’ persons were government employees. The ‘service’ provided was similar to that purveyed by US Air, indifferent at best, sullen and even hostile at worst.. At the time, it seemed paradoxical, a perversion of communist ideals that we came to accept. Employees of the ‘people’s government’ did not serve the people. Smugly, we could point to the superiority of our capitalist way of life. Now it appears that the results produced by unbridled capitalism (perhaps coupled, as under communism, with a incompetent, self-serving management cadre) can be equally perverse.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Quiet Listening

Final examination week is the time when Dormgrandpop hosts ‘study break hour.’ From 10:45 until midnight, on each evening preceding a final examination day, I open my apartment. There is a pot of coffee, hot water for tea, tea bags (conventional and herbal) and juice on the kitchen table. My living room table offers chocolate chip cookies, oreos, crunchy Reese bars and recently harvested apples. My meditation companion, a Buddha statue imported from Sri Lanka, views the scene benignly. A hand lettered sign points visitors to soft drinks in the refrigerator and Klondike Bars in the freezer. Another socializes visitors to the norm of Study Break Hour, “its ok to grab a snack and run.”

Some of the twenty-five or so visitors who drop by do exactly that, but others remain until I close up shop at midnight. Sometimes I participate in the conversations, but often, I simply sit back at listen. The conversations in which I share - or to which I listen - suggest that stereotypes of a younger generation, devoid of social skills, whose members primarily communicates via Twitter and text messaging need qualification. Our talk is at about the same level of banality as at social gatherings in rural Virginia where I spend my weekends, but with more humor, warmth, energy and optimism. There are few or no interruptions to answer cell phones or text message. They are always brief. Talk is of friends, relationships, parents, final exams, holiday plans, the tribulations of AU’s bureaucracy and the anticipation of study abroad trips to Argentina, Kenya, Brussels, London, South Africa and Spain.

I treasure these times of quiet listening, when I am accepted as a non intrusive, non threatening sojourner in a world that few older adults, especially of my generation have been privileged to share.

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