Sunday, August 30, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 213: Nearly Giant

by Aasthap dsc Wikimedia Commons

Nearly Giant

"Does your hand hurt, daddy?"

“Nah, I know something stronger than pain,” he says,

snow on his shoulders and fat, green boots,

frost in his mustache. He leans down.

“I know a power bigger than me,

that fills me up, pumps my heart,

wakes me in the morning, works me through sickness,

keeps me cool in the screams of summer,

warms me as I gather icicles off cars.”

He laughs, kneels, and stretches his arms

as the two leap forward for a hug.

The oldest, the boy in the red and blue,

yikes in his ear and shouts,

“You’re cold, daddy!”

“I don’t feel it,” daddy replies. He lifts.

He laughs. “Oh! You’re getting big!”

The little girl in purple puts her fingers to his mouth

to still his foolishness, to command him.

“I small,” she says. “You big, daddy. You.”

Yowls of disappointment as he sets them down,

takes them by the hands. He holds the girl with one finger,

winces when she squeezes his sprain.

“I’m small, too," he says. "But I have a power

that makes me a giant! It lets me carry mommy

as she carries you. It keeps me going

when the morning sky is dark and my eyes are full of sand,

when fever racks me, when I think of my wage slave jobs

and almost fall apart. When my bones grind to ash,

I will still have strength. I can look at you and

summon the power to grow again.”

The boy stares at the piles of shoveled snow.

He smiles at the fog of his breath.

At seven he is recently wise, a discerner of facts and fictions,

and so he makes his own secret meanings. He says,

“Everyone can do that, right?”

“You're so smart!" daddy says, hands on hips, both jolly and sad,

"you're practically a giant already.”

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Not Zen 198: Externalizations

Mirror  Reflecting Vase by Cgn, Wikimedia Commons

There was a mirror in the hall next to the kitchen. Before she looked at it, Pat stole a glance at her husband. He stood at the sink with his back to her. Satisfied, she turned to her reflection. In it, she saw a tall woman with arms folded. She looked more determined than calm. Pat closed her eyes. She emptied her mind. It didn't come easy. She noticed the tension in her neck and shoulders. She willed her muscles to relax. There would be no headaches for her this morning.

"Hey there," she said. She cleared her throat. "I'm ready to make my call now."

Her husband twisted. He didn't stop his work but he took a moment to smile.

“Nice, Pat," he said.  "You look sharp. Did you put on makeup?  It's just a call to your mother.”

“No, I did not put on makeup.”  Hands on her hips, Pat shook her head.  “I'm looking good because of my meditation.  I can feel how much it's helping.  Last night, I reviewed my mother's messages.  I had time to consider the things she said.  I focused inward.  This morning, I did it again.  I regained my emotional peace.”

“You look nice, mommy.”  Her daughter entered the kitchen from the doorway of the dining room. She paused to hug her leg.  Pat accepted it with a caress of her daughter's head as she continued.

“I will admit,” she said as she looked down at her clean, pink blouse, “I did change clothes.”

“Sure.”  He nodded.  She could tell that he still thought she'd dressed up.

“For months, I've been thinking about my conversations with my mother.  They do not have to be dictated by my gut reactions.  She knows how to trigger those.  I've done soul-searching about my relations with her.  My approach is better.  My reactions are calmer.”

“That sounds great.”  He gave her a thumbs-up, hands dripping.  Then he turned back to the sink and resumed washing dishes.  Every Saturday morning, he took charge of the chores.  His favorite was hand-washing the week-old stuff that she had left out from her cooking.  Pat thought it was disgusting but also it was great, so she encouraged it.

When his back was turned again, she made her call.

"Hello, Patience," her mother said when she answered. 

Pat's given name was Patricia. She'd had the argument with her mother about it dozens of dozens of times. It had been written that way, correctly, by her father on her birth certificate. But her mother had preferred the name Patience from the beginning, so she insisted on using it. Even when Pat had been a child, her mother had referred to her by her almost-name more often than her given one. She only used 'Patricia' when dealing with schools, jobs, and government offices. 

"You must have gotten my last note," she continued.

"Are you still having problems at the grocery?" Pat asked. She rubbed her neck. It felt stiff.

"No, no, that's all done now." She heard a gust of air next to the phone speaker. Her mother's hand had waved off everything that Pat had planned to say. "Let me tell you about what's new in town."

As usual, her mother steered the conversation to her local topics.  She liked to focus on people that no one liked.  They fascinated her. Besides, they made her put-downs seem funny.  She ridiculed their hair, clothes, facial tics, awkward mannerisms, bodies, and, most of all, their figures of speech. She could mimick voices in a way that made Pat laugh.

Pat didn't want to be amused by her mother's cruelty. But sometimes she was, despite her intentions. Then her mother concluded by saying that she would love to help raise her granddaughter.  That was something that would never happen. She lived hundreds of miles away and was totally unwelcome to participate, so it wasn’t a real offer.  She wanted to say that because it gave her a chance to belittle the sort of people, like her daughter, who resorted to using daycare as a way to manage child-rearing tasks.

"It's just irresponsible," she said.

"Thank you, mother. I'm aware of your opinion."

By the time Pat's mother asked to speak with her grand-daughter, the girl had wandered away.  She had marched across the living room and kicked one of her toys, a car made for a doll.  She made a few, small pushes with her foot.  Then she smacked it across the floor.

“Sorry, mom,” Pat said with a smile.  “Our little girl doesn't want to talk right now.  But she's fine, thanks.  Yes, she's fine.  Thanks, mother.”

When she hung up, she felt calm. Her neck had grown more tense. Her jaw was sore. But when she checked her hands, they were steady. 

“That was the most polite conversation I've had with her in years.”  Pat raised her chin.


Her husband turned.  He had finished the dishes, the glasses, the big pot, the small pots, and he was down to the silverware.  He was drying three forks as he gazed at her, eyebrows raised.

“Yes,” she snapped.  She decided that her husband wasn't being supportive.

She strode from the kitchen to the dining room and next to the living room, trying to find her daughter.  The girl had dropped to her knees to shove the toy car under the sofa. It didn't fit.  She kept trying.  Pat stooped to give her a hug. Her daughter dodged it.  

“What's wrong, honey?” Only a little while ago, her daughter had been fine.

The girl twisted away from Pat's next attempt to touch her. Then she rolled her eyes, a gesture that Pat hated.  She dashed into the hall.  With a glance at her mother to make sure she wasn't being followed, she banged through the front door.  She let it slam closed behind her.

Only after she escaped did she make a rude noise. 

“What the hell?”  The door reverberated twice.  Her daughter's footsteps faded. Pat stomped back to the dining room. She raised an eyebrow to try to pull explanations from her husband. 

“You look angrier than usual, actually,” he said.  He was rubbing a pair of spoons with a hand towel.

Hands on her hips, Pat took a deep breath.

"I do not," she replied.  The words were automatic.  But she studied her phone.  Her gaze drifted to the front door. Out of the corner of her eye to her left, she caught a glimpse of a stiff-looking figure in the hall mirror.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 212: Love and Karma

Lovers of Cluj-Napoca, Wikimedia

Love and Karma

She turned over on the twin bed
and said, "It's bad karma how we met. All the 
feelings of anger from our old lovers. 
Aren't you afraid?"

"It's good magic how we met."
He didn't even look up from his book.
"It was long ago, you unknowing,
in the hall between classrooms,
your smile innocent,
bright with joys of life."

She said, "We weren’t together then.
You know what I mean.
We kissed and everyone was angry.
The world fell apart."

"I know something stronger than magic."
He took off his glasses.
"I know there’s a strength in doing right,
in caring, in loving each other. 
I know we tried to keep everyone from harm.
We had the right intent
and it protects us, just a little, 
from what you feel is bad karma."

She caught him glancing again at
the pages in his book.
He felt her eyes
and his attention drifted back to her.

"We've lit fires in the rain,
kept each other warm in the stream,
kissed each other awake,
sung songs in the darkness,
and loved each other out of sickness.”

“Yes, all that.”

“Our love protects us.
It already has. It will continue.
There are a lot of powers in the world
that some people call magic.”
He gave up reading, closed his book and rose.
"But all I’ll ever worry about," he said, 
"is the magic between us."

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 211: Universal Nature

Augmented TA by NASA, Wikimedia Commons
Universal Nature

Usually, when I post stories to NotZen, I don't know in advance what the reactions will be. This time, I have an idea. I have had a full handful of reviewers already. Normally, I'll have one or two, no more.

The prior reviewers don't like it.

When initial reader reactions are negative, that means I won't post the story. This time is an exception. No one else likes it so far but, as I read and re-read Universal Nature, it speaks well to my heart. The characters are quirky but they make me love them. The story tells me something important that I need to hear and want to say. 

With the caveats above, prepare to read a multi-scene vignette while wading through a fair amount of scientific speculation, pointed story-telling, and a worldview. The action proceeds without a war, without a journey to enlightenment, and without a sex scene (well, much of one, anyway). Prepare for the worldview to be influenced by buddhism, stoicism, daoism, awareness of human history, and the current trends of humanity. Most of all, based on prior reader reactions, prepare to be disappointed.

Universal Nature, Scene One
Universal Nature, Scene Two
Universal Nature, Scene Three
Universal Nature, Scene Four

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 211.4: Universal Nature, p4

(Scene 4, Love for an Environment)

On the morning of the landing, she let herself nestle in close with David on the couch. She got so relaxed under the crook of his arm that she almost fell asleep. A flash of light on the table in front of her made her sit up.

Half a minute later, the ceiling above her lit up with a display. The planet of TR-56g had come into view. She chuckled with weariness and with relief. It would be good to get out and walk around on a planet for a while. Her husband gave her a kiss on the cheek, a habit he seemed to have picked up from her kissing him. And I got that from a movie, she thought.

I should walk with him on the beach, holding hands. That was in the movie.

From her side, David rose. He ambled across the living room to the doorway on the rear wall, really the 'north' floor of the inner ring of the ship. He crouched to open the hatch. From there, he could look out into the what she thought of as the outer section. It wasn't really the hull. That was the biggest ring, which was kept in partial vacuum. A human needed to wear a special suit to go out there.

The middle ring that David needed to visit was the utility section. It was where the spacesuits and other emergency equipment lay in rows sorted by color-code and type. Red and white marked the medical supplies. Shades of brown showed the crates for hydroponics. Two different rows of bronze shapes showed where there were non-magnetic tools for the AIs to use when performing maintenance on the outmost ring. Farther up the mid-level tube, out of sight, lay the gardening section with groves of useful plants tended by robots. Shades of green and white showed visiting humans where the garden robots lived but only if they paid close attention.

The utility ring was where her husband kept storage lockers for his art collection, eight large bins each about three times the size of a human being. He had specified for them to be blue but the ship, following some kind of international code, made them orange.

Since the hatch was in the floor, David had to climb down a ladder to get to his things. Emmeline strolled over to watch.

With his notepad, a code, and a biometric marker strip, he opened the plexiglass gate to his storage. She could see over his head. In theory, not even the ship management AI could let Emmeline in or out. It was David's one place of privacy from her although, she noted, the ship had chosen a transparent wall for it.

The long crates lay in parallel rows at his feet. He popped open the closest pair. Those were the ones he'd already filled. He checked the packaging to see if anything had slipped. Right handed, he tugged on the clamps. He pulled the ropes. He pushed hard on one of the three-dimensional molds he'd built for a sculpture. It didn't budge.

He turned and graced her with a goofy smile. Then he bent down, glanced into the other full locker, and opened the next in line. Number three had the least in it although it already was about three-quarters packed. They had more stops to make on their tour. Five lockers lay empty. Emmeline put a finger to her lips as she tried to judge her husband's rate of art accumulation. It was going to be closer call than she'd thought when she saw the eight units hauled aboard. Weeks ago, they had seemed comically large.

In the third locker, she saw the edge of another printed foam mold. This was the one David had made to hold his newest sculpture. It was almost an art form in itself, the way he built the foam boxes and smoothed the interiors to fit their treasures. Once he had finished, even the most fragile of pieces would withstand being dropped, kicked, or beaten with a stick. To cap off his effort, he used special tie-downs that locked each piece in place plus gave them another shock-absorbing layer. He leaned on his creation. He pounded it.

"Honey," she called. "That thing is packed so tight it would survive re-entry."

That got a chuckle out of him, which was what she wanted.

"Do you want to come down?"

"Maybe just a little." She didn't enjoy the feeling of this hull beneath her feet. It had a rough, industrial surface. Dutifully, she climbed down the ladder. The air gave her goosebumps. She rubbed her arms as she dispelled the chill. She took her first big step and stumbled. She had to grab a rung to steady herself. The fake gravity felt different. It was. Nevertheless, within a minute she approached and admired his re-arrangements.

"David," she said after a while, "do you think we're bad?"

"We're not murderers or anything." He knelt to push a bag to the back corner of the locker. It didn't have anything in it yet but he wanted to tie it down anyway, probably to keep it from hurting something else. "Is that what you mean? We're regular people. We're about averagely good or bad."
Over his shoulder, he gave her a clinical look. It made her self-conscious.

"That's almost, but not quite, by definition," he continued. "We're as evil as humans are. We're as foolish as other humans. We are not wiser than most despite our education, I'm sorry to say."

"Do you think we take good care of the environment?"

"Us as individuals? We don't have much to do with it one way or another." He measured a tie-down inside the locker. He paused and placed his measuring tape on his hip. "But as humanity in general? No, we're awful. I kind of agree with you about that."

She exhaled. "Okay. Then why don't we do something about it?"

"Because we're human."

"I think we could change."

She stared at the art containers and wondered if the creatures who had made these things would die out. She thought about the large predators gone extinct back home, the flightless birds wiped out, the seas gone bad, and the moon accidents, big and small. Now humanity had the powers of creation. Strictly speaking, she had them herself. She had used them to travel up and down the galactic arm. As she did, she poked holes in the universe.

"You can change," he said as he returned to his work. "But humanity as a whole? Every time an individual can make money on a project while pushing off the cost to others, there's someone willing to do it. Will someone build a chemical plant on the river, dump the waste, and leave other folks to clean up the results? Sure. Fish the seas down to nothing and leave the problem to the next generation? Same."

She wrung her hands. It was tempting to retreat to the entertainment systems. Her AIs had her pegged right, there. But David liked doing stuff in the real world.

"Can you check the medical kit?" he asked, as if sensing her lack of direction.

"You brought it to TR-56g last time," she said. "We didn't use it."

"I'd like to have one along. It's a habit from the park living, I guess. When you go to a strange place, you have your kit."

That evening, she clutched the kit, a two-hand-sized white rectangle, in her lap as they took the lander to the spaceport. There had been an antiviral cream missing from it, totally David's fault, and she had located the vial with an amount of smugness that she admitted was childish. She didn't need an AI to help her. She remembered noticing her husband had done something slightly wrong.  He had carelessly moved one tube to the side during his unpacking. It wasn't hard to trace it back to the kitchen.

"Oh, I remembered a question from my ship manager AI. It's dumb but I didn't want to ask you where it would immediately hear."

"It'll get records from the shuttle."

"Yeah but this seems more polite. Anyway, it said you brought something along that worried it. I remember you told me you'd bring personal stuff on the trip. I'm fine with anything. But is there something my AIs would worry about? I mean, really?" She meant to address the unregistered intelligence but she thought it was nicer to let him reveal only as much as he liked.

"There's only one semi-serious piece that I brought. It's an AI generator, a simple kind that I know how to use." He held up his little notepad.

"Those are pretty unmistakable, aren't they?" Her AIs only had suspicions.

"Years ago, I divided it into three pieces that can operate independently, plus an integrator. The one clunky piece and the integrator have been powered down the whole time. Like the medical kit, we just haven't needed it."

"Why a generator unit?" It had to be a family heirloom of sorts even if David had modified his copy. Hell, it was probably a trade secret. If her father hadn't already stolen the code, he'd want to get his hands on it.

"Just paranoia, I guess. In an emergency, I could build us something."

"You could have offered to replace the pilot. But you didn't." Her father would at least have threatened the AIs a little.

"The pilot disturbs me. We have to trust our lives to it and I don't think it played straight with you. So how can you believe what it says now? But it would be worse to trust ourselves to something that I built in an emergency. Unless it was a real, life-threatening emergency with our systems partly fried or something."

"Yeah." She was glad he had only joked about being paranoid and was rational enough to understand that point.

"Mostly, it's just being separated from my machines, you know? And having to depend on yours."

She understood perfectly. Some folks from the technocracy could never leave their enclaves. Their fear of being without AI companions was too great. She wondered if she were one of them. After all, she hadn't given up anything. She'd made him do it. This wasn't the first time she'd noticed.

Suddenly, indulging his arts and crafts collection seemed vital. When they landed, she greeted the saltiness of the breeze with toe-tingling energy. She felt past ready.

A native AI in the form of an orange and silver colored drone met up with them to act as a guide. It whirred around them.

"It surprised us when your ship's message arrived two days ago," the drone said above the noise of its propeller. It hovered at a good angle for her vision, slightly higher than a person, three yards away. "That was sufficient time to have your hotel room cleaned and made available. You are once again the only humans on the planet."

"Thank you for the hospitality," she said.

"Am I correct in understanding that you returned after you had already begun your wormhole trip to Earth? That is, you stopped via a wormhole pair exit, then made another wormhole pair to come to TR-56g? And then made another pair for the sake of speed?"

"Um, yes." She didn't see how that was any business of the AI.

"Very little information came to us from the ship." The drone lowered itself slightly and drifted closer. "Here in our limited social circles of the TR-56 system, we have discussed our civilization's environmental effects on this galactic arm. My understanding is that there has been a similar topic of discussion among your Earth AIs. Their consensus was that you, Emmeline, had one of the human caretaking attitudes, almost a stereotype of them. They felt you were on their side."

"I thought I was."

"May I ask your ship for details?"

"I don't care." Emmeline let out a groan of exasperation. Her husband had already walked away, shaking his head. She lengthened her stride to catch up.

The drone drifted beside her. It was a model that had never been required to have communication lights. There was no way to tell what it was doing except by the pause in their conversation, which lasted for a few seconds. Most of that, probably, was due to the distance between the ship in orbit and the ground relay. There was a wide, industrial-grade communication channel open in the relay point, a silver dish with a fence around it to keep wildlife from getting burned up when it was turned on high, which it always was. Nothing human-made on this planet was throttled by regulations or competing data traffic.

"My experience with men and women is limited to seven individuals so far." The drone resumed discussion without any disclosure about what it had learned. Maybe it assumed she would understand. "This includes you and your partner. I thought that, civilization wide, AIs might need to account more than we do for a lack of foresight on the part of humanity. However, it seems to me that passions are also an issue."

"I told my ship I would destroy things for my husband, yes, I know." The drone certainly would have picked up that detail.

"But the art collection package could have been sent for." The creature was utterly calm as it made its observation. "In that case it would have returned to you on another robotic mission, eventually, in no more than ten years at the outside."

"I suspect David knew that." Foreign-born AIs seemed to have no appreciation for the human sense of time.

"Humanity would not only destroy the world for love. It would destroy it for other passions. For hobbies."

"Don't be ridiculous."

They arrived at the end of the main service corridor. Her husband was already there, hands on hips. He shot her a smile, turned theatrically, and nodded in the direction of a row of equipment lockers. She felt the tenseness ease out of her shoulders. In her right hand, she raised her silver keycode to show him.

"We can stay another day, right David?" she verified.

"Oh, longer than that if you like." He hadn't put it in those words before. The arrival had gotten him into a better mood. "Whatever seems good."

"No more than a week," she promised herself. And him.

Her husband stepped aside. There were six metallic, turquoise doors facing her but she knew it was the second one in line that she'd used. Last night, David had teased her about leaving his bag there but he hadn't been mad. She'd feared him acting worse than he did. With her code and identity verification, it took only two seconds for the correct locker to pop open.

"Aha," he said. He reached past her into the rectangle of space. His thumb pried open the bag inside. Most of the objects protected within it were only visible as crude wraps of white foam. A few of the craft pieces that were hard to hurt had transparent containers around them and nothing more. "Looks like it’s still all here."

"Of course." The human presence on this planet was entirely robotic. No AI or programmed robot was going to steal his souvenirs.

He pulled out one of the less valuable pieces. Naturally, the color was mostly blue. His fingers turned it over for her to marvel at. It was a storm globe. One of the natives had figured out what humans wanted, probably guided by the resident AIs, and had constructed it with her own materials. The background glass had a bluish cast. If you shook it, a monsoon current swirled up and bent the trees. Gel-based blue-green waves swelled beneath the tempest.

Even though the idea was claptrap, the execution of it in the hands of a single native was marvelous.

"Absolutely worth it!" He shook it. With a grin, he held out the miniature storm for her enjoyment.