Sunday, March 26, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 298: Biomythography - Note 48, Observing, Appreciating

Biomythography 48

Observing, Appreciating

"Look at the moon," Kate said in an awed voice. But she said it every night. 

During the first few weeks of the semester, her enthusiasm for ordinary things seemed cute. After a month, I rolled my eyes when she said it. After three months, I enjoyed the moon. A lot.

We met and lived in a small college. At that point in life, I'd never thought I would hear an adult express so much wonder about ordinary things. Of course, the moon is different every night. I hadn't appreciated the changes in it since I was seven. They were there, every time. Sometimes the sphere would glow bright and clear, every crater starkly visible. Sometimes it would be fuzzy.

On occasions, the moon was yellow. At other times, it had a rainbow around it.

Kate had a natural awareness built into her. She noticed so many changes in the world around her, the extent of her perceptions astounded me. Needless to say, she perceived more of the sensory world than most, especially visual cues. I was infamous for not noticing things even while I was working on improving my awareness. Kate came into my life and showed me how far I had to go.

"That flower is missing a petal," she would observe. I'd turn my gaze to follow hers and take a minute to find what she'd spotted at a glance.

With her in my life, I started actually looking at the moon and the flowers. And the dirt. And the cracks in sidewalks. Reflections in windows. Bugs in the corner next to a smear of grit that had worn off a cinderblock. The world had a different sensory influence while I was around her.

A couple months after we'd started dating, she took things to a different level during breakfast.

"I had a dream," she told me in the dining hall. And she told me her visions of the night before.

She did the same thing after the next night. And the next. And I started remembering my dreams. I didn't know you could learn it as a mundane skill. I certainly didn't know you could learn it without any intent. Recalling dreams while I was awake wasn't a super-power like observing things others don't. Still, my increased dream control lent itself to insights. First I remembered the visions. Then I had months of lucid sequences I could consciously influence. Then I could wake myself and return to the dreams. This was Kate's world. And a little more. Kate couldn't go back to the same dream and I could. The point is, maybe, she was so different that being near her changed me.

For years I had concentrated on disregarding the sensual world. Most especially, I'd given up expectations and desires. Now I was learning to appreciate ordinary things in life. In the process, I discovered it wasn't the opposite of giving up desire. And I'd worried that it was. 


Appreciation may seem in some ways like the opposite of abandoning desire. If you've given up attachments, for sure it's not. If you can allow yourself a desire and then detach from it, even better. For me, giving up my expectations was the most important part of my personal development process. And appreciation didn't endanger that. Rather, it opened me up to gratitude for life's experiences. I hadn't understood how deeply one could observe the world. I'd dismissed the idea of appreciation as a trivial enticement of samsara.

In late June after my time with Kate, I went out running at about four in the morning. On a country road without street lights, I turned a corner and found a celebration of sorts.

I stopped running to stare at it. On either side of the road in the underbrush, there was a display of small, yellow lights on the ground. Cautiously, I moved closer to the lights. I couldn't believe the phenomenon was natural. When I got close enough, I saw one of the lights move by a fraction. It was just a twitch. I leaned closer. I put my hand into the thorns and honeysuckle. I moved the leaves of the bushes aside. My eyes adjusted.

Finally, I could see. On the ground of the slope in front of me were fireflies. They weren't in the air, although the weather was perfect. They were walking on the ground. Their lights didn't blink. Were these a species of bug I didn't know? Should I think of them as glow worms? They clearly weren't worms, though. They had the beetle body in the shapes of the fireflies I normally saw aloft in the woods.

After a long while studying them, I let the leaves of the thorn bushes and honeysuckle move back into place. I ran on. And I never saw anything like it again. 

You can learn to appreciate. It takes effort when you're exhausted and sore. But you can.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 297: Biomythography - Note 47, Breathing and Observation

Biomythography 47

Breathing and Observation

She had a beautiful face with an upturned nose and long, dark hair. Sometimes I caught myself staring at her smile. She flashed one at me as I helped her into the Mustang. 

When she sat, she grabbed the back of her hair and pulled it around to her front right shoulder. It was a move she made without thinking. I hardly noticed it myself, anymore. She had to make sure neither of us could close the door on any part of her waist-low tresses. When I walked around to the driver's seat, she told me how much she liked the color of the car. 

"Oh yeah," I said. The comment made me pause to think. She'd told me once before. I dimly realized her father was a mechanic. She probably knew more about my car than I did. "The Mustang has been pretty great, really. The steering is kind of crap. But the engine has been reliable. The ride is going to be loud, this time. I need to replace the muffler but I couldn't make myself empty my emergency fund."

My budget was near enough to zero that I begrudged filling the gas tank. I'd been putting off needed repairs, as usual. To take a closer look at this particular problem, I'd shimmied underneath the vehicle to check the rust on the muffler. I'd seen how bad it was. Where the pipes connected and held the muffler to the frame, the rust had not only eaten through the metal from front to back but it had left holes. That was why the pipe sounded like a steamboat. I'd jiggered it with a wire coat hanger, which effectively became my muffler bracket. 

When I turned the key, the young woman's smile faded.

"That's pretty bad," she said. She had an educated ear, unfortunately. "You may need to spend the emergency fund."


"Probably carbon monoxide is getting in." She sniffed. For sure, all sorts of fumes were flooding us. 

"I'll crack a window," I replied.

"Okay." She settled back into her seat and beamed me another smile. Her judgments about me were probably as bad as mine about cars. 

I'd known her for a couple of years at this point. She was an old girlfriend who had decided to visit me at college. I'd expected the days with her to be awkward. Somehow, though, she made it friendly and romantic. She had arranged her visit while I was between girlfriends at school. It seemed like she and I were going to stay friends for a long while. 

"Why were you just sitting still this morning?" she asked. 

"I didn't think you noticed." I'd done it while she was brushing her hair, which took a while. 

"Well, you weren't doing anything." She gave me a concerned glance. "You looked like the Kung Fu show. Sitting like that, I mean. It was weird."

"I was meditating." I'd known it would look odd to anyone else. I usually meditated alone.

"Do you do it a lot?"

"A few times a day." Every morning, at least. The other times I chose were random. If I had time and I thought I needed it, I sat down to clear my mind. "Not during your visit, though."

"You didn't have to stop just for me." Her brow crinkled. "What is meditation, anyway?"

I tried to explain. My practice was my own, though. I didn't know anyone else interested. I'd started out with a method called envisioning. It worked well but I knew it was falling out of fashion. I'd moved to calmness meditation. In fact, I'd spent three years with a heartbeat-based method of clearing my mind. I'd learned to slow my pulse. I'd gotten pretty good. After that, though, I switched to breathing meditation, which was more popular. The breathing style had an opposite purpose to it, which made it hard at first.

At the start of breathing meditations, I found myself interfering with my breath. My awareness met with a conditioned reflex in me. I tried to try to control my breathing. After all, I had just been controlling my pulse. The whole point of the popular style, though, was to achieve naturalness. Breathing meditation encouraged self-observation including the ability to observe without exercising any conditioned responses. In the last year or two, I had partly tackled it. I could keep a clear mind for a long time. I could let my body work naturally despite my awareness. I practiced every day. Sometimes I got overly conscious and started affecting my breath or other parts of my body. But mostly I'd ditched my trained reflexes. I was observing my heartbeats and my breaths without asserting any changes. 

"You're looking flush," she said after a while. "Do you feel okay?"

"Yeah." She was looking pale, herself. We were both wondering about how the engine fumes were affecting us. 
"How long is the ride to Logan Airport?" she asked.

"Two hours," I sighed. 

"How long has it been so far?"

"Twenty minutes." I pulled onto Interstate 90. We headed east.

She had a good reason to be concerned. But the ride back was the part I dreaded more, since I'd be alone and bored. For now, maybe we were taking in some carbon monoxide but we'd be fine, a little woozy at most. She popped a Prince album into my tape deck. I listened to the music and to her descriptions of the problems she was having with one of her sisters. Sometimes she shared the dramas involving other members of her family.

Years in my future, we would go on similar drives. She would call to ask for a ride to a different city. She would accompany me on travels from state to state as groups of us went rafting or saw concerts. Once, she called at noon to ask me to come down to the courthouse to witness her marriage. She had been dating the guy for a week but they'd known each other for years and, to her surprise, he'd asked. Their ceremony was at three. My managers at the bar where I worked were so surprised, they broke their usual no-excuses rule and gave me the afternoon off to attend. 

Six months later, she called me in tears from three states away. She wanted a ride to get rescued from her husband. 

That morning in Massachusetts, though, she mostly talked about her family. The topic of my car kept us busy, too. The muffler noise ramped up. It started to rattle. She said I had turned from flush to pale. She rubbed her head like she was getting a headache. For my part, I had to admit I was feeling dizzy. I rolled down the window another inch. 

"These car fumes can't be good for you," she commented. "Are you going to be okay for the drive back?"


A minute later, we felt a thump. I glanced at my rear view mirror. I saw my muffler in my limited field of vision as it went tumbling along the highway behind us and off onto the shoulder.

I rolled down the window some more. 

"I'm already feeling weird," she complained. "And now I'm cold."


I was right about us being fine with the window down, though. We made it to Logan Airport with twenty-five minutes to spare. At the terminal, we hugged and kissed a little. 

"Make sure you stay awake the whole way home," she warned me. "You had me to check on you. Now I won't be there."
"I'll be fine."

Before I got in the car, though, I took a look at myself in a bathroom mirror. Given it was the early 1980s, I thought I was fine. I had tight jeans, a dark t-shirt that women seemed to like, and my hair was cropped tight on the sides in a lazy, partial mohawk. My skin looked a little pale, maybe, but nothing worse. Fine. I looked healthy.

If I was getting carbon monoxide, it all came down to math, didn't it? I'd breathed it for two hours. Obviously, it had been only a little per minute, far below the critical dose, whatever that was. I was going to have about a forty-five minute break from it. That was time enough for my body to heal up. Next, I had to breathe more carbon monoxide for two more hours. 

Deep in the garage, I turned on my car. Three other people in the concrete enclosure spun around in alarm. I smiled and waved. My window was already down.

As I pulled out of Logan, it occurred to me that I hadn't driven for long in this car with a broken muffler. I'd kept the windows open every time, too. Truthfully, I didn't know how much carbon monoxide was adding up in my system. 

I decided it was time for my new form of meditation to come to the rescue. Even before I got to the highway, I eased into better awareness. To my surprise, it wasn't harder to drive. It was different. Maybe my reactions were better. Unfortunately, right away I started breathing harder. My intense awareness made my desire to control each breath kick in. When I started getting light-headed, I had to wonder if I was simply doing it to myself with strained, shallow wheezes. I had to fix the attempt to control my body. 

Can you meditate better if your life depends on it? Of course you can. At least, my decision then was to improve. Why not get better at meditation at this very moment? 

Previously, I had been able to keep my awareness without accidentally invoking my self-consciousness for what seemed like a long time but was probably less than a minute. I'd lose the correctness. Then I'd adjust my mind. I'd achieve another half-minute. And so on. The state of my process wasn't good enough to keep my head above water, metaphorically, but I could keep getting back up to the surface for a while. Already, I'd developed the ability to turn attachments on or off (mostly keeping to the off because I was concerned about my lack of control when allowing re-attachments). Now it was time to exercise the same ability with my observational powers.

The problem was that my observational powers were crap. I felt intensely aware of it. 

After half an hour, I felt my breathing reverting to a natural pattern. My awareness remained. I felt different. I knew some of it might be carbon monoxide. My hands and face tingled. Even with normal breathing, I could feel the fumes dragging on my body. I pulled over to adjust the windows, carefully hand-cranking all four to the give me the coldest breeze I thought I could stand. Then, back on the highway, I remained in my aware, relaxed, meditative state. 

A few years later, I would discover new realms of observation. I'd come to feel it was its own thing, an important aspect of life. During the carbon monoxide drive, though, my extended moment of practice merely opened the door. For two hours, minus a second stop to adjust the windows for maximum air and minimum cold, I subsisted on awareness meditation. My body felt sick. But I felt good. Very good, very aware. My nose rebelled at the strong odor of burnt oil and other fumes. The tingling in my hands and face worsened. My light-headedness meant I had to concentrate a bit more. My body didn't care for the cold air, either. But my spirits improved. I accepted the freezing temperatures without shivering. When my lungs seemed to slow almost to a stop on their own, I pulled over and got out for a minute. I walked away from the car. I felt better. I got back in and drove the last half hour from Springfield to South Hadley. 

"Hey, this really works," I thought. I had been practicing in my dorm room, yes, but not with any urgency. This was the first time my awareness had seemed to be a practical skill. I was surprised to discover that, when I felt my life depended on it, I could improve. When it was important, I could be aware and natural. 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 296: Biomythography - Note 46, Forced to Notice

Biomythography 46

Forced to Notice

At six in the morning, a mile into my run, a monster passed over me.

The shadow's wingspan looked twice my size in the weak morning light. It was an unmistakable shape. Anyone who has seen a great horned owl in flight knows. Owl wings are built differently than those of other raptors. The beast crossed a dozen feet above my head. It dove across the road and came to rest in a tree. 

Then it was gone. As large as it was, the owl became invisible to my glance when it folded its wings. Logically, I knew it had perched on the high bough of an oak tree. 

It was one of the things you see when you're alone at an unusual hour. Most of the uncommon sights are wild animals. They are going about their usual business at their customary time. There are no humans in their landscape. Then you blunder in. You catch a glimpse of their life.

At three in the morning, on a similar run, a herd of deer ran alongside me. You can forget how large they are until they're an arms-length away. I was sprinting down the middle of a dark, lonely, country road. The herd of twenty deer ran by on either side. A barrier of brambles kept most of them away. A few large males danced through and back over the underbrush as if to make their point: I was slow; I was outnumbered by powerful beasts in the dark; they were many and they stayed together. They thundered by for half a minute. A dozen crossed in front of me as the herd veered away from its parallel path with the road on their way to elsewhere. In twenty seconds, the sound of them had faded.

Not every strange event is an animal. Once, while hiking across a wide-open field, I spotted a flicker in the sky. I marched toward it. The object in the air turned over and over. It half floated and half fell until it hit the ground a yard in front of me.

It was a piece of white bread.

The bread was perfect, not a bite taken out of it. There wasn't a condiment in sight. Nor was there a crow in the sky, nor an eagle. There was a plane above in the distance, a jumbo jet. It had taken off from Dulles to my west. White contrails streaked out behind it. Otherwise, there was nothing above besides the sun and a few clouds. I saw no indication of the origin of the bread. It simply arrived.

These are the facts you don't expect. When I was a father, I cut down a tree in my yard. Months later, I returned to chop and pry out the stump. When I started removing pieces, I discovered a wonderland of small tunnels. Beneath the roots of the willow-oak I unearthed a labyrinthine colony of bright, golden ants. I'd never seen golden ants before. They are rare, apparently. I don't dig up the ground very often, either. Maybe I'll never see them again. Right in the middle of my life, they made their home where I discovered it.

But I'd exposed the colony. I covered the divots over, trying to make their situation good, but nonetheless, by the next afternoon they were gone. Naturally, I checked.

Some of these opportunities may not be available to everyone. I have often been happy to wander far from other humans. Even when you think there's no one else, though, sometimes you meet other stragglers. That can be uncomfortable. I've run into drunk marines. I've talked at length with homeless men at their campsites. Once as a young teen I ran into a tall, middle-aged woman early in the day. We were each hiking a few miles inside the borders of the Seneca Creek State Park in a section without rangers or visitors.

She put her hand to her chest when she saw me. It was clear she was more surprised than I was. At least I lived close enough to feel the park was mine. My proprietary sense had drawbacks because it didn't match what anyone else thought but, still, I was aware that the forest, from time to time, bore trespassers upon my solitude. She was one, another in an unfortunate list of them.

For her, it had to seem strange to walk alone in an abandoned state park, deliberately as far as you could get from anything, and discover nonetheless there was someone else.

"Do I know you?" she said.

"No." I stopped and frowned at her. She persisted.

"I'm sure I do." She wore sensible hiking clothes and a hat to keep off the sun even though we were in a forest. "Do you go to Sidwell Friends?"

We were thirty-five miles from my school, a private school.

"Shit," I said.

"Excuse you," she replied. "I think I've seen you with my son."

We talked for a few minutes. As it turned out, I did in fact go to school with her son. He was a year older than I was but a nice guy. We didn't hang out much because he wasn't in my year. Her impression of her son, I came to understand, was that he felt insecure, which might have been true. But I felt violent and insecure myself, so he was the target of my reserved sense of friendship. Because he was nice. And fairly smart. She was, too.

"I'm here to look at the orchids," she announced.

"Are those flowers?"

Her mouth pressed tight into a line. In retrospect, she had to feel I was being deliberately dense and trying to get rid of her. She was right. But my desire for solitude battled with my sense of politeness.

"Do you live near this park?" she asked.

"In it."

"How wonderful for you." She gave me a hearty smile.

"No." When I caught the stern look on her face I backpedaled my emotional response. But only slightly. I was still a teenager in the midst of a teen life. "Not really, ma'am."

"There are orchids in this park that exist nowhere else in the world." A breathless tone crept into her voice with the revelation. She clasped her hands together with an emotionally-collected sort of pleasure.

"Flowers." At thirteen, I couldn't fathom why anyone would find such things interesting.

"Yes." In an instant, she made up her mind that I was both harmless and in dire need of an education. "Come with me."

Now it was worse than running into a stranger. I had spoken with a friend's mother. If she grew comfortable, she would try to take me back to my house for a friendly chat with my parents, who weren't actually at all friendly this morning, or she would dragoon me into a chore she thought was fascinating. As we walked together with me a half-step behind, I mulled over my excuses to leave. 

She led me a tenth of a mile to an unimpressive purple flower growing out of a bed of moss. I'd seen spiders with more color. She made hushed gasping sounds as she stared at it from afar.

"Do you ever pick up plants here?" she asked with an appropriate sense of suspicion.

"All the time." I destroyed them out of a sense of boredom, mostly. I didn't want to say so at the moment.

"Please don't hurt this one."

"Okay." It was important to her, I could tell. I crouched next to it. "If it's the only one in the world, why not save it? Transplant it. Take it home."

"It's not that type of flower, I'm afraid." For the first time, her expression turned grim. Most of the time, she was so determined and cheerful I thought no one could stand it. Yet I found myself liking her fortitude. "No one knows what makes it live and bloom, not precisely. It seems to need other plants. Or perhaps certain animals in the soil. Or something. If I dared to transplant it, I'd likely kill it. Others have tried. They've killed the only specimens they could find."

"Take a yard of dirt around it." I'd done it while transplanting bushes for my mother during my chores. It almost always worked, even when I tried in my lazy way to ruin the bush so I'd never be ordered to transplant it again.

"That fellow who killed the last one? That's what he tried."

She remained standing, staring at the plant and its partners for a while. I stayed crouched not far from it, a couple yards closer than she was.

"I'm glad I showed this to you," she announced.
"Thank you, Mrs. Wirth."

She regarded my sullen politeness with her hands on her hips. I'm fairly sure she thought something encouraging about me, like perhaps I would come to appreciate plants eventually. Or I would remember some part of what she said.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 295: Biomythography - Note 45, Cycling Through the Clouds

Biomythography 45

Cycling Through the Clouds

I was told to go out and play although, in my neighborhood, no one my age was allowed to come out that day. Their families were all busy. My solution was to get on a bike.

After I pedaled around Acredale Park for a while, I headed east on Metzerott Road. At the end, I reached a one lane bridge. I had to walk the bike up the last few steps of the bridge incline because it was too steep to pedal. When I finished, I came out on Route One. The road is known as Baltimore Avenue to some folks but to my parents it was always Route One.

Cars whizzed by along it and on University Boulevard nearby, on Greenbelt Road, and on the other thoroughfares around College Park.  The streets were always busy. They had sidewalks alongside them, though. As I regarded the bowling alley, which got boring without money, I vaguely remembered that Vit Babushka lived somewhere in Berwyn Heights. My mother always drove me. But I thought I knew how to find Vit's house on my bike. It became my goal for the day. I was sure I could find Vit wherever he was and get him to play outside.

I knew the direction. I was pretty sure his home wasn't any more than five miles away, maybe eight at most. I would recognize the neighborhoods my mother drove through to get there. So I headed off along Greenbelt Road until I got to a sign saying Berwyn. The sign didn't look quite right. I looked for another that said Riverdale. That was a road I needed. I was pretty sure my mother had taken a shortcut through Berwyn before, though, so I took the right into the Berwyn neighborhood and hoped I'd figure it out.

After a few turns, I got frustrated. The houses had started out seeming familiar but then they became strange. I couldn't find my way back to any right-seeming place. When I tried to take a cut across the development going further east, the road circled back almost all the way around. It didn't lead me to where I'd thought at all. The suburban landscape was turning out to be a maze of small switchbacks and streets ending in identical-looking cul-de-sacs.

At some point in my drive, I noticed a boy playing alone in his yard. He was about nine. I was nine, too. He watched me cycling from behind his backyard fence. A few minutes later, he watched me pedal by him again. 

The third time I showed up, he came out from behind the beam-and-chicken wire fence. I paused my bike and put my left foot down to wait for him. 

"What are you doing?" he asked. He had a wide-eyed face. He seemed remarkably unathletic with no muscle tone visible anywhere but he wasn't fat. Mostly, his body looked like he stayed indoors a lot and his hair looked like it grew flat and black in a natural bowl cut.

"Trying to bicycle to Berwyn Heights," I said.

"That’s a long way from here," said the boy. His eyes got even wider.

"Yeah." I slumped a little. I knew I'd wasted a couple miles of effort. But I had hope. I wasn't off course by those miles because I'd gone roughly in a circle.

"Are you gonna go play?"

"Where I'm going? Yeah."

"Why don’t you play here?" He turned and swung his arm toward his back yard. "You’ll have to stay outside, though. My mama don’t let strangers in the house."

I parked my bike next to his backyard fence. We talked for a while and I decided I might as well take a break in his yard. He seemed quiet but friendly. His yard had a standard set of toys in it, all of them too small as if his parents didn’t understand how old he was. He had a doll next to his sandbox. The sandbox had no sand in it. His baseball bat wasn't real, only hollow plastic. He had a baseball glove but it was tiny, meant for a first-grader. 

We played for a long time anyway, mostly games that didn't need toys like freeze tag, hide and go seek, marco polo, tic tac toe drawn in the dirt, and others we made up like long-jumping contests. The other boy moved slowly. He managed to seem lazy even while jumping. He got tired fast, too.

After an hour or so, we got to lunchtime. Sure enough, like the boy had said, his mother wouldn’t let me in to eat. She wouldn't even come to the screen door. She wouldn’t fix food for me. And she wouldn’t leave the house to meet me in the yard because I was a stranger. I hadn't ever met an adult quite like her except I wasn't sure I'd met her. I'd barely heard her quiet, firm voice from a distance.

"I know how to do it," said the boy. "Stay right here. It’ll take a minute. Don't leave. Please don't leave. I’ll have her make me twice as much for lunch."

I played on his swing set for a little while. I laid down to wait on his side-yard stoop. He came out with a sandwich and two apples. He started on his apple and I ate the rest while he talked.

"My momma is praying," he said. "Do you think there is a God?"

"No, I guess not." The sandwich was dry. It was like a peanut butter and chalk sandwich. 

"You’ll go to hell then." He took a bite of his apple. The apples were sort of mushy. He didn't seem to enjoy his much. 

"Maybe," I allowed.

"Aren’t you worried? Don’t you believe?"

I shrugged. Sometimes, of course, I wanted to believe. Most of the time, everybody said I was good. I was the best behaved of boys. It would be nice to think I'd be rewarded for being good. But I didn't believe it. 

"My grandma is mad," he continued, "because she says there is no heaven, not really, not like she was taught when she was a girl."

"Why is your grandma different?" I asked. It had become plain over these hours that his parents were very religious in a hushed and fervent way. 

"When she was little, they said heaven was up in the clouds. But then people could fly. People flew in airplanes."

I nodded.
"They could look down on the clouds. And they didn’t see no angels."

"I hadn’t thought of that," I said. I wouldn't have, either.

"All grandma's brothers and sisters and everyone she knew was mad like her," he said. "The preacher lied to them. There weren't no angels in the clouds."

"Did she really think heaven was in the clouds?"

"Uh huh." His big round eyes seemed entranced by a vision. "She said everyone did. I do, too."

"You do? What about the people who can fly?"

"I don’t know. Maybe flying isn't right." He frowned as he considered his next thought. If flying wasn't right, it would still be hard to stop people flying.
After we finished eating, I asked for a glass of water. I needed it even more than the food. It had been a long morning of cycling and playing. 

"Let me see," he said. He headed back in with a sandwich wrapper to throw away. When he came back, though, he said,"Mama won't give me a glass of water for outside. I'm only allowed to drink inside."

"That doesn't make sense."

He raised an eyebrow. He felt he and his mother were very sensible.

"I thought of something while my mama was talking," he allowed after a few seconds. "We have a hose. You can use it."

"Okay, yeah." 

We struggled to use the hose, though. He had turned it on by himself only once before and he got in trouble for leaving it on. So I did it while enduring constant checking from his watchful eye. Even after I wiped off the nozzle, I found the drink from the hose was bitter. It didn't taste like the stuff at home. There was a lot of liquid ice, though, and that was the main thing. When I ran it for a minute, it was cold. 

"Don't have too much," he warned. "You'll get sick."

My grandmother said things like that all the time. I knew to nod and agree but I made sure to feel full of water before I stopped. 

We spent the afternoon playing. And fighting. 

"You have to let me win because it's my house," he said as he tried to sit on my shoulders and hit me. The argument worked on me for a few seconds. His punches weren't as forceful as slaps from my younger brother. But I got tired of lying there. I rolled him over, grabbed his bowl of hair, and slammed his head into the ground a couple of times.

"Is that enough?" I asked. I let go of his hair. 

"Yeah, I guess so." He had been sullen when he started the fight. He seemed fine with losing it, though. "Let's get on the swings again. That was best."

"Want me to push you?"


Later in the afternoon, though, he started to get anxious.

"You have to leave now," he said. 

"I suppose so." My parents might worry. Reluctantly, I had to acknowledge how biking home was a good idea. I didn't relish the long trip, though, or the prospect of finding my way to Greenbelt Road again. If I could only find that main road, I'd be fine.

"No, I mean, you have to leave before my father gets home."

Both of his parents didn't want me, then. After I slurped another long drink from the hose, I walked through the gate. I kicked up the stand and hopped on my banana-seat five-speed. Part of me thought it was amusing how the other boy watched me in awe. 

As it turned out, though, I ended up back at his house. 

"I wondered," he said. He was standing in front of his gate as if he hadn't moved for ten minutes.

"Do you know how to get out of here?" I rested my forehead against the chrome-painted spider handlebars. I'd pedaled another two circles through the neighborhood. "Does your mother?"

"It's mostly just my daddy what knows, I guess."

So I met his father. He pulled up while we were still talking outside the gate. 

Although I don’t remember what the man looked like, I recall his concern. In a stern way, he seemed genuinely alarmed that I had come so far from home and gotten lost. His son did most of the talking and he painted me, somewhat unjustly, as a brave and noble figure. His father gave me directions out of the neighborhood and, if I'm remembering correctly, he also followed me in his car for the first turn or two to make sure that I wasn’t getting lost again. Pretty soon I was on Greenbelt Road. 

There’s no reason to remember any of this. The day wasn't special. I had other one-time meetings with boys my age. But I do remember. The story the boy told about his grandmother stuck with me. 

He had been convinced that everyone once believed heaven was in the clouds. Heaven was angels standing on puffs of wet air. Literally. As I grew older, I tried to rationalize the memory of his grandmother's disappointment. I tried to tell myself almost no one but her believed. After all, it wasn't a popular delusion that showed up in history books. I tried to rationalize it even though I'd met some of my relatives and Pennsylvania and the older ones had told me about angels in the clouds and other beliefs of their generation.

As I grew older still, I realized I should take my relatives' testimonies at face value. They had believed heaven was literally on the upper side of the clouds. Practically everyone had. The boy with his troubled grandmother had been right.  It was weird to keep believing it after airplanes got invented but he was a kid.

My own relatives in the Pond and Light families of Pennsylvania had fallen for evangelical movements in their youth. They had believed in the presence of heaven in the clouds. At least one of them had refused to use the telephone (for her whole life) because it was a tool of the devil. A handful of them thought planes were sacrilegious.  From them I also heard how, in the generation before, others of my ancestors believed the world would come to an end in 1869, 1872, 1874, and 1881. The world kept not ending but they kept believing. 

A lot of Americans, maybe most Americans, believed in angels standing on the upper side of the clouds. It's not a part of history that gets written about. I'd say it's forgotten. Yet we're not far removed from it.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 294: Biomythography - Note 44, Through the Ice, Part II

Biomythography 44

Through the Ice, Part II

Joe agreed to move fifty yards east to play along Piney Branch Creek.  We peered into all the holes that might hide snakes.  We dug out two of them.  It took an hour.

He was right about our chances, though.  In the winter, snakes were rare. They only came out on the warmest of days. This wasn’t one of those. We bothered the fish in the water by trying to catch guppies. We skipped stones across the water.  We ranged up and down the river banks, pulled out sedimentary rocks, slithered partway into water pipes, and dared each other to walk across fallen trees above the water.

Eventually, the sun overhead told us the time was past noon.  Our stomachs agreed.  After we started to head back, Joe took notice of the pond again.  It was just sitting there, looking trustworthy, pathetic, and lonely for his company.

“Come on!” he yelled as he ran to the frozen surface and used his hard-worn, smooth-soled Keds to skate a few yards.

I had been reading children's adventure books about life in the wild.  They all dwelled on how falling through ice-covered lakes into frigid water would lead to a quick death.  The stories added an extra thrill of fear to my school films and scout training sessions.  Nevertheless, I joined Joe on the frozen pond.  This time, I felt bold enough to skate across the thickest, whitest sections.  These were the parts of the pond where I'd seen adults jump and land during skating session the week before.  I trusted them.  They covered the darkest depths of the water but, importantly, they didn't make noise under me.

We drifted and skimmed over the icy patches for a while.  Once or twice, we tried sliding our whole bodies.  The surface started to groan again.  I scrambled away from the weakest, most see-through sections.  In other places there were dirty puddles on the frosty covering and I avoided those, too.  Joe noticed.

"You're scared of the ice!" he shouted.

"It's cracking!" I called back.  With that, I headed for the north edge.  It was the best spot to head for home.  "We should go."

"We've been all over it."  He picked out a weak section and skated through.  "There's nothing wrong."

He aimed for another transparent sheet, one in the center of the north half of the water.  He skated into it.  He drifted to a stop.  Suddenly, he looked up at me.  He'd felt something.  

The surface exploded.  The noise, all by itself, made me flinch.  Around Joe, bits flew up like broken glass. Plates of the pond ice rose up around him, too, much bigger and more impressive than the barely-visible specks.  The ice plates dumped him into the center.  He disappeared into the hole they left behind.  

"Joe!" I yelled.  My feet took me out onto the ice.  There were huge cracks in it now, most of them leading to where my friend had gone.

"Help!"  Joe's head bobbed to the top of the water.  "Help!  Pull me out!"

There was no one else around to make a human chain.

Joe continued to scream.  For a minute, I ran around the shore looking for big tree branches.  I got the biggest I could find and dashed back with it to let Joe grab on.  I slipped as soon as I hit the ice.  The fall hurt but I didn't break the thick, white ice.  I didn't break the branch, either.  I scrambled to my feet and shimmied forward as close to Joe as I could.

He continued to scream.  He flailed at the ice floes around him.  He was making progress, in a way.  The hole in the ice was bigger because he kept breaking off sections of it in his hands.  I watched as he tried to heave himself back onto the frozen surface.  Another piece broke off, bigger than his whole body.  He sank with it for a second.  Then he bobbed back up.

"Here!  Can you grab on?"  The tip of the branch didn't come close, no matter how much I extended my arm.

"You've got to come out farther!" he yelled.

The ice was popping under me.  Water lapped up around my toes.  Where had it come from?  I didn't know.  My shoes were soaked through.  This didn't seem smart.

"You've got to swim to the branch!" I countered.

"I can't!"

After he tried to swim and didn't get far, he started to scream, not at me but at everyone, everything.  He hung onto the west edge of the ice hole and cried at the top of his lungs.

I remembered what the instructor said about there not being much time.  I threw down the branch where it was.  Maybe it would be good for someone bigger than me.  Then I skated as fast as I could for the edge.

"I'm going to get someone!" I vowed.  It was a long way to find any people, though.  

I put my head down and ran from the pond in a diagonal across the borders of the horse obstacle course all the way to the road.  To my surprise, when I lifted my head, I saw someone walking on the side of the road.

It was John.  

“He’s fallen through the ice!” I yelled at him.

“Have you seen Joe?”  He grumbled, looming big and strong as he marched in his tense gait.

“It’s him!  He’s fallen through!”  Finally, I reached him.  I couldn't stop moving.  I started hopping from one foot to the other.

“My mom wants him," John growled.  For the first time, I really looked at his face.  He looked more than irritated.  "He’d better not be in the woods.”

“He’s on the pond.  He's in the pond!  He’s in the water.”

John frowned.  “It’s too cold for that.”

“He’s going to die!  We have to make a human chain!”

Finally, my panic got through John's initial annoyance.  He didn't like being sent to look after Joe, especially since his brother had a habit of hiding or getting deliberately lost.  He'd been given the job of assistant parent without any pay or benefits.  But it was definitely his job.  His back straightened.  He studied me for an instant.

“Show me,” he said.

I had already turned back toward the pond.  Now I started to run.

Even before we got to the water, we could hear Joe.  We could see his head, too, as it bobbed above the muddy surface. Although I was running as hard as I could, John galloped by.  My vision turned spotty.  I had been moving at my top speeds for so long, I was starting to faint.  I tripped and fell before John reached the pond.  When John first put a toe on the ice, though, it cracked.  He stopped.

“Just climb out, Joe!” he yelled.  His voice had the power to cut through Joe's wailing.  “I can’t get you.  The ice is too thin.”

"I can’t," Joe cried.  His arms slapped at the edges of the ice.  He was continuing to enlarge the hole but he wasn’t getting out.

I staggered closer to crouch by the pond and try to catch my breath.  I was watching John watch his little brother flail for twenty seconds.  It seemed like a long time.  Joe looked weaker than he had after he'd fallen in.  He'd lost his hat.  His winter jacket had puffed up and elongated an inch or two in the sleeves, like it was losing shape.

“Oh, for heaven's sake,” said John.  He let out a deep sigh.  Then, with a look of steely determination he started to march across the ice.

The ice broke under him.  John almost slipped and fell. After a second of hesitation, he stared at the pond beneath his feet and stomped.  He put his boot through to the bottom. Where he was, in the shallows, the water was only a foot deep.

To me, it was like he was walking on water. Even Joe shut up about dying for a moment and stared open-mouthed at his brother.

Stomp, crack, fall.  Stomp, crack, fall. Each step that John took ended with a crunch on the level below, as if he was encountering a layer of ice at the bottom of the pond or maybe he was crushing the surface ice into a layer of semi-frozen silt.

With increasing anger and irritation, John thundered across the tiny lake.  The water got deeper and deeper, up to his waist, up to his chest.  He cracked the ice with his knees. He pushed floes to the side with his stomach. At chest height in the brown water, he grabbed his younger brother by the arm and shirt collar.

“Shut up,” he said, because his brother had started to howl again.

Horribly, the path back to the shore had filled up with ice floes.  It looked like a frozen surface.  John surveyed the obstacles in his way with a determined eye.  He smacked ice with his arms as he waded back.  He brushed away the small floes.  When he got to a big patch of fresh ice, the water came up only to his knees.  He stomped his way through it like he'd done on the way out.

Next to him, Joe was pale and blue.  

John set his brother down on his feet.  He looked intently, deeply into Joe's eyes.

"What are you going to tell mom?" he said.

"H-h-hot bath."  Joe's blue lips trembled.  "I need a bath."

"You fell in the creek," John announced.  "Or don't say anything.  Just go and change.  Get in the bath.  If she asks questions, tell her you fell."

"O-o-okay."  Joe would have agreed to anything.

John made Joe walk a few steps.  When Joe stopped, John pushed.  Joe clearly wanted to be carried but his older brother, just as clearly, didn't want to do the carrying.

"Were you playing on the pond after I told you not to go near the water?" John asked.


"You two are idiots."  John spared a glance for me.  Joe and I stared at him, open-mouthed.  Joe bowed his head a moment later.  He huddled as he walked, then as he tried to run for home.  He kept shivering.  John stalked behind him, angry, steaming, and about half as wet, which was plenty.


In retrospect, the pond was no more than seven feet deep anywhere.  It was probably no more than four and a half feet where Joe fell through.  We were pretty small kids at the time, though.  And we panicked.

We made everything way, way worse with our panic.

Sometimes things are not as dangerous as they seem but we make them deadlier with our bad reactions.  John, who at the time I regarded as a bully, looks to me now like a put-upon older brother.  He understood the situation better than Joe or I did.  The two of us who were younger treated the tiny, artificial lake as if it were bottomless.  Because that was wrong, I think Joe could have flailed until he froze.  He didn't understand that a different sort of struggle might have helped.  Or maybe it wouldn't.   

Sometimes the best thing to do is simply be brave and determined to do what is right.  That was John.

Another lesson, I guess, is that sometimes your brother can’t stand you. But he still loves you.  And he is willing to risk himself to save you.  And he will.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 293: Biomythography - Note 43, Through the Ice, Part I

Biomythography 43

Through the Ice, Part I

I was seven. Joe was eight. It was a winter day.

The half-foot of snow that had covered the ground on the weekend before was gone. Each morning and each evening, everything around us had melted and refrozen. This morning we saw it had happened again. The puddles in our yards had turned to ice. The grass turned greenish after a couple hours. By late morning, the soil alternated between feeling frozen solid and being spongy, dark and wet. 

Joe and I tried to play games inside, then outside, and eventually decided to do his favorite thing. We went to explore the creek. Permission from Joe’s mother came easy. She usually wanted her kids to make themselves scarce and his father liked to work at the University of Maryland on the weekends. Joe's father studied insects for a living, a profession I could only vaguely comprehend. 
I understood that Joe loving snakes was somehow related to his father’s job, though. Every trip in the woods ended up as a search for snakes.

That day, Joe and I hiked up Metzerott Road on the east end. This was a land where no cars ventured even though they could. The only destinations were vacant sections of the public park. We passed the baseball fields and the horse obstacle course. We passed the fishing pond to our right. At this time of year, it was also the skating pond.

The pond had been made when construction workers cut back trees to build our park sections. Someone among them had had the foresight to dig out a pond with an island. Although it was bigger than a baseball diamond and looked planned, it had been an unofficial accomplishment. It didn't appear on park maps. The water in it was shallow enough to freeze over for a month or two, when it became the neighborhood ice-skating rink.

Every winter, the neighbors would check the pond as it iced. When the surface was thick enough for use by adults, the neighborhood agreed it was allowed for children, too. Then scores of people would skate along the natural rink. Anyone who could find the pond and tie on skates was welcomed or at least not driven away, not even if they came from miles off. Some did.

Everyone skated with more or less equal skill. No one knew how to do any tricks more impressive than a figure eight and even then, most of those were done by teenage girls of a certain age and stylishness. They dressed like Peggy Fleming and skated as much like her as they could. Men and young boys, if they skated at all, met at the pond to rough-house on the ice or to play pick-up hockey games.

When Joe and I passed the pond that Saturday, we noticed the frozen glaze on top of it. A week earlier, we had been allowed to skate. We wanted to keep on doing it but my parents gave me a definite no.

"It's not safe," my mother said.

"Didn't you take the scout safety course?" my father asked me. "The den leader said you did."

In school and in scouts, I'd watched safety films on the dangers of falling through ice. They were dramatic in a black-and-white documentary sort of way. The voice-overs sounded authoritative. The holes in the ice looked wide and deep. Moreover, in the scouts, they showed us how to form a human chain. We practiced being heroic rescuers. We linked hands to ankles like in our film so we formed a human ladder of sorts lying horizontal across the ice, which was played in our drill by the den mother's beige carpet. When we used this method, our safety instructors told us, we wouldn't fall through the ice and we stood a good chance of rescuing someone who had.
"But it's still not safe," warned one instructor, who may have been married to our den mother.

"Follow the instructions of the nearest adult," added our den mother.

"Or the oldest kid." The instructor put his hands on his hips and shrugged. There weren't always adults around and he knew it. "You don't have much time. A few minutes, at most, when the water is near freezing."

In the films, schoolchildren lay themselves across the white expanse until the biggest and oldest of them reached a hole in the dark water.
“Let’s try it,” said Joe, meaning he wanted to test the warmed-up ice on our neighborhood pond. I opened my mouth to object. He ran to the edge of the water and slid a few feet across the slick surface. It crackled beneath him. I glanced down. Parts of the ice were transparent.

“My mom said no,” I reminded him. I put one foot onto the surface. It emitted a hollow sound. No cracks appeared, though.

"It's still fine!" Joe skated for three yards on his tennis shoes. Right over the deep parts. The ice made popping sounds but still no cracks developed.

“Your brother said no way.” His brother, John was eleven. Among the neighborhood kids, he was a figure of authority. He got as much respect as an adult.

John had brown hair, not red like Joe. He had muscles instead of being skinny. In all, John seemed like he had always been a much tougher boy than his brother. He also, it seemed to me, picked on Joe an unreasonable amount. When Joe complained or shirked on a job or just kept laughing and playing instead of listening, John hit him.

When I tried to intercede on Joe’s behalf, I discovered that John was effectively made of iron as far as my seven year old body was concerned. He would start pushing Joe down, and I would run in to fight. An elbow or even a mere shrug from John would send me flying. 

Once, we younger kids had wandered into the bedroom that Joe and John shared. We saw John was jumping off the top bunk onto the back of his neck and rolling flat. He was doing it deliberately to test his own toughness.

"I want to try," I said. I'd watched it twice. It looked fun, the way John did it.

"Absolutely not," he intoned. He hardly even looked at me.

"Why not?"

"Your neck is a matchstick," he replied.

I tried to come up with arguments in response. He refused to hear any. Except, oddly, he tried to persuade Joe to try the trick. Joe was a year older and his neck wasn't any stronger than mine, so it seemed odd. But John wanted Joe to be tougher.

"You've got to be strong, Joe," he said. "You've got to. You have to stop wimping out at things."

Maybe that was why, unlike the other big kids in the neighborhood who pummeled me when I came to Joe’s defense, John seemed to respect the fact that I was trying. Except for once, when I punched him in the nose, he seemed to think that my defense of his brother was proper. He still wasn’t going to permit it. But he made a sort of allowance that was the right thing for a friend to try.

"You two are idiots," he told us eventually. "Get out of here."

"It's my bedroom too," pointed out Joe. 

John gave him an annoyed look and stepped toward us. We ran.

We had seen John on that winter morning, too. He had been playing catch in one of the neighborhood yards. He'd noticed us. He’d ordered Joe to stay away from the water. He'd laid on an additional warning against getting lost in the woods. Their mom might want everyone home for lunch and John didn't want to come looking.

"You brother said don't do anything stupid," I told Joe.

"You're scared of the ice, aren't you?" Joe teased.

"It makes sounds, Joe." When it was thick, it never made a noise.

"It's fine." He ran, hopped, and glided for another couple yards to prove his point.

He kept playing on the ice. I kept sliding around the edges near the shore. The surface stopped making weird sounds but I couldn't bring myself to completely trust it. Inspired by a thought, I tried to lure Joe away from the pond.

"Come on, let's go look for snakes," I said.

"There won't be any. It's too cold." He knew what I was trying to do.

"But that's even better if we find them. We can bring them home and your parents will let you keep them. You said so." Joe had acquired knowledge on how to resuscitate hibernating snakes and he was eager to try it out.

“Yeah,” he breathed. His eyes got a faraway look.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 292: Love 2023

by Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons
Valentine Press Release: Love Version 11
Special Reporting by Secret Hippie

A Word to Our Users
from All Powerful Software Products
The Newest Release of Love (TM)

Product History

Love 1.0: By today's hardware standards, there were many deficiencies in the first release of Love, a product designed entirely with the New Parent market in mind. It was a strong, basic operating system -- completely adequate for its time -- but it has grown tremendously since. It should be noted that Love's basic foundation was solid, as has been proven over many years and billions of customers.

Love 1.1: Several features were added due to early consumer demand. These included Love for Pre-Adolescents, Love for Seniors, Love for Siblings, and Love for In-Laws and Other Relations.

Love 1.2: Due to complaints from users with special, problem In-Laws, patches were added to the 1.1 version code in attempt to fix the unsatisfactory situation.

Love 1.4: Love for Pets was introduced and became an instant hit. This popular feature has been carried forward in all releases. Further patches to the In-Laws code were issued.

Love 2.0: Critics applauded the new, friendlier interface for Love, which divided the program into five sections: Agape, Eros, Narcissus, Familia, and Platonia. Users found it easier to get all sorts of Love. This was the version which made the product a household word. There were, however, system crashes caused by certain users attempting to make the product achieve things the designers did not anticipate.

Love 2.02: Patches to the 2.0 code were installed to prevent affection crashes under unusual circumstances.

Love 2.03: An Arranged-Marriage module was added. Love for Pre-Adolescents was extended to cover adolescents.

Love 2.1: A same-sex "lifelong" feature was added. The In-Laws section was re-coded and renamed the Extended Familia module.

Love 2.3: This release was issued by mistake. (The version number is unofficial.) A tool in it featured several programmer shortcuts which, when abused by inexperienced Lovers, often resulted in complete affection destruction. It was briefly popular. Pirate copies of this version still exist.

Love 3.0: Single parents greeted this release with joy at the new Step Parents feature in Agape. This module (still recognized as superbly written, despite competitors' attempts to offer alternative arrangements in the same market) is in use in its original form in the most recent release. Unfortunately, this particular Love sold poorly and had to be pulled from circulation due to difficulties in the interface.

Love 3.1: Errors in interface design were fixed in response to customer complaints. A move toward standardization of the hardware situation (in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas) made stable code seem within reach to our programmers. The drive toward "perfect" code started.

Love 3.2: A safety feature was added to prevent Lovers from disfiguring themselves (a common occurrence with affection engines at the time). Additional safety features are now available in Love but no product can be perfectly safe. Caution with affections is always advised.

Love 3.3: Despite some inadequacies with respect to modern hardware, this version of Love has proven very robust; it was the result of the attempt (now recognized as impossible) to create perfect code. In fact, 3.3 is still in use in many regions of the globe. This was the most popular release of Love, partly due to pirate copies. All of the main features for which Love is famous are present in 3.3, though some special tasks may prove unreasonably difficult to achieve. Upgrade from this version is strongly recommended.

Love 4.0: The evolution of the user environment prompted an entirely new look at the Love operating system. Hardware began to last longer and require more intricate management. The Eros and Familia sections had to be modified. Twenty-three new modules were added in an attempt to supply Love to "expandable" systems designed to stand the tests of time. The overall package was revolutionary. Unfortunately, some copies (no one knows how many) of 4.0 were released with a virus.

Love 4.01: A patch was added in the form of basic virus-protection. This protection, it should be noted, is now regarded as inadequate in today's volatile environment. All Powerful corporation urges users to upgrade or to buy third-party protection if they intend to continue running any outdated release.

Love 4.1: The Extended Familia feature was disabled. A Distance Relationship package was offered in its place. (Mapping functions and travel recommendations were included.)

Love 4.4: A special War-Time Love edition. Very rare. Included are all the familiar Love features but the sum total was repackaged and offered to service families at a lower price. One notable change was the Distance Relationship module, which was expanded to include all possible permutations at the time (a feat made possible by the brilliance and dedication of war-time programmers and engineers). Distance Relationships are still an important affection market and Love is still its overriding provider.

Love 5.0: This is one of a handful of versions considered to be “classic.” It is very stable in most of its features. The new, completely-revised In-Law module failed under certain hardware configurations.

Love 5.03: This is the free upgrade version distributed to purchasers of Love 5.0. Special handlers in the In-Law module prevent most crashes. Some of the code in this section works slowly. Users are advised to be patient with In-Laws.

Love 5.5: In this edition, a special Commuter module was added to the Distance Relationship package. Contrary to popular rumor, this module was not 'stolen' from the Traveling Salesman package offered by a rival company. (Note: the company in question is no longer in existence. Love has acquired the Traveling Salesperson responsibility.)

Love 6.0: With changes in hardware becoming more frequent, Love stepped up to the speed challenge.

Love 6.1: Special Love Compression software arrived. With heart space at a premium, code reduction schemes allowed for the queuing and unpacking of various emotions necessary to run the new, more-complete In-Laws module. The lack of necessary affection channels in most hardware kept these modules from being practical before.

Love 6.2: Due to lawsuits involving the Love Compression engine, this version shipped without it. The In-Law module available in 6.1 continued to be offered but with a special disclaimer in the setup program as to the extra space needed to house the unpacked code.

Love 99: This release presented a radical change from previous versions. Lovers benefited from a smoother interface. Allegations arose that the look and feel were unfairly similar to the Adore (now iAdore) package. Fortunately, court decisions sided with the Love designers. The All Powerful interface to emotions continued to grow.

Love XL: A new generation of lovers required extra large devotion with additional features. As a bonus, the Love XL package came with the ability to troll for compliments at leading social sites like MyPassion.

Love Visa: Designers allowed for an improvement in touch interface. However, this version did not perform well with the newest generation of hardware. In this release, the company lost market share to iAdore.

Love 7.0: This release achieved “classic” status in the opinions of many reviewers. The new Love Expander module competed strongly with iAdore and won back market share. Thanks to a more efficient Nepotism affection engine, the In-Laws module cemented its hold in business relationships.

Love 8.0: In the era during which MyPassion gave way to LikeFace and gSpot, Love concentrated on reaching out via phones.

Love 8.1: Improvements arrived to Love telecommunications. Many of those found their way into traditional Love hardware. Popular business apps like Quickie and LinkedUp stimulated offices around the globe. Games like HeartRace and Lovey Birds made everyone's pulse beat faster. The developers made antivirus protection part of the standard Love feature set.

Love 10: Love was everywhere. Most especially, it was in the air with LoveCloud. As demanded by our business customers and as a free add-on feature for our single Lovers (with a small monthly maintenance charge), a new wave of technology arrived to spread Love even farther. With LoveCloud, affections grew shared more widely and more securely. Customers used LoveCloud in business, during official and recreational travel, and at home.

Love 10.1: Cumulative patches to the LoveCloud service allowed for more security. Users reported the benefits to having their Love tracked more precisely. Among them, advertising associated with affections grew more targeted.

Love 10.2: Some governments tracked forbidden affections too closely and, with this version, LoveCloud became unavailable in some nations and in some parts of the United States.

Love 10.3: Love as a service grew even more popular in this version. Terms of service changed. With this release, unsubscribing required a call to All Powerful to explain more fully. This was for the benefit of the service and other customers. 

Love 11: Introducing LoveAI! 
All Powerful corporation has heard the call of the public for Artificial Love. We acquired the LoveChat engine, which we have combined with our powerful LoveCloud to form our LoveAI service. LoveCloud (TM) now offers more intelligent matching, fun catfish games, special distance add-ons, premium services, and custom writing. The chat function is so good you may no longer be able to tell whether or not you're in love with a non-person! But you definitely are in Love! 

Anyway, the special person in your life deserves a handwritten, individual card. Does anyone care if it wasn't written by you personally? Almost certainly not. The LoveAI can take your ideas (or even a sketch) and generate cards that you would have written if you'd expended more effort. This service is available even in the basic package!

FreeLove is Not All Powerful
As always, we must issue this disclaimer: You may have heard of an open source product called FreeLove, originally produced by a former employee of ours using many modules of our original code. This hobbyist product is under legal dispute and it is not covered under All Powerful terms of use. It is strictly an imitation. You should be warned there have been complaints about the FreeLove line of affections. FreeLove has many design flaws and bugs in implementation. Of course, it is free and you may think it is a good bargain until it ruins some important relationship. Remember that you end up paying for what you get.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 291: Longest Night

For Diane at Yule 2022

Put down your burden, rest your pack.
Straighten up your tired back.
All the things that you're achieving
Can rest upon the longest evening.

Ease your worries, smooth your smile.
Close your eyes a little while.
Take my hand and sit with me.
Rest beneath the green fir tree.

A pause to breathe, a moment to drink,
Time to look into a fire and think.


Tomorrow we will lift our loads
and keep our promises
and hike our roads.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 290: Biomythography - Note 42, Hating to Sing, Part II

Biomythography 42

Hating to Sing, Part II

Outside, the world was windy, cold, and wet. My parents didn't care to make me do chores. My brothers had been left to play. And so we had. We had battled each other in cribbage and rummy for hours. But the youngest had left the game. My middle brother wanted to read. Fortunately, I found there was going to be a Nova special I wanted to watch. I tossed down the curled-over TV guide and knocked on the door next to my bedroom.

Our house had two televisions. That Sunday, my father chose to watch Gunsmoke re-runs downstairs in the smoke-filled haze of his combination library and recreation room, which lay next to my bedroom. The air around him was so thick he couldn't see his show but it didn't matter. He didn't look up from his crossword puzzle. He'd seen every Gunsmoke episode dozens of times. He wouldn't let me switch to the Nova special.

"Not interested," he said. "Anyway, you've seen that one."
He wasn't curious to see a re-run of the Six Million Dollar Man, either, or the Muppet Show. It was too early in the day to lure him into Kojak or the Rockford Files, so I headed upstairs to the living room. There, to my surprise, I found my mother watching television.

"What is this?" I gestured to everything in the room. My mother never watched this television without my father's presence. She always worked outside instead.

"It's a rebroadcast of Pavarotti in an opera," my mother explained. She had a brunch tray in front of her, mostly finished. "I've been looking forward to it. I missed it when it was live. It's pretty good."

"Nova is doing a special on star formation."

"You can see it later. I'm watching this." Her tone was final.

For a while, I wandered around the house, banging on surfaces to have something to do, eating cereal, and eventually pulling cheese slices out of the fridge. I peered into my brothers' rooms as I ate cheese. One was asleep. One was reading.

I grabbed a tangerine and sat down on the couch in front of the upstairs television. As far as the house rules went, I was allowed to listen to classical music and to big band music if I could stand it. Radio shows from the 1940s were pretty much mandatory. Opera was permitted with the idea that it was classical. My father didn't care for it, though. I'd seen a ballet (well, I'd slept through four) but I'd never seen an opera performance.

We had an album of the H.M.S. Pinafore, which was passable enough, but no one referred to it as opera.

Partway through peeling the tangerine, I started to hate what I was hearing. Pavarotti looked like he was supposed to be playing someone young and poor but he was about two hundred pounds heavier than he should have been. He bellowed about the weather for a few minutes. He went on about an apple or a ribbon, too, or some other prop. The other actors pretended to chuckle for him. Everyone's acting was so bad that, aside from the fake laughter, I generally couldn't tell what emotion they were hoping to portray.

That was it for "La Bohème" and for all of opera, forever and ever as far as I was concerned. I grabbed another copy of the TV guide and thumbed through it. I noticed the Nova show would get repeated on a different PBS station in an hour. I could kill the time by re-reading science fiction books, probably. Or I could thumb through the library shelves and find something that had looked boring the first two hundred times. Sometimes it looked okay on the next browsing.

Most of the hour, I spent in silence. I secluded myself in the back corner of my room, far away from the noisy televisions and the billows of cigar smoke as I read my books.

"Is that Nova?" I asked when I came upstairs. I'd gotten lost in the cheap novels so I was a few minutes late for my show.

I got no answer. I was in the kitchen, where my voice sometimes didn't reach my mother or where other people could pretend not to hear. I ambled into the living room. There, in front of the TV set, sat mom with a plate of cheese and fruit. She was watching an opera. For a moment, I thought it was the same one. I asked myself how long operas ran. But no, the guide had said this one would end before Nova.

"The cast looks different." The music sounded different, too.

"It's a better opera," said my mother. "This woman is a gypsy."

"Ugh." She had never watched opera before. It seemed horribly unfair, from my perspective as a perpetually-bored teenager, that my parents should take up new, even more boring hobbies. They enforced more than enough tedium already.

There on the living room carpet, I glowered at everything. I scowled at my mother. I cast mental balefire at the television. For a while, I listened to Carmen. My mother was right. It was better. But I wasn't going to be seduced. I made up my mind to oppose this somehow. Enough with the fancy arts. Enough ballet. Enough opera. Enough slow, repetitive big band music.

Then Carmen started singing a new song. It was the best piece I'd heard in my limited opera experience. It was called the Habanera and the vocalist was fantastic as dancer and an actor. I'd made up my mind, though. I took a deep breath and swelled up my grudge against all of life. Then I began singing. Angry and fifteen and no vocalist at all, I made up lyrics as I went,

This song is boring.
It isn't Nova.
I should be learning
about star formations.

It's really boring.
Did I say boring?
Because it's boring
It's so very boring.

I kept it up, a deliberately awful parody, and my mother ignored me for a whole minute, maybe two. The actress in Carmen was so good. The music enchanted my mother. Finally, though, she snapped.

"If you don't like it, leave!" she shouted. "Go on! Get out!"

Still sulking and actually, still singing, I stomped from the living room to the dining room, where I bumped into my middle brother.

(An aside: Nowadays, when people ask me if my kids were difficult because they cut themselves up or got in a fight or argued about doing their homework, my answer always seems to go through a comparison of things like this I did and much worse things I did, too, when I was their age. So I usually reply with something like, 'meh, they're probably better than I was.')

When I say I bumped into my brother, I mean literally. He moved into my path, not out of it, and he had no problem with physical contact. He didn't seem as angry as I was, or as bored. He'd probably been hungry and helped himself to another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He'd been grazing on them all day. In fact, he did dodge a little at the last second. His gaze on me was wide-eyed and intent. His mouth fell open.

"What do you want?" I asked.

I moved past him into the kitchen. He followed me. His expression seemed even more focused, like a haunted child from a movie who hasn't got anything else to do but stare.

"Well, what?" I said.

"I think," he said as he blinked away some of the puzzled, unbelieving look in his eyes, "that you were singing."

"Huh." Come to think of it, I had seemed to be hitting the same notes as the woman in the opera. Well, an octave lower, maybe.

"Do it again."

"You're crazy." I pushed him on the arm, partly because he was reaching out to me and I wanted to keep him back with his weird, overly-intent expression but partly, too, because I worried that I had sung only once in my life. It seemed unlikely that I could ever do it again.

"Can you?"

"I don't want to."

"But can you?"

"Of course," I lied. My mind reeled a few minutes back in time to what Carmen had been singing. Her syllables were like notes on the piano. I could imitate the notes. Better yet, I could make fun of them. That was the thing. I'd forget that I couldn't do it as long as I kept being insulting, as long as I was pulling a scam by pretending to sing. Only pretending. All I had to do was parody Carmen and poke fun at my mother. I could do that.

"La da da dee dah, la da dee dah." I started dancing like a gypsy woman. My brother laughed. It was working. "La da da dee dah da dee dum dum dum."

"I've never heard you sing," my brother said quietly.

"La da da dee dah, la da dee dah. La da da dee dah da dee DAAAAH da dum!" I pretended to blow him a kiss even more exaggerated than the actress had done. He made a grimace-smile because he knew I was trying to be funny but he didn't necessarily agree that I was. I had to admit to him, "I didn't know I could do this."

"You couldn't last year."

"Yeah." Maybe he had heard me chanting into the forest. Or maybe while he was in my room, I'd tried to accompany a pop song on my transistor radio and he had been a reluctant witness.

"But now you can sing."

"Yeah." It was a weird change to acknowledge. "I guess I can."


Making fun of bad music was the only way I dared to perform for about a year. Parodies were how I could sing in front of other people.

Satires of opera led me to a similar mocking of the Bee Gees, which led to me wailing like Led Zeppelin, which led to me deliberately mangling Grease. However, lots of teenaged girls liked the musical Grease and didn't enjoy me making fun of it. Anything that made girls frown, I shut down pretty fast. Eventually, I loosened up and sang to Abba hits along with the girls. That made guys frown but I wasn't trying to kiss them so they were welcome to scowl until their faces broke apart or we could fight about it.

One thing led to another. A high school director asked me to sing in a musical. I started working my way through college and found an opera coach who directed a choir and liked my voice enough to stand me next to his star (who went on to be a professional performer in operas, as I later saw in the newspapers).

In another college, still trying to hold jobs and manage to get through it all, I sang with a more contemporary chorus. We did complicated pieces (four P.D.Q Bach cantatas were my first) but they were fun. When I was tired of the bass parts, I decided to make my voice transition from low to high like Freddy Mercury. I had mixed success but it was just enough for the director to move me to baritone, then second tenor, and to occasionally give me solo lines. Over the span of a few years, she gave me the impression that she trusted me to sing.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 289: Biomythography - Note 41, Hating to Sing, Part I

Biomythography 41

Hating to Sing, Part I

When I was nine, I moved myself to the middle of my elementary school chorus. There were twenty-six of us standing on a grey carpet in front of three rows of wooden chairs. Sunlight through the side window made us squint. I máde my spot in the angle of shade given to us by a curtain. I could almost hide in it. But I couldn't sing. When I tried, the sounds came out wrong. I couldn't hold a tune. I hunched low in my school uniform shirt, collar high, head bowed, my voice a sigh. What I wanted most was for the teacher not to notice. My next thought was for Leslie, the girl I liked. I hoped she couldn't hear how I sounded. I tried to keep my distance from her but sometimes she tried to stand next to me.

The most frustrating part was that, two years before, I thought I could sing. When I'd chanted "Coming Round the Mountain" as a seven year old, grown-ups seemed to like it. The music teacher smiled at me, the only boy doing his part at normal volume. I ‘had promise.’ Then things started going wrong. The songs got harder. My voice got inconsistent.

In fifth grade, as part of the inconsistency, I saw I didn’t hurt anyone with "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog." On the other hand, I made the adults in the room wince when I tried "Cherokee Woman." For the school play, I could sort of serenade the audience with "One Tin Soldier." When the next piece came up, I had to mouth the words and whisper. I closed my eyes so I wouldn't see my own terrible acting. 

The worst part was the music teacher giving me looks of exasperation. On more than one occasion, she stopped conducting and stared in my direction with her hands on her hips. She knew I could play this stuff on the piano. She wanted to know why couldn't I sing it. And I had no idea. After a few years of inconsistent hymns and harmonies, I left elementary school behind. That was the end of my performances, a huge relief. No one ever asked me to do it again.

But secretly, I sang anyway. In the woods around my new home, alone and lonely, I wailed aloud to the burbling accompaniment of the creek, the cicadas, the frogs, and the wind through the tree boughs. I used no words for my completely-made-up stuff that was almost-but-not-quite music. Whatever I was doing created enough of a tune to carry my feelings. Sounds came out of my mouth, chants like I later heard from the Ojibwe tribe recordings of Sitting With The Turtle. Bellows poured forth from me, usually at dusk after a hard day. I sang in the deeps of the forest, where no one else could hear the melodies of the clouds, the spirits of the river, the deer, and the fox. No one witnessed my chants about the laughing soul of the crawdad-parts-littering raccoon.

That was the best way to let the feelings out. With no one hearing me.

One night when I was fourteen, I went to bed early, around ten, and woke up at eleven. I knew it was snowing outside. The storm had started at dinner time. I'd lain on the couch by the picture window in the living room and I'd stared up at it. The flakes were huge, bigger than my thumb, and they floated down like a parachute army. I wandered outside and stood without a jacket, gaping at the invading force. I crouched to the surface of the deck and ran my hand across two inches of settled sleet and ice. At the top, the snow felt soft.

The sight of the storm got me too excited to go back to sleep once I'd woken. Maybe I wouldn't have to go to school tomorrow, I thought. Then I could sleep in. For the moment, I could use my free time to read. 

Ninety minutes later, I'd finished my book, finished a stack of comics, and started to pace around my bedroom.  I searched for more reading. I cupped my hands to the glass pane and peered outside my basement window. A sheen of white glowed in the starry darkness. There were eight inches on the ground at least and the descent of the white flakes appeared to be relentless.

I stomped into the closet and pulled on my boots. I threw on my best jacket.

Ten minutes later, I was back inside. I had managed to avoid waking anyone but my clothes hadn't been adequate to the whirling snow. I didn't own a hat. Frozen flakes kept slipping down my neck. Some got under my tight, too-short t-shirt and down my pants. Shockingly, I had blundered into drifts that had gotten nearly two feet deep already, far above the protection of my springtime-ready rubber wading boots. I needed something better.

I loved my jacket. It was fur trimmed like the one Sylvester Stallone had worn in the Rocky movie. I imagined it made me acceptable to other teenagers. But it hung open wide at the collar. Its sleeves were wide, not tapered. It wasn't made for snow. I didn't have anything that was.


In the back of my closet, I found it. I swung everything else to the other end of the clothes rod and stared. My mother had bought this monstrosity out of a catalog. It was a real, genuine winter coat. It had a hood. No one I knew except my parents wore a hood or even a hat. The surface of the thing was nylon or something else plastic-like and shiny, and it was decorated in block-like shades of mustard and baby-poop brown with a sort of orangish trim. It came with thick, nylon mittens. Mittens. For adults. The surface was seamless.

I ran my right hand over it and felt its thickness.

No one would see me, I told myself. I would be in the dark, alone. I repeated the thought. Because I had to get out in the storm. I had to feel it around me.

A half-hour later, I was a mile away down by the creek. I was trying my best to get lost amidst the swirls of white-out snow, tromping in my double layer of wool socks, wading boots, extra jeans, two t-shirts, and the abominable snowman knock-off brand coat that draped down to the middle of my thighs in the most socially awkward way possible. I wore the hood I'd been sure no one would ever use pulled up over my head and tied down with brown nylon straps. I would have forgotten about what I was wearing except, every so often, I paused and found myself amazed to feel so comfortable. I hadn't known this was possible.

I'd already twice laid down in the snow just to be there. The unfashionable mittens felt better than the rest and put me in awe of how much better they were than my usual gloves. The hideous outfit was perfect. The forest was dark under the trees, though. If it weren't for the luminous, white carpet everywhere I'd have found it hard to navigate. 

As it was, I knew too well where every tree, every fallen branch, every stump, and every hidden rock lay. When I stepped on a random drift, I knew what depth of fallen leaves to expect in the crunch beneath. When I wandered out onto the rocks along the rapids, I knew the crayfish homes in the slow-moving pools and could study them by starlight. I stepped onto a snow-covered rivulet and laughed when my boot sunk into the frozen muck. It confirmed what I knew about the ugly world.

At one point, I got mad, I think because I was fourteen, and I started throwing snowballs at trees, turning over rocks, and breaking apart dead branches about the thickness of my arm but rotten. 

The forest remained quiet except for the hiss of falling snow. Every sound I made, every move, every grinding step echoed across the hard surface of the world. The defective log bark crumbled like mold in my hands. The wood crackled wetly as I bashed it apart. I got tired. I wandered closer to the creek. There, I sat on a rock overlooking the rushing water.

After a while, I began to sing.

The sounds came low and slow. I crooned a summons to the deer and the fox. I called to the raccoons who kept leaving their shellfish trash, to the one in particular I'd glimpsed, chubby and fast through the blackberries and underbrush. I chanted to the trees and hummed to the water. Five minutes was a long time to say anything out loud when I was fourteen. But when I paused, I became aware of some part of nature, a hiding animal or some other presence far off, listening. I sang again to reach those distant ears. Ten minutes, twenty, all slow and sad. And comforting. I knew the presence didn't want me to approach. But it was curious and paying me a sleepy sort of attention.

The snow that had started with the sunset continued to fall with flakes like quarters, like half-dollars, inch after inch, a blizzard somewhere else but not here in the forest, where there was no wind. The miles of treetops had reduced an awesome force of the world to a gentle spiral from above. I leaned back and sang to the twirling dust-devil that was dizzying itself down to me, to the bare tree branches, to the spirits of life and near-life.

There were no words. My voice gentled the loudness of the blizzard, the crackling of the millions of icy flakes hitting the forest floor cover. It harmonized to the creek racing along through the quick shallows, to the stray eddies of wind in the clearings, the tired brambles, the sleeping vines, the struggling willow tree on the riverbank, the pushy oaks knocking everything else over and jostling against each other. The crawfish tried to hide. But I sang to the distant presence, to the part that listened.

The world was perfect. It always was. I was the only imperfection. But no other human being could hear me. And I sang.