Thursday, March 5, 2009

Greetings from Hell

A big, burly samurai comes to a Zen master and says, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”

The Zen master looks him in the face and says, “Why should I tell a scruffy, disgusting, miserable slob like you? A worm like you, do you think I should tell you anything?”

Consumed by rage, the samurai draws his sword and raises it to cut off the master’s head.

The Zen master says, “That’s hell.”

When a trust-fund baby moved to Port Townsend to open a small treatment center for wayward, inner-city youth, I was hired to drive their van. It was the perfect job; I could live in wooded splendor of the Olympic Peninsula, sleep late, and report in the afternoon to the pastoral haven the wealthy man created where junkies from America's violent urban enclaves could walk in landscaped zen-gardens or hike trails of wild salal and overgrown ferns through a rain forest that towered above the white caps on Discovery Bay.

It was a mindless job--though certainly not thoughtless--and I was paid to toss around a football, share my experience in recovery with a half-dozen young men, driving them into town for job interviews or haircuts or recovery meetings where they'd stay late and whack around the ping pong ball for hours. I was--my employers said--to "model" good behavior and talk up the benefits of living in the great wide open of the straight and narrow.

My mentor, a retired Marine Corps sergeant with more than 20 years of sober living, ran a more traditional counseling center across town. It was spartan compared to the bucolic one in which I worked, nested in a drab suite of offices behind the bank. He reminded me that working for a recovery farm was not the same thing as tending my own spiritual garden. If anything, he said, I would need to redouble my efforts at quieting my mind and my especially caustic, hair-trigger temper. I did not wear my heart on my sleeve, it seemed, I wore an entire body suit embroidered with stripped electrical wires.

Nonetheless, it all was going perfectly. I was paid to throw a frisbee with the treatment center hound, paid to eat sumptuous meals prepared by the gourmet chef, paid to sit before a roaring fire and read zen poetry while the boys washed the supper dishes, paid to watch movies with them in the plush conference room--all going wondrously until a thug from Seattle, newly arrived, found special delight in breaking my balls. And the harder I worked to turn a diffident cheek, the harder he labored to find a crease down to my open nerves.

The sergeant asked if I could hold my tongue. "You like this job, don't you?" I had to admit that I loved it to my core.

But one night, while I worked alone in the large manor house writing progress reports on the boys' behaviors, the thug locked himself in the bathroom with a boom box and cranked the sucker up until the speakers blared a scratchy, distorted rant of punk terror.

I marked up the stairs, pounded on the door and demanded that he surrender the stereo. It was prohibited by house rules. He yelled out that he couldn't hear me.

I could hear just fine. I heard the other boys, camped in their dorm beds, burning with ecstatic twitter.

So I pounded away, and again, and continued pounding until he opened the door a crack to grin at me, and I forced my way in, yanked the cord from the wall socket and threw the bastard toy down the stairs, where it ricocheted and spun madly in broken pieces on the parquet floor. The kid charged down after it and stood waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.

I hurried past him, dodging a blow, and locked myself in the office, where I telephoned the sheriff, then called my supervisors.

The night passed without further incident and in the morning I was fired. I had compromised the well-being of my charges by leaving them in the lodge while I cowered in the office and, worse, I had created bad publicity for the facility by phoning in the sheriff, generating a public report picked up by the newspaper. Townspeople were already worried about having so many junkies nearby. Some were even locking their doors, something they had never done on the peninsula.

The following Monday I sat, crestfallen, in the student section of an anger management class conducted by my mentor in his office building. We talked about triggers, and how to count to ten, and diagrammed how our expectations of how we were to be treated only fueled our passive-aggressive responses to people who by nature would always let us down.

It was tough to lose my cozy job in the woods; I would not find new employment and was forced to move to the city. But I left my anger management class that night armed with useful tools and new-found optimism and drove off into the foggy winter's night in peace, happy at the chance to reform my ways, driving along the waterfront toward town with wonder and burgeoning confidence until I paused at a four-way stop and a pick-up truck that arrived after me took my turn into the intersection, forcing me to slam on the brakes.

I leaned on the horn and gave him the finger.


tangobaby said...

I guess I must need help with anger too because I read this and didn't really see a problem with what you did. The kid needed to be taken down a peg or two.

Or else maybe I'm still highly under the influence of Dickens and putting too much Oliver Twist into this.

Did the treatment center collapse like a house of cards?

Char said...

ugh - tough call there. sorry you lost something you loved - and yes, the truck would have gotten the finger from me too.

A Cuban In London said...

I echo TB's comment. Maybe we live in such an enraged society that we're inured to little excesses every now and then. Still, the Zen master was right.

Greetings from London.