Sunday, March 29, 2015

Not Zen 155: Traumatic Stress

"No, the world is too terrible for me. I can't bear it." His feet wouldn't obey him. He couldn't rise.
 
"You've gone too long without water." The voice of the lead elephant went right through him, straight to his bones. "Take this basket grass. Eat it." 
 
The large male swayed close. A shock of thick grass strands hung in his trunk. A string of it lay at the corner of his mouth. The bull had eaten his share. He tossed the bundle that he'd carried from the stream onto the dry ground. The white, bulbous ends smelled fresh from the water in the roots.
 
"It's too much," protested the smaller male, Sweet Bark. 
 
The lead bull paced forward. Whether he meant to or not, he loomed. A breeze blew between them. It carried the moist scent of the basket grass.
 
"I will pull you up if I must," said the large one, Sandstone. He had been pressed into his role due to the death of the one they'd all thought of as the Great Bull. Sandstone was strong and determined, not a force that could be turned aside, and he was in his musth.
 
During musth, many males turned to rage. They murdered younger males, hunted children, or hurt females who tried to interfere. One had recently killed a rhinocerous by laying into its side as the beast had tried to pass by the herd. He'd gored it and stomped it to death. Their leader, at least, had more control than that. Sandstone's surge of hormones had turned him into a force of authority that not even the other males in musth dared to challenge.
 
With a glance to his leader, Sweet Bark picked up a reed and stuffed it in his mouth.
 
A moment later, he picked another. The white ends crunched with exquisite, tangy water. They flooded his mouth, his nose, all of his senses. He ate until the lead bull stirred. Sandstone trumpeted.
 
"Come," said the bull. "Help me with the others who have given up."
 
"There's no point," said Sweet Bark. But his feet moved under him. They had heard the authority in the bull. They obeyed.
 
"We'll take them more grasses," Sandstone decided with a calm decision. "After that, we'll lead them to the stream, shallow as it is."
 
"Water." Sweet Bark admitted to himself that it sounded good. He lifted his trunk high to the wind. He could smell the mud not more than a quarter mile off. "Can I drink?"
 
"Of course." The leader dragged his trunk along the ground and flipped up a few of the remaining grass strands. "But we go to Tail Biter on the way."
 
Sweet Bark caught the tossed grass.
 
"Not her, please," he said. "The slaughter of the herds has driven her insane."
 
"Nevertheless. Once she was great." Sandstone shook his head. His mighty ears flapped against his thick neck. "She was grandmother to a legion. I will not abandon her."
 
They paraded to the farthest northeast corner of the herd. Then they adjusted course and marched farther, into the barren flats beyond. The bushes around them disappeared. The greenery beneath their feet became stubble and, in a few paces, vanished into the hard-packed earth. In the middle of the inhospitable stretch of land lay an elderly female. She rested on her side, possibly dead.
 
"Hello, grandmother," called Sandstone as they approached.  "You are too distant for my liking. What is it that you do here?"
 
"I am listening." With an effort she pulled her limbs under her as if to rise. She did not lift her ear from the ground. "The northern herd is under attack."
 
"Again." It was not a question. All of the elephants knew about the slaughters. Entire herds had been lost.
 
"Two males died." At this, she lifted her head. "The one with the huge trumpet was one. The other was small and young. One of his sons, I think."
 
"Can you rise?" Standstone stepped close enough to cast a shadow over her forelimbs. 
 
"I'm trying. Maybe soon."
 
"I'll help if I must. We will meet with another herd tomorrow or maybe the next day." His trunk stretched out to lock with hers. "They are ahead of our path to the east."
 
"I know." Her trunk rolled as if she were trying to shoo him away. But she was their matriarch no longer and she had no physical power. "Are you not concerned with those being shot?"
 
"They are far away."
 
"One thousand, nine hundred, twenty four have died." She buried her face in the dirt for a moment. "I have counted each one that I've seen or heard."
 
"I hadn't known that there were that many elephants in the world," said Sweet Bark. The herd leader and old Tail Biter turned to him. Tail Biter gave him a eyelids-lowered look of disdain.
 
"There are thousands more if you can believe what the other grandmothers say," she told them. "Or there were those many, once. Perhaps other herds live no more. There have been so many killed. It is the end of elephants. I try to remember them. Really, with so much death so quickly, I recall only about a third. Some acquaintances were only ever a distant rumble in the ground to me, or a gap in a herd, or a tale from another."
 
To Sweet Bark, this seem insane. With death all around them, with the murder of her old mate last year and her strongest son only months ago, how could she try to remember so many who had gone? What was the point of trying to count them?
 
"Grandmother, you are starving," said Sandstone. He locked trunks with her again. This time, his gesture was not to be shaken off. He leaned backward and pulled.
 
"Am I?" Tail Biter rose to her feet under the force of assistance. "Have I forgotten to eat again?"
 
"All too likely." The leader snorted. "Come."
 
She followed Sandstone. At first, her gait seemed unsteady. The younger elephants waited on her. In time, she picked up her pace. She cast gazes of approval on their leader. However, when she gazed at Sweet Bark, she had a different expression.
 
"There are not so many males in musth this season," she said as they approached the stream. "The killings have made them too sad. Or they have gone without water, like this one."
 
Sweet Bark bristled. Both things were true, however. The killings seemed too great for his soul. He hadn't felt like eating or drinking. Lack of water had ended his musth as soon as it began.
 
He bowed his head. In another step, his right front foot would enter the muddy bank of the stream. He stopped. His body had no desire. He waited. And he dreamed of elephants long gone. They had run with him. They had fallen, his friends. All of them were fallen and gone.
 
He wasn't sure how long he stood there.
 
His mind must have stopped. When he gazed up, it was into the face of his old friend, Sandstone. The bull was speaking. Sweet Bark couldn't make out the words. He felt someone pushing him from behind. He turned and saw that it was the female, Tail Biter. She had grown feeble. Even in her irritation, she didn't bite him.
 
"Sorry," he said. 
 
"A few steps more," said Sandstone.
 
His feet carried him down a gentle slope into the rivulet. There, he sat. It was minutes before he stirred and then, only to drink the water in front of him. After a while, he looked around for the others. There were a few elephants downstream. He didn't see the old female, though, or his leader. He rose.
 
Tail Biter, too, had stopped at the edge of the muddy bank. Sandstone was whispering to her. He ran his trunk over her flanks.
 
Sweet Bark turned. He lifted himself from the water and lumbered towards them. Along the way, he veered left to pull up a great knot of basket grass. He held it aloft so that Tail Biter could see. When he got close, he pushed it gently into her mouth.
 
She chewed on the reeds. Her eyes closed. When they opened again, her look of sadness had passed, replaced by surprise. As she kept chewing, she strode forward. She bumped into Sweet Bark and looked up at him with a gratitude that he'd never seen from her before. It was a thank-you that seemed almost playful. For a moment, the weight of the world lifted. His shoulders rose high.
 
"Well done, Sweet Bark," said Sandstone next to them.
 
"Yes." The old female gave Sweet Bark another flirtatious shove. Then she headed toward the water. "See you there."
 
"Have you had enough, yourself? You look better." The great bull shook himself. His eyes drifted from the elephants who played in the water and mud downstream to those who lay tired or despondent behind, to the west. "Will you help with old Broke Tusk next?"
 
"Take a drink for yourself," he replied. "I'll go to Broke Tusk on my own."
 
"You will?" Sandstone turned toward the water as if he wanted to sit down in it and join the younger females and children. But he didn't move in that direction. He leaned toward his duty, the stragglers. "What are you thinking, friend?"
 
Sweet Bark felt the power of the old female's look, her sadness and then her kindness. The pressure on his heart had eased. He noticed the water and the scent of the mud. The savannah around them breathed, a living thing larger than an elephant herd. He felt the breeze, the sway of the distant trees, the underbrush, and the animals. A jackal crept along the edge of the trees. The beauty of everything struck him.
 
"I am thinking, still, that the world is a terrible place," he said. "But with many good souls in it."
 
His friend leaned into him. They touched for a moment, shoulder to shoulder. Sweet Bark listened to the other's breath and to the sound of a bird call in the distant bushes. His feet turned to the west. And he marched onward.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Not Zen 154: Not Important

His father seemed to be driving them home. When the light turned green, he hooked a left instead of a right. The difference was a reminder.

"Aw," he said. "Do we have to see Stan?"

"It's a privilege to see him." His father's tone was patient but with an edge. He must have anticipated Kenyon's reaction. "He's old now but, you know, when he was young, he was a sports star."

"So what?" Kenyon folded his arms and slumped back in the seat. "Sports don't matter. Sheesh, dad, they didn't matter even back when he was doing it."

"Well, we're going to go see him. So that's tough." His father shook his head. "You should really be nicer to Stan. He was a decent guy to kids, his family, everyone. This was back when tough guys like him usually weren't nice. Anyway, he used to be my neighbor."

"You've said that a million times."

"Fine. But we're seeing Stan." The next turn was another left.

A few minutes later, they strolled up to the front step. The old man met them at the door. His white, collared shirt looked new. He must have expected Kenyon's father to drop by. For a former sports star, he seemed awfully short, basically just another bald-headed, wrinkled fellow in the weekly parade of geriatrics who passed by on the street. His head barely came up to Kenyon's dad's chin. His stomach hung over his belt. He walked with a limp when he didn't use his crutch.

"Come in," he said with a wave of his right arm. He didn't look too steady.

"How are you doing?"

"Fine, fine." Stan closed the door. He kept a grip on the handle as he turned to the hallway behind. When he let go, he huffed and forced his way past them. He limped into the kitchen. "Everything's lit up. My son couldn't stay for checkers. But I've got the board all set. Have time for a game?"

"Absolutely." His father's dark eyes twinkled in the hall light. He loved it when Stan invited him to play.

The two men took seats on either side of the kitchen table, which was one of those old pieces of furniture that looked like it came from a diner. It had aluminum trim and an off-white formica veneer. The chairs matched it with aluminum legs and vinyl cushions. The men didn't offer Kenyon a seat. They ignored him.

Kenyon glanced around in the hope of finding something of interest, anything. Maybe Stan's grandchildren left toys or comic books. There wasn't anything good that he noticed, though. Even the refrigerator looked clean, just one crayon drawing of a green monster hung with four steel bead magnets. With nothing else to do, he flopped into a hard, aluminum-backed chair. He held his head in his hands as the game began, much to Stan's amusement. The old fellow chuckled at him.

After the first few moves, he lifted his head and said to Stan, "Checkers is old stuff."

"Everything's old stuff, kid," the man replied. "You just don't know it."

"You were complaining about sports on the way here, Kenyon." His father put his hand on a red checker and contemplated where he should put it. "Sports and games are older than civilization. They're not going away."

"Your kid doesn't like sports?" The gravely voice rose a notch. Stan responded with a single black jump over a red checker.

"Off and on."

"Well, sports are different now." Stan's shoulders rounded low as he sighed. "Pickup games are fun for kids. Games that adults run for them, not so much."

His father took a turn to cover up a possible double jump.

"When we were young, Stan, sports stars like you lived in the city." He took his finger off as he ended the move. "They hung out in my neighborhood. That's a sports difference, too. Kids don't meet players."

"Yeah." A finger plunked down on a piece. The black response blocked the red advance. "Your move."

"If you hadn't lived here, I wouldn't have played most sports or games like this." It took Kenyon's father a moment to formulate his plan. He rubbed his hands together then moved a piece to create a diagonal alley for his next try. "I remember you and your friends with your checkers and backgammon in the park. Crap, I'd never seen a backgammon board before. It looked so weird."

"You got good pretty fast for a kid." It was the voice of approval.

The two played in silence for while. Kenyon's dad fell down by two checkers. He'd started off too slow. Stan had grabbed the better position. Now that he'd gotten the lead, he could afford to trade pieces.

After a while, out of curiosity, Kenyon asked, "Do you still root for your team, Stan?"

"Can't help it." The old ballplayer gave a sheepish smile. "It feels like they're my team even though they're mostly a bunch of strangers who don't know me from nothin.'"

"That's what they think of everybody." Kenyon thought of the sports stars at his school. They were cruel to him sometimes. "They think other people are nothing."

"Some of them are like that, yeah."

"Why do you root for them when you don't know them?" He moved to the edge of his seat, hands on either side of his legs. "You just said that they don't know you."

"Part of it is the uniform. They claim to represent the city. I feel like it's my damn city. I put work into it." He nodded to himself and grunted. "Maybe that part is a bit cynical of them but I enjoy it."

"The players and owners may feel cyncial," his father said. "But the fans really do care. That's why they get angry when a player behaves badly and it appears in the news. It reflects on their city. That's why they cheer when someone acts brave or stubborn on the field. Because they judge the character of the players in that moment and they like the spirit that they see."

"Jeez, your father is a romantic. I've heard this before."

"You probably know about the recent scandal." His father leaned forward.

"Yeah, yeah." Stan frowned at the pieces. Something about the formation wasn't what he'd intended.

"Fans can root for someone who made a mistake. If someone grew up with violence in their family and overcame it or if someone drove drunk when they were young and straightened out, they probably understand if a player does the same. After the first mistake, though, they're watching very, very closely. Whether you come back straight or not is a sign of your character, too."

Stan made his decision. His hand darted out to the move. Then he leaned back.

"The fans don't watch closely enough," he said. "Some of those guys are crap. They don't deserve forgiveness."

"Maybe. But the point is that sports isn't irrational no matter what my son says. Playing is good for you. Rooting for the team is an extension of rooting for your community, whether it's your old school or your city or whatever."

"You could be rooting for your hospital, dad." Kenyon wished his dad liked their doctor more. The office had lots of nice people in it but his dad never visited even when Kenyon's mom asked him to make an appointment. "You know, nurses and stuff. You could care about things that matter."

"My son thinks sports don't matter."

"They don't. That's why I love them," Stan said with a laugh. "I was a hospital orderly for a lot of years, kid, after I had to stop playing. I saw how it was. The doctors mostly lose. And it matters. It's sad. But when you're talking sports, no one dies. No matter how bad you lose, no one stops you from going home to your family."

"Not like in war or in a surgery," his father added. He slid a red piece forward.

"Sports doesn't solve problems but it doesn't create them. The games don't matter, just like you say. The most carefree moments of my life came while I was playing. You're in the moment. You forget everything but the game. You forget yourself." His hand shot out. He jumped two red pieces with a black one. "Hah! King me."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Not Zen 153: Degrading

"Step up, please," said the driver.  Eight passengers shuffled toward the open door as it swung open.

The mere act of taking the bus made her feel like her life had fallen apart.  Her car had broken down, she couldn't afford to repair it, and she couldn't justify asking her husband to replace it - not when the bus route ran by her house.  Her husband's job paid more than hers.  It was twice as far away.  Yet he took the bus himself.  He hadn't bought a car.  She wasn't going to ask him to give her a convenience that he didn't give to himself.

She still felt angry about having to take public transportation.  The people smelled.  They dressed in layers that made them waddle like penguins in the cold.  They carried backpacks and umbrellas.  On the way home, many of them carried groceries or other packages. 

Then there were times like today.  A middle-aged fellow, slightly short and a bit heavy, put his foot on the first step of the bus entrance and paused.  He reached for the hand rail but missed it.  His arms started to flail.  For an instant, she was mad enough to kick him.  He was slowing everyone down.  The man in front had to turn and put his hand on the fellow with the problem.  He steadied the man and pulled him up.

As she stepped up the ramp into the bus, she heard the man in front remark to the one behind, "You're twitching, man."

"Yes."  His tone sounded wary.  Probably he'd been heard similar comments before.

"So what's up with that?  Are you sick?"

"I guess so.  But you can't catch it.  My body is degrading." He had a deep, steady voice despite his trembling arms. He named the disease that he'd been diagnosed with.

She couldn't tell if the illness were an excuse or not.  All of her ride home, she sat far away from the man so she didn't have to look at him.  She put her arms around her knees.

At the dinner table that evening, she asked her husband about the sickness by name.  When he asked why she wanted to know, she told the story of her ride.

"Wow, that guy is screwed," said her husband.  "He's going to lose muscle control and die."

"He's already losing muscle control. Obviously."

"The process will take years.  Try to be understanding.  He'll probably spend half of that time riding the bus.  He'll get a lot worse before he has to stop."

The next day, she met the man waiting for his ride home.  He climbed onto the bus with a waver to his step but he didn't slip and didn't grab at the rail.  She didn't see him the next day.  Then came the weekend.  She noticed him during the following week and the week after, too.  Her irritation with him came and went along with her sense of his disability.  Sometimes he seemed normal, even energetic.  There was no apparent reason he should slow down everyone else.  At other times, he weaved up the stairs like a drunk and she felt that he shouldn't take public transportation.

The regular bus driver never asked questions but he seemed to understand.  He yelled at everyone else to hurry.  He never said anything to the trembling man.  Once, the driver stuck out a hand when the passenger's legs wobbled.  He grabbed the fellow by his shirt sleeve for a moment.  He nodded.  The trembling fellow nodded back.  That moment passed, the driver let go, and the passenger moved down the aisle.

Summer came and went as she saved money to buy a car.  Her bus rides had started to seem normal.  She didn't feel as rushed to make the car decision.  There were weeks when she didn't see the diseased passenger at all.  In those times, she wondered if he were on vacation or if he had given up on his job.  In autumn, she met him at the bus stop.  He leaned on a brown cane with golden handle. 

His legs shook but his left arm held a firm grip on the cane.  He climbed the steps of the bus.  The driver smiled at him and nodded.

The next Monday, he seemed struck by tremors as he tried to board.  She'd learned to board first on most days but this time she'd let him step in front.  As he started to flail, she regretted it.  His arm swung back.  He hit her with the knob of his cane.

Just as she shouted in pain, he slipped backwards off of the first step.  She reached our and grabbed him, certain that they were going to tumble to the pavement.  But he was lighter than she thought.  His hand found the rail.  She put one foot backwards but managed not to step on the person behind her.  She steadied herself.  So did he.

"Thanks," he whispered.  With that, he removed her arm from his waist and boarded.  She stepped up behind him.

The bus driver smiled at her, something he hadn't done before.

When she sat across from the disabled man, she thought about how thin he'd become.  His jacket was loose.  She hadn't noticed that earlier.  His muscles had felt shrunken and weak.

He stared at her.

"Sorry that I hit you," he said.  He still had his deep, steady voice.  His gaze drifted down for a moment then back up to her.  His eyes seemed bright.

"It's all right."  She touched her forehead.  There was a welt starting to rise but she didn't feel upset about it.

"I don't think we've talked before.  I had the sense that you were one of those avoiding me because of my illness."

"Maybe."  She looked at her hands, folded in her lap, and decided to hide behind another truth.  "But it's not like I talk with anyone else on the bus either."

"I might be over-sensitive about it.  I thought that sometimes you were impatient and unhappy with me.  And now you're being nice."

"Sometimes I'm impatient."  She shrugged.  Apparently, her feelings had shown more than she meant them to.  "I don't like it when other riders are slow.  But I know you've got a reason."

"Does the cane make it better?"  He held it a bit higher for her inspection.  The golden sheen of the handle seemed cheery.  "I've noticed in just the few days that I've had it, people seem more understanding."

"It's a reminder."  She nodded to herself.  "When I saw the cane this morning, it told me that you have to move slowly."

"There are a lot of other people who are slow.  They have bad knees or bad feet.  Or they've gotten too heavy over the years.  Or they're just sick that day.  They aren't being lazy."

She hadn't thought of that.  Really, she hadn't paid much attention.  In the pause in their conversation, she folded her arms across her body.  She leaned back and wondered what she could say.  Maybe the conversation was done. 

"I was in a hurry all the time, too," he confessed.  He gestured to his legs.  "Before this, I mean.  I wish I'd been nicer to the folks who had disabilities that I couldn't see."

"There can't be that many of them.  Can there?"

"I'm not sure.  Over the course of time, it's everybody.  We all lose control of our bodies and die.  I'm closer to that than you are, sure.  But I'm not the only one who deserves kindness."

She thought about her grandmother, who she'd been promising to visit for months.  No, it had been years now.  Had she written a note, a card?  She hadn't, not even a holiday card. 

"You've got a lot to look forward to, probably decades and decades of good stuff."

"Not everyone does.  Not you," she blurted.  She put a hand to her lips.  She'd been thinking about her grandmother.  The idea that similar limits applied to him had come to her suddenly.

"Probably not."  He bowed his head.

"How do you deal with it?" she wondered.  "Do you accept what's happening?"

"I can barely deal with the kindness I don't deserve."  He closed his eyes for a moment.  "My failing body, no, I try to put it out of my mind a lot of the time.  But it's happening to everyone at one speed or another.  It doesn't matter if we accept it."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Not Zen 152: Taxing

"All rise," said the bailiff. 

The businessman at the defendant's table had bragged for years about not paying his taxes.  He'd strolled around his offices, coffee cup in hand, and informed his clients and employees of it.  His wife had been his bookkeeper before they were married.  She'd hired a fine accountant.  Between them, they kept his various businesses solvent, took advantage of the tax codes, got him breaks and incentives, and generally let him do as he pleased to grow his businesses.

At the close of his fiscal year, he'd thrown a lavish party.  He'd given a short speech to his staff and their spouses.  After the speech, he'd stepped off the podium and commented about how much his business saved on taxes.

To his surprise, one of the women in attendance who overheard him turned out to be a tax collector.  She related the story to her co-workers.  They told their supervisor.  A week later, the businessman got a summons to tax court.

The summons demanded that he produce records to justify his tax payments, which he knew were too low.

"You don't understand," he explained to his wife, who had taken the news calmly.  He waved the summons in front of her face.  "We could lose everything."

"If we we got everything by cheating," she replied. "Then we deserve to lose it."

"You really don't understand."  He shook his head.

He tried to explain to his accountant but the fellow insisted on sending the requested files.

"There's really no other way," the accountant explained.  "We've got time to explain ourselves.  We'll get a hearing."

The day of the hearing came too soon.  He didn't feel ready even though he'd lost sleep as he prepared.  He'd dropped weight.  He'd neglected sales in his businesses because he felt too distracted to follow up leads.  On the dreaded morning, he dressed in his best charcoal suit.  He tried to tell himself it would help.  His wife said she approved of his haircut.  He told her she looked wonderful, which she did to him, at least, in her burgundy outfit.  He didn't bother to ask what it cost.  It hardly mattered.  Together, they met their tax attorney in front of the courthouse.

Even though this was tax court, not a criminal court, a policeman checked the three at the front door.  After conversing with him, they followed the building's map to their courtroom, where they were met by a bailiff.  Although the bailiff wore a suit, he kept a badge pinned to it that marked him as an officer of the law.

"How does that work?" asked the businessman.  "Aren't you a lawyer working for the judge?"

"While on duty, I have arrest authority," said the bailiff.  "People who don't pay taxes are thieves.  Schools, roads, police, and all of the other aspects of government that you benefit from depend on each person doing their part.  If the court finds that you've cheated, you can go to jail.  And if so, I'll take you."

"That means you guys, too," he turned to his wife and his accountant.

His accountant gave him a tense smile.  His wife grabbed him by the shoulder, pulled him closer, and hissed that he needed to behave.

When the judge entered, the bailiff instructed everyone to rise.  After a few seconds, he motioned for them to sit again.  The businessman sprung to his feet immediately after.

"I want to protest being called here," he said.  "We are citizens of high standing."

"Sit down," snapped the judge.

He sat.

"You may have misunderstood the nature of this session," the judge continued in a flat voice.  "The court allows some cases at the option of the taxpayer in order to protest tax rulings against them.  This is not such a case.  There is no ruling.  This is an investigative proceeding.  The tax office issued a lien against you and all of your businesses for tax deficiency.  Your records have been reviewed by the office to determine the amount of deficiency."

He turned to the prosecution table.

"I've read your case, prosecutor.  The amount you've listed here is unusually small," he said.  "Do you have anything more to add?"

"We were surprised by what we found, your honor."  The prosecutor stood but he shrugged in apology.  "We would ordinarily not bring such a case."

"Still, you have a finding of deficiency."  The judge turned to the accountant.  "And you are the tax preparer?"

"Yes, your honor."  The bailiff nodded for him to rise.  He stood.

"Do you have an explanation for the deficiency?"

"I do.  As you'll see in my written response, there is no deficiency by any standard.  In addition, my client donated funds to particular causes and to the general government collection."

The judge rapped his gavel.  "The preparer's role is clear.  I find the records in order. I've reviewed them in their entirety.  They're commendable.  In fact, these business entities deliberately overpaid.  The donation of company money to the government is also noted.  Would you care to explain the difference between this behavior and the bragging of the defendant about cheating?"

"My client is a very competitive man and wants to feel he has an advantage, your honor."  The accountant held himself with his hands behind his back.  "But in every quarter, his partner has me pay the taxes in full for each company.  At the end of every year, she pays extra.  That is her preference."

"You are the partner, madam."  The judge turned to the wife.  "What do you have to say?"

She looked to the bailiff for permission, then rose.

"I've always felt that we've very much benefited from our government," she said with a nod.  "We have to pay for it.  I feel that we're luckier than other families so I pay a bit more."

"Your husband is co-owner of all of your businesses."  The judge looked down at the records in front of him.  "This court has the power to assign him to community service for misrepresenting his tax situation.  But I understand from your written statement that your husband does substantial community service and has done it on a quarterly basis for at least eighteen years."

"He does.  That is correct."

"Noted."  He folded his hands in front of him on the bench.  "In the interests of the court's time, I feel that it's best if the court doesn't hear your husband speak.  I'll accept his community service as a given.  You are free to go."

The bailiff motioned for them to all stand.  They rose and bowed.  The businessman staggered.  He found that his limbs had gone cold.  But as he moved a little more, he felt the warmth return.

His hands were trembling as the three of them left the room.

"You were the one who wanted me to do charity services," he whispered as the door closed behind them.  He put his hand on his wife's shoulder. "You said it was to make up for what we didn't pay in taxes."

"Yes," said this wife.  She gave him a warm smile but with cool, knowing eyes.  "That's precisely what it was for."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Not Zen 151: Following and Leading

The old fellow sat down and said, "I need your advice."

He'd worn a suit today, she noticed. He almost never wore nice clothes to work. The last time he'd put on a blazer had been for a site inspection. He put his hands on her desk and leaned forward as he awaited a response. She saw that he'd trimmed his fingernails.

For years, he'd been her worst technician. When she came to the company, she'd been told to run an evaluation on his work. He'd failed it. The company mandated a second chance for employees in the engineer category and, during the follow-up process, he'd improved to an "acceptable" rating. That meant she couldn't fire him. But his improvement only lasted while he was undergoing evaluation. As soon as the process ended, he'd reverted to his sub-standard ways.

He'd performed at a low level for years, his efforts just enough to keep from getting fired. Once, she'd slated his position for a layoff. His termination had existed on paper. But someone had retired to save him.

When she started in her management job, she'd assumed he hated having a woman as his boss. As she got to know him better, she came to understand that he simply resented work.

"Is this about your hobby?" she asked.

With a sheepish grin, he nodded.

A few years ago, he'd hit bottom. His wife had left him. It looked like he might simply quit his job. Instead, he took more of an interest. He started learning again.

"Remote control technology," she prompted.

"Flight. That's my favorite." He looked down as his pot belly. "It's the reality of my life. I'm out of shape. I'm not rich. Remote control is the only way that someone like me gets to fly."

She tilted her head forward in acknowledgement. It was a realistic assessment.

"Now they're trying to stop us."

"I hear you've visited the state legislature," she said. "You've gotten politically active in your spare time."

He shook his head. "I didn't mean to be. At first, the hobby was something to do. Then I found that I liked flying. And it was kind of fun to accomplish breakthroughs in design and control of planes. Other people were better. But I came a long ways fast. Members of my remote flight group asked me to help them out."

"You're the president of a statewide chapter."

"Yeah. Leading them is hard. It's different than I thought. Working with the group made me realize why you do things the way you do here. I'm sorry that I was such a pain before. I thought you didn't like me personally."

"You don't have to apologize." She waved her hand. It surprised her to feel a rush of happiness. Maybe she had felt she was owed the apology and hadn't admitted it to herself before.

"Anyway, I signed up for more trainings. As soon as I saw the need to manage, the class rules started making sense."

"You're a good team player now." In fact, it was his best attribute. Before, it had been his worst.

"I'd never managed anyone besides myself. I hadn't done such a great job of that, either. But as the hobby was getting fun, we started getting pressure to stop. And what the police were saying about us didn't make sense. Their reasons were wrong. Everyone wanted me to do something about it. They wanted me to organize a team effort."

"So you became their leader."

"Not really. That's not me. But someone has to do this stuff. And of course I've been learning about leadership from you. You're a natural."

She touched her collarbone. He hadn't been hostile to her for years but he'd never said anything nice about her work, either.

"You know," she reflected. "Leadership isn't what I thought. I came from a career in the military. Real life is different. I've watched you. I've learned from seeing you change. As you became a better leader outside the office, you became a better follower and improved team player here."

"I'm sorry I didn't learn this stuff sooner." His gaze sunk. "I guess it was fifteen years of doing a crappy job."

"Leading and following don't work the way I was taught." She put out her hand to pause his continued apology. "I was raised to believe in a mystic ideal of leadership, as if some people had charisma and others didn't. But I witnessed you taking charge of things around you. Obviously, people become leaders when they're needed. It doesn't take an accident of birth. You can rise to it."

"Managing people helped with my understanding of how to be managed.  And how to manage myself." His cheeks grew flush. "Too bad I didn't learn earlier. But I know I can't do everything on my own. I've had to draft legislation recently. One of the state senators asked for a list of rules that made sense."

"You need me to help write them?" She had always been a decent communicator. And he had always been bad about documentation. The prospect of drafting part of a law, though, intimidated her.

"Oh no, I've done the writing." He rubbed his eyes. The effort must have involved some late nights. "Before I hand it to the senator's aide, I'd appreciate your input. You deal with this kind of stuff a lot. I know the rules that I've written make sense to a flight hobbyist. I don't know how they'll seem to everyone else. Are they clear? I'm not sure."

"It's not work related." She took a deep breath. "I'll need to look at it over lunch."

"Right. Well, you don't have to ..."

She raised her hand.

"No, I'm happy to do it. I know how to edit rules and regulations. And I'm glad for the opportunity to help. It's your turn to lead. Now I can learn what you've learned."