Sunday, December 26, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 235: Biomythography - Note 12, Purpose

A Biomythography - Note 12
by Secret Hippie

Deciding on a Purpose

You have to have a cause.

If you don't have one, you will be swayed in every direction. You might spend your efforts on many goals without giving enough to achieve a single one. Also, you won't understand one of the most important parts of life. Stoics understand. Daoists, too. There is a special experience that is available to people who are driven to fulfill their calling.

The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
Some people: oh no, my good shirt

The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
People with a calling: that has nothing to do with why I'm here

If your cause is Buddhism, Stoicism, Daoism, or a similar set of beliefs that emphasizes non-attachment, it's even easier to not have setbacks. You can let events slide away when they don't matter. You simply re-focus on your goal.

When I was fourteen, I read a book on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It was supposed to be a psychology text, I think, but it read like philosophy. That is, it relied less on the pseudo-science common in most psychology texts of the period. (There were a whole lot of assertions about human brains back then that were untrue but if you complained, especially in high school, you were told that you didn't really understand because you weren't an expert.) Maslow had some ideas that I liked, including "self-actualization," which sounded close to many ideas I had then about enlightenment.
  1. In the first stage, take care of your physical needs.
  2. In the second, stop worrying about your future or your safety.
  3. Third, fulfill your senses of love and belonging.
  4. Fourth, achieve some goals. Those will lead to a sense of esteem.
  5. Fifth, reach a level where the first four stages seem insignificant.
Stories about self-actualized people seemed compelling to me. Historically, everyone knew about individuals who could be kind to others beyond all reason, who would give away their food when everyone was starving, run into a battle to rescue the wounded, help victims imprisoned with them in a concentration camp, or who could tend to the sick during a pandemic. Those people had become self-actualized. They could and did ignore their physical desperation, their safety, and the harsh opinions of others in order to better the situation of humanity.

(Maslow came up with his hierarchy due to his visits with the Blackfoot tribe, apparently, and he left off stages that the Blackfoot members considered vital:

Sixth, grow a community in which tribe members help one another self-actualize.
Seventh, expand the self-actualized community.

Maslow possibly thought of these last stages as bordering on sociology. Therefore, they were not fit for him to write about in the field of psychology.)

The concepts of self-actualization, sainthood, and enlightenment all seemed to point to what kind of causes a person might have that would allow for transcendence. They are not mundane ones. For instance, a passion for collecting model cars is not the best type of cause. Neither is making paperclip art, even though it may be very good art. However, making paperclip art that makes people laugh, cry, or inspires them with fantastic ideas, passions, and compassion - now we're getting somewhere. That's close to the sort of cause necessary. Intent matters. The whole process matters.

After testing ideas about transcendence against the historical anecdotes, I guessed there were basically two requirements for a driving cause that is fulfilling. They are,

1) It has to represent something bigger than an individual
2) It has to help others

There might be a third quality that's important as well. Personally, I chose a huge cause as a teenager: help everyone. But I found myself often implementing it by writing articles or stories as well as creating nice things for my friends. For many years, writing was closely connected to my primary cause. In retrospect, I wonder if the creative element led to a different result. For instance, when you decide to start a soup kitchen, you are making something. You may not think of it as inventive but, if you pay attention to the details like a sculptor, engineer, dress designer, or painter, it may give you (and the people around you) the same sort of benefit.

3) It should be creative

Adding this third aspect to the chosen cause requires the person choosing it to understand that they are being creative - that if you are arranging special trips for terminal cancer patients or repairing appliances for people who have no money to pay, you are still creating things (even if they do pay something, I suppose). At the very least, you are touching the hearts of people with a uniquely prepared moment like any other artist.

Intent is always key to the results, as there is no real separation between them.

What happens if you change your cause? That seems possibly dangerous to self-actualization but, whether for good or ill, I found myself doing it. My first cause was great for me but I had to adjust it when I started a family.

Technically, devoting yourself to a family meets all three requirements above. But, as you can immediately see, there is a fragility to having a smaller, less overarching cause. When things go bad in your smaller cause, it affects your world more strongly in proportion. Fortunately, the re-focusing was a natural process for me. It's not like I gave up on helping humanity in general. All of my choices, even when guiding my employment to provide for my family, were informed by the grander humanitarian purpose. I did pay more and more attention to my immediate relatives; young children have a way of forcing that to happen; but I was not too far thrown off by the death of a pet or a family member or a dear friend. When you expand your spirit and reach out to humanity itself as a cause, it keeps your world from being too small and your perspective too narrow.

That leads me to another important aspect.

Practice Letting Go

Periodically, you have to let go of your cause.

When I was twenty-one and very much a true believer in the process of enlightenment, a friend of mine, Richard, gave me a book by 'The True Believer' and told me I needed to read it. I did.

He was right.

Although it feels good to have a purpose and to let it give your life and other lives a direction that makes things better, that's not enough. In order to avoid the traps of being a 'true believer' you have to stop, occasionally, as if letting go of thoughts while meditating, and live without your cause for a while. Even if your chosen purpose is a religion or a philosophy, you have to let go of it. I'm sure devotees of Buddhism, Daoism, and Stoicism will see the irony. Still, it's true. You need to back away and gain some perspective.

Let your life sway freely from event to event. Look back on your cause and judge it. If it's not worthy, pick another. More likely, of course, your previous goal is still fine. But you may use your perspective to adjust your grip as you re-attach to the world in this way. This is a deliberate step, an emotional and mental and nearly physical skill. You should be able to repeat it, from time to time. Let go and pick a spot in the flow of life where you want to grab on again.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 234: Biomythography - Note 11, Families: Do They Exist?

A Biomythography - Note 11
by Secret Hippie

On the Existence of Families

Sometimes my father, a philosophy major, raised the question explicitly: do societies exist? Or families and other groups? Or are there only individuals?

When I was a teen the obvious answer was that only individuals exist. In some ways, it was a very American response. But it was also due to how my father hadn't grown up with access to a big, extended family. His mother had been raised in an orphanage, far away from most of her blood relations. His father died when he was two. The result was that, except for his sister and an uncle, Jack, my father's family connections didn't exist.

For my part, I had also read about cultures in which entire families were punished for the transgression of a single member of their bloodline. That seemed immoral and it still does. So I came down hard on the side of individuals mattering, never groups.

Years ago a limousine convoy of Orthodox Jews in New York City hit and killed an African-American toddler. They fled the scene, which made their conduct unjust not only because of the moral crime during the accident but also after, from their evasion of personal responsibility.

When a gang of teens later that day isolated and beat to death an Orthodox Jewish boy in retribution, that was an immoral example of group justice. They killed an innocent as if the murder were equivalent to killing the person responsible for the toddler. It was group justice - traditional between tribes but not allowable in a system of laws primarily recognizing only individual moral actions. 

When the police responded to the incident by arresting African-American teenagers, they tried to assure the public that they had found the people responsible. That is, they needed to assert that they were not perpetuating injustices to individuals in the name of justice for groups of people.

Every step of this process seems like an example of how justice needs to be determined at the level of individuals. Yet a series of books and examples from my life led me to understand how group identities endure regardless. They are persistent and will always cause problems for perceptions of justice. What seems like a weak, almost tenuous, level of existence-by-agreement is actually tough to eradicate and it may be unwise to do so. Shared imaginations like "I'm part of a religious tribe" or "I belong to this corporation" are harder to end, in fact, than the people who compose them.

As everyone knows, when a worker in a corporation dies, the corporation hardly notices. That's even if we're talking about the death of the most influential leader of the organization. Many corporations, religions, fraternal organizations, and even hobby groups survive such events. Families do, too.

On one hand: our country exists in our shared imagination, so if everyone woke up thinking that it didn't exist, it wouldn't.

On the other hand: our country is going to outlast everyone reading this. Just because something is a shared imagination doesn't mean it isn't robust. That's a weird thought to many teenagers, I know.

Our families are smaller, more fragile organizations than countries. Unless you are the final branch of a narrow line, though, your little clan is going to outlast you. Even if you feel that you are the last, someone else counts you as part of their tree of relatives. Others have adopted you, mentally, even when you don't know it. The existence of your family is stronger than you. Really. And always.

Siddhartha - Nothing Exists

When I was twelve, I read a short novel by Herman Hesse based loosely on the life of Siddhartha Gautama. It's fiction, not biography, and it tells a story of enlightenment within the context of rebellion against state religions. Moreover, it describes a belief that nothing exists and shows how that idea can change meaning when seen from different viewpoints.

“How deaf and stupid have I been!" Siddhartha thought, walking swiftly along.

"When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and a worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters. I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance. No, this is over, I have awakened.”

In a key transition point, Siddhartha moves from despising the impermanence of the world to adoring it, from hating the impurity in himself and others to realizing that love is the main thing.

Maybe it was due to growing up in a house full of philosophy texts but I read often about the impermanence of material things. In many Buddhist books, the authors assert that nothing exists at all. The sensual world is completely an illusion. Our bonds of friendship and family are parts of a dangerous snare. Such attachments to other people lead us into having even more desires and heavier sorrows.

Siddhartha, though, doesn't trust the lack of sorrow that has been promised by emotional detachment. Raising a son brings him frustration and unhappiness, as he had foreseen when younger, yet it brings him greater understanding of people and a stronger love for them.

Friends Exist

Unlike families, societies, countries, and other organizations, I never had any doubt about friendships. They are the most powerful influence in my life and probably most other lives. Unlike families and nations, though, friendships can't outlast the lifetimes of the participants. At most, they are part of a human web of friendships and pass on part of their spirit.

Also, love does not need to be returned so there are no people who need to be my friend in order for me to be theirs. Often enough, there's a bond of affection from both sides anyway. If it's not zen to be so attached, then it's not. We can give up part of our joy and freedom to love one another in our impermanent relationships in our imperfect ways.

Friends in Theory

Since I've mentioned how literature affected my perception of organizations, including families, I think it's worth mentioning the smaller influence of literature on my concept of friendship.

Most books demonstrate the basic rules of our affinities with others by focusing on the practical aspects. For instance, friends share adventures together. Or they sit in silence, happy. Or they give gifts to one other. They might come to the rescue. They might suffer together. In A Wrinkle in Time, the three main characters do all of these. In adventure books, friends protect one another more or less constantly like in the Hardy Boys, The Lost World, The Forgotten Door, and the Chronicles of Amber. When I think about friendships in story form, though, I keep returning to The Lord of the Rings.

Meriadoc says,

"You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends."

He blurts out this sentiment at the beginning of their terrible adventure. Then he holds true to his words. The story he lives is informed by war. Tolkien wrote to this mindset because, after two world wars, he accepted it as natural: never abandon a friend; never leave anyone behind. Although in real wars we do sometimes leave behind dying friends or dead bodies, humans try to stand by the members of their tribes. Because they are our friends. And we are theirs.

Le Morte D’Arthur - How Brothers Exist

Brotherhood is more troublesome than friendship but only because siblings are raised together and are more defined by one another than friends, especially friends who meet after childhood. But my brothers are how I developed an intuitive sense of family. The are the reason I kept thinking more and more about what family means.

"Meanwhile Sir Launcelot watched from his ambush and just as they were leading the queen to the fire, shouted the word of command, charged with his followers through the spectators, and assaulted the guards.

In the tumult that followed, many of the guards were killed ... lastly Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris, both of them unarmed, and whom Sir Launcelot killed without recognizing."

Before this part of the book, Sir Gawain had been the character that made the most sense. Unlike many others portrayed by Malory, he was fully human. That is, Gawain was not particularly virtuous but he tried to be. He made peace with King Arthur, his uncle, despite Arthur killing Gawain's father in battle. He aimed to be a responsible older brother and set a good example for Arthur's knighthood. When his younger brothers surpassed him in their achievements, he cheered them on. This was a character I understood. He seemed to live in a type of family I knew.

Everything about the revenge of Sir Gawain upon Launcelot and about his care for his brothers rang true thereafter. Brotherhood demands loyalty. It is bigger than individuals. It is bigger, perhaps, than families. It extends across political and religious tribes to even murderers like Launcelot, whom Gawain forgave as he lay dying from wounds inflicted by his brother knight.

It was my brothers who first taught me about families despite my father's lack of family tradition and despite his opposition to close-knit clans.

The Godfather - How Families Exist

Close-knit clans took some reading and living to understand, for me.

Even though I had grown up with glimpses of family structures, I didn't really comprehend the gulf between growing up without them, as my father had done, and living in them the way my mother had. In a stable clan, the cousins, second cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews, and upward and outward for multiple generations, can take one another for granted. They can even be annoyances to one another. When I talk to people who have grown up in normal, reasonably close families, they never grasp all of the small interactions that would go missing without their relations.

All the friendships before, all the books, all the examples of families in my life led up to this book, The Godfather. It must seem odd that a book, not a family reunion, not a text about Chinese history, not a genetics class, nor a discussion in sociology but instead a particular piece of crime fiction gave me the emotional clues I needed. That's because, to me, The Godfather was a story about families.

How many times does Don Corelone talk about family? He talks about it even when he's playing up the idea of strong friendship. He says to his godson, Johnny Fontane, a singer who is losing his career,

"Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that. If you had built up a wall of friendship you wouldn't have to ask me to help."

He emphasizes the importance of fatherhood even to an enemy,

“Tell me. Do you spend time with your family?”
“Sure I do.”
“Good. Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

When his adopted son asks why he has to be the one to say 'no' to members of the family so often, not the great Don Corleone, Don reveals,

"You cannot say 'no' to the people you love, not often. That's the secret. And then when you do, it has to sound like a 'yes'. Or you have to make them say 'no.' You have to take time and trouble.”

Most of all to his sons, he emphasizes the need for togetherness. It's not just something that makes people feel comforted. Or rather, it is that but it is more. Unity in a family is a practical thing. It can be a life or death advantage over others.

"We are a family, and the loyalty of the family must come before anything and everyone else. For if we honor that commitment, we will never be vanquished - but if we falter in that loyalty we will all be condemned.”

So Don Corelone understands that it is all about family. Later, his son Michael comes to the same understanding. As he ages, he sees more of the uncaring world and compares it to the loving attention it takes to raise his household.

“Yet, he thought, if I can die saying, “Life is so beautiful,” then nothing else is important. If I can believe in myself that much, nothing else matters. He would follow his father. He would care for his children, his family, his world. But his children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity, but he, as a powerful and prudent parent, would most certainly keep a wary eye on that general family.”

Michael comes to an understanding of a family loyalty that is separate from but nearly the same as the loyalty of friends. He sees that families can be defended like brothers. Naturally, he intends to grow his clan and to keep safeguarding it from harm.

Years after reading about it, I found myself entertaining the idea that it was possible - that I could nurture and grow a family.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 233: Biomythography - Note 10, Learn Enjoyment

A Biomythography - Note 10
by Secret Hippie

Enjoy Your Work

"What are you doing?" I asked Tucker in disbelief. A stack of split wood lay tumbled to his right. Ten feet further, he had made a neat, long stack of firewood. It was his second row. The back row, already enough for two years at the rate they burned, stood as high as my head. He was adding depth to the family stockpile.

Tucker took another swing of his axe and finished splitting the log.

"Doing what I have to do," he replied.

Tucker's father had commanded him to split wood as a preemptive punishment. The order hadn't made sense. Tuck hadn't done anything wrong even according to his parents' strict standards. His family had already laid in too much wood. Some of it would rot. Even though I'd been mad at his father for the capriciousness of the command and the insulting manner of it, I hadn't taken it seriously for those reasons. It failed to occur to me that my best friend would, as always, serve his punishment because he'd been told. That's how he worked.

In a continuous manner, I had failed to understand for two years. Now it was the summer when I was sixteen and taking an order seriously simply wasn't what I would have done, not when it made no sense. I was struggling to understand Tucker's family dynamics.

"You were so mad," I said. I had seen Tucker protest the command, which of course led to his father yelling, which eventually led to Tucker telling me I should go. His father had lowered his voice to agree that I should leave and that I would be welcome back when Tucker was done, a small politeness.

"I guess I was," Tucker allowed with a smile.

He picked up another half-log. Then he turned his back, took aim at the center ring, and swung. For a minute, I watched him work. Tucker returned to his singing. That was a habit I think he had picked up from me. He was making it his own, though. Instead of a mournful chant like the ones I used for manual labor, Tucker sounded almost joyful. No, there was no 'almost.' He was happy. Distinctly so.

"Why are you suddenly pleased with yourself?" I asked.

He paused, gave the matter a bit of thought, and replied, "It's not that sudden."

"You're being punished. For nothing. How can you be happy?"

"Hey, man." He took another swing. The log split. One side fell over. The other, smaller piece traveled six feet before bouncing to a stop. "I know I'm going to have to do it anyway. Why should I let him spoil my day?"

I put my fists on my hips and I thought about it. I'd never heard anyone tell me anything like those words before. For my part, I stayed angry even while doing things that were my decision. I had recently fasted for two days, satisfied with myself spiritually but angry at my life. I had gutted through extra workouts recently, too, determined to reach my arbitrary goals. There were a lot of things I did as joylessly as possible.

"Haven't you noticed that he only gives me this chore when I'm happy? This is my punishment for smiling or, worse, for laughing. He always punishes me when I laugh at something."

"Yeah." The observation was straight on target. His father's instinctive anger at seeing his son being happy was part of what made the relationship seem abusive.

"Honestly, I think it drives him crazy to see me having fun chopping the logs for the woodpile. It's supposed to be my punishment. But I sort of like it. Come on, I know you like chopping wood. You said so."

"But that's me." It was accurate but something about it seemed unfair. "You said you hated it."

"I don't know how it is for you. But I take this attitude whenever I can with my chores now. You just find the part, whatever little part there is, that you like. Then concentrate on that part and let it make you happy. Man, you can be happy about any damn thing."

It had not occurred to me that I didn't have to be miserable just because someone else was making me miserable.

Tucker returned to chopping wood. After a while, he radiated so much joy that I started to smile. I stood there for five minutes, watching him finish. While I did, I tried out the idea of being happy about a chore that I had to do. It seemed to work for Tucker. I helped him lift the last log into place.

When he got down to the last quarter-log, Tucker stopped singing. He seemed sad that his punishment chore was almost over. I returned, mentally, to the idea of finding some part of a job to like - any job, any likable part - and I tried to imagine what it might do for me. And I hummed a mournful tune to myself as he took another swing.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 232: Biomythography - Note 9, Maulball

A Biomythography - Note 9
by Secret Hippie

Normal Punch and Tumble

When you grow up in a neighborhood with older kids, mostly boys, you're going to get knocked around a bit in the maulball games.  At least, that was how it went for me in Maryland in the late 1960s and 1970s.  If you're bowled over in good spirit, though, in a game where your opponent picks you up and says, "Nice try, kid" the physical sting disappears. 

In fact, a lot of rough-housing in our neighborhood was like that.  Bigger kids could be mean, of course.  One kid in school had his eye cut out by an older boy with a knife.  Mostly, though, bullies used their fists.  If they lived in the neighborhood, they couldn't go too far with their aggressive behavior.  There were factors that held everyone back, namely 1) basic morality of a sort, 2) enforcement from older brothers who would take revenge against the bullying of their younger siblings, 3) parents, and 4) a hidden factor: practicality.  

The practical aspect was felt by bullies who picked on smaller kids but then needed those same kids to play in football, baseball, or kickball games.  They would end up begging from house to house.

"Why doesn't anyone want to play with me?" was the whine from a handful of boys, most of whom eventually figured out the answer.

In the midst of this comparatively weak level of childhood roughness (compared to earlier generations), my parents raised me in a mostly gentle way.  Theirs may have been the first generation to begin to break away from the "all stick, no carrot" approach of molding behavior.  Still, my father believed in corporeal punishment.  My mother suspected that it mostly wasn't necessary but of course it was an option. 

In my family, as in many others, the order of events in a conflict usually was:


This wasn’t a matter of philosophy. It was simply how things evolved. A level of communication took place through slapping and hitting.  Shouting, both with friends and in the family, was for emergencies.  Therefore, raised voices were treated more seriously and as a more violent gesture than a gentle "don't touch my knitting" slap on the wrist; that was nothing.  

Still, don't touch the knitting.

This was why I found it difficult to deal with people who skipped from talking about a problem to shouting about it. That felt like cheating plus it raised the issue, whatever it was, into emergency status, an elevation it never deserved.

I've got the same reaction nowadays to political fighting and other sorts of name calling.  As a child, I learned that those things were ungentlemanly.  It was better to fight and lose than to resort to cowardly tactics.  Yet all of the currently acceptable tactics now are cowardly ones (as seen from a viewpoint in the not-too-distant past).  Cowardly name calling is extolled, in its way, because physical fights are unacceptable.  Or just difficult across the Internet and across cultures.

Violence, except in self-defense or defense of others, really is unacceptable all over the world and in all or nearly all societies.  The definition of violence, though, seems to have gone astray.  For some people currently, violence could mean any sort of physical contact.  That seems unhealthy to me although I'm out of the mainstream now.  There is a moral difference between poking the cat away from the dog's food, which is really a form of communication, and an action that does serious or lasting harm.  

I think there's more harm caused by the name-calling than people realize. Demeaning others may be a form of violence that is more destructive than most rough-and-tumble contact. In a maulball game, you can lose and be hurt but never dehumanized.  Nice try, kid.

In a name-calling game, all sides can come to be seen as caricatures, not people.  That's how real human beings could seem unworthy of respect and reverence.  That's the harm; that's the excuse for destructive violence. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 231: Biomythography - Note 8, Physical Affections

A Biomythography - Note 8
by Secret Hippie

How I Discovered Affection

We were raised in houses with no hugging. It wasn't just my family. Others did it, too, a widespread group of us in our time and place invested in a stoic or puritan sort of tradition.

Past infancy, we received no contact except for moral correction. Episodes of discipline usually consisted of a slap or a spank to discourage toddlers from playing with wall sockets or ripping up books. Some parents in the neighborhood were physically tougher than others. Some were tight-lipped and bestowed no praise.

Once, when I was about five years old, I locked myself in a closet and cried for a while, about half an hour. My mother came looking for me but I couldn't stop crying. A few days earlier, I had been spanked for crying without a reason. I was crying without a reason at that moment, so that may have been why I didn't want to come out even though I heard her calling.

She found me anyway, eventually.

"What's wrong?" she asked. Then, patiently, she waited a few minutes for my body to calm down so I could talk.

When I finally answered, I was aware that I had my mothers attention. What with her job, her second child, husband, and extended family, having her full focus was an unusual thing. I didn’t want to tell her that I was crying because life is pointless and I hated myself. Instead, I deflected her line of questioning.

“Mom, how come no one ever says they love me? How come you don’t say it to dad? How come he doesn’t say it to you?" The questions poured forth while she gave me a stern look. "Other kids' parents say it.”

Her expression softened.

“I don’t like those words," she said after a moment in thought. "I don’t trust them. People say them but they don’t really mean them. Don’t expect me to say that I love you. I do, but I'm not going to say it. You'll know because I'll show it.”

She talked to me like I was almost an adult. She put a hand on my shoulder as I considered her words. To me, the idea of showing love being better than saying it was a new concept.

"Show me how?"

“Well, you have to look. That's how you know love is real. Not because of what someone says. Watch how they act. That’s how you know. If someone loves you, they'll look at you a certain way. They'll do nice things for you. You'll know."

Two years later, she ran into a student at her school who was lonely, a foreigner without many friends in Maryland. His name was Vit Babushka. She asked if she could bring him over to play with me.

"He's got a funny name," I thought aloud.

"His family is from Czechoslovakia." She and my father exchanged looks. They launched into a brief discussion about war and politics. Czechoslovakia had been invaded by the Russians. Vit's father, a scientist, had participated in an academic movement in Belgrade. When the Soviet troops arrived, he had been forced to flee.

The details were beyond my understanding at the time but Vit's family had left their home and made it to the United States, eventually, with help from the American government. Fortunately, America had a fairly high demand for physics professors, especially ones breaking ground in lightwave experiments. Vit's father was able to land a job as a professor at the University of Maryland.

For me, though, my focus was on the new kid. I had entertained a few of them before, thanks to my parents, but not one who didn't speak English. Apparently, he didn't know many words or he was shy, maybe both.

"Does he like baseball? Tennis?" Any kind of game was fun. In a lot of them, you didn't need to speak.

"I don't think he knows much about baseball, yet." My mother had known I would ask because I tried to organize pick-up baseball games every afternoon. She shook her head. "You'll have to ask him what he likes to play."

One day that week, she brought Vit home after school. He was a tall boy, my age but thinner. He moved slower than I did but with grace in his body. His hair was lighter than mine. His teeth, when he smiled, showed a mix of sizes due to how his childish incisors and canines were falling out to get replaced by permanent ones.

"The ball is very hard," he said when he first caught a baseball that I tossed to him underhand. I could tell he didn't like it. "It did not look so hard before."

Amazingly, he was a boy who didn't know how to play baseball. My parents had warned me. Still, it knocked me back a little, mentally. Absolutely everyone played baseball. For a while, I tried to teach him how to throw and how to swing. I hit him grounders. One popped up from a pebble and caught him in the shoulder. He grunted.

"Do you know football?" he asked. When I pointed to the football I'd brought, he shook his head. "Not like that. Round. You kick it?"

"A kickball? Red?"

"White, I think. Or white with black spots?"

"Soccer. That's soccer." We went and dug a soccer ball out of my basement but we struggled to keep it inflated. I had never really played soccer. Given the state of the cheap ball I owned, we both lost enthusiasm.

"I have three tennis rackets," I volunteered, although one belonged to my younger brother.

"You know tennis?" Vit asked. All around the world, tennis was the hottest sport. Rod Laver had brought glamour and fame to it. Although his career had started to fade, Arthur Ashe and a host of international stars were rising on the scene. They were generating interest across the globe. Likewise, Margaret Court was still the greatest of her era but Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King, and others were challenging her reign.

"I had lessons," I answered. At the recreation center, I had gotten at least one lesson in everything. "Sometimes I hit against that wall in the park."

"This sport, I want to learn."

We fetched the rackets, the only can of balls, and headed back to the park. We spent a long time on tennis, hitting balls against a wall. Vit got decent pretty quickly. Even so, we got tired of it, set our rackets down, and played on the playground and in the creek. We found ourselves just talking for a while.

After a couple of hours, I heard my mother calling. We grabbed the stuff and headed home.

"Does he have to go?" It hadn't taken long for me to know that Vit was pretty great. I liked him a lot. "Can't he stay tonight?"

"No. His parents want to see him." She gave me a wry smile. Later, after she put him in her car, she asked me, "Do you like him enough to play with him again?"

"Sure. I'd play with him any day." I meant every day, actually. Vit's quiet, accented way of talking let his wit shine. I knew that he was smart and funny. "When can we see him next?"

“I don’t know. But since you two had so much fun, I’ll find a way. I’ll work something out.“

It wasn't long before we had another play date, then another. One day, my mother announced that this time, I was going to travel to Vit's house.

"You don't mind, do you?"

"He says he wants to play chess." I shrugged. "But he has other games, too."

When I arrived at the house, Vit rushed through the door and onto the front walk to greet me. He gave me a hug, which seemed weird, but after all he was foreign and didn't know better. He thanked my mother politely, which made her smile, and waved as she drove off.

"Now, you meet everybody," Vit said. He walked me up to his front door. "We have a tradition. First, I hug you at the door. Then next."

The door opened. My eyes went wide in surprise. What had been revealed was a line of people. Vit's father, who had opened the door, turned away immediately and headed to the back of the line.

Vit turned in the doorway and clasped me by the shoulders again. This time, I didn't return the gesture. I was too stunned. All of this friendly touching seemed overwhelming. Anyway, he seemed to put an angel in the next spot.

"This is my sister," he said. He bowed slightly.

"Oh, he looks adorable," she murmured. But I barely heard her. She was tall, almost like an adult. She crouched down to me. Her accent was heavy and her voice was so soft that I didn't completely understand her words. None of that mattered. She could have cursed at me softly in her slavic tongue and I would have heard a heavenly host singing a chorus behind her. When she hugged me it was like floating in a sea of blonde hair, honey, and flowers. Then she stood and said something in another language and followed it with, "Welcome."

She stepped to the side. Her mother stepped up. To my shock, she hugged me, too. It was getting to be too much. She smelled different. Her dress was rougher, a little cheaper. She laughed as I squirmed. Then I relaxed.

Again, she said something in another language. She stood and said, "I am glad to meet you. You are welcome."

When she stepped aside, Vit's father shuffled forward. He seemed like a giant of a man but he had lost the honor of seniority during a whispered argument with his mother, apparently. The older woman had pushed him forward.

"Vit says you are a smart boy and nice," he told me. His accent was thick but his words were clear. It seemed apparent that he spoke English every day at work, unlike his wife or his mother.

"T-Thank you," I stuttered, not knowing what else to say. I looked to Vit for help. He tried to encourage me with a nod and a smile.

"We must seem very strange to you," Vit's father continued. He bent and gave me a quick hug, as if he knew how awkward this all seemed. He was right in that I couldn’t ever remember being held like this, not by another boy or girl, not by a grownup, nobody. At that point, I hadn’t hugged a dog. The big man smelled like foreign cologne. Fortunately, he backed up. "It is our tradition to welcome you." He spoke a few words in another language and said, in English, "You are welcome."

Finally, Vit's grandmother stepped forward.

"She doesn't speak English," Vit blurted. His sister, mother, and father all uttered English and slavic phrases in agreement.

"It is fine," said Vit's father. "Just step forward and let her welcome you."

Her hair was so grey that really it was white. Her expression seemed solemn except for her eyes, which twinkled with a sort of humor that reminded me immediately of Vit and his sister. Those eyes took an amused view of the world.

When she lowered herself for the embrace, her dress felt rough but her body, soft. I was getting adjusted to this weird amount of touching. The closest thing I'd had before was when the cats slept on me or when my brother had a nightmare and got into my bed along with the cats. This was different and better. Vit's grandmother smelled of spices, butter, and fresh bread, too, as if she had been baking. She had. I didn't know it but I was about to sit down to one of the best meals of my life.

The white-haired woman said a few slavic words, released me, spoke with Vit's father, grabbed me again, shook me, squeezed me and laughed, and finally let me go and stood up.

In a thick accent, after a prompt from Vir's father, she said, "Welcome."

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 230: Biomythography - Note 7, Irish

A Biomythography - Note 7
by Secret Hippie

Growing Up Irish (Black is Beautiful)

As a child in College Park, other kids called me black. That seems strange now. They called each other weird names, too, and they did it at times when emotions were high in the midst of a game. They weren't talking about the color of my skin. That was never the thing. I'd be playing kickball or cowboys and indians or walking in a gully with other kids and someone would say it. They meant it as an insult but, because they didn't understand it, the term had vague meanings even for them. It always seemed to come from kids repeating the bad words they got from their parents.

One of my friends suggested, "I think it's like when you're a bad guy. You have to wear a black hat."

"Like in cowboy shows?"

"Yeah." In the movies, the rustlers wore black clothes, black hats, or rode black horses. That's how you knew they were bad.

There was an older child who knew a little more. After he said it, he explained, "I mean your soul is black. It's ugly."

This felt similar to when I had the term 'pinko' explained. That was another phrase that didn't really have to do with skin color, at least for me. As confusing as 'pinko' and 'black' seemed, though, only one of those terms was also caught up in describing a group of people by appearance. And for them, it referred to skin color with the additional baggage of wearing a black hat in a western gunfight.

For most of the years as I was growing up, the polite American term in matters of race was 'colored' and the corresponding derogatory term was 'black.' My awareness of the situation started dim and it grew brighter only gradually. Often enough, the stories about our American situation didn't seem to make sense. My mom said that Harriet Tubman was a hero and I devoured the books on her. (There weren't many but the stories were great.) Other folks thought she was a hero, too, so how could there be any argument or stigma attached to her because of her skin? To supplement my reading with experiences, my parents went out of their way to make sure we left our neighborhood at times and had non-white or foreign friends. Some of those friends, like me, seemed oblivious to any historical reasons to not be neighborly. We were just kids together.

In any case, amazingly, almost miraculously, in America our Black is Beautiful movement came along and changed the language. Even now, it seems like an astounding cultural feat. By the time I was nine, the slur of blackness had become something respectable, often something good, and moreover, the change lent a bit of freedom to everybody's talking and thinking. We could finally hear 'black' more as a reference to a color from a palette and not a value judgement.

Although I was, of course, mostly oblivious to the cultural events of the nation, I can see that the adults at the time were acutely aware of their local ethnicities. In fact, they were almost delusional about them. They differentiated between Scottish and English, Mulatto and Colored, Spanish and Italian, Dutch and German, Jewish and Christian, Armenian and Serbian, and more, as if they carried around maps of Europe in their heads. This is how I grew up Irish even though that doesn't make any sense. Adults acted as if we all still belonged to those distant Eurasian tribes that wandered the plains and mountains somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean. If you were French, even though you were actually American, you were supposed to hate the Germans, even though they were actually American. Sometimes this stuff led to fistfights which are, in retrospect, a little hilarious.

"Those damned Armenians," I heard an adult say, once. I asked him to repeat it. I'd never heard of that group before. Some of them had protested about genocide in front of an embassy, apparently, which put them in the same category as 'those damned hippies' to the adults.

Likewise, my neighborhood adults told me:
  • Irish were black
  • Irish were low white
  • Poles were dumb
  • Poles were low white
  • Hispanics were white, except some of them
  • Italians were colored
  • Jews were colored
  • Mixed marriage was a sin
  • Irish were guilty of marrying Italians, which was precisely the sort of mixed-marriage everyone should be concerned about
"What about the Lovings?" a woman added once as a group of adults stood smoking and chatting on the street.

"Ah, that stuff don't matter," her husband retorted. "He won the right. That's not the same as other people joining in."

"We'll never see that, not in our lifetimes," a different woman cackled. They were talking about Mildred and Richard Loving, who won the right to be married despite the laws against it in our neighboring state, Virginia.

Later, I remembered their name and found out who they were. Their case made me feel like America was making progress and that civil rights success, for everyone, was inevitable. It wasn't. In some ways, it had barely begun then. But it did give me hope in fifth grade, when I got up the nerve to tell my crush what she knew anyway, which was how I felt about her.

She came up next to me as I was drinking at a water fountain outside our reading class. She smelled good. Already I knew that she was as bright as the sun through a magnifying glass. She was too beautiful to describe. I felt hypnotized by the way she moved and spoke. It made my stomach feel light just to be close to her.

"You know, I love you," I blurted out.

"You mean that you like me." She leaned back.

"Okay, I really, really like you." I felt myself shaking. "A lot."

"I, uh, really, really like you, too." She grimaced. A moment later, she blushed. "I love you."

It took me a moment to process it. I stepped back and held the water fountain for her. She politely took a drink.

"Can we hold hands?" I asked.

"Um, I'm Jewish."

"Right." I had no idea what that had to do with anything but it was something that I understood in my limited way. She had mentioned it before. She took a minute, then, to tell me more about it and, after a while, she reminded me that I shouldn't call her a Jew. It wasn't polite.


"I know that you don't know what it means. But try."

"Okay." She was right about me not knowing the context for any of this. The conversation seemed to be leaning in the direction of holding hands, though, and that was plenty for me.

A few days later, after we had held hands in a fluttering way, once or twice, she marched up to me with her textbooks in her arms like a shield. After a confused stammer, she said,

"Now you can call me a Jew."


"I talked with my dad about you. He said that we're taking back the word Jew. It's okay now." In a sing-song voice, as if she'd memorized the phrase, she added, "If the Afro-Americans can say Black is Beautiful, then Jews can say that a Jew is beautiful, too."

And they did. And she was.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 229: Biomythography - Note 6, My Color

A Biomythography - Note 6
by Secret Hippie

How I Found My Color

In the back of my mother's blue Ford Falcon, I rode to visit her elementary school. The day was bright and warm, a Saturday near the end of summer. My mother had to prepare for her next week of work. I was six years old.

"Do you want to come in?" she asked as she stepped out of the car.

"What are you going to do?"

"Prepare lessons." I knew what that meant. It wasn't anything interesting.

"Can I stay and read?" I asked.

"Haven’t you already read those comic books?" she said.


"Well, if you get bored, come in and find me."

She walked away and, for a long time, I sat reading and rereading a pair of ten cent Dell comic books starring Peanuts characters. In years later, I read them to pieces. But when I was six, they were almost new. One had a forest green cover with Charlie Brown and Snoopy looking at a book. The other had a blue cover with the same two looking at a box camera.

After I finished both books, I set them down in my lap and stared out the window. My eyes took in the green shadows and the light through the trees. For a while, I daydreamed about having a dog like Snoopy. Then I picked up the magazines and started reading again. Around page five, I heard a tapping on my window.

I turned and saw the top of a child’s head.

The kid's fingers looked thin to me. They made an awkward fist and rapped another time with two knuckles on the window.

“What do you want?” I unrolled the window to hear the answer.

“Do you want to play?”


After I got out, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I learned that he was “Charles but everybody calls me Charlie. I’m thinking Chuck is better but my sister won’t let me.” Charles or Charlie or Chuck was five, so about a year younger than me, plus he was a haircut shorter and skinnier.

“What were you doing in there? Sleeping?" He had apparently kept watch on the car after my mother got out.

“Reading comics."

“You have comics?" He bounced on his toes. "Can I see?"

I got out the comics, gave him one, and we sat down on the pavement to read side-by-side. After about five minutes of turning the pages, he told me, “I can’t read.”


“Can you read this one to me? I like Peanuts. Because his name is Charlie. But it is really Charles. Like me.”

So I read him one comic and then part of another until he got bored. Then we threw pebbles at the trees for a while. We talked and realized that we both knew freeze tag. So we played that. But freeze tag isn’t much fun with only two players. The game waned along with our interest until we both sighed and stopped. We kicked dirt and wondered what to do next.

“Are you colored?" he asked.

“Sure.” It was the end of summer. All of the adults in my life had been commenting about how dark brown I had become.

“Really? Because you have yellow hair. I never met anyone who was colored but had yellow hair.” Then Charlie backed up a step and rolled his eyes. “Except for my aunt. She has yellow hair. But I know that it’s a wig."

“Do you have a color?”

“Sure, I’m colored. I know that I am kind of light but everyone tells me, I’m colored. If you are not colored, you are white. Does anyone tell you that you’re colored?"


“Then maybe you’re white.”

No one had ever said that. It seemed preposterous.

“Maybe?“ I said, trying to be agreeable. The idea was stupid, though, and it seemed worse as I mentally compared myself to the colors in my school paint sets.

“But I never met no white person who was darker than me.“ Charlie took my arm and put it next to his. We looked at our skin. To me, our arms looked a lot the same but he was thinner. He had the skinniest fingers. That's what I found myself staring at. He said, “See, you are darker than me."

“Oh, yeah.” I noticed what he meant. My skin was a lot browner than his.

“Look, even the hairs on your arm are yellow. Are you colored or not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe you are mulatto."

“What’s that?"

“That’s when your mama is colored and your daddy is white or the other way around. Is your mama colored?”

“I don’t know. Her hair is dark but her skin is lighter than mine.”

“So maybe she is white. But maybe she is colored and just light like me. How about your daddy? Is he white or colored?"

I had a prickling, almost uncomfortable realization. My father's skin was so white that other men made fun of him. Even I had sort of done it when I commented on how pale he was in the middle of summer. His skin shone a little at night, so he was always the first person I spotted if I got lost while we were camping. His face was visible by the light of the stars when there was no moon. During the day, I could see the blue veins beneath his skin.

“My father,“ I realized. “is white. He really is white."

“Okay,” said Charlie. He was not the slightest bit fazed by what for me, had been a huge revelation. “Then probably your mama is colored. Did your mama go into the school? We could ask her.”

We wandered around the school for a little while until we found the front doors. Charlie wasn't in first grade yet so he didn't know where things were and I didn't remember anything about the building from the year before. When he saw the doors, Charlie put his arm on me to hold me steady.

“We can’t go in," he hissed.

“Why not?”

“Those three, the big girls? They’re mean.”

On the steps of the entrance to the school, we saw girls playing jacks. They looked tall and tough, third graders at least, maybe fourth. I had graduated from first grade, though. I tried to move forward but Charlie kept his grip.

“Don’t do it,” he whispered.

As if to back up his point, one of the girls elbowed another girl during the game of jacks. That was cheating. And the other girl, just as big, hopped up, grabbed the bouncing ball and threw it hard at the girl who had cheated.

The cheater said something that I didn’t understand.

“Oh, so you’re going to kick my ass, huh? Here.” The stronger girl gave an evil smile. “I’ll make it easy."

She turned and presented her behind to the other two girls.

“Go ahead. You kick it and I will pound you into the steps right here. Go ahead. Free kick.”

The cheater mumbled something and backed down the steps.

That is the moment I chose to walk forward. Charlie tried to drag me away by my arm for a second or two more but then he got so scared, he couldn’t stand it. He let go of me and dashed behind a tree.

“Hi,” I said.

“What do you want?" snapped the girl.

“My mother teaches here. I have to go in.”

“Oh you do?”

“We have to find out!” Charlie shouted from behind the tree. “His daddy is white. But he don’t know about his momma.”

“Charlie is that you?” she called. "Your sister said you ain't supposed to come here."

“We gotta find out if he’s mulatto. Don’t he look mulatto?” The boy burst out of hiding, he was so excited. But he remained fearful of the bigger kids. He took position beside me and, a moment later, crept two steps back to take position behind my left shoulder.

The big girl leaned to one side and gazed at me doubtfully.

“Your momma’s a teacher?” She folded her arms. “What’s her name?”

“Mrs. Gallagher.”

The faces of the three girls lit up. They beamed at me. Over the span of a few seconds, they all relaxed. The effect looked sort of dopey on them.

“Mrs. Gallagher is your momma?” one of them said, almost breathlessly.

“Uh huh.”

The strongest one fluttered her eyelids.

“She is so nice. She is so smart. And so pretty.” She wheeled to the other girls. They backed off. Then she gave Charlie some side-eye. “And she is white. She ain’t no colored lady. She might be the nicest teacher in the whole school. But she’s white.”

“Aw.” That little voice came from behind me. It was Charlie.

“Don’t you know that you’re white?” the girl demanded. She focused on me.

Helpless, I shrugged.

“What if I was going to slug you?”

“That’s what big kids do.” I shrugged again. “Go ahead, I guess. I still gotta go in.”

“I ain’t gonna slug you." She laughed. "You go and say hi to your momma. She is so, so nice.”

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 228: Biomythography - Note 5, Shoe Fitting

A Biomythography - Note 5
by Secret Hippie

Thom McCann

My mother put her arms through the sleeves of her brown jacket. She was wearing navy blue slacks that gave the impression, from a distance, of being blue jeans, and she patted the pockets of them. She nodded to me, ready to leave.

"I told you last night, Bob," she said to my father. "We need to go and get fitted for another pair of special shoes."

"Oh, Ann, they're so expensive." He was right.

"The doctor said he should have them." With this, she glanced at me. The special shoes were mine.

I didn't want to have weird shoes. My mother called them 'special' to make them seem more acceptable. By the time I was eight, though, I'd caught on. The other kids in our neighborhood got to run around in Keds. My mother forced me to wear leather dress shoes from Thom McCann. They made it harder to stomp through the creek, play baseball, kickball, maulball, bike, and roller skate, but I did all of those things regardless. Sometimes she made me swap my custom shoes for cheap sneakers so that the special ones could be saved some wear and tear and so they would dry out before school.

"How can he wear down the heels so fast?" my father asked. He picked up my leather shoes from the carpet next to the front door. He glanced from me, in my JC Penny sneakers, to the custom-made soles in his hand. I had broken off part of a heel this time.

"He's a child." For my mother, that was explanation enough. "Anyway, the doctor said."

There wasn't much argument with the pronouncements of a doctor. My mother hussled me toward the car and I grabbed a comic for the drive. By the time we got to the shoe store, I had finished it twice. I'd totally forgotten about hating shoes. I looked forward to getting something, anything new.

The Thom McCann sign shone brightly on us, written in a neo-cursive script. There was something elegant about it. Inside the store, we met a smell that was partly leather and partly dust, probably from the stacks of shoe boxes piled high in the back, each with moderately-priced leather shoes, desiccants, and crepe paper inserts.

"Welcome, Missus Gallagher!" called one of the salesmen with a huge smile. He strode forward and spun toward me. "And young Master Gallagher, of course."

He led us down the aisles of shoes set out on display. Some of the best looking models rested on endcaps, like art pieces, high enough to attract the attention of customers. Many of those were ladies' boots but I saw fancy men's office shoes, too, some in two-tone leather.

"Thank you for calling ahead," said the salesman. "I'm already set for the fitting."


"One of his legs is a little shorter than the other, do I remember right?" He led us to three adult chairs and a child's seat. He waved me toward the smallest one. In front of my spot, there sat a metal slide-rule type of device for foot measurement and, beyond it, a portable x-ray machine. "We fit the shoes with a high right sole to even out his stride."

My toes wiggled. I kicked off my shoes and stared at the x-ray machine. It took the best pictures. In them, I could see all the bones in my feet.

"Has he grown?" asked the salesman.

"Oh yes, he was nearly at the end of this pair anyway."

"Fine, fine." He laughed as I hopped back out of my chair to stand in front of the x-ray camera. "We'll take an exact measurement, then. I see you're eager to get going, Master Gallagher!"

He had never taken precautions before. This time, he told my mother to stand back. That was something he didn't care to do himself, though, as he positioned my feet. He smelled like my father's Old Spice cologne. Next to me, he crouched and took a set of four pictures. He removed his hand from my ankle at the last possible instant.

The front door jangled. I heard another man huff, angrily. Apparently, the manager had walked in.

"I want to see you, John," he told the salesman.

"Sure, Mitchell." He nodded to my mother. "I'll just be a moment."

John the salesman was gone for a while. We heard the rise and fall of voices in the back room, that miniature warehouse stacked with shoe boxes, machines, and paper. My mother told me to go to the car for something to read. Then I sat and kicked my heels for a while in an adult chair as I re-read about Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, and Superman. There are only so many times you can look through the same comic, though, so I was impatient for my foot-bone photographs and my shoes.

"Thanks for your patience, folks!" the salesman exclaimed on his return. He bowed his head and put the x-ray prints of my feet into my mother's hand.

"Is there a problem?" my mother asked.

"Well, my manager told me I won't be able to take x-ray photos next time." He sounded a bit offended. The chain store had changed its policy. It was going to interfere with his favorite sales technique. "Apparently, we're getting rid of the camera. I guess that explains why it took me so long to find it in the back."

"Why is that?" my mother asked.

"No idea, really."

"You're getting rid of it?" I had been reaching for the photographs in my mother's hand but now there was an even better prospect. "Can I take it home?"

The salesman blinked. He looked down at me with a serious expression. He was considering it. The manager strode up next to him, eyes wide. He waved his arms.

"Just the shoes, John," he hissed.

"Sure. Do you mind if I put the heel back on the kid's old pair?" The salesman looked at his manager, then at my mother.

"Can you do that yourself?" my mother asked.

"Sure. I'm good at it. We have some extra heel slabs cut to the right size."

"I didn't realize you knew how," said the manager. He took a deep breath. He seemed to be calming down.

"Five minutes," said the salesman.

That's how, thanks to the intervention of a shoe store manager in the fall of 1971, I missed my chance to take home my own x-ray machine. I got to walk out with an extra pair of shoes, however, even though they were only my old ones re-fitted to the right height.

Thinking back on it, I've noticed some historical revisionism about the era of 'radiation is good.' That was a bigger, longer cultural movement than people seem to know. In online sources, you can read about radium watches stopping production in the 1930s but you can also buy vintage military radium watches from World War II, so that stoppage date can't be true. Even I, in the 1970s, owned a lesser-radiation watch that was apparently painted with some allowable, less-radioactive radium. In my rock collection, I got to keep a sample of uranium and that was no big deal.

Until 1971, whenever I bought shoes, I got x-rays done of my feet. It didn't happen only in Thom McCann but in Sears and other stores, every single one of them that sold shoes, until this final stop, and all as a sales gimmick.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 227: Biomythography - Note 4, Eating Ants

A Biomythography - Note 4
by Secret Hippie

Eating a Bowl of Ants

People say that they're a delicacy.

That's what I was told when I was growing up. I didn't know enough to ask questions like, "Who says that?" or "How do you know?" Apparently, someone my parents met when I was seven in College Park had eaten chocolate-covered ants once or said he had. They had reportedly tasted mostly like chocolate. I can believe that.

It's easy to accept because I, too, have eaten ants. It wasn't because someone offered them to me. They weren't chocolate covered or anything nice.

The reason I ate ants is that I got up really early in the morning.

It was four o'clock. I was thirteen, so I was hungry. That's pretty much how I would have to describe the whole year. If I had to recap the age of thirteen, I would say 'hungry.' Now, if you asked me about age twelve, I'd have a hard time deciding between the words, 'horny,' 'surprised,' and 'embarrassed.' But by the time I was thirteen, 'hungry' was a constantly-relevant word.

This was the kind of hunger that could get me up without really opening my eyes. As a sort of zombie, I rose before thinking. My limbs went into action. My feet carried my stomach upstairs to the fridge. The rest of me went along because my stomach had taken over when all the other organs were asleep.

This wasn't a one-time occurrence. This wasn't even a once-per-week occurrence. This was a routine and the rest of me watched my arms and knew what we were going to do. We, the stuff that made up my loosely organized self, were going to grab the first thing that seemed the right color. Orange was usually good, the color of cheese slices, of carrots, of cold pizza, of well, sometimes, an orange or a tangerine but those were fine. When reflexes drive you to food, orange is a good color. Late at night, you might eat a strip of an orange peel in your sleepy-eyed haste. You might not care.

There were no ants in the fridge. They weren't wearing bright orange life jackets or swimming in the orange juice, either. No, I ate ants because we were out of cheese slices.

No cheese. I grunted and searched the sliding drawer.

No cheese. I flapped my hands through the shelves.

Milk. My left hand found the jug handle.

"Uh." My arm, or maybe my stomach, pulled out the cold, slick plastic container. I dropped it on the counter, spun around and reached for the cereal boxes. Grape nuts, no. Corn flakes, ugh. Honey-Nut Cheerios, fine.

Fine. I threw some cereal into a bowl, poured the milk, and started eating. After a while, I sat down. Because I was tired.

At the bottom of the bowl, there were some burnt bits. They tasted funny. I rose, poured more cereal, poured more milk, and faced the pantry door. The pantry was a closet shelf, really. The door was brown. Brown with wood grain.

The new cheerios started out tasting okay. But after a while, there were a lot of little black bits and they spoiled the sweetness. I thought about putting sugar on my cereal but I was too tired. I just wanted to get to the bottom of the bowl.

Spoonful after spoonful. The crunchy bits weren't great.

After a little while, I noticed the black specks in my bowl were wiggling. I woke up enough to actually look at them. Then I remembered that some of my bites of cereal had been wiggling, too.

I had another few bites. More wiggling. I put my face closer to the bowl and stared at the black lumps. They were ants. Big ones, too, not the little teeny ants that are hard to see. These were big enough for you to see the fangs on their faces. Most of them were dead. I don't know why. Maybe cheerios aren't good for ants. Maybe they had drowned in milk. Anyway, they weren't putting up much of a fight.

I'd already eaten a bunch. So now I had to decide: should I continue eating them?

While I decided, my hand and my mouth kept shoveling cereal. I mean, they were under orders from my stomach. With a sigh, I considered putting raisins in the cereal. That way I wouldn't notice the ants so much. As an alternative, I could find the sugar. But I had looked into the sugar jar the other day and found ants in it. Anyway, I was tired. While I was thinking, I got to the bottom of the bowl.

The bottom was just black with ants. There was nothing else, especially after my last two spoonfuls. And I thought: that's a lot of ants. And then: am I wasting food? If I don't finish my ants, am I a bad person?

It took me a few sighing breaths to decide. No, we hadn't paid for the ants.

A couple of hours later, when I marched up the stairs to have a third bowl of cereal for breakfast, I sifted out the ants at the start. The bottom of the box was mostly a pile of large, black insects but they didn't have it all to themselves. There were still a few cheerios.

Every ant looked fat and full. None of them tried to hang onto an O as I pushed them off my dry cereal.

The third bowl tasted great.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 226: Biomythography - Note 3, Save the Cat

A Biomythography - Note 3
by Secret Hippie

Not What it Sounds Like:
Saving a Cat from a Burning House

For fifteen minutes, I took apart my IBM PC 286 in order to put more RAM chips into it. When I had the RAM inserted, no bent pins this time, I partially re-assembled the computer. I blew a spritz of compressed air over the stainless steel, black-baked wafers, and green substrate.

When I hit the power switch, my system booted up. Finally, I had 2 megabytes of main memory. That was all I wanted to see. On the way to shutting down, though, I decided to test the modem by connecting to a couple of my favorite local BBS sites (bulletin boards, which were full of online chat, risque pictures, amateur writing, and games with primitive graphics). My phone connection was fine. I read up on the latest local computer news. Then, barely, I resisted the urge to stay up all night with games and turned my system off.

Even though the next day was free with no grad school classes on the schedule, I wanted to keep my sleep pattern adjusted to lights out before sunrise. That made class attendance easier.

When I threw myself on my twin bed, I noticed the smell of burning plastic. It didn’t mean much to me. Our next-door neighbors burned piles of trash sometimes. Plus my father always, really always, kept cigars burning around the house, sometimes two or three steaming away with the coals forgotten and nearly cold.

On the rare occasion when there was nothing melting in an ashtray, a stray breeze could push old smoke around the house and make me think someone was burning trash again.

When I woke in the morning, the air was smokier than ever. That was odd. I had heard my father go to bed before me. I hadn’t noticed him getting up but it was a workday for both of my parents. They couldn’t be in the house.

I wandered around to make sure neither of them had taken the day off. When I trudged upstairs from the basement, I noticed a haze of smoke in the kitchen. It was in the dining room, too. In fact, the further I looked in the house, the more I noticed the haze. Squinting down the longest upstairs hall revealed a silver mist. On top of that, I heard a faint buzzing sound. It wasn’t natural.

I marched through every room but I couldn't find out where the fog was coming from. The air smelled stronger upstairs, too, sort of metallic and burning rubber.

Passing through the hall, I heard the faint whining sound again but I didn’t locate it.

Finally, I went back downstairs and got to work. I had to. The grad classes had projects due and I had writing that wouldn't wait. To my surprise, though, my computer wouldn't turn on. It was dead. I clicked the switch a dozen times to be sure. I re-seated the power cable. I popped the surge suppressor. I tested the outlet with a lamp. It was working.

“Damn.” This seemed like sort of an emergency.

So I headed back upstairs. I marched around growing more mystified and more frustrated. Eventually, I decided the silvery mist was real. It looked darker than it had earlier. Also, I located the faint buzzing sound. It was coming from the smoke detector. Due to its feeble battery, it had pretty nearly given up the ghost. But not quite. If I put my head next to it, I could tell that the sound was definitely from the dime-sized speaker.

I decided to go outside and see if anything made more sense from there.

Out the front door and about twenty meters into the yard, since it was a big yard, I turned around. There it was – billows of smoke. Okay. My parents’ house was on fire. Gray clouds puffed from the east side of the house. Not from the chimney, which was fine and clear. Just from one side. Something over there was really burning, probably in the attic.

All my training flooded back to me and I discovered that it was, basically, no training. I had been in fires before, though, so I had memorized the basics.

1) Save the people
2) Call the fire department
3) Leave the building until the fire fighters arrive

So I looked around. My parents' dog had died the year before. There was no one but me and the cats. It was time to give the old heave-ho to our feline force.

“Come here,” I said and made the kissy noises my mother gave them when she had cat treats. There were no animals in sight. I crouched down anyway and put out my hand. “Come on now.”

A moment later, the grandmother cat strode into view. She muscled across the carpet to me, arthritic but strong. She was small and she was smart, about twenty years old but not senile. She ruled the house. In fact, she had been the head cat for at least five years. Once I got her out, that would set the tone for the others, I figured.

When I picked her up, she pushed her head against mine. When that wasn’t enough, she pushed again from my cheek to my neck. It was the kind of affection she gave when she knew she was getting a treat. But I walked her out the front door and put her down on the porch. I didn’t hand out any treats.

“Sorry.” Immediately, I pulled the screen door closed. She sat down on the porch and gave me an offended look.

It didn’t take long to find the next cat, a sixteen pound tom. Hands full, I opened the screen door with my foot and swept him out onto the porch.

“Damn it!” The grandmother cat darted back inside and ran away.

Fortunately, she was old and didn’t bother to run far. While she paused to clean herself, I scooped her up. I elbowed through the door and put her down at the bottom step of the porch. She growled as if I’d I'd betrayed her.

“Oh, come on!  The house is on fire. Can’t you smell it?” I pleaded. Then I found another cat, put it outside, and stomped the ground in time to prevent the grandmother cat from going back in.

“Hah!” I grabbed the next cat and paused as I headed out the door. I couldn't see the grandmother cat anywhere. Had she retreated under a bush to sulk? Maybe.

Anyway, there was a fire. I had to keep moving. I pushed the screen door, leaned down with the cat in my arms, and … the grandmother cat darted in out of nowhere.

“Okay,” I sighed.

I stomped around the porch to prevent the next cat from trying, closed the door, and gave up on our pets. The only phone in my parents house was the hallway phone next to the front door. I picked it up and called for the fire department.

“Did you get everyone out of the house?” the lady dispatcher asked.

“There’s just me.”

“Do your parents have any pets?”

“I’m still working on the cats.”

She told me, as I expected, to get everything living out of the house.

“It sounds like, by the time you finish, the fire truck will be there. They’re on the way from Poolesville.”


With a burst of energy, I captured the grandmother cat as she hid from me between boxes under the sofa. After that, there was only one more animal to find and somehow I managed. I was working on the house plants (also living things, after all, so they don't like getting burned up) when the fire trucks arrived. They had brought two, I noticed, a big one and a small one. That seemed like overkill. Then, to complete the set, they drove up an ambulance a moment later.

“Are you the owner?” A man hopped down from the passenger side of the big truck.

“Um.” I tried to explain that I was a graduate school student living in my parents’ house.

“Same thing,” he said, waving off further explanation.

The fire fighters seemed like regular guys to me. They were pretty genial, each and every one, but they were competent with fires, especially the veterans in the crew. Their chief asked me to lead them around the house and show them the possible sources of the fire. I did a lot of explaining. Fortunately, the dispatcher had told them nearly everything I had told her so I didn’t need to repeat myself much.

“Well, first thing,” said the chief. “We’re going to have to cut the roof.”

I experienced a flash of alarm about explaining this to my parents. “Do you have to?”

“Yep. It’s standard.” He gestured to where we were standing. “I really shouldn’t be having my men walk through without that. It’s supposed to come first. But you seem to be doing okay.”

“Well, then you have to.”

“I should warn you, it’s going to make things look worse. The air inside here will actually be better. It’s going to make things safer. But to you, it’s going to look alarming.”

For another twenty minutes or so, I moved pets and plants (including the grandmother cat one last time). After that, I carried out my computer and parts kits, even though it was probably too late for them. I couldn’t really make myself believe that the smoke had damaged them permanently. I carried out data disks. I moved the old CP/M computers.

A couple of times, men stopped by to ask where me where things were in the house. One of them was the chief.

To make sure I was still allowed, I said, "Do you mind if I keep moving stuff out?"

A pair of the fire fighters walked by. The chief patted the closest one on the shoulder. In retrospect, this crew chief was only thirty years old, if that. But he was in his element, calm and happy to talk.

"Yep. Keep going. If you feel bad, get out. Otherwise, we’ll ask you to come with us sometimes and point things out."

The cats had long ago gone into hiding in the bushes around the house. Although I searched for a few seconds, I didn’t see any of them. On one of my trips to the front yard, though, I noticed that the fire crew had finished cutting the hole into the roof. What the fire chief had warned me about was spot on. The hole made things look way, way worse. There was more smoke than ever. It billowed out in thick, dark clouds.

By that point, our activity had gathered a crowd. I was surprised to see so many people, actually, nearly a dozen, because my parents didn't have many neighbors. There was a football field or more between houses and many of the lines of sight were blocked by forest.

The smoke looked dramatic, though. It really had gotten worse, I judged. The fire, regardless of whatever weird way it had started, was getting stronger.

"You're not supposed to go back into the burning building!" someone called, a neighbor. I looked at her hands. She was wringing them. It’s not often you actually see someone do that.

"Well, the fire fighters are letting me." I didn’t know what to tell her. It wasn’t like I intended to stop. Everything that I could take from the house was an item that potentially didn’t have to be destroyed by the firemen or the fire.

My neighbor, though, seemed more than worried. She was scandalized by the fact that I was pulling out all of my parents' possessions and putting them on the lawn.

“Are they supposed to let you do that?” she said.

“I guess I could ask again.”

As I strolled through the house, the crew chief pulled me aside and said, "Where is the switchbox?"

"For electrical power?"

"Yeah.” He snorted. “We need to shut it down."

I forgot about any other questions I might have had and led him to the switchbox in the basement. To my surprise, smoke was now visibly wafting down the hollow shaft in the wall above the switchbox.

"Uh huh," he said with a half-smile, as if this confirmed something. "Can you hit the main breaker?"

"It'll turn off all the power in the house."

"That's the idea."

"You're not using any?"

"Not any more."

With that, I turned and shut off the house power. We went our separate ways for a few minutes. At some point, I started lingering on my parent’s front lawn. I had run out of possessions I could easily move. It seemed crazy to pull paintings off of the walls. It seemed trivial to rescue the vacuum cleaner.

That’s why the chief marched out to find me on the lawn.

"We found the source of the fire." he announced. "We had to go into the attic. Then we blocked airflows and watched what happened. It's an electrical fire."

"But I didn't see anything."

"Electrical fires are inside the walls, sometimes. We found the wall that's warm. It’s hot, actually, really hot in places. When we turned off the power to it, the fire kept burning."

"Oh, shit."

"We're cutting into that wall right now. I just wanted to warn you. We're going to take care of it and really put it out. But it's going to ruin the wall."

I watched black smoke continue to billow out of the hole his men had cut into my parents' roof. All of this had gone on without my parents. But it was their house, their stuff. Now that it was under control and I had time, I was going to have to call them.

"Well, you've got to, right?" I said.

He knew what I was thinking. "Right."

"Okay, then. Thanks."

That evening, with holes in the wall and the roof, with some of our family possessions destroyed, and with the wind picking up, I sat down with my parents to re-tell them the events from beginning to end. They had heard from the fire department. They had called their insurance company. They gotten out tarps for me to put over our furniture still sitting on the lawn. They had strategically closed doors and taped plastic barriers over holes. It had been tough few hours.

“Are we missing any cats?” my father asked.

“I got them all outside.” We all turned to look at the grandmother cat. She was sleeping on the sofa. “I don’t think they’ve all come back inside but they were all safe today.”

“You didn’t bring in all of the plants.”

“Well, they’re the one type of thing that won’t get ruined it if rains on them.” Plus I was tired.


My mother nodded. “They can stay out overnight, Bob. The plants will be fine.”

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 225: Biomythography - Note 2, Revisionism

A Biomythography - Note 2
by Secret Hippie

Accidental Revisionism

Rarely do I remember how different things were. Coca-Cola, when I was nine years old, was so fundamentally different that I enjoy my occasional flashbacks to 'the best soda I ever had.' The event took place after I swam until I was exhausted, begged for vending machine money, and drank a small bottle of soda.

That's a tangible thing. Plus, there's evidence of the drink formulas from various eras. That's why so many people in our society remember the taste once being better despite Coca-Cola ads claiming otherwise. Less tangible and less easy to recall, I think, are the past contexts of our lives like those revealed in the terms we used. Some of them were regional sayings. For instance, I grew up oogling girls.

That was what the old men said. And I definitely did it. I liked to watch girls. Talking to them was more difficult. Sometimes I would freeze up completely. But I could half-close my eyes and just watch. Or watch with my mouth hanging open.

The term was pronounced oogling as in googling or "oooo, look at that."

Later, I learned that the dictionary said this was ogling. It was officially spelled differently and pronounced differently than I thought. (Whoever wrote the dictionary probably said, "oh, look at that.") Nowadays, the oogling form is gone entirely. It's been replaced by the official dictionary decision, at least in my region of the country. But oogling was a better word. You could just hear and almost see the wide-open eyes implied by it, the sheer dumbfoundedness in someone’s face.

Another term that was stolen from our colloquial history, was "yadada yadada." Somehow, perhaps from my friends using Yiddish slang, I started saying “yadada yadada” in place of “and so on, and so on.” I think my changeover to "yadada yadada" happened when I was around thirteen.

There was a childish joy in saying a string of nonsense syllables and having everyone know what you meant. No one could define “yadada yadada” but everyone smiled and nodded at it.

In the late 1980s, though, after I had been spewing out my multisyllabic nonsense for over a decade, a new TV show came out that re-set the standard phrase. That show was Seinfeld. Suddenly, people started to look at me funny when I talked to them exactly as I always had before.

I actually had a few friends try to correct me. At this point, I may not have owned a television. But I was forced to learn about the show Seinfeld. Because whenever I said yadada yadada, which was often, I would get an involuntary education on how funny this program was.

Everyone loved it. I hadn’t seen it and already I hated it.

At this point, I wonder if anyone remembers that "yadada yadada” once existed. As far as I can tell, there's a lot of revisionism about the past that isn't deliberate. It just happens. Everybody backfills their memories with wrong stuff from television shows. ads, or current cultural norms. Little snippets get left out of our national or regional stories. Elements of personal contexts get lost.

Gone forever or radically changed are oogling, ping, flannel cake, twilight, wampum, sneakies, catfish, mixed marriage, sick, thongs, and so many others, yadada, yadada. You know what I mean.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 224: Biomythography - Note 1, Missing Pennies

A Biomythography - Note 1
by Secret Hippie

Missing Pennies

When I was 23 years old and living in western Massachusetts, I made $7000 that year. I saved $1000 in my bank account. I was living a stoic and buddhist life. Or, if you prefer, I was cheap and dead broke.

Another financial landmark that year came when, during one month, my bank statement was off by a penny. I did the math. I checked it several times. The bank had made an error in its favor of one penny. I was mad.

But I didn’t complain

The next month, the bank statement was off by a penny again. The mistake was in the bank's favor. And now I thought that it was deliberate.

I knew that I should complain. I drafted a letter about the problem but I didn't know where to mail it so I kept it for a visit in person.

When it happened for the third month in a row, I was so mad that I had to go to the bank and show them the error of their evil ways. I walked up to the teller window with my paper statements in hand and my complaint letter, signed and dated. I showed the bank teller how the withdrawals and deposits didn’t add up right. The bank teller was very polite and agreed that it looked odd but he said he might not be able to do anything about it.

The teller took my information and promised that, if the bank was at fault, I would be rewarded. Weeks went by. I didn’t hear anything from the bank. Then my bank statement arrived. It had $20.03 extra in it.

The bank had returned my three cents and given me a twenty dollar reward. Or had it? Someone in the bank had been pulling a penny skimming scam. I had to wonder if I had complained to the person who had been pulling the scam. In that case, he must have thought to himself, how much does it take to buy off a person who notices a penny missing each month? Probably twenty bucks. 

And he was right.