Sunday, May 31, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.6: Aesop's Progress - The Israeli Influencer


Part 6: The Israeli Influencer

In March 2014, Israel read a story. By that I mean, it felt like everyone there read it. The home page at the time was showing Job Well Done. This log graphic seems to show a healthy mix of viewers. There were none of the weird, esoteric browsers in the records on the day this happened. The most popular browsers and all of the big OSes were represented. It appears that a thousand individuals in a tiny country, all with fairly standard computers, not phones, were online at NotZen.

Someone in Israel, it seemed, could recommend a story and generate a thousand readers. And for Israel, that turned out to be only the beginning.

But first, AdSense and AdWords would produce another change in the attention of aggregation sites.

In May 2014, the site received Google approval to use AdSense. Going through the process felt weird. Google makes almost all of its money from ads. You’d think the company would be eager to have sites sign up.

On the surface, that’s the case. But underneath the campaign for ads, there is a bot that automatically approves sites. Until I applied, that bot hadn’t looked at the NotZen site. When, on my request, it did scroll through the homepage, it decided that NotZen was not a real site. The articles didn’t have enough text structured in the right form.

I had to appeal to a human. When I got through to one, fortunately, the human agreed that the bot wasn’t able to make sense of stories with dialogue. The Google employee allowed AdSense on NotZen. It changed the site.

Some of the change was for the worse – product ads, awkwardly placed for viewing by non-materialistic people. But along with the ads came the presence of different referring engines. One of those engines resided in Turkey.

When Turkey started sending readers to NotZen, the site got a spike in AdSense earnings. Whatever Google was doing there, it was working. The Turkish readers were clicking on ads alongside the stories. That seemed so unlikely that I blamed it on smartphones. I figured the Turks were accidentally clicking ads.

Later, my wife thought of another possible reason: readers in Turkey saw different ads than readers in the U.S. Maybe they were relevant. Maybe they even got referred to NotZen stories in a way that made sense.

In May 2014, Turkey readership actually passed the U.S. for the month. Also, I saw that someone there was still using a Nokia phone.

The trend continued in June. The log summaries made it appear that Turkish citizens owned plenty of Android phones and Windows computers but not a whole lot of Apple products. It seemed believable.

Also in June, the Dalvik browser made an appearance but that’s just another way of saying it was Firefox starting up within Android, probably. (Dalvik was an old Android virtual machine. A web browser running in it gave two identification strings and Blogspot didn’t understand that yet.)

Likewise, the GSA browser appeared in the logs because someone visited the site with a Google Search Appliance. In a way, I’m surprised there aren’t more entries for like these.

By the end of June 2014, Israel rose to third place in the overall readership. About eighty percent of their readers total, though, probably only read a single story. The Ukrainians had visited more steadily. Sometimes they’d browsed as few hundred people basically at the same time, sometimes as just a few dozen.

Although the Ukrainians, Russians, Chinese, and Americans seemed to be attracted to stories about love and peace, the Turkish readers, in contrast, seemed interested in stories about transcendence. That seems like a good thing to me, personally.

In September, Israeli readers noticed a second story. This one was Thoughtless Competition. As before, the Israelis browsed to the main page of the blog, not to the dedicated story link.

It seemed to be an emerging pattern. Someone decided they liked the current entry on NotZen, recommended it, and sent the homepage link to others, who actually read it.

Whoever that person was, they had been influential again. This time, they’d brought in over fifteen hundred readers at once. There was no spike in referring sites. The lack of an obvious source made it look personal, maybe a method as simple as a link sent out in an email newsletter.

In September of 2014, the NotZen site saw over 3,800 readers in a month for the first time. The surge came thanks in part to Israel, again, although it also came from the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, and China.

Eight of the top nine NotZen audiences turned out not to be from English speaking countries. Their citizens might read English some and they might use translation services. Mostly, I think those eight countries all have traditions of education and of reading for pleasure. It seems to be the most likely source of the readership differences.

In February of 2015, readers in Israel discovered Immunity. It’s a parable that deals, in part, with deliberate ignorance and its consequences.

It’s true that some folks love to argue for the sake of appearing smart. Behaviors like that, coupled with lack of attention to practical details (for instance, not understanding that an ice maker needs a water line), lead to a sort of popular disdain for intellectuals.

The consequences of deliberate ignorance as an emotional response, though, are pretty severe. The failure to understand the science behind our homes, our tools, and our medicines affects anti-intellectuals and their families, friends, and neighbors. There’s a social aspect of deliberate ignorance that can make it irresponsible to let it resolve itself.

At the time I wrote Immunity, there had been a few outbreaks of old, nearly-forgotten diseases in the U.S. It seemed clear to me that, if the American anti-vaccination trend continued, more outbreaks would come. I picked an eradicated disease and decided to use it for my explanation.

Thiomersal, the other main technical key to the story, has been removed from U.S. vaccines. That probably wasn’t a good move or at least not a necessary one. It doesn’t seem to break down in the human body; there’s no sign that it does harm except to molds and bacteria; and its replacements are also preservatives and have similar but less studied properties.

If preservatives do damage, it’s likely to be because they are weakly antibiotic. They influence our personal biomes. If preservative compounds are causing harm, they’re doing it in a widespread fashion – in our foods, cosmetics, paints, and wooden furniture. Vaccines might be the least likely way to encounter a preservative.

I’d gotten used to the graph growing in a regular fashion. In the spring of 2015, though, I could see that Israel had skewed the readership trends again.

This is what happened when Israel liked Immunity. Previously, the Israelis had only browsed to the main page. This time, some of them went to the dedicated story link. Some may have even looked at other stories.

This bump in the chart appears to be a reaction to Always Land in July 2015. The Peace Process story might have had some appeal, too. By this time, the influencer in Israel, whoever or whatever that is, could apparently bring over two thousand six hundred folks to the site in just one day. This is for a small and until that day, unknown story, after all.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.5: Aesop's Progress - The Mystery of the Ukraine


Part 5: The Mystery of the Ukraine 

The first week of January 2014 was the one in which the Ukraine passed the U.S. in readership.

Normally, Firefox and Chrome are the browsers on top, week to week. That week, Internet Explorer rose to the top. The change implied that the readers in the Ukraine had a lot of Internet Explorer browsers on their desktops.

You might have expected a stronger Firefox and Chrome presence in the Ukraine. I’d have figured on seeing more Linux. Apparently, that wasn’t the way.

By the end of January 2014, the site hit a new high in monthly readers logged. There were more than 1,300 for the month. Of course, as an acquaintance pointed out, I had no assurance that this was the number of people actually reading all the way through a story.

The number of real people seeing each tale could have been greater, due to aggregator sites skimming off the text and re-publishing it as their own. It could have been less, too, because the same sort of web robots could generate hits in the logs while doing nothing else.

Since there’s not much I could do to get a more accurate sense of readership, I decided I had to accept the log numbers. The bot hits appeared to be a small fraction of the total. Plus, if each aggregator hit led to one extra, real person reading a story off-site, then the Blogspot totals would be accurate.

At this point, in a very short period of time, the Ukraine had risen from a tiny presence to third place in all time readers.

My sense of the Ukrainian readers was that, however they found out about NotZen stories, they were most attracted to those about love, peace, and friendship.

I remember noticing the pattern and discussing it with a friend, Sharon. For reasons that could be seen as Buddhist, I didn’t like it. Stories that are emotionally difficult are often more worthwhile than those with a happy resolution. The pattern of bumps in readership was apparent, though, and I flirted with the idea of playing to it.

At the core, that’s not what the stories are for, so the concept was impossible to execute. As you have probably seen, not all of these stories are friendly ones. They’re what they needed to be at the time.

The story that appeared just before June 30 was Tribes. I can see how that one might have appealed in the Ukraine at the time.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.4: Aesop's Progress - Rise of the Influencers


Part 4: Rise of the Influencers

In first week of January 2014, the story called 'Parroting the Instructor' surged in readership. It was a bump that started when I recommended the link to a project management instructor. He was more than a fun teacher; he was also the author of project management books. I’m pretty sure that he was - and still is - a strong, positive persuader of others. Maybe he recommended the story to other teachers or to his students in classes. I'm just guessing. But it's an educated guess. And I still haven't thought of any other good reason for the bump in readers.

The effect in the logs reminded me of the other people who had recommended NotZen stories. Some of those people and their websites had been influential. Among them:

  • One of my brothers
  • A Buddhist clown (yes, really) who I’d met via Diaspora
  • A True Land group leader on Google Plus

These people determined for themselves whether a story was worthwhile. And then they spread the news. The True Land monk, Denis Wallez, was perhaps the most influential, not only because of his online presence but because his own, careful writing. His explanation of critical points of Buddhist philosophy affected me personally and inspired some of my later stories. His work appeared in Plus groups and on his own website.

When people like these recommended a story, dozens or hundreds of people browsed to it.

When Denis Wallez recommended the story Best after it was posted in January 2015, folks in the Buddhism interest group started giving it +1. Readership went up. The same thing happened earlier when he praised and reposted Bridge of Promise to the Buddhist and Taoist communities.

Meanwhile, slightly removed from the individual recommendations, the aggregation sites with an interest in NotZen also made their impacts. There must have been people behind the sites, of course. I still don’t know who they are. They left some clues for me, though. For one thing, they came from these three countries:

  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • Israel

Early in 2014, these aggregators started looming over everything else.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.3: Aesop's Progress - It's Growing


Part 3: It's Growing

Although the blog site never had links to Chinese social media (because I would have had to know the language to do that), somehow Chinese readers found the stories. After eight months, China had become the number two country in NotZen readership.

Naturally, at this point it was a distant second. The surprise was that China appeared at all.

Around the same time, two stories, Mercy and Focus, seemed to be drawing more attention than the others. As I looked through the logs, I saw that a third story, The Heavy Staff, had been translated into French.

I traced down the French version after getting curious about a referring site. The referring site ended up being another blog - in French. That writer, who lived in Quebec, had translated the story and had also politely linked back to the original. Most other folks aren’t so polite. If the same thing has been done at other times, I’ll never know.

By April of 2013, China overtook the United States on a weekly readership basis. I think that I saved this screen due to a ‘China again, WTF?’ reaction. The site also started averaging a couple hundred readers per week. A significant portion of them came from out of the country.

The Chinese web browsers seemed not to identify themselves in ways that Blogspot could parse. That’s why the browser named “;” makes an appearance. There’s more of that than anything else.

Later, the “;” entries disappeared. I think that Blogspot learned to translate the Chinese.

Individual stories started making comebacks in readership. I wasn’t always clear on why. It might have come from someone liking it, posting a link to it, and finally the link getting noticed. Whatever the process was, it took time to happen.

In this log entry, the older stories getting readers were Parroting the Instructor and Self-Discipline. I thought I had a clue about the first one. It was due to a particularly influential person.

Regardless of the trending stories and referring sites, readership from mainland China faded. I was never sure of the reasons. The United States finished on top in the logs again, week after week, even though the landscape of countries and technology kept shifting underneath.

Although readership in China seemed to fade - due to lack of interest or to the Great Firewall or to a search engine grabbing the page contents and re-packaging them in Chinese - other countries outside of the U.S. started to climb. Israel made an appearance. Russia and the Ukraine showed up.

In November 2013, despite a lack of Chinese browsers, NotZen got more hits than ever from Baidu, the main Chinese search engine.

I’m not precisely sure if the Baidu search engine rose up to fill a need. If the site got blocked by the Great Firewall of China how did Baidu get through? If the site wasn’t blocked, why did the Chinese browsers disappear? One logical answer would be that the few readers there ever were in China stopped browsing to but that doesn’t match with the Baidu searches of the site trending upward.

I don’t have the answers and, possibly, I don't even have the right questions.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.2: Aesop's Progress - It's Small


Part 2: It's Small

Early on, hardly anyone clicked on the link to any story. Most of the readers came from a small, kind, and rather literature-oriented subset of my friends. After them came folks who I was meeting in social media platforms. Diaspora had good interest groups for philosophy and Buddhism. The best platform early on was Google Plus.

If you’ve relied on Facebook for all your social connections, this part is hard to describe. In Google Plus, there were interest groups that shared articles and held discussions about them. On Diaspora and Friendica, the articles were even more interesting (although lack of vetting was a problem). The interest groups in those services and a few others seemed to be the equivalent of college classrooms.

Everyone in the groups joined in a discussion on Buddhism, for instance, because they genuinely wanted to trade ideas about it. That’s different from the Facebook neighborhood of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Your uncle may not want to hear about your hobby. In an interest group, they do.

As you can see in the traffic sources chart, there are signs that the social media sites were, somehow, linking more distant readers to the stories. The (France) site appears. So does, an aggregator service that tries to be international. A reference also appears. That one belongs to a service owned by Twitter.

I think that it was through these channels that readers in European countries started to triangulate on the site.

By late December 2012, a Russian site made its appearance as a referrer (troll-face-ru). I read about how it was a blog aggregator. According to online author complaints, the site was grabbing material from all over the world and re-packaging it for a Russian audience. Some writers were mad because they were losing advertising money. At the time, I had no ads.

And anyway, the site was tiny, tiny, tiny.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.1: Aesop's Progress - The Blog Begins


Part 1: The Blog Begins

In May 2012 I started posting entries in Not Zen, which led me to discover the logging features in Blogspot. I didn’t think to save the information; the weekly logs came only in picture form and I didn’t realize that the pictures would disappear in a rolling, always-updating fashion. Even when I figured out that the daily and weekly readership snapshots were ephemeral, there didn’t seem to be much reason to try to preserve them. That was partly because I kept looking for real logs, the kinds I know from running Apache and IIS websites. Among the things missing from the Blogspot graphics were details about specific browser sessions and ways to archive the logs.

Despite the crude state of the blogging records, there were a few lessons that I learned early on.

  1. The world has more browsers than Internet Explorer. Not everyone is a U.S. government employee using a mandated application. I’d lost track of what the world-wide web public looked like. 
  2. Technologies logged by the NotZen site ranged from generations-old OS/2 and Netscape to the newest variants of Linux systems with obscure Chinese-language tools.
  3. Social media sites, as the Blogspot logs showed, do matter. The blog posts that I shared on Facebook, Google Plus, Friendica, and Diaspora generated readers.
  4. Few readers, though, ever commented on a story. I’d started out thinking that folks might write responses. Nope.
  5. The folks who did send comments posted them via Google Plus, Diaspora, or personal email. They didn’t use Blogspot.
  6. Some people didn’t read the social media side of it at all. They only looked at emailed stories.
  7. Others hated getting email. They unsubscribed from the Not Zen mailing list.
  8. And of course, some friends and relatives never use the Internet. For them, stories not in print don’t really exist.

By October 2012, I was starting to find the logs interesting. I got the idea to capture the log files as the images they were. It was the only way I saw to preserve them. I’d noticed changes like the sudden presence of Chinese browsers. Those changes started to give me a sense of the site history.

In this log graphic above from 2012, you can see that for the first six months of Not Zen, most of the readers came from the United States. I’d grown accustomed to seeing that, week after week. Then came a sudden appearance of Chinese readers. Where would Chinese citizens have come across Not Zen? How did their technology operate? Was it Internet Explorer on a desktop? Or was it Opera, SeaMonkey, or Instapaper on a phone? Of course, the Chinese citizens could have been like everyone else and appeared in the logs as just more of everything.

I started asking global Internet questions. At the same time, I was still trying to solve very basic problems.

I had trouble with the mechanics of blog posts. My understanding of social media was limited. Everything I tried, I seemed to do badly. My first few links went up on Facebook and G+ but I mis-typed them or included badly rendered graphics. I reactivated my MySpace account because I got the bright idea of using MySpace to test my blog posts. The tests kept me from posting more embarrassing, non-working links in other social media venues.

That’s why MySpace appears in the logs. Google is at the top if you add up the variants of the referring Google sites. Facebook is next. But MySpace looks respectable, early on, because it’s a site that automatically links back to the source.

Referrers and search terms provided more revelations. Every now and then, I could see that folks were searching for my stories in Google. It was gratifying but it felt mystifying, too. My friends and my social media sites had links. Who could be looking for “notzen 6 non-action?” That’s a very specific search.

All in all, I didn’t know what I was doing. That much, I knew. So did anyone reading the social media links, I guess.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208: Aesop's Progress

Aesop's Progress
A Book That Isn't

In the spring of 2014, I decided to compile a selection of Not Zen stories into a book for my mother. I thought I had maybe twenty years to do that based on how long my grandmother had lived. I was in no hurry. I had plans for many more stories to include in her book. Unfortunately, it turned out that I didn't have as long as I thought.

Some of the Not Zen stories had been written with my mother in mind. This happened to be the case even though she wasn't part of the online audience. She was someone who never read anything from the Internet in her life. She didn't use a computer. She knew about smartphones and felt she didn't need one. She understood that I was writing something online. Occasionally, she expressed interest in reading it if I would print it for her.

That spring, my mother was also recently healed up from a misplaced radiation treatment. She had recovered from bowel cancer but, during one radiation session, a replacement technician failed to irradiate her tumor. Instead, he administered a lethal dose to several sections of small intestine. Sepsis developed. My mother would have died if she hadn't received an emergency operation. The surgeon removed the dead sections of intestine. My mother lived. In fact, she recovered entirely, it seemed, so it was reasonable to think she would live another twenty years.

It was in that frame of mind that I started marking the stories that were meant for her. I added more that were meant for my father. It wasn't easy to see, however, how to turn them into a book. As I progressed, I realized that I needed to explain what a blog was. Neither of them knew. That's when I started writing the essays and collecting the pictures that I intend to share here. The explanation of this blog was meant to be the Afterword of their book.

Meanwhile, the damage from my mother's misplaced radiation treatment spread. I didn't know it because she didn't complain. My mother had never healed quite right from her surgery. She was in pain. And the pain kept growing. Eventually, fibrous growths connected her organs, an effect of the bad treatment. The problem spread to critical areas of her body. Her doctor recommended a second surgery to fix the parts of her that had been missed in the previous recovery attempt.

This time, the damage inside her was greater than they had expected. The one-hour scheduled outpatient operation became a twelve-hour ordeal with several near deaths from anesthesia. She emerged coherent but she never recovered her lung strength. My mother never was able to leave her hospital bed after that.

We talked every day for a month. My brothers expressed the hope that she was getting better. A month of stable, slow progress is a long time and left us room to expect more. At some point, the doctors recommended removing her ventilator. None of us understood that they didn't see her making enough improvement. They wanted her off the ventialtor to let her die. After they removed it, the hospital staff doped her up on morphine until her heart stopped. My visit to the hospital that day missed the event by about ten minutes.

The book entitled "Aesop's Progress" and the explanation of the blog were left undone. What comes next is the missing Afterword. I don't expect that it will appear anywhere else.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 207: Ivory Key

A fourteenth anniversary is, in some traditions, celebrated with gifts of ivory.

Ivory Key

On love's battlefield shall I wear our silken, family livery,
Colors of bond and blood raised high in merry heraldry.
We shall crash the gates to make a daring, midday robbery
Of keys to hearts and other parts of innocence and ribaldry.

I'm no Hamlet crying, "To be or maybe not to be ..."
Yet a prince or playing jack or simple form of royalty.
"A royal what?" you may reply excepting for your loyalty
And the fallen shout suggestions as we rush the castle bailey.

Then up we storm the ramparts and other kiss-me-fool activity
Slash and grab on battlements with leap-about proclivity
Then down the stair with treasures, keys of purest ivory,
Past the lost romancers in their agony and bribery.

Gather all our friends!
Embrace the wounded others.
We'll never make amends.
We'll mourn for many lovers.

Never can surrender, we who fight for hearts' pure empathy
And those we trampled in the dust will never trust our sympathy.
With spears we crossed the battle royal in loyal family livery
Victors in this, our fourteenth year, the summer of our ivory.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 206: The Nancy

The Nancy

"Want to guess what the boys down at the hardware store said? They were talking about your boyfriend," I call to her. When Jeannie hangs up the phone like that, I know who she's been talking to.

"I don't want to hear it, daddy."

"Don't you want to guess?" With this, I swallow the last of my spaghetti and start playing with the leftover sauce, stirring it with my fork, watching my fingers tremble, feeling them ache. I drop the silverware and reach for a napkin. It takes me three tries to pick one up and I knock the others on the floor doing it, too, but she doesn't notice. She's ignoring me.

Jeannie unties her apron and stares out the bay window of the kitchen. Her sandy-brown hair is tied in a bun, the way I like it best, but she'll take it down for her boyfriend. When she starts to clear the table and has to pay attention to me again, I try to speak. But instead of words, all I manage is a croak. It's embarrassing.

"Are you all right?" She rolls her eyes away from the stack of plates she is holding to check me over.

"Just burping." A grin. My voice sounds rough but strong. "They say he wears ladies' lingerie!" This is triumph. My throat, after dinner, is usually clogged with mucus and bits of food that won't go down.

"Dammit!" She slams the plates onto the kitchen counter. "You always pick on Roger, and he's so nice to you!"

"He's so nice to me," I squawk, mimicking. The words sound scratchy and I want to say something more but I'm suddenly aware I've got to cough, to cough and spit. I lurch out of my chair,
leaning on my walking stick, and stumble over to the trash can. Jeannie drops the plates down in the sink and rushes over to help. They hit hard, fake china against hard metal, but I don't hear any of them break.

"Keep away!" I can help myself but Jean props my other arm anyway and we go tottering to the trash can together, out of step, our hips banging against each other.
"You shouldn't try to move so fast," she says.

I'm too busy leaning over and hacking up tomato-colored phlegm to answer. I feel her hand on my back, patting gently. It reminds me of the thumping caresses she gave as a child.

"He's coming over about a half hour."

"God!" My mouth tastes like slimy salt. "Where's he taking you this time? Where are you going to do it?"

Jeannie stares at me, a little shocked, angry too, and I realize I've used the name of the Lord in vain. But I'll apologize to Him later tonight. She takes her hand away and puts it on her hip.

"It's no business of yours," she says, finally. Then she trots back to the counter and leaves me huddling over in the corner. Funny how, when she's angry, she withdraws so quickly. No help for the petulant. No help for the complainers. Keep your mouth shut or we'll leave you to die alone.

"No business of mine?" I stand as straight as I can, using my cane to point, not for support. "This is my house he comes into! My food he eats! What is my business, then?" Jeannie
runs hot water over the plates and pots, scraping the food off with hard strokes of the scouring pad, jamming them into the dishwasher rack one by one. "Hell. Damn him to hell! You can
tell him to stay out of my house! If ... if that man ..." My hand has started shaking. Again. Whenever I get excited, it does that. I curl it into a fist.
"You've forgotten his name again, haven't you?" Jeannie turns around, a pained expression on her lips, wrinkles on her forehead. "I just said it a minute ago."

"It's ..." My cheeks turn warm and pink. I'm thinking but I lost my thoughts when I saw that hand. "I ..."

"I've got to go upstairs and change," she announces with a flip of the dishtowel. My opinion doesn't carry weight with her anymore. She never even gave me a chance. "You'd better come
with me. Those stairs are getting to be murder. God knows they're tough for me." The last part is to make me feel better. She's barely forty.

"I have my stick."

"I know."

She takes me lightly by the arm, as if I were a real gentleman and she, my lady, and we each lean on the other a little. It starts out smooth, nice but by the time we reach the steps I'm doing most of the leaning. Jeannie doesn't stop. She leads me up with grace, her hand on the banister, letting me take it slow so I can get both feet on a step before moving on to the next one.

"Do you think you can get yourself to sleep all right?" she asks, and I nod. No need to say something mean. It's been a long day for her, with Bobby, our electrician, coming in and all. She opens my door and props my cane against the wall for me.

"I'll come by later to see if you need anything."

"Okay. I'll be here."

Jean titters, though I don't think she really understood the joke. I don't think she can, yet. Not the way I mean it. She snaps the door latch shut behind me, leaves me alone to undress.

On the edge of the bed, sitting straight as I can with the mattress sinking and shifting beneath me, I draw one boot slowly up until I touch my knee to my chin. The strings keep turning to knots in my hands. Can't give up. This happens every night. Each finger cramps in its own special way, every joint swells and fills with pus. I cut a puffy knuckle once, sitting right here in front of the TV, to see what was inside. After a bit of blood came out, there was just some yellow stuff there. Calcium deposits, my old doctor told me when he was having the same problem, about a year before he died. I don't pay it much attention.

After about twenty tries, I get the candy-striped laces untied, kicking off the shoes, peeling them each with the toe of the other foot, and I feel a shudder shake the floorboards. A
grinding sound runs underneath the house and water clanks through the pipes. Jeannie's turned on the shower. I lie back, listening.

Sometimes, when I lie here, I think I hear Martha's footsteps. She had a rabbity, dainty walk. I always heard her scurrying around downstairs, pattering up in the attic, folding things so neat, dashing over to kiss me smack on the lips in front of my friends. Now I only hear her when Jeannie is asleep, her feet still not quite lifting off the ground.
Downstairs, a door slams.

I think, It's him! He's let himself in again! For a second, his name is in me, in my mouth, but before I can say it to myself, I've forgotten it again and all I've got left is a bitter taste, like old coffee, like my spit when I wake up in the morning. Stretching, reaching so far for a hold that it hurts, I put one hand on the nightstand, another on the stool by the bed, and lift myself up. He's down there now, in the dining room, wearing his floppy, red-plaid hunter's jacket, poking around in my things, taking what he wants. It's not right. There's no one around to help me with him, no one to fight for Jeannie's honor except for me. And if no one's going to do it, it'll never get done. I've got to go down there. This may be my last chance ... one day soon, it will be last.

Walking is easier in just socks. Strange, how I'd forgotten that those boots weigh so much. The door to my room creaks, of course, so I can tell when anyone is coming in. But I'm used to it, myself. I can swing the hinge without much noise. My house is like my body -- full of sounds in the places that got used most. It's still standing, though. We both are. Barely.

In the hall, since I know which places squeak and which don't, I move like a ghost. A carpet might help here but I like the color of the wood too much. I don't think I'll ever put one in and anyway, I'd hate to give up the advantage. I can hear everyone in the house from this hallway. But no one hears me.

He's in the kitchen, rattling around in the liquor cabinet. God, he's such a nance! I hope he doesn't break something again. The last time he was here he cracked one of the legs off the
coffee table. I made that coffee table practically with my bare hands, sanded it, polished it ... it was part of me, like a bastard child. Now a leg is cracked and you can't put anything
heavy on it and I don't think I'll have time to make it new again. The only consolation I got was the bruise on his shin after he did it. Though Jeannie had to ruin that, too, when we
came down to see what he'd done.

"How'd did it happen?" she said, crying. She never even looked at the table.

"Bumped it." He always mumbles or whines.

"You poor thing! Let me see." She acted like he'd gotten wounded in a war or something. All you could see was a tiny little blue and red mark, though I hear it turned black later.

Gasping. At the top of the steps, my lungs are gasping. Once they get going, they're hard to stop. After a while they hurt like hell, too. So I rest here, leaning on the wall.

Oh dear God don't let me be this weak, not when I talk to him. If only my body wouldn't betray me every step I take, then I could throw him out, out of my house, and make sure he'd never come back again. Jeannie would hate me for a while, sure, but she'd thank me later - thank me for stopping her from being such a slut.

Why does she sleep with him? Good Lord, why? He's such a clod, a nance. A nancy. That's what the boys at the hardware store called him. A nancy. Baggy clothes, baby fat all over his body, wire-rimmed glasses half as thick as my thumb ... what can she see in all that?

He'll never marry her. That's the worst part. I know he'll never marry her and it seems like that's the least he could do for a woman who's too good for him anyway. My fingers hurt. They've cramped up into balls of twisted flesh.

Jeannie would just die if she saw me. The rail is smooth and glossy. Me and Bobby's father put it up. I have trouble gripping it. Put weight down, gingerly. My right knee hurts. I don't know
what's wrong with it. Maybe someday I'll take it to a doctor, but I doubt it. The new one at the clinic, all he'll do is poke at it for five minutes or so, then give it a name. When doctors give things names, it makes them sound like they can be cured. You know, if you've got something with five syllables, just take a pill that's got six syllables and that'll make it better.
Well, that won't work this time.

Nothing's going to work this time. The knee is just a sign. What's really wrong, what's really got me, is God, crushing me in his fist, my whole body just decaying into a mush of blood and
dust. No matter what names you give to all the little things going bad in me, they all add up to my age and God's great big hands.

My old age. All the medicine in the world isn't ever going to stop it, I don't care what anybody says.

I reach bottom and slip and slide along the floor in my socks, feeling giddy. The wall keeps me from falling. My heart protests. I can feel it in my temples, squish-thud, squish-thud, as steady as ever. Loud. I'll have to rest before I go on. I can't let him see me like this. He'll laugh.

Worse, I'll have a damn asthma attack right in front of him and instead of stammering and turning pink at the ears like he always does when I yell, he'll get all smug and concerned-looking. Then he'll call Jeannie because he's got an excuse and she'll come rushing down with a towel wrapped around her and make like I'm about to die.

Feels like I've twisted my knee, even though I know that's not true. I just need to find a chair and relax. I'm glad there's one by the kitchen door.

Without ever lifting my feet all the way off the floor, I creep up on it. The last yard or so I have to walk without a wall for support and my body starts wobbling crazily, like a weighted pin in one of those fixed carnival games that comes around. I have to keep looking down to catch my balance. Collapsing in the seat is a relief.

But the sound of the shower dies. A second later, Jeannie is stomping around between the hallway and her room. I haven't got much time left. She probably already knows which clothes she wants to wear.

So I rest my fingers on the handle of the kitchen door. If I'm going to do it, I've got to do it now. The latch turns silently. The door eases ajar an inch or so. Cold white light seeps in through the crack in the doorway---Jeannie insisted on buying those damn new lights, those things with some kind of gas in them, shaped like tubes. He's in there, all right, sitting at my table, drinking from one of my fancy glasses. I can see him through the narrow, open slot, sitting on his fat ass, guzzling my liquor. Who let him into my house? Into my cupboard?

God, what a face! When I was young, a kid with that kind of face got beat up at least three times a day. And why does he always look like he's wearing hand-me-down pants? He must buy
them four sizes too large.

He raises his arm, trembling, and downs half a cup of my whiskey in one huge gulp. As greedy as that. Have to wonder how much he's had before. I doubt he's still sober. It's hard to tell when someone's sitting down. I'll bet he throws up. That would be just like him, to vomit all over my floor.

His snifter quivers. It looks for a moment as if he's trying to pinch the glass together at the rim. Straining, he jerks his head, so that his foolish mop of long, curly brown hair falls
into his eyes and I can't really see him anymore, only the lower part of his face. There, I can make out shadowy muscles twitching. I didn't know he had any under all that pudge. When I see those ripples on his jawbone and watch the tendons pop out on his neck, I know it for certain. I know he's going to break that glass. On his smooth, little boy's hands, there are veins
swelling up like flooding rivers.

When the crystal starts to bend, it makes a funny, high-pitched noise, like a dog whining. Then the glass breaks apart, like a dandelion puff. Flakes of it float everywhere.
They fly away in spirals, bouncing off the ceiling and floor with the force of the explosion, shattering again and again, until they become a fog of pointed dust motes. He just sits there, in the swirling, falling slivers, and lets himself be cut over and over. Tiny pinpricks, like measles, grow on his arms, and the anger gently fades from his face. He stares at the cloud of
shimmering rain he has created, hypnotized, calm in his fascination. He doesn't move.

The stem of the glass has driven deep into his palm. A thick, red, sticky syrup drips down from the bottom edge of it, staining his pants. Gripping it fiercely, he shivers.

That cut is so deep, the blood so dark, I almost leap up to help him. Only the effort of rising stops me. Partway out of the chair, I groan, crouched between two urges, and I hear Jeannie's footfalls in the upstairs hallway. She comes clacking down the staircase in her heels and even as she takes the first step I'm sitting back down.

In the kitchen, Jeannie's boyfriend hears, too. He lurches up out of the chair and sweeps off all the fragments from the table onto the floor. He winces, stumbling on his way to the sink, recovering with the wrong hand. Maybe he really is drunk. He washes his palm under the faucet, letting the water run clear and bubbly-white from the tap to his hand, thick and frothy-red from his hand to the drain, taking the big pieces out before my daughter can get there.

"What happened?" She is frantic again. She never even glanced at me, sitting out here in the hallway, and she grabs him by the shoulder, jerking him away from the counter top because he doesn't resist.

"I was trying to catch it. Broke in my hand." His voice is deeper than I remembered.

"Oh, Roger!" So that's his name. God, why don't I remember things anymore? I should know him ... Roger, I mean. He's been around long enough.

He looks at her with a pouty expression on his face, as if he's saying he's just a nance and doesn't know any better. Jeannie coos and pats his hand with a wad of tissue, mothering
him the way she always does. She kisses him on the cheek and murmurs something that I can't hear. But it seems to be kind.

It makes her happy, taking care of him like this. I've never understood it, the way she's always liked helping other people. Maybe it's that she never had a child. How could she? She's
never been married, never had anyone to support a family.

Jeannie mutters something about bandages and walks over to the closet. Halfway there, she glances back at Roger. Her face is so sad, so full of crying for him because he doesn't do it
himself, not really, that I want to rush out and hug her - I would have, if I was stronger - but there is a warning in her eyes. She knows. I know she does. She knows what he's doing.
And she protects him from it.

Why did he do it? God! Why? I didn't want to see that. The last thing I needed was to see Roger do something like that. How can Jean be in love with him?

The Nancy by Eric Gallagher, originally published in The Norwottuck, 1985

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 205: Eating Elephants

Lucy the Elephant by Acroterion, Wikimedia Commons

Yes, this is a metaphor for composing a novel or for persevering through any long effort. The work may take years. The results may not represent much of an achievement. But you do it. You get it done.

It's not about actually eating elephants. But also, it is.

Eating Elephants

The first bite is thick, red steak,
fresh catch, initial conception.
Blood dribbles down my chin.
My mouth waters for the next.

The fourth bite is a lump of gristle,
a bit of fatty, knotted muscle.
Already, this is becoming a chore
but I work it into smaller pieces.

The fifty-seventh bite is fur.
My nose rebels. My tongue curls
to feel the coarse hairs and stringy flesh
but I know the deed must be done.

The six-hundredth bite is greasy fat
and the meat's going bad
and oh god I can't finish.
I'm not going to make it.
It's too big for me;
it takes too long; I can't.
Someone at the table mentions
if I'm sick
I'll have to eat it all again.

Bite nine-hundred ninety-nine
I cough back onto the plate,
pick it up, swallow it.
I can't taste anything; my nose is numb.
The meat has gone sticky with disease.
I find it hard to remember
the texture of the first mouthful,
it was so many napkins ago.

Bite two-thousand twenty-five
is a rare bit of good flesh,
hidden in all the stinking rot.
I'm pleased to discover this tidbit,
celebrate with a sip of wine.

Bite five thousand is a morsel
I actually look forward to.
Yes, it's only a bit of tendon and bone
but as I bite down on the tine of the fork,
I bravely grin to those around me.

Bite seven thousand seven
is the very last toe.
I don't like toes
so I decided to eat them all at once,
chopped fine, a salad.
Now I'm finished with them
and feeling better.

Bite ten thousand, the tuft of the tail,
tastes sweet, for I am finished.
My friends raise their glasses in toast.
A smile goes round the table.
"What next?" someone asks.
"Now," I cry, full of victory,
"on to the next elephant!"