Sunday, December 28, 2014

Not Zen 142: Hoarding

"She gave me another 'Best Granddad' mug. That was sweet." He flipped it out of the box.

"Do you like it?" 

Morning light glowed through the kitchen window. It was their first day home after the holiday. He was glad to be back. The first thing he'd done on his arrival was stoke the furnace and turn up the heat. He'd brewed coffee, too, which she poured into their usual cups. While she sipped, she heated oatmeal, enough for them both. She stirred in brown sugar, raisins, nuts, and berries.

He slid the gift mug onto the table. 

"It's got a nice color." She eyed the canary yellow glaze from her spot in front of the stove. "It's not too tall for the cabinet shelf. But you don't use the 'Best Granddad' mug from last year."

He shook his head. "Nah, it's a weird shape. I'll never do anything with it. We've got too many mugs already. We can barely close the cabinet door. Put it in storage."

"You're not going to use it even once?" She kept stirring.

"I've got too many of these." He tossed the gift box into the trash.

"Why don't you throw it out?" She tapped her wooden spoon on the side of the saucepan to knock off sticky flakes of oatmeal. "Give it to someone who wants it. We've got enough mementos."

"Who would want it as much as I do?" He threw up his arms the way he did when he felt she'd said something crazy. "It was a gift to me, personally. That's why I want to keep it."

"But you only want to keep it out of sight."

"Put it in the attic like you used to do with my old thank you cards, souvenir glasses, sweaters, ornaments, and stuff like that."

"Ha." She resumed her stirring. "You never wore a sweater in your life."

"No, but I got some as gifts. I think your paste jewelry is up there, too, right? A lot of the stuff we got that was junk because we were poor went up to the attic. It was all sentimental stuff. I saw you pack up a lot."

Her gaze drifted from the stove, across the kitchen, to the hall outside the foyer. There lay the door to the attic stairs. She grimaced. The oatmeal bubbled next to her hand. That caught her attention. She tapped the rising surface with the wooden spoon. Then she grabbed the measuring cup of water next to her and poured in a splash more. As she stirred, she nodded in the direction of the high cabinet.

He followed her gesture and rose. He reached up into the cabinet and pulled down two pottery bowls, one green, one blue. He set them down next to his wife. They stood, side by side. She turned off the stove.

"Honey," she said quietly, still stirring "why do you want to keep the mug if you know you'll never set eyes on it again?"

"You keep trying to talk me out of it."

"There's only so much room in the house." She raised her eyebrow. He pushed the bowls to the edge of the stove. She raised the saucepan by the handle and began to pour. "What makes this worth keeping?"

"That my grand-daughter gave it to me. Nothing else." He pulled away the first bowl when she was done with it.

"So the gift is useless except that you associate it with someone you love." She emptied the pot. She started to set it down, spotted a few nuts and berries stuck to the bottom, and scraped them out into the blue bowl.

"Yes." He picked up both bowls. Quickly, because they were warm, he transported them to the kitchen table. "Yes, it's exactly that."

"You keep saying that we need to prune out our useless possessions, that we shouldn't be attached to them."

He sighed. He knew more conversation was coming. "I know I do."

"I've seen you throw out any number of other things. Just not gifts."

"You don't have to put it like that." He strode to the flatware drawer. His hand found the spoons. "Or maybe you do. It's true enough. I let go of everything else. But I don't like to see gifts thrown out."

"You don't even look at them. Honestly, you hardly ever go into the attic. You certainly never open the boxes there."

He cocked his head to one side. A moment later, he laughed.

"No, I don't." He pushed a spoon toward his wife. The other, he kept as he took a seat. "Who wants to look at crappy knickknacks a second time? It's enough to think about the people who gave them to us. That's what's important."

"You like to contemplate the affection. Got it." She took her seat. She glanced at the 'Best Granddad' mug between them. He blew the steam off of his first spoonful. She felt the breeze. "So it's okay for me to put this where I put the others. You don't care if you see it again."

"Sure. I mean, if you've got the energy to go up there." He tested his first portion. It wasn't too hot. He took a bite and spoke with his mouth full. "If not, I'll find another space."

She took a minute to let her breakfast cool. When it was ready, she took a few bites in silence. He scooped up half of his share in that time, a dozen mouthfuls. 

"Honey," she announced. She put down her spoon. "I cleaned out the attic twenty years ago."

It took him a moment to understand. He blinked.

"Even the cheap jewelry?"

"Everything. I love you, honey." She reached across the table and put her right hand over his left. "I like to think about how hard we both worked in those days so we could have a few trinkets. But it's done. I don't need them."

Slowly, he nodded. Then a thought came to him. "The broken ornaments from my grandmother?"

"Listen to yourself. They were broken." She tightened her grip. "When I cleaned them out, I did it with a hand broom so I wouldn't cut myself on the shards. And you still remember her the same way."

"Yeah. Okay." He gave her hand a squeeze and let go for a moment. He grabbed his coffee cup to take a drink. "I may pretend that this mug is in the attic, though. When I talk to the kids and such."

"Fine."

He put his glass down. He rubbed his chin.

"I'll still think about it," he announced, "when I see my grand-daughter."

"Perfect."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Not Zen 141: Logos

He spent the holiday with his older sister and her family. In his first decade as a university professor, he'd had no time to start a family of his own. Instead he'd concentrated on his teaching, publishing, and achieving tenure - a satisfying event. But the university had come to feel claustrophobic in the past year. The visit promised to be an escape from academia.

He'd always loved his sister, a gentle soul, but she'd chosen to live on a farm. He found that he didn't like the roughness of his sister's husband or her children. He didn't care for the lewd sense of humor she'd picked up. What had seemed to be a simple, ideal existence from afar looked noisy and complex from inside her home. And outside her house, there sat rural squalor. The area went unnamed, deservedly so in his opinion. It held eight or nine houses together if, by together, one meant quite far apart but within the sight of a careful observer.

The gravel road and dirt paths looked traversable for a man determined to hike. He excused himself from breakfast.

"I'll go for a walk in the morning air," he announced.

His sister and her husband exchanged glances. The corner of her lips turned up.

"There isn't much to see," she warned.

"Sounds fine to me."

He closed the door gently, wondering if he could have handled that better. But as soon as he was alone, he more at ease. The sounds of the home faded in the gentle wind. The sky lay overcast, the sun a greyish-white glow to the east. He thought it was fortunate that the breeze wasn't too harsh. The morning felt brisk enough already. Frost lay on the grass and on the thinnest branches of the trees. Wisps of vapor trailed from his mouth as he slogged up the trail.

His shoes twisted in ruts of frozen mud. The ground felt unforgiving. Undoubtedly, he would be sore if he hiked far.

In time, he spotted a grain silo in the distance. There was a house beside it, much less impressive than the silo. Even from afar, he could tell the sides of the home needed paint. Patches of it had peeled away.

As he grew close enough to see the frozen garden in front, the lumps of leaves not cleared, the ivy sprawled along the front yard in a patient battle with the grass, a boy burst out the front door. He ran, wailing, into the yard. He couldn't have been more than eight or nine. He continued to cry and swing his bare arms.

The child looked half dressed. He wore boots and heavy pants but his shirt had no sleeves. The material looked stained and ripped like a castoff undershirt. Blue and black bruises, small ones, decorated the young fellow's body, a dozen or so in total. There were more on his left arm than his right. A larger bruise swelled on his left cheek.

The professor raised his hand to speak. He was close enough to shout something. But what would he say? The boy continued to rage, cry, and shudder with every breath, although whether his body shivered from the cold or from emotion, it was hard to tell. Finally, the boy grabbed a stick.

The professor stopped. He put down his hand.

The boy stalked, cudgel in hand, to what had seemed to be a lump of leaves next to the garden. It was a dog. The animal showed no fear. It rose in greeting and walked to the end of its short chain. The stake for the chain had been pounded into the soil at the corner of the garden.

The boy screamed something. He hit the dog.

The beast wuffed and backed up. But the child pursued. There was no easy escape. The professor stood frozen in horror, then anger. Finally, when a yelp from the dog sounded like it had taken a mortal blow, he rushed forward. He almost fell along the way. There were ruts in the road and in the yard. But he closed the gap. He leaped between the child and his dog.

The boy screamed at him, furious. It was an anger without words. Fortunately, the lad didn't swing. The stick in his hand looked lethal when seen up close.

"Stop. Please stop," the professor said. He put up his hands.

The boy stopped yelling. He panted.

They stood, staring at each other for a moment. The professor heard the dog whine behind him. He studied the bruise on the boy's face. It was a bloody one. Carefully, he crouched and extended his arms. He startled himself with the gesture. He was hugging the boy before he thought about it.

"What? Hey!" The boy pushed away but he did so with a gentle touch. "Why are you being nice?"

"I don't know." He felt bewildered. "You were beating the dog. I was mad. But then you seemed sad. I couldn't stay angry."

"I've never seen you before."

"No, I'm just visiting." He rose to his feet. How could he explain his position to someone so young? "I'm a teacher at a university."

"Why aren't you angry, then? Everyone else is."

His mind spun for a moment with all of the logic he used every day. Obviously, he could point out that not everyone was angry. But maybe less confrontational approach would be better. He thought back on his recent lectures and the reactions of his students.

"There's a greek word, logos," he said. He pronounced the word carefully and watched the boy's face for a reaction. "It stands for logic and also for spirit. It's way that people are joined together."

"So it's like a soul, then." The lad seemed unimpressed.

The professor always told his students, 'No, not like that,' but he didn't think an admonishment would go over well.

"It's more like the secret connection between souls."

"Oh." The lad sniffled. He wiped his nose on his bare forearm. "Is that how it works? Is all our stuff connected? Then that's why I get sad and angry when someone else is sad and angry."

"Yes, I think so. Like that." He turned his attention to the bruises. His fingers reached for one but he pulled back without touching. "Is your father here?"

"Not for years. Don't remember him."

"Oh." That shattered the notions that were started to take shape in his mind. "Well, why are you so bruised? Where's your coat?"

The boy glanced to his left, toward his house. He opened his mouth to speak but stopped. Then he gazed down at his feet and started to cry.

The professor turned. The house looked mundane and unimposing. There was no one at the front door. He spotted a face in the window, a woman. Her visage seemed marred by an enraged expression. Then she was gone. She'd noticed him looking and moved away. He watched the darkened pane of glass for half a minute in the hope that she might come back. He half-wished and half-feared she would come to the door.

In time, the dog crept up next to him. The beast rubbed its shaggy body against him, as if for the warmth. Next, it approached the boy, who had fallen quiet. It licked the boy's face.

The boy's hand fell to the mutt's neck. He didn't push it away.

"What a nice dog you have," he professor said. "He forgives you."

"Hey." The boy brought up his left hand to shield his face from the animal's tongue. He'd stopped crying, perhaps from annoyance.

"Dogs must have the logos stuff too," he boy announced. "Because he's connected. See?"

The professor raised a finger. He started to say no, that only humans had the connective spirit, but he closed his eyes and looked inward to his definitions. He saw himself in the classroom, giving his speech about the greek logos. It always ended with students debating one another about its existence. The professor sided with the doubters. Most of the time, there seemed to be no real connection between any people at all. There didn't even seem to be pervasive logic that people followed. But then he opened his eyes and looked at the dog. The ancients had believed in the connections between other creatures and that those tendrils of spirit extended throughout all of nature. In ten years of teaching the subject, he'd never taught that part.

"Why are you crying?" asked the boy.

"What? I'm not." He wiped his eye. A chuckle escaped him although it felt forced. He patted the dog. It kept trying to lick the boy. "This dog of yours is just amazing."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not Zen 140: Little Surprises

He let his horse amble along. Hot breath steamed from the beast's nostrils.

They took their time. He guessed that the gelding beneath his saddle enjoyed the foggy morning as much as he did. For him, it had been three years since he'd this kind of work. To get the job, he'd hitched a ride on a train from the coast. He'd hired on to the ranch as its lowest-paid hand. Naturally, since he'd had experience, his new bosses were happy to send him out at dawn to patrol the fence line.

Lots of things in the wild knocked down fence rails. His job was to find out where they'd done it. Then he stopped and fitted the rails back into place. It was a mindless chore. He liked that. All morning, he rode, worked the fences, and walked his horse. When he reached the northwest corner, he turned back toward the ranch alongside the western border.

He'd eaten his breakfast from a wax wrapper. He'd drunk water from his canteen. He'd repaired three rails.

As he neared the end of the border, he crested the hill that overlooked the ranch house. There, he and his horse paused. They took in the view of the cattle below. There was a herd fenced in to the east, a smaller herd gated to the south. The large, north barn lay low in his view, near his knees. Farther away lay the main house, then the stables. Between the house and the stables sat a horse corral. Behind it, the small, south barn was a mere bluish dot.

From his vantage, he saw a pair of men approach the corral. They should have been carrying loops of rope, he thought, but their hands looked empty. The darker fellow had to be the Shawnee medicine man who acted as a sort of low-paid veterinarian.

The ranch had struck a deal with the Shawnee reservation. The cowboy didn't understand it and no one had bothered to explain it.

The other man was, on second glance, a woman. Despite her lack of a dress, he knew from her long, light-brown hair. She was the rancher's eldest daughter. She opened the gate of the corral and, as if she did it all the time, motioned for the horses to come out.

The half-dozen mustangs sauntered into the north field of the ranch. They cantered around, called to one another, and played for a few minutes. She let them run free. Beneath him, his own horse whinnied and pulled at its bit. He tugged to hold it steady. The gelding itched to join the herd even though, presumably, it was more free to travel while it was with him.

"Right, boy." He couldn't deny what his horse saw. He patted the beast on its flank. His fingers loosened their grip on the reins. The gelding began to trot downhill.

Below, the ranch horses drank from a trough usually reserved for the longhorn bull. They nibbled the grass around the trough. Soon, the lead mare returned to gate of the corral, where it approached rancher's daughter. The young woman put her arms around the leader's neck. She spoke to it. The mare nuzzled her and pushed its thick mane into her delicate face. Then the horse pulled away. It turned and trotted into the corral. The others followed. The girl stepped in behind the last one. She swung the gate shut, dropped the latch, and took what she'd been eating out of her mouth. It looked like half of an apple. She held it out for the lead mare, who accepted it carefully between her front teeth.

The girl turned towards the barn to get oats or some other feed for the rest of the herd. The medicine man merely sat down on a bench next to the gate and watched the horses.

By the time the cowboy reached the corral, the girl had passed out of sight.

"Shawnee, right?" He waved to the medicine man. "I'm new here."

The middle-aged fellow turned to look at him as he dismounted. He wore stitched leather clothes and a blanket over his shoulders. His eyes seemed so dark and so reflective, they glinted of silver.

The cowboy tied his gelding to a fence post by its reins. Then he stuck out his hand to shake. The medicine man made no move to respond. But the cowboy wasn't sure if the Shawnee people understood the custom. He put his hands on his hips.

"So, does that happen often?" he said to renew the conversation.

"Every day, white man." The fellow spoke with an accent but a clear voice. He nodded. But he hesitated and tilted his head. "Maybe. I don't really know what you're talking about."

"I mean, you and the girl let out the horses." He smiled. "But the horses came back. It looked like they were talking to you folks. Can you understand what the horses are saying?"

"I see. Well, I've spent most of my life around horses. So has the ranch lady."

"I have, too. But I haven't seen that before. The horses in this corral have been looking to bolt. They run from most people. I've seen it. So is she a witch? How about you?"

"Only me. The woman would not like to be called a witch and she is not wise in the way you mean. She does ordinary miracles."

"How's your English? I don't reckon we mean the same thing. That girl, she talks to animals. And they talk back."

"Yes."

"I'm shocked. That's a big deal."

The Shawnee shrugged. "The medicine man before me could do it much better. I don't know that it was related to his wisdom. Maybe a little. The young lady seems wise for her age. But I hesitate to say so if you think it's shocking."

"Why?"

"Wisdom should not be associated with special powers."

That set the cowboy back a step. All of his life, religious men had talked about holy power as if that were the point of holiness: to be powerful.

"Then what good is it?" he asked.

"At best, a wise man learns to see things as they are. That is, we can see as much as flesh and blood creatures like us can perceive the true way of things. Much still remains hidden." The medicine man hunkered down with his blanket around his shoulders.

"That doesn't sound special."

"No. But it is surprising."

"That's your wisdom? Every tent-flap deacon around here promises more, I bet. You've studied your medicine for years. And you say that you're still surprised to see things as they are?"

"Better the countless little surprises," the fellow said as he shook his head, "than the one big shock."

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Not Zen 139: Small Gestures

At the side door of a large city building, a man struggled with a cart.  He was a short, muscular fellow.  On his chest, he wore a uniform shirt.  On his head, he had a cap with an emblem.  He'd gotten the door open.  But his handtruck was a tight fit.

The cart bed wasn't too wide but it had been laden with boxes, large and small.  The lightest ones at the top jostled.  Every time he tried to push his cart through the available space, its wheels bumped against the handle, the mortise joint, the frame, or the raised door sill.  With every bump, one of the lightest boxes fell off.  He had to stop.  After each halt in progress, he shoved the door open with one arm, grabbed the cart handle, and tried again.  But each time, he lost a box in the process and had to replace it.  Dozens of people passed by on the street outside.  A few passed through the door, outside to inside.  They ignored him.

Eventually, a tall man in a suit rushed up.  He'd seen the struggle from a distance and ventured over to hold the door.

"Thanks, buddy," said the shorter man.  "My boss overloaded me.  Kind of tough here."

He put both hands on the cart handle and eased it through.  This time, the door handle didn't hit him.  Nothing endangered his boxes until he paused to ease the wheels over the raised sill.

"I'm probably just like your boss," the newcomer said.  "I give a lot of orders to a lot of work crews and most of the time I don't really know what I'm doing."

"Huh.  At least you help."

"I try."  The man in the suit waved off the complement.  "But really, my job makes me act like an ass.  I order people to do work they don't like. Then I have to fire the poor performers. That's the worst.  But what kind of an ass wouldn't hold open a door for someone who needs it?"

The worker shrugged.  The other fellow was someone's boss and, by his own admission, not the best.

After he eased the cart onto the sidewalk, he had to make his way through the pedestrians, the cyclists, and the car traffic.  He crossed the street with the signal, but slowly.  Cars honked.  He dropped a package, picked it up, and held it down on the cart.  The thumb of his left hand kept a tall stack steady as he eased up the ramp at the curb.

His destination was the corner building, as close and as convenient as it could be.  The place had glass double doors.  It should have been easy.  But the entrance had been paved with cobblestones.  Their uneven surface knocked his packages off of their stacks.  The threshold rose above the stones so that, once again, he struggled to get his cart through.  There were two security guards behind the front desk.  He could see them watching him.  Neither got up.

People strolled by.  Employees from the building passed in and out of the doors. No one offered to hold a door open for him.  No one came to lift the front wheels of the cart.  A woman with a heavy purse and a fur collar passed behind.  She scowled at the inconvenience of walking around him.

He paused for a moment, hands on hips.  After half a minute, he wandered around to the front of the cart to try to lift the wheels.  Then he noticed a man striding his way.  It was the same tall fellow who had helped him at the previous building.

"I guess I caught up to you before anyone else could step in."  He put his hand on the cart handle and pushed down as the smaller man lifted.  Together, they levered the cart over the threshold.  "This is a surprise."

"I wish it was, buddy."  The workman tipped his cap.  "I wish it was."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Not Zen 138: Silence

The hiker spotted the old man he was looking for at the top of a hill to his west. The fellow's head leaned back to gaze up toward the sky. His shirt sleeves were rolled, hands resting on his knees, despite a steady wind.

The hiker turned west. In front of him, the slope rose sharply from the road. He trudged into the grass. Soon, the stalks grew above his knees. He cursed as he slogged upwards to his target but he smiled, too, because the inconvenience was a good sign. In other places, he'd questioned monks. He'd engaged abbots in debate. But some of those old fellows had been senile. This one ahead was only a village wise man but if he had the alertness to rise early in the morning and the stamina to tromp through the underbrush, at least he wasn't feeble.

"Hello!" he waved.

The weathered fellow above him let his gaze drift down. His eyes twinkled slightly with curiosity but otherwise he didn't seem surprised to receive a visitor.

"I heard that you perform your morning meditations in this area," he explained as he marched closer. "It's a big area. I was lucky to find you. I'd like to speak for a moment and get your opinion on a few things."

The wise man's eyes dimmed. He took a deep breath and waited.

He remained quiet while the hiker introduced himself. In a few minutes, the newcomer got the sense that he ought to get on with what he had to say. That was no problem. He had questions in mind similar to those he'd asked at the monastery.

"If nirvana is only attained through the destruction of desire," he said. "doesn't that mean we must destroy our personalities? Aren't our characters partly defined by what we desire? I think a lot of you teachers I've met have seemed the same. It's because you don't have many desires."

The old man sighed. He shook his head, apparently lost in thought. Then he resumed looking at the sky.

"Is something wrong with my question? Aren't our personalities determined mostly in our minds? Your philosophy, I hear, deals a lot with the nature of our minds."

The old man bowed his head. After a moment, he shrugged and resumed his meditations.

"Although, come to think of it," the visitor continued, "our personalities are also determined by our bodies. And by how people respond to us. Those responses give us our expectations and desires."

The old man didn't stop looking at the sky but he nodded.

"You don't feel my questions are good? You don't feel a need to respond with your words?"

That question got a smile.

"Is silence your response to everything?"

The old man glanced at his visitor. Then his head snapped back to his view of the landscape. He pointed.

"That cloud, right there, is beautiful," he said. "Did you notice?"

"No, I didn't." The visitor turned.

It was a large cloud, threaded throughout its bulk with shades of grey and white. The flattened base changed in texture from moment to moment as it swept toward the hill. The higher layers re-arranged even more dramatically. For a long moment, both men studied the cloud as it slowly changed shape in the sky.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Not Zen 137: Long View

The girls grew up as neighbors, both in pigtails, both in overalls. Their parents joked about how interchangeable they seemed.

"Emma and Alma," said Alma's mother. "Even your names sound similar."

They spent summers in the same park, in the same sandbox. On rainy days, they played games together. When it came time for school, they went to class with the same level of reading. They learned to write their names. They learned to count.

"They'll be best friends forever," said their parents.

The girls started out with average grades. Emma, the one with slightly lower scores, had to work more to keep up. Her performance improved. Encouraged by her success, she worked even harder. She got so good in the first school year that both girls forgot they were equal.

"You've always been the sharp one," said Alma later. They didn't remember a time when things had been different.

As teenagers, they played on the same volleyball team. Alma, as she grew to be tall, enjoyed easy success. Emma remained the shortest in their class. Even with extra training, she couldn't match her friend's level of performance. Working harder let her keep a place on the team. Later, they both remembered being athletic.

"You could spike," Emma recalled.

"But you could dig." Alma nodded. "And set."

After school, both moved out on their own, living in poverty and on charity from their parents. Alma spent more money. She bought her furniture on credit. Emma bought hers at yard sales. Alma got a new car. Emma saved up for a used one. Over time, Alma fell into such debt that she had to move back to her parents' home. Emma built up savings, even though they earned the same money. She decided to travel.

Alma married a local man, a handsome one, who she felt was a prince to save her from her debts. In her travels, Emma met an educated man, not as handsome. She agreed to settle down with him if he would live in her hometown for a while.

"I think you married a bit of a frog," Alma said to her friend when they met again.

Emma shrugged.

"He is, a bit," she admitted. "But he's willing to work to get more princely. And anyway, I'm not a princess."

They lived in the same town for a few years. Alma had her first child. She relied on Emma to help with childcare. Often, the two went out together. Sometimes, they left Alma's toddler with his grandparents and spent their time at parties, at museums, or on dates with their husbands. One night when they were out, they got into an accident.

The accident broke bones in both of Emma's legs. It punctured her left lung. As her lung filled with blood, the ambulance team and then the doctors tried to drain it. When her heart failed from the strain, the surgeon revived her. He repaired her lung and pinned her stray rib into place. The hospital scheduled three other surgeries to repair her legs and hips.

When Emma awoke, she practiced moving. At first, that meant exercising her arms. It was all her nurse would allow. Later, she learned to roll her body. After a week of limited movement, the nurse agree to let her sit up.

"Your friend hasn't even gotten this far yet," said the nurse.

"Alma is here, too?"

"We moved her off of this floor. But you won't be able to see her until one of you can walk."

Emma learned that Alma had suffered a broken hip and a broken leg. She'd endured a surgery similar to Emma's. In fact, the same surgeon who had saved Emma's life had pinned Alma's bones to allow them to knit.

As soon as she could travel down the stairs, Emma went to visit. She found her friend alone. Her prince of a husband was at work, unable to visit that day until he finished his evening shift.

"You're up!" shouted Alma. Her face lit with surprise. But she barely moved.

"You're not!" said Emma. She leaned on her walker. In a moment, she would need to rest. For now, the mixture of exhilaration at her friend's health and frustration with her friend not exercising kept her upright.

"Well, no. It hurts to sit up."

"Of course it does." It had hurt her, too. That's what broken bones did. "Alma, I saw your scans from yesterday. All of your bones are fine enough to move."

"But my joints aren't," her friend complained. "I don't think I can make the same comeback you did."

"You damn well can." She tried not to stomp her foot. It would have sent jolts of pain through her.

"Then why am I not out of bed and you're walking?"

"I put in a lot of work, right from the start. I knew I had to, to get this result."

"But I don't really do that, Emma." Her voice lowered. "I never have."

The shorter woman sighed. She moved her walker to the front of the guest chair. Carefully, with one hand on the armrest, she took a seat.

"I can't leave this room until I see you do work. Move something more than your toes and fingers. I know it hurts. Sit up anyway. Heck, just show me you can roll a little."

"Emma, I'm tired." She moved enough to pull her blanket to her collarbone. "I can roll later."

"Your husband is coming. Don't you think he wants to see you sit up? He needs you." She considered trying another line of reasoning. "What about your little boy?"

"We don't let him visit." At that, Alma blushed.

"You've never liked putting in hard work for a distant payoff. But you're going to have to do it now."

"Right," the taller one laughed. "Because you're willing to put in the work to get the result out of me."

"First, you do step one. Then you do step two. Then keep going." Emma pulled her walker closer to her chair. She tried to stand but had to put out her right hand to the armrest and ease back down. "Alma, I didn't bug you to work harder in school. You were fine by me. And I didn't bug you to work in sports even though I think you could have been a star. You just didn't like it that much. But I can't stand by and watch you not try, not this time. We have less than a year to get our physical strength back. That's what the doctor said."

"That's a long time."

"Now it's only eleven months. You've got to get up. Look, a job like this can seem too big in the beginning. I know. It can make you freeze up in panic. You have to do the little thing that's next. Keep doing the little things."

"And then what?"

"And then, in the long view, you get done. All you need to do to accomplish a big thing is to start. And keep going."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Not Zen 136: Mental Judo

"How did you win your first two games?"  He shook his head at the poorly chosen shot.  It hadn't come close.  The cue ball rolled to the center of the green, felt table.  The position set up a good turn for him.

The player who had just missed the shot shrugged.

They hadn't been close friends.  That was why they hadn't seen each other in five years.  They'd marched out of their first class reunion in a group of a dozen to find the nearest pool hall.  Like most of the group, they'd bought drinks at the bar.  One of their mutual friends got the bright idea of holding an eight-ball tournament within their reunion class.  So they'd put their drinks on the stands next to the pool tables, paired off, and competed like the rest.  After two rounds, they met in a game.

"I hear you own an aikido studio," his opponent said.  He propped his pool cue between his legs and leaned against it.

"Yeah.  I'm doing okay."  He rolled up his sleeves.  It made him conscious of how he was one of the few in their class who had remained athletic.  "I earned my shodan when I was still in school.  And I'd always wanted to start my own business."

The aikido master made his shot into the corner pocket.  He'd left himself poor position, however, so he rimmed around the next one, an attempt at a side pocket.  His opponent stepped up, aimed a different ball at the same side pocket, and sank it.

"You used to be the worst," said the master.  "You were sick all the damn time or claimed you were.  You had panic attacks when girls talked to you.  Now you're an emergency technician?  Those are the folks who ride around in ambulances."

His opponent nodded.

"How did that happen?  The sight of blood made you vomit.  Actually, I was just thinking about how you freaked out in friendly games like this one.  When the pressure was on, you froze up.  But you seem better now."

"Oh."  The emergency technician set down his cue for a moment.  He picked it back up in his weak hand and, without bothering to set his feet, he tapped the cue ball into the corner.  It was a deliberate move to make the next shot hard.  "I decided to be the guy who's great under pressure.  You know what I mean.  When times are tough, one guy gets calmer and more sure of himself.  I decided it needed to me."

"Just like that?"  He checked the lie of the ball.  It made him curse.  There was no easy shot.

"It took me a while.  But I made it in less time that you might think, about two years.  You might count it as three or four if you saw the extra practice that I put in."

"How can you practice something like that?"  He wandered around to a different side of the table to see if he could find a better angle.  The pool hall kept the lights bright over the tables but dark everywhere else.  The shadows cast by the balls were sharp.

The emergency technician sighed.  His voice lowered.

"I've never told anybody," he confessed.  "It's funny that you're an aikido master.  At the time, I thought of what I was doing as mental judo.  After all, confidence comes from success, right?"

"That's how it worked for me."  He gave up aiming.  His eyes told him there was nothing he could do.  "And for everyone, I guess."

He poked the cue.  His shot scattered a cluster of balls.  The two players watched the balls bounce off of the rails and listened to the clacks of them as they made contact with one another again.

"Yeah, but you were always pretty successful.  Not me."  He strode up to the white ball. With a smile, he gave it a gentle push at a corner shot.  It rolled slightly off line, a miss. "Confidence comes from success but confidence is necessary for success.  To get good at anything, you have to feel good."

"That seems pretty much right."

"But I was prone to panic."  He rested the cue stick on his shoulder.  "I spent a lot of time in self-loathing and depression.  I couldn't break out of it without confidence.  And I couldn't find the confidence without a success I didn't have.  There had to be a trick.  I had to take momentum from somewhere."

The aikido master put out his hand and waited for the emergency technician to continue.

"You have to have to decide to have confidence.  You make it part of your inner nature.  I know it sounds crazy but I started to put myself into all of those situations I hated.  I talked to girls.  I played basketball."

"Wow, I remember you in the gym.  You shot like crap.  Horrible."  The image that came to his mind made him chuckle.

"I got better.  Want to put some money on this game?"

The emergency technician was down by a ball.  The cue ball lay near a rail but it wasn't trapped.  It was the aikido master's turn and he had a clear advantage.  The emergency technician hadn't been wealthy while in school and he hadn't dressed up for the event.  He wore jeans and a plain shirt.  The stakes he'd be able to put up would be low.

"Sure," he said.  He pulled out his wallet.  "How much?"

"How much do you have?"

"Shoot, I've got a whole week's take from the studio."  The question surprised him.  He had meant to take the money to the bank deposit slot but he'd thought it might come in handy at the reunion.

"That's a lot."

"Yeah."

His emergency technician friend took out his wallet in turn.  He kept a lot of cash, enough to cover the sum of the studio receipts.  He counted it out.  A lot of folks around the pool tables looked at the stack of bills.  But the emergency technician didn't seem worried.  "I've got it that much.  Let's play for it.  Shake on the bet."

"Crap, man."  He shook hands with his opponent.  Immediately, he felt misgivings.  The more he thought about taking that much money from an old school acquaintance over a bet, the less he liked it.  "You're down by a point.  And I'm pretty good at this.  Do you want to start over?"

"Do you?"

"I don't know."  The other man's calmness unnerved him a little.  Could he lose that much and be fine?  Maybe he was wealthier than he looked.

"Let's see what happens."

The aikido master steeled himself.  He spent longer with his aim than usual, took his shot, and sank it.  Now he was two points up.  The cue ball rolled into a decent position for another corner point.  He took his time but he knew, when he struck it, that he wasn't on line.  His follow-up rattled out.

As the emergency technician played, his limbs steadied.  He started to smile before his first shot, which he landed in a corner pocket.  Then he was down by only one.  He lined up his second shot.  The physical effects of his mental judo were visible.  His movements were smooth.

"At first, I would make trick basketball plays all alone in my backyard."  He paused for his pool shot.  He sunk the green ball in a side pocket.  That tied the game.  "I would pretend people were teasing me.  Then I would pretend I was the cool-head guy.  And I would shoot."

"So you did practice!"  The aikido master smiled.

"Yeah."  His friend smiled back at him.  "I practiced against real people, too.  I would talk trash.  They would get pissed and try to throw me off my game.  But I was the cool-head guy, right?  To myself, I was.  Even when I missed my shot, I knew it was because of me, not them."

"Were you sure?  Really?"

The emergency technician leaned down for this third shot in a row.  This one rolled straight and true.  It tapped the brown ball and pushed it to the corner pocket.  The touch was a trifle too gentle.  The ball rolled to a halt at the lip of the pocket.

The aikido master felt the hairs on his arms prickle.  That had been close.  His palms sweated.  He wiped off his right hand onto his pants.  The week's worth of salary burned in his pocket.  He didn't think he could allow himself to lose it.  It was on his mind as he surveyed his position, which didn't look good.

He had an open shot at a side pocket.  That was the one to take.  But he was aware that he hadn't made a shot in a side pocket during the whole evening.

"Crap."  Even as he let the cue stick slide, he knew he'd missed.  His aim was worse than ever.  His cue ball passed to the right of its target.

"Bad luck," said his opponent, somewhat generously.  He eyed the lie of the white ball.

Behind them, a door swung wide.  The smell stale beer and the fresh, outside air wafted over them.

The aikido master expected his opponent to aim at the brown ball that sat at the lip of a pocket.  But his opponent tried for a more difficult shot.  He knocked in the yellow ball at the far side. The cue ball rolled back to him in perfect position to aim at the brown.

"After a while," he said, "I was only showing myself that I'd become who I thought.  I was good in the clutch.  I was that guy."

He sank his shot.  He had only one ball left, the black eight.

"This corner," he said.  There was a tournament rule that they had to call the last shot.  He gestured to his stick where he was going to put it.  Then he leaned down, poked the cue ball, and bounced the eight into the corner.  For a moment, the aikido master held his breath.  He thought he might escape.  But the shot fell in.

"Oh crap."  The master slumped.  He put his hands on his knees and took a deep breath.  "A whole week's cash."

"Yeah.  And then something important happened."

"What could be more important?"  He was thinking of his rent money.  He hadn't paid for his studio space this month.

"I came across a traffic accident.  It was a bad scene with a guy bleeding out.  No one was doing anything."

"Even little spots of blood made you throw up."  He tried not to think about the rent.  Someone dying should be more important.  But it had happened years ago.

"I was the cool-head guy now, right?  I pulled the glass out of his arm.  I applied pressure to the wound and to the artery leading to it.  He was losing consciousness when the ambulance arrived.  I was a mess, blood all over my shirt and pants.  But the emergency technicians took a look at what I'd done and said I'd saved the guy's life."

"Nice."  With a sigh, he pulled out his wallet again.  He knew it was best to get this over with.  Then he could think about how to come up with the money for rent.

His emergency technician friend took out his wallet, too.  The master started to hand over the money.

"Just give me one bill," said his friend.  He pulled it from the middle.  It crinkled as he folded it, without looking at the amount, into his wad of cash.  "Put the rest away.  Don't bet too large with me again, not unless you can really lose it, okay?"

"Okay."  He took a deep breath.  "Yeah."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Not Zen 135: Grateful Mistakes

He took a deep breath as he sat down.  Bill hadn't been to his parents' home for years because his work had taken him to a distant city.  For many months, he'd wanted to bring his girlfriend home to meet his family but he'd never seemed to find the time.

The smell of baked bread wafted into the room.  His father had burned it.  Bill's nose detected the roasted hen, too, from his older sister.  She'd brought sweet potatoes, butter, green beans, and other dishes for the visit because she lived a block away.  His older brother, who lived in the house with his father, had bought canned peaches.  They gave off a syrupy perfume as they sat out in a bowl, an item to add to the salads.

His girlfriend had insisted that they make pies but, at the last minute, she'd bought them from a store.  The pies sat on the table to her left, a little too far for him to reach but close enough for the cinnamon and nutmeg to combine with the other food scents.

"Good to meet your fiance, Bill," his brother whispered into his right ear.

He nodded.  His brother accepted the loaf of dark-crust bread from their father and found a spot for it at the table.

"I'm sorry your mother can't be here," said his father as he sat down.

His father's wife, Bill's step-mother, had died two years ago due her refusal to wear her medical bracelet.  When she'd gone to the hospital emergency room for ulcer pain, she accepted a treatment she shouldn't have, which made her pass out.  Then the doctors administered medicine contraindicated by the warning on her bracelet.  They wouldn't have prompted the reaction that killed her if they'd known.

"Me too," he said.  He felt sorry for his step-mother and also for his birth mother, now remarried and not in a position to see her grandchildren.

"Yeah," said his brother and sister.

"But I'm grateful for another year," his father continued.  "Let's go around the table and give thanks, please."

The oldest, his sister, clasped her hands and bowed her head.

"I'm thankful that my husband will finish his prison sentence this month," she said. "I'm grateful to be off drugs.  I'm thankful for diabetes medicine.  I'm thankful for my daddy.  I'm thankful for my little girl."

Bill watched his fiance.  Her eyes widened.

After a short pause, his brother took a turn.

"I'm thankful that my son can be here with us tonight," he said.  "His mom didn't want him to come.  I'm thankful for the doctor who reattached my pinky finger.  I'm grateful for the car my little brother gave me.  It's nice to drive to work again."

Bill's fiance already knew about his brother.  She hadn't heard about him cutting off a finger at work.  She nudged him with her foot under the table.

"I'm thankful for Uncle Billy!" shouted his brother's son.

"Me, too!" said his sister's daughter.  "And for his girlfriend.  She's pretty."

"How sweet," his girlfriend remarked.  "I'm grateful for Bill, too, and I'm happy to meet you all."

Bill had finished reading a lot of legal papers earlier.  When he raised his clasped hands, he found that he smelled like dry books.  He took a moment to contemplate how fortunate his life had been.  He was the only one of the three who made a good living.  On top of that, he hadn't injured himself or caused himself medical problems.

"I'm glad that I knew everything that my older sister and brother did as we were growing up," he concluded with a sigh.

"Amen," said his girlfriend.

There was a pause and a grateful smile from his sister.

"Is that all?" his father prompted.

"And I'm happy we're alive.  The bread smells great, dad."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Not Zen 134: Attention to Words

The sun cast a warm light across the city market. Two women wandered through the shops and stalls. Patrons jostled one another. Shop owners called out. Bicycles weaved through the rows of pedestrians. Taxis crawled between the stalls and bikes. Through it all, the women wandered at their leisure.

They saw an elderly fellow step out of a shop down the street. He hesitated, a bag in each hand. Someone knocked his elbow from behind. His groceries tumbled to the ground.

"This is yours," said the quickest one. She stepped forward and scooped up a can of beans as it rolled. Her friend grabbed a plastic bottle as it spun in place. Other folks nearby saw what they were doing. They crouched, each to pick up an item and return it to the bag.

"That's what I like to see." A stranger approached. His clothes looked expensive and well tailored. He extended his hand in greeting. "I like helping people. And I like people who help others."

The older, shorter woman shook his hand. She felt a professional grip, strong and energetic. She looked him in the eye as he described how he was running for re-election as their state representative.

"I'm just here to remind you that I'm looking out for you," he concluded. A tall woman in a business suit walked up and touched him on the elbow. Another aide approached. They pointed up the street and headed off.

"That man is a criminal," said the woman who'd shaken his hand. She wiped her wet palm on her clothes and shook her head.

"Yeah, too bad," agreed the old man. He had stepped out of range for the handshake.

"How do you know?" asked the younger woman.

"Didn't you see the way he behaves?" Her friend pointed to the politician's back. "His friendliness is calculated. His gaze is hostile. His hands and posture betray his intent."

"He didn't pick up any groceries," the man added. "Help came from all around, thank you very much. But not from him."

"He represents us. He votes for us."

"And you're fooled by that?" The shorter woman pointed up the street. There, the representative and his aides had re-positioned themselves. They rushed to greet a family as the family exited an expensive shop. "Look, the baby starts crying as he approaches. The baby understands. But his parents don't."

"I'm sure his parents are listening to his words. They hear what he says and try to give him the benefit of the doubt."

"When a politician announces that he supports family values, look to his actions. Has he worked hard to keep his marriage good? Has he supported his children? Or does he ignore his family in favor of mistresses?"

"You can't pay much attention to anything that anyone says," the old man agreed.

"Including you two?"

"Be skeptical of everyone. Why not?"

"Well, what about friends?"

"As your friend," said the older woman, "I'd say that you should judge everyone. If someone makes a promise, watch that they keep the promise. Otherwise, words aren't much use."

The younger woman had been the first to leap to assistance. She had also been ready to trust her representative. She remembered voting for him.

"All sorts of words are important to me," she said. "They affect my feelings. What about complements? What about insults?"

"Insults are people being mean. That's the action to watch for."

"What about lying?"

"Lying is important not for the words but because it's cheating," said her friend. "When someone spins the truth out of self-interest, it hurts others. That's why I don't pay much attention to anyone's description of events or of themselves."

"Statements of intention are probably false," said the old man. "Or incomplete."

"They can be sincere," the woman allowed. "But they can be wrong despite the sincerity. If you want to know how someone really thinks, watch what they do. That's the way you can understand if their words have meaning."

The man they'd helped nodded and waved for a taxi. The first one passed him by. Then another slowed for him but it proved to be full. He set his groceries by his feet and hailed with both arms. The women joined in. After a minute of calling and waving, they managed to pull over a taxi for the fellow.

"Thank you," he said. He picked up his grocery bags.

As he stepped toward his ride, the state representative and his aides hopped into it. They slammed the door behind them before the old man could reach it. The representative shouted to the driver. One of his aides waved to the women who had hailed the cab. The other waved to the family with the baby.

The old man sighed. He set down a bag and raised his arm for the next taxi.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Not Zen 133: Regulation and Self-Regulation

"You want me to enforce your diet?"  Their guest scratched his beard.

"We feel it's worth a try."

The three men and two women sat around their dining room table.  It was where they held group meetings in their tenement, which lay on the border of the university.  In the dining room, they planned their menus in advance, transcribed their meal plans onto the group calendar, and arranged for purchases of food.

The five of them bought nearly all of their groceries from the local farmer's cooperative.  Their guest headed the purchasing program.  He pooled money from a row of similar tenements and bought supplies at volume discounts to keep everyone's costs low.  Since he controlled so much of their edible provisions, the housemates felt it made sense to ask him to help with their diet.

"I've been studying cognitive science," said one of the women.  "There are all sort of methods to help us with self-regulation.  But as individuals, we haven't been able to put them into effect.  For instance, each of us has foods we like too much and need to avoid.  But other members of the house like them too, so they buy them.  Then those foods lie around the house as temptations."

"So you're buying snacks," said the purchaser.  "And that's why you're gaining weight."

"Yes."

"Let's make a list of them, then.  I agree not to allow those in your house."

The purchaser left with his determination to help and a list in his hand of the forbidden foods.  The house meeting continued.  The oldest housemate, a graduate student in sociology, tried to get his partners to support one another.  He felt that they could help most by shaming cheaters.

"We need quick, negative feedback," he said.

"And positive feedback," said the psychologist.

"We need reward substitution," said the cognitive scientist.

The youngest woman, who was studying physical therapy and yoga, said nothing.  The discussion ended with each house member resolved to try a different strategy.

Although the list of forbidden foods started small, within a week the housemates discovered the need to expand it.  The house was devoid of their favorite vices but they found other high-calorie items to snack on.

A week after that, they added more to their list to avoid.  But the more the purchaser limited their diet, the more they ate outside of their home.  One of them started to wolf down fast food to satisfy his cravings.  Others pretended to go for walks so they could stop at the local convenience store.  The cognitive scientist visited her friends' houses in the neighborhood and ate their snacks.  The sociologist hid packets of cookies in his room.  The youngest woman increased her exercise and meditation but the others, generally, did not.

The food purchaser doubled his efforts to enforce the diet.  The housemates grew resentful toward him and toward one another.  Finally, the purchaser himself called the house and begged them to hold another meeting.

"This isn't working," he announced when they met.  "You guys are eating less from the farmer's co-op.  But you're clearly not losing weight."

"We're gaining a bit, as a household."

"This is like the drug war, man," he said.  "And I'm the cops.  It sucks.  Now you guys see me on the street and avoid  me."

"We should have known this wouldn't succeed," said the sociologist.

"Why?  It should have worked," said the psychologist.

"We tried to ban sweets.  But we've all seen how well that's worked with alcohol, marijuana, and other things in our culture."

"We're not part of that."

"I think we are.  Being part of a culture doesn't mean agreeing with everything in it."  He spread his arms wide as if to encompass the whole room.  "Look, the fact that we tried a ban means we took the idea from our culture.  But if a rule isn't backed up with a sense of morality that's universally held in the culture, then people feel no shame about circumventing the rule."

They fell into a long discussion, each with a view on their weight gains based on their backgrounds in sociology, psychology, cognitive science, physical therapy, and religious studies.

"All of the tactics we talked about are good ones," said the physical therapist.  "But they need to come from our own self-restraint, not imposed from outside.  Choosing an authoritarian approach is a barrier to self-regulation."

"But we used authority to reduce the temptations in our environment," the cognitive scientist pointed out.

"It's a right tactic," she agreed.  "But the authoritarian approach is self-fulfilling.  If people don't practice self-regulation, they don't have the emotional muscle for it when the time comes."

"That could be," the other woman allowed.

"It leads people to think that legislation or some sort of reference to authority is the way to go when, really, that doesn't work.  Mostly, we need to spend more time watching our own thoughts and actions.  We want a substitute for that.  But there isn't one."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Not Zen 132: Same Person

"This map is wrong," she muttered.

The city had changed the route of her march to the town courthouse. So here she was, as one of the march leaders, re-surveying the route on the morning of the event. Yesterday, her group had placed signs along the previous route. Today she needed to make sure her committee moved nearly a third of those signs to direct marchers onto different streets.

"This looks like kind of a rough neighborhood," one of her companions pointed out. He pointed to a tenement that had suffered a recent fire. Next to it, four men leaned against a neighboring building. They seemed to have all of their belongings with them.

"It's early morning." She kept walking. "No one will bother us."

As they passed the homeless men, the four demanded money. She ignored them. They didn't move to threaten her or any of her friends.

Half a block later, she and her team stopped to re-position the march signs. They discovered a roadblock had been set across their march route. Police had set it according to the old route but now it would be an obstacle. The march leaders been warned they would be arrested if they deviated from their route, so they stopped to debate the portable wooden barriers.

"Do we have the right to move these?" one of her companions asked.

"I don't think ..." At that moment, someone struck her in the head.

The next minute was confusing. She learned later that one of the homeless men had followed her group and had targeted her in particular. When he attacked, her friends tried to help. One of them called for police. She kept her arms up to keep from getting hit in the head any more. It worked. She couldn't escape the blows entirely, not even with the help of friends, but she could keep herself from injury.

The police who had set the barriers arrived in a minute. They subdued the homeless man. One of the officers asked her to sit down while he checked her arms and head for bruises. When he was done, he helped her to her feet.

"Do you want an ambulance?" he asked.

"No, I'm all right."

"I work this neighborhood a lot. This guy who attacked you is a problem. He picks on women. You don't need to press charges since I saw this but I have to ask, are you going to fill out a police report? Will you appear in court to testify against him?"

"If it will help."

Filing the report took her hours, much of it travel time to the station and back. It forced her to delegate the re-surveying of the protest march route to her companions. But when she was done, she felt she'd accomplished something. She headed to the march in high spirits.

The rally started out in the downtown park. The clouds, which had threatened rain earlier in the day, lifted. The afternoon turned warm. The orators at the rally gave short, impassioned speeches. Musicians drummed up a sense of movement and progress in the throngs. Then they all headed out.

As one of the organizers, she took her spot in the second row. From the rightmost position, she gave cues to the march leaders.

When the march neared the courthouse, their destination, they encountered a counter-protest. A group of nearly a hundred people blocked their path. Rather than confront them, the march leaders decided to turn.

She was never sure if they decided to turn because it was their original route or because of the informal blockade. They'd all been warned that if they deviated from the approved route, they would be arrested.

"I think this is deliberate," said a marcher next to her. "Our opponents want us arrested. The police are on their side."

"Are they?" she wondered. This could have been a coordinated, deliberate ploy by the authorities. It also seemed reasonable that it could have been an accident. Even the counter-demonstrators could have set up where they were because they were acting on old information. Who would have told them about today's change?

The march leaders pushed down a wooden barrier. Police on the sidewalks swarmed into the road to stop them. There were only a dozen officers at first. That wasn't enough to control the crowd if people fought. So instead, the officers moved to block the street. It seemed to be an indication that this wasn't part of their plan. But the march kept moving. Police reinforcements arrived.

"It's a set up!" one of her companions yelled.

The reinforcements came armed in riot gear. This force did look like they'd expected the deviation in the march. However, they didn't charge in with their weapons. The officer in charge shouted through a bullhorn instead.

"You're under arrest!"

One of the protestors tried to march through the police line and got knocked down. Others fled backwards along the march route.

"Don't resist!" she shouted. "Everyone sit down! Cooperate!"

"Don't resist!" others shouted. "Sit down!"

It turned out that many of those at the front of the march were willing to submit to arrest. After the initial group that fled, everyone else stayed. In a few minutes, police vans arrived from farther up the street. Officers began to cuff the protestors, hands behind their backs, and toss them roughly into the waiting vans.

One of the officer walked over to her. She recognized him.

"You're arresting me? You?" She had been furious with the suspicion that this had all been planned to go wrong. But as she sighted her arresting officer, she felt tears come to her face. She laughed even though she didn't think it was funny. "You're the one who saved me this morning."

"I remember." He knelt and cuffed her as he'd done to the others. It was hard for her to put herself in his place. He had seemed so nice before. Now this. She tried to get a sense of what it was like to work in his job.

"You've had a long day."

"It's normal for me, ma'am." He hesitated. His eyes swept the scene. "Now, I've placed you under arrest. I could carry you to the van. But will you get in under your own power?"

"Yes." Handcuffed, she walked in front of him to the line of police vehicles. When she got to her spot, she turned and hopped up backwards. The officer had to help her get her feet inside. She accepted his gentle push with gratitude. "I'm sorry to be such a trouble to you today."

"Not many people say that as we arrest them." He stepped into the van to help her onto the bench seat.

"It's been, well, a shocking day. I'm not sure why I'm apologizing but here I am. Sorry."

"I apologize too, ma'am. I'm the same person as this morning."

"Thank you. I think I may be slightly different."

"Ma'am, I know what you mean."

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Not Zen 131: Samsara

They met during a technical course at their local college. They sat near the back. When they were put into the same group for a project, they discovered that they had philosophies in common. Their main difference, it seemed, was that one of them felt motivated to study the technical aspects of medicine, even chemistry, while the other felt relatively unmoved. 

"Are you not here to meet your goal of healing others?" said the motivated one.

"I am not so attached to that." The other shrugged. He fidgeted with his pen. "And didn't you say that you had let go of your worldly attachments? Why do you hang on to this one?"

"My worldly life is many years gone but I deliberately reached out to find a transcendent goal." He smiled and stretched out his left arm as if to encompass the room.

"That is an attachment."

"It is." He dropped his hand, his expression serious. "I was aware that I was re-attaching myself as I did it. But consider your own life. You have no goals, neither small ones nor large ones. Why is it that you do anything at all?"

"Mostly, I act because I am forced." The younger fellow sighed. He closed his eyes for a moment. "To avoid starvation, I eat. To make a place to live, I work for money. On my job, I follow orders because it is that kind of a job."

"Listen to your answer." The older one leaned forward slightly. "You say that you do things because you are forced."

"My answer remains." He shook his head. "That is why I act."

"Does that make you happy?"

"Not really, no."

The motivated man stood up. He paced around his chair. A few other students in the classroom glanced over but they turned away soon, occupied by their own projects. The professor looked up from writing out an chemical equation at the front of the room. He nodded and smiled as he noticed the passionate conversation at the back.

"When I come to this class, I am happy," said the fellow. "When I learn, I learn with zeal. When I help others, I feel joy. All of the things we do here are in aid of my goal. I pick up my books with care. I tie my shoes each day with a great affection for the little bit of progress they represent. Do you do these little things with love?"

"Tie my shoes with love? I don't think so."

The older, larger fellow sat back down. For a moment, he scribbled on their chemical equation project.

"This speaks to why I chose to re-attach to my life with a transcendent goal," he said when he finished another line of chemistry. "Until you find such a goal as helping others, as healing them, as feeding them, as any other worthy goal, then you will never do things that you want to do. You will only do things that others want or that your body wants."

"There is no shame in it," said the other, defensively. "Many people live this way."

"Yes. It's not shameful. It's only being less than you can be."

The motivated fellow returned to his work. He'd been intrigued to learn of the younger man's similarities to him but their differences still seemed vast. He found his studies vital to his life, not because he enjoyed chemistry but because he felt that learning it brought him closer to understanding how to help others. To an unmotivated student, it was a meaningless exercise. To him, there was a connection to other, greater works to come. 

"Aha," he said. He set down his pen. "I think that this combination of water, carbon dioxide, and these nutrients gives us the chemistry of breath."

"The respiration equation. So you finished it."

"It is a fundamental thing."

"But it is a mistake to get so involved with it. People would be happier if they let go of their desires."

The project finished, they were free to sit back. 

"Some people place themselves in the worst of both situations, I suppose," said the older fellow. "They retain their worldly desires. And they have no goal beyond them. They are forced to do things for what seems to them to be no particular reason."

"Yes, that it how it seems to me."

"But you can let go of your worldly attachments and yet still be in the world. You can work toward enriching those around you, as ephemeral as we all are, and you will find yourself always reminded that every action is your own, every decision you make a moral one, vital to the trajectory of your life and the others you affect."

The other fellow shook his head. He picked up his pen and dutifully began to copy the equation.

"Here, take my copy," said the motivated one. He pushed the page across the desk between them. "I'll make another."

"Thank you."

"I'm sorry that you have no greater goal."

"And I'm glad that I do not." He tucked the finished equation sheet into his notebook.

"Without a goal, I think people are reduced to reacting to circumstances, always working for other people's desires, always doing things because they must and not because they love to do them." He took a fresh sheet of paper from his notebook. "Every act can be done with love, even the smallest."

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Not Zen 130: Incompetence

"This is where I am promoted beyond my competence," she said as she packed up her office. That day, she had been elevated to division chief in her state's transportation department.

Her former assistant said, "You'll be fine."

From the glances he gave her as he helped pack, she could tell he was worried.

She had never wanted a career. She had never wanted anything worldly. At the age of seventeen, she had joined her local nunnery as a novitiate. She'd lived with other nuns under an novitiate's vow. She'd traveled through her community with the sisters to do good works. In doing so, she met a man she liked. Although she had thought her infatuation with him was secret, he surprised her by proposing.

At the advice of the nuns and other novitiates, she left the professional ministry. She had intended to marry, raise good children, and work as needed. It was to be an ordinary life for her although, secretly, she hoped to return to her religious life.

In the eyes of her youthful self, the act of raising a family seemed simple. Soon she discovered that her work in the home was never done and that as he children grew she wanted to work out of the home to support them better. When she got a promotion, she still put in overtime so she could give to charity. She supported her extended family. She lent her money to friends to help them through crises. All of these choices led her to tie herself to her ordinary life more than she'd thought possible.

Three promotions later, here she was, packing her office.

She arrived to her new desk during lunch. That afternoon, she started in her role as the division chief with a series of interviews. She pulled her staff aside, one by one, to find out how things had gone wrong before. She accompanied them to their stations. She evaluated their work and learned who among them was capable of more.

"We've had three bosses here in six years," said a woman who worked at the front counter. Her movements seemed tired. "All of them failed. Two of them just gave up."

"I will not give up," she promised.

The next morning, she found orders on her desk from her supervisors. She let them wait.

Within a few weeks, she confirmed for herself that she'd been promoted beyond what she could manage. She'd seen that her staff had more than they could handle. With that in mind, she moved people into the roles that best fit them. She taught everyone to apologize.

Three years later, her old assistant visited.

"Everyone complains about your department," he said. "But everyone also says that performance has never been better. And you're still here. So I suppose this was not beyond your competence."

"I could tell you had doubts." She laughed. "In fact, it's beyond everyone's competence."

"No. You're doing it."

"I'm not, really." She folded her arms. "And no, I'm not managing with better staff or giving the old ones more responsibilities. They already had more than they can handle. All I did was teach them to drop their lowest priorities and to apologize for doing that."

"But everyone says service improved."

"I suppose it has. Once I told the staff they could do their most important tasks well and leave the rest undone, the only thing to teach was the apologizing. The staff are constantly saying that they're sorry they can't take on more tasks. But what they do, they do as well as they can."

"Your supervisors want to give your department more funds for the first time in twenty years. They wouldn't want to hear that you feel incompetent."

"Some jobs are beyond everyone's competence." She shrugged. "But still they need to be done."

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Not Zen 129: The Spokeless Wheel

"There are no precepts, really," the nurse said as he strolled through the cracked-open door. A crowd of people had broken into the storefront.

"That is a dangerous thought." His friend's scowl deepened. He hesitated before he entered. When he finally moved, he jammed his hands into his pockets and kept his eyes on the broken glass that lay all over the floor.

"Look for something besides bandages," the first one said. "They're not having luck with those. We need tourniquets."

"I will not steal. I told you already, that is against the precepts."

"We should try to save the wounded people regardless."

They had come upon a crowd of around twenty people in a panic. Some in the crowd had participated in a demonstration, which had met a counter-demonstration, which had turned into a riot. Stones had been thrown. Shots had been fired. Now there were wounded men and women among the crowd. They and their friends had rushed to the drugstore to seek refuge and medicine.

When they found the doors locked, they broke in. Passers-by helped, including the nurse, who felt he could stop some people from dying if he worked quickly.

"The woman you are thinking of has surely bled too much already," said the reluctant fellow behind him.

"I see iodine." The man pointed to a shelf of bottles. "I'll grab that too. That's helpful."

"This package actually says it's a tourniquet." With an air of regret, the follower noticed the right box. He took two steps, bent, and picked it up. Behind it was another box of tourniquets, and another. The first man rushed over.

"Come," he hissed. He grabbed the rest. "We have to be fast."

Outside, the two men approached a woman who had been shot in the leg. Her friends were trying to stop her bleeding but her heartbeat pushed the red liquid through their fingers. They had not slowed her impending death.

The nurse pushed supplies into his friend's hands. He gave orders to the woman's companions, who were frantic and eager to help. They elevated her leg and held her. He knelt next to her and tied a tourniquet rope around her thigh. He tightened it until her bleeding slowed to a trickle.

"Right," he said. "You say you have experience. So bandage her. Who's next?"

A young man offered his left arm. He had ripped off his sleeve and tied it near his shoulder. The cloth didn't reach his pressure point and he hadn't pulled it tight enough. The nurse's friend elevated his arm while the nurse tied a proper bandage.

Finally, three people rushed forward with a late arrival, a young man who couldn't walk. A white splinter of bone jutted out of his bloodied leg below the knee.

"There are two stretchers in there," the nurse said to his friend. "Go in and grab them both."

"But ..."

"Hurry. This man needs carried somewhere else and so does the woman who was shot. Her friends put a bandage on and it looks good. But she's passed out."

A half-dozen people rushed back into the drugstore. The nurse's friend followed them. He had seen the stretchers, too, behind the sales counter. He gave directions. The other folks shouted in triumph as they carried out the body boards and straps. Then they grabbed other medical supplies. Again, they shouted with glee as they discovered what they needed.

"Why are you crying?" the nurse asked his friend on his return.

"Because they are wounded." His dark-haired friend had to wipe his eyes. He sniffed. "Because they fought other people. Because they stole. And because we theived these bandages and tools."

"We are doing what we can to save lives." The nurse kept working on the broken leg.

"We did it wrong."

"The precepts are a guide to thinking. That's all." He finished cleaning the wound. With a nod, he allowed the young man's friends to lay the blood-matted head down on the road. "They are not a rulebook in some lifelong game. It does not help you or anyone to blindly follow them."

The second fellow closed his mouth. He wiped his face with his sleeve while he watched his friend complete the temporary splint.

"Following the precepts helps others," he responded.

"That's a good point. It shows that you're thinking. Go on, then. I'm almost done here. Pick a precept and I'll explain it as a guide, not a rule."

"One of the five, one of the eight, or one of the ten?"

"Listen to you." The nurse laughed. He covered his patient in a blanket to aid against shock. "This is why I had to say there are no precepts."

"I pick 'refrain from stealing.' It is vital. You cannot refute the rightness of it."

"Fine. I won't attempt to refute it. Who can doubt that refraining from stealing is a good thing?  But saving the wounded is more important." The nurse motioned for the stretcher. Three men and a woman brought it over. They laid it down next to the prone body. "These people and we, too, broke into the store for medicines. They recognize that it was right to do. How can you not?"

"Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps you are wrong."

"Does it feel wrong?"

Everyone crouched. His friend, too, knelt to lift the half-conscious man onto the stretcher.

"Maybe this is not stealing," said the nurse's friend. He raised his voice as the wounded man cried out in pain. "Most of these people were not taking the medicines for their own benefit. You weren't. The need is urgent. They and you could not wait and maybe let the wounded die."

"I agree." The stretcher carriers took over for a moment. They strapped the young man in place on the board. "But the store owner would not agree. The equipment and medicine has been lost to him. The police and your precepts do not agree with this either. Do you understand?"

"No."

One of the stretcher carriers asked if they could carry away the man with the broken leg. The nurse nodded. Another bleeding woman approached. She had received a cut along her arm from fingertip to elbow. The nurse peeled back her sleeve while the nurse's friend, with care and drying tears, elevated her arm.

"The precepts are not a rulebook," the nurse continued. "There are not eight spokes in your dharma wheel. There are no spokes at all. Or maybe there are an infinite number, an endless interconnection between moral discipline and the circle of mindfulness that holds everything together."

"If there are no spokes in the wheel, then I'm lost. That is too free for me."

"You have reasons, I understand. But loosen your grip on your false simplicity.  And tighten this bandage."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Not Zen 128: Prejudice

"How did you fail to notice?" said the elder karabash dog.  He turned to the other two members of his pack.  They stood over the flesh-stripped corpse of a sheep, one of the flock they had sworn to guard.

"Two jackals led me on a chase," explained the youngest.  His tan coat was smooth and unblemished. The mask of fur around his snout was dark with no flecks of grey.  "I fought them.  They kept laughing at me.  Then they ran off."

"There was a third," said the other.  His skin and fur were thick and brindled.  "When I brought my flock to join my brother's, I heard the growl of a jackal.  I crossed the hill.  At the top, I smelled blood.  When I glanced down, I saw the reason."

"Why did the jackal growl?"

"It was facing down a cheetah.  You know how cowardly they are.  The cheetah had stolen bites.  When confronted, it fled.  Afterwards, the jackal tried to drag off the rest of the body.  I fought him and won."

"Well done."  The elder hated to see any predator collect the spoils of their hunt.  Even if the body had been torn apart, as this one had, every degree of success needed to be met with discouragement.  Otherwise, predators would descend in droves upon the flock.  He could foresee that the next few days would be difficult enough.  The jackals and cheetahs would suspect weakness.

Karabash dogs often battled wolves, jackals, and bears.  It was what they lived for.  They protected livestock and took pride in their successes.  They travelled with the herds, contended with wild hunters, and showed no fear, not even of the bears.  The elder had lost his mate to such a fight although together with her, he had succeeded in driving the bear away.

He contemplated her greatness for a moment.  She had been mother to these two although he did not feel they were the best of her litters.  But then, they had been deprived of her presence, especially the youngest one.  She had been a force for calmness and for determination.  She had sought to protect her pups and her flocks like no other.  There had been no one like her in his life before and there would never be again.

"Some predators can be clever," he told the youngest.  He didn't want to discourage this one by being overly critical.  "In time, you'll learn."

"They are stupid," the lad snarled.  "They are low born, all of them."

The three split up for a while and patrolled the edges of the flock.  Like other karabash dogs, they did not guide herds.  The rams and the ewes did the leading from place to place.  They made decisions in a fashion known only to them.  These sheep, who smelled damp from the recent rain and liked the higher ground today, had decided not to move any farther.  The dogs protected them and nothing more.

In the late afternoon, the elder climbed a hill and surveyed the joined flocks.  He thought about his former mate.  She had loved this spot.  Once, he glimpsed something as it passed through distant trees.  A spotted pattern, it might have been a cheetah.  The sight angered him.  He had respect for all of his foes except those.  The cheetahs never defended their kill, no matter how hard won it was.  They never defended anything.  They were the opposite of his mate.

"I've seen those low-life cheetahs again."  The youngest came up the slope behind him.

"Yes, I know."

"They are the stupidest of all."

"I suppose."

The strong one came last up the slope.  He still reeked of his fight, his bloody triumph.

"No," he whispered. "The cheetahs are wise in their way."

"How can you say that?"

"I have observed them."  His confident stride took him past the others to a sheer rock ledge.  His gaze swept over the sheep below, then beyond.  "I know where they meet by the Kangal stream at the bottom of the next hill.  I can't catch them of course, but I watch them."

"And what do you see?"

"Something I never expected."  He shook his head, at a loss to describe it.  "Come.  It's a few minutes away."

The brindled mastiff led the group to the lopsided, low hill that bordered the water.  Trees lined the banks.  Behind the trees, to the southwest, lay a clearing of tall grass.  It was the sort of hollow in which cheetahs preferred to roam.

The elder dog liked his vantage point.  He could see the sheep, although they were not as close as he usually preferred, and he could see a lone cheetah.  It could see him, too.  Its gaze swept up to where the three dogs lie.  Nevertheless, the lowly predator strode forward into the clearing.  By the edge nearest the water, it lay down.  There, it waited as the dogs did.  Another cheetah arrived, this one from the north.  Then another came.

"We are observed," said the last of the cheetahs.  She gazed up at the dogs.

"They are welcome," said the leader.  He raised his voice.  "Karabash dogs, today we are contemplating the impermanence of all things as represented by our departed grandmother, 'Runs Like the Kangal Stream.'"

"Where is she?" called the elder before he could think.

"She drove away a bear to protect her cubs.  So here we are, alive.  But she died of her wounds.  So here we are, trying to achieve a level of wisdom without her."

The youngest karabash dog snorted.  The elder turned and barked at him.  Startled, the other dog drew back.

After a moment, the elder mastiff made his decision.  He ventured downslope.

"I believe we shall sit in the back, guru of the cheetahs."

The cheetah closed his eyes and waited for the elder dog.

He allowed himself respect and curiosity for this enemy, especially for his enemy's grandmother.  He might have liked to meet her.  He felt a presence by his side.  It was his brindle-coated son.  The fellow stayed silent.  But he carried, still, the lingering scent of bloody victory.  He had calmness, focus, and certainty of purpose.  It occurred to the elder that his brindle-coated son had been right.  He hadn't wavered in his determination about the cheetahs.  In that, he was like his mother.

The youngest caught up to them both.

"How can you tolerate this?" he growled.  "How can you sit so near?  They are lowest of the low.  They have no souls.  You've said before that we have nothing in common with them."

"We have one thing.  It is more than I thought.  Don't let your prejudice blind you."  He interposed his body between the young one and the cheetahs.  He lay down in the manner of the guru.  "And don't worry about their souls.  Sit still now and pay attention to your own."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Not Zen 127: Governance

"How could this have happened?" the mother of one child asked the school principal. She wiped her face with a napkin.

The fight had occurred over a ball, as many small incidents had before. A girl on one team kicked a red ball out of the field of play. In the shouting and confusion, no one on the other team ran to pick it up. A different group of children grabbed it. They didn't look at the game going on. They began throwing the ball to one another. At that point, a boy on the fielding team ran up to take it away.

The boy holding the ball refused to give it up. The two contestants wrestled over it. They shouted. All the children in the area began yelling at others or calling for help.

It was the kind of playground scuffle that usually got broken up by teachers. However, the teachers in the school had recently been forbidden to intervene. They didn't pull the boys apart. Instead, due to what seemed to be a fortunate circumstance, they requested police assistance.

The two police officers were visiting the building to give a talk. One of them got the call to action when a teacher rushed into his room, shouted there was a 'terrible fight' on the playground and that he was needed. The officer, as he'd been trained to do, put in a call to his backup before he went to assist.

When he arrived on the playground, he was surprised to find the fight still going on. A minute had passed and he was aware that even a minute is a long time for a tussle between children. He was more surprised when he reached out to the boys rolling on the ground. They were big for their age, the size of small adults, and strong. They knocked him off of his feet.

That was when the second officer arrived on the scene.

The accounts of the witnesses differed wildly at this point. But even the police agreed that this was when they responded as if the children were adults. First, they each tackled a combatant. One of the boys grabbed at the female officer's weapons. The officer used a stick to beat him back. Both boys tried to defend themselves from the police sticks. Both were beaten further and a teacher who tried to intervene received a head wound from the second officer. The children were further beaten, handcuffed, and arrested. The police filed charges against them for assault, battery, and resisting arrest.

Although the children were taken to a hospital along with the wounded teacher, armed guards accompanied them. When the parents went to see their children, they were turned away by the guards and told to see the school principal, who had recently arrived.

"They're children," insisted the parents to the principal. "They're not adults. Children."

"They've been charged as adults."

"How is that even possible? It's simply not true. How are they allowed to suddenly decide that our children are grown up when no one else has?"

The mother of the larger of the two boys pointed out that he was mentally challenged and normally gentle. He had never been involved in a playground incident before.

That evening, pictures of the beaten children appeared in the news. Within an hour, the guards were called back to the police station. Nurses admitted the parents to their children's rooms. The next day, charges were dropped. Instead of talking about how wrong the teachers and children had behaved, the police spokesman at a press conference said the department would focus on what the officers had done wrong.

The larger child had been admitted unconscious. He remained in that state due, doctors stated, to head trauma. Two days later, he died in his hospital bed with his mother by his side.

She and the principal returned to the hospital several times to visit the remaining, recovering boy and his parents. They were surprised to overhear, over a news broadcast on the hospital television, that a source within the police department said the officers in the school child beating had done nothing wrong. The investigation of the incident had been conducted quickly and would soon exonerate both officers.

The parents and principal asked to speak to someone from the department. It took two days but the Deputy Chief of Police agreed to come to the hospital for a talk. He admitted to them that the news leak was correct. The investigation had found nothing against the officers.

"They've done nothing wrong? Nothing? They killed my boy."

"They acted as they were trained to do."

"They used deadly force against unarmed children."

"That's unfortunate. We'll change our training to prevent this sort of tragedy. But again, they did as they were trained."

"Then the whole department should be punished."

"How?" The Deputy Chief chuckled. He glanced at their faces and took a deep breath. "That isn't practical. There's no way to punish the police department without hurting public safety."

As she shook her head and fell into tears, the school principal spoke up.

"We punish schools when they perform poorly. Why don't we do it to other public departments?"

"How, smart guy? Shut down police stations?"

"We could do that as easily as we shut down schools. Why not? But there's another way. You could do it personally. You could de-fund the job pleasantries. Take away the department coffee machines or your rewards program. Withhold the fanciest equipment from your new fitness center. Take out the music player."

The Deputy Chief started to say something but he paused.

"That sounds good to me," said the father of the recovering boy. "We should strip away the luxuries for law enforcement organizations when they misuse their force. Give it back later as they improve."

"But …"

"Just as an individual is punished for misusing martial arts and hurting others," the principal continued, "a law enforcement organization should be punished for misusing force."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Not Zen 126: Cooperation

Three former teammates seated themselves for lunch. Each set down a plastic tray on the black tabletop. One placed a stack of napkins in the center for all to use. Another tossed in flatware. This wasn't the fanciest place or the best food, they all agreed, but it was quick. The restaurant was no more than a five minute walk from any of their offices. It had become their place to meet.

"Good to see you guys," said the woman. She unwrapped three straws and popped them into their drinks, each in turn, hers last. 
 
"Whoops. I forgot to grab condiments," said the fellow who usually had that job. He stretched over to a nearby, empty table and swept off the salt and pepper shakers.

"Are we getting lazy?" the first man asked, the one who had brought napkins. "We've let more than a month go by without talking."

Two years ago, they had worked together for a large company. Each had left for a better offer in a smaller company. Now they headed technical service teams. As leaders, they kept busier than they'd been before. But they kept in touch.

It didn't take long for them to trade shop talk about how they were doing, the advances in technologies, the contracts they'd won and lost, projects they'd barely gotten done, and other projects in which they'd succeeded beyond what they'd dreamed.

"It's no secret that the government is putting out a combined contract," said one fellow as he picked up a napkin he'd brought. He wiped his mouth.

"Yeah, everyone in the business has been reading the request for proposal," his friend agreed. He cut another piece from his steak. "That's the biggest contract of the year so far. We're bidding on it, of course. I'm in charge of our proposal team."

"Some of the industry giants are going to compete." The woman took a sip from her glass. "They mentioned it to me last week. It's big enough to attract them. They're putting together bids."

"Ugh." The fellow who'd brought it up set down his food. "That means none of our companies stand a chance."

"Speak for yourself." Next to him, his former teammate chewed on his steak. He folded his arms and leaned back before he paused to conclude, "We'll underbid everyone."

The other two stared at him for a moment. They glanced to each other, then down to their lunch plates.

"You can try," the first fellow ventured after a moment. "But do you meet all of the requirements? My company is a few positions short, I think, or we have to send a couple of our folks to get certified in skills we don't have on board. I wouldn't mind us teaming up on a joint proposal."

"Are you crazy?" His friend opened his mouth in a burst of laughter. His teeth gleamed. "Why would I team up with you? We're competitors."

"Yeah, but we could team up to compete against the bigger companies."

"But then I couldn't win the contract for my company, could I? Even in your best case scenario, we'd have to share the spoils. The benefits of winning wouldn't come totally to me."

"That's right." Slowly, he nodded. "That's partnership, I guess."

They ate in silence for half a minute. The fellow responsible for condiments got up to get sauces he'd forgotten. At that moment, the woman turned to her remaining companion.

"Is that offer you made to him open to my company too?"

"Of course. You're at such a high-end company, I didn't think you'd be interested. I should have asked you first, shouldn't I?" He shook his head and scowled at himself. 

"There are eight expertise areas listed in the contract," she said. "It occurs to me that your company has the best expertise in two areas. You really do. We're a leader in three of them, I'd say. And by that I mean we're better than even the big companies. You know it's true."

"Yeah, although the big ones are pretty strong at everything."

"But not they're not best. They won't be better than us combined for this bid."

"The government might not trust an offer that doesn't come from a big company." He sighed.

"Maybe. But we can have the best qualified bid. That's something." Her eyes lit with excitement. "Even if we lose, the agency will see our expertise levels. They'll probably ask one of the big companies to outsource work to us. After all, we're leaders in key areas."

"Yeah, even a loss could be a win." He had to acknowledge that everything she said was right. "Are you up for a working lunch on this tomorrow?"

"I'll draft a bid to review."

A month later, when the proposal deadline arrived, it turned out that the company with the lowest bid was deemed under-qualified. They did not show the proper areas of expertise. Their proposal was dismissed in the first step of the evaluation process. In contrast, the combined effort of the two smaller companies won the contract. Their proposal survived even a challenge from the bigger companies and a rebidding process.

As the contract was awarded, the executive who had lost his bid received a demotion.

"You were a fine engineer," his boss said as they walked from his former office to his new desk. "But you don't seem ready for an executive position. You're not the competitor we're looking for."

"I'm more competitive than anyone!" he complained.

"Really." His boss eyed him skeptically. "Then why didn't you get us on the winning team?"