Sunday, August 30, 2015

Not Zen 172: Vanity

In front of the chicken coop in a wide barnyard, a rooster preened for the hens. He strutted around the edge of his territory, which was hemmed by a low, picket fence. He fluttered to the tops of fence posts and displayed his brilliant plumage for them.

For the first weeks, the hens liked it. He was a pleasant fellow to look at. He had dark, umber feathers and shiny, forest green ones, and a great red wattle. He thought himself to be most impressive. When the hens grew tired of his constant antics and called him a show-off, he puffed his chest more and cawed to them louder. 

In time, he took to cleaning himself every day. He would study his image in a puddle, spread his tailfeathers, and shake his wattle.

The farmwife saw him and laughed.

"What a dandy rooster we've got," she told her husband over dinner.

"As long as he keeps off rats and cats, he's fine," the farmer replied. "And as long as the hens keep laying eggs, of course."

As the seasons passed, the rooster grew more vain. In the spring, he festooned himself with flower petals. In the summer, he wore ferns in his tail. The lead hen, who had always kept her flock virtuous and safe from foxes and cats, felt obligated to speak. It was becoming difficult to live with someone so self-centered.

"When I was young, I thought our house rule against showing off was too strict," she said. "It seemed needlessly joyless. I never understood it until I saw you."

"You're just jealous," said the rooster. For his part, he envied other animals, including the lead hen. He hoped to supplant her as leader one day.

Late in the summer, as the rooster squawked on a stump, the hens noticed a rustle in the underbrush near the fence. Soon the rooster heard it, too. He hopped down from his perch and marched over to the noise. He hoped it was a rat since they were easy for him to scare.

A strange bird's head popped up above the hedge. A moment later, the body pushed through. A peacock revealed itself between the branches. It shook off a leaf.

The peacock may have been confused by seeing a bird displaying itself as if it were mating. He fanned his tail feathers. When the hens gathered closer, curious, he began to dance for them. He put on a competitive display for his audience despite seeing that they were not peafowl. The hens were impressed. They looked from the peacock to the rooster and back. They laughed.

"That's a show you can't match!" they said.

Through the fence, the rooster challenged the wayward peacock. But the wild bird was larger than any rooster and had no fear. He continued to flaunt his azure and emerald feathers. Incensed, the rooster flew to the top of the fence and hopped down on the other side. He chased the peacock which, despite its size, didn't want to fight. When cornered, deep in the woods between co-joined tree trunks, the peacock turned to its familiar ritual of intimidation. He treated the rooster like a rival and spread his feathers. He danced forward. His great neck loomed over the smaller bird.

The rooster sprang forward in fury. He tore at the peacock's throat. In a whirl of blood and claws, the rooster slashed open the peacock. For a while, the peacock ran among the trees, trying to escape, not quite sure what had happened. The rooster followed until his opponent collapsed, fainted, and finally died.

The rooster grabbed feathers as the spoils of his battle. He grew determined that he would wear them in his tail and under his wings. Thus, he would appear more magnificent than ever. He wandered for a day and a night, lost, but he did not abandon the burden of his trophies. 

At last, he heard a hen call. Unfortunately for him, it was a peahen. He was still lost.

Feeling lonely, the rooster decided that he should impress other birds. He dressed himself as completely as he could in the feathers of his fallen opponent. Then he presented himself to the peahens.

When they first met him, they were not quite sure what he was supposed to be. Was he a tiny peacock? No. When they saw through his disguise, they shook their heads.

"A rooster in borrowed feathers is a rooster still," they told him.

He followed the trio of peahens for a week. Their answer did not change.

Meanwhile, the farmer went out and bought a younger, hardier rooster. This fellow did not look as nice. His plumage was plain, brown and white. But he was strong and his leg muscles bulged under his coat of feathers.

When the old, vain rooster found his way back to the barnyard, he was thirsty and half-starved. He had not found a puddle. He had not eaten anything except a few beetles. His appearance had declined with his health. He trailed the stolen peacock feathers behind him. They weighed down his tail. He carried others in his wings, tangled and hard to remove. He'd gotten stuck in bushes along the way because of them. With all of his peacock plumage, he was no longer able to fly to the top of the fence. He had to slip into the barnyard through a gap between the fence and gate.

When the old rooster approached the hen houses, other chickens ran away. They woke the younger male. The keen fellow hopped down from his perch and strode forward to meet the invader. 

After a few steps, the younger one stopped and smiled. He saw through the disguise of heavy, cumbersome feathers and bluebeard blossoms, but he pretended not to know who it was.

"The last fellow killed a peacock, the hens say," he announced so everyone in the barnyard could hear him. He resumed the advance on his trembling, tired opponent. "Now is my chance to do the same."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Not Zen 171: Results

A professor took her ethics class on a field trip across town. During the trip, she pointed out the porches at the front of old row houses. Her students wondered if they were similar to the stoa in ancient Greece where neighbors met to discuss philosophies.

"Yes," she said. "Front porches are a long-lasting idea."

"No one's using them."

"Well, we have air conditioning," said her teaching assistant. "Nowadays it's more comfortable inside."

"Things have changed," the professor agreed. "Different technologies have led us to different forms of discussion."

They talked about the past and how debates on morality once were long, methodical, and public. They argued about the old religious bans against ancient philosophies. Everyone agreed that spiritual matters needed to be discussed without recriminations. A few young men took the view that vows of poverty, like those taken by Cynics and a few Stoic philosophers, demonstrated commitment to spiritual endeavors. The professor took the contrary position that, if one felt a need to demonstrate detachment from material success in order to impress skeptics, the act became suspect. Detachment from worldly desires, to her, included a lack of desire to impress others.

When they arrived at the museum, the professor took her class on the standard tour. They stopped to examine ancient artifacts and exchange views on the cultures to which they belonged. Afterwards, they visited a famous church a block away.

Outside the church, the group of young men who had debated about vows of poverty declared that they would hike home.

"Is this wise?" asked the professor. "It will be a long, hot walk."

"It's good for us," said the most outspoken one. "A little hardship is normal. Anyway, some of us may prove resourceful and find better ways to return. We'll meet you at the college."

The professor sighed. "All right. If you're not waiting for me when I get back, I expect to see you in class tomorrow."

"Of course."

The young men started their march through the city in the peak of the afternoon. They grew overheated and impatient in a few minutes. They were not gregarious. None of them enjoyed the company of the others for long. They split into groups of two or three. Often, the groups drifted further apart. Students started to walk alone.

The outspoken one saw the situation and racked his mind to come up with a better way. He had slowed behind a pair of his friends. Each wore a light shirt with an open collar. They seemed content to stroll. They had mentioned, too, that they wanted to stop for dinner. They did not seem to be taking their temporary impoverishment seriously. 

He turned a corner and picked up a leaf. A bum they'd passed on the first block of their journey had given him the idea. He pulled a comb out of his pocket. Between the leaf and comb, he could make a kazoo. That would improve upon the bum's attempt at busking, which had been merely to hum with a hand outstretched.

"Bus fare!" he shouted. He threw down a bandana and placed a quarter in it. 

With the comb-and-leaf instrument, he played a tune. It was a ridiculous. The absurdity made him smile, which made passers-by grin. He danced and played the kazoo for another song, then another. An elderly woman threw down a dollar bill. A fellow in a business suit tossed down some change. In a few minutes, he had fare for the trip home.

As he picked up the money and bandana, another student watched.

The second young man had also left his group. He had no money and he'd thought he had no means to obtain any. He'd been contemplating how long the hike would take. Now he'd seen an answer to his predicament. As the first student departed, he took out his own comb. 

He snatched up a scrap of paper from the curb. He threw down his hat.

He began playing even before he thought of a tune. Probably, he guessed, it didn't matter. He shuffled his feet and mimed gestures like a fool. After a minute, he felt exhausted. He started to sprinkle jokes between his musical attempts. He kept going.

His jokes seemed to make people turn away. He reached out harder. He played less on his comb. He shouted his next joke.

"You're scaring away customers!" called a shop manager behind him. She was an older woman, dark haired, who ran a laundry.

"Then just give me my bus fare." he retorted. 

She folded her arms and shook her head. He turned away from her and resumed playing. He kept playing and dancing despite her protests. He reached out a hand to passers-by. The dodged around him. No one gave him money. In ten minutes, a policeman appeared on the scene.

"You're under arrest," the officer announced. "The charge is vagrancy. I've gotten two calls about you."

The officer cuffed the student on the spot. For a moment, the young man thought about resisting, maybe just running away, but he knew he didn't have the speed. Anyway, then he would get lost and he'd still need to hike across the city.

Early the next morning, the professor, her teaching assistant, and a pair of fellow students came to obtain the release of their jailed companion. The teaching assistant kept saying that she couldn't believe anyone could have such bad judgment.

"But he made the same decision that I did." From behind bars, the arrested student pointed to the other one, the fellow who had played the kazoo for his fare. "What makes my decision a bad one?"

"You could have done many things, including simply ask others for fare money." The professor shook her head sadly. "You could have explained your predicament. You could have offered to do work. You could have begged a ride. So many choices."

"You think I'm unwise because I'm unoriginal?"

"Originality is not the point." The professor nodded as the police officer handed her a release form. She signed. "You should have an idea of whether or not you can execute your decisions. This is not something that philosophy students like to hear - that in real life there is not just the decision but execution. You must have the awareness necessary to react and adjust if things go wrong. You must have the ability to reflect on yourself or you will not learn."

"My action was morally the same. It was."

"A moral decision is the beginning of wisdom but not the entirety. As you make your choices, you must do so with an awareness of yourself and the precise situation. That is how you go from moral decisions to moral actions."

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Not Zen 170: Different Grasses

She strolled out onto the back porch, put her hands on her hips, and gazed. For a moment, she watched the orange sun sinking behind the clouds. Then her attention turned to her father. He'd been sitting in the garden for half an hour. He remained seated, not moving. She grew concerned that he was ill.

"Why have you stopped planting?" she asked. She strolled from the porch to the garden plot. Her father raised his hand spade and resumed digging.

"Feeling, noticing," he said. He turned up a fist-sized lump of dirt. "Just lost in thought."

"Were you considering planting the alfalfa and onion grass around the entire border of the garden?" She pushed her toe up against the edge of the turned ground. "You said they would serve to keep away pests and then we'd eat them. Or were you thinking of something else?"

"You know, alfalfa grass can pick up the tastes and traits of other plants, especially other grasses."

"Yes, I've noticed."

"Plants aren't completely separate. Species aren't distinct."

"There can be a bit of blending but not much, I think."

"When I was young, I studied myself intensely," he explained. "I know you do the same. I corrected my flaws, corrected my concept of flaws, adjusted myself, and adjusted again. It was a continual process of awareness and improvement. I saw myself as a small part of a great world. The separation between my body and my mind dropped away. The separation between my body and the world dropped away. I came to be at peace."

"That sounds like an achievement." She had known this from growing up with him but she enjoyed hearing hints of his adventurous youth.

He shook his head. "It was only the letting go of desires."

"You have moods but still you seem at peace nearly always. So it must have lasted."

"As I aged," he continued. "I came to realize that what I thought of as my 'self' had many aspects. My concept of the mind was limited. It always would be. My concept of the world was limited. It was a dim flicker, a minimal insight in a sort of monkey-brain, framed by misleading perceptions. The idea of unity in the world became something else, a concession that even the best human actualizations are childish, almost innocent. Our best and worst concepts are part of nature. Our actualizations are like all things natural. They are a bit rough, a bit changing, a bit different than what they seem. My clinging to peace dropped away."

"It still fills you."

"That is natural. Eventually my concepts of myself and of others dropped away. The idea of a self became useless. Sometimes I watch my limited perceptions. That is, sometimes part of me is mindful. But sometimes not. There is a blending of those states, as there is a blending of so many things."

"If everything is one thing, why draw distinctions?” She rolled her eyes. “You are always so satisfied regardless. Why do you do anything at all?"

He laughed. His other hand found a second spade to his left. He held it out for her. She grabbed it by the handle.

"There is not really a me and there is not really an option of doing or not doing. But come," he said as she put a knee on the ground next to him. "Let's plant the different grasses."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Not Zen 169: Many Last Chances

Her home wasn't fancy. She'd lived most of her life without art. Except for a few donations that lined a living room shelf, she still didn't have any. No one counted the framed drawings in multi-color crayon that she'd acquired over the years. Of those, roughly half had been made by her children, the rest by her grandchildren. They lined the back of a kitchen countertop. The two she liked best sat on either side of a photograph of her former husband. 

On the morning of her birthday, she rose to prepare the kitchen for her guests. She rolled over and sat up. Her muscles felt weak but she was lighter than she used to be, so it evened out. Her feet met the floor. She shuffled to her dresser. With unsteady hands, she pulled out the middle drawer. After a moment of fumbling, she found her best blouse.

It took her longer than usual to get ready. The blouse was her problem. At the bottom, it had small buttons. At the top, it fastened with pegs and loops. She could feel that she hadn't gotten the buttons to work. She could clasp the top half. She knew the bottom wasn't right. After a while, she gave up, exhausted, and sat on the bed.

She sat long enough to catch her breath, then stood to try again. This time she could hardly feel the buttons, much less fit them into their buttonholes.

"Son!" she shouted. 

Exasperated with herself, she sat back down. In a minute, her oldest child appeared at the bedroom door. Not long ago, she would have found it humiliating to need help to get dressed. Now she was merely glad that someone had come over early. 

In the kitchen, she put her son to work for as long as she could. Unfortunately, they both needed to take breaks to sit, rest, and have tea. They didn't quite finish their preparations. Her son started playing host as soon as the guests arrived. The earliest were his wife, their kids, and their grandchild. Their grandchild was a two-year-old girl who ran around the living room screaming for no reason other than she could. 

Inside of an hour, the rest of the extended family had arrived, including other grandchildren and other great-grandchildren.

"How suspicious," she said. Once more, she helped herself to the stool in the kitchen. Younger women had taken over the details anyway.

"What is?" asked her son.

"A lot of great-grandchildren seem to have shown up this time." She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "In fact, I think it's all of them."

"Good for them."

"Maybe." Her index finger pressed the glasses back onto her nose. She blinked and studied the young men and women laying out food on the dining table. "Good for this party you're throwing, you mean."

"What I mean is that the little ones don't see you much. You don't get around."

He'd made a similar comment yesterday when he arrived. Of course, he was the oldest and he'd already lost his younger brother. He was facing mandatory retirement soon, too. His company was forcing him out of his job.

"You're worried that this is my last birthday, aren't you?" she said.

"Well, it could be," he allowed in a rather weak voice.

"I do feel like sort of an old beaver."

"Mom?" He looked at her as if he were wondering if her mind might not be working right. "I hope you're about to make a joke about dams or something."

"No. I mean, I feel like a wild animal that has to hunker down in the winter." Sometimes her mind wasn't quite right, she thought, but this time she knew what she meant. "I might not make it through next season."

They looked out over the kitchen, dining area, and most of the living room, all of them full of family and friends.

"I can see how you might feel that way." He nodded slowly. "But maybe you'll outlive me. I don't know. Maybe this is my last chance to see everyone but it's still not yours."

"But then I would be seeing them at your funeral."

"Probably." He smiled. He didn't seem at all upset by the idea.

"No thanks. I've had plenty of last chances." It took her a moment to compile a list in her head. Even so, she couldn't really grasp them all. There were too many and the ones at the top of her list were only examples. "I had my last chance with your father but I didn't understand it. I couldn't comprehend him dying. Before him, I had my last chance to hold your brother. Earlier I had my last talk with my mother. And with my father, of course, although he didn't want to say anything."

"Why not?"

"At the time, I was mad. Later, I understood that he was just in pain." She'd been a self-centered young woman, she thought, to have misunderstood. She'd assumed it was about her somehow. "Likely enough, the pain was all he could think about. But he still didn't want to talk about it."

"Couldn't a doctor have helped?"

"It wasn't done." She shook her head and looked on the counter for her drink. Unfortunately, she hadn't poured one for herself yet. "Anyway, I learned. I've had a lot of last chances at this point."

"Did you appreciate them all?"

"Not always." She sighed and set her hands in her lap. "But it's always a last chance for something. Are you appreciating this? I mean, this moment. You organized it."

He grinned as he surveyed the family members and extended families. There were so many. Even the people who had been friends and neighbors, who weren't related, could have filled a room. A smile crept onto her face as she took in the sight of him looking over the crowd.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 8: A Bandit Accountant, 1.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Thirty-Two Minus Thirty-One
Scene One: Fired


Denario sipped a penny ale as he considered his dilemma. The mayor had refused to pay for the final installment of his audit. He had, in fact, tossed Denario out through the front door of the town hall with the help of three toughs. The accountant had shaken his fist and cried, “You can't do this!” but, in fact, it had already been done. Two of the mayor's loyal men kicked him when he tried to stand.

“Like I told you,” said the mayor. “If you're still around by nightfall, you're dead.”

Kevin, the red-haired guard with shoulders that belonged on a horse and who Denario had once liked, brushed his hands of the dust they'd accumulated in throwing him out.

“The stagecoach,” he whispered, “leaves before sunset.”

Then he kicked Denario again. The mayor stomped back into his office and the toughs watched Denario for a minute to make sure he didn't try anything stupid like re-entering the building. He hobbled away with bruises on his thighs and arms. At least they hadn't broken his fingers, he thought. He knew that these country folk in towns like Ziegeburg killed outsiders with little excuse, often in mobs at night.

As Denario drank, he wondered if he were immune to their lynchings.

Surely he had made enough friends here. He'd lived in the boarding house for nearly three months. The farmers and tradesmen seemed to like him and they didn't particularly care for Mayor Figgins. It was Figgins who'd broken the contract, not Denario, and the accountant wasn't his first victim, either. But that was Denario's real problem with leaving: the contract. He had been depending on the final installment to pay his way home.

“Bless, Denario.” A tanned, gnarled hand clapped him on the shoulder.

“Gordi.” He nodded. He'd heard the old man coming.

“I stopped work early today. Ye too, I hear. I know ye've got to skip town.”

“Well,” he began, unsure how to respond.

“'Ave ye got time for a last game of darts?”

“Of course, Gordi.” Denario downed the rest of his ale. He was good at darts. It was very nearly his only physical gift. He couldn't outrun a pregnant milkmaid. His arms could just about manage a bale of hay if the bale didn't knock him down. He could swim but he feared the water. He'd hired a man to teach him swordsmanship but the instructor had given him one lesson and returned the rest of his money with the advice, 'Don't waste your time.' Denario couldn't even hold his beer. He was a three-cup drunk.

He could throw, though. He was decent with a half-brick or anything lighter. Darts was his favorite activity – or at least his favorite of those he got to engage in regularly. He supposed he would have to say goodbye to his fiancĂ©e before he skipped town. He wasn't looking forward to the conversation and hoped she would at least try to talk him out of leaving. Sometimes he thought she was too good for him despite his coming from the big city. Most of the time, in fact.

During the Three Handfuls game with Gordi, he kept score of each dart sequence and secretly kept score of a second game in his head. For the secret game he chose Poke Jonni, which involved scoring a number immediately after the other fellow scored it. That was different from getting triplets in each number, as players did in Three Handfuls, so it kept Denario extra entertained. It was hard to win at both games at once. It was fun keeping score in both, too.

“Ah, ye win again,” said the wheel-maker at the end, as Denario sunk a triple fifteen right behind Gordi's fifteen. Denario had won both games, in fact, including the Poke Jonni in his head.

“I think you let me.” He pulled out the darts and handed them back to his friend.

“Nah, ye always win at darts. I always win me money back at cards.” It was an odd trend they'd developed and it was strange to Denario because he knew he was excellent at cards. Yet Gordi was better at certain games, especially those in which he could bluff. Also, Gordi cheated a little, probably, although Denario didn't really mind. The accountant didn't want to make his money from gambling.

“At least let me play you a game of Mad Kings to make it up.”

“My favorite.” Gordi gave him a regretful look. He'd won drinks from everyone in the bar at that game. “But no, ye have a stagecoach to catch so I hear. Can't keep ye.”

At the bar with the penny he'd won from Gordi, Denario started to panic. If a farmer had learned about Denario's troubles then the news was all over town.  He checked the other faces in the Proud Pony. He knew them all, the miller's deadbeat son, the cloth merchant, the pot-bellied rancher, and they had all been watching him until the moment he turned around. Their glances shied away, a mixture of embarrassment and curiosity. Even Gordi wouldn't meet Denario's gaze as he sat next to his rancher friend.

The town of Ziegeburg was large by regional standards and it supported, barely, three drinking establishments. One was called Hippogriff's. It had gilt lined doors and sat in the center of a neighborhood referred to as The Towers. It was far too rich for Denario. Hippogriff's would admit an accountant grudgingly but it would have thrown out a wheelwright or a potter unless accompanied by a better member of local society.

That was the best place to drink. The worst was the one that occupied the southwest end of town just outside the gate. It was called Bottoms Up. The place was too cheap to have a wood floor, just straw over dirt. The Proud Pony had a dirt floor, too, but it was cleaner somehow. The barman didn't tolerate thugs or bandits. His establishment catered to the wealthier farmers and part-time tradesmen like Gordi.

Denario had no idea what went on in Hippogriff's but he was sure that the news of his disgrace had already reached all ears at the Proud Pony and Bottoms Up.

“Last beer?” muttered the barman.

“Alfie,” whispered Denario with both hands on the bar. “This is terrible. I can't leave but everyone is telling me I should. What about you? Do you think I should buy a place on the stagecoach? What happens if I miss it?"

Alfie's eyebrows rose. His lips moved but no sound came out for a while. When he finally spoke, he checked to make sure no one was too close to hear.

“If you miss that stagecoach,” he said, “walk.”

“Seriously? Won't bandits catch me on the road?”

“Maybe. Maybe they'll catch the coach, too. They sometimes do, nowadays. The roads aren't as safe as when I was a boy.” He picked up a clean mug and decided to clean it some more. He rubbed it hard with his rag. “But getting robbed is better than having the mayor's men hang you by your neck off the jailhouse at the center of town. That sort of thing scares the children. I got a little girl now who I don't want to see that.”

“Hadn't thought of it your way.” He slumped against the bar top, the image of his body dangling from a thick rope in his mind. Now he realized why those three joists jutted out from the south wall of the jail. He should have clued in when he heard someone call them the gibbet beams. “But I'm engaged to Widow Brightli, you know. And today I'm getting chased out because the mayor's brother pocketed a share of the baron's tax collection.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” said the barman with a stony face.

“It's why the mayor wants me to leave. His brother ...”

“And don't say it again.”

“Ah.” Denario nodded  He sat upright. “I suppose I should have another ale, then.”

“One penny, sir.” The barman had clearly been about to give it to Denario for free but must have changed his mind when he heard the crazy notions swirling in Denario's head. There was a heavy, round copper piece pinched in Denario's fingers. He handed it over. The barman's stuck it in his pocket and grabbed a mug in his thick fingers. When he slid it, full to the brim, across the counter, he said, “I'd drink fast, sir, if I wanted a word with the Widow Brightli. And if I were in your situation, I would want that last chance, sir.”

“I need a plan,” mumbled Denario to himself.

“Kiss the widow and step on the stagecoach.” The tough man softened his tone just slightly. “That's your plan, sir.”

Scene Two