Saturday, October 19, 2013

Losing Control

Last winter I attempted to drive up this alley on glare ice:

I felt in control of what I was doing, thinking I had the right speed and momentum. What I did not have control of was gravity, the sun melting the surface of the ice, and soon the truck and I slid backwards and sideways until--by a miracle--I hit a snowbank-turned-icebank, and stopped inches from the garage on the left (apologies if you recognize the garage as your own). If not for the icebank, I'd have taken out the south wall and continued my slide into the street.

Control is an illusion. But it is an illusion we love. "A firm grip," "self-possessed," "holding others captive" and "keeping it together" are apparently good things. While "coming unglued," "falling apart," and, of course "losing control" are all bad.

Buddhist friends tell me that "non-grasping" is a core virtue in their tradition (Sanskrit: aparagraha), and that the desire to grasp, control, or possess (especially outcomes) is the root of suffering. I used to think this meant acceptance of everything, passivity. But no, they tell me, passionate, skillful effort for good ends are required. Huh? When I ask for clarification, they tell me to plant a tree. Perfect.

There is great subtlety and freedom in this teaching. To work, even to fight, for the good, while letting go of the outcome, knowing that is not in your control. I think of that phrase in basketball, "Leave it all on the floor." How different from: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

"Do not worry about your life..." and "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." Words attributed to Jesus by Matthew, have become more deeply meaningful to me through dialogue with Zen teachers.

Our entire culture, economy, and every system to which we belong is predicated on worrying about tomorrow. RESULTS. Bottom lines, achievement, accomplishment, and the like are what we are supposed to be... not just working for, but producing.

Control is an illusion. Still, we imagine very bad things happen when we lose control. Example from the world of garbage:

One could call this a loss of control. Or one could say that the control never existed, and the poor devil suddenly woke up to the fact.

A fellow hauler was running behind and pushing at the end of what had already been a long day. Tired and anxiously trying to complete his route, he was anything but present and alert when he drove his 11 foot 10 inch high truck under an 11-foot 6-inch bridge:

Who cannot relate to how unmindful we become when in a rush? Luckily, no one was hurt in this crash...

I keep a souvenir in my garage from my first week on the job. It reminds me of the importance of care-full-ness when operating heavy equipment.

I was rushing to finish my route in time for a meeting. The territory was new to me. I was rolling down a deserted street, glancing at the map to locate my next stop... BAM! I crashed into a row of mailboxes. Destroyed them all. Not only was I late for my meeting, but afterwards I went back to re-build and replace what I had destroyed. It cost more than my paycheck that day...

For those of us who are prone to try to control outcomes, it is well to remember that trying to control outcomes results in less-good outcomes. For better results, let go of the desire to produce better results. Think on it. And then go plant a tree.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


When I am hauling trash, people do not suspect that I am also a man of letters. They see me as someone who picks up their dog crap. They give me crap, literally. Recently I paused before turning into a St. Paul alley in order to let a couple walk their dog in front of me on the sidewalk. I waved in a friendly manner, and the man turned and approached me solicitously. I thought maybe he might be our customer wanting to thank me for outstanding service. But no, he wanted to give me his bag of dog do-do. "Sure," I said, "toss it in."

As I drove away from the couple with their dog's poop, I was thinking that it might be the first time anyone had given me s---, literally.

Scholarship does not fit the image people have of us garbage-guys. Who knows? Maybe there are a whole bunch of us out there--undercover--pondering the meaning of words and ideas with the juice of rotting chicken smeared on our shirts. Like Wes, shown here after a 14 hour day, heat index at 105, pondering the meaning of life...

The word, "literally," has been forced into unsavory service in our language. But wait, the word "literal" (literally) should mean something is taken in a literary sense, in the sense of words, language and writing. In other words, as a metaphor, since all language is built on metaphor, and "metaphor" itself is a metaphor (literally, from Greek) meaning "to carry across."

No, it should be that if the couple had literally given me s---, they would have tossed me a remark about the smell emanating from my truck, or something like that. What we mean by "literally," is--actually--"actually." They actually gave me crap.

See how amazingly helpful and useful scholarship can be? I'm sure most people would rather just have me take their crap...

Saturday, May 4, 2013

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

In the early eighties I lived in Europe for a few years. One of the peculiarities of European truck drivers, at least at that time, was that many of them decorated their trucks (lorries) with stuffed animals. Most commonly, they would be lashed to the bumper or grill, sometimes fixed to the antennae, often on the dashboard, and once in a while on the rear bumper.

Why? you ask. I am not sure, but I feel compelled to do the same thing.

Yes, he is hanging by a clamp on his ear. But he doesn't appear to be unhappy about it.

It's not only a European thing. I came across a New York Times article titled: "They're Soft and Cuddly, So Why Lash Them to the Front of a Truck?" On November 13, 2005, writer Andy Newman asked truckers the "big question: Why?" The answers he received not only cast light on the human predicament, but, even more importantly, could tell you something about me.

(From the article): Like all adornments, of course, the grille pet advertises something about its owner. The very act of decorating a truck indicates an openness on the driver's part, according to Dan DiVittorio, owner of D & N Services, a carting company in Queens, and of a garbage truck with a squishy red skull on the front.
"It has to do something with their character," said Mr. DiVittorio, 27. "I don't see anybody that wouldn't be a halfway decent person putting something on their truck."

 I totally agree. It's about character. Only a decent person would put a squishy skull on their garbage truck. And only an even more decent person would put a green stuffed space alien at the power take-off control of his garbage truck.

But there apparently is a somewhat more Freudian explanation out there among garbage haulers:

One prevalent theory among truckers is that chicks dig them.
Robert Marbury, an artist who photographed dozens of Manhattan bumper fauna for a project in 2000 (see, said he had once asked a trash hauler why he had a family of three mismatched bears strapped to his rig.
"He said: 'Yo, man, I drive a garbage truck. How am I going to get the ladies to look at me?' " Mr. Marbury recalled. 

I know. I have found, just like this gentleman, that once you affix a cuddly animal to your garbage truck, the ladies find you almost irresistible. I need to lock the doors so they don't try to climb into the cab.

Be that as it may, it's not for the babes alone that we do it. We are part of an ancient tradition reaching back to the very dawn of civilization.

Monroe Denton, a lecturer in art history at the School of Visual Arts, traced the phenomenon's roots back to the figureheads that have animated bows of ships since the time of the pharaohs.
"There was some sort of heraldic device to deny the fact of this gigantic machine," he said. "You would have these humanizing forms, anthropomorphic forms - a device that both proclaims the identity of the machine and conceals it."

This is clearly true. There is no question that we garbage haulers roll along city streets in our titanic machines whose unconcealed power would otherwise strike terror into the hearts of all who see us. Therefore, like Pharoahs and Vikings, we anthropomorphize and mask the raw power we wield.

Given the obvious fact that garbage haulers are deep and mysterious repositories of the collective psyche, whose work manifests historical, anthropological, psychological and philosophical phenomena, it is both refreshing and (frankly) about freaking time that somebody decided sanitation departments need an artist in residence.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the artist in residence at New York City's Department of Sanitation, said that when she noticed the animals on garbagemen's trucks in the late 1970's, she "felt they were like these spirit creatures that were accompanying them on this endless journey in flux."

So we are artists. Our spirit creatures accompany us on our endless journeys in flux. Pretty much. But wait, there is more.

"I always felt," Ms. Ukeles said, "with these creatures that they withdrew from the garbage and refused to let go of, that there was an act of rescue involved."
That is certainly true for Julio Hernandez, a laborer for Aspen Tree Specialists in Brooklyn.
The GMC chipper-truck he rides in is graced with 11 figurines, each defective in one way or another - Hulk Hogan with both hands missing, a Frankenstein monster with a hole in his head, a nearly disintegrated black rubber rat. "People throw them out because they're broken," Mr. Hernandez, 38, said in Spanish. "They catch my attention." 

That's it, we are rescuers, saviors of a sort. Our compassion cannot let these little ones be utterly destroyed. No wonder we pull them out of the trash and bond with them. But then we strap them onto our trucks where they are tortured by the elements, not to mention the stench of the spoiling slurry of the trash...

This is the true mystery of the grille-mounted stuffed animal, and it is here that the terrain gets heavily psychological and a bit murky.
Ms. Ukeles, who claims to understand sanitation workers fairly well, having shaken hands with 8,500 of them during a three-year performance project, said they identified on some level with their mascots.
"There's a transference in this," she said. "There's this soft, flesh-and-bone sanitation worker, who knows very well they could be crushed against this truck. The creature could be the sanitation worker in a very dangerous position, so the animal could be a stand-in."
(Stuffed animals, sadly, are verboten on city garbage trucks and nearly impossible to find these days; they were against department regulations even in the 1970's, but perhaps sanitation men are not the free spirits now that they were back then.)
At the same time, Ms. Ukeles said, the trucker, perhaps uncomfortable with his soft side, may feel compelled to punish it.
"Binding a soft thing to a very powerful truck - there's a kind of macho thing about that," she said.
That double identification with both victim and agent of violence may reflect the driver's frustrating position in society. Stuffed animals are found mostly on the trucks of men who perform hard, messy labor, which, despite the strength and bravery it demands, places them on the lower rungs of the ladder of occupational prestige.
The motley animal, then, can function as a badge of outsider status, a thumbed nose to the squares and suits. In that case, the cuter the mascot, the more meaningful its disintegration.

Not so much compassion, then, as sadism. We transfer our vulnerability and trampled egos onto these critters and attempt to recover our dignity by trashing theirs. Where are the fawning ladies now? But wait, it gets worse.

"That is part of the abject," he said, "this toy that is loved to death quite literally."
The externalization of an indoor object is another abject trope, Mr. Denton said. "An important aspect of the abject is the informe, the lack of boundaries," he said, using the French critical theory term, "the insides oozing out."

Turns out, I am the stuff (with my stuffed animals) of a French-critical-theoretical trope. No question. Let us therefore not romanticize being in garbage, however cute and cuddly we try to make it.

Still, there is love. Each time I go out to haul trash, my ten year old daughter asks me to bring something home from the garbage. All the animals on the dashboard came home and went in the wash. Now they are on her bed with her 300 other animals. Cherished just as much. The white bear stayed on the dash. I needed to keep one there so that my frail sense of dignity, compassion, heroism, machismo, French sadism--and whatever else--might remain intact...