Sunday, June 16, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 358: Biomythography - Note 96: Swim Lessons

Swim Lessons 

On a warm day in June of 1969, I got into the passenger seat of my father's car. My father drove a Morris Oxford, a British car, green on the outside, grey on the inside. I remember it didn't smell of cigars as much as usual. My father had cleaned out his ashtray. Or maybe it was just a beautiful, spring day and he opened the vent windows. 

Up front for once, I clutched my towel. 

"You're not going to get sick, are you?" he asked. 

There was no good answer. I rolled down the passenger-side window and leaned my head as close as I could to the gap above me. Sometimes a fresh wind helped.

"Why are you driving?" I asked after we had ridden for a few miles. 

"Your camp is on the way to my school." 

I didn't nod. Sometimes moving my head during the drive made me sick. Anyway, I had to contain myself. I was starting to tremble as I thought about summer camp. It was my first day. I was going to learn how to swim. 

I had been begging for swim lessons for years, it seemed. Every day in every summer, I yearned to launch myself into the community pool on my own power. I ached to live my life like one of the big kids and to go wherever I pleased. To be respected like a big kid, not a baby. To walk to the pool without my mother. To cool off when my body wanted it, not when grown ups decided they could spare the time. Want, want, want. I had not wanted something so much since I'd kissed the girl across the street. I wanted to break free and swim like a fish, like a shark, like an otter, like a dolphin. Like I was free.

At the camp, the swim instructor came late. Or actually, she was there on time but she wasn't in a hurry. She wasn't already waiting for us in the pool. She wasn't rushing like I wanted, so we seemed behind schedule. She said she had to talk. 

"Today, the water is pretty cold," she explained as she got in. She held her arms up so they didn't get wet. 

A little girl dabbed her foot in the water and winced. I followed. The chill sank into my toe like it was a piranha biting me. At one end, the camp was still piping the water in. Everything was fresh and new. That also meant it hurt. 

"See?" the instructor laughed. "You won't have to get in today, if ..."

As I looked at her hesitant, overly polite smile, I jumped. 

A moment later, she was pulling me out. I was gasping but it was because of the change in temperature. I was fine. 

"I want to swim," I demanded. 

"Well, sit on the side first." She plunked me down on my bottom. "You're not the only student."

"It's cold!" I complained. I held myself and shivered. But I kept my icy legs in the water.

"I didn't tell you to get in."

"I'll be warmer if I move around," I suggested. My father told me that all the time. My swim instructor, though, took a deep breath. She considered it. 

"I might let advanced students hold onto the wall and kick," she said. "If they behave."

"Great!" I started to position myself.

"But only if they behave!" She raised her voice and one of her eyebrows at me. "We have ten students today, not one. Ten."

I grunted and shuffled where I was, on my bottom. I felt the rough concrete grab my swimsuit and start to rip at it. If I wiggled, I could feel the serrated surface scratching the fabric. I tried to hold still. But when I got bored, I wiggled. The instructor talked. She talked and talked. I wiggled and wiggled.

Some of the other students told her they didn't want to swim. What were they even doing here, then? I folded my arms and sulked at them.

After a while, I found myself dry and wrapped in a towel. I was standing at the edge of the Town and Country Day School building lot where they were holding the camp. Some of the other day campers were leaving. My father had been waiting for me. He'd done whatever mysterious chores there were for him at Northwood High School and, afterward, he had parked in the line of cars with the other parents.

"How was he?" my father asked a camp counselor.

"Very good," she said. "Very advanced, I'd say. He was the best student."

"Oh," he gave me a nod. "That's nice to hear."

But in the car, I sat and sulked some more. I was a champion at brooding, moping, glowering, and all the other non-verbal ways of expressing despair in a manner that was not quite deserving of a parental ding on the ear - although sometimes the adults seemed tempted by the idea. My father regarded me for a moment. He asked how the lesson had been. Then he turned the ignition. The car roared. As I tried to respond to his question, I burst into tears.

"What's wrong?" he said.

"I didn't learn how to swim!" I shouted. 

"But ..." He thought for a moment, letting the car idle, trying to square this outburst with the assessment he'd heard from the counselor. "Weren't you good? Why didn't you learn?"

"I don't know."

"Huh." He rubbed his bearded chin. "It was your first lesson. Did anyone else learn how to swim in the first lesson?"

"No," I complained. I folded my arms. "She wouldn’t let us."

"You’ll learn," my father said.

"She has to let me!" I wailed.

"She will, she will." He sighed and put the car into first gear. "Geez, you have all week."

#

The swim lessons went on, an hour a day, every day until Friday. Our last lesson got cut short by a ceremony, certificates, and juice. By day three, though, I was allowed to swim. 

With some hints from the instructor, I could manage to stay afloat and move forward. On day four, I swam doggy paddle for the width of the pool. On day five, I swam the length of the pool, starting from the deep, cold end. I didn't just doggy paddle, either. I got my arms above the water to pull. Plus the swim instructor indulged me by teaching me to take breaths on my side. Like a big kid. 

"Now I can go to the pool by myself," I announced.

"Well." The instructor put one hand on her hip. "I don't know about that. Just remember to tell your lifeguard that you want to take your test."

"Today," I said. 

"If your mother lets you go to the pool today," advised the instructor.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 357: Biomythography - Note 95: Strange Bedfellows, Part VII

Strange Bedfellows, Part VII

We started dating. She was cute and witty. That was the good side of the relationship. When she relaxed, I enjoyed my time with her. A lot. A whole lot. After all, she was my crush. Thin, beautiful face, entrancing wit, enticing, wry smile. Whenever she breathed close to me, I inhaled and shivered. She made me giddy.

I had dated women who identified as lesbians before. But I had never dealt with one who was in the closet. I'd grown accustomed to the activist-minded sexual politics in western Massachusetts. It was an open, expressive environment even when it was disapproving of who I was dating. I'd never given thought to how the politics in a small town below the Mason-Dixon line, a handful of miles from Appalachia, might be different. 

We were sitting in The Old Town Tavern, a bar a few blocks from work. That evening, we held hands across one of the low tables. She smiled at me as we touched. Every now and then, people walked by. Suddenly, she removed her hand from mine. She turned away from me. 

A pair of women strolled by us along on their way to the dance club part of the bar. 

"We need to leave, now." My date glanced at the backs of two women. She rose from her chair. 

"What's wrong?" Like her, I rose. I wasn't alarmed, though, only bewildered. 

"We can't be seen," she hissed. "This was the wrong choice. Some of my friends drink here."

The encounter seemed to ruin the evening. She spent the next hour shuffling her feet, looking around, trying to make sure she wasn't being seen with me. 

Our next date, we met at a more remote bar, one with pool tables where we could play and talk. She felt good enough about it that only a night later she invited me to another bar, where she didn't quite relax but she did feel able to talk.

"No, you'll never meet my parents," she told me. She sipped her beer. "I don't want to give them hope."

"What does that mean?" I protested. "You said they don't know you're gay. So what's the difference?"

"They would ask about you forever." She rolled her eyes. 

"So I can't meet your friends," I finally realised, "but I also can't meet your family."

"I know it's difficult." She pulled away from me for a moment but she leaned forward again to touch my arm. "But you only have to do it sometimes. I have to live this way all the time."

She arranged our next date at a restaurant she despised because it suited her privacy needs. I was starting to understand I wouldn't be allowed to suggest places. Any location in which we were to meet, she had to ensure the public part of our encounter would be secluded or else so open and busy, none of her friends would suspect she was dating a man. 

Finally, she put us on hold. She let a few days go by and hardly talked with me, even at work. We sat side by side at our cubicles, isolated from most of the other writers except for our third roommate, the younger woman, who was furious with both of us.

Eventually, my crush set up another date. Even to talk about it, we had to walk out of the building on smoke breaks at roughly the same time. She brought a pack of Marlboros and a lighter. I strolled over to bum a cigarette. 

"Let's meet at the mall," she suggested as she watched me light up.

"Where will we go from there?" I asked.

"We'll figure it out. I want the meeting to look like an accident." She flicked the ash off her cigarette. "Just in case."

The rendezvous at the mall involved shopping near the fountain for twenty minutes and keeping an eye out for her in the meanwhile. She did the same. In time, she noticed that I'd seen her. She took her place on a bench near the fountain. I waited about a minute, as per her instructions, and took my place on a different bench. By apparent accident, we sat close. I glanced at her but apparently it made her uncomfortable. I let my gaze drift back to the fountain and listened. 

"This isn't working out," she said. 

"Um, yeah." Probably, I shouldn't have nodded in agreement. But I did. 

"I thought I could make it work." She picked up a pebble, small enough that someone had bought it into the mall in their shoe. She tossed it into the water in front of us. "But I think I'm just taking advantage of you."

I wished she were taking advantage of me more and also more often, but I understood the point. She had re-thought the date, tonight. This was goodbye. 

"No way to make it work?" I asked. My crush on her made no sense. I guess it never had. Making sense is not the way crushes work.

"No."

"Okay." My heart slowed. My muscles collapsed a bit but I was sitting and I tried not to let it show. A moment later, I felt a wave of shame and hopelessness sweep over me. It warmed my skin.

"You should walk away first," she said. 

I nodded, as if to myself. After a half minute, I got up and walked to the fountain. I paused to have an almost-thought, more of an instinct, and turned toward one of the bookstores. Books were my friends. I could read a little, maybe laugh at someone's humor, maybe speed-read through a few chapters of science fiction. Maybe I could buy something if I found a way to justify the money to myself. And so I began my stroll. 

Behind me, I heard her rise. She picked up her plastic shopping bag. Even over the sounds of the other people in the mall, my ears were tuned to her. She picked her direction opposite mine. She started walking. 

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 356: Biomythography - Note 94: Strange Bedfellows, Part VI

Strange Bedfellows, Part VI

"You split up with your girlfriend?" said my office mate. She stopped typing and turned away from her Macintosh screen to study me. We were sitting in our cubicles, side by side in a narrow, yellow-walled office.

"Yeah." It had been my idea. But I wasn't happy about it. I stopped typing in the middle of a sentence and spent a moment pitying myself, feeling the loneliness of breaking up.

I had put my experience as a human trial participant into an article for a local newspaper. My co-workers knew what I’d done with my vacation time. But they didn't know, until I mentioned it, that I had decided to end my relationship of nearly three years. 

“So now you could go out for drinks.” The woman by my shoulder gave me a teasing smile. “Your girl couldn’t get jealous anymore.”

“Huh.” I had turned down friendly offers to socialize because I had wanted to include my woman but, each time I had asked her, she didn't want to go. My desire to have friends was not hers. And she didn’t want me to go out drinking without her. She wanted me to stay home. Now I was free, sort of. I could hang out with friends.

Realistically, I was only sort of free. I still lived with my old girlfriend. We had signed an apartment lease together. We were both nearly broke. We had to ride out our situation until the end of the lease. That meant we saw each other every day. We shared our food. Her opinion still meant a lot to me and I would be encountering it every day. 

After thinking for a moment, I agreed to go out on Thursday night. That gave me a chance to warn my former- girlfriend current-roommate. 

"Do you like playing pool?" I asked my office roomie. She kept her blonde hair cut short. She always wore a leather jacket, too, so I thought the chance of her liking pool halls seemed decent. 

"Yeah, I kind of love it. I play near my place in Hagerstown." She failed to look up as our third office partner strolled in. A brown-haired girl, just out of college, she arrived later than we did, usually. Today was no exception.

"I've got a place here, in Frederick." Once a week, sometimes alone, I reserved a table and ran through it a few times playing eight ball or nine ball. 

"Sounds great!"

"What are you guys talking about?" asked the third member of our little office. 

There are times in life when you don't know how you got into a situation. When you look back, the clues were there. You simply didn't notice. In the future, in a similar situation, you might not notice, either. Because you've got a steady pattern of catching on late. In retrospect, you should have picked up on the clues. It's hard to see how you couldn't. 

"We're heading out to a pool hall on Thursday," I said. 

"Just for a beer after work," the blonde woman added.

"Oh, you guys have been talking about heading out after work for months." The brunette hung up her purse on a hook next to her cubicle. "I'm glad it's finally a yes."

"His girlfriend broke up with him," said the older office mate. She saw the frown that crossed my face. "Or he broke up with her but he's not happy about it. Either way."

"Oh, great!" She burst into a smile. "I mean, that's too bad but you know what I mean. You can go out. Am I invited?"

My older office mate looked at me. I glanced back. My shoulders rolled as I shrugged. The women were both fun, both cute. I had a bit of a crush on the older one but I didn't have any intentions of following through. Or I hadn't. Until this very moment. But now, I realized, maybe I did. Or at least I could.

"Sure," the older woman said. 

"Sure," I agreed. I shared a nod with her although, quietly, internally, I finally acknowledged the crush I had. The thought of an evening with her made me giddy. Maybe a third person in the pool game would keep things innocent and save me from embarrassment.

I had a couple days to think about it. In retrospect, not a lot of thinking got done. My reverence for my co-worker blossomed. She sat closer to me. She smiled and laughed more. Increasingly, I looked forward to hanging out her. Maybe I could get an idea about the chances of her returning my feelings.

"Wow, you look good," said the older, blonde woman as we met at the pool hall. 

"Yeah," her brunette friend agreed.

I looked down at my jeans and my plain, white t-shirt. All I had done was swap out my office shirt for one without buttons. I wasn't as socially awkward as I had been before college, though. I knew not to deflect complements with too much force.

"Thanks," I said. Showing a little gratitude always worked. 
 
We played for an hour and I heard more comments about how I looked but not much about my pool game. When I got hot with the cue and started running tables, the women shrugged. Mostly, they teased me, usually in fairly witty ways. We exchanged banter like twenty-somethings, which after all is what we were. I wondered if the older woman was letting me win. At times, she seemed like a good, steady-handed player. 

We'd worked side by side for months. We shared similar senses of humor and, often, the same politics. She had started asking me about my girlfriend after our first month together. I wasn't sure about the status of her love life because, she declared, "it's private," but she seemed to enjoy keeping track of mine. 

The brunette touched my biceps a couple of times as she passed by to take her shot. The older one commented on it.

"You should try it," the younger woman teased. 

My crush beckoned me to her, one hand on her pool cue. When I got close enough, she leaned in to give my arm a gentle squeeze. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 355: People Have Theories

People Have Theories

A theory is a model of how reality works, like the theory of gravity. People get attached to their favorite theories, even ones they don't formalize in writing. In fact, people might get most attached to informal, unspoken views. They mistake their assumptions about how things work for their reality. Some people die unhappily and, to them, unexpectedly because their theories missed something critical. 

Maybe they viewed the world through their ethnicity, as in "I didn’t expect that guy to shoot me because he looked like someone from my tribe." Maybe they viewed the world like a game, as in "I thought I'd get another chance."

Nowadays, these assumptions get called cognitive bias. We all, as humans, are likely to recognize how aspects of an event confirm our theories. We do this more than we notice elements of the same incident that contradict our expectations. The mental habit has been called other things, too, and so has the act of unlearning biases. Unlearning has gone by labels like 'letting go of preconceptions' and 'embracing the paradigm shift.' 

For long periods of time in many cultures, spiritual leaders played down the concepts of cognitive biases and unlearning. Those leaders asked people to 'endure' or to 'hold fast' to wrong worldviews. Still, the idea of unlearning has a respectable history. 

Seeing Things As They Are

As soon as people lived long enough to need to unlearn things, discussions about the need must have arisen. 'Unlearning' came to be held in high regard by some people, at least. 

Daoism is a tradition with a prominent focus on 'seeing things as they are.' Living in perfect harmony with the universe is the stated goal. In order to live in harmony, one needs to understand the world and accept it for what it is, not as what one wants it to be. Sometimes this view on living has made for good scientific observations. Long ago in China, Daoists became prominent scientists. Daoism always had a more mystical side to its philosophy, too, as expressed by the term 'ziran,' which means freeing oneself from obstructing biases and acting in a spontaneous, natural fashion, without effort. 

Stoic philosophies were lost to western traditions for centuries after Stoicism was banned. When the religion was popular, though, it used multiple terms to address 'unlearning' concepts. The Stoics valued ataraxia, the trait of not being disturbed by the external world, and apatheia, the peace one achieves by giving up the passions of life. Stoicism also recognizes pathos, which refers to emotions resulting from mistaken judgments. Giving up mistaken judgments is a vital step in the Stoic concept of becoming an ideal person.

Buddhism promotes the practice of vipassana. The term refers to seeing things as they really are and it has its own, dedicated style of meditation. The meditation may have drifted from its term a bit and from its implied unlearning of bad assumptions (although I don't have first-hand experience with it). Nevertheless, the term vipassana reflects the importance of the 'unlearning' skill and a long tradition of honing it.

Zen Buddhism, in a slightly separate tradition, expands the 'unlearning' concept as far as 'unasking' a question. By unasking, a Zen practitioner indicates that the question, regardless of its answer, is not a productive one - the answer cannot give any useful insight. 

Strategies 

Some ways of letting go of cognitive biases are simple.

One way is to envision a different bias. It goes like this: if you are convinced people are stingy then, for a while, convince yourself that people are generous. Observe, inside yourself and in your worldly circumstances, how the change in your approach changes the world. If you normally think of yourself as short, regard yourself as tall. If you often think your neighbors are fussy, think of them as careful, hence their beautiful yard, fence, or mailbox. Put your different view into your actions. 

The important thing is to be at least a little bit in control of your biases. Of course, envisioning a different bias in order to loosen the hold of a deeper, more ingrained one is just the mental or spiritual equivalent of warming up. 

Another powerful method of re-learning is increasing your ability to focus. With practice, some people get very good at this underrated skill. Likewise, you can train yourself to observe without judgement. To start, it's as simple as questioning the part of you making those judgments and asking, perhaps, "what did I really witness?" In many professions, possessing sharp observation skills is essential. (Think of an air traffic controller or a detective without them.) In others professions, the skill goes unrecognized even though it conveys a significant benefit. (Imagine the results when nurses or doctors increase their powers of observation.)

There are essays and books on these strategies but personally I find that another good way is to relax and deliberately lose focus. Let observations occur naturally. Maybe, as you regard those observations, you'll let those slip away, too. 

Any approach to improve un-learning or re-learning skills is valid to try. Because we all need to improve. The reason why 'seeing things as they are' is an esteemed practice in Daoism, Stoicism, and Buddhism is that clear outward sight and clear insight are related. And they are both a bit too rare. One of the reasons people have a hard time noticing things and understanding them, of course, is that people are attached to their theories.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 354: Poem - True Love, the Scam

While I was sitting at a wedding, listening to the vows, I started writing new vows in my head. A few whispered words from my wife made me decide on a particular poet. I tried to write for myself in that style. So for me, the ceremony was entertaining but I ended up with this confusing set of vows in my head.

I hope someday, someone will get married to this. 


True Love, the Scam

Would you take this spouse to bed?
Will you take this ring to wed? 

It might seem selfish, could be dumb
But I've liked my lonely freedom.

Would you be the lock and key? 
Stay together and still be free? 

If somehow I could be free
I would keep the lock with me.

Would you love their long pea coat? 
Would you love them in a boat? 

Boats may cause me to be sick.
Coats are itchy and too thick. 

Would you together make a house?
Can you, can you, be a spouse?
Will you shout a love primeval?
Would you dare a love illegal?

Well, if you give, to me, the ring
I think I'll dare most anything.

For damn, I am.
Damn, I Am.
In love.

Yes, I love you here and there. 
I will love you everywhere.

I will love you in a box.
I will love you. You’re a fox.
I swear my love upon a star.
I will love you near and far.

Say, I have fallen for the scam.
I am in love, damn me, I am. 
And I will love your long pea coat.
And I will love you in a boat.
And I will kiss you in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a plane.
And in the car. And in a tree.
Your kisses are so good, you see!

Yes! The box unlocks
And we'll be free
And I will love you more, you'll see.
Holding hands till we go gray
We'll increase our love each day.
I can love this stupid house.
I can be, with you, a spouse.
Yes, I love you here and there.
I will love you everywhere.

I do so like
this true love scam.
Damn it,
Damn it,
Damn, I am.
In love.




-- Eric Gallagher, 2024 (at Megan's wedding to Nate)

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 353: Biomythography - Note 93: Strange Bedfellows, Part V

Strange Bedfellows, Part V

On a spring day in downtown Northampton, I wandered the sidewalks from shop to shop. I don't remember why. I may have stopped in at my work, which was a bar and restaurant combination on Bridge Street, the main drag. Even though I didn't have a shift there that day, I sometimes dropped by to say hello. There were at least three package stores, including Serio's Drugs in the downtown, but I don't remember bothering with them. I lingered at the book shops, as always. 

The weather was cool but, as I marched between the shops with my backpack on, I worked up a sweat. (It's likely that I bought a book and was carrying it, maybe several.) One of the women from work had recommended a local novelty shop two blocks up a hill on King Street. I'm pretty sure it was during my hike there from one of the bookstores that my thoughts about ny social life kicked in. 

I was seeing another lesbian. And the affair was probably going to be brief. It made me think. 

Two years before, back in college, I knew rationally that not everyone was bisexual. However, a lot of women (and probably the men) seemed to be fairly try-sexual, for sure. That's not what college is about, of course. It's mostly the classes. But college is where my last two years of girlfriends declared themselves to be bisexual. My relationships with them seemed like accidents, bits of random friendliness and luck, and they were some of the best lovers in my life.

Now I was starting to wonder if I had a pattern and if the root of it was something in me. Was I doing things, however unconsciously, to get into these somewhat-transitory relationships? Were the nature of my affections due to this area of Massachusetts? I had seen goth women, hippies, and jocks here, but all of them were interested in other women. Being lesbian or bisexual, either one, seemed awfully popular.

I spotted the novelty shop up the hill, fresh blue paint on the outer walls and sky-blue trim around the windows, probably puzzles and toys inside. Along one of the storefronts along my way as I passed, I spotted posters for upcoming concerts.

Being mostly single and mostly bored, I stopped for a moment to read about the bands and clubs. Next to one of the posters was a gay pride flyer. It was advertising a gay-themed bookstore coming soon. Books! And a store I hadn't visited! Admittedly, from the date on it, the place wouldn't open for more than a month. Maybe it wouldn't carry the trashy science fiction I liked best, either, but it would still be worth a look. I had been collecting "Dykes to Watch Out For" volumes and I was still missing one. What better place to continue the search than a gay-themed store?

That got me to thinking about lesbians again and why they were such a presence in my life. I glanced above the bookstore flyer. There was another photocopied sheet taped up with the others and it read, "There is no hell."

As an atheist, it made me smile. 

And then I realized I had gotten here because of religion and politics. Those weren't the only reasons but I had discovered in college how nice it was to be accepted. And the most likely people to accept me as an atheist, without disdain or even comment, were lesbians and gay men. 

No one here shouted 'commie' at me for not going to church. No one thought my taste in prose or poetry seemed odd. I could hang out with whomever I wanted, at least when I could persuade people to ask me over. Admittedly, my presence had been confusing for some of the gay men in the Northampton and Amherst social circles. A few women, too, had said they didn't consider me eligible because they thought I was gay. Others had an opposite reaction, for which I was thankful. 

There was a wonderful sense of relaxation for me when hanging out with all these people who didn't want anything from me and, of course, sometimes didn't want me around at all, which is also a fine thing at times. And sometimes they did want something. And sometimes it was me, which could get touchy in the social scene but usually fine. 

The pattern in my life was due to my atheism, for sure, but not only that. My life couldn't have brought me here to this town without the acceptance of people who were also on the outside of conventional society, even more on the outside than me, really. We all benefited, in a way, from the various forms of ostracization that pushed us together. The pressures from the larger world brought us to this place and our acceptance of one another completed the pattern.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 352: Poem - Dirt Beds

In the Dirt Beds

"Here's my row of pythons," she says.
Hand like a blade, she gestures to the open-air terrariums.
"The smaller row is the rat snakes."

They are raised mounds of dirt, really,
eight long rows, dry brown, littered with rocks.
One of her guests grunts as he picks his way between the raised beds.
His eyes scan the ground.
He notices a single reptile showing itself,
a colorful red, black, and yellow model
that his host swears is not venomous.
Wait, he thinks, and points a finger toward
a brown snake with a flat head, further down a different row.
 
He sees a green, reptilian figure rising, too,
from one of the holes at the tops of the mounds.
He notices a patterned snake, brown and tan, all the way at the end.
It appears to be sunning itself.

There are a lot of them out, he thinks. He just hadn't noticed.

"In these rows," his sister-in-law continues as she turns a corner.  
"I have kingsnakes and hognoses. There, with the ditch between them
are the homes for greensnakes and boas."

Her smallest guest is a boy of seven,
a book-smart child in a white shirt.
He sweeps his hand to the end of the far row.

"What are those mounds over there?" he asks.
Next to him, his older sister,
blue shirt, dark hair, dark jeans,
turns to study the earth.

"I keep a few indigos next to the greensnakes," she says.

"For the color?" asks the girl.

"Yes!" The answer comes with a laugh.
"They look nice. They're harmless."

Finally, the girl's mother, the host's sister,
raises her blonde ponytail
and puts a hand on her hip.
A moment ago, she was running her hand through the ditch
and now she pops a lump of dirt,
a puff of gritty smoke, dust on her pants.
Another hand goes to her other hip.

“Have you ever thought of growing something else
on this property?" she remarks. She lifts her head
to indicate the land beyond the fence.
"I mean, maybe corn, or a few fruit trees."

"No apples in this garden," the host replies.
Her eyes narrow suspiciously on her sister.
Her arms fold across her chest.
"Just snakes."



-- Eric Gallagher

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 351: Biomythography - Note 92: Strange Bedfellows, Part IV

Strange Bedfellows, Part IV

Revival Unvisited

"So can we go somewhere?" I said. "I mean, together?"

Normally, it was hard for me to ask girls out. We stood in the swimming pool in neighboring lanes, though, and I was aware I looked trim and strong - at least the strong part. She leaned toward me. She had been flirting with me for a month. She seemed to enjoy pressing her breasts up against my chest or my back.

As a summer swimmer, she was fine. She had a good looking body. Her face was nice, too, blue eyes, brownish hair, and a smattering of freckles. Better, she had been grabbing onto me, pretty aggressively, at every excuse for the past two weeks. This was a case of me liking her but not having a crush, yet. Meanwhile, she had a crush on me that even I could see.

It seemed safe to ask her out.

"Where?" she asked. I had expected an outright 'yes' but she posed a reasonable question. Her open-mouthed, expectant smile was real. She kept leaning closer. We almost touched. It was me who leaned back a bit.

"A movie?" I guessed. Leaning back let me look her in the eye.

She nodded. A moment later, though, her grin faded. "I"ll have to ask my parents."

"Okay, yeah." It should have been an obvious thing but I hadn't expected it.

"They haven't let me go on a date before," she explained.

We were both fourteen. I hadn't thought of it as a date but that was partly because asking for 'a date' seemed paralyzing. Now I guessed she was right and a date was what I wanted. There was nothing wrong with us going out, even if our parents had to drive us.

Besides, we'd be alone at the movie, at least. And theaters were dark. I might be able to get a kiss before the show. Or after. Or something, anything. She would have to find a way to ask her parents, first. I had never seen them at the swim practices but from her talk about them, I knew it would be difficult.

Three days later, as I read a book in my house, the phone rang. My mother answered, as usual, The tone of her voice softened after a few seconds. I could tell she was speaking to someone she knew. Out of curiosity, I stepped out my bedroom door and walked to the foyer. My mother put her hand over the receiver.

"It's for you," she said.  

"Oh."

"It's a girl from swim team."

By the time I accepted the phone, I knew the voice to expect. She had never called me at home before. I was happy to hear from her, though. The sweet inflections of her speech sounded like her flirting in the pool. We exchanged friendly gestures for a few minutes before her tone grew more serious.  

"I talked to my parents," she said. "They don't want me to go to a movie. But they said I could ask if you'll come to the revival tent with me next week."

"What's a revival tent?" My heart sank. After I asked the question, I felt like the answer couldn't be good.

"You haven't been?" I could practically hear her eyes growing wider.

She spent a few minutes describing a baptist tent revival to me. Her minister was a hell-breather of sorts. His sermons were long-winded and strong on the element of damnation. At the end of it, we would all get baptised again. Well, for me it would be the first time.
 
It sounded awful. I tried to find a polite way to say no and I think I succeeded. She realized I wasn't baptist of any sort and she tried to make conversation about our different religions. My memory of our words is blurred, though, by my swirl of emotions and concentration outwardly on her feelings, inwardly on my awkwardness and, oddly, on my determination.

There was no way I would be willing to go to a revival tent. And it was not a date.

Later, my mother would tell me the girl had been very brave. I hadn't realized it until my mother mentioned it but, of course, it must have been tough to make the phone call. When we saw each other next, the girl and I did talk about religion, just a bit, but she blushed and changed the subject. Within a week, we were back to flirting again although at a bit of a remove, emotionally. She had to concede I was not a soul she was going to save.

She was the first young lady to offer me romance at the price of religious service. But she was not the last. Later, another high school girl would try to save me and, later, another. And after college, another. Although there should have been more temptation, I could never bring myself to pretend to any religion. Instead, I learned to be more out-in-front about who I was socially, sexually, and religiously. Although the best part of that had to wait for college.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 350: Biomythography - Note 91: Strange Bedfellows, Part III

Strange Bedfellows, Part III

One Bus Ride

My book was Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. My bus was Metro 31, a smelly but efficient single decker. My ride was going to take me from the bus stop at school all the way to Friendship Heights, the border between DC and Maryland. I clung to the bus handrail, standing, with a book bag hooked over my right shoulder. In my left hand, I flipped the pages of Lucky Starr. 

The bus jerked to a stop at Tenleytown. A dozen people got on. Another burst of a dozen clambered in, too, a lot more than usual. I had to guess there had been some sort of event downtown and it must have ended not long ago. I sighed and tried to let the fresh faces slip past me. 

Although a seat had opened up for a moment, I missed it. I had to remain standing.

Of course, everyone getting on had to find places to stand, too, but there was room. For a minute or so, I drifted between asteroids with a ray gun wondering what to do about the bad guys. Around me, the other passengers settled into their positions. 

"What does the pink triangle mean?" asked a brash voice, a woman. "Is that a civil rights pin?"

"No," said the man holding the rail across from me. "It means gay rights."

Usually, no amount of talking would rouse me out of a book, even if the story was kind of crap. This time, though, a hush fell across the bus that was so dramatic, I looked up. My head turned first to the young, attractive black woman who had asked the question. She wore a fashionable tan jacket, big earrings, and she looked sort of rich or at least well put together. A few feet from her stood a thin man in a denim jacket. He looked disheveled in a deliberate way. 

"Are you?" the woman asked, her eyes going wide.

"Yeah," said the man. 

While I replayed the entire conversation in my head, trying to understand, the crowd of black women from Tenleytown backed up the aisle. They pressed as far away from the man as they could. A few seconds later, the nearby white riders and one Chinese-American man took their cue. They retreated from the gay protester in the opposite direction. Even people in their seats shuffled their feet as far away as they could from touching the gay, brown-loafered feet. One brunette woman twitched in her spot. After a moment of agony, she got up and dashed to the front to join the black women. A younger brunette, curlier-haired college student leapt into her spot. 

In a few seconds, I was the only one left. Every other passenger had moved as far away from the gay man as they could. 

I glanced forward. The prettiest black woman stared at me with wide-open eyes and made a frightened, come-hither motion. In other circumstances, I would have swooned to see the gesture aimed at me. But not then.

I glanced to my side. The gay man, in his denim outfit and close-cut beard, stared at me expectantly. Expecting what, I wasn't sure. 

I took a step. I shuffled a second step, too, towards the black women. But then I glanced to my side again. The gay man looked so disappointed, I stopped. Now I didn't know what to do. 

Here, I should probably mention I was thirteen and didn't know what 'gay' was. It seemed to be something bad. I gazed to the back of the bus, where the white men and women had clustered. All of them seemed a little wild eyed. They were giving me warning looks. About what? Something. I was the only one who didn't know.

We came up on the next stop. Most of the bus riders kept staring at me to see what I would do. Enough time had passed, though, I had begun to feel impatient. I figured that, whatever these people were up to, it didn't matter. Pretty often, I had discovered, it really didn't. And this guy was clearly just a guy. 

I backed up a step. After a moment, the gay man stood a little closer to me and I noticed he smelled kind of perfume-y, for a guy. And sweaty, too, like he had just marched for a mile or two, which he probably had. But he was in a jean jacket. And I was in a jean jacket. 

Then he leaned even closer.
 
Was he trying to scare me? Was he trying to get me on his side? What were people being so weird about? Fuck them all. Fuck every single one. I opened up my book. The Lucky Starr series is not very good. I started shoveling through the prose like a post-hole digger within sight of the last fence post in the row. In the silence, someone cleared his throat. The bus stopped. More people got on. Slowly, in my dim awareness of the outer world, I heard the normal noises of the bus resume.   

When I got home, I asked my parents as I came through the door, "What does gay pride mean?" 

My father turned sort of pink around the ears and wouldn't answer. That was a response I hadn't expected. He lit up another cigar and wandered off, mumbling to himself. 

"Do you know what it means?" I asked my mother in the living room. 

"Well, it's men who may be a little confused," my mother said, not quite knowing how to put it, "but they deserve rights, too. Everyone does."

"Well, yeah."

"Why do you want to know?" she asked. This was maybe the beginning of her suspecting I was gay (although also still in dire danger of getting girls pregnant) for the next few years.

"Because I didn't know," I answered. In retrospect, that was probably not the most helpful response to her ears. But it was the truth.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 349: Biomythography - Note 90: Strange Bedfellows, Part II

Strange Bedfellows, Part II

Next, the Pinko

"You're a commie, ain't you?" said an older boy.

We stood in the mulch next to the asphalt playground. It was the spring of 1972, or pretty close, and it was sunny and mild,a perfect noontime for games. At the end of our touch football scrimmage, I had said something as we walked off the blacktop. I don't remember what it was but it stopped him. So I stopped.

He poked me in the shoulder and I poked him back. He was the class bully, more or less, and we had fought a few times, though he had mostly given up on fights. (In retrospect, he was a pretty good kid, well behaved except for his perfect teasing skills. He was just big and smart. He was our best athlete at a time when it made him the leader on the playground.)

"Commie or pinko," he insisted. "If you're against war, you're a pinko. Against church, you're a commie."

I felt ashamed but also enlightened. At last, I understood what a pinko was, sort of. And I probably was one. And I was also everything else bad, I knew, although I always seemed to end up being those things without meaning to be.

In the 1960s and 1970s, what folks would shout at an atheist was most was, 'commie.' As a non-believer in elementary school, I got called that, plus 'red,' and 'pinko.' I'd heard those names before, starting years earlier, due to my voicing of support for civil rights. By the time I was nine, I was ready to accept I was some of the bad things, even though I didn't understand the terms. 'Pinko' in war and civil rights seemed to mean I was a sympathizer the idea of basic fairness. Other people were mad about it.

He shook his head at me and walked away in disgust.

#

I didn't comprehend the context, of course. I didn't understand the epithets. My friends and I used some of those phrases ourselves because adults did. The fact that some kids could use the terms accurately seemed weird. One boy, Stanley, knew what "fuck" meant when he was eight. Another, Mike, knew what a "pinko" was by the time he reached fourth grade. I didn't know the cultural history behind any of it. None of us did, really, even the boys who were fairly savvy.

It's not that we were completely ignorant - but mostly, yeah, we were.