Sunday, June 4, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 308: Biomythography - Note 56, The Birth of Dylan Kyle

Biomythography 56

The Birth of Dylan Kyle

On the twenty-seventh of July, 1994, I drove home from the office to have lunch with my wife. Our townhouse was close to work, so I could occasionally enjoy breaks there. Although it was obvious I’d never get rich working at Hood College, I did get my graduate education and the commute time was twelve minutes.

My body hadn't yet grown unfit from the long hours at a desk. I had started to work out at the college gym before or after the job to maintain myself when I could, so I got hungry on schedule.

"You don't want to eat?" I asked as I tossed together a sandwich.

"Not really." The sun shone through the back window behind Diane. She put her hand on the back of her chair and lowered herself into the seat. Our baby was nearly at nine months. Although we had two weeks until the due date, technically, Diane felt impatient to get the birthing over with and have her body back.

"You got me crackers," she added. "That's plenty. Besides, I'll throw it up."

"So what? I'll clean it up."

Diane sighed and looked at her cup of grape juice. She took a sip. In a moment, I finished wolfing down my food. She rose and grabbed my arm.

"How much time do you have?" she asked.

"Depends on how late I want to work this afternoon." I'd finished most of my tasks. I was pretty fast with the programming and sysadmin parts of my job and I knew my schedule.

"You don't have a meeting or anything?"

"No. Why?"

"I'm having contractions again. I could use you here. Be a distraction."

At half past noon, when it was time for me to leave, I reached for my car keys. I paused to give Diane a look, though, in case she hadn't changed her mind. She asked me to call into the office, so I did. Fortunately, one of my co-workers, Doug, had left for the day while his wife went to the hospital to have their child. Everyone in my office had been waiting for me to do the same. They seemed pretty understanding.

"You really want me at home?" I asked as I made another call. "Today?"


She decided to pull me upstairs with her. As she lay in bed a while later, both of us reading, she threw up. It wasn't much, mostly juice. After I cleaned the bucket, I set it next to the bed again. She might need it, I thought.

"Is everything ready?" she asked.

I knew what she meant. Diane felt strongly opposed to giving birth at the hospital. We had made a plan to have a home birth. It wasn't a perfect plan because we meant to have a midwife for it. The midwife we had held our discussions with hadn't returned our calls lately. Clearly, we'd lost touch with her.

"I'll get it," I said. Working with Diane, I had put together a birthing kit of sorts.

The kit was only a first-aid box, a few extras, and a list of things to grab on the fly. I started gathering the final items: a stack of clean towels, lye soap, baby clothes, blankets, and scissors. We hadn't gone out for plastic bed protectors, unfortunately. It was on our list. Diane had thought we would have time to shop for new shower curtains or something similar to lay under the clean blankets and towels. Maybe we were out of time, though.

I walked into the bathroom and unhooked our plastic curtain. I gave it a quick rub-down with soap and water, then alcohol.

When I returned to the bedroom, Diane was breathing hard. Her gaze was a bit glassy. When she noticed me, though, her faraway look returned to the present and she started telling me her preferences.

"Let me get up," she said. "There's no way we're ruining this mattress."

While I stripped the bed and put on the plastic protector, she arranged the other supplies. She stopped to pull the plastic curtain flat underneath the sheets.

"Go get the older sheets," she said. "These are still pretty good. Let's not stain them."

We switched sheets. I picked up the free, weekly newspaper and used it to protect the floor around the bed. Step by step, we went through our procedures. Although I had already asked Diane repeatedly for months if she might consider going to the hospital, I felt I had to suggest it again anyway. She dismissed the idea so fast - after all, she'd heard it a hundred times - she moved onto the next choice in the same breath.

"Do you still have the number for the midwife?"

"Yes," I admitted. "But there was no answer last time. Or the time before."

The only woman we had really considered for the job gave me the impression of being new to it. Nevertheless, she was the best midwife responding to us at the time. She had warned us she would go on vacation before our due date. That might have been the reason for her lack of replies recently. We hadn't followed up as much as we should have, either. We’d been busy with the other details of our lives.

We had read books on natural childbirth and the midwifery process. That was pretty much our level of experience.

After I called the midwife and got, as expected, no answer, Diane asked me to put a movie into the VCR. She chose a comedy to distract her from the pain. She watched and waited. I spent a lot of my time walking around the house. I did some writing. That’s the way I was. The wait before birth was an opportunity to write.

At three in the afternoon, the pushing contractions began. Diane sensed the difference immediately. She scooted into position. So did I.

I suppose I should mention the obvious, that childbirth is a messy, bloody process. Less obviously It’s also beautiful, magical, and I felt totally in love with my wife and child the whole time. The reading I’d done, the checking on the position of the baby, the feeling that I’d do whatever Diane wanted was complete. I was ready to do what was best. It made me incredibly sure of myself. The only confusion I felt was for one detail that had gone wrong in the birthing process. I could see the baby’s head. The amniotic sac hadn’t broken. In the birth canal, a dark, bluish skull had risen into my view.

I told Diane, “Something’s wrong. It’s all blue.”

“I don’t think my water has broken.” She huffed. She sweated. Her brain had drugged her with endorphins but clearly she was still thinking well.

“Oh, yeah. That must be the amniotic sac. I don’t think that’s normal.” I had time to get paranoid, which is probably a decent trait in someone who’s always determined to act. “What happens if the child is born and the sac doesn’t break?”

“I don’t know.”

“I guess I could cut it.” That seemed a bit too strange for me. There was going to be no easy, by-the-instructions way to slice open that sac when the head was pressed up against it. The last thing you want to do in that situation is cut the baby’s head. (Years later, our midwife broke Diane’s water for her and did, in fact, give Rowan a scratch on the top of his head. It was nothing harmful, actually.) We had agreed that if anything unusual came up, I should call 911 and get an ambulance crew over to help. So I asked Diane if she wanted me to call.

"Call the doctor first," she replied. She recited the number.

When I called the number, I realized I had reached the dentist's office. And I didn't remember the seven digits for our family practice.

"Wrong place," I sighed. 

“Call 911 if you have to. But do you have to?”

“I don’t know. The head looks like it’s about to come out but your water hasn’t broken yet. It’s weird.”
She didn’t reply right away but after a little while, she agreed it was right to call even if it meant she’d have to leave in an ambulance.

“I really don’t want the ambulance,” she said. “But I have to go to the hospital anyway. We need to get him a birth certificate.” That was something a midwife would have done for us. Apparently, it was hard for us to do it for ourselves.

Naturally, the 911 operator assumed the labor was an accident of timing, not a deliberate act. I didn’t try to tell her otherwise. I just gave her the information. After the verbal paperwork had been completed in triplicate, I managed to get some help with the diagnosis. The woman on the other end didn’t quite believe what I was telling her.

“Are you sure her water hasn’t broken?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“But she’s giving birth?”

“Yes. I can see the head. It’s covered in blue stuff. There’s water in there and I can see stuff floating in it.”

“You can see the head?”


“Can you lean closer and describe it, please?”

I’m pretty sure she only asked the question to buy more time. But I did what she asked. I was doing it anyway. I put my finger in the birth canal and put my face in position to see the head during the next contraction, which came in a second or two.

“It’s …”

That’s when the amniotic sac broke a couple inches from my face. It was like a water balloon explosion. I got wet from shoulder to shoulder and, of course, everywhere in between. Blink with me as you imagine it. The burst made me laugh. Diane, sweating and feeling some pain, laughed, too. Maybe it was the only thing that would have gotten her to do that.

When I finished wiping my face, I had to explain to the operator what happened. Then I told her I was going to catch the baby but I wouldn’t hang up on her. I put down the phone, put out my hands, and caught Dylan Kyle's head, gently, with support under the neck. Diane smiled. Then she yelled. During the next contraction, her hardest, the shoulders came through. Our son slipped into the world, mouth open, and took his first breath. 

I placed him on his mother's stomach. She gave me a dreamy smile and turned it downward to her boy.

"Tie off the cord and cut it," said the operator in a distant but distinct voice.

"With what?"

"Do you have string? A shoe lace?" 

I leaned down and untied my shoe. I swung around and, with the overworn lace, clamped the umbilical cord. After two tie-downs, I cut the umbilical between son and mother using a pair of kitchen scissors.


The following day, we cleaned and reused the scissors, the ones with beige finger holes, because we were poor and practical. A good pair of scissors cost money we didn’t have to spare. We were buying groceries off of my credit cards every week, going further and further into debt. We wondered how we could support ourselves through college.
We had no idea if we could raise a son while working and going to school.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 307: Vodka and Verse

Vodka and Verse

On the second drink
I swore to you I wasn't an alcoholic.
You laughed and nodded
And kept talking.

Twenty minutes later
You're still talking.
I'm pouring another drink.
If only you could have an interesting thought
Or a malapropism even,
So I wouldn't look like a liar here.

 -- Eric Gallagher

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 306: Biomythography - Note 55, Riva Road

Biomythography 55

Riva Road

When I was two, I got to fly in a commercial passenger airplane. At least, I think I was on a commercial flight. The seats were mostly empty. Industrial carpet lined the corridors. The seats were made of a light grey fabric. My mother and I had a row to ourselves. 

After takeoff, which is when my memory fragments begin, an older woman saw me in the aisle and offered to take me from my mother. At the time, I thought she was someone's grandmother. Maybe she had reached an age where she didn't have grandchildren but wanted them. In any case, my mother was eager to get a break. The older woman had games with her, or maybe she bugged the airline staff to provide a coloring book, and she encouraged me to talk and draw for a while. At some point, I started feeling tired. Scribbling colors felt exhausting. The woman noticed. She stood up and called for my mother take me back. 

Logically, that would have been a flight between school years, when my mother left me with her mother in Annapolis.

My recollections of early times in Annapolis on my grandmother's porch are spotty. Images sometimes come to me of people sitting in chairs to catch the breeze. Often, I can't see the people but I know they are there, resting in chairs at the far corner of my memory's vision.

One of my strongest memories of the Annapolis home is the smell. My grandmother's cushioned furniture and her linens carried a distinctive scent that, later in life, I learned was lilacs. There was a mustiness underlying everything, too, and that was due to the home not having air conditioning. Not many places did. Porches and pools played central roles in daily summer life in Maryland. I don't think that house on Riva Road ever got central air installed, not even late in my childhood. One or two rooms got window units.

Fortunately, the front porch had been carefully made, large and covered on three sides by screens to keep out mosquitoes. There, family members could relax with an iced tea at the end of the workday. People would sit in their various spots, me on a footstool or wherever my grandmother said, and we would break the sharp ends off green beans, pop open pea pods, peel onions, cut tomatoes, or if we were lucky, shuck corn. In my early years there, I wasn't allowed to use a knife. I wasn't encouraged to take part in adult conversations. But breaking bean shells, gathering peas, or shucking corn were real options, usually requirements. My grandfather, who often seemed angry or impatient, showed a great deal of care about whether my hands were strong enough to shuck.

"I think that's the best you can do," he said as he reviewed my early work with corn. He plucked a few threads of silk out of the cob, nodded in approval, and put it in the pot.

Elsewhere around the property, my grandfather farmed an acre of unused land. It wasn't his to farm, technically, but it provided his family with seemingly a lot of its food. The house fence and trellis provided grapes, which I ate from the vine. My grandmother scolded me to leave her some. Earlier in the year, I'd stuffed myself with their raspberries. I'd pulled up onions and eaten them from the ground. My uncles and I had spent an hour plucking and slurping honeysuckle flowers. In late summer, we harvested peas, beans, potatoes, rhubarb, cabbage, and lettuce.

"Save some for canning," my grandmother said about everything. 

I tried. Well, except for raspberries. Grandmother said she didn't like raspberry preserves. She didn't want to deal with the seeds. In contrast, I liked eating her grape jelly and yearned to see it made, which wasn't often. Usually, I witnessed the creation of mason jars filled with more mundane ingredients like green beans. Even beans became pale and mysterious during her canning process. They came out softer and easier to eat. 


When I was five or six, old enough to understand carpentry in theory, if not practice, I asked my grandfather about a screen on the porch. He had complained about it coming loose. 

"Can you fix it?" I asked.

"I built this whole dang house. Of course I can fix it. I can fix anything here."

Although I had been in the house for weeks or months at a time, he gave me a tour of the place. He showed me toilets and pipes he had taken from junkyards, cleaned, and installed himself. He demonstrated a hand drill, his hammer, screwdriver, and a hand saw. With those, a pair of snips, and a penknife, he had run scrap wires from room to room to provide power and lights. He had created joists and beams from previously used lumber or mis-cut unused pieces. We walked up a steep staircase, sized to fit the dimensions he could accomodate for the attic. He pointed from pipe to pipe down to the ground floor and into the septic tank, where he had set his own plumbing to drain. 

In the cellar, he showed me a fuse box, as ancient as his revived wiring. He licked his finger and stuck it in an empty socket above a nearby outlet. There was a pop and a spark.

"See? It's hot," he said. Then with a stern glance he added, "Don't you do that."

From these points of view - those of a child, of a man who had achieved enough to build a house, of the man's family members who grew up having enough food - the home had its part in a rural, middle-class existence. As I grew older, though, and became more aware of the family circumstances relative to other families, I began to feel differently. 

When I visited, seven people were living on one man's disability paycheck. It could grow to nine, ten, or more with other long-term guests. We slept two or three to a bedroom. My grandfather had squatted on someone else's property. He had built his house without permission, without permits, and without the required parts or tools. He fished and sometimes hunted nearby. He farmed the surrounding lands. No one stopped him. 

My mother's family doesn't like this point of view. My parents gave me shocked looks when I first expressed my thoughts about the wobbly foundations of my grandfather's rural lifestyle.

The Stockett family had considered themselves well-off. They had looked down on my father, who was penniless, without a father of his own, and often homeless during his childhood. From a certain point of view, though, they didn't have much more. My grandfather had squatted on his uncle's land because it was the forgotten holding of a violent relative who had killed his own son by knocking him from a roof during an argument. Living on the property was a risk. But my grandfather, nearly unemployable with epilepsy and fond of taking risks to prove himself, felt he had no choice. He volunteered for hard duty with the phone company, hanging wires where no one else would, taking risks in thunderstorms to meet deadlines.

After the fourth time he was hit by lightning on the pole, he was knocked to the ground and crippled long enough for the company to decide it was easiest to put him on disability. That gave him more time to build his house.

His was the self-made house in which I spent a lot of my childhood. 

To the Stocketts, my father was low born and poor, both true, but his poverty was worse than theirs mostly due to his homelessness and his lack of extended family. Their family was rich because it was connected to others, supported on its wobbly foundation by a community, and it formed part of a network of well-known people in their town.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 305: Biomythography - Note 54, Getting Turned Down

Biomythography 54

Getting Turned Down

Three times in my life, I've been turned down for jobs due to race or sex. Well, at least three. There could be more. I could also have landed jobs due to my perceived race or sex and not known. It can be hard to understand what's going on in the minds of hiring managers although, in a some cases, they give it away. 

1. When it happened the first time, I had to be told. 

I'd graduated from Control Data Institute, an achievement that still makes me proud. The courses were self-driven, not to mention they were taught at an electrical engineering level minus the calculus. I finished the hardware course, including circuit design and repair, in time to take and pass the COBOL course. I also took the defunct (even then, no longer offered) Unix course, which was all in Xenix. The Unix courseware was sitting next to the COBOL course. I read it and found I liked Xenix enough to break into half the accounts of my long-departed classmates and do their unfinished assignments.

The hardware course included repairing supercomputers because Control Data Corporation was a mainframe company. However, the job interviews arranged by CDI included: almost nothing. In the Bush recession of the early 1990s, no one could find entry level jobs even in technical fields, even in the growing field of personal computers. 

CDI had campuses all over the country. My school building sat near Baltimore in an office park a couple miles outside the city. The CDI staff arranged for a single interview after graduation. In theory, they were trying to arrange more but they canceled all but one. The interview took place at a custom computer hardware contractor in Baltimore. 

We had to drive on a special trip to make the interview. When I arrived, I saw the contracting business occupied a brick tenement that had long ago converted into the cheapest sort of commercial real estate. 

"Wow, you have the best grades by far," the interviewer exclaimed early on. We sat down in a beige office at a beige desk. "You've actually done something with computers, too."

We launched into a discussion that I found entertaining. He had lots of questions. I had lots of answers. Then I had questions about his business's custom hardware. 

"You would have to get a clearance to do some of the work," the manager said. "But it's possible."

The business did a lot of fixes and custom jobs for the federal government. The manager, who wore a brown, two-piece suit and a Tom Selleck-style mustache, gave me a tour of the facilities, which looked kind of run-down. For some types of work, my home equipment was as good. The manager apologized for messes at the workbenches, the missing soldering irons, and the broken oscilliscopes. 

Then he sat down with me at the round table in the beige office again.

"I can't believe how much you already know," he said. "I want to be honest."

"We advertise ourselves to the government as a minority-friendly company. You know how it is." Although I had no idea, he continued. "We employ a certain number of African Americans and a certain number of women. We get tax breaks for it. Our contracts depend on it. The work is based on our minority status. For this job, the one you're applying for, we're really looking to hire a minority. Or a woman. A black woman, ideally."

Two interviews behind me on the CDI schedule, which I had read on the clipboard at school, sat a young, black woman who had earned the second highest grade average in class. She was as smart as anyone. Smarter, really. And beautiful. And she smiled a lot and had a great attitude, better than mine. If anyone deserved the job, it was her. She would get it, too. At least, I felt pretty sure. 

"I appreciate you letting me know," I said. 

"I didn't want you to think you had a bad interview." He reached out as if to punch me on the shoulder, realized that it would be unprofessional, and settled for a tap. "Crap, you had a great one."

"Thanks." I sat lost in thought for a moment about the black woman coming up. I had cozeyed up to her halfway through class to see if she were single. She made it clear, though, that if I wanted to date her I'd have to join her in church first. For me, the church-going was a dealbreaker. Still, she was seemed utterly fantastic.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I think I want to tell you about someone coming up two interviews from now."

2. The second time, I didn't have to be told. Well, almost.

Six years later, I had an interview in a large office building in Northern Virginia. The corporation had advertised for a technical writer. My resume was strong, hence my call to interview. I'd worked as a technical writer on historical subjects. I'd worked as a computer technician and programmer. I'd gotten a graduate degree in computer science.

The hiring manager seemed impressed. We skipped quickly to her selling me on the company. She gave me the tour. She sat me down for a close-out talk.

"Can I ask why you're looking for a technical writer position?" she asked. "And not an engineer? Most men look to be engineers."

"The writing pays well," I replied. It paid twice my current computer technician salary but I wasn't going to say that. "And I like technology. And I like writing."

"It's just that our technical writer positions are usually staffed by women."

"Yeah." For a moment, I thought back on University Publications. The atmosphere was different but the work had some similarities. "My previous writing position was mostly women, too."

"You had a strong interview. You have a good resume. However, we have strong minority hiring incentives."


"Okay." She let it hang there for a while to see if I would get the hint.

3. The third time, I was taken aside. 

After my first interview for yet another position, I got a call to critique my performance.

"The IT staff around the table loved you," he said. "But we don't pull much weight. All the people in suits? They're the ones you needed to impress."

"I guess I didn't, huh?"

"When the boss asked, 'What makes you special' and you answered, 'Nothing' I could practically see steam coming out of her ears. I loved that answer, by the way. You followed it up. I completely agree that lots of people do good deeds, good stuff. But 'nothing' is not what the suits were looking for."

"What should I have said?"

"That's your chance to brag. You must have got a lot of things to brag about. I even know some of them. You should have jumped in. Because that's your chance."


"And Eric? Do you own a tie?"

"Yeah, sorry. I drove to the interview after working seventy hours in four days on a firewall problem. Got it fixed, though."

"See? That's the kind of stuff you should brag about."

"Will I get a second chance?"

"Probably not this time. You don't seem to know but the job was set aside for a woman. You've probably noticed all the bosses are women and they are looking to hire another for this position."

"Oh, okay." That made my wrong answers seem less disastrous. 

But the next day, the fellow from the interview team called again. His voice sounded scratchy over the cellular carrier. 

"Remember I said the job was set aside for a woman?" he asked.


"They made the mistake of telling her. Like, they said it outright before the interview. So she came to the meeting way too confident. She got in an argument with the woman hiring her."

"Now what?"

"Now she's out. You can't argue with the boss. Not this boss. So the position is open. And you're in the final list of candidates. I want to be forthright, Eric. Get yourself a goddamn suit. Act like you're a supervisor. Try to fit in."

"Got it."

So maybe this last time doesn't count. The fix was in. But it didn't stick. It proves something about the hiring process. Very likely, it's worth going through the motions and maintaining good form for some of the time even if everyone on the hiring team think they know the preferred candidate in advance.

In all of these cases, I appreciated being told. Or in getting the hint. Or in being told I should pay attention to the hint a few second back. Whatever it took. Getting the information meant not forever questioning what went wrong. Indeed, for some interviews where I wasn't hired, everything went right as far as I could see. I don't think there were always preferred candidates, either. The hiring manager simply liked someone better. That's the way it goes. 

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 304: Biomythography - Note 53, She'll Stand By Your Mom

Biomythography, Note 53

She'll Stand By Your Mom

I knew how bad the air in my parent's house smelled. When we arrived, I popped my asthma meds in my mouth and let them dissolve for a quick rush of antihistamines. I’d prepared my girlfriend, I thought. We paused on the front porch in the waning light.

"Oh my god," she said. "It even stinks outside."

"I did mention the cigars," I responded. I glanced at the screened window next to the front door. Unfortunately it was a nice day and the glass pane was open a few inches. 

“Pichi?” my mother said as she came to the door. She gave my girlfriend a warm smile and, for me, she lent a nod of approval.

The minute or two of greetings distracted us from the stale cigar smells, the cat urine, the greenhouse of plants, the dog odors, and the dragon's breath of a fresh cigar as my father lit up next to an ashtray where his old butts lay, one of them still fuming like a forgotten tugboat on a lake of gray ash. 

My girlfriend had a chance to adjust. My brothers came up to punch me on the shoulder and my father talked to distract me. While I tried to tell my brothers, still-blonde and blondest, about my semester, my mother and girlfriend behind me shared an earsplitting laugh. I turned, feeling bewildered. My girlfriend's dark eyes lit up the living room. My mother bore a broad grin, seeming very much at ease. I wasn't sure what they'd said but I was suspicious of how the tone seemed so different from when my mother came out steadfastly against me bringing a girl home. 

Then came a tour of the house and grounds. The inside of our place wasn't much in Pichi's eyes, I could tell, a mishmash of furnishings, different styles, different colors, many things homemade like the deck, the roofs, two of the rooms, and the sheds. She lived better than this. The grounds, though, sat in the middle of a forest, as advertised, and in our shaded one acre plot grew fifty or sixty of my mother's trees, shrubs, garden crops, and vines, which she showed off. Pichi seemed slightly lost in the terminology but pleased by the lushness of the tour.

Over dinner, we discussed the Thanksgiving meal preparations. Pichi expressed her amazement at the tradition ("It's just eating?"), which endeared her to my parents even more than her straightforwardness already had. My brothers showed some enthusiasm in their explanations, too. It was probably the first time either of them got to discuss events from our history books that everyone in the room didn't already know. 

When we wiped the table down, we persuaded Pichi to join us for round after round of card games. After a couple hours, she tossed her right arm back and yawned. 

"I'll go downstairs to rest," she said. She had already put her bags in my bedroom. My parents hadn't seemed to notice or care.

"She's supposed to sleep on the couch," my father reminded me after she left. 

I glanced to the living room. I shrugged. "Maybe I'll sleep there."

Twenty minutes later, I walked down to my bedroom and never came back up. 

"What do they think we've been doing all day, every day at the college?" she asked me. She curled up next to me on top of the covers and gave me a big kiss. 

This had been the plan. We had executed it as we'd intended. 

Not everyone has the same way of dealing with people. I had never questioned how similar Pichi and I were about this element of our lives. We simply were who we were. I didn't notice the good luck of our matching attitudes. Maybe I expected her mindset because she was a girl who had invented her own language so she and her sister could talk secrets in front of their parents. The openly defiant approach came naturally to her, with a smile. Her parents had been only moderately strict, less than mine had tried to be, but she hadn't been able to live quite within their rules. She agreed with me that my parents' more prudish regulations made no sense and she saw no problem with me defying them. 

I'd brought money for a night at a hotel. As I got ready for bed, I took my wallet out of my pocket and checked it, a habit. The cash was still there, handy if we needed independence.

The next morning, Pichi got me up early. She sent me upstairs first. There in the dark kitchen, out through the back window, I could see an orangish glow on the horizon. The sky above the barren tree branches looked purple. But in a few minutes, it brightened. 

While I was making omelets and pancakes for breakfast, my father stopped in. His footfalls were heavy. His eyes were so lidded as to be half shut. He didn't have a cigar in his mouth yet. He gave me a silent stare, shook his head, and trudged to his spot by the television. I peered into the living room beside him. There, the couch sat re-made into its former self, a couch, not dressed up as a bed. Last night, someone had removed the sheet and the pillow. The stack of blankets had doubtless gone to some hall closet. 

A few minutes later, my mother stopped in. As she helped herself to coffee, she said, "Your girlfriend is really nice."

"Yeah, she is." I paused to agree, partly because I had finished cooking another pancake and set it aside, mostly because I was switching my gears mentally. 

"Did she sleep all right?"

"Ah." It was an interesting question. I had already been given instructions on what to say. "Do you remember how a few years ago, I kept complaining about the mattress springs cutting me?"

My mother squinted, not at me, but through the back window. "That sounds familiar."

"Pichi has cuts on her hip and her thigh this morning." I set the latest pancake on a plate for myself and poured syrup over it. I'd kept up with my personal swimming workouts, two miles per day, so my cooking plans usually involved eating at the same time. My body stayed hungry.

"Why don't you have cuts?"

The question made my stop shoving pancake pieces into my mouth for a moment. 

"It's been so many years, now." I tested my ideas by rotating my body a little and imagining my bed. "Even in my sleep, I can roll over and avoid the sharp points. I know where they are. I don't have to think about it. That's probably why I don't get cut much."

"Have you turned the mattress over?"

"Five or six years ago. And back again. I keep the best side up with its worst springs near my feet instead of my head."

My mother considered the problem, hands around her mug.


After Thanksgiving, my young woman and I returned to Massachusetts. We got back into the routine we had developed with fun, work, school, food, and fun in roughly that order during the day. For the past month, Pichi had seemed to find the lack of grades in her courses to be difficult. Even though she said the Hampshire College system was fine, actually quite European and in line with her expectations, she had to double down on her emotional investments in a couple of her classes in order to finish them. 

One of my writing courses stayed good and busy. I sprinted to the end with sheaves of typing paper stacking up on my desks. 

As I fielded calls from home, I noticed my mother asking about Pichi every time. Once, I even put Pichi on the line for a moment at my mother's request. When she finished, Pichi handed me the phone to hang it up.

"I really like your mother," she confided.

On one level, I saw how Pichi had plenty of criticism for my choices in friends, the behavior of my brothers, my father's smoking, and my former girlfriends, some of whom she had met. That could have sounded harsh to my mother. It didn't. My mom laughed at Pichi's comments every time. The two of them seemed to be in sympathy over my habits or about my general situation. It wasn't what I'd expected. Also, Pichi loved our Danish furniture and said so repeatedly. The pieces reminded her of home. 

When it came time for the upcoming Christmas break, though, she missed her family, especially her sister, and she let me know. Often.

"This time, I'll have to go home," she said. "It's only a little too early in the year. My sister won't be free. Schools in Europe don't get out as early. As soon as they do, though, she and I will be together every day! I'll stay all of January, too."

Somehow, her attitude toward going home to her family got conveyed to my mom. My mother's reaction was quiet but I could tell she was disappointed. 

"Is Pichi not coming for Christmas?" she asked.

"She was pretty critical of my mattress, you may remember." This was a part of home that seemed safe to mention rather than her opinions about friends or family. "She got cuts from it."

"I didn't know a spring was poking you."

"Yeah." I'd complained about them for years but I had also given up, so I understood the point. "I got used to it, I guess."

"Well, she's welcome to come home with you. I bought you a new mattress."

We had a week left in the semester. When I hung up the call, I knew it was too late for Pichi to change her flight plans. She had decided to head home early and stay all January, too. I was scheduled for almost the opposite, returning for a January term class but leaving before the spring semester started. It was all part of my plan.

At the root of the plan was money. I had to take off time to make more so I could return to college. My DJ gigs were paying decently, though. If I'd thought about it more - and in advance - I could have stayed and turned up the activity on the DJ side jobs. Pichi wanted stay at Hampshire, for sure, and my leaving made it look like this was goodbye to our affair. 

I had planned for my college relationships to end this way. I meant to have a different fling, or more than one, each semester. Pichi had said the same thing. A couple boyfriends per semester suited her, another way we seemed alike. Yet, when it came down to it, I already missed her. She was next to me every day but I didn't want her to leave. 

"Well, my mom says she'll miss you." In my room, I flopped down in my office chair. I rested my arm on the desk and my chin on my hand. "She said to let you know she bought me a new mattress for my bedroom."

"She bought me a new mattress?" Pichi said. She sat up at the edge of the bed. She burst into a huge smile.

"Well, it's sort of for me, too." There was a chance it wasn't. This was the first time I was realizing it. 

"Now I have to visit," Pichi said. She ignored me for a moment and turned to the paperwork on her flight back to home. She flipped open the manila folder. She tapped her lip with one finger. "I'll work something out."


Pichi looked very Mexican. Once again in my life, it never occurred to me that anyone would have a problem with it. And they didn't.  

I'm not sure if the lack of race and/or cultural friction would always have been true in these past decades. In my two geographical areas with the friends I had, though, it was. If that means you, thanks.

Standing up for friends, which was how this started, wasn't something I felt I had a choice about. Yet it may be why this stands out in my memory. Sometimes I wonder why particular times stand out more than others. I think I was a little surprised by how much opposition I noticed to Pichi's presence. When I told everyone what was up, though, I was as surprised to find folks giving me the chance to stick by a friend. Not everyone in our group stayed friends. But everyone was willing to try for a moment. 

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 303: Biomythography - Note 52, Stand By Your Woman

Biomythography, Note 52

Stand By Your Woman

On the beige phone over the smelly brown carpet in the hall of my college dormitory, the matter seemed simple. I was going to take care of my best friend in the style I could afford. That's what one does. The call seemed to be turning awkward about it. But not for me.

“She should go to her own home, not ours,” my mother repeated. I could hear movement on the other end. She had to be stalking around the foyer at home. She only did that when she was upset. It didn't happen often. But this time, yes.

“Her family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.” This part, I wasn't sure I'd explained before. 

"What kind of family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving?" she asked, too upset to think.

"She's Dutch and Mexican." I knew I'd described this part a month ago. Maybe my mother hadn't paid much attention. But it seemed more likely she'd forgotten. 

"How can she be both?"

"Her parents met at the United Nations, where they work."

"Oh, right." It sounded like my mother was starting to remember. She'd gotten at least two letters and two phone calls. She should know I was dating a U.N. child this semester. 

"She grew up in Denmark." I tried to give my mother time to think. But I could only give her a second because I was nineteen. "Where they aren't American. So they don't celebrate Thanksgiving."

"Not American." In her pause, I could hear the concept sink in. She had lived in Germany for a few years. “Oh, right. Thanksgiving is an American-only holiday.”

“Yeah. The college shuts down here for it. She's a foreign student, so they'll let her stay here on campus alone with no food. Or I can stay with her. Or she can come with me.”

“Well she can’t come here.”


“What do you mean?” Her response was stern but, to me, pretty much expected. 

“I mean, okay." I glanced around the eggshell-colored walls and the nearby door frame with paint chipped off, "I’ll stay here for Thanksgiving. Of course I’m not gonna leave her alone. That would be horrible.”

“I don’t mean that we don’t want to see you for Thanksgiving. Your brothers ask about you. They're expecting you.”

That was probably an overstatement. Still, I missed my brothers and it was possible they weren't too busy to miss me at least for our card games. 

“I’ve written them letters,” I replied. The rationalization sounded a bit weak. 

“That’s not the same thing.”

I re-considered for a moment. In fact, I'd thought about the possible scenarios before the phone call. 
"Well, I can't afford a hotel." I'd foreseen the direction of the conversation enough to consult my bank statements. I'd also asked everyone who knew the Gaithersburg area hotels. The cheapest available were thirty bucks a night. I could afford one night. That wasn't enough to justify driving down to Maryland for Thanksgiving. 

"I'll write a letter explaining everything," I said.


"Tomorrow." It couldn't be tonight because I was taking my girlfriend out to a one-dollar movie.

The next day, a Saturday, the phone rang in the hall. Of course, I never picked it up until seven rings had passed, which my hallmates were delightful about. (They sort of actually were.) At any rate, one of them walked over to let me know it was for me.

"Hey, mom."

"She's really from Mexico and Denmark? And you're bringing her home to meet us?"


"All right, then."


Sunday, April 23, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 302: Never Mind


Once upon a workday dreary, as I fumbled, tired and bleary,
Over many a slide and colored spreadsheet of financial kind,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a rapping,
A fool with untied shoes a-flapping, a sound so soft but misaligned.
“It’s the Fedex guy,” I muttered, “A teen with music unrefined,
Barely words and half a mind.”

Distinctly, I remember it was in that warm September
And every sharp and lying member of the board had underlined
The projects they had mired -- schemes they said that they desired
But when the costs had come, perspired or retired from the daily grind, 
Too faint to bear the price for programs they let fall behind.
Nameless blame is what they find.

And the dreaded thought that sticks in, there's my boss, an elder vixen, 
Fresh from ruined plans that even she cannot rewind,
And I shudder should she blame me or, even worse, just share her mind.
"It's a visitor," I mumbled, "with a package that needs signed.
Or a stranger beered and wined, arriving drunk
Or simply rushed and misassigned."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, all my work you've undermined
When so faintly you came peeking, seeking for the undersigned.
Well, I'm not the one." I yanked the door and looked behind;
Of callers there were none to find.

Deep into the hallway peering, I stood there twenty seconds fearing 
That my boss would any second snatch me, in her grasp be porcupined
By fingernails that blood red guttered, stabbed by conscience quite uncluttered
But then a single phrase was uttered, the whispered words, "I've lost my mind."
This I muttered and an echo later stuttered, "My mind."
Merely this, my doubts enshrined.

Back into my office turning, all my acids in me churning,
Soon again I heard a rapping like before remind.
"Come now," said I, "only a few dollars pray for, it could be my office neighbor
and all he wants is me to pay for cookies of the minty kind.
He has a girl scout child, he says, and guilts me till my heart is burning.
There's no pocket he's not mined."

Open, then, I flung the portal. Before me stood a chubby mortal
With coffee cup and jelly pastry, which upon he neatly dined.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, strode dignified yet worldly blind
Almost sightless but for glasses of the thickest kind.
On my chair he perched his stately, wide behind.

Then this birdbrain sat there, smiling, my thin patience he was filing
Under H for 'have none,' though he himself could calmness find.
"Though your beard be shaved to goatee, and you sit like Zen devotee,
I have work to do and cannot rest," said I, "no matter how I pined
For peace or cash reward, in hope or sorrow letting earthly pleasures bind."
Then quoth the buddha, "Nevermind."

"Those rewards are dust already," said the voice with hands so steady
And dismissed Samsara's pleasures with a gesture he'd long since refined.
Although his fingers flew like a pidgeon, of coffee he spilled not a smidgeon.
Simple wrong and right had ages past been well defined
And now this office drone could too simply true Nirvana find
With such a phrase as, "Nevermind."

So the buddha murmured lightly and tried my patience most politely
With one word, as if his soul in that one word defined
How my work habits were pathetic compared to his 'at peace' aesthetic.
His buttoned shirt was collar open and most distinctly pinstriped lined
As he to my colored spreadsheet pointed and then he much maligned
With coffee breath of, "Nevermind."

"Look now, Bob or Bill or Buddha, your advice is stinky gouda.
I can't solve my office headaches with a 'Nevermind.'"
Hands on hips, I faced this fellow, whom I saw as over-mellow
Or maybe just too yellow-bellied for the office grind.
His refrain is oft repeated by those workers unrefined
Who live whole lives of "Nevermind."

Startled, no, he was far from it; his calm had not yet reached its summit.
I tapped my foot and tried to plumb it while, with both mouth and hands, he signed,
"It's a spreadsheet from a torture master. There's no saving this disaster.
So take it from a still-hardworking bum who wants to save mankind.
Do your greatest deeds for those whose souls have shined
And all the rest, just nevermind."

So the guru, quite beguiling, clicked the keys for standard styling
And said the members of the board could kiss his fat behind.
The smart ones, they would hardly need it. The others wouldn't even read it.
Those members were among the brightest apes in humankind
And some agreed with, "Nevermind."

"What work, then?" I asked my censor. He gave a look like I were denser
Than he expected, his one eyebrow high or misaligned.
“Someone has a moral disorder if they give the same weight to every order.
This you know, and to this project you were not inclined
While on others, you seized the moment, and made them self-assigned. 

You’ve hesitated over wrongful asks and mentally, you triaged your tasks.
You don’t blindly do each one in the sequence that your boss outlined.
Not each list done just to the letter, you sense who is the moral debtor.
You judge astutely and then you mutely promote the best one better.
That’s why your deeds sometimes have shined.
And I thank you for being kind.

It’s why some days feel like outtakes and this project gave you headaches.
In everything you do, intent and results get intertwined.
This task was simply taking longer because in your mind it felt wronger
Than all the others for this past month combined. 
A better project makes you stronger
While a stupid one leaves you disinclined.
And you need to say then, ‘Nevermind.’”

"And now away!" The buddha smiled with arms upraised.

“There’s no shadow you should lurk in when you know I’ll turn the work in.
Everything done was once important and all undone can be declined.
Save your soul and flee the yuppies. Go make some soup. Go hug your puppies.
Take yourself home to let the tensions unwind. 
Or wind yourself up and play with all the friends you find. 
Just don’t get worn down by the grind.”

Minutes later, I left my department and headed for my dark apartment. 
As I walked alone, dealing with the details of the bleak remind,
I stalked again the paths I’d strayed, re-lived the mistakes I’d made
And reflected on how in samsara's tentactles I’d been serpentined.
My footsteps halted.
I glanced into the lighted window of my mind. 

And the buddha, as is fitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
Near my office in his beanbag chair reclined
And his eyes have all the seeming of the Om of holy dreaming
And he's beaming, simply beaming, with a joy that's been refined
By laziness of work and laughter intertwined.
And all that's needless, nevermind.

  -- Eric Gallagher

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 301: Biomythography - Note 51, Command Line of Doom

Biomythography, Note 51

Command Line of Doom

Sunlight had started to turn amber through our back window. The playground behind our townhouse still looked bright enough to play in. My son stared at it from his highchair. He banged his spoon on his plate.

Next to our dining area, the phone hung on the wall. Its handset was beige and cheap. It was sturdy. But I never answered it. I hadn't answered a call in years. When it rang as we were sitting down, Diane diverted from the path to her seat to pick it up. After a moment, she handed it to me.

"It's Adam," she said.

I put a sippy cup in my child's hand and rose from the dinner table.

"I've got a problem," Adam said on the other end. "I thought I'd share."

"What is it?" I kind of liked having problems to solve. Adam knew that although, really, he liked solving things too, so he didn't always share. 

"The Usenet server crashed."

"Yeah?" That was awfully fast. I did some counting on the calendar page next to the phone and saw we hadn't gone a full three weeks since we installed the node. Of course, I understood Usenet services had changed from 1991 when I'd first gotten to know them. The main thing was, the Eternal September had taken place.

During Eternal September, which began in the fall of 1993, Internet service providers started offering Usenet access to everyone who asked. That included Adam and me as of last month. But the explosion of nodes everywhere around the country, actually across the world, changed Usenet. The Usenet threads had been channels for semi-private chats involving professional academics. Now computer hobbyists and various other professionals were getting involved. In 1994, the AOL service decided to open a Usenet gateway, too. That added even more non-academics.

Everything was faster, bigger. Different.

"The stipend for the job was pretty good." Adam's voice took on a tone I recognized as leading into a set of logical statements.

"Yeah." It was true. I waited for his logic.

"I figure it should cover a session of troubleshooting."

Crap, that seemed reasonable. I didn't want to travel from Frederick to DC again but I was nodding even before he finished his sentence. I'd left the Usenet node running in fine shape. But maybe I'd created some sort of problem with my vanilla configuration. It was possible. Maybe I'd programmed the server to crash in some slow, non-obvious way.

"Okay," I sighed.

Since his office felt the situation was urgent, I agreed to report on Saturday morning. We made the same driving arrangements as before. After I got to Adam's place in Gaithersburg, we hopped into his car and he took us the rest of the way.

Once again, his offices looked dark but somewhat comfortable and well-used. We flipped on the lights. While Adam took care of other business, something about a color printer, I sat myself at the Usenet server. It didn't take much time to figure out what was wrong. The process table showed a bunch of necessary programs were missing including the Usenet service. Also, some of my commands to the server didn't work. Anything I ran that created a file seemed to fail. I checked the disks,

$ df -k

and read the usage report.

"The disk is full," I called to Adam. "Like, it's completely, one hundred percent full."

"Huh, well." The tone of his voice, even at a distance, told me Adam had suspected as much. "I know you said to keep an eye on it."

"Did you?"

"I was busy." His voice got testy. He stalked from desk to desk. Something was wrong with the office printer and he wasn't having a straightforward time with it. "This is where I work. I have other jobs." 

My fingers rested on the keyboard of the little Linux server.

"Yeah, but it's not just like you're supposed to keep watching and deleting whenever you notice it's getting full. You have to filter it. You have to edit the configuration files."

"Well, I don't know how to do that."

"You watched me do it. We wrote out notes."

He remained silent for almost half a minute. He shrugged.

"Okay," I said, doing math on a scrap of paper. "You've got seventeen days of the entire Usenet. That's the limit for this storage. The machine has got 180 megabytes of hard disk. Your real limit, one that gives you room for swap space, needs to be less than seventeen days. If you want decent swap space, I say you should keep ten days without any other filter setting except timestamps."

"Well, I had to buy all three machines the same."

"Yeah, but that means this is what you've got. One hundred eighty megs, unless you put in another disk. You can keep all the Usenet threads for a little while, but not for very long. Or you can filter out some of them and make the storage last for a month. But you can't keep all of the Usenet traffic forever."

"From what my boss has been saying, he wants at least three weeks."

His boss had business reasons, I figured. I started running directory usage summaries and doing the math.

$ cd comp
$ du -h
$ du -h ./graphics
$ pwd
$ cd ..
$ cd alt
$ du -h

After a few minutes, the pattern of Usenet history began to emerge. I understood which threads used up most of the storage. I could see there wasn't much in the science directory tree besides a scattering of text files. The scientists at various research sites around the country were holding discussions but they weren't sharing microscope images or anything with large binaries to take up space on a disk.

"Do you know what threads you want to keep?" I called to Adam. When we'd configured it, he hadn't.

"Yeah." He wandered closer with a toner canister in his hands. "I think I do."

"Okay, then, I can tell you where most of the payoff is going to be. We can delete the big directories you don't need to save. And I can set up any filters you tell me."

Finally, his expression eased into a tentative smile.

"My boss probably wants to leave the social discussions and the talk threads about nuclear disarmament."

"Those are easy. They don't take up much room." I ran a du -h on the talk directory to make sure. It reported about what I expected, 9M of data, all of it in text files on the various threads. The same was sort of true with the computer discussion threads except in some of them, like /usr/local/bin/usenet/comp/graphics, people sent image files sizable enough that it would help to delete them. But Adam wanted to keep the graphics.

"That's the best part," he said.

"You know, I have to set up the filters for what to save. But really I'm asking what I can delete. If I can't delete I need to know what other big folders I can blow away."

"Let me see." He pulled up a chair next to me. When he launched into what to save, I tried to bring up a file editor for the Usenet configuration file. 

"Wait!" I raised my right hand. "Wait, wait, wait. I have to make room on the disk first. Deletions. I need some, at least. I can't edit the configuration until I blow away some Usenet files."

"Well, don't remove the stuff I want."

I checked what I was doing. I'd lost track for a moment. 

$ pwd

Somehow I'd ended up in the wrong directory. That happened all the time in the vanilla installation of Slackware. There was no customization of the command line prompt. Soon I got back to where I needed to be, though, and talked with Adam about the sizes of files, folders, and the details of the usenet directory structure.

$ cd /usr/local/bin/usenet

When I'd deleted enough files, I edited the configuration while Adam watched. He had to make decisions about what discussions his office wanted to participate in. He let me put a three week timer on the files, too. It was an option in the configuration he hadn't wanted to exercise before. With the decision made, though, whenever he wanted to archive a thread for his boss or a set of graphics files for himself, he would have to make the decision within twenty-one days. After that, the usenet service timer would purge the files and they'd be lost.

I had to go back and forth between changing directories, running pwd to make sure I was in the right place, and running rm -rf * for a long time.

$ cd /usr/local/bin/usenet/comp/VMS
$ rm -rf *
$ cd ..
$ cd lang
$ rm -rf *
$ cd ..
$ cd sys
$ rm -rf *

Adam's business wanted to save particular parts of the file trees. That meant I had to individually run recursive deletions in multiple spots. Each time I wrote 'rm -rf' I told the computer to remove files with the -r flag for doing it recursively (everything I specified and everything in the further along the directory path, too) and the -f flag (for 'force,' meaning I didn't want to get asked every time for ten thousand times about whether I wanted to delete something). Basically, I was telling the system to shut up and delete what I said.

Finally, after some negotiation, Adam decided could go. There was a ton of space used by the directory for it, so when I told it to delete, nothing happened for a while.

"How long is this going to take?" Adam asked. He'd been watching me for half an hour or more. He had wandered off and wandered back, too, announcing he'd fixed the printer. For at least twenty minutes, he'd done nothing with his hands. 

"A while." I'd already done the math in my head. At the rate the disk could clean itself up, the big deletions would take an hour.

"What does it take to fire up Doom?" Adam wondered.

"We'd have to play on the other two machines," I pointed out.

"So? There are two of us."

I scooted over to the web server, logged in, and ran,

$ cd /usr/local/bin
$ pwd
$ ./doom -net
Adam laughed as he got it running on the mail server, too. Soon, we were each at our console and dashing around in the game arena. We blasted the hell out of each other with bazookas. Every now and then, after I killed Adam or I died, I'd hop up and run to the Usenet machine to blow away another directory.

After twenty minutes between deletions (I'd found a good sniper spot and crushed Adam for a while, both of us laughing because he couldn't take two steps), I dashed back to the Usenet server. Oddly, the drive light was flashing. The command prompt hadn't returned from my previous command, either.

I hit a CTRL-C to stop the removal. Then I ran a pwd.


"Oh, shit."

"What's wrong?" Adam said.

I didn't answer right away. I was surveying the damage. My recursive deletion had been running without interruption on the main Usenet folder. I had been deleting everything in Usenet. Everything. Including all the stuff his boss wanted to save. Maybe. Probably.

"Sorry, man." I showed him the remaining folders. I tried to explain what had happened. Fortunately, the recursive deletions had gotten stuck in the alt folder, where there was too much to remove in twenty minutes. The routine had removed most of alt.binaries, though, something Adam had wanted to keep.

"It's all really gone?" Adam asked.

"Yeah, really. Until I fire up the server again, those folders will be empty."

He sighed. A moment later, he shrugged.

"Oh well."

"Your boss won't be mad?"

"Yeah, but no," He gave a sardonic smile. "He won't be mad at me. He'll be mad at the consultant."

Hey, that was me. "Why?"

"I'll just tell him you made the decision. It's not like you'll ever see him"

"Oh." Well, that was that. "True."

"I meant to do that," I added and Adam mouthed it at the same time. The Pee-Wee Herman show had been off the air for a couple of years but every now and then, he referenced it like a pop culture reflex. I'd developed my pop reflexes from him. It was no surprise to find him anticipating my use of the phrase. 

"Is there any directory left to blow away?" he asked. 

"A couple. The religion tree and the fido tree might as well go."

"Start on those. Then let's play some more Doom."

$ rm -rf *

A few seconds later, on a different window of the same computer, I typed, 
$ ./doom -net


Sunday, April 9, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 300: Biomythography - Note 50, Harbingers of Doom

Biomythography, Note 50

Harbingers of Doom

"How do you feel about a consulting gig?"

I'd just picked up my office phone at Hood College. Those words were the first Adam said to me after 'hello.'
Both of us had taken side jobs before and we'd talked about getting more of them. It was more often a theoretical concept, though. We wanted extra work because neither of us were making enough. We needed money to feed the kids and the mortgages. But we were busy with our main jobs, too. Looking for other activities took more time than usually we had. His invitation to hustle as a consultant seemed alarmingly sudden. At the same time, I appreciated how he was getting right down to business.

"What's the deal?" I asked. My gaze wandered around my darkened room in the server center. I imagined where Adam was, he had gotten a non-profit connection to a tedious art task, or a session of cable-pulling to network computers together with Novell, or maybe a writing assignment no one else wanted.

"I want to get Usenet into my office," he said. "And email. And a web server."

This was going to be totally different than I thought. Huh.
"That's a pretty big project. And it's in your own office?" He was talking about three sizable setup plans. I'd built a few web servers at a time when hardly anyone had done it. Folks were just getting to know what the 'web' was. On the other hand, I hadn't configured a mail server beyond setting up auto-forwarding services.

A couple of times I'd gone into mail configuration files far enough to edit lines of shell code, TPU code, or the Pine setup parameters. That's as far as I'd gone. Those straightforward servers and clients came packaged with distributions, so my configuration skills with them could be, and were, primitive. We would have a home territory advantage in Adam's office, of course. But anything we screwed up would be more visible there, too. I worried I might create a mail configuration that didn't route.

"You won't have to specialize the setups. The mail server and web server are for me to play with. You just need to install three Linux machines to use as servers."

I'd already installed Slackware for myself on a PC compatible machine. It was great, way easier than Digital Unix or AIX. I knew Slackware would be perfect.

"Okay, I have a plan," I replied.

"Good." He took a breath. "You haven't asked about the money."

"Yeah." That was the down side. I figured Adam would want a special deal, hours or days of work as a favor.
"It's fifteen hundred dollars." Adam interrupted my thoughts. "I told them your rate was five hundred per server. And they went for it."

There was silence on the phone line for a moment because I didn't know how to respond. Adam waited for me to speak. The pores on my skin opened up in preparation for a session of nervous sweat. This was too lucky to be reasonable. Adam had cut a good deal. So there had to be something unsaid, something wrong. If there wasn't some element in this already steering us to disaster, we would be doomed for some other reason, some factor we hadn't considered.
"What about your ISP connection?" I asked, looking for the hidden harbinger of doom.

"I've already made a deal. I'll have to do the TACACS setup with them but we have a connection upstream."

"I configured TACACS for Hood College."

"I know," he replied, sounding exasperated. "You told me. But the ISP wants this done a certain way. I've committed to doing it with them. I'll call you if I need help."

He probably wouldn't need help. I wondered if I'd really have anything to do. It didn't seem enough to provide the basic Slackware Linux.

In 1994, personal computer hardware kits were starting to come with CD drives. But they weren't standard. When I asked Adam, he wasn't sure he could get his company to spend extra for the fancy drives. After all, the three servers would sit in closets, maybe with no monitors. They would never display media to anyone at the console. The CD drives in them would mostly go to waste. So I prepared a Slackware machine image on 3.5 inch floppy disks. The basic installation files took up twenty floppies. The number climbed higher with the optional driver disks. I didn't want to skip any.

With color-coded labels, I built my collection. My paranoia kicked in. I wanted to arrive with every possible hardware driver for Linux I could bring. All of them in existence, maybe. Non-standard hardware was the toughest part of installing Linux in 1995. At the time, even mainstream companies made personal computers with weird network cards or embedded graphics modules that made it impossible to find a driver anywhere except at the vendor. And the vendors never made Linux drivers. I'd always wanted to write a hardware driver, sure, but not during an installation job.

In the weeks leading up to the configuration and launch weekend, I got nervous and made an extra set of Slackware installation disks. I located more Linux drivers and made more sets of installation files. Plenty of times, I'd heard Adam say, "I know a guy." This was probably the first time I'd been the guy.

When the day arrived, I drove from Frederick to Gaithersburg to pick up Adam.
"I'll drive to my office," he said as he ate at his dining room table. Although I knew I would get carsick in the passenger seat, I agreed. After all, the place was in downtown D.C. On my own, I'd get lost or pay three times what I should for parking.
I started feeling better after a few minutes in the semi-dark, lonely offices. The place had a careless air of comfort. Plus, I had my plans about what to do. When I asked Adam questions, I had in mind particular steps in a particular order for my plans. To my relief, the steps we'd discussed in kind of an offhand way before made sense to Adam when I got into the details. He had his own set of plans around the hardware, the network, and the timing of the configurations. Our ideas seemed to fit together perfectly. When I started the first server installation, which was agreed would be Usenet, Adam was by my side handing me disks.

"We could do this in half the time if I start using your second set of installation disks on the mail server," he observed. And it was true. So we proceeded to cycle through the Slackware steps, each of us shouting the disk numbers across the office or trading disks as necessary. The hitches I expected to run into, like the driver choices, arose. But, time after time, we got through them. During the first installation, I was able to pick the most generic drivers or look up the hardware specifications to find a close match. There was only one device driver, the one for network cards, where I had to guess. I guessed right.

After that, all we had to do was duplicate the installation process for the web server. As I finished the third computer, Adam verified his TACACS configuration steps. I pinged his mail server from the web server. I pinged the Usenet server. So far, we had spent ninety minutes.

The hourly rate looked amazing.

"The mail server doesn't quite look like it should," said Adam. He checked the instructions with his Internet provider. As it turned out, I knew what to do to make Linux behave the way he needed.

Then, while he tested his mail, I configured the web server, a piece of cake since I'd done it a half-dozen times before. Finally, Usenet. Once I was running the Usenet service, though, I found the easiest setting was to let it grab every thread it could find from an upstream server.

"Yeah, that's fine," Adam concluded at the end of our Usenet discussion. "I'll decide what parts to eliminate later. The main thing is to start grabbing it. Is it really working?"

I could see it chugging away in the process table but I understood the sight wasn't enough. For Adam, I navigated into the Usenet directory tree and showed him the files and folders it was creating.

"Nice." He let out a sigh. He walked back to the last machine he'd been working on, the mail computer. His fingers rested on top. "How fast do you think these machines are, anyway."

"Brand new." I knew he understood the specs. He'd bought them. "As fast as you can get in personal computers, really."

"I think we should load test the servers."

"What does that mean?"
He was smiling. I knew I'd missed a hint.

"Did you bring the game disks I mentioned?"

"Oh, yeah." He meant the free version of Doom. I pulled out a separate box of floppy disks and waved it. He laughed and nodded. I repeated, "Oh."

He chuckled again.


For another twenty minutes, we loaded Doom as a team, cycling through disks in the same way we'd done before with the more serious work. I felt giddy. The amount of money involved had made the stakes seem overwhelming. Server configuration and minor bits of coding were the kinds of things I did at work every day. But I'd never had this rate of pay.

In my mind, this was a scam. The company was willing to pay me. I was willing to take their money. That was the scam. But it was the sort of scam where I pretended to do the work and actually did it. And they pretended to pay me and actually paid me.

If I could pretend to work well enough, I would never get caught.

"Yes!" Adam shouted as we fired up the first copy of Doom and got the welcome screen, a fiery background with a fighter in greenish. Behind the fighter loomed the dramatic DOOM logo. In front of the entire set of graphics, the computer presented us with a menu: New Game, Load Game, Save Game, Options.

"Can you make yours be the server?" Adam called. "I'm almost done. Then I'll try to join."

I had meant to run Doom on Slackware before this but I never had. There were so many non-Linux machines around, I had always grabbed a DOS or Windows computer to play games. This time, I switched the Slackware version of Doom into server mode. It worked great.

We made sure the computers were fast. Extra sure, maybe. After we spent an hour shooting each other with bazookas, Adam leaned back in his chair. He let out a satisfied sigh and announced, “The network is fine. And the servers are fast."

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 299: Biomythography - Note 49, Deliberate Awe

Biomythography 49

Deliberate Awe 
On a mountain trail in West Virginia, I hiked, tired and slow. After a while, I stopped at a turn. I noticed a pair of eyes on me. I pivoted toward them. And I saw the gaze belonged to a stag. It was taller than me by half, at least. Its antlers were wide and pointed. The beast regarded me with a sense of calm evaluation. For a moment, we stared and waited for each other to move. The stag turned and walked on.

And I decided to remember. 


I sighed and turned the steering wheel. I'd been working my day job, taking contract work, and teaching college courses. I was returning home later than I wanted from the college gig. When I reached my development only a few yards off route 194, I circled the court. All the spaces were full. I had to park in the row of trade vehicles a block away. 

My back hurt from the cramped seat. My eyes hurt from the drive. When I'd started for home, my brain felt fine because teaching is fine, but the commute and the late hour had rendered me foggy. I'd spent part of the drive cursing myself for missing storytime with the kids. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe. The harder I worked, though, the more I missed out on time with the kids.

I had writing to do before I slept. There was a lot on my mind. As I parked my car, I glanced up. 

A bright, reddish streak filled an inch or two of night sky. Amazingly, the fiery object broke up into three pieces. I knew right then I'd seen a meteor explode as it burned up.

"Wow." For a moment, I turned the motor off and sat. When would that happen again? I had seen hundreds of meteors in the sky as a child and not one of them got close enough to have the vivid red color this one did. None of them were big enough or close enough for me to see their disintegration. The previous ones had all winked out like shooting stars usually do.

I yawned. Already, as I tried to remember the look of the meteor, it was fading. My memory was a blur.

As I hefted my tired body out of the car, I considered how quickly I was forgetting these things that once seemed worthwhile. This time, I was going to lose the memory of a rare event because I was too sleepy and mentally preoccupied.

I stood up straighter. With deliberate care, I woke my body and mind. I turned to face the spot in the sky where I had seen the meteor crack into ruddy streaks of light. I re-woke the memory. I tried to fix it in my mind forever.

The effort sort of worked.

Between my training in awareness and my maintaining the influence of an old friend, Kate, I felt a good and possibly correct difference take place. I sensed my possibility of retaining the memory. My brain was shifting it from short-term to long-term or whatever was going on.


I looked up from my Blackberry. In theory, I was walking to take a break from work. In practice, I was working from my phone on a trail near my office building. The way it often went is I'd answer an email, stroll a few yards between the trees, and notice the prompt of another email. After one of them, I glanced up. 

For a moment, I wasn't sure why I felt a difference. I waited in the shadows of the maple and mulberry trees. My gaze moved to a gap between the leaves and the natural wall of bamboo. There, I could see the brightness of the noontime sun on the far shore of the retention pond. 

The pond caught rainwater drainage from artificial hillocks created with the office buildings. Even the basements of the buildings were uphill from me, here. So it's possible the pond was required by local flood or drainage standards but the property owners had gone one better and tried to make it into a miniature nature reserve. For sure, someone had stocked the lonely pond. Hidden pipes aerated it like a large, goopy fish tank. A few times, I'd noticed frog eggs on the shores of the green darkness. Geese visited the waterside and made their homes. Ducks did likewise. 

A sign warned passers-by not to disturb the ducks. From the tales of office workers around me, though, it might as well have said, don't get attacked by geese. Although they had never bothered me, I sometimes paused to let geese pass or waited for them to understand I wasn't approaching their nest. 

Something was odd about the geese, this time. Through my window into the pond, I could see they had all moved to one shore. A glance to the opposite side showed me why. 

On the bank where I suspected the drainage designers hid an aerator stood an animal I'd never seen before. It was a bird with light, bluish grey feathers. The head bore a mark like a bandit mask, dark grey or black. When it lifted its neck, the creature looked at least five feet tall. 

Its beak was long and pointed. Dangerous. But it didn't have eyes for me. It was focused on the geese. The geese, for their part, formerly the terrorists of the pond, were looking the other way, not even catching the gaze of one another, just strolling back and forth aimlessly as if they couldn't acknowledge this thing had kicked them out of their home. 

Later, I found out what it was. For the first time in my life, I had seen a great blue heron. 


We'd ridden less than a mile in the Arizona desert. My hand held the reins of my roan horse, Django. I was patting the gelding's neck and paying attention to him. I wanted to ensure we got used to each other early in the day. Django loped carefully between rows of cactus. He didn't want stabbed by them. Neither did I.

Around me, I saw baked, hard ground when I spared my attention to it. I noticed yellow brittlebushes and a few tiny, desert chicory flowers. An Arizonan friend, Carol, rode ahead next to our tour guide. Carol gestured to the herbs and bushes. She knew the names the local life. Among the rocks and tough soil, she pointed out barrel cactus, prickly pear, ocotillo, and saguaro. We passed a pair of mesquite shrubs, stunted and dried out, and a thriving greenstick tree.

"Is that ...?" Our guide turned sideways in her saddle. She squinted against the angle of the sun.

I raised my head. She shielded her eyes and nodded at something not too distant, maybe thirty yards away. 

"Is that a coyote?" She leaned to her fellow tour guide. The other girl’s mouth fell open.

As the others followed her line of sight, I did as well and ended up staring at a tall saguaro. I didn’t see what they did, at first. The brown shape lay in the shadow at the base of the big cactus. Its body blended into the dirt and the background of a dry buckhorn cholla.

“Are we okay?” asked the younger girl. 

"We'll, we're on horses." The senior guide gave her companion a wry look. In fact, we had passed the coyote by on horseback. We must have come within a dozen yards. It hadn't moved.
The coyote rested in the shade, not quite motionless but not concerned with us either. We would have had to make the horses ride through cactuses to approach. 

“Let’s go,” said the guide. She had a schedule to keep.

Some people say a coyote is basically just a dog. In my experience, yes, it is. It's a nice looking dog. Smart. A wild sort of animal but at least right then, it was not very wild looking.

High overhead, dark winged figures shifted back and forth in the sky. Behind them I saw the blue backdrop of a clear, open sky. Occasionally, one of the predatory birds drifted in front of the tall butte of rocks that everyone called the Devils Tower.

We had come to Wyoming by driving from place to place, traveling on the cheap to see what we could. As I glanced up, I was standing in a crossroads of nature trails at the base of Devils Tower. The easy trails were populated by drivers like us who had gotten out to walk. The harder, higher, or more remote trails were nearly empty as far as I could tell, except for one, where a group of mountain climbers was gathering near the base. They had layed out equipment and nylon ropes on the stones.

After I looked up, I found it hard to stop watching the sky. Seven or eight of the birds looked like vultures to me. I'd seen plenty. One of the avian forms, though, looked different from the rest. Its wingspan had a more pointed shape. The sun filtered around the feathery edges differently. Its head was white, I guessed, although it was hard to tell from a couple hundred feet below.

The exceptional bird and the vultures danced in the air. The vultures had numbers on their side but they seemed wary of the stranger among them. After a few minutes, I understood. The other predator flying near the top of the butte was an eagle. The eagle flew differently than any vulture, despite how their wings and bodies were roughly the same size. 

My wife beckoned me to follow her across a strand of tumbled rocks. My attention returned to the trail. We followed the path widdershins and uphill. Around a bend, my wife stopped to point.

"Eagles," she said. She gestured to a tall pine tree. I counted nine eagles in the tree and four in the diseased pine next to it. None of them glanced our way.

As I crouched down, I made out the print on the ground more clearly. It lay partly in the summer snow, pebbly and off-white, partly in the layer of grayish mud beneath. This print came from a cat. It was a cat too big to be domestic, not that we were likely to find any of that variety this high up. It was also too small to be a cougar, or so I judged.

We'd gotten here by driving up Blue Mountain in the twilight dark. The journey had turned out to be its own adventure. Diane had grabbed my shoulder along the way as the road narrowed and she caught a glimpse of the path ahead. The mountain pass turned into a roller coaster, the kind of ride that slants toward the ground as if to throw you off. In this case, the slopes of the road led to falls from sheer cliffs. You wouldn't want to be in a car that skidded. There was no rail, no border of any sort, just dirt that dribbled away from the tires and bounced down the slopes into the treetops a hundred feet down. 

After a long hour of switchbacks and crumbling gully-filled gravel and dirt, we arrived at the base of the Blue Mountain trails. And then, after a hike to the peak, we found this cat paw print. 

"It's pretty big." I rose, hands on my hips, and considered. I turned to Diane. "Is there anything for a cat this size to eat?" 

"Squirrels and chipmunks. I saw plenty on the drive up."

So it wasn't a hallucination. It was a bobcat. Of course, I would never see the actual animal. Cats were too clever and quiet. I knelt and touched the edge of the print. 

I'm old. Yet it's not hard to feel awe at the most mundane of things. I'm collecting all these natural wonders together into one description because isn't finding our sense of awe somewhat repetitious? Each person, animal, and object around us inspires awe when we think about them. 

Aren't these incidents all basically the same?

No. Every awe has its own flavor. 

Every moment is different. 

Sunday, March 26, 2023

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

Biomythography 48

Observing, Appreciating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2023

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

Biomythography 47

Breathing and Observation

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you do it a lot?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Two hours," I sighed. 

"How long has it been so far?"

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I rolled down the window some more. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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