2009-11-17

Reading Signs On the Wrong Highway.


I was on a road trip out East to see my brother and his family. The evening before, I had driven across the bluff over Lake Erie at Erie, PA. I love a blue horizon! Cutting the corner of Pennsylvania into New York and on past Buffalo, I spent the night in Williamsville, just off the thruway.

Next morning, out in the moist summer air, I tossed my bag and my guitar in the truck, and slammed the tailgate shut. In the cab, I set up to listen to some podcasts; even a couple from the nearby Rochester Zen Center. It was a bright, beautiful morning to drive the rest of the way across New York and into Massachusetts. I had breakfast at Bob Evan's and hit the road. Good grub and coffee for my belly, and some new podcasts; nourishment for my brain.

My route would take four hours or so to Albany and then just into Massachusetts to Chester. Around Albany, I-90 heads into Massachusetts and the NY Thruway heads Southeast and becomes I-87. As long as I made the turn to stay on I-90, I didn't have to think much to navigate.

On the south side of Batavia, NY5 comes alongside the toll road. My brain was simmering in the warm juices of an interesting podcast. My eyes are open, hands at “10 and 2,” but the auto pilot is engaged. Physically, I'm tooling down the highway at 70 miles an hour. Mentally, I'm sitting in the Rochester Zendo listening to the deliberate, even tone of John Pulleyn. Its warm and comfortable, a good dharma talk. Its quiet, feels safe and over there to the right is a RAMP TO I-90!! WHAT?!? Did I miss my turn already!?!? Where am I?

My brain grinds a few gears and roars into panic. My foot pulls back from the accelerator. I'm scanning the traffic beside and behind me, checking if I can still make the exit. On right shoulder is a solid guardrail. There is no opening; no gap for the exit. The ramp goes up and over a knoll and curves over to join my lane. It takes almost a mile for it to sink in that I was looking at a sign on the wrong highway. The sign wasn't for me, it was for the people on NY5 who wanted to join me on the Thruway.

If you aren't present in the present you are not really living your life. When we are consumed with what should have or could have happened, or perhaps, wishing something had not happened, we are stuck in the past. The paunchy former star athlete, or the aged former beauty queen, still trying to live their “glory days” are clich├ęs of movie and song. We can't make good decisions for our current life if we are not actually living it. When consumed by the past, we are living in a world we can't change because it has already happened. We are reading signs on the wrong highway.

If you are consumed by the future, you have great plans, great hopes for some moment to come, some thing to happen. Consciously or not, we put things off today for those fabulous times to come. We can be consumed by some nebulous goal even while not making any actual progress toward it. Life is passing us by because we don't see it. The kid in the back seat whining “Are we there yet?” is not enjoying the ride. He can't see anything interesting along the way because he is not looking. When great moments, or great possibilities, come to us in the present, we cannot see because we are looking just passed them at some unfocused potentiality. We are reading signs on the wrong highway.

When we obsess about how things should be or are going to be, we cannot see how things actually are - reality. In order to move forward, in a direction of our own choosing, we must know where we are going to start. We must accept reality; accept things just as they are. In this accepting, we don't wish something else had happened. We don't ignore things as they are because we “aren't there yet.” When we are carefully aware of just where we are, good decisions can be made about where we want to go from here, and what we want to do next. We are on the right road and reading the right signs.

2009-11-01

Don't Be a Tool!


When a tool is designed, it is designed to "do" something. A tool has no sense of being. It has no essential nature. As soon as the tool is in the hands of someone else, like a mechanic, it may well be used in any number of other ways. Tools lack purpose. The tool is only meant to do. It's nature is situational. Is it a wrench or a hammer or a pry bar or a belaying pin? It IS what it is being used for. Vice Grips are a special, adaptable friend of truckers everywhere.

Vice grips hold open the release lever on the Tandem Axles of a trailer. A heavy load, rusty rails or a trailer parked on an incline can make it impossible to adjust the axles. A pair of Vice Grips clamped on a partially pulled lever will often help release them. Further, when I had Satellite Radio, I had a pair of Vice Grips clamped on the outside of my cab with the magnetic XM antenna attached to them. This antenna base, a rusty old pair of Vice Grips, has over 200,000 miles on it. I've even used Vice Grips to pin open a curtain in the window of my sleeper.

Today, in our Ceaseless Society, we expect human beings to multitask; multiple doing. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that Human Beings should really be called Human Doings, because we concentrate much more on doing than being. We can't focus on doing something well while multitasking. If the coin of the realm is multitasking, hyper-doing, there is no time for, or any emphasis on, just being. No time to spend discovering our true purpose.

I heard this vivid phrase somewhere on NPR: Continous Partial Attention. Set your iPhone down for a second, if you are not giving full attention to what you are doing, you cannot do the best possible job on that task. If we live in the buzz of multiple tasks, we can't possibly be living the best possible life. If we are constantly switching from this task to that one, are we giving the people we love any real attention? any dedicated face time? Do we really know what we actually want to do with our lives? When is the last time you stopped and really thought through what you want to do next? what you really want to do for a living? where you actually want to live? What is your true nature? What is your purpose?

Doing sounds like action, but it is essentially static. The tool goes from one task to the next without growth. There is no choice, just the next task. When you are doing, you are not living or growing. Being is dynamic but does not exclude accomplishment. While Doing is the mindless accomplishment of artificial, unconsidered goals, Being is the accomplishment of goals on a path; toward a purpose. These are handpicked, specific goals, chosen to further your life rather than simply to get someone off your back or to get that report off your desk. Purposeful Goals add up to a life worth living.

Can we just 'be?' Do we spend any time to quiet the world long enough to hear ourselves? We are making priorities every day under the crush of To Do Lists, Five Year Plans, Lunch appointments and Meetings, but do we know what we really value? Is there happiness and joy or stress and misery? Without some quiet “being time” to get in touch with what we really value, can we safely decide on anything? Are we even aware of a purpose beyond getting the next task done?

Fortunately, you are not a tool. A tool would never rather be doing something else. It has no sense of anything else, nor of a purpose. As a human, there is much greater depth in purpose. This depth, however, is unreachable when doing outweighs being. When a person is consumed in hyper-doing, they become like the tool; an inanimate object. There is no compassion, no empathy. There is no joy in the life of a tool.

When we can reconnect to ourselves and develop purpose, we can live in parallel to our essential nature rather than opposed to it. We can find joy and compassion and real living. Stress and misery are absent, because living toward a purpose, by definition, is effortlessly doing what we should do because it is what we want to do. In Being we are investing time rather than spending it. So invest a moment in being. Quiet the world long enough to truly consider what is worth your time. Accomplish something essential; something parallel with your purpose. Just be.

2009-10-23

It Takes One to Judge One.



After I had entered the complex and drove around to the back, I dropped my trailer in the crisp predawn of a fall morning. I was by myself until another truck pulled around. He backed into a dock a few doors down from me. We both had to wait for the Receiving Office to open up. I had seen him walking around, he was a big guy. Suddenly, Showtunes burst from his cab. I could hear the unmistakably strains of Broadway belting, thumping through the sheet metal. It is a bit unnerving to think of a big burly truck driver listening to Showtunes. And he was blasting them. I could just see some fan of John Wayne Gacy slipping out of his truck to come see me, [hey, big guy] in a Clown Suit, with a straight razor. I shivered at the thought.

It was about ten 'til five, the guard said that Receiving would be open by now. I climbed down to go inside. About three steps toward Door 43 and I heard another door slam shut. I looked over my shoulder just to make sure there was no clown suit. At the office, the door was still locked.

As the other driver walked up to meet me at the door, he had the lazy back-heal saunter of a dimwit. He made up for this by being twice the size of a normal man. To put a fine edge on it, he was rotund, spherical almost. He looked like the Batman's Penguin, if the Arch Criminal had fallen on hard times. He was in a tshirt and jeans rather than a tux and spats. His tshirt said “American by Birth. Christian by Grace.”

“Yep, after I leave here I go back into Indy and then to Oklahoma,” he said, as if I cared. His hair hung at odd angles, ripped as much as cut in the classic 5 minute Truckstop Barber Style. The sagging unshaven jowls gave him a unkept look that matched his clothes. I had to check if the printing on his shirt was metallic because the next thing he said was “Georgia Pacific, Muskogee, I hate that fuckin' place.” I could swear the moonlight flashed a little on the words “Christian by Grace," but I must have imagined it.

We stood there in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes. He seemed like the kind of guy who would spend a half hour considering what he should say in a given situation. In the end, it would always blurt out, semi-appropriate and uninteresting. His wedge into the greater social world blunter and less effective than he had hoped. I know this to be true because I've often done it myself.

The Rotund One broke back in, “You got a garage door on that trailer?”

I was still a little sleepy that morning; more than I thought. Stunned, I cast a glance at my trailer just 10 feet from the stairs we stood on. Damned if he wasn't right! I had backed in to the dock without opening the doors. If Receiving ever opened, they wouldn't be able to unload me anyway. Who's the Dimwit now?!?!??

I kicked at the chock under my trailer wheel but it wouldn't budge. The trailer would have to be pushed off of it. The Rotund Driver had followed me over. I walked back up front and climbed aboard. As I hooked back to the trailer and gave it shove, the driver leaned over and pulled the chock out for me. When I pulled forward to open the doors, he stepped around behind me and opened them up. I nudged the dock and he stepped up the stairs and into the now opened office. He had done his good deed for the day and I had had a lesson in the futility of prejudging someone. When I got inside, I thanked him.

2009-10-11

Lost in the City Requires Peace of Mind

I think it was Robert Pirsig who, while a Technical Writer, collected assembly instructions. He had a badly translated instruction for assembling a Chinese Built BBQ Grill. Apparently, most of the written instructions bordered on useless, but they began with the deeply Eastern “Assembling Barbecue Grill requires Great Peace of Mind.” As the author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Pirsig rather liked this though it was likely more accidental than oriental. There are days, many many days, when Trucking requires Great Peace of Mind. And flexibility too, but any arguments of how many, or if any, truckers possess such states of mind is a topic for another day. On a recent trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to practice my flexibility and had to desperately hang on to the remaining shreds of my Peace of Mind.

I hit Chicago about three in the morning. On the outskirts of town, I did a quick review of the directions I'd been given. Seemed like a straight shot; take the Tri-State up to the Eisenhower, second exit. The details were a little sketchy, but things usually work out OK. The first ebb of a night of evolving assumptions. Chicago, in the middle of the night, is not bad. There is always traffic, but at that hour, never enough to slow me down.

When I got off the Eisenhower, the sketchy details started to fall out of rather than into place. “Exit 13A, E US20. Go one block, proceed East on Lake St.” the directions calmly stated. East US 20, like all U.S. Highways, could be on a funky angle, but East Lake St. should be actually east [First Wrinkle of the Second Assumption]. It must be just off to the right [the rest of the Second Assumption]. Off the highway in the dark, there's a couple railroad overpasses, some tall old industrial buildings. A couple, like grain elevators, loom into the hazy mix of darkness and city lights. I creep along for about a block. There is a road here but it looks more like a driveway. In another block or so, there is a road to the left. “To East IL-67” a sign shouts at my headlights. My directions don't mention IL-67, so I move on [Yet, a Third Assumption].

Now I'm rolling down a typical Midwest industrial strip. There's a few corporate buildings, a forklift dealer, an auto repair shop, and a couple machine shops. I've gone way more than a block; probably four. Suddenly there is a large parking lot on my right. I step on the brakes, jam through a couple gears and lurch inside.

Its a big city “pay-to-park” lot for semis. If you live nearby, or just do a lot of business nearby, they have semi size spaces for rent. As I lope into the lot, a guard comes out of the office trailer. He trudges down the aluminum steps as I pull to their stop sign. Scanning his clipboard, the guard walks across the front of my tractor. The beam of each headlight swells to a glare on his shoulder and fades away behind him. I roll down my window and raise my voice of the grinding diesel.

“Sorry, I missed a turn back there. Can I just turn around in here?”

Without a word, the guard smiles, spins back around and waves me through. As I pull past him and start a big circle, the guard trudges right back up and into his shack. The lot is in good shape. Mercury lights buzz dimly over a big flat cinder lot. In the vagueness of city night, bright light bursts out of the windows from three sides of the guard shack. The unyielding contrast makes the guard shack like a Dec-O-Rama in a huge Museum of the City. The guard sits at his desk facing a small TV sitting on a file cabinet next to a well used coffee maker. The rigid industrial lines of the desk, the cabinet, the trailer and the parking spaces are mocked by the kinks and wild turns of the unbent coat hanger that has replaced the TV's antenna.

Back on the street, I retrace my steps toward the highway. If I was supposed to Exit on East 20 and then turn East on Lake Street, Lake Street is probably a right turn [recast Second Assumption]. It should have been obvious either way; maybe that driveway looking entrance was the right place [A Fourth Assumption]. Having seen no better alternative, I stopped in the left turn lane, across from the driveway, straining to read the unlit signs crowding the other curb. I flicked the brights on. One hopeful looking sign is completely useless. Eric Hiscock said “Fortune favors the reckless.” So I turned in.

Its definitely industrial. I pass a trucking company at the base of one of the grain elevators. Off to the right is a large cross dock with several semi trailers. That is promising but I can't find a street to get over to it [Fifth Assumption]. Suddenly I'm funneled into short pole building. As I enter, bright lights flash on and the interior explodes into stark detail. I keep rolling slowly through. Without a sound, its dark again. My night vision is shot, but another brightly lit, squat building is just ahead. I pull under a structure like a toll booth. There is a unit like the drive thru bank below my window. I've been transported into some Terry Gilliam Postmodern landscape.

There's a click and the hum of a small room behind an old analog microphone.

“You're lost. Aren't you?” blares a happy voice from the tinny speaker. Central Casting from Gilliam's Brazil couldn't have cast a better, vaguely ethnic, beguilingly cheerful disembodied countenance.

“Yeah, I'm looking for Jewel/Osco but I'm not doing very well. Do you know where they are?”

“Well, this is the railroad. You didn't look like you were headed for the railroad. That might be them over there to your right.” The happy voice oozes with empathy. He's been lost in the city at night too. “Turn left as soon as you leave our exit gate.”

My truck rumbles into the rail yard; another big circle. More post industrial buildings with weird catwalks and railroad sidings. There are monstrous cranes that swallow a whole rail car, lift off the container and then spit the car out again. Guys in yard switcher engines, pickups and, oddly, a Volvo. Hard hats, steel toe boots and worn denim wander everywhere. They all carry a smirk knowing I don't belong here tonight.

Out the exit gate and . . . there is just no way to turn left. Even a small car couldn't turn left. To go left is to climb a concrete barrier, leap to a scale the chain link fence. Then over the razor wire and you're in. I've had enough of this fun and pull over most of the way down the driveway.

The small scale map of Chicago in my Atlas is no help. Not enough detail for the rail yard or even Lake Street. I look at my phone. It can reach the internet, but a detail map on that little screen is like looking at a computer circuit board; lots of unlabeled lines and intersections none of which I can decipher.

Its then when I have a vision. The sun is suddenly shining behind a large cloud. Angels appear from the left and the right. They bend over in unison and put big brass horns to the backs of their robes. In a glorious God calling chord, the cloud shimmies open like a Punch and Judy Stage. Monty Python's Old Man God appears complete with his cut out, nut cracker mouth. His chin slips up and down, just out of sync with the audio and he says, “Viaduct Clearances for Chicago Streets and surrounding neighborhoods.” And with that the vision dissipates into a spray of confetti and a some noise of the bowels. They're all gone, but I'm digging through my truck stuff with a determined grin.

In the Seventeenth month of my tenure, I have yet to touch a map that I was given at orientation. Miraculously, the map is called “Viaduct Clearances for Chicago Streets and surrounding neighborhoods.” In the chaotic world of freight shippers in the Chicago Area, you cannot cut across town on the surface streets without checking for low bridges. However, I have never had to cut across town in this manner and have yet to even unfold that nearly forgotten map. The very map I was now clawing open.

The Front side of the map is all downtown City of Chicago in close detail. With a sigh of relief, the back side is “surrounding neighborhoods.” There's Lake Street! It _is_ IL-67!! That changes everything. Scanning the map for my next assumptions [Sixth] I see that IL-67 is the Northern border of Melrose Park, my destination. The sketchy details in the second half of my directions are “Take Lake St. East to 15th Ave. Proceed past first stop sign. Jog and continue to second stop sign. Turn left on Armitage. Jewel/Osco is on the right.

The Trucker Logic goes if IL-67 is the Northern Border of Melrose Park, the destination. Then traveling East to get there, I must turn right (south) to get to Jewel/ Osco Receiving [where was I?, seventh! Seventh Assumption]. With a new confidence, I exit the rail yard, find the loud “To IL-67” sign and turn left. At IL-67/Lake Street, I turn East (right). Whoever looked up these directions on Google Maps must have thought that you could easily take Exit 13A to East US20 and “Proceed to East Lake St.” However, not being from Chicago, not knowing IL-67 _was_ Lake Street, . . . I was lost and in the dark in more ways than one.

Cruising down Lake Street, I crossed 35th Avenue. Twenty blocks to go. Then there was 25th Ave.; right on time. There was a big Jewel/Osco logo on the left. WHAT!?! Rolling past in the dim light of dawn, I watch the Jewel/Osco facility move by. There is a sign I can't quite make out by a truck size driveway. Several Potential Assumptions flip through my caffeine addled brain. Did Jewel/Osco move and my directions are still to the old location? Is that the dry goods warehouse and perishables is down 15th Ave.? Should I keep moving or stop and ask? Should I join the circus? Where is my other blue sock? Oh, never mind.

I've pulled a semi through lots of cities, including New York City, the Big Apple, where I once parked tractor and half a trailer, illegally, on the sidewalk for four hours while being loaded. My big city instincts have me pulling to the left without really thinking. The place to be for a confused truck driver, in the big city, as the morning traffic is about to start, is the left turn lane, mid block. Safely in the center, I pull on the four way flashers, set the brakes and stop to think; or find a stiff drink.

I can see 15th Avenue, a block or so up the street. Craning my shoulders, I can see back toward Jewel/Osco. Their logo and color scheme is orange. I can see orange trimmed buildings, behind the stores on the street, coming most of the way up toward me. There is a big facility back there. There is also no good reason to have dry goods and perishables several blocks apart. In the liquid logic of suburban boundaries, Jewel/Osco is on the North side of IL-67. This puts them outside the primary color shading of Melrose Park on my map, but apparently inside the actual boundaries of the town in real life. The unspecified turn on 15th Avenue must therefore be left or North [the Final Assumption?]

The smoke test will be the two stop signs and the jog. If I turn left and see them right away, I've made the right guess. If not, I'll need another large space to turn around in a big circle and a new assumption.

Before I even complete the turn, I can see two stop signs, askew. I'm on the right path. From completely lost to making the delivery, I ended up only twelve minutes late. Another nearly Zen night on the American Byways.

2009-02-04

Karmic Deficit Imbalance



So, just when I thought I was pushing my luck with Weigh Stations, I hit the jackpot and drained my Karma all in one fell swoop. I'm upside down like the Chinese Trade Deficit. I had passed closed stations when I knew I was pushing the GVW limits, I've gone East when only the Westbound Coop was open; only to find the West closed and East open as I passed the other way. I bless my luck but thought I was near the end. I even wove my way through the Irish Hills of South Central Michigan to avoid scales on I96 and I94; wasting hours and driving miles I would never get paid for.

Monday I picked up a load in Lexington, KY. I meant to scale at the Pilot at the 129. Talking on the phone, I drove right past my exit - oblivious. Suddenly the Kentucky scale on I75 Northbound appeared around a curve. I was "all in" whether I wanted to be or not. I rolled on through and assumed I had been blessed. No holy water or chants, but I figured if they didn't stop me my weight was OK. You know what they say about A S S U M E.

Well, I sauntered my way through the hills of Kentucky and down into the Ohio River Valley. I passed through Florence Y'all and into Cincinnati. The bypass is a broad circle and way too many miles. In midafternoon, after hitting I71 just over the river, I pulled right through town. I was on a tight schedule, but was doing good. I had had to take a 10 hour break in Lexington and picked the load up at the very end of my pickup timeframe. This left little time for breakfast or any other goofing around on the way to Delaware, OH.

As I came upon the Ohio Scale, their sign glowered "OPEN." No problem - I've been blessed by Kentucky DOT. Imagine my shock, dismay and general put-out-ness when Ohio had the audacity to tell me to pull around behind. Damn! This is never good and often the worst possible thing.

I gathered my logbook, checked that I knew where my Medical card was, got the Bills of Lading and climbed out of the tractor. The scale lady poked her head out of the building and told me to pull back around front, but stop on each axle.

I pulled around and got rechecked and carefully weighed. This is the trucking equivalent of a colostomy. Her voice scratched and tore at the intercom, "Pull around back again and bring in your truck and trailer registration."

She didn't say logbook, and I was at least 45 minutes ahead of my log, so I left it tucked away in the cab. I pried open the trailer capsule and took the paperwork inside.

"Today's your lucky day," she cackled.

"I don't feel lucky at this very moment," I moaned.

"Well, they just called my Trooper away to an accident," she informed me. "There's no one here to write you a ticket. They just saved you $157."

If it wasn't for the clinical stainless countertop, the security cameras and her badge, I would have climbed over and hugged her. Instead, I thanked her and made my way to the door. I fought off the smile until I was completely out of the building, out of sight.

Then it hit me. I need a Trillion Dollar bailout just for my Karma. I've been walking old ladies across streets, kissing lepers, dropping change in tin cups and prostrating myself in front of all kinds of craven images ever since.

I'd rather be Lucky than Good, but this is ridiculous!