Sunday, June 30, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 169: Some Stupid Punk

Stupid Punk

It wouldn't be a punk opinion without being a little stupid.  That's why I am going to list my favorite punk tunes.  As everyone can agree, it's a needless, terrible idea.

Some Principles of Punk: 
  1. There's actually nothing much like the 1977 - 1982 punk when it seemed like no rebels could play instruments and they were all in bands
  2. Even recent punk songs have some things in common, like:
    1. minimal instrumentation
    2. a simple tune
    3. a stand for something or at least a stand against something
    4. rebellion against over-produced music and/or pop, especially pop with nothing to say
    5. a reverse sense of humor (not absolutely required but important)
    6. reverse credibility, usually
By these standards, some pre-punk era songs qualify, as do tunes by bands that aren't normally associated with punk.

In a basement years ago, a friend and I debated the song 'Psycho Killer.'  Did it count as punk or not?  We agreed that the song was punk but the band was not.  And therefore, no.  That's why Psycho Killer, a song with minimal instruments, a stand in favor (and maybe against) violent weirdness, and that definitely rebelled against the over-produced junk music of the mainstream still was not quite punk by our standard that we just invented right there.

It was also a song with a reverse sense of humor.  By my personal measure, that's important.  Still, Pscyho Killer gets demoted in my current ranking because the band that did it was not punk.  They only had a few of the punk sensibilities although lyrical sense was one of them.

Pretty often, punk lyrics need you to be more of an adult than other pop lyrics.  If someone screams, "Kill the poor," you're supposed to not to do that, duh.  In fact, you're supposed to flip it around to, "Why do we shit on them so much?  Why is it not more shocking to think someone would propose wiping them out?"

Likewise, as the narrator in "Take the Skinheads Bowling" goes on about stupid, mundane dreams, he's comparing himself negatively to people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who have noble dreams.  Then he goes on to propose his not-quite-noble dream, that his friends will not be scared.  It belongs to a sub-genre of punk songs that begin, "I'm a piece of shit but .."  That's because punk relies on a reverse sense of credibility in addition to reverse humor.

Claiming to be an authority makes people seem credible in other contexts but not in punk.  To other punks, the main way to seem credible is to know you're a piece of shit.  If you start with that, you've got a chance of being allowed to speak.  Then, if your opinion is shit, often even if it's good, your audience will generally agree with you that it's totally shit.  No one gets a break.  No one is supposed to get a break.

By using the reverse sense of humor, "Power of Positive Drinking" and "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" were out in front.  Those artists would have said they were rock, not punk.  But the rebellion of rock died.  Punk had to be born.*

*Or something, something ... the world would not have ended without punk.  Maybe a generation of rebels would have had crappier, less-rebellious music. That's about it.


The Top Pre-Punk Punk
  1. Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll - Ian Dury
  2. Search and Destroy - Iggy and the Stooges
  3. Power of Positive Drinking - Lou Reed
  4. War Pigs - Black Sabbath

Yeah, War Pigs violates a lot of the punk principles I listed above but it's got plenty of shouty lyrics and it feels close - with any luck you can tell me why.

Should there be others on the pre-punk list?  Probably.

Above, I said there's a big difference between the first generation of punk and the next.  In fact, there was a major difference within the first generation.  The sounds and the messages of late seventies punk are different from mid-eighties punk, which by that time included folk-punk and some ska-punk.  For the sake of ranking songs, though, I've decided that none of the differences matter. 

I'm ranking them together.  If you want to divvy up the list better for your own sense of what's right, it's not that hard, you stupid punk.


The Best First Wave Punk
  1. Pretty Vacant - Sex Pistols
  2. Add it Up - Violent Femmes
  3. Take the Skinheads Bowling - by Camper Van Beethoven
  4. Kill the Poor - Dead Kennedys
  5. Nice and Sleazy - The Stranglers
  6. Let's Have a War - Fear 
  7. Rise Above - Black Flag
  8. I Wanna be Sedated - Ramones
  9. Blister in the Sun - Violent Femmes
  10. In the City - The Jam
  11. Bitchin Camaro - Dead Milkmen
  12. Fuck the System - The Exploited
  13. Straight Edge - Minor Threat
  14. Institutionalized - Suicidal Tendencies
  15. Nellie the Elephant - Toy Dolls
  16. Bodies - Sex Pistols
  17. Kiss Off - Violent Femmes
  18. Six Pack - Black Flag
  19. Orgasm Addict - Buzzcocks
  20. Going Underground - The Jam 
  21. Guyana Punch - The Judys
  22. Nazi Punks Fuck Off - Dead Kennedys
  23. Oi! Oi! Oi! - Cockney Rejects 
  24. Astro Zombies - The Misfits
  25. Descendents - Bikeage
  26. Complete Control - Clash
  27. Gone Daddy Gone - Violent Femmes
  28. Mighty and Superior - Conflict
  29. No More Heroes - The Stranglers
  30. Blank Generation - Richard Hell
  31. White Riot - Clash


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 168: A Bandit Accountant, 28.3

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Second Perfect Number

Scene Three: Unsettling Accounts

Sir Duval, his quiet man-at-arms, his somewhat offended squire, and a pair of army guards escorted Denario and his bags three miles to the nearest branch of the Ogglie and Anghrili Bank. The sun above had become a white, fuzzy patch of brightness in the bland, silvery-grey cloud cover. The shine brought heat. Denario sweated, removed his outer layer of clothes, re-donned his accounting vest, and sweated some more. His pony kicked up pebbles and gave him no trouble except once, when it decided a maple sapling looked tasty.

When they passed near the Solvetkin-Redumonde dock, Denario thought to look for signs of Clever Jack or of Boldor’s troop of dwarfs. Of course, it had been a full day. There was no sign of any of them, not even of the work crew that had been there. In the notch of land that made for the tie-down point, there was only a solitary boy fishing off of the embankment.

“We did well,” said Duval. He caught Denario’s glance. “At least I did. My army supplier business is begun. I’m sure I can make a home and pay back my loans.”

“You have loans?”

“From Sir Redumonde and from your bank.”

“Ah.” The bank had wizards to enforce its terms. Sir Redumonde apparently kept around thirty men at arms and he wasn’t beyond using violence to solve his disputes. The situation made Denario nervous for Duval but no, he had too many of his own problems to get involved.

At the bank, a pair of alert guards stepped out with spears. After a bit of negotiation, they agreed to let the soldiers carry Denario’s bags into the bank – that was part of the bank guard job so they were satisfied to hand it over to enlisted men – but the rest of the armed warriors were not to be admitted at the same time. The accountant and the knight shook hands, again to the knight’s amusement, and Duval’s squire took back the pony with a haughty flick of his reins.

Inside the bank, a handful of employees, soldiers, and a wizard held a hasty conference.

“Do you claim that you are Denario de Oggli, certified accountant?” A clerk in a black suit stepped forward. The upper left of his tunic bore the symbol of the banker’s guild, a coin with wings attached.

“Yes.”

“Then you are still alive.”

Den glanced around. The staff watched him nervously except for the wizard, a thin, elderly man who seemed rather amused by this point.

The clerk cleared his throat. “Sorry. There was some question about it.”

“Unless it is a question of philosophy, I believe that yes, I am walking and talking enough to investigate my accounts here, make deposits, and so forth.”

“Yes, my apologies. Right this way, master accountant.”

They sat at a long table made from dark wood, probably black walnut, with chairs made to match. The seats weren’t particularly comfortable but, after a morning in the army camp, the accommodations all around seemed posh. A serving boy, perhaps ten years old, hair slicked down, brought them water. On his second trip over, he took the water glasses and set down hot tea and biscuits.

“Wonderful to see a second branch here in Oupenli,” Denario said.

“There was enough business to justify it.”

“Good for you. Well, I should to tap into my main business account. It's number 271828.”

“That's an unusually large one. Did you choose it yourself?” The clerk hunched over. He dug into his ledger and flipped pages.

“Yes.”

“And your verification phrase?" He thumbed to the back of his book.

“It's another number: 161803.”

“Very well. That's valid.” He snapped back to the middle, then thumbed a couple pages more. He stopped at a page with a red mark at the bottom. “Oh, sorry, sir. That account is closed out. All the money was transferred by magician to an entirely different bank.”

“A different bank? But why?”

“I couldn't say.”

“But Curo, he ... my partner, he's the only one who could have done it. Could he have gotten in an argument with the bank manager in Oggli? Could he have gotten a better deal from the Mercantile Bank?"

“I've no idea. This is my first year with the company, myself. No one tells me anything about the branches in Oggli.”

“Yes, well, can you tell me when the account was closed?”

“The thirty-second of Offle. That was a Moon Day.”

“Only four days after I sent the payroll to him in a lump sum. He couldn't have used it up that quickly.”

“That would be most unusual.” The clerk raised an eyebrow beneath his well-trimmed mop of hair. “Business partners can be difficult. I take it you received no notice about a change in accounts?”

“None, but it would have cost him a silver to send it, wouldn't it? That's the minimum. He's a bit tight with funds, even more so with our apprentices eating us out of house and home.”

“Mmm. Well, I won't tell you your business. If you've got too many apprentices, I'd say that fobbing one off on another master is the right way to go about things. What industry did you say you were in?”

“Accounting.”

“Really? With five apprentices in a city that’s exporting your profession?”

“We inherited them from our senior, who passed away last year.”

“Ah.” The fellow nodded grimly. That explained it. Unfortunately, it did need some explaining.

The next account, the one dedicated to surveying work, opened normally. It held less funds than Denario would have liked but it hadn’t suffered any withdrawals for over a month, so that was good. His personal savings box, which he tried next, was in perfect shape. He’d spent quite a lot on gifts for Pecunia but that was what the money was for. He hadn’t made the acquaintances of such a beautiful lady when he started it, of course, but he’d known there would be a woman in his life eventually.

“For now, I would like to deposit my travel surplus into this account,” he said.

“Yes, sir!”

It was a healthy amount, to be sure. Beside them, for half an hour, another clerk and an a security officer had been taking coins, jewelry, and armor out of Denario’s packs with his permission. The security officer had been laying out items in rows along the table. The clerk had been keeping a running total.

“While the amounts are tallied, let’s go through my remaining bank records.”

“Of course.”

So Denario spent the last hours of the day learning that it was a great inconvenience to have been rumored dead. He had to identify and re-open each account in turn. The clerks seemed to understand that there had been an error on their part, so they were patient. There was a bit of a puzzle, for all of them, to find so many records closed. With Curo alive, everything should have remained open.

“There was no rumor of my partner’s death?”

“No record of it, sir. I suppose there could have been one but no one thought to tell us.”

He squinted through a window.

“What is it?” said the clerk. He rose to his feet to see the general store across the street.

“Nothing much.” There was nothing happening to see, at least. The sun was setting. That was as eventful as it was going to get, most likely. “I was just wondering about the stupidest things that my partner could have done if he heard the rumors of my passing.”

“You think that he closed an account due to that?”

“If he had closed the three main accounts, I would be certain that he believed in my death. He did get offers from the Mercantile bank. Regularly.”

The young man stiffened. “I'm sure they could not give him much better terms.”

“No, not likely, but the accountants and clerks of the Oggli and Angrhili Bank loved my master. They seemed to like me an awful lot, too. And it's nice to be liked. I wonder if Curo would have turned over some money to the care of Mercantile in order to benefit from the attention of a young lady there.”

“Oh dear. Did the Mercantile employ a woman clerk?”

“Yes, she was there. Still is, I assume. Curo liked her. She was not much of a social creature ...”

“I can imagine.”

“Hmm. But I was going to say that she was bright and she smiled at him sometimes. He used to look down at her, frankly, and also at other working women because they had no money. They were not suitable for him. Still, I wonder.”

“If that's the worst he's done,” said the clerk with an air of resignation for the lost money. “You can soon enough set things right.”

“Yes, there isn’t anything else too bad that can happen. The worst possibility is for the landlord of our counting house to demand that we move elsewhere. But that wouldn’t be my partner's fault. He wouldn’t panic about it. We’d made plans.”

“Would it explain the money transfer?”

Denario laughed, nodding. “If that was the price for the house, it was a smart move by Curo. Even if the amount was a third of the price, it would be a good explanation. It would be a step in the right direction for our partnership.”

“What's the wrong direction?”

“Well, you know how it is with all of the competition in the city. The worst thing Curo could do when desperate would be to sell off one of our accounting contracts. Before I left, I had to talk him out of that.”

“A move of that sort would damage your reputation, I would think.”

“Yes, but moreover it is not a way to survive in the long term. Selling contracts announces an attempt to end the firm, essentially, albeit with a sort of grace. It would support our apprentices. But the method would damage their futures.”

The next-to-stupidest thing possible would be to break Winkel‘s commitment to an apprentice. Curo had already raised that issue when he announced that Mark did not show good potential. Returning Mark to his parents at a young age might not be a bad move strategically, although Denario had privately ruled it out. Winkel had made a promise. It was up to Curo and Den to keep it.

There were a few other, less important stupid things that Curo could have tried. After all, anyone could sell expensive equipment too cheaply. Anyone could underbid on difficult work. But those were mistakes that Curo would not make. He tended to overvalue everything, particularly his own material goods. He wanted to sell them often but he never closed deals because he always felt that he was getting cheated. Hence he kept closets of old clothes, broken tools, clumpy ink, nubs of chalk, and broken clocks, each of which he ordered the apprentices to wear, fix, or use. He even kept a drawer of old writing quills as if they might grow back into a goose. When frantic for a writing implement, Kroner would raid the drawer in search of a trashy quill that could be whittled into a nib for another half-page.

No, his partner’s worst trait was his feeling of powerlessness. Curo’s terrible self-esteem kept him from making decisions except when he was forced by circumstance. It meant that he never much improved anything. But it also kept him from going too far wrong. Denario could depend on it.

While they were finishing up the deposit, the wizard approached the table. He presented Denario with a letter box full of ash.

“What’s this?” Denario leaned away from it.

“It is the correspondence for your transferred account.” The elderly fellow seemed quite severe about it. “Apparently, the bank manager burned it.”

“Then I wish to speak to your manager!” Denario stood.

“So do I,” said the wizard. “However, when he saw me stop by the letter boxes, he put on his cap and rushed out the front door. He’s gone for the day, I’m afraid.”

“Is there anything to be done?”

“Of course there is,” said the wizard. “It’s just a matter of price.”

Denario didn’t feel he should have to pay extra for someone else’s mistake. Wizardry rates were outrageous, too. His thoughts must have showed on his face because the clerk shrunk back a bit.

“In the defense of my manager,” said the clerk. “It is normal to burn correspondence records when closing confidential cipher accounts or when given an order of secrecy.”

“I’ve already sent another staff member to reserve a room for you at the inn on the corner.” The wizard waved off the fact that Denario had not paid extra for a ciphered account, nor had he left any instructions to burn correspondence or anything like that. “We can talk with the manager in the morning. He’s usually better after he’s had time to think.”

“After he’s had time.” Denario rubbed the sides of his face. He felt as if he needed a break. He’d spent weeks sleeping on a blanket laid over a wooden board and eating mostly from stewpots. A chance at a straw mattress and a full meal at an inn sounded good.

“Yes, yes.” The wizard and the clerk spoke together.

“Do you remember who my message was from?” He raised his head. “What color was the paper?”

“It held several messages, I think, all on regular paper.” The wizard gave him a puzzled frown. “I don't know who they were from. I did see one of them come in, rather recently. All I remember about it was neat penmanship. Curly, but neat.”

“Was it long?”

“Filled most of a page.”

That could have been either Carinde or Curo. He would really have loved to hear from Curo. Sadly, it probably wasn’t from his former fiance. Pecunia hated to write at any length.

“Very well,” he said, mostly to himself. “Supper for now. More messages and banking in the morning.”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 167: A Bandit Accountant, 28.2

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Second Perfect Number

Scene Two: Army Business

Denario had forgotten how political and miserable modern civilization could be. He had said a kind hello to one of the teamsters. Both men had glared at him in silence. They were laborers. They did not make friends with fools among the merchant classes.

Likewise, Duval’s squire stalked off to the side of their traveling party. They young man had been born to the gentry, it seemed, and he was proud to keep his soul clean of merchant class talk. Besides, Denario had taken his ride. So there was a feeling of being slighted to add to his attitude as well.

All of this meant that the accountant’s pony cantered alongside Sir Duval. Unlike the others, the knight took no offense. In fact, he seemed bored by his usual retinue and happy to ask for news about his homeland, which was a town between Bagghi and Agrabar called Chinnupbar. However, Den had not heard of Chinnupbar except for the Third Great Abacus there. It was a mechanical device with levers and gears. The main difference between it and other old machines was that the item in Chinnupbar was intact. In fact, it resided in a bank attic along with other calculating machines, also mostly in working order.

Duval had led a spoiled existence in his hometown even by the standards of other knights. As a second son, he stood to inherit no lands but he got an education just in case something befell his older brother. His father paid for equipment, sword lessons, and girls. He didn’t force Duval into a marriage. When his father at last fell ill, Duval’s brother had paid for the knight to travel. In effect, Duval was being told to shove off to somewhere else permanently. But the instruction came with money and a shipping fee for Duval’s favorite horse, Chumpy.

“Chumpy is the most agile steed ever ridden into battle,” the knight asserted. He patted the flank of his black beast. “Although I have only been in one battle, the Eastern Defense of Agrabar, and I didn’t see much action. Chumpy nimbly stepped through the ranks of the fallen and never threw a shoe, twisted a hoof, or jostled me. When a cowardly knight, in his retreat, tried to turn and attack me, his horse hit an armored body and keeled over. The knight fell unconscious, as you might expect.”

“Did you then fight him on foot?”

“Good gods, no. Wouldn’t have been fair. When he woke up, I accepted his surrender and sent him back to the capture tent. That’s where he had to await his ransom.”

Denario tried to imagine this style of comabt going up against the Mundredi or Raduar. It was hard to fit both types of warriors into the same mental picture.

“You know,” said Duval that afternoon, “I do wish you would put on your guild robes or something.”

“I have the vest. And the hat.” Den patted the only bag on his pony. “Will that do?”

“Quite. I don’t now if you’ve noticed but the soldiers that we passed a few minutes ago gave you a dirty look. It’s one thing to be the toughest accountant. It’s quite another to be the weakest warrior in sub-standard armor.”

Denario hadn’t noticed. In his profession, he was accustomed to expressions of contempt from armed men. It wasn’t the rule but that was probably because they didn’t notice him most of the time. In court, it was common. If the marquis or a count or some other noble invited ‘bean-pushers’ to the court, it was to prove a point. No one wanted to be at the wrong end of that point. To most fighting men, there was something unfair about it. Using accountants was regarded, literally, as a lower-class move.

With his vest and hat showing over his base armor, Denario drew amused glances from the next batch of soldiers they passed. At the gate to camp, however, the guards greeted him like a hero. It took Den a moment to realize that their enthusiasm was for the raft of supplies they saw being dragged upstream behind Den by the mules. One of the teamsters had to use a punt to steer. Still, the greeting made everyone feel welcome.

“Report to the quartermaster tent to receive your appointment.” The sergeant at the desk behind the gate handed Den and Sir Duval each a set of travel passes. “At this time of day, the best you can hoe for is tomorrow morning. If Sir Heimdahl’s secretary likes you you’ll be second or third on the schedule. If you slip him an extra brass, he’ll write you out meal passes for the night.”

Sir Duval insisted that the accountant should lead the way through camp. Even though Den had never set foot inside this particular training area, he remembered how they worked based on his trip with Master Winkel. Back thenm, they had helped the army engineers plot out camp roads and order the correct numbers of paving stones, supports, bridge beams, and the like. The camp north of Oggli had been used to build war engines. Those were expensive and the marquis would have had the senior engineer whipped if a trebuchet, for instance, had gotten stuck in the mud before even rolling out the main road to Faschnaught.

“Right. Second appointment tomorrow.” The secretary hardly looked at the coins he accepted. He turned straight to his quill and ink. “Do you want into the mess hall?”

“No need.” Duval added a few pence to the coins Den had contributed. “Here’s a little something for your trouble all the same.”

“In that case,” said the well-shaved man with a grin, “I’ll write you a note for the wine garden.”

After they were out of earshot, Den asked why the knight hadn’t paid for dinner as they’d agreed.

“Change of heart,” said Duval. “Or rather, change of stomach due to what Sir Redumonde told me about the army food. The mess hall is not for the officers. I’d rather treat us to a meal from my supplies.”

On their return to the raft, which had made it to the army dock, Denario discovered that the squire and man-at-arms had kept their eyes on the teamsters. Likewise, the mule drivers had viewed the upper classes with suspicion. No one had been able to thieve from the raft or from Den’s personal bags. His long hair lay untouched across the top of his best backpack. The clock spring inside the accounting bag pressed against the leather cover, waiting to pop out a penny with the gouge across the face of it. All of the distinctive puzzle pieces to the accountant’s arrangement of his belonging had gone undisturbed.

That night, he slept on the raft and traded stories with the knight and his retinue until they all fell asleep. It felt a bit like the Muntabi army except for not being huddled in a dogpile to protect against the cold.

“And you are the famous accountant,” said the quartermaster, Sir Heinrich Heimdahl, in the morning. He accepted the appointment vouchers, one in each hand, and returned them to his secretary. His secretary, Albrecht, stacked them on his lectern, which was shorter and narrower than his boss’s desk. He also took the beer cup from his boss’s hand and casually swapped it for another that was full.

“Oh, you know him, too?” Duval laughed. “He really is famous.”

“I have heard from one of my lieutenants named Dvishvili. The lieutenant comes from a good family, quite well connected. He complains about his terms and pay but in a way that seem fair. He said that he met the best young accountant from the Court of Oggli while on patrol in a war zone. The accountant’s name was Denario.”

“Yes.” He was surprised that the courier system had beaten him here. “That’s correct.”

“Dvishvili said his orders had been illegally changed. The accountant, by means of mathematics, could prove the accusation.”

“Also true.”

“Dangerous stuff.” The quartermaster brushed a crumb from his captain’s insignia, which was a tab of metal engraved with a double-lance. It had been sewn onto his hauberk. The hauberk itself was thin, strictly ceremonial, and it was painted with his personal coat of arms, now fading. “That made me think. Wasn’t there a wanted poster up for an accountant? Very unusual, that. Not the sort of thing you forget.”

He stared at Denario. Den didn’t move. Sir Duval gawked at them both.

“So.” Sir Heimdahl cocked his head and lifted his elbow. He tossed back half of his second morning drink in a gulp. “I took a stroll over to the message offices. That’s where they keep the wanted notices. And do you know what I found?”

Denario let his hands swing free. He glanced to the door flap of the tent, just in case. No one was standing in his way.

“Nothing.” The older man laughed. “The poster had been taken down and replaced with an X mark. That’s what they put up when a job has closed out. No more reward, you see. No way to check if it was for you.”

The accountant didn’t smile but he allowed himself a nod.

“Do you play cards, accountant?” For the first time since they’d arrived, the quartermaster limped a few paces from behind his desk. “You seem like you might. It would be fun to have a game sometime. Anyway, here you come to me wanting your pay for an accounting job, which by Dvishvili's description was tricky, and for which I’ll want proof. And you’ve brought trade goods to me as well. You appear to be quite the young businessman. Do I understand correctly that you jointly own a balsa raft that is loaded with supplies for my army?”

“We do,” said Duval and Den more or less together. Den clarified, “The logs are from mallow trees.”

“That’s a type of balsa,” Sir Heimdahl replied knowledgeably. A moment later, he paused and touched his lip. “Or anyways, I don’t think that anyone around here knows the difference. Light, strong woods and especially those woods made into decent rafts are in short supply. I’ll tell you, the army could use a better vessel in our canal.”

“What happened to your previous?” asked Duval.

“The best one got sold.” Heimdahl stole a look at his secretary. “The price was so good, I couldn’t stay angry. We had our enlisted men build a replacement raft, of course. But it is terrible.”

“We are looking ...” Duval began. He tilted his head in the accountant’s direction for a moment. “At least, I myself am looking to establish a supplier relationship with the army. If the deal is generally good and assures me of decent treatment next time, then the price for the raft becomes less important.”

“So that’s your half.” Heimdahl clasped his hands behind his back. He turned to the accountant. “What about you?”

“I’m looking for the best price,” said Den, confident that his partner would be happy to hear it. Duval didn’t feel it was honorable to haggle. Nevertheless, he would be delighted to have a tradesman do it for him. “The army won’t give us that. And that means I had decided to go elsewhere. There is the matter of my accounting pay, though. My guild would not be happy if I didn’t demand payment in full. Perhaps we can work something out.”

“Gentlemen, have a seat.” Sir Heimdahl gestured to the rickety stools on the other side of his desk. Next, he swung toward his secretary, who took the cup from his hand without a word. “Albrecht, get me another. Drop by my tent and ask my wife to send over a slate and chalk.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Before we get to the details of your trade goods, I need to hear about how you met my troops in a war zone. Then I need to know how you could tell that my written orders had been changed.”

Outside, the morning had turned out to be both overcast and bright. The sky was uniformly silver-grey. When Albrecht lifted the flap, it didn’t enliven the tent much. Fortunately, Sir Heimdahl kept a tall oil lamp in his office. The court in Oggli preferred magical lights but only the marquis and the duke could afford them. The rest of the nobility depended on candelabras, lamps, sconces, and sometimes bonfires. Torches were left to the lower classes. Heimdahl had been elevated to his position, not born to money, but the army could still afford a good light for him. In addition, his tent walls were white sailcloth. The place would have been cheery except for the furniture.

The quartermaster’s desk looked solid but in the center there was a groove just the right size for an axe head. The rest of the wooden pieces in the room were awful, badly made, and they were aged by years of soldier’s backsides, their armor, dirt, grease, and to judge by the look, a few hard kicks from a horse.

Denario glanced around, tried not to wince at the presence of Sir Duval, and launched into his tale. He could not ask his business partner to leave but the man amounted to a foreign soldier. There could be no military codes revealed. Instead, Den stuck to his standard story minus his weeks of cooperation with ‘the rebels,’ as the Mundredi, Kilmun, and other hillmen were collectively known. He focused instead on the crimes of the Ziegeburg mayor, the maps he’d made of rebel territories, his luck running into Dvishvili, his verification of the changed orders, and his hunt for a river master willing to take him to Oupenli.

With the ease of planning ahead, he reached into his accounting bag and produced a map of North Ackerland. Duval gaped at it. Heimdahl made a clicking noise with his tongue. Den then offered his copy of the Dvishvili orders, which he cited as proof of the illegal changes. At this point, his explanation of accounting mechanisms was interrupted by the return of Albrecht. The secretary handed his supervisor a slate and a cut of chalk as long as a man’s finger but Sir Heimdahl set them aside on his desk. He gave a meaningful nod toward Sir Duval, which indicated that he understood the issue of military codes.

“Enough,” he said. He buried his head in his hands for a moment.

“The promise of payment made by the lieutenant,” said Albrecht. He pushed a scrap of paper in front of his boss.

“I said enough!” The quartermaster slammed his fist on the table. A moment later, he changed his posture, nodded, and accepted a mug of ale from his man. “The damn barons are betraying my word. It’s got to be them. Only three knight were privy to the deal. None of them would consent to treating fellow warriors like this.”

“I don’t know who yet.” Den leaned closer. To him, Sir Heimdahl looked like an optimist for assuming that his brother knights wouldn’t betray commoner men-at-arms. “But the orders were changed within nine miles and within eleven days of when I saw them.”

“Ugh. Ankster.” There was only one baron in that area.

“Or a knight.”

“Ugh.”

As they sat in contemplation, Heimdahl probably with darker thoughts than the rest, his secretary reached under the lectern and came up with a stoneware pitcher. It sloshed. He set it next to his boss’s cup.

“Well done.”

“Accountant,” said the secretary. He had a high-pitched voice for a tall man. “When I was a younger fellow, drafted into the war against Faschnaught, my troop marched ahead with the surveyors. The Marquis de Oggli told one of his men to lead the survey team. That man brought an assistant, a curly-haired fellow. Wimple? He had a name like that.”

“Winkel.”

“There was an apprentice with him, a brown-skinned boy. It amazed me to see that boy give orders to the surveyors.”

“I’m sure that’s not what ...”

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

The expression on Denario’s face was enough to make Sir Heimdahl laugh.

“Good,” he said. “Your passage through the rebel lands is the only right thing to come from this situation. You escaped the mayor of Ziegeburg, marched through the hills, got shot with arrows, but nevertheless you survived. You’ve returned home in triumph.”

“This is triumph?”

“Well, alive. That’s plenty. This isn’t an epic poem. In real life, lots of travelers die. Do you read poetry? I used to love those long poems about epic journeys and great battles.”

“The accountant was in one of those, too.” Duval picked up one of the empty cups and waved it in the direction of the secretary, who obliged. “Thanks, Albrecht. Anyway, Denario hasn’t mentioned it but you should have heard his friends go on about his fights on the river.”

“There was never a great battle.” With a sigh, the accountant picked up the remaining cup. Albrecht gave him a wry smile, turned a little, and filled it. “And my part was small. I blocked attacks with my sword in order to prevent my friends from getting killed.”

“Some of his friends were alligators,” continued Duval. “And one of those claimed to be a former knight.”

“Ah, so this took place directly upstream from here.”

Denario nodded.

“Did the knight give his name?”

“Sir Robert.” The alligator had said a last name or town name too, hadn’t he? Den sipped from his cup and tried to remember. “I think he was born to the gentry, not the nobility. He said he was enobled for bravery on the field. Then he and his friends got hit with battle magic. They turned into beasts. Robert and others like him had to dive into the water to avoid magical fire or something.”

“Is this Robert of Locksli?”

That didn’t sound familiar. Denario shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

“Damn. I think you just described the battle of Hastili. From the account I remember, at least two knights named Robert were presumed killed. Both were put down to wizards as the cause. At any rate, it sounds like you did well enough in your battle. Defending your friends, even if they are … changed, I suppose … is an honorable thing. It’s all part of the triumph.”

This time, it was Denario who let out a bark of laughter.

“Don’t dismiss it,” said Heimdahl. “You have changed, haven’t you? If I spent a winter in a small town like Ziegeburg, it wouldn’t matter much to me. I’ve been in a hundred. But you, at seventeen, going away from your home for the first time, that makes it a life-changing event. Being on your own is the key. No one brought you meals. No one cleaned up your messes. No one introduced you to strangers. You had to do it all for yourself.”

Den paused with the cup in front of his mouth. He thought about the friends he’d made like the pudgy baker, the wiry farmer Gordi, the square-jawed clock maker, the tailor Elgin, and so many more. Even Kurt, the farmer’s rooster of a son, held a fond place in his memory. Beyond those, of course, was his vision of the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, the one he’d asked to marry him. Pecunia’s eyes seemed to gaze down at him for a moment, her elfin cheekbones, her elegant, raised chin, the blonde ringlets by her ear.

“It did change me,” he said. “I thought I'd grown up. Completely, I mean.”

“And then you went off and had an even bigger adventure.” said Heimdahl.

“Adventure?” The word seemed out of place.

The quartermaster shrugged. "You passed through the badlands, where no one but bandits go. And you came out.”

“That means something,” Duval agreed.

“We've sent plenty of troops. They don't stray from the main roads even when under the protection of the knights. They don’t hike the wilderness. They don't cross the mountains like you did. They don't wander far from the protection of their troop. Even so, even with all of those protections, many don’t return. But you did. You have come back to civilization."

“Never to return to the wilderness, believe me.” He set down his half-empty cup.

This time, everyone laughed, even Denario after a moment of reflection, and even Albrecht.

“All right.” The quartermaster leaned forward across his desk. “This has been fine but I have other appointments. Let’s get down to the last details of business.”

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 166: The Love Song of J. Almer Simpson

T.S. Eliot wrote great verses about a less-than-great man, J. Alfred Prufrock.  A salient point in the poem is how Prufrock knows the mermaids aren’t singing for him.  After all, they lure heroes to their doom.  He’s not heroic.  He is a man who feels it is daring to each a peach because they are so messy.

As I wrote this, I wondered: what would the result have been if Homer Simpson or some other regular guy had narrated in place of Prufrock.  We would hear about a man who dares to love and who does heroic deeds.  That’s why the mermaids sing to him.  Maybe they’re wasting their efforts, just a bit, but he cares enough to lie about doing heroic things.

The Love Song of J. Almer Simpson

Let us go then, you and I,
When the beers are spread out on the table
Like clouds in a sweet, blue sky.
Let's go, by certain half-deserted roads
Carrying our loads
Of crap our wives insisted that we buy
Although no matter how much we try
We'll never win a single argument
With our innocent intent
Or get an answer to the question,
"How much did this cost me?"

Let us go and make our visit
In the room where women walk about
With glasses full of Irish stout.

The yellow lager that every man drains
The yellow pee that splashes down the drains
Makes it worth working till the evening
Through the fools and the outright pains.
Let's plant our buttocks on the barstools
Or slip to the floor, bottle in hand
And, seeing another A-Team rerun,
Curl up on the sofa and fall asleep.

And sure, there will be time
For the yellow lager and stumbling to the street
Erasing all our worries and strains.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare lies for the spouse that you will meet;
To stare in wonder when called a 'reprobate;'
And time to play with rubber bands
While thinking of reasons to be home so late.
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred snap decisions
And a thousand regrets and attempted revisions
Before the taking of another toast and a pee.

In the room where women walk about
With glasses full of Irish stout

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Did I pee there?" and "Why should I care?"
Time to turn back and fall down the stair
With a bruise on my delicate derriere.
(They will say: 'How his ass is growing fat!')
My morning drink, my double chin, my annoying cat,
my stained shirt looks good with my pledge pin and hat.
(They will say 'How his head is getting fat!')
Should I care
About the universe?
In a minute there is time
For snap decisions that no one can reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the drunks, the barmaids, the jackass brays,
I have measured my life with tv trays;
I know the voices from each sitcom, eyes closed,
and words to the music from the living room.
At least, that's what I presume.

And I have done the gals already, done them all--
Or maybe a few in my alcoholic haze
And when I was sated, sprawling on the bed,
The ones who looked so fine you'd pin them to the wall
Didn't really look that way at all,
But with my wily ways I was good to them for days and days.
At least, that's what I presume.

And I have fired arms already, fired them all--
Shot down elk and grizzly bear
And also a unicorn with silvery hair.
No game would I ever dress,
though I like the powdered perfume of success.
I prefer not to see the blood at all.
At least, that's what I presume.
After a drink, I begin.

Shall I drink openly at dusk in narrow streets
Or in the smoke-filled bars, in corners,
With other lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning over a spittoon?

Each thinking, I should have been a movie star
making it with the model in Blue Lagoon.

And the afternoon, the evening, drags like a queen,
drags like a bunt down the right foul line
or like a clock above the exit sign
as my mellow mood comes round to mean.
Should I, after missing a traditional wastebasket toss,
have the balls to prank the boss?
But though I have laughed and overeaten, barked and brayed,
Though I have regretted each pronouncement,
I drink, I predict, I make announcement
Of deeds I'll do beyond my power.
I have seen the Eternal Barman hold my glass and glower
And ask me if I'm driving.

Oh, but it is worth it, after all,
After the ale, the martinis, the vodka collins,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of crap and pee,
We find out what our paycheck fetches,
Which is mostly spite from ungrateful wretches
Who want to make us sober drones,
Like my born again (and again) sister
Who says, "I am Shirley Maclaine come from the dead,
Returned to tell you, show you, how to think.”
And I, with the ice compress on my head
Must say, "You can't make me, not ever, think,
much less pry away my drink."

Oh, but it is worth it, after all,
To see the world in its warmest glow,
To watch the sunrises and the sirens and shining glass upon the streets,
To watch the movies, the whores, the skirts hiked high above the thighs --
Every part of life sends you shivers and sighs --
If you were drunk right now, you'd know what I mean!
Whether you're enlightened and fat or holy and lean,
Oh, but it is worth it,
You know it's worth every pain and every penny, every effort and strain
When you lie back on the grass with red wine and a red-faced woman, thinking,
"This is what I've worked for,
"This is exactly what I've worked for."

No! I am not Prince Charming, nor was meant to be;
Am an evil lord or maybe just a banal fraud,
One who would do anything
To advance my trivial cause,
To seduce my wife, to dine and play,
Obstreperous, full of abuse,
Overfull with laughter but with leaps into the fray;
At times, indeed, I'm of little use
But my life does not give me Pause.

I grow tired ... I grow tired ...
I drink double lattes and get wired.

Shall I scratch my fat behind?  Do I dare to throw the peach?
I shall wear blue denim trousers and walk upon the beach
Where I have heard the donuts singing, each to each.

It's a catchy jingle, meant for me.

I have smelled them from across the sea,
Rowed to meet them, all sprinkled and chocolaty,
Like so many things, each a lonely ecstasy.
I've gorged myself on life and custard cream,
Rowed my boat further, for life is but a dream
Full of donuts, drinks, experiences without number
And no one can wake me from my slumber.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Not Even Not Zen 165: A Bandit Accountant, 28.1

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Second Perfect Number

Scene One: The Remainder

Saying goodbye to the dwarfs took hours. A few minutes into the first speech, Jack Lasker figured out how things were going. He set a plank between two posts, tapped a barrel of peach beer, and cracked open a box of dried figs. Sir Redumonde, apparently unwilling to appear outdone by a commoner, ordered his men to dig into his mule packs and pass out pieces of hardtack. Boldor, dwarf chief, saw the makeshift table set with beer, fruit, and bread and ordered his folks to add to it. That meant a slice of cheese, two fresh grapes apiece, and a chunk salted fish for everyone. Only Brand protested. He didn't want the dwarfs to part with anything, probably because he intended to live off of them for a while.

"It is a shame that we must leave behind a friend," said Borghild during his turn. He spoke from a bench that had been turned into a sort of dwarf lectern. He leaned forward, hands against the plank, when he wanted to emphasize his points. "Especially before finding our home. We would be blessed to travel in such company all the way into darkness. Yet I tell you, with his interpretation of maps and his lessons in geometry, our friend has helped us find our way down in the world."

The knights looked at each other, bewildered. Men would say that a friend had 'helped them see the light,' not the dark, or had 'helped them up' but dwarfs didn't consider that a safe direction. Denario had been listening to the dwarf idioms for long enough that he'd forgotten how strange they sounded at first.

"There are some dwarfs who advance their professions," Borghild continued. "We pride ourselves on it. But we have heard of few men who advance any art at all. This accountant, whom we have called Skilling for these past weeks, is one of them. He is a master to the masters."

In fact, the accountant had only spent a bit more than two weeks in their company. Denario rubbed his eyes. He had grown to be friends with Borghild, Torgrim, Ulf ... well, all of them. That had happened fast, hadn't it?

He felt awful for leaving the group. It was worse than abandoning Vir and Alaric, really, because those two had an impossible task and were destined to die striving for it. The whole Mundredi countryside, caught between their Raduar brethren and their West Ogglian noble rulers, was doomed. The dwarfs, though, had a chance to find safety in a mine before the worst of the fighting swept over these lands.

The only thing that made this a rational decision for Denario was his boys. Buck, Guilder, Kroner, Shekel, and Mark were waiting.

Each dwarf said words of thanks to the accountant for the geometry they'd learned from him, for his minor proofs of mathematical theory, for his advice on humans, for his ideas on mines that might be worthwhile, and even for what they called his bravery.

"It has truly been a blessed meeting!" Jofrid burbled during his farewell session. He surprised the accountant by breaking into sobs. His lot in life, a fortnight before, had been reduced from master craftsman to almost a dwarf commoner. His group had suffered from thefts of materials, such as iron ingots, and no one had felt the losses more than Jofrid. That the accountant had helped to recover equipment and had traded for raw materials had changed Jofrid's life.

About halfway through the testimonials, salutes, hugs, and toasts to Denario's health, the knights and squires approached the accountant. Except for the best-dressed squire, everyone had a cup of ale in hand.

"Did you really fight brigands?" Duval leaned close. His eyebrows had raised higher and higher during the dwarf speeches. His disbelief seemed matched by his surprise.

"Very badly," Denario assured him. "I'm only an accountant. Your protection and courtesies will be needed to see me safely through my mission and into Oupenli."

"You're alive with only scars on your arms. And your forehead."

"Luck."

That was the truth but the fighting men took the statement as a sort of modesty. Duval whispered to one of his retainers. Denario didn't realize it but the fellow had ordered his saddlebags removed from his squire's roan pony. The steed would be loaned to the accountant for the duration of their trip together.

"Who taught you swordsmanship?" ask Redumonde. If the knight had belonged to the Ogglian court, it would have been a dangerous question. Nobles didn't like just anyone to learn. The decision to teach was never carelessly made, despite Denario having been involved.

"Squires in the court of Oggli, with permission," he replied in an offhand manner since he was being vague. He left out his lessons from the swordmaster, Sir Giles Compte. Giles had discouraged him. "I was hopeless, really."

Everyone had felt he was awful except for a few squires who thought he was funny and perhaps Vir De Acker. Denario knew it would be dangerous to mention Vir, however. Outside of the Seven Valleys, the man was a bridgand who had killed a knight, probably murdered other knights, and had definitely slain squires and men-at-arms besides. In the eyes of city men, Vir was a criminal who would be put to death by public torture if captured.

For weeks, Denario had thought of Vir as a tribal leader. It was the truth. But in his tour of the valley edges and in the towns south of the mountains, he had lost track of the West Ogglian view. Sharing the company of knights brought the matter home.

"The ways of the gods are mysterious," said one of youngest men-at-arms.

"Eh." Redumonde grunted. "Someone trained you right."

Fortunately, Redumonde was the senior man, so no one said a word to oppose him and that settled that.

At a break in the speeches between Dodni and Boldor, the master boatman Jack approached his former crew member and accountant.

"Time to settle my debts," began Jack. That was an odd way to start because they had already settled. "One of the best bargains I've made was being your agent, Den. Never thought of accounting as a place for greatness before. But your math is something. Your boating is fine, too. All right, you can't jump a lick. You can’t run. But you would make a fine riverman all the same. Please send my blessings to your boys."

He pressed a bit of extra cash into Denario's palm. The trader, Solvetkin, took note. So did the squires. Without looking down to see the amount, Denario, flipped about half between his fingers.

"I will surely give them your blessing. We will seek you out someday, at least to break bread together. More, if we find journeyman jobs along the creek."

"Aha!" Jack seemed pleased by the latter idea. "If I find those, I will write to Denario of Oggli."

"Good. Probably 'Ugly Accountant' would still find me."

They shared a laugh. Denario slipped half of this coins back to the Jack as they clasped hands.

"For your temporary apprentice. A rising tide lifts all boats, they say." Denario put his hands on his hips and nodded at the crippled man to the left.

"Yes, I take your meaning." Jack did not smile. He accepted the partial payback with a grim nod. "But you'll notice that they don't say that the rising tide lifts all anchors."

"I'd pray to Melcurio that Goyle rises to the task but, as you know, Melcurio doesn't work that way. So we'll have to see."

"Hah."

Behind Jack, Goyle gave a quick wave of the hand. He had decided either that he was friends with Denario now or he understood that the accountant and river master were talking about him.

At last, the chief of the dwarfs stepped over to the lectern. He leaned against the wood, knuckles pressed on either side. His beard flattened against the stomach of his smart-looking hauberk. A few weeks before, he had worn wool on his head. Today, he set down his steel cap before he began his speech. He wore boots with polish. His companions had dressed his calves with greaves of steel. On his forarms lay bands of metal that were much like the gauntlets of a knight. By some dwarfish art, his leather and metal armor had been blackened to nearly the same shade. It had been done in a pattern that was, almost surely, useful and morally approved. But it was also smart-looking.

Oddly, a part of the speech that Boldor gave proved to be identical to one that Master Winkle had given, year after year, during the Wintertide festival in the guild hall in Oggli, when he was faced with the assemblage of accountants and book keepers.

"In this world, we see great math and small math," said Boldor, hands on either edge of the lectern. "Do not underestimate the little additions and substrations of our lives. Do not think that they are frivolous. For what lies in them? Only our accomplishments and our debts, our feasts and our famines, our promises kept and our vows broken. Does it matter if we are cheated by a currency exchange? No, not unless such exchanges are part of our everyday business, which they are. Does it matter if a cabbage gives us fifty leaves or only five? No, not unless the harvest is affected, as it so often is. By such small math do we live or die. By such modest deeds and markers do we adjust the course of our lives."

The choice of words seemed dwarfish but, for a moment, Denario's gaze scanned the dock area for Winkel's ghost. Dwarfs and dock workers smiled at him.

"Those who remain ignorant of their math, of their circumstances in life, do not know how to pilot themselves," Boldor continued. "They become confused by light and reflection. They steer wrongly. They grow frustrated by obstacles. They do not understand how minor deeds change their course. They can't read a map."

Boldor gave his audience a regal, sly smile.

"Thanks to our friend, Master Denario, we know better than once we did. We are endarkened. We feel the bones of the earth. We will find ourselves a mine. We will delve deep and make it our home."

After the dwarf finished his speech, he lumbered in his half-armor to where the dirt road met the dock. There, he stretched out his arms and embraced the accountant. Denario had to crouch to meet him shoulder to shoulder, something that didn't happen to him often.

Boldor murmured a few words in dwarfish to which Den nodded in agreement even though he didn't understand. Behind the chief came other dwarfs in a line, each to give a hug and a blessing in their turn.

After the hugs and handshakes had come around for a second go, after the food had been packed away, and after everyone had shared another drink, the dwarfs looked around and got the hint. They could see that the teamsters had hitched their mules to Denario's raft. The merchants had loaded their carts. The dock hands had started leaving for home.

"It's time," allowed Boldor with a sigh.

"We can't see you off in the style we should," said Heilgar.

"Look us up when we have our mine." The chief gestured for his subjects to board Clever Jack's rafts. He remained on the dock closet to Denario, himself. "Then we can host a celebration for our benefactors."

"Master accountant!" called one of the knight's men. He was leading a pony by the bridle.

The look that Denario gave him must not have shown much perception of the situation.

"Here is your steed, master." The fellow tried to hand over the reins.

"This will save time," said Sir Duval. He nodded permission to the accountant, perhaps because he thought the accountant's relucance was due to a sense of social class. "Besides, it will be an honor to ride beside the hero of many battles."

Denario looked around for the hero. After a moment, he patted his chest as he realized that the knight meant him.

"Um." He felt his cheeks warm.

"Go on." The knight smiled with a kind sort of humor.

Denario mounted awkwardly. The assistant had to cup his hands and help him into the saddle as if he were a woman or the spoiled son of a merchant. That seemed to set everything right, though. Everyone had a laugh. Denario's gaze passed wistfully to his possessions, most of which were tied down on his raft. He wished he could ride with them. But the mules begrudged every ounce that they had to drag upstream, so Den was probably fortunate that the teamsters didn't know how much his bags weighed. If they did, they would have demanded that he shift the burden to his poor pony.