Be like Gandhi

I realize my efforts are much smaller. He liberated India. I let people in in traffic.

There is no God. At least, I'm practically certain there isn't.I don't believe there's a heaven or a hell either, so I don't really know what makes me want to be a good person, but I do, in the worst way.

I want to be a good person, and I want to be considered a good person, which may, technically, undermine the legitimacy of my goodness. According to the movie, Gandhi didn't want a big fuss made over him. Of course, I also read that when Gandhi lived in the ashram he believed that all of the children there were all of the adults' responsibility. So when one of the kids would screw up, Gandhi would fast, feeling it was in some way his failure as well. Imagine watching "The Partridge Family" one night instead of doing division problems 1 to 20 on page 41 in your math book and having your dad not eat as a result. Even my mother, who used to say, "Your ass is my meat," may have had a better technique. Still, Gandhi's overall record of goodness was better than my mother's, so I do try to use him as a role model.

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I'm aware that my efforts are much smaller than Gandhi's. He liberated India; I let people in in traffic. I smile and say, "Hi," when I see people on the street. Sometimes, when I do so, mothers draw their children nearer to them and pick up their pace walking past me. It's difficult for me to tell if I'm actually doing good. I need a sign. If I let someone in in traffic and they wave, I feel so good. If someone lets me in in traffic I always wave, because I want them to feel good, too. I'll follow them until they see me wave. Sometimes they feel threatened, and I wish I had a button on the steering wheel so I could unhonk. Just a couple of days ago I let three cars in ahead of me in traffic and the guy behind me got mad. I think that's why Gandhi walked so much.

I knew a guy in San Francisco who everyone thought was a saint. He "worked with kids." I'm always suspicious of such a vague description of someone's deeds. Fagin worked with kids. Someone in the airport once approached me with a sign asking for money for "the kids." I asked what he did with the money. He had that long rap that people soliciting often have, the one where, when you realize they're not gonna take a breath, you just sort of tune out. When I tuned back in, I heard him mumble something about taking "the kids to Vegas to show them the ills of gambling and sex." I swear it. I gave him the dollar anyway, because it struck me as so funny.

Anyway, the guy in San Francisco was the kind of guy who secretly wanted the world to suck so he could be seen fixing it. When he'd ask how I was, I'd say, "Fine," and he'd say, "Really?"--like he was hoping I'd reconsider and have a big breakdown right in front of him.

I used to think if I was a good person I would feel good. I give money to about 30 different organizations. Not only do my efforts feel like spitting in the ocean, but each contribution invites stronger appeals for more money that grow exponentially. For the most part I trust that these needs are real and I don't begrudge their requests, but it doesn't feel at all good.

Each request for money comes with a redundant newsletter describing how much worse the situation has become since I sent my last check--the religious right is mobilizing; the Klan is marching; libraries are closing; our fundamental rights are under increasing attack; fires have finally been put out, causing flooding; AIDS continues to ravage despite the most recent dance-a-thon; the NRA has bought the Congress, which has subsequently banned logic; the most recent attempt at campaign-finance reform has been defeated; and farmers are being particularly cruel to chickens this month. I feel like I spend half my life tearing the plastic windows out of their business envelopes so they can go in the recycle pile. When I see the mailman I well up with tears.

Once, on my way into a record store, a couple of street guys asked for spare change. One of them said he needed money to feed his dog. I didn't have any spare change, so I said I'd catch them on my way out. But I forgot to get change. Although I do want to be a good person, I'm not quite there yet, so, when I didn't see these guys right away, I was relieved. It's such an internal wrestle: I didn't want to encourage their downfall, but, on the other hand, they were hungry, and I was just in the store looking to buy a blues tape to cheer me up after opening the mail. Mentally, I had myself in a full nelson, when they appeared at the car to remind me of my promise. Assuming they were together, I gave the guy with the dog $20. He hustled across the parking lot while the other guy flew into a little lecture. He said, "Naw, man, that ain't right. Pops is just gonna take that money and go buy alcohol." I felt sort of trapped, at first apologetic and then pissed. I said, "I'm sorry, I thought you were togeth--you mean, he lied to me about the dog!"

I never want to say it too loudly, but I'm beginning to have a helpless feeling. I'm not saying I condone it, but I see why rich people like to build fences around their property. I know after I watch "MacNeil/Lehrer" and "Life and Times" (a PBS show discussing Los Angeles issues), I almost frantically turn to "Murder, She Wrote." With this helpless feeling comes a compelling desire to turn away. I don't think I'll ever be rich enough to totally shut out the uglier side of the world, but if I am not very vigilant, I might become one of those people who does not let people in in traffic.

Letters to Paula

Dear Letter Writers,

E-mail is coming between us.

See if you see what I see. This is the kind of letter I received when you took the time to write with a pen, a paper, and some thoughts--the old-fashioned way:

Brian Faux, Los Angeles, Calif.: I run a project helping street people organize a self-help system of peer counseling in a low-income housing unit we are now refurbishing. While we were painting a bedroom, my co-worker, Rufus, asked me a question I didn't know the answer to, but I assured him you'd find out.

Were there any noteworthy men in the struggle for women's right to vote? Did any go to jail? Did any hang out with the Grimke sisters?

Always looking for good role models. Thanks for your help.

Here, on the other hand, is--I swear it--a typical example of a letter transmitted to me by the wonders of e-mail:

"Computer Geek," <GEEK@BUM.COM>: Dear Paula-Faula-Fo-Faula-Banana-Fana-Fo-Faula-Fee-Fi-Fo-Faula-Paulalala,

Hi. We just got e-mail here at work. I'm supposed to be working, but I'm so bored. I saw your e-mail address and had to check it out and see if it was really you.

I watch your show every week. You're my fav' woman comic. Actually you're my second-favorite woman comic, but Rita Rudner doesn't have e-mail.

I love your show, except I didn't like those girl singers and that guy reading the book. Does ABC make you talk to the audience that way? You shouldn't.

Before we had e-mail I used to play computer solitaire. I got really good at it. I haven't actually done any work here in six months. To be honest, I can't remember the name of the company I work for.

Anyway, I wrote a poem. Here it is:

Mushroom, mushroom
Eeow
Eeow
Eeow
Little girl lost in the hallway
I am whole.

Whadaya think? I sent it to Melissa Etheridge. She might use it.

Well, I gotta go. It's almost lunch break. Thank goodness, because I am so bored. I don't really have any questions for your column. I just have e-mail.

OK, you guys, do you see my problem? This e-mail stuff is not only the biggest waste of technology since the super collider, it also seems to spawn time-wasting mental masturbation. Maybe it even sucks the brains from its users' heads. I know I risk pissing you off, but someone had to tell you before it was too late.

Write Paula c/o Mother Jones, 731 Market St., Ste. 600, San Francisco, Calif. 94103. Fax her at (415) 665-6696; or e-mail her at paula@motherjones.com.