Ticket to the Dalai Lama

11/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I should have got up this morning to drive to Long Beach to wait in line to see the Dalai Lama.  A stranger gave me a ticket.  He won't miss that I'm not there.  And I won't miss the throngs, nor the commute.  Instead, I spent 90 minutes on the phone with one of my many unemployed friends, who called from the east coast.  She knows me long enough to know I wake up early, and I always welcome the chance to talk to her.  Life is too busy and there's the time zone thing and it's just not the same not being able to yap in person; we're due for a visit that won't likely happen for a while.

So while I chopped onions for tonight's soup, we talked about keeping busy when you have nothing that compels you to keep busy, like a regular job.  That ritual of getting up, bathing, rushing out of the house, going somewhere where you're expected to be that most of us bask in.  Or is it hide behind?  Most of those people aren't necessarily happier; they're just pre-occupied.  The trick is to find something that occupies you meaningfully, or to find meaning in what you do have to do.  No?  Get out and volunteer, I told her.  People need to see you; you're too much of a gem to keep locked up inside, stewing.  Stewing is part of it, but after a while we all need the ritual of seeing people each day, going somewhere, even if it's just to get coffee at the same time each day at the same place, or nodding to people on the bus stop.  During a long period of unemployment, I assigned myself the task of learning to swim, and then going to practice each day.  I liked that the lifeguard came to expect to see me.

Going somewhere where people are less well off than you offers another perspective to this malaise of underbusyness.  I spent the past three nights interviewing homeless people on Skid Row here in Los Angeles on a short-term volunteer project and it walloped away any trace of self-obsession that might have been washing over me lately for my own underbusyness.  But that's a whole other story.

Since my dear old friend lost her job back in January, she's been reading a lot, she told me.  The classics.  Thinking a lot, too, contemplating the weird tumultuous profession of ours, news, and being a certain age while trying to redefine your life's mission.  Since we all know our profession ain't necessarily ripe with opportunity.  It's daunting the frightening to see the world change around us, but it's also the reality, and the reality is we have to apply our brains and our energies somehow.  If it's incumbent on us to invent how, so be it.

Inevitably, we started to talk about politics, but since this blog isn't about politics, I won't go on about that here.  Basically, the upshot of our conversation was, Why are people not marching in the streets?  Why aren't they visibly angrier?

"TV," my wise friend said.  "Religion's no longer the opiate of the masses.  TV is."

Last night I went to a screening of a television documentary that was projected in a movie theater.   It was a gorgeous old theater, and if you've not spent any time in Los Angeles, you'd be shocked a piece of old architecture like this exists here.  Not to mention that it's a single-plex, not carved into tiny little sub-theaters.  Gold flourishes on the walls, an ornate ceiling, the whole nine.  Anyway, it was really lovely to sit and watch a movie in a group of people who weren't checking their iPhones throughout the two hours.  A committed bunch of viewers, sharing the experience together.  One of the people I was with had never been in a theater in the entire 8 years he's lived in LA, and I thought: This is the only way to have the communal viewing experience.

But we've lost so much, not watching in a group, haven't we?   The "bowling alone" phenomenon.  And I'm as independent as they come.  After we chatted a bit post-movie, I went home and tried to watch the Daily Show.  That and South Park are the two reasons to keep this cable TV on, I think.  But watching it by myself just doesn't cut it for me.  Even though I was dying to see how they depicted that maniacal rant by Qaddafi at the UN, I couldn't pay attention. Loneliness isn't something I typically feel, even if I spend hours and days and weeks on my own.  It's a figment of the imagination, like boredom; when the mere suggestion of those things creep up, I challenge myself not to succumb to the laziness of labeling the feelings as such and do something, engage somehow.  But something about staring at the tube, all alone, felt isolating and lonely.  Even though I wanted to laugh at the world with Jon Stewart.  Even though earlier in the week, I took momentary pleasure in eating an avocado sandwich in bed while I watched Jim Cramer do his rant thing.  Maybe that was easier to take because of the food, and the memory of Cramer trying to get me axed after I wrote about him ages ago when I was writing for the NY Times.

The other day T. came over and with the TV in the background, we pulled out the all-powerful and much preferable second screen, the computer, so he could show me some TV clips online.  He'd seen them but wanted to share.  As the set whined and whirred, demanding attention but not getting it, i thought: Why am I spending this $40 a month to keep this boob tube up and running?  To indirectly feather the Jon Stewart/Trey Parker/Jim Cramer retirement fund by supporting their networks?  I believe in the power of voting with your pocketbook, absolutely, but there's got to be a better use of this cash.  And yet.  I'm still not ready to get the cable turned off; it has only been a few weeks, after all.  We're still in the adjustment phase of this relationship.

I'm glad I didn't go see the Dalai Lama today.  I'm going to give the ticket to a friend, and he can tell me about the experience.  I imagine it'll be a mob scene of devotees packed into the huge convention center, with a translator interpreting his words, His Holiness projected onto a giant screen.  That's fine, and there's got to be a nice energy in the room, with all those Buddhists, but it's too mediated an experience for me.  Instead, right now, I'm going to finish the soup I'm making and go for a swim, my own forms of devotion.