Sunday, October 1, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 320: Biomythography - Note 65, Memory is Treacherous

Biomythography 65

Memory is Treacherous

This is a cliche but it's also the truth. Everyone has to deal with it. Our ability to recall events forms us. It isn't the only thing giving us identity but it plays a vital role. And it's flawed. 

Here I am, writing a book that's basically a series of events from my memory. The work has made me speculate about the other autobiographies I've read. I've loved the real-life accounts of Benjamin Franklin, Audre Lorde, Richard Feynman, Frederick Douglas, Jenny Lawson, Trevor Noah, and Agatha Christie among others. I'm sure they are mostly spot on with reality. The authors relied on human memory, though, and they can at best relate their point of view. They have committed errors in their books. Audre Lorde owned up to hers; she used the subtitle 'biomythography' to underline how she was telling stories about her past and, in the process of making the stories coherent, she had to fill in blanks. Of course, she remembered parts of what people said but she needed to infer some dialogue, too. 

Diarists have an advantage, here - but I have not been a diarist. Occasionally, I have written about an incident immediately after it happened or I have managed to put down notes when a distant memory floods back with authority. Otherwise, I depend on calling up each reminiscence on demand, which is trickier.

I corroborate my memories by asking witnesses. I refer to photographs and other evidence. I work to sift the too-often-remembered incidents from others, to view them with suspicion, and set them aside. On the occasions I decided to tell those remembered scenes anyway, I tried to verify the details.

"This can't be when it happened," Diane told me after reading an incident I recalled from when we were four years into our parenthood. "You already had your master's degree when our daughter was born. This had to be when you were at the NIH, not at grad school."

With help from friends willing to read my drafts, I made corrections. I verified details. 

Sometimes the process was easy. Everyone involved remembered the same broad sweep of events. Sometimes verification was impossible. The only people who could confirm a memory were dead. Or they were alive but reported no recollection. There was nothing in their archive of memories that corresponded to mine.

Not every moment that makes an impression on us does the same for others. 

"Well, that totally sounds like me," Tucker said about a conversation that changed my adolescence. "I remember splitting wood a bunch of times. I recall you being there. But I have nothing beyond that. I used to talk the way you described, though."

"So you think it's right?"

"Maybe, yeah." He shrugged. He added, as he wanted to avoid offense, "Probably. I just can't swear to it."

My accounts of life are as close to the truth as I can get while still making coherent stories of them. Life doesn't actually arrive in episode form. Worse, as I've progressed through my life's incidents, I've censored episodes. That's made me realize how often other writers must do it. You have to pick and choose your memories to tell. Some of them are embarrassing. (How old was I when I wet my pants by refusing to stop playing table tennis?) Some are repetitive. (Did I learn this same life lesson about asking girls out on dates six horrible times?) Other matters would shame people to no point. (Do we need another book about family violence? Every family has some. It's not much of a revelation.) 

Although I hope each personal adventure forms part of a narrative whole, I know that's not true to life either. (See the above about self-censoring, episodes, and more.) 

We have a tendency to add to our memories each time we relate them to ourselves. We layer on made-up details as we try to make sense out of our memory fragments. At a basic level, it's likely most memories don't make much sense in their raw form. We interpret them in the act of remembering. 

That's one way we fool ourselves. We want things to make sense when, sometimes, they don't. Worse, we catch ourselves interpreting the past as if we were the same person now as we were years ago. We wonder, 'how could I have been so stupid' when the answer is we were twelve, not fifty-two or thirty-two. Our minds were different. Our selves, such as they are, were essentially other people. 

Sometimes I have a sense of the differences. But I'm sure I have less self-perception than I'd like. Such awareness is a skill that requires practice, even for masters of it, and awareness has human limits. A few pieces of my writing in this collection, in fact, are about improvements in awareness and judgement.

So of course they're wrong. I'm trying to use what awareness and judgement I have. For making sense of the past and the future, memories are mostly what we have. They're not all, though. They're not everything. 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 319: Biomythography - Note 64, The Lonely Surprise

Biomythography 64

The Lonely Surprise

We were talking about the sculpting of moments because I'd brought it up again.

"I think it's an art form," I said. My girlfriend, Kate, nodded beside me. A hint of a smile graced her lips. She knew to anticipate the next part. "A deeply moving moment in life conveys, well, at least as much inspiration as a painting."

She was descending with grace down the staircase of our dormitory. I was thumping down the stairs just in front of her, grabbing both handrails and lifting two legs at a time, moving like a kangaroo or a hyperactive child. It was what I always did. The walls beside us were grey. The steps underneath us bore a different shade of grey with a darker edging. Kate touched one of the steel railings as she turned a corner. When we arrived at the bottom, I landed with two feet together. A few steps beyond, we transitioned from the tiles to a strip of brown carpet.

Everything about our scenery seemed uninspired. But it was college. It was a dorm. Anyway, the students seemed so alive, sometimes, that meeting them in a dull setting felt almost unreal. You could be walking among the stained greys and browns with your footsteps echoing like in an abandoned building; then you would glance up and spot someone at the other end of the hall and feel for an instant like you were encountering a spectre in a graveyard. Look, we have found unexpected life amidst these ruins.

"Or like a scene from a dance?" Kate suggested.

"Even better, yes."

My comparison to paintings came from my reactions to them. Images gave me ideas and impressions but they were never transformational for me in the way books were. This was my sense of most of life's planned moments, too. On the occasions when other people had planned something for me, their event seemed inevitably to be a brief handshake or an award.

Here's a painting scholarship - and a pause for a photo. Here's your sixth grade diploma - with a handshake and flash photograph. Here's your swimming trophy - handshake. Here's your birthday song - and a slice of cake. Here's another diploma - and a photo. As with a painting in a museum, there was usually a visual element to the organized moments. My parents pasted the photo prints into a book to be regarded with embarrassment later. (The embarrassment came from me. I usually experienced it when looking at my plaid trousers or something similar.)

My parents were exceptions. My mother, at least, was a planner and a wrapper of presents. But I didn't have much context for their actions. I liked buying and making presents myself. I planned a great deal about each gift. But it didn't seem to be as much of a thing with my peers. Most of my friends didn't seem to enjoy the planning as much as I did. Still, once or twice, some of them showed forethought directed my way and it stunned me. Another teenager at work, Adam, copied music onto a tape and gave it to me. The effort gave me a hint of the transformational feeling I sometimes got from books. It was a feeling of commitment. At the least, sharing passions about punk and new wave music shifted Adam and I from being co-workers into being friends. Later that summer, I left an album that I'd liked on his doorstep and drove away.

Kate, though, was a dancer. That was the context for her comparisons. She was right about how the shaping of a moment was like a part of a dance. It's what dancing is. So is love-making and, I think, ritualized fighting like tai chi. Sometimes, I'd include basketball in the list. These kinds of activities are not always thought of as arts but they are, each in their own way, designed to culminate in a particular spiritual effect.

"Sometimes I hear the music of bodies," I told Kate. Well, I heard the rhythms in women's bodies. The sense of underlying music was there at non-sexual times and in less sensual modes, too. When we moved together in a task like washing and drying dishes or in making the bed, it was there. 

"You hear music in a lot of things," she observed. She laughed. With a shrug, she added, "But I do, too."

"I like making everything culminate in the right moment."

"Hmm." She made a more skeptical face. "Are you talking about things with your old girlfriend?" 

I hadn't mentioned her. However, Kate and I had reviewed this topic too many times for her not to spy the influence of one of my former lovers, who had heard my ideas about the 'art of the moment' and turned them toward our sex life with good results. And the results made for many learning experiences for me. At that point in my fairly young sex life, it proved important to spend time with a woman who talked about sex directly, who possessed humor and excitement, and who encouraged me to experiment with her. She had always felt she wasn't good at art but the art of the moment, at least, she spotted as being perfect. 

We worked on the art of many moments. We played. We danced at parties where I was the DJ and at some others where I wasn't working and we were just part of the crowd. 

Still, those moments achieved emotions on the scale of a painting or a poem. They produced slight transformations, sizable only over a great deal of time. I couldn't think of a single planned moment that made for an entire novel's worth of transformation. Some novels like Siddhartha, Le Morte D'Arthur, or Lord of Light had come along at the right time in my life to pivot my worldview. That hadn't been true with the 'art of the moment' so far.

"Let's forget it," I said. The subject of old lovers was a lopsided one and never a fair topic unless Kate asked. Not even then, really.

"We don't have to," Kate replied.

"No, it's better. Let's just have the afternoon out together."

"Okay." Kate's face relaxed in a smile and my heart eased with it. For a glorious moment or two, we walked in silence through the campus quad in front of the dorm. The January air was freezing but calm. The result felt awakening. Kate asked, "Did your brothers call?"


It was my birthday. I had hoped they would. But they had missed me calling them a week before and that one had been planned. Anyway, I knew I wasn't likely to be on their minds on a Wednesday.

A year ago, my parents had forgotten my birthday, a normal thing given how I'd been living away from home for a few years. Nevertheless, it also seemed unsettling, especially with regard to being forgotten by my brothers. I had fallen out of the thoughts of my entire family, it seemed. And so I had been, ever so slightly, dreading the possible loneliness of a birthday mostly alone, wanting to talk to my brothers but not feeling welcome to call them. 

Kate, fortunately, had let me know she wanted to take me to an early dinner and keep my birthday celebration small. I felt good about it. Her affections reassured me that any stray expectations about my family that I hadn't fully extinguished would soon be forgotten. I would exist only in the moment and in Kate's presence. 

Dinner in Amherst was unmemorable, which means it was probably good. I drove my steel blue Mustang there and back. At least, I know I must have. I don’t recall the driving or parking or walking to the dorm except for a pleasant sense of listening to Kate. But near the top of the staircase, suddenly my spirit summons up a vision of how it was.

We stood on the second floor landing. Kate moved in an unexpected direction. She didn't turn left toward her room but strode toward the common area. The light around us seemed dim but warm in the hall as she touched the common room doorknob. She turned her body towards me and studied my face. 

"Did I give it away?" she asked. 

My body language made her suspect I knew something. I didn't, though. She hadn't revealed her plan at all. Whatever she was talking about, the first clue I'd had was when her march up the staircase started seeming a little bit off. There were small changes she made that didn't add up to anything I could identify. She took faster steps, then slower, and she seemed a little nervous. It was nothing much. 

She opened the door. My internal vision of the moment grows dim at that instant, as if parts of the memory have been overwritten by my sense of astonishment. Light poured out through the door, I know.

I recovered myself and stepped into the common room. 

"Surprise!" a crowd shouted at me, more or less together.

Six of Kate's hallmates, including Lisa, Michael, and Annette, stood in different positions around the room, surrounded by streamers and balloons, red, yellow, orange, and blue. Other friends had come from farther away like David, Andrea, and Mark. They totaled over a dozen and it wasn't a big room. Someone had brought cake. Someone else had hung a cardboard Happy Birthday sign with string and tape. Friends of ours from the other side of campus had arrived and helped themselves to the punch. Next to them, on a counter top, rested a punch bowl and a stack of cups. 

"Holy crap!" I responded. Overwhelmed with an emotional shock, I had no great words to express my astonishment. "Wow!"

For a while, I walked and talked. I couldn't help thumping the balloons with my knuckles, as if I thought they might cease to be real. I ran my fingers over the streamers. The fragile banner, I didn't dare to touch. And then I noticed the cake. People, actual grownups, lit candles for me on the white icing. They sang a song. It was amazing. And off-key. They stopped once to ask me to hum along as they re-started. Then Kate tried to pass off the cake-cutting duties to me. Another woman stepped forward to save me the effort. She cut me the first piece.

Happily stunned, I took a seat. I gazed at everyone's smiles. I couldn't quite believe them. Our friends had planned this for days, at least. 

"Oh my god," a young woman told me, hand on my elbow. "I thought you were going to catch me when I was in the fridge yesterday."

The stories began spilling out from them. Half of the planners had close calls to share. Chuckling, they confessed when they had made mistakes. Lots of the conspirators had grown suspicious that I was catching them as they slipped up. They thought I had clued in. But I hadn't. 

As they sat and laughed with one another, I looked around again. There were so many faces, so many smiles. They were so pleased with themselves and so happy and relaxed with one another, it made me want to slow down time, to save this moment. 

"We really fooled you!" the woman said. 

I grinned with her. Our gaze drifted toward Kate. Earlier, she had positioned herself at the head of the party with a taut body and business-like expression. After the celebration began, her tension turned into something more flowing, a sort of ready energy. Her nervous joy and surprised-at-herself triumph were easing into relaxed  happiness. She wasn't looking at me but she was grinning. She hadn't stopped grinning for minutes.

This is it, I thought. She did it. She created the art of the moment, a perfect art. 

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 318: Biomythography - Note 63, Hot Books

Biomythography 63

Hot Books

"What's that you're reading?" my English teacher asked. 

I had thought I was alone. Certainly, I had turned on the lights, taken the classroom over for myself, and rearranged my corner of it. I'd chosen my seat from one of the standard thirty. Although it was a plastic, green student chair, it was a comfortable one, and I'd propped my feet on a desk to read. 

Sometimes I arrived at the school early because I could drive. Sometimes I circled back late, when everyone had left. This time, I'd arrived an hour before the first bell. Like I'd done several times before, I had wandered through the building and explored the unlocked rooms. On previous occasions, I had found the teacher's lounge, the teacher's library, and a lab left open. I'd never had the luck to get into the student library, though. The door was always double-locked, as if to prevent anyone jimmying it open. I'd tried, too, although mostly out of boredom. 

I sat up, startled, and I closed the brown, hardback book in my hands. I read the cover.

"Modern Rhetoric," I said. 

"We don't use that anymore. Eric, we haven't used it for ten years. How did you get a copy?"

"I, uh ..." I took a moment to contemplate my possible alibis. None occurred to me. "The library was open."

"That's a copy from the teacher collection."

"I guess so, yes."

"I've never had a student steal anything from that before."

"Sorry." In truth, I didn't much feel I'd done anything wrong. If I felt contrite, it was about taking my reading spot for granted and getting caught. I lifted the evidence between us. "Why don't we use this book anymore?  It's good. The teacher library has lots of books that are better than the ones we have now."

My voice took on the tone of an accusation, as if the English department were hiding the best stuff from me and knew it.  

"What essay?" He straightened from his inspection of the cover. This particular teacher was a dapper man, always dressed in a blazer and tie. He had gotten his doctorate in English and likely would have been an excellent university professor but he had been drawn to our high school, where he was chair of the department.


"You were reading." He leaned closer.

"Oh." I flipped it back open. I'd kept my place with my finger. "Well, I've read all the metaphors. So I skipped those today. I was looking through the passages on narrative tone. This one is by Dos Passos, I guess. Then comes Mencken."

"Do you know who John Don Passos is?"

I shrugged. "He wrote experimental stuff."

The department head proceeded to give me an informal quiz. I didn't feel bad about taking the books; I wouldn't have minded a detention or getting flunked; I'd read a fair amount from the teacher collection; so he got opinions out of me pretty quickly. Some of them made him scowl. He liked Joseph Conrad and I didn't. I had found a passage by Conrad I enjoyed, though, and he was happy about the discovery. 

"How long have you been doing this?" he asked. He glanced in the direction of his reserves of teacher volumes. 

"All semester."

"Do you like 'Modern Rhetoric?'" he asked.

"Yeah." The lessons written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were acceptable at best. In their examples, though, they cited a lot of the best passages from the best writers in the English language. So the bright spots in their collection were fantastic - almost as good as anything could be, really.

He took a breath.

"Keep it," he muttered.

"What, really?"

"Yes. We're throwing it out." He looked away to the open front door of the classroom, not the back door, which led to the teacher lounge and library. His gaze seemed to verify there was no one around, not another student or teacher anywhere to overhear us.

"Well, don't," I protested.

"I've been ordered to destroy most of the books in the teacher resource room. I've been holding off because I like them." His shoulders slumped for a moment under his blazer. "And you cared enough to steal one. Well, borrow, I suppose."

"Steal," I admitted. He didn't know it but I had already helped myself to a volume of Modern American Poetry, which had verses from the beat generation in it. Their poems were fantastic. I kept them next to my bed. Also, I had taken for myself a text called Understanding Fiction. In that one, I had read "Christ in Flanders" by Honore Balzac and had been so moved by it that I returned on a later morning to read it again. Even on my second reading, I got teary-eyed and decided to take a copy. "There was a textbook with a lot of short stories ..."

"You took Understanding Fiction?"


He gritted his teeth for a moment. He may have been regretting his earlier pronouncement. 

"I wondered where that went," he growled. He paused and took a big huff of air. "Don't take any more." 


It occurs to me this sort of incident is no longer possible. There are no storerooms of forgotten tomes to discover in most American schools. No student gets bored enough to read textbooks for fun. In fact, currently in America we have made boredom nearly disappear. 

A lot of the books I discovered by wandering through shelves were dull. But I never would have discovered Balzac or good poetry or many other fine, strange and low-circulation volumes without the time spent in boredom, on my feet, and in my many journeys of mindless browsing. 

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 317: Biomythography - Note 62, Cold War Games

Biomythography 62

Cold War Games

Nowadays, we act like the threat of nuclear war didn’t inform everything we did. For the first twenty-nine years of my life, though, it lay at the root of all reasoning.

It was always there, looming in the background of each everyday decision. 

Everyone I grew up with experienced hour-long conversations about what we would do if the bombs fell and we were left alive for a while. These weren’t survivor scenarios. They were ‘dead in one week’ storylines. That's what we talked about because that’s what we believed was realistic. Those conversations were sometimes how you discovered most of your friends would moon over their crushes. They would fantasize about sex, about defying their parents, or at least about achieving some level of romance. Other friends, though, revealed that they harbored lethal grudges.  

If the bombs fell and they had a week, they would immediately go to their torturers' houses with machetes and carve them up. It was what they said, anyway.

“But they’re going to die no matter what,” I responded, because it was part of the assumption. “Everyone in our blast radius has at most a week.”

“I’m going to see them go first.” 

“Okay.” I secretly doubted the ability of any of my friends to dispatch their enemies even when overwhelmingly armed. It wasn’t a matter of will. Although I was usually shocked about the murder plans, I certainly believed the levels of their frustration and hatred. Mostly, I felt suspicious of their strength and hand-eye coordination. 

Likewise, I doubted my ability to get a date even when the world was ending. We all have our handicaps.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 316: Biomythography - Note 61, Spare Time

Biomythography 61

Spare Time

Time is precious; there is none of it spared. However, no one's life should be a flurry of panic. We should merely acknowledge to ourselves that all time is spent and some of it must be spent on necessities like food, water, and shelter. As much of the rest as we can manage should be used to bring joy.

On a spring day in 2021, the sun shone bright but not warm enough. The morning air chilled us through our clothes, right to our bones. The Frederick Home Show was holding its opening ceremony outside for the first time. We had gathered in our group, jackets on, and waited through the introductions. Our singers had been paid to perform the national anthem to the gathering of state senators, businessmen, town council members, event organizers, and other honoraries. After a brief round of their talk, we took off our masks. We gave them our best rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

This was 2021 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitalization numbers around our area waxed and waned. Small businesses struggled to adjust to State of Maryland social isolation rules. No one seemed entirely happy.

"That was good," one of the singers said as the crowd applauded for us. We glanced at one another and nodded.

Every time we appeared at the Frederick Home Show, we volunteered for a level of extra effort. We walked around the area to sing barbershop songs to the vendors in their stalls for an hour. In those relatively dark barns, we found free corners and sang to the home remodeling business staff. Physically, the one-story aluminum sheds, sixty feet on the smallest side, a hundred forty feet on the longest, were cold and tough places for music. Sounds echoed down the rows of stalls. Or they died in a display of water fountains. Hard ceilings amplified us or, sometimes, sent our notes at angles and in directions we couldn't track. Once, fans turned on and drowned us out. It was simply hard to judge the conditions before we sang.

"Those folks over there are waving to us," the director said. He marched in their direction. We followed.

Even with smiles and gestures, it could be as hard to judge the people as it was our physical circumstances. Some vendors danced as we sang. Others just four feet beyond, scowled. We were interrupting their business. Often, opinions about us varied within a single booth. It was that way every year. Music fans stood next to hostile guardians of a few square feet of vendor territory. 

"Some of these folks are still mad about last year," one of the singers remarked.

In 2020, the state government had shut down the Frederick Home Show due to the pandemic. Our local construction companies still felt bitter.

We sang Java Jive, a song about coffee, next to a vendor selling bags of ground coffee among their wares. In the early morning, the song always makes people smile. In that way at least, it is utterly reliable. Next, we tried Wink and a Smile.

Farther down the row of vendors, we stopped to sing them a love song. Around the corner near the back row of the vendor displays, we tried a traditional ballad. We finished to a smattering of applause.

"How about 'Sold?'" one of our singers asked.

Instead of answering, the director raised his arms. Collectively, we turned back into a two-row semi-circle and we took a breath. When he lowered his arms, we launched.

'Sold' is a fast-paced, foot-tapping number. It's also a fairly recent tune, so folks in the barn knew it. Next to me, a young lady busted into a smile. She started clapping to the beat. Softly, she sang the words. Across the aisle, a booth of vendors and customers halted their conversation. Grins on their faces, they turned toward us. Passers-by stopped to listen.

And we kept going.

The notes came through us in a patter, fast and light. Another young woman in a dress joined the first next to me, singing the words half under her breath. And next to her, a young man in a sports jacket tapped his right foot. Everyone smiled.

Everyone relaxed except an old man in a black shirt, who had looked sad and lonely at the start. As the other folks around us seemed to get happier, he got more glum. He turned angry. His expression grew bitter.

It can be hard to tell why some people seem to make a conscious decision to be in a bad mood. But they do; and that's fine or at least it's perfectly usual. Maybe for him, he wasn't getting enough work during the pandemic. Or his adult children had told him they weren't going to give him grandchildren. Or his wife had refused to come to the Home Show with him. Or maybe he was bitter and lonely because, unwittingly or not, he had arranged for his life to be that way. He had determined that he didn't like people. Who could blame him, really. If you're hoping for humanity to be nice, disappointment is normal. Anyway, nothing could make him smile.

For a moment, he folded his arms and stood with his legs wide, determined to block the air of happiness as it tried to sneak past him in the corridor. 

In another minute, we reached the end of the song. The crowd that had gathered around us burst into applause. Most of them fell into a few seconds of laughter, too. Half of the people dispersed to their business that we had delayed. Some gazed at us hopefully, as if we might be persuaded to do it again.

"Hah," grumbled the old man. He gave us a sneer. “What do you all do in your spare time?”

In a way, it was a compliment. He meant it as a statement that we had nothing better to do, perhaps, but it was an acknowledgement of our skill all the same. I don't know why, but I suddenly felt determined to make him crack a smile.

"Chess," I snapped in a voice as loud and clear as his, so he could hear me.

The reply stopped him mid-step. He had been about to pass through our group. But he paused to think and he snorted. It was an odd sound because he cut it very, very short. He had a lot of self-control. Then he turned away. As he spun on his heels, I could see the start of a grin on his lips. He didn't want anyone to see it. He didn't want to concede his bad mood had been spoiled for an instant.

He adjusted his body so that, despite the crowd, he managed to face no one. He strode away down a clear path between vendor booths. Where he had stood crouched and sullen before, he marched upright and with a purpose as he left. Also, he kept shaking his head.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 315: Dishonest Recognition

Dishonest Recognition

This is about how people fail to escape the bad patterns forming in their lives. Their friends may notice the trends; and sometimes the people who are causing the patterns see them, too, and realize they are harming themselves; and yet they fail.

At the core of the failures to stop these slides into personal disaster, there seems to be a sort of dishonesty. The person caught in the pattern of bad behavior rationalizes to themselves in any way they can to avoid the responsibility for making a change.

1. They will deny the trend exists regardless of many others noticing it.
2. They will deny the situation amounts to a problem.
3. They will say they need more time to address the problem.
4. They will blame the problem on someone else. Like the other responses, this is a declaration that they don’t intend to change.
5. They will claim the problem is unsolvable, the pattern immutable. Although this is nicer because it doesn’t place the blame on others, it is still an announcement of intent.

Everyone seems to have some of these behaviors. This doesn’t mean no one escapes the bad habits they’ve established but it does point out how insidious unfortunate life patterns can become. It’s hard enough already to recognize the patterns, the underlying causes, and the solutions; and it seems awfully easy to justify not taking the necessary actions.


1. If you hear something like, “I’ve been drinking more but it’s only social drinking,” you can know this is how your friend is rationalizing something that’s become a problem as being not a problem.

2. If you hear, “Other people eat as much as I do,” or “Other people sleep more than me,” you might recognize this as slightly hopeful, in that the person developing the problem is willing to acknowledge the trend, just not the negative consequences.

3. “I’m working on it,” or “I’ll get to it” may sound positive until you notice the person is effectively declaring they need infinite time. It takes a while to notice. But only when there is no choice or it is, in fact, too late will they try to act.

4. “She shouldn’t have left me,” or “I only smoke because of all this stress,” or even “If everyone would stop giving me advice, I’d be fine” are all hostile attempts by problematic people to not only to avoid change but to paint themselves as helpless victims. Of all the responses, this one is probably the most discouraging. That’s because it can feel so comforting to see oneself as a victim. Not only does the person not intend to change, they’ve managed to feel good about it.

5. “I’ve got ADHD,” “Can’t you see my foot is broken?” “I’ve been depressed,” are all possibly true statements (or outrageous lies that are hard for friends to call out) but they too often lead to a claim of the problem being unsolvable. Everyone has hardships to overcome as they solve problems in their lives. Not everyone overcomes their hardships. And everyone must start by trying.

It's tempting for friends and family to feel they can help, as if they can make the change that needs to be made. But only the person who has established the bad pattern can really break themselves out of it. 

Taking a drug addict on a trip for a week of hiking without their drug may, in fact, help them recognize the problem. But it will be up to them to act. Enrolling an obese person in a 'fat camp' may help them make progress. The progress won't mean much if they don't get aboard with the idea of living a more active, measured lifestyle. 

Not all of these problems are equal, naturally. A person with clinical, body-chemistry-related depression may have a longer, more difficult path than someone with bad hygiene habits. But all of progress involves effort. The best efforts seem to begin with a decision by the person most responsible for the pattern.

Is it easier for people to make decisions to improve within a moral framework?  Stoicism, Buddhism, or and Quakerism all seem decent for this but maybe most frameworks similar to these can assist people in self-transformations. This is one of those conjectures that sound simple but ultimately would be difficult to prove. 

Hopefully, we who are reading and writing this here long ago established such frameworks in our lives. The structure of them at least *seems* to make for faster, more straightforward decisions. Like the frame of a house, though, the moral logic of our lives needs occasional maintenance. If you're excusing yourself over a problem in a way like those above, that's a reasonable signal that it's time for maintenance work.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 314: Biomythography - Note 60, Snowy Afternoon

Biomythography 60

Snowy Afternoon

We had lost another swim meet, I think. That's the part I don't remember. Maybe we didn't. Maybe the meet ended early because of the snow.

About a dozen of us from the team met outside the Gaithersburg McDonalds. We had driven through the sleet and slush, which wasn't bad on the main road, Rockville Pike. Some of us had to wait in Gaithersburg Plaza for rides home. 

Others wanted to take the opportunity, with most of us free and unaccounted for by our parents, to hang out for a while and party. Our idea of partying was eating fast food together. We were a semi-rural swim team on a snowy afternoon, not a punk band in the city at night.

"We need, like, four tables!" One of the girls laughed. 

We streamed through the double-doors, bumping shoulders, saying nothing much as a group, probably, but saying it loudly. We ordered and ate like teenagers do when they are in training. We sat in clusters, mostly close, and leaned between tables to share jokes. 

Our food was gone in five minutes. We talked for half an hour. A few of the young men and women flirted. The rest of us didn't have our significant others along or didn't know what else to do except ignore the flirting. Eventually, a couple parents showed up to take their kids home.

"Did you drive yourself?" one of the fathers asked me. He wore a full parka, not one of the parka vests that were cool at the time. Somehow, he had gotten snow on his shoulders and sleeves.


"Well, be careful! It's still plenty slick in the back roads."

This was when most of our routes qualified as 'back' ones, basically narrow, paved countryside paths, so it was a fair warning. After the last parent left for the time being, the rest of the team gave up pretending to eat.

"Let's go outside," someone said.

In a few seconds, we were out, kicking at the snow in the parking lot. We meandered across Gaithersburg Plaza to a trendy clothing store, a local one, not The Gap, then to a record store. After a while, my friends got bored of watching me read album covers and persuaded me to leave the record racks.

The only male diver on the team, a fun guy and a pretty good gymnast, pointed to a car skidding in the snow.

"We could ski behind that," he said.

"What do you mean?" I'd been skiing once. At a glance, cars sliding through slush and ice didn't add anything to my insight.

"I mean grab a bumper and ride."

"That's crazy."

"I'll show you."

Fifteen seconds later, he started chasing a gray car. The road was slick and he nearly fell. He didn't catch it. He flapped his arms in exasperation. A minute later, he positioned himself in a pile of slush across the road as an orange Mazda XR-7 drifted over the rough patch. He ducked down and grabbed the left quarter of the bumper. The driver never noticed. The Mazda dragged him for a five-miles-per-hour ride.

Suddenly, I saw the potential.

"See?" the team diver called to us after he let go and turned around.


It wasn't hard to do. Some fun things are difficult; not this. I caught the first bumper I aimed for. It was one with a wide, convenient hold on a box-like, heavy Monte Carlo. When the car skidded through a corner, I decided to hop off. Everyone remarked on how I could have kept going. I knew it was true. For a while, then, a few of us took turns. I found that I could aim my feet at the thickest of the slush, so I didn't have to stop just because the car passed over a patch of bare asphalt.

Catching cars in the parking lot felt like catching waves at the beach. I could feel when I had the right timing. We spent twenty minutes or so water skiing, technically, on the snowpack.

"You kids shouldn't do that." An adult passing by on the sidewalk gave us a kind of sad, half-hearted remonstration.

"But it's fun!"

"Everyone should do it!"

What adults probably saw was there was some chance, however slight, of a teenaged snow surfer getting run over while trying to grab a bumper. Looking back on it, though, I'm not sure the worst case scenario was likely. Even deliberately, you'd have a hard time managing to stick your leg under the car. And after making the grab, I'd judge there's nothing that could happen to a snow surfer behind a car travelling at five or ten miles per hour that wouldn't be more likely to happen in a more careless circumstance.

As swim team captain, I felt my mission for the day was fulfilled by the bumper rides. At our school, we lost our swim meets half the time. And our break-even record that year was a serious improvement over the year before. We had no chance against powerhouse high schools with lots of college-bound swimmers. We won our close meets that year, though, and we had fun. 

I was desperate for us to enjoy some sort of foolery together. And thanks to the guidance from our diver, we did.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Not Even Not Traveling 45 - Valley of Fire

Valley of Fire - Monday, July 3

After our morning in Kolob Canyon, we knew we had to drive the last part of our grand circle into Las Vegas. That's where we planned to catch our flight the next day.

The Grand Circle tour of Utah usually includes Arches National Park, Monument Valley, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion. We'd added much more to our trip. The Grand Canyon, of course, had been our start. We'd kept going through the Cathedral Wash, Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon, Mexican Hat, Lower Antelope, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, Hell's Revenge, Escalante, and Canyonlands. And as much as I had enjoyed all the parks, I liked the towns we toured and their citizens, too, especially Page, Moab, and Hurricane.

Driving, I wasn't as happy about. But it's the American way. For sure, it's the only way to carry out this sort of tour.

On our drive to Vegas, we spotted one more park on the map, a Nevada state park called the Valley of Fire. The name is supposed to refer to the color of the rocks. In this case, it could have referred to the weather as well. We started our first hike in 114 Fahrenheit. The temperatures kept climbing as we traveled from place to place. Even the hardcore hikers and Nevada natives were waving sayonara to trails all over the park - when they even tried to walk them, which wasn't often.

We met a single car at the parking lot for our first trail stop. The fellow who owned the vehicle returned as we were starting out. He kept shaking his head to himself. He didn't speak to us. He simply got in his black sedan and drove away.

"That's the trail." Diane pointed to a path leading up through a cleft in the rocks.

We explored a few cabins at the head of the trail. A sign there told us these were the earliest tourist cabins in the Valley of Fire. Inside, the air felt good compared to standing in the blistering sun. Nevertheless, we couldn't see there was anything much to the wood structures. Each hut measured about ten feet by eight feet. Each had a firepit stove. We didn't feel like lighting one up, of course, and another sign told us the fireplaces were strictly historical anyway, only meant to show tourists how the previous batch of tourists, a century ago, used to live.

They lived with only the stores of food and water they brought with them, it seems. One hopes they didn't occupy the buildings during the height of Arizona summer.
"Might as well move on," I said and left the northmost building for the trail.

A tenth of a mile onto the rock-strewn path, I passed through the cleft we'd noticed between boulders. It was the narrowest section so far. When I wobbled on the clay dust beneath my feet, I stretched out a hand. But my reflexes kicked in immediately. I stood up straight and jerked away my hand to keep from getting burned.

"Don't lean on anything," I warned.

Diane snorted. She and I paused to try to figure out our next steps. As far as we could tell, the ground disappeared down a cliff face for twenty feet. We would have to shimmy along the steep incline and take care not to fall into a boulder at the end of it, which was followed by another drop and another boulder, and another drop, possibly into trees.

Diane put her open palm over a rock. She nodded as she felt the heat radiating.

"Maybe the next trail," she concluded. We turned back.

The next place offered us spectacular sandstone hills and campsites with grills for our picnic that we didn't intend to have. Unlike the formations at the earlier place, this spot provided some shade. But the three hills didn't have much of a trail. Climbing the sandstone outcroppings was not a real option.

The next and the next venue were much the same. We tried forays across the burning landscapes. They didn't have much to offer; they were devoid of trees, wildlife, or wind. All they had was extra heat radiating from the stones beneath our feet. Eventually, I drove us to the Valley of Fire visitor center.

The center proved to be dismayingly grim as well. The artifacts inside looked random. The placards in the glass cases didn't present a coherent story. Sometimes the material showed promise but even then the language about the local tribes, for instance, read in an overly-simple way, like you might write for an audience of elementary school students. There were a few tourists in the center. They seemed to have the same opinion of it that I did. Even the gift shop had a Soviet-era, you'll-take-what-we-give sort of barrenness to it. The single staff member clearly wanted to be someplace else.

Three teenagers walked past the shop and sat on a bench next to me while I failed to make myself interested in a few sentences about local settlers in a display.

"I'll miss this place," said one teenager. My ears pricked up. I tried to keep my face from betraying my surprise.

"The visitor center?" his friend asked in a rather disbelieving tone. It was entirely appropriate.

"The air conditioning," he sighed.


Thursday, August 10, 2023

Not Even Not Traveling 44 - Kolob Canyon

Zion Park - Sunday, July 2

Kolob Canyon

We decided to eat lunch and relax before our next trail. In Hurricane (Herr-ih-ken) we made an effort to stay out of the sun. We cooked downstairs in the kitchen of our bed-and-breakfast. During my break, I wrote down notes about our hiking experiences.

In the late afternoon, we geared up to see the unpopular part of Zion. That's the northern third. There, the park allows visitors to drive themselves all the way to the trailheads. It should be the most popular section but the scenery isn't as iconic, I guess. During our trip, we asked at the two most popular parks why the rangers felt they were so popular. They replied, almost immediately, 'Instagram.' Particular trails look fantastic. As a consequence, people love to have their pictures taken while walking on them.

I don't know if the rangers were right. The most popular sites might be the best liked ones in every generation. It's clear what the rangers thought, though.

"Let's look at Kolob Canyon," Diane decided. She remembered what a ranger had told us about the stargazing from there. Due to the elevation and the isolation of the trailhead, the parking lot at Kolob Canyon was ideal to see stars at night.

Naturally, the first notice we saw on our arrival was a warning about cougars spotted in the area. The advice emphasized how guests should remain vigilant or, preferably, absent at night.

"I think I'll want a walking stick tomorrow morning," I remarked.

Diane didn't entirely roll her eyes, a sign she took the warning seriously, too.

"Okay," she said as she got out. "Let's go partway in. I want to see what it's like before we hike it in the dark."

"Ugh." I still had the cougars in mind. 

"We won't hike it to the end," Diane emphasized. "We'll just go look."

Spoiler alert: this is not how it worked. 

At first, we entered a broad trail wide enough for three or four hikers. It turned a corner and headed down rocky stairs and, very soon, just rocks. As deeply as we descended, we ascended soon after on a winding path. And that is how the trail proceeded for a while, up down and around on a narrow dirt path that turned into a wooded lane.

The terrain felt interesting and the heat of the late afternoon sun didn't bother us under the cover of the trees. After a while, our path led us into a stream. There were stepping stones laid in the water and it was fun to cross.

After a little while longer on the trail, Diane added, "I feel pretty good. Let's keep going."

A quarter of a mile later, we crossed the stream again. This time, our path lacked some of the stepping stones that would have made it easier. I looked around and found a broad, flat one to use. After I placed it, Diane tried it and pronounced it good. 

In maybe an eighth of a mile, we crossed the stream again, our shoes mostly dry thanks to boulders and flat stones, which lay flat and brown above the water. We started to wonder how often we were going to do this. Not much later, we turned east and hiked along a sandy ridge beside the stream. And we crossed again. Eventually, we made five crossings. I added more large slabs to give us the capability to stay dry, night or day. 

We made the crossings as easy as we could. If we were going to do this by moonlight, I was sure we wanted the stones to be as wide, flat, and as stable as possible. An hour or so into our march, we still hadn't reached the end of the trail. 

"I think we've got to head back," I said, expecting an argument. 

"That's fine," said Diane. She surveyed the green boughs over the trail ahead for a moment. More or less an instant after her pause, however, she turned around. "We'll be back."

In fact, we weren't. On the hike back, we continued to adjust and test the fordings. We left them in fine shape. When we got up the next morning at 4:00 a.m., though, the moon shone high overhead. 

"We're cutting it close," Diane muttered as we packed into the rental car. 

What she meant is the moon didn't look close enough to the horizon. It wasn't. We drove back to Kolob Canyon. Our car was alone in the parking lot. We got out to check for the best stargazing. But there was none. The brightness of the moon blocked out all but the brightest landmarks in the sky. With a stargazing app on my phone, I located Jupiter. But even Saturn was too dull or too low in the sky to spot. 

Eventually, the moon set and the sun rose at the same time. It never grew dark enough to see the Milky Way. No constellations shone bright enough to see. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Not Even Not Traveling 43 - Emerald Pools and Turkeys

Zion Park

Emerald Pools and Turkeys

Soon enough, the stars faded. To our east, the mountain ridges grew backlit with the glow of the approaching sun. 

We still had our parking space in Zion. Unlike the other Zion hikers, we didn't need to take a chartered bus to get into the park. We were in it already. We only needed to claim our place in the line for the Zion trail buses. 

We reached our car in the lot at dawn. When we'd arrived at four, we'd been alone. Now we weren't. Other folks had parked around us, occupying most but not all of the spaces. The tourists were still arriving. Diane and I tried to rest. After a while, we knew we couldn't. There were too many lights, engines sounds, and people getting out to talk right next to us. We hopped out and followed the other hikers, who were forming a line at the shuttle bus stop. 

After a few minutes in line, I felt awfully glad to be early. We weren't even going to make it onto the first bus. Before dawn, hikers travelling alone or in pairs had crowded to the front. What's more, the people arriving after us formed a human snake that wove back and forth between the guided fencing for a hundred yards and spilled out to become an unruly double-wide line for another hundred.

Eventually, slathered in sunscreen and wearing our sensible hats, we climbed aboard the second shuttle. Diane had decided our course of action. We were headed to the Emerald Pools Trail.

The Emerald Pools walk requires multiple trails, really. They aren't supposed to be particularly popular ones, either, but this is Zion National Park. We saw people ahead of us. And behind us. This, despite how we had arrived on only the second bus taking tourists into the lower park. 

With our mild-mannered, semi-professionally hiker-dressed crowd, we crossed the road to the trail head. We formed a line and marched in. Fortunately, it was a shared trail, early on, which meant it soon branched into multiple paths. Different hikers chose various ways. Others who stayed on our trail fast-marched far ahead of us. I suspected we wouldn't see most of them again.

"Which way?" I asked Diane, pointing to where we had reached our split. 

"Not the Lower Emerald," she replied with an eye to the hikers who had proceeded us. 

"Upper, then?" I felt pleased by her choice because we were venturing onto the path almost no one had taken before us this morning. 

"Oh, yes."
As it turned out, the route to Upper Emerald got fairly steep and rocky. Mostly, though, it proved to be a winding, wooded lane that led us upwards, mostly gently, to a small, mossy pond. The source of the pond was obviously (now that I understood what generating one entails) a seep spring to my view. The emerald pool gets filled by way of the drips from the cliff overhanging it. 

Still, it's a pond. Even with the tadpoles in it, there's not much to do there except glance around, nod with satisfaction, and move on. 

We hiked down to the Lower Emerald, which was a bigger and better site than Upper Emerald. We could see at once why it was more popular. Fortunately, the place had emptied after the first rush. We strolled around it and found ourselves on a different path, which was also marked as belonging to the Lower Emerald. According to our map, it should have looped around to take us back to our launch point. That's not what happened, though. It didn't curl back. Instead, it took us south next to the Virgin River all the way to the Court of the Patriarchs, a mile away. 

When we realized what was happening, we shrugged and continued because we had come to hike. A mile in the forest, even an unexpected mile, is not too much. Soon enough, we could make out the bridge leading over the river. We knew we could cross there and hop on the bus to have a rest or find another trail head. 

Except we couldn't. A sign there said the bridge was closed. The park service hadn't updated the map they gave us, obviously, but the bridge was in pretty terrible shape and must have been that way for a couple of years. So they had time to update it but they didn't. They had posted a sign instead. It told us that if we wanted to get back to the other side and catch the shuttle, which by this time we certainly did, we needed to go to the bridge at Site Six, which we had just left, or at Site Four, which lay to the south by way of a trail called Sandy Bench. We chose to continue to Site Four, which was named Canyon Junction. 

"This is a horse trail," Diane announced as we dodged piles of horse poop at the entrance to Sandy Bench. 

"We expected it." A hundred yards earlier, we had pointed to the stables. 


For a while, I dreaded running into a line of horses in the narrow pass. We would have had to climb out of their way. There was barely room for a single animal so large. We had seen no place at all where a horse could fit comfortably with a pair of hikers. However, the Sandy Bench trail soon widened and turned to sand. Sand is a tough surface to hike but we slogged through it. Along the way, we spotted wild turkeys followed by their peeping, meandering babies, some weird insects, squirrels, turkeys again, lizards, and more. And turkeys again. And more lizards. And more turkeys.

Everywhere there was sand, we saw lizards. Everywhere there was underbrush, we saw turkeys. There was a lot of sand and underbrush along Sandy Bench.

Finally, after more than three hours of hiking, we emerged at the Canyon Junction bridge, which was Site Four according to the signs and map. We paused to stare at a unicycle someone had abandoned in the woods, shook our heads in disbelief, and crossed the bridge back to the road. We saw the bus shelter and marched for it. 

When we noticed three hikers emerge from another trail and turn toward to the shelter, I glanced at my watch. 

"I think," I said, doing the math, "it's been more than ninety minutes since we've seen other people."

"You complained," said Diane. She was right. I had. 

"It wasn't a good sign that everyone else disappeared." My thinking, such as it was, had been: experienced Zion hikers knew about the inaccuracies on the map. They knew about the horse poop on Sandy Bench. They understood about turkeys and the risk of cougars hunting them. They weren't impressed by lizards. They had learned the difficulty of slogs through the foot-deep sand. 

"I thought it was nice," she concluded.

And it was. I was almost always pleased to see the turkeys. I'm still sort of impressed by the lizards.