Sunday, June 28, 2015

Not Zen 165: Tribes

Goatfish by Albert Kok, Wikimedia Commons
Above the rock shoals at the bottom of a reef slope, three schools of fish met.  On most days that they met, individuals among them fought.  They brawled amongst themselves and between species.  The battles intensified as mating seasons approached.  Conflicts simmered for weeks and then flared up again.  Grudges set in or continued for generations.

On most evenings, each school went its separate way.  The groupers swam to the seagrass beds to hunt for smaller fish.  The goatfish split up and descended to the sandy substrates.  They combed the bottom for snails, worms, and molluscs.  The snappers dove to a cool, dark reef that lay on a slope below the higher one.  They ate the shrimp, squids, crabs, and kelp.

After a night of eating, the fish met again in the heat of the day.  All of them coveted the valleys of the reef slope.  All of them took shelter in the clefts between corals when large predators swam by.

"Watch out for the groupers," said one goatfish to another as the schools of fish passed each other.

"There are only a few," replied her friend.  "None of them are large enough to hunt us."

"Look at those teeth.  They're violent."

The elder goatfish turned his eye to the outnumbered groupers.  They looked tough, yes, but defensive.  They were not swimming toward anyone with aggression. They were keeping their distance.

"They're fine."

Since the two of them had drifted to the edge of their school, they swam in a wide arc.  The path took them near a mixed school, which consisted of goatfish and snappers together.  The bluestripe snappers were numerous and therefore intimidating to medium-sized predators.  Goatfish were able to change the shading of their stripes from yellow to blue, so they liked to merge their schools with the snappers.  That let them camouflage themselves but the snappers didn't always like it.

Abruptly, the elder goatfish turned inward to their school, away from the snappers.  His companion thought about remaining where she was on the outskirts but she felt something was wrong.  She veered inward a little, enough to stay close to her friend.

"Why did you turn us away?" she asked him.  "Are you biased against the snappers?  Then why not against the groupers as well?"

"Several of the snappers were dangerous.  Couldn't you see that they were about to start fighting?"  He flipped his body to face the great swarm.  They could both see the conflict in progress.  Two fish picked on a smaller one at the edge of the group.  "Worse for us, we have not adopted the colors of the snappers."

The scramble continued as the mixed school of snappers and goatfish grew closer to the school of goatfish.  The snapper who was on the losing side had been driven out.  Unlike the goatfish, a snapper did not feel safe on its own.  That one needed to find a way back in.

The elder goatfish took pity.  He turned toward the swarm of snappers.

As he closed in, two snappers charged to meet him.  Whether they really meant to attack him or whether they intended to finish their battle with one of their own, in a moment they had no other target.  The beaten snapper darted behind the goatfish.  Only the elder fish remained, calm and relentless.  His caudal fin stroked the waters evenly with no hesitation.

One of the snappers charged him.  He did not dodge, which forced the attacker to veer to one side or else risk collision with a fish of equal strength and size.  The second snapper charged a moment after.  This one was smaller but it was quick and aggressive.  The goatfish barely had time to turn his head so that the blow struck him on the gill cover, not on his ribcage or a fin.

He stared at the snapper.  It was not a gaze of aggression.  The snapper backed up to launch another attack.  But it hesitated, confused.  It was prepared for a sparring match.  It wasn't ready for fearlessness and calm.

"Our mistake, friend," said the other aggressive snapper, the one who had charged first but veered off.

"Thank you, friend," said the goatfish.

All four of them rejoined their schools.  The snappers darted quickly into their places.  The elder goatfish took his time.  His companion slowed to let him catch up to her.  They swam side by side for a while near the outside of their school.

"Why didn't you fight back?" she asked him.  "I don't understand what happened.  When you didn't strike at them, why did the others stop attacking?"

"It does not always work that way," he drawled.

"That doesn't answer my question."

He kept up his pace.  "Young one, do you think I am a goatfish?"

"Yes."  But she paused to check for the barbs protruding from his chin.  For a moment, he had seemed different.

"I don't feel that way."  The movement of his caudal fin stayed strong and regular.  "I belong to the race of peace keepers."

"Who are they?"  She thought it sounded like a military order.

"We range all over the world.  Those who don't know us think we belong to different schools and tribes.  But we are the greatest tribe of all, the largest majority."

"That's not a tribe, then."  It took her a long time to come to the conclusion.  "Anyone can join."

"Yes.  Anyone does.  Eventually, I believe we will win over everyone."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Not Even Not Zen 7: Secret Society

Secret Society

In we walk, to the to the shade and stale air,
leather boots, jacket, and black helmet for me,
red overalls for him, sitting up on my shoulder
in a jaunty way.
He throws himself forward, says “Bump!”
and pulls my hair for balance.

Only last year, when I came into this mall,
the shop owners kept an eye on me.
Boys leaned to one side; mothers raised eyebrows;
rent-a-cops scowled.  Girls gave me odd glances,
making up their minds.  
Now, none of that matters.

Even with the same clothes and grease,
the mothers smile.  They seem so knowing
when my boy takes my helmet and hugs it
or takes the fruit pie out of my hand and says “Share?”
The rent-a-cops laugh when they walk by
and the little man hides behind my leg.

There is a secret society of baby owners,
a series of nods, winks, and grins others do not know.
I see it in a teen, a girl half my age
with a newborn, just a few weeks old.
My stare and smile reach her as the child struggles,
lifts its head, blue eyes open, strong baby,
and she beams back, somehow noticing
my gaze, my stupid mouth open
from eighty feet away across a crowded hall
because she is part of the society, too.

Mothers with strollers glance,
old women with carriages, too,
fathers with toddlers, grandfathers with grown children,
their children’s children, all gawk at my son
and he giggles, my passport to this shriven world.
He gives them the secret hand sign that admits us
through all the society’s doormen.
There, in the center of the mall, I catch myself for the first time
scrutinizing the faces of the other young creatures.
No one acts like I’m a kidnapper.

A black mother in denim catches me  
studying her child and chuckles.
The Indian woman in the play area notices
and smiles despite two daughters pulling on her sleeves.
Desperate women in tight jeans and tired eyes smile.
Redneck pickup drivers in flannel shirts smile.
Only the old men in suits do not
and even them, sometimes,
when my boy gives them a secret sign
that I do not yet know.

What is it about these animals, our children,
that diminishes us, crumbles our suspicious exteriors,
our hunched shoulders, keys jutting from ready fists?
They are clumsy monkeys but they make us laugh.
They are proof of our membership in life’s hidden cause,
our big eyed, chubby fingered, running, stumbling,
drooling, shrieking, gurgling, half bald,
buddha-bellied, badly dressed
unwitting soldiers for peace.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Not Zen 164: Skills

"Another passing score," he said. He poked his head through the open door of the cafe. He was pretty sure that his friend at a side table couldn't hear him, so he waved. A moment later, he gave the thumb's up sign.

His friend and mentor motioned for him to come over.

As he crossed the floor, he took a deep breath. Taking the certification exam had tensed him. The smell of coffee attracted his attention. Other scents in the background felt even better. He felt ready to recover from the emotional crash of finishing the test.

He pulled up a chair. Flowery traces from steeping teapots wafted over his face. His friend's two companions nodded at him over their teacups. They were his friend's adopted daughter and daughter's schoolmate. His daughter had dressed in a white outfit with pink trim. Her school friend wore yellow with pink.

"Are you having a good breakfast?" he asked them.

"I take it you passed?" his friend said. That answered his question about being heard from the front door. He hadn't been. The two girls nodded in response to his goodwill inquiry about food and he smiled and nodded in return. He didn't really expect to talk with them.

"Of course." It had been a close score, this time. He sniffed. The cafe had baked sweet pastries and sourdough breads. The anticipation of food made his fingers tingle.

"Good for you." His friend dug into the pastry on his plate.

The older fellow had already raised a set of three children. His wife had passed away and he'd been forced to continue his parenting job alone for a while. The last of those children had left home. Instead of taking a break from caring for others, he'd remarried and started raising a second family.

It all seemed a bit hectic to the younger man. He liked talking with the old fellow, though. He knew his stuff.

"Now I have four certifications," he said. He rubbed his hands together. "Most people in our profession have only one."

"Some don't even have that."

"I know." He shook his head. That seemed so irresponsible. With his right arm, he gestured for the waiter.

"Congratulations. You've gotten two new certifications in only three weeks. What will you do with them?"

"Get better jobs. Get more money."

"Huh." His friend gave him a disappointed look. "You're doing pretty well. I've shown you how to do a thorough job. You're great at it. You've studied for more. Wonderful. You deserve better pay. But why such a focus? You don't have children to support. Your parents don't depend on you. What will you do with the extra money?"

"I'll hire tutors, study more, and get more certifications." He raised his water glass to his own words. He hadn't thought about it until he answered. Keeping on with the process made sense.

"It goes on forever?" His friend put down the fork. "You never develop, say, a skill for loving kindness?"

"That's not a skill."

"Really? Maybe you're already good at it. I wouldn't know. Have you performed acts of kindness recently?"

"It's not a skill, so that's not the point."

Something in their tones of voice made the girls look up. They'd been coloring with crayons and drinking their tea. Now he had their attention. He didn't want it, really.

"Did you help someone with groceries?" his friend continued. "Help a friend move?"

He shook his head no. The girls smiled.

"Have you volunteered to watch someone's children so that they could go to work?"

"Oh, so that must be what you're doing now." Suddenly the second girl's presence made sense. It wasn't just a play date. This was baby-sitting duty. His friend was on the job. Some neighbor or work friend had recruited him. The girls frowned.

"Nah. But sometimes I donate my job skills." When the older fellow gestured to the waiter, the waiter noticed. He bowed his head and gave an acknowledging grin. "You know, I give some time to non-profits around town. You could do that."

"I suppose I could." Lazily, he allowed for the possibility. A moment later, he panicked. He sat up straight as he realized that his mentor could be planning to assign him to a charity. He wasn't sure if he was ready for that. Yes, he owed his friend. But did he really want to end up benefitting a cause he didn't like just to pay the debt?

To his left, the two girls traded whispers. The dark haired one that his friend had adopted resumed her drawning and coloring. He resumed ignoring them.

"What good will all of your skills do?" insisted his friend.

"They'll pay the bills." He shrugged. He supposed the act of being a mentor revealed something about the type of person his friend was. For himself, though, it was enough to devote energy to becoming the best. It felt similar to the way some clergy focused on saintliness or some politicians focused on power. To him, excellence was plenty. It was more than enough.

His friend kept talking even as the waiter strode over to their table.

"Real acts of kindness take some practice. You can't buy your way out of them. Even donating money to a charity takes care. Some are better than others."

The waiter asked if the girls needed more tea and they said, 'Yes please.' They seemed delighted to have been noticed. When the man asked if there was anything more, he reacted with a smile to learn that another order of food was needed. He took out his pad and pen.

Things could be different, he reflected. Even as he gave the waiter his order for a sandwich, he wondered why the waiter hadn't studied more in school. More work to learn a difficult skill would have enabled any restaurant worker to do something better. There would be no more need for fake optimism. Or maybe that was the man's real outlook. It was very convincing. Nevertheless, more skills could get him a better job.

After the waiter turned away, the girls finished a drawing. They turned it around so the men at the table could see. When that wasn't enough, they held it up. It was a wobbly rendition of a diploma. The word KINDNESS had been printed in the middle. There was a horrible imitation of calligraphy at the bottom in black crayon, possibly their signatures.

"Ta da!" they said together.

"If we make a certificate for it," said his friend's daughter with suspicious sweetness. "Will you study?"

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Not Koan 163: Happy Families

She watched her grandmother sit down on the park bench next to the baby carriage and thought about how she'd never expected, when she was younger, that she'd have four generations of her family together.

"Who's that kid with your son?" her father asked.

He jerked his thumb to indicate the tanned boy with a muddy shirt. The boy was building a mound of mulch next to her son. He stood half a head taller and about a year older. By his side, her son tried to scoop up mulch with a bucket. He dropped the bucket. The contents spilled. But the taller boy knelt and scooped his arm to gather it up again for her son.

"That one gets neglected." She shook her head. Her son seemed to like playing with him. This particular playmate was cute, too, with light brown eyes and curly hair. He seemed a bit wild with children his age but gentle with younger ones. "I've never seen his parents. He hikes back and forth from a row house."

"That's not neglected," her grandmother opined from the bench next to them. "I let your father walk everywhere he wanted when he was little. You too, when you visited."

"Things are different now, grandma." She loved her grandmother, the first woman in the family to get a college degree. She had been an education pioneer. But the passage of the decades made her views seem archaic sometimes.

The three of them, mother, grandfather, and great-grandmother had walked her oldest boy to the neighborhood park. It had been a good morning for it, overcast but not humid. The birds turned out in force to sing to one another from the tree boughs. But after a few minutes, the clouds drifted. The sun beat down harder. The birds quieted. Children started to wipe the sweat from their brows.

The family had barely sat down. Her boy had just started playing. She wanted to leave because of the weather but she knew that she couldn't.

"Well, of course times are different," the older woman folded her arms as she watched the curly-headed boy dump fistfulls of sand on the pile. Her great-grandson flung clumps of grass. Both children laughed. The older woman smiled at them. "What makes you think this child is neglected?"

"Nowadays most parents come out to the park. That's all."

"Don't other people have anything better to do than follow kids around?"

Feeling protective of them all, she decided that she would let her grandmother's remark stand without comment. She could have pointed out how all three of them had come with her boy and her baby, a year-old daughter she'd brought in the stroller. But the job had required only one, probably her. Maybe that depended on whether the baby stayed asleep or not.

"Parents nowadays spend more time together than you and granddad did. It's more equal."

"That's good." Her grandmother kept her arms folded. She'd fought for the equality but she didn't seem to feel it was enough. She acted as if she were superior.

"Couples split things evenly. My husband and I still split the check when we go out on a date."

"Still? Damn." Her father slapped his knees with both hands. The two boys shot him a look, alarmed, but when they saw he wasn't looking at them, they resumed their work on the mulch. "Are you still counting them out to the penny, too?"

"What if we are?" She put a hand to her forehead.

"Honey, that's ridiculous." He threw up his arms. "It's like you don't trust each other. And you've been married for over a decade."

"It keeps us happy." Let him have his tirade, she thought. Outwardly, she shrugged. She was sure that her father had never liked that part of equality even though he'd always pretended. "You should try it, dad. I know that you and step-mom argue about money."

"Sometimes." That quieted him.

"You earn twice what she does. And you both have expensive tastes, so you end up paying pay for everything. She takes you for granted."

"Yeah, yeah." He scratched his head. While he paused to find something nice to say, the boys started to take turns kicking their pile. Pieces flew. Her father hardly noticed. "She carries her weight in other ways. She probably feels taken for granted in the chores."

"Are you happy, dad?"

"Happy enough." He titled his head to one side. "Happier than I thought I'd be, actually, after your mom."

"Everyone condemns everyone else's compromises, I notice," she said. She was tired of getting criticized for the way her family worked. "But some wives, like me, hate doing the laundry or shopping and some husband think they're okay. See? And some husbands don't enjoy fixing the plumbing. But some wives do."

"Like you."

"Like me." She nodded.

"I think that's wonderful," said her grandmother. She still hadn't unfolded her arms.

"The main thing is to divide up the work so everyone feels respected because that's what makes us happy."

Her father waved his finger. "That doesn't mean splitting everything down the middle."

"No, but dad, down the middle is fine for me. I earn half of the money. When we divide up a check, it feels good."

She and her grandmother sat in silence. Next to them, her father stood with hands in his pockets, jingling his change and his keys. For a long time, he stared at a squirrel that had scurried behind a group of playground kids to look for dropped food. It paused to eye the adults, especially her father. Maybe it thought the change in her father's pockets sounded like nuts. But it returned to its foraging.

Her father gazed down the sidewalk to the path would take them back home. She felt sympathy for his impatience. Although the tree roots had cracked the concrete slabs from underneath and the surface felt uneven to the baby stroller, she wanted to get back on it, too. The park had seemed like a decent enough idea to her when the morning was cool. But it hadn't seemed interesting to her father even then. Now that it was hot, he would start to sweat in his long-sleeved shirt and office slacks.

He'd invited himself because her grandmother wanted to come. He'd felt obligated.

After a minute or so, the baby woke. The cry began with an uncomfortable squirming. A moment later came the angry sound. After that, chubby fists raised from the carriage bed.

She rose to check her infant daughter's forehead. It was damp.

"I think she's too hot," she said. Her grandmother raised an eyebrow but didn't respond.

The baby kept fussing. She pushed the carriage back and forth to try to calm her daughter with the rocking motion. Meanwhile, her gaze swept the playground for her son. He and the neglected boy, who she conceded might have reasonble parents somewhere, had gang-pressed another boy into playing some sort of game with them on the slide. It involved tagging each other hard at the end of the ramp and then squealing like fiends.

"Are you really happy, dear?" Her grandmother unfolded her arms from her chest at last. She sat up straighter. "Tolstoy wrote, 'All happy families are alike but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.'"

"That's just wrong."

"It wasn't just Tolstoy who thought it," replied her grandmother defensively. "Everyone quotes him."

"Too bad. Because everyone can see that there's a variety of good families." She stopped rocking the carriage. It wasn't working. She was pretty sure of what she needed do. "There are as many happy compromises as there are happy couples. The same goes for the relationships between parents and children. All of the compromises are different but they work."

"For happy families."

"Yes." As she reached into the carriage for her daughter, she tilted her head to one side to concede the detail. "Maybe the process doesn't work for the unhappy ones. Bad compromises are the cause of misery."

"Well, I made compromises with your grandfather," her grandmother said. "I didn't want to. I had to, you know."

"Tolstoy was a good observer in some ways." She wasn't sure if she wanted to hear more about her grandfather or not. Tolstoy seemed like a safer subject. Her fingers snuggled under her daughter's armpits. She lifted the child and unbuttoned the onsesie to let the breeze reach her skin. "But he couldn't have observed many happy families. Even the assumption that some are happy and some aren't is wrong. All families are happy some of the time and all are unhappy sometimes, too. No family is only one thing."

Her daughter paused to take a breath. Then she cried louder.

"That's certainly not how children are." Her grandmother had to raise her voice. "They don't stay in one mood for five minutes."


"Look at us, we're arguing. And you said we were a happy family."

"That doesn't mean we're not." This wasn't an argument, not compared to most discussions in her grandmother's house. "You like arguing. You should just admit that Tolstoy was wrong."

"I admit nothing. Except that I'm tired of you two walking me around everywhere." She swayed in her bench seat as if she were about to stand. But she thought better of it. "I wanted to come to the park. That was me. I was willing to take my great-grandson. Then you two had to tag along."

"I thought you wanted company," her father said. He stopped rattling his keys. His hands came out of his pockets. "Sometimes you fall, ma. And when you do, it's hard for you to get back up."

"I'm still tired of having you everywhere I go."

"You need someone with you," she said. Her words came out at the time time as her father spoke but he said almost the same thing.

"I'll have company," her grandmother retorted. She gestured to the playground.

"Him?" She glanced at her preoccupied son. He was receiving swats from two other boys as his feet hit the landing at the bottom of the slide. All three of them laughed, open-mouthed. "He's six."

"That's old enough to run a few steps to get an adult to help me to my feet if that's necessary. Anyway, you're the one going on about happy families. You're tired and cranky. Your father is cranky. My great grand-daughter is tired and cranky."

"I'm not cranky," both she and her father tried to say. Her grandmother spoke over them.

"My great-grandson and I aren't. We're happy." Her hands made fists. She tapped the park bench with them. "Understand? I can tell you're trying to think of a reason to leave. But we want to stay."

"You just want your way."

"And you just want yours." Her gaze fell on the crying infant.

"Fine." She shrugged. In her arms, her daughter took another deep breath. And she didn't resume her crying. "Grandma, doesn't this prove my point? All of the family compromises are different. Happy families aren't all the same."

"Tolstoy was an idiot." The older woman sighed. "There's an endless variety of happiness. I never let on to your grandfather but some of the compromises that I arranged with him made me happy. Like having his children."