Sunday, May 9, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.25: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 25

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The College Drive

It's always late at night and dark outside the windows.  We lean back in the car, our faces and hands lit by the green glow of the dashboard.  My father is talking about philosophy or maybe sports.  Or I am.  We trade theories on the consequences of technologies, the details of self-actualization, binomial pyramids, recent changes in baseball lineups, or the perfect height for a pitcher.  This is the image that comes to me when I think about how we spent my drives to college.  We sit side by side, looking at the road in front, seeing the distant possibilities.

My father liked to travel at night to avoid as much traffic as possible.  So did I.  Sometimes we traded naps.  Neither of us slept for more than two hours out of the eight.  Sometimes neither of us slept.  We talked.

"Why are they still teaching chemistry using rote memorization?"  On the drives back from college to home, he was full of questions about what I had learned.  "There's no need for that."

"Yeah, I know.  And my professor kept telling me that my questions about atomic mass numbers being wrong were physics questions."

"Not chemistry?"

"Not her type of chemistry.  She's used to students who want to be doctors."

He questioned everything from teaching methods to grading, from lab layouts to linguistic textbooks.  In some areas, he was delighted to hear about the progress being made.  In others, he seemed scandalized to hear that parts of his old college lore had been deemed irrelevant.

"Everybody should read at least one Plato book," he insisted.

"I read parts of The Republic at home," I said as I remembered.  "At school, I read the whole Symposium in gay literature.  The class talked about it a bunch."

"You took a gay lit course?"

"We read Plato, Sappho, Lorde, and Baldwin.  The books weren't all great but the discussions were pretty good."

"That's different from my college.  But I guess it's not totally different."

On the first half-dozen drives, we talked about infinitesimals and what they meant to calculus, debated the progress of the Maryland college basketball team, revisited the geometry of Roman aqueducts and bridges, and practiced tricks in approximations.  We discussed Sugar Ray Leonard's boxing, Jack Dempsey versus Gene Tunney, Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, and Muhammad Ali versus everybody.  My father insisted that Joe Louis was the greatest of all time because of his comeback victory over Schmeling.  He remembered the radio re-broadcasts and the sense of American vindication over the un-American idea of a master race.

This was a bit unfair to Schmeling, who was not a Nazi and was brave enough to defy the Nazis during their rise to power in his country.  It's true, however, that the Nazis held him up as their ideal warrior and promoted him as proof that they were the masters.  They also held Schmeling's family hostage in Germany while he traveled to fights to keep him from defecting.

On the other side of the fight, the pressure that Joe Louis felt was immense.  He had heard from the Negro community after he lost to Schmeling in their first match.  He knew how disappointed they had been.  He felt burdened by how much his loss had affected civil rights and civic pride.

"He and Jesse Owens were so great," my father insisted.  "They didn't just win.  They won at the most important times and in the best ways."

In retrospect, I wonder if he didn't look forward to trading ideas.  At the time, it didn't occur to me.  The discussions were just something that happened.  We let our minds drift through the night, conversation after conversation.  I think he maybe looked forward to the drives for that reason.  He was disappointed when I took off for a semester, saved up money, and bought a used car.

"I could take out another loan," he said.  "I could pay more."

"I don't want more of your money.  I want to pay.  And I want to drive."

"Why do you need a car in college?"

A car saved as much as an hour on a round-trip to a different campus.  It was going to be handy.  Plus I wanted it as much for taking girls on dates and I'm sure he realized that.  His resistance, maybe, was that he felt our opportunities to talk were slipping away.

They weren't.  The talks in the car set the tone for our next thirty years of discussion.  


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.24: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 24

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Parenting through College

When I was seventeen, I left home. My father supported the move. When he was that age, he'd left, too.

At that point, I didn't want to go to college. I just wanted out of the current situation. My parents wanted me to continue with school. So in return for their permission to move, legally necessary as they pointed out, I agreed to work my way through the University of Maryland from a basement room I rented near campus.

Thanks to a couple years of lifeguarding, I had enough saved for a semester of classes and books. My plan was to work full time during the semester in order to make enough for the next one. My father thought that wouldn't work out so his plan was to keep offering me money. Since it came with strings attached, I kept turning him down even though he was right. Holding jobs in fast food restaurants and ignoring my classes didn't make for a good college experience.

I spent money foolishly, drank too much, and filed my paperwork incorrectly when dropping and adding classes. I managed to spend my bank account down to five dollars after paying bills, only to have the restaurant fail to distribute paychecks, while my manager dropped most of my shifts that week, a set of circumstances that meant no food for four days.

Although near the deadline I scraped enough together for the second semester, I forgot to budget for textbooks. So after all my insistence that I wouldn't accept money, I had to take fifty dollars from my father so I could go to class.

During my second semester, I dropped theatre, dropped math, took ethics, tried French, and started writing and singing. For the first time, I decided to write a novel. Sometimes I wrote only 500 words per day in it. Sometimes I did my schoolwork instead. But I started building up the right habits to continue.

By summer, my father got me to agree to come back home under a "his rules / no rules" situation where he said I should live by his family rules and I agreed that I would move back and live by no rules whatsoever. We were back to where we were before except I was eighteen. We both agreed that I should leave by the end of the summer, when my job ended.

Maybe because we agreed, it was something we couldn't do.

Every morning in the summer, I got up to coach a swim team and manage pools. I wrote late at night, every night, 1,000 words per session. Most of the words were awful. Sometimes I worked at the kitchen table on a loose-leaf notebook with a series of ball point pens, alternating colors each session so that I didn't cheat myself.

My father would pass by and look over my shoulder. After a few weeks, he said, "You're building up some pages."

A few weeks more and he switched to, "Let me have a look."

"No! Dad, it's terrible." My hand slapped down on it. "It's a first draft."

"But you are actually writing it."

"Well, yeah, it's all I'm doing."

"What about that girl you keep bringing over?"

"Dad."

The end result of the writing was about half of a novel but a lot of motivation. My summer jobs came to an end and I hadn't thought of anything beyond the novel. My parents had pushed me into applying for colleges but I was only partly interested, so I hadn't done much except thumb through the guides with a sense of despair.

"You don't have to get a degree," was my father's argument for continuing to look at schools. "Just being in the classes is good for your writing."

To me, that was an effective line of reasoning. One of the classes I'd liked most in the previous semester was 'Elective Writing.' My father and I came to an agreement that surprised the rest of the family. I would keep on living with them and writing every day and the only price I would have to pay would be applying to at least two colleges with a goal to attend by the spring semester

My mother found a college where I could design my own major. My father seized on it as being exactly what I said I wanted. And despite the fact that they were for it, I was kind of interested.

The school was a little, mostly-unknown place in Massachusetts called Hampshire College.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 222: A Response on Lineage in Buddhism

This is a brief note this time to say that, on another platform discussion of Buddhism, I answered the questions:

• how important is the notion of 'lineage' to you personally?
• what's the 'point', or 'purpose', of a lineage?
• which form(s) of transmission do you accept as 'valid'?

I thought the discussion had promise but it seems to have ended.  My response was:

Here is where I often find myself alone in my views because I think lineage is a distraction from Buddhism. There is also a bit of danger in being misunderstood (or in misunderstanding) as I interpret the questions. I'm slow to respond in this forum, usually, and I'm not really up for a debate. I'm willing to take part in a conversation.

Addressing each point,

1) Lineage is not important to me personally. It's a kindness to the egos of others. 'I got this good idea from this person or book or school of thought' is a nice thing to say in the sense of giving credit. Even that part may not seem to make much sense at times but it's seen as polite. Socially, it's generally a good thing.

Lineage is counter-important when it becomes an ad-hominem argument used to bolster a bad idea by pointing to famous people who believed in it. One of the great strengths of modern Buddhism has been a willingness to adjust to discoveries in science. Arguments by lineage, which I have heard repeatedly, generally run counter to that strength.

2) Since I don't place personal importance on it, I see lineage used mostly for the sake of argument. That doesn't seem to be its only purpose, however. For some folks, part of the point of Buddhism is worshipping a historical figure. Lineage will naturally seem important to that. I don't feel that way. The ideas and warm spirits of Buddhists are to me the worthwhile center, whole and actionable in and of themselves. Meanwhile, I don't care how the 8th lama of some temple liked tea and so we should follow his example; nor do I want to hear that plants aren't alive because it is someone's traditional view, although I have been receptive to other lines of reasoning about degrees of life.

3) Transmission from guru to guru doesn't look valid. It's declared in many traditions, of course, but for me it's the most suspect part of them. I observe the transmission of good spirit and good thought generally; it's possible to have a meaningful dharma transmission. It harder to be sure, however, that over a distance of six hundred years and seven thousand miles, a particular transmission was valid.

Transmission through a community seems more reasonable, as does transmission or lineage through "admirable friends." Communities do provide an important check on understanding and also, hopefully, support for increasing understanding.

Despite my agreement with this view of transmission, both it and lineage more often seem to be practical statements used in dealing with initiates and governments (i.e, "We're not just some guys living in a commune, honest. We're a serious monastery worthy of attention.") This is not a trivial point. Societies benefit from stupas and other formal arrangements. Governments often have to consciously permit those arrangements to exist. So I don't see transmission as being about spiritual attainment so much as it is another form of argument from authority. Again, that may be a practical necessity. Arguments from authority do tend to work well, after all, with the authorities.

Beyond transmission via communities, though, I see the declaration of transmission as being a practical statement to people outside the community, even if they are being invited into it.

Note: the questions above were posted by Denis Wallez and I feel that it may be worthwhile to save some of other parts of the group discussions, here or elsewhere, with explicit permission from Denis and the other discussants. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.23: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 23

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Father: Parenting in the Neighborhood

After we returned to the United States, my parents held cocktail parties for their block in College Park. By the time I was eight, they had learned their lesson and stopped hosting them. Neither of them drank. The parties introduced them to the neighborhood but otherwise, didn't do them much good other than letting them discover that a few of the neighbors drank to excess and most of them disagreed with our family politics.

One night, a woman with short, light brown hair who had appeared at our parties burst through our front door and screamed, "He's going to kill me." She rushed down the stairs and out through the back. After her, through the still-open door, ran her husband with an axe. He roared after her, almost stumbling and stabbing himself with the axe blade as he bounded down the carpeted stairs.

Then she circled around. They ran through a second time. At that point, my father had the sense to shut and lock the front door. He did the same to the back door although my mother worried aloud about the woman and whether we could shelter her somehow. She belonged to the heavy-drinking, conservative neighbors in the house behind us. Fortunately, she escaped that night and returned to her husband the next morning to make him breakfast.

That wasn't an unusual incident for the couple. The neighbors in back of us drank and fought about two days out of three. So did other couples on the block. We saw our share of their conflicts. In retrospect, I understand that our little development on Patricia Court and Mezzerot Road housed a mix of academics in single-family homes, and also mechanics, plumbers, and electricians, and then a few folks who would have to be called nearly-broke although they had somehow afforded a house alongside everyone else. That was a major difference in those days, the fact that a family on a single disability income could own a home or at least a mortgage with reasonable terms.

Another difference of the age is how the adults in the neighborhood shared their child-raising duties. Some of them had permission to administer corporal punishments. Others, really all of them, were expected to rat out misbehavior in children when it happened, which was nearly every day.

Lots of people have written about this so I'll only touch upon the wrinkle that mostly is not addressed. My parents were liberal (pushing for civil rights, supporting women in the workplace, and fighting the war on poverty). Most of the neighborhood was not. That led to some of the adults in the neighborhood trying to raise me with their values. They explained their theories on race, which they felt were more accurate than my parents' naive beliefs.

This is hard for people to picture nowadays. Some adults in the neighborhood pulled me aside although I was a boy of six, seven, or eight years old, to explain that I was black (because I was Irish) or low-white (again, Irish) or that Italians were black.

One of these was the man who had entertained me at Halloween by frying up a pan of spare change and throwing the contents into the street. Kids rushed to pick up the change and burned their fingers. Within about twenty seconds, though, most of the children realized the right thing to do was stomp on the coins you wanted. If you waited half a minute, they would cool down. For the younger ones, that meant the big kids couldn't steal your change. It was a pretty fair game. The biggest kids stomped on the quarters. But the younger ones got dimes and nickels. Toddlers scooped up warm pennies.

The other adults in the neighborhood made that guy stop after a few years. In retrospect, it was probably the wrong move. Not only did no one get seriously hurt but all of the kids learned to be clever. It was not a bad lesson.

The same man, though, was one of those who had to explain his ideas about races. He ranked groups, top to bottom, and kept up a criticism of his own ranking system as he explained it because I did not contribute to conversation. I was waiting, as most kids did, for adults to finish rambling and give me permission to leave. His ranking ideas were a lot like the others and so, at the top, were the English. Following them in order were the Dutch, Swedish, Germans ("They would be higher but they keep on losing wars"), French, Spanish, low whites, Armenians, colored people, and Jews - these last three being an indistinguishable mass to him. This was how a lot of people thought and, although I'm glad I don't hear such rankings nowadays, I'm not sure that our loss memory about this kind of thinking is good. Our neighborhood, and many others, felt divided along the ethnic lines of Europe.

One of the mothers on the block explained that mixed marriage was a sin. She meant Irish and Italians. That was the type of mixed marriage that gripped our neighborhood. At least three adults lectured me about how wrong it was and how the race-mixing would end in tragedy.

One time, an adult stopped me to explain something and I waited, not listening. I was thinking about snakes, then pennies, then frogs. My attention returned for a moment when I heard him say, "Well, you're basically all right because of your mom. You're half English."

At that moment, my brain achieved something it didn't do often back then: it replayed the previous monologue where the grownup had explained how terrible it was to be Irish. He told me that my father was Irish. Burning with curiosity, I made a mental note to tell my father.

When I got home, I found my parents in the kitchen. I managed to relay to my father the exact words that had been said about the Irish. (I don't remember them now.) Then I watched as his pale skin slowly turned light pink and finally hot pink. He couldn't get any words out for a moment. He stomped around the kitchen.

Finally, when he regained his composure, he said, "Do you know what those words mean? Never mind." He waved off the idea looking at my blank expression. "Just don't talk to that man again."

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.22: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 22

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Father

My father said, "Every parent has an age they're best at," and he meant it seriously. That still feels to me like a line that should be followed by a joke (e.g., "Mine is just after grad school"). If it's true, and I think it's not, he was probably his best as a parent when we were young.

He followed through with his ideas about Skinner's research. He exposed us to as many activities as he could afford and, through the virtue of community centers, that was a lot. We took swimming lessons, wrestling, and tumbling. We played pick-up baseball games, kick the can, and tennis. He and my mother tutored us early on, in math and in reading, so that we could manage simple books in nursery school.

One evening, he passed by as I read to my mother. My mother had gotten me to enjoy Go Dog Go, Hop on Pop, Are You My Mother, Green Eggs and Ham, Yertle the Turtle, The Big Honey Hunt, and similar books before I got into classes and encountered Dick and Jane, that curiously bland pair of kids. At some point in our family evening ritual, I switched from listening to my mother to reading to her. My father caught me reciting the pages before turning them, however, and realized that I had done a lot of memorizing. But it was still a good head start that they gave.

My father's ideas were good but the problems in them are paralleled in the current generation of super-parenting or tiger-parenting. The Skinner concept of "you can train your child to do anything" is a powerful one. It works. It also highlights some human limits.

One of the consequences of over-parenting is that it removes children from solving problems on their own. It prevents them from inventing games and gives them no time for outdoor exploring. Given my father's philosophy, I grew up in a lucky time, the start of what would be called Generation X. Super-parenting at that point meant learning foreign languages or odd sports. That's what we did, not always well, and meanwhile we did normal things like chase snakes in the woods, defend ourselves from bigger kids, hunt mean dogs with pointed sticks, and crash into one another with bicycles. We also weedled our way into neighborhood kickball and baseball games.

To my father, a campus protest at the University of Maryland over the continuation of the Vietnam War meant an inconvenience or an argument with the neighbors, many of whom supported the war. To me and my younger brother, it meant a chance to run across the field to Route 1 and beg the people in the traffic jam to play frisbee with us. They did.

It was an age of hands-off parenting. It matched well with my parents, who were teachers and very much hands-on.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.21: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 21

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance: His Uncle

There are odd bits of history in the scrapbooks made by Jack Light - restaurant menus, poems, letters from politicians greeting his ship, notes from basketball coaches scrimmaging against the ship's team, cartoons, and more. For most of his career, Jack served on the First Contact radio watch.

I notice that my father decided to join a signal company in the US Army, a parallel choice that seems likely to have been influenced by his life with Jack. At the least, it's an odd coincidence that Jack knew morse code and that my father learned it, too, in order to write down the North Korean messages.

Most of Jack's sailing career took place before my father was born. In his scrapbooks, he pasted his re-certifications in the new-fangled technology of radio. Radioman certification didn't even start until 1921 but in one of his early entries, already Jack was re-certifying. In another scrapbook entry, he included U.S.S. Asheville logs from 1926 including his account of surviving a direct hit by a typhoon. Later, he added his Vibroplex Key Certification, which demonstrated that he was a Morse Code operator for his ship.

He saved a lock of hair from a woman, leave passes, and Chinese money that he could afford to paste into the book. He last visited the Chinese ports about a year before the Japanese invaded them.

Later, as he continued sailing around the world, Jack visited France. He spent time in Hamburg, Germany, a city that could only have been accessible if his ship sailed up the Elbe. Years later, my father taught at the Army base in Hamburg. I went to nursery school there. But Jack got there before us.

After all of his travels, though, Jack retired from ship life and settled down in Baltimore. He started a new life there. Then, when his sister's family turned homeless again as well as fatherless, he rented a car and drove to Elmira, New York.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.20: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 20

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Father

My father was born in 1934. His father died in 1936. For a while, he had a stepfather but that man and his mother said that they despised him. Before he finished first grade, he was homeless. Before he finished elementary school, his stepfather was dead. His uncle came to take him to Baltimore.

Since my father was disliked by his mother and mostly raised without his father, where did he get his ideas on parenting? In my twenties, I started to learn his family history, so I asked him.

"Mostly from psychology courses," was his answer.

I looked through his library for major influences, probably Skinner and Maslow with a lot of Jung and Freud as well. In the psychological literature of his age, I noticed there was an overabundance of diagnoses of hysteria. Doctors thought that many people had psycho-somatic illnesses. In such circumstances, it was natural for my father to believe the same thing. Psycho-somatic illnesses appeared to be a proven cause. He was convinced that, when I was four, my mind caused allergies. My bouts of congestive failure were the result of the power of suggestion.

There is a certain amount of truth to this. Attitude makes a surprising difference to recovery. Over the years, though, my father observed that my attitude couldn't solve my physical problems entirely. In fact, ignoring my asthma sent me to the hospital more than once. So he let the doctors and scientists convince him that differences in immune responses are physically, not simply products of the mind, and are dictated in large part by genetics.

He learned as he went. That was his secret in teaching and that was how he did it with parenting. It wasn't simply a matter of translating theory into practice. He had to notice when the books were wrong. What's more, I think he passed over important elements of parenting in his own self-assessment. When I became a parent myself, I could see where some of his ideas had to originate. So in reverse order of priority, I would say that his influences were:

3. His philosophy classes, psychology classes, and other reading (what he felt was most important)
2. My mother (although he never admitted it until later in life)
1. His uncle, Jack Light

My great-uncle Jack spent a career in the merchant marines before settling down in Baltimore. When I was five or six or seven, I didn't know much about him except that I loved and admired him. In my childish view of the world, he was the most wholesome person in it. At the age of six, I came to understand that Jack was the only one who could stop my grandmother and my father from fighting. No one else had that power.

I have vague memories of my father once or twice saying that he couldn't be like Uncle Jack or that he didn't know how Uncle Jack did it. Jack had been so calm and so sure of himself, strong but gentle. He had the implacable force of patience that comes with self-assurance.

Jack died when I was seven. I begged to go to his funeral. Maybe I cried my way into attendance. I'm not sure. If so, I expect that my father regretted taking me because I cried at the funeral, too. Then I cried after the funeral and on and off into the evening.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.19: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 19

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Second-Half Teaching

When we got back to Maryland, my father settled into his teaching career with a grace that surprised even him, I think. In his personal life, he could be awkward. He could be too skinny. Or too fat. Maybe sometimes he dressed like a professor. As a teacher, he transcended all that. Students returned to tell him so. Some of them came with their revelations in psychology or philosophy. Those are personal subjects, of course, so maybe no surprise. Former students returned to tell him how his math teaching had improved their lives, though, and that seemed more remarkable.

Some of that may have come from how his teaching burbled with philosophy. Math and philosophy relate closely, particularly in boolean math, analytics, and other types of formal logic. So my father could, and did, use math to promote critical thinking. Additionally, he was a fan of Polya's "How to Solve It." He could switch from the county-promoted method to, for instance, solving a problem backwards. He tried to help students ease up from their frustrations by adopting a carefree oh-well-let's-try-this attitude.

One student I dimly remember returned to say how my father had transformed his life through math. This was a young man who had dark hair, stood maybe five foot eleven, and who as a student had caused trouble all through calculus class. Almost every day, he would say "This is useless" or "I'll never use it," and every time, my father had to come up with a reply like, "Maybe," "Maybe not," "The smart students will probably use it," or "Humor me. Maybe you'll need to fill a half-cylinder tub with jello."

This student was bright but he was politically-minded and stubborn. At the University of Maryland, he changed majors from journalism to engineering. Somehow he had been inspired by the practicality of making tangible changes in the world. But then his engineering friends, some of the same friends who had changed majors with him, started failing calculus. He didn't. He realized that he was going to use the math he'd railed against for so long, that he was using it right then. What's more, he understood it. He could even help other students. After he passed his required calculus, he came back and told my father.

There are only a few students who return to see their former teachers. Throughout the 1970s, my father seemed to hear from some every year. Even in the early 1980s, the trend continued. Northwood High school closed in 1985, unfortunately. My father transferred to Poolesville. The school was close to home. They needed precisely his position. The student body was different, though.

Although Poolesville students did return, at times, to tell him how good a teacher he had been, the numbers never quite matched Northwood. It was a smaller school and more rural. Fewer students went off to college and of those who did, many never came back.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.18: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 18

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Tea, Shchi, Trapeze Artists, and Hula Hoops

The itinerary of our Soviet Union trip began in Leningrad, I think, but my memory is of it is poor. I was ten and suffering from eight hours of jet lag. At any rate, I think we took the train twice. On the map, that makes sense if we took the bus from the border to Leningrad, rode the train south to Moscow, and took a train back to Leningrad.

The first train ride was the one in which I discovered tea.

That may sound strange because my grandmother served me unsweetened tea every day, sometimes for months on end. I never liked it. That was partly because I compared it to sugary cola. The tea tasted bitter by contrast. Even if I added sugar, it remained bland. Sometimes, on a hot evening after chasing fireflies for two hours, tea seemed really good anyway, but only for a moment. The brew in Russia tasted different and I had no idea why.

When I returned to the United States, I tried to figure it out. I read the labels on the tea. I found that my mother used instant tea mix, which in some ways wasn't much like tea at all. My grandmother brewed hers from Lipton tea bags that said 'orange pekoe.' That was the bitter, sour taste. Back on the train to Moscow, I drank from a cup that was hot. The liquid swirled darkly like smoke and tasted like a campfire you'd enjoy lying down in so that you could surround yourself with the smell. The service came with communist party sugar cubes. (Each cube was individually wrapped, either in red with a gold hammer and sickle, or in black with a red or gold star.)

The first sip of the dark brew did it. I wanted more. As it turned out, I ordered tea at every restaurant on the tour. I didn't even need to do that. The Russians served tea on every time regardless of what I said. On a few occasions, the waiters seemed amused by how much I loved it.

Soviet food was never very good although we probably ate some of Russia's or Siberia's best produce at the time. The highlight, for me, was the shchi, which is cabbage soup. That came with nearly every meal and it varied from delightful to half-hearted but more often it was on the delightful side. I could trust it when I couldn't trust anything else, not the meat, the peas (seven per plate), not even the onions (once or twice cooked dark to try to hide spoilage).

My father, for his part, had expected bad food. But he hadn't expected to wait on lines for everything that wasn't part of the tour. He tried buying candies and ice cream. Each time, it was a struggle. Even when he was amused by the non-American-ness of it (gosh, here I am standing in a line out on the street to by a mystery item from a box), he couldn't help feeling bewildered.

The entertainment was equally foreign to him. The Soviets had almost no western-block tourists before us, so they reached deeply into their bag of tricks. We saw almost every State-approved, patriotic act there was. First, we listened to balalaika strummers; and they were virtuosos. After the next statue visit, we piled into a huge auditorium made for operas and watched the Soviet military kick dancing. To our hosts, the dance was clearly high art, as worthy of praise as paintings, poetry, symphonies, or ballet. Better, it gave glory to the revolution, as the dancers showed us their skills while in uniform.

Back and forth we went between museums or monuments and the performances. We saw a swimsuit girl with a hula hoop; she did acrobatics. We watched a magician with an assistant who handed him hula hoops. We went to the circus one evening, which had a high-wire act, trapeze artists who were easily my favorites of the tour, and a dancing bear with a hula hoop. Later, we saw lesser balalaika players, an amatuerish magician, and a pair of out-of-shape schoolgirls, again with hula hoops.

"I guess they really like hula hoops," my father said eventually.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.17: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 17

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Soviet Way

As a ten year old on a twelve hour flight that left me, after a three our bus ride, eight hours off my usual sleep schedule, I don't think it's remarkable that I was only conscious part-time during the first days of the trip. The weirdness of my body trying to sleep in the afternoon, my motion sickness on the bus, and the loudness of the teenagers around me made parts of the tour impossible. I couldn't stare at a second or third Lenin statue in a row without wobbling.

Technically, my father and the high school students kept me awake. That was only my body, though. My brain went on its own dream-addled trip full of golden hands, concrete slabs, and cloudless skies.

Once, on the first day on our tour, I came alert long enough for the most beautiful girl on the bus to tell me I could sleep on her lap.

"Your hair is so soft," she said as she patted my head. A moment later, she turned to the girl next to her. "Did you feel this little boy's hair? You should feel it."

A couple of her friends joined in, messing and combing my hair. My unconscious and conscious selves got together for a moment and decided this was just fine. I snuggled in next to her. She smelled terrific. Later, in an extended moment of consciousness, she talked with me long enough to discover that I didn't know what the Mickey Mouse Club was - that it had gone off the air. I'd never seen it.

"How can you not know the club?" she exclaimed. She led her friends in singing the theme song, a surrealistic joy in my state of mind. One of the young men in the seat across from her made a comment about Annette Funicello that I didn't understand. I still don't really remember the words but I understand now why the mention got a reaction from the other teenagers. At the time, it was just another mystery. Older kids are aliens when you're ten. Teens seemed far beyond my comprehension, more so than adults.

When I did start to wake up towards the end of the second day, I noticed how communism in practice was different than in the propaganda. We got a tour of the Communist Party headquarters in Leningrad. The party leaders occupied the palace of a former Tzar. We got to see ordinary people standing in lines everywhere for fruit or bread. Not the party leaders. They had everything they wanted.

I had read Animal Farm by George Orwell in the year before. (My father's library was an odd place in which to grow up. Animal Farm was one of the shortest, easiest volumes in it.) This felt very much like the communal farm gone wrong. At one point, I scowled about Communist Party leaders getting into a limousine. My father, standing nearby me as usual, seemed to know exactly what I was thinking.

"All animals are equal," he said, "but some are more equal than others.”

"They're doing it right in front of us!" I stomped my foot like Snowball outraged by the betrayal of the revolution. The party leaders weren't even embarrassed by their hypocrisy.

"That was something I was glad you could see for yourself," he told me later.