Sunday, May 31, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 6: Kay's Prank

Since I haven't finished today's story yet, this is one based on the Arthurian legends. Plenty of writers have offered their takes on King Arthur and his court at Camelot. I'm not tempted to join in. I wrote this because the dialogue occurred to me during a long commute.

Kay's Prank

"Cookie was making something in the kitchen and it didn't turn out," said Kay. He set down a thick, clay mug with a heavy syrup in it. It seemed that the syrup had hardened around a spoon that had been used to dip into it. "Bet you a penny that you can't get the spoon out of that jar."

"Without breaking it?" Lancelot touched the wooden handle.

"Without breaking it, of course. Cookie would be mad."

Sir Lancelot dug into his task. The other knights urged him on. When he couldn't get it on the first try, the knights laughed. One said, "I think he moved it!"

"Really?" Kay peered close. "Maybe. That stuff is murder, though. Try it again, Lance."

After several tries and more tries again by Kay and Palamedes, they all agreed that the spoon couldn't be moved.

"Hah! Arthur will be here soon." Kay pounded the table in delight. "Let's give it to him. And when he can't get it out we'll say, 'You can pull a sword from a stone but not a spoon from a jar?'"

Lancelot laughed. He and Kay were the only ones brave enough to play a prank like this. Sure enough, in a few minutes Arthur and Merlin retired from the courtroom and strode into the antechamber.

"Arthur, my lord," said Kay. "You must give this spoon a go. I'll bet you a penny that you can't pull it out of the jar."

"Without breaking the jar," added Lancelot.

"Three tries for a penny."

"Really?" exclaimed Arthur. "That's awfully generous."

Instead of pulling on the spoon immediately, he inspected it. His gaze lasted only a few seconds but it made Lancelot and Kay uncomfortable.

"Who else has tried this?" said Arthur.

"Everyone," admitted Kay.

"Right." Arthur plucked the jar off the table and walked across the back hallway into the second kitchen. There, he found a pot of water boiling and carefully set the jar inside it. The cook's assistant alertly moved aside to give the king room. "Soon have it out."

"That's cheating!" said Kay. He followed him halfway, about forty feet.

"It's not," countered Merlin. "Quite according to your rules. Was this a prank, Kay?"

"No."

"Yes," said Lancelot. "And when he couldn't do it, we were going to tease him about how he pulled his sword from a stone but couldn't take a spoon from a cup."

"Serves you right, then," concluded Merlin. He flipped his beard in Lance's direction.

"What should I do with my penny, Merlin?" asked Arthur as he rubbed his hands in exaggerated anticipation.

"Spend it all in one place."

"On?"

"Give it as a treat, I think, for someone who's been good lately. Your page or the scullery maid or the dog boy."

"I haven't given the dog boy anything in quite a while. And the dogs have been quite good."

"Done. You have got a penny, haven't you, Kay?" Merlin raised his eyebrow at the senschal.

"Damn." Kay felt for his coin purse. "I'd better go get one. But that spoon isn't out yet. The bet isn't over. Will you wait until I come back?"

"If it's soon," agreed Arthur.

"Damn again," muttered Kay. As he left, he could be heard to utter, "At least it's the dog boy."

Arthur and Merlin relaxed at the table. Lancelot and Palamedes rose to make room. The older knight paced while the younger one propped himself against a wall.

"Why does Sir Kay like the dog boy so much?" asked Lancelot.

"He was a dog boy himself, for a while."

"What, a knight's son?"

"It was for only a summer, as a punishment. Kay wasn't punished by it. He wasn't very good at it either, in the beginning. But he was getting better toward the end. I think his father pulled him from the job because it was clear that Kay was enjoying himself. He always did like dogs. He wasn't good with them, not until he spent time as their caretaker. But he always admired them."

"Why do you ask?" Merlin's eyes narrowed.

"I just wondered … why did you choose the dog boy?"

"It will take the sting out of losing the bet. That's something you may want to remember, Lance, as you keep winning game after game. You're good. Sometimes it's important to take the sting out of the losses for other men."

"No one does that for me," observed Lancelot. "The few times that Gawain has won ..."

"It's something that winners do," said Arthur in an overriding voice. "Winners can afford to be gracious. Even Gawain is gracious with those he beats handily. He would never be that way with you unless he started beating you all the time. Is that how you want it?"

Lance's head twitched. A shudder ran through him and visibly moved his shoulders.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Not Zen 162: Crutches

"You let him stay in a cast for how long?" The doctor ran a hand through her hair. At the beginning of the day, she had tied it back. Now strands had come loose from the braid. She pulled them behind her ear.

"Nine months." The boy's mother folded her arms.

"No wonder he's complaining." The doctor nodded. "He must feel crippled. Why didn't you bring him to me earlier?"

"He said his other doctor was doing it."

"What other doctor?" She spread her arms wide, hands up.

"The one near his father's house." The woman shifted. She glanced at her son on the examining table. The young fellow remained where he was, lying down in shorts and a shirt, but he openly listened to every word. "It turns out he did it himself, though. He admitted it. His father and I are separated. I moved out a couple of years ago and I took him with me. But he wasn't getting enough sympathy for his situation at school, I guess."

The boy sat up. He put his hands on either side of his hips as if he were about to hop down to the floor.

"That's not it!" he protested.

"Well, then," said his mother. "You tell the doctor, honey."

"I thought it was neat." He leaned forward. As he eyed the floor, though, he seemed to decide against getting down from the table.

"Having a broken leg? Neat?"

"Having a cast on." He gestured to the blue, plaster cast that anchored his left leg. "Getting the stuff, the plaster, that was kind of hard. But when I got it, I found out it was easy to get colored tape. That made it look real. I knew it would."

"You can't just give yourself a cast and have no one notice." She pointed at the boy, at first, but switched the gesture to indicate his parent.

"Sure you can." His gaze darted between his mother and the doctor. "I folded up the crutches and hid the stuff in my duffel before mom dropped me off at my dad's. She never stays to see him. So when she drove off, I pulled out the crutches. I cut my pants up the seam, then I crutched to the door and said that I'd broken my leg so can I go to bed early? My dad was pissed off about it. But he let me go to bed. And I made the cast in the bathroom."

That would work, she thought. She rubbed her forehead. She didn't trust himself to say what she was thinking yet or it might sound unprofessional.

"I crutched around for a couple of days and had dad drive me back." The boy shrugged as if it had been nothing. Maybe it hadn't been too hard.

"When my son got home, he told me he'd broken his leg," his mother said. "The doctor over there, someone his dad drove him to, put a cast on it."

"And you bought that."

"Well, he had crutches! And a cast!" This time, it was the mother throwing up her arms in exasperation. The doctor turned to her young client.

"You told each parent that the other was taking care of your leg," she summarized. She hoped the boy would tell her more about the situation. He seemed to speak easily enough about it.

"My dad just sort of assumed it, but yeah."

"For nine months? Really?" No one kept on a cast that long for practically anything. She thought of all the things that could have gone wrong. For one thing, the kid smelled like he had a skin infection under there. Even if he'd made the cast right, the padding materials weren't meant to last. The plaster and tape had probably gotten exposed and rubbed him raw.

She stuck her head out of the office door and called for a nurse to bring the oscillating saw. This much, she knew from her routine. She gave her standard speech about what would happen and how the saw would feel as it cut the cast. The blade was dull. It wouldn't cut his skin. The buzzing sound might hurt his ears. 

The boy's eyes glinted. It became clear that he had already researched the procedure. The doctor ended up addressing the mother more directly. The poor woman had never dealt with anything like this before with an imagined injury or a real one.

"Oh my god," she hissed as the saw roared to a start. She put a hand over her heart.

The nurse held the boy steady, not that he seemed to need it. He gaped at the saw in fascination. His torso shivered, apparently involuntarily. He squirmed a few times as the vibrations from the circular steel machine arm tickled him. Pieces of the cast began to crumble away. Unlike a professional job, this one had apparently cracked several times and undergone repairs. The child had used layers of plaster and tape.

When the cast fell off, it unleashed a stench. It wasn't as bad as the doctor had feared. She ran her hands over the bruises and cuts. The skin had broken in places. In others, it had abraided and callused. There were a few scabs, some of them full of white pus. 

She ran her hand over a shin bruise. 

"No gangrene," she sighed.

The boy's eyebrows shot up. He knew what gangrene was, all right.

"I was fine the whole time," he insisted.

She nodded.

As she turned to hand the pieces of the cast to her nurse, the boy surprised her by hopping off of the examination table. His left leg crumpled. He toppled toward the nurse. Everyone reached out to catch him, to protect his head before it hit the floor, but he was quicker than them. He helped himself by grabbing the table.

"What's wrong?" he yelped. He scrambled to upright himself.

"Why on earth are you trying to stand?" The doctor pushed he chunks of plaster into her nurse's hands. "You can't do that."

"Yes I can. I never had a broken leg!" From his voice, the boy was starting to panic. He kept trying to stand up with one side braced against the examination table. "I didn't. Really."

She waited. He noticed her expression, her silence, and he started to calm himself. His mother couldn't stop touching him, though, and after a minute he pushed her away.

"Well?" he asked the doctor.

"Look at how small your left leg muscles are now," she replied. "Hold your legs straight, side by side."

"I'm trying. I"m trying to be straight."

"So you can't even do that." She held her fingers across the boy's right leg, then his left, to make her point. They all looked at the difference in the sizes of the thighs and calves. "Your left leg is almost thirty percent smaller. You've made yourself actually ill. Were you this hunched over before?"

"He's never been hunched."

"He is now. I want you to try something." She turned to her patient. His leg that had been in the cast had atrophied so much that she felt a little fascination for it. It was hard to believe that the limb had been perfectly healthy. "Put one hand on my shoulder and one on your mother. Then, without turning your hips, I want you to rotate your leg in and out. Like this." 

The doctor demonstrated the torsion with her own left leg.

"I'm trying." The boy grunted. His left foot moved about forty degrees clockwise. Counter-clockwise, he could hardly get any twist at all.

"I thought so." She tapped the top of his femur, right at the joint. "You don't have full range of motion in your hip any more."

"What am I supposed to do?"

"I'll send you to a physical therapist." She turned to pick up her prescription pad. "There's a good practice only a block away from here. They'll help you work your leg back into shape. It'll probably take all summer and you'll only make progress if you work hard."

"Will I be normal by school?" He threw himself onto the exam table. When he turned to sit, he stared at his normal foot, not the one he'd bandaged, as if he were envisioning the looks he might get from other teens for appearing asymmetrical.

"Could be." 

The boy's mother stood in silence for a while. She watched the doctor writing on the pad. When her son picked up a magazine, content to ignore the adults in the room, she leaned over.

"Can't you give him something?" she whispered.

"I am." In deference to the mother's privacy, the doctor kept her voice soft too. "I'm giving him a prescription for physical therapy."

"I mean something for his school anxiety. A pill or something."

"Ma'am, his leg wasn't broken." She put down the pad. "You saw what using the crutch did to him. His mind isn't broken either. He doesn't need a crutch for that. Yes, he's anxious about his peers. He's worried that everyone will find out what he did. What teenager doesn't get frantic about things like that? It's normal."

"Other kids take these things, these drugs. He's got friends on them."

"Maybe those kids should have prescriptions. Maybe they shouldn't. I don't know them." She put her hands on her hips. She started to feel irritation with the doctors who over-prescribed drugs or maybe it was just aggravation with her patient's mother. "It depends on their medical situations. If you've got a serious chemical deficiency, you need to treat it like any other physical issue. But that's not your son. Besides, for most drugs, no one should be on them for long. They haven't been tested for durations of more than a few weeks. That's how they're meant to be used."

"That's not how they work."

"Actually, it is exactly how they work. Most of the drugs given for anxiety or depression are meant to be used in therapy treatments. They're like crutches. They give you a way to function until the therapy gets you back on your feet. They're not meant to be used forever."

"Couldn't he use them for a while?"

"He's normal." Her volume had gone up as she'd explained. She listened to herself and lowered her tone. "Feeling depressed may be appropriate for him. Feeling worried may be good. Giving him a drug for anxiety wouldn't do him any favors. His body will adjust. If he takes an anti-anxiety drug, he'll grow dependent on it. He'll find it hard to stop."

"He can keep taking the same thing while his friends do."

"That's what some people might decide, yes. Because the real therapy is hard, whether it's physical or it's mental. Most of it is up to us."

That was the problem with all therapies, really. They took work.

"Doctor, I'm at my limits." The mother covered her face at the sides like a horse with blinders. She apparently didn't want her son to see her words. "I don't think I can handle him on my own. You can see how he's been gaming me and his dad."

"That's an admission that drugging him is for you, not him. Again, no." She turned to finish the prescription.

"I don't believe it would be a problem." The mother reached out and pulled on the doctor's wrist. "It's better to have medicine than marijuana or alcohol or whatever he's going to try next. I know I did things like that." 

The doctor disengaged herself. She caught the nurse's eye and the nurse stepped a little closer.

"Yes, when I was young, I tried some recreational drugs myself," she said. "Lots of folks try that. It seems like an easy answer to hardships. Just take a pill. But it turns out that the easy answer isn't the best answer. A medicated feeling is not a substitute for friendship. A chemically-induced calmness is not wisdom."

"I don't think you're an expert in this." The woman took the hint. She saw the nurse leaning close and stepped back.

"At some point in a therapy, everyone needs to throw off the crutch," the doctor continued. "We have to go on without it. We do the best that we can, probably we fail, we try to improve, and we go on."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Not Zen 161: Illusion of Progress

The leader of the caravan, a broad-shouldered fellow whose hair was streaked with silver strands, fell sick one day. All afternoon, he clutched his stomach as he led the train of donkeys. He flapped his clothes to cool his fever. In the evening, he decided to ride his lead donkey. The beast sensed his illness and did not protest his added weight. When he dismounted and called an early halt to the march, no one was surprised. He declined to eat.

When he failed to wake the following morning, the men and donkeys began to panic. After the leader's three sons checked their father for breath, held rites, and wrapped his body for transport home, the next thing thing they did was to elect a new leader, their brother-in-law.

"You have risen far," said the oldest son. He shook the new caravan chief's hand. "You were born poor but worked your way to wealth. You've cared for our sister well. All of us sons fight over our father's money but not you. I'm sure you will take good care of the family business."

The brother-in-law, a thin man, accepted the red shawl of the caravan leader. It seemed large for him but he knew he could have it tailored. In the meantime, there was business. He went to introduce himself to the former master's donkeys.

"Hah," said the oldest, toughest beast. "You're not our master."

"I have a job. Perhaps it is a easy job, perhaps it is hard." He scooped a leather pack from the ground and opened it. Inside, he found empty water skins and a coil of rope. "We'll see how it goes."

"Do you think you're making progress in life?" said the the donkey. This one and several others had been let free during the night. They'd hovered around the body of their former master but they would need to be persuaded to rejoin the caravan train. "Your wealth is an illusion. Our freedom is real."

"Wealth is an illusion," he agreed as he prepared the rope. "But it's one that I've mastered. Perhaps freedom is an illusion, too." 

"Our previous master, our real one, left us untied. He intended to set us free."

"You are right." He hesitated, the hemp half-coiled between his hands. "I will not try to tie you to the train. Nevertheless, I urge you to come along."

He began to re-wrap the rope. His hands were deft. His decision was final.

"We can live and die on our own," said the head of the free donkeys. "We don't respect you. You're too young. You feel that all these things you have done represent progress but we know there is no such thing." 

"I have been promoted to wealth and leadership. You have been promoted to freedom and leadership. But for me, it is merely a change in title. As before, I must work. I would not call my changes in circumstances progress." He finished the coil. He knelt to the pack and tucked the rope into it. He added, "That was you."

"Existence is an illusion. Progress in our existence is also an illusion."

"Yes, yes. All things and all of our movements may be an illusion, brother donkey. But there's been very little rain this year." He gestured to the sands ahead of them on the trail. Dunes and plains alternated to the horizon, punctuated only with clusters of scrub bushes. "You see how it is."

"What of it?"

"I intend to maintain our progress to the northern stream because the last caravan to make it there this season may get no water. Without water, we will suffer. You may dismiss that as an illusion if you like, but I'll wager that you'll find it an uncomfortable one."

Their new master turned and walked back to the other trains of donkeys. He did not need to whip them forward. He tugged on the leader line and the beasts lurched into motion together.

The three brothers each with their own trains of donkeys followed. Only the youngest glanced back at the group of free donkeys behind. He threw up his arms, gave up on the idea of capturing them, and merged his train into the caravan.

One by one, the herd of free donkeys joined the rearguard of the lines. Soon, only the leader of the free donkeys remained at the campsite. His last companion marched off with a snort. He dug his hoof into the dry ground and thought about his situation.

"The illusion of suffering is only that," he said to himself. "I am free to live alone and die alone. But I seem to possess my own illusions about progress and cling to them. Perhaps it is not so bad to join the herd and work to the benefit of all."

He nodded to himself.

"How unfortunate that the man is right." He took a stride in the caravan's direction. "Back to work, donkey."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Not Zen 160: Intake

"She's too alone and too dispirited," said the grandmother. "It's dangerous."

"The younger ones haven't seen death before." Her former mate flipped his tail and turned toward her. Bulls could be rough but he had grown more considerate with age. "It's been a few years. Sometimes we lose a child to a shark. But they didn't know."

"She wasn't the mother. She shouldn't be like this."

"What good does it do to say that?" The bull harumphed. "She swam in the same pod with the child. I remember her nephew as a delight. I'm sure he won her heart."

The tribe of manatees roamed along three major inlets of the shoreline. They ate hydrilla, tree roots, and floating hyacinths in the shallows. They dove deeper for muskgrass, pickerel weed, and sea clover. When they couldn't find their favorite foods, they gnawed algae from rocks along the sea bottom and even ate tiny catfish who competed with them for the algae.

Although they rarely gathered all together, generations mixed in the pod groups. Most groups kept three to five members, more in mating season, but less as manatees moved from one group to another. The grandmother herself had lived along the same shoreline for sixty years and she had belonged to more than a dozen groups.

"The young girl blames herself," she retorted. She let herself drift farther from the bull. He took the hint and hung back to let his other podmates catch up to him.

The grandmother followed the despondent female for a week. She and her small group kept their distance. They could see that the female swam alone. Unlike her sister, the mother of the slain calf, the lonely female did not seek company. She didn't search for good foods. She didn't sing to herself. She didn't seem to listen to the voices of other manatees.

At the mouth of a stream, the senior manatee approached. She asked how her younger relative was doing.

"I let the boy roam too far," was the female's response. "I should have stopped him."

The grandmother took a moment to consider how much death was still on this one's mind.

"Boys roam farther as they grow." She gave a slow nod. "That's what they do."

"He didn't notice the shark. Why would he? But I should have."

"He should have felt it earlier, perhaps. And you, and his mother, and his other podmates should have. Perhaps everyone should have seen the shadow. His mother blames herself, I know. I heard her mourn. But she joined a different pod. Your sister cares for other children now. It was good of her to do so. It was wise."

"How is that wise?"

"I can show you. Let's eat while we talk."

"There's not much here." The female spun one direction, then the other, to make her point.

"Over by the outcropping of rocks there's some algae." The leader turned toward it.

"Ugh." Her granddaughter made a sound of disgust. Nevertheless, she followed. "That's black algae, short and nasty."

"It's fine."

"No, it's bitter. No one should eat that unless she's starving."

"It can play a role my explanation."

The grandmother took a few nips of the dark algae. The younger one was right. It was awful. Her granddaughter tried to join in by eating alongside but she soon turned away. She didn't ask about the wisdom of her elders. She complained about the bitter food.

"There is sea clover beneath this outcropping. I'll bring some up." The grandmother dove. The dark reeds lay to her left, deeper than she liked. As she closed in on them with a kick of her tail, she noticed that the sea clover had bloomed despite the depth and dreary sunlight. She surfaced with enough for two or three mouthfuls. Through the strands, she asked, "Do you like the flowers?"

"Grandmother," said the other with a hint of laughter in her voice, "you brought up too much."

"Don't worry. I'll lay it across the rocks. Then you take bites of the black algae and sea clover together."

"Yes, grandma." The despondency returned to the young manatee's tone. Out of respect, she did as she was asked.

"Taste it. Do you feel the bitterness?"

"It's not bitter at all.” The young female kept gnawing. “Clover is good."

"But you ate the algae. You ate the same amount of algae as you did before."

"Oh yes. More, maybe."

"This is like life. You feel the bitterness of your nephew's death in a strong, unending way because your had let your life become as small as you, your sister, and your nephew."

"That is true."

"You've not enlarged yourself since. In contrast, your sister threw herself into the affairs of the other pods. She watches after someone else's child. She entertains the courtships of a pair of young bulls who wait for her to come into season. When you enlarge your intake of the world, the same amount of sadness is not so bitter."

"I deserve bitterness. I'm responsible for my nephew's death."

"I wouldn't deny your responsibility." The grandmother knew it was the approach that others had advised. It wasn't good advice to this one. "Instead, I must point out that you are shirking. You should take on more. Understand that others depend on you, too. Take on everything. Care for everyone you see."

"What will I do with all that responsibility?" The younger one's head sank back down into the water.

Her grandmother replied, "I am waiting to find out."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 5: I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ma

In America, it's the week before Mother's Day.  Last year at this time, I wrote a poem to my wife.  Usually, that's not a humorous occasion.  But for this event, I took the opportunity to lampoon a piece that I've always1 loved, "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra" by Ishmael Reed.2

Mother's Day, Ra Ra Ra

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ma
signed up for the short tour
but impressed into service for life,3
fast with the fork and the wallet,
swift to chase down small toddlers,
unfurler of sails, sailor of curls,
desperado in the unending showdown.4

Schoolgirls in pigtails see my Aset,5
tremble in fear at the quick,
bewildered by the slick, the flail, the crook,
the children, Horus, Anubis, Bastet,6
and my longhorn winding
its bells through the Field of Reeds.7

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ma
sidling up to the garden of rules
and garden tools, side by side with fools,
quick on the draw, slow on the uptake 8
bedded with Isis,
lover of the royal couch
but surprised by the birth of rainbows.9

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ma
because Ma'at lays down the truth, justice, and Way.10
They say I'm balancer of tasks, a merciful judge.11
Then they cut me to pieces. But I got back together.12
I'm an alchemist in ringmanship but a
sucker for the right kiss.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ma. Lord of the laugh,
half breed son of Geb and Nut. I hold the souls
of men in my silicon. I love the game and game the lovers.
I make the gears grind still and was the first monkey
wrench tossed in a machine.13  I shake my fists
at the sky, shake my body until it flies apart.14

I am a cowboy in the rainbow boat. Pope Discord
of the Ma'at Ma. C'mere a minute willya hon?
Gimme that right kiss,
bring me my sash of red blood,
bring me my crook and my crown
Where's my shirt, ma?
Bring me my new eyes.
Hand me my shadow.
I'm going into town after Bes 16

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ma

look out Bes   here i come Bes
to bust Bes    to mess with Bes
to bless Bes   make Bes confess

       usurper of the Hathor crown 17
       fool and father of fools 18
       reason why we're here today
       dancer in poopy diapers 19
       fellow outlaw20 of the fatherly way


1. Since the age of twelve, anyway
2. So there are plenty of footnotes
3. Happens to a lot of guys
4. Every day, every fucking day
5. Isis
6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastet, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anubis, everybody is somebody's kid
7. Egyptian heaven, capitalized here for good ol' Ishmael
8. Like you aren't
9. No excuse for being surprised
10. Ma'at is more St. Peter than Lao Tzu but the Way is universal
11. Yes, they do
12. Always happens
13. The Wheel
14. Got it from the Earth Dad15
15. Yep, Geb is the Earth
16. God of birth and of protecting the home. You know, the Earth is a father (Geb), and birth is a father (Bes). Old Egypt didn't have our current stereotypes
17. Not really but it's a good accusation
18. Like every dad
19. Pure slander based on his stature and loincloth
20. So probably just cuss at him and then buy him a drink

For a good review and explanation of the original poem, try this quote of the entire text and an explanation at The Daily Kos or just about any other place that cares about poetry.  Also, some poems are best read aloud - way loud, with gestures.