Sunday, January 29, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 289: Biomythography - Note 41, Hating to Sing, Part I

Biomythography 41

Hating to Sing, Part I

When I was nine, I moved myself to the middle of my elementary school chorus. There were twenty-six of us standing on a grey carpet in front of three rows of wooden chairs. Sunlight through the side window made us squint. I máde my spot in the angle of shade given to us by a curtain. I could almost hide in it. But I couldn't sing. When I tried, the sounds came out wrong. I couldn't hold a tune. I hunched low in my school uniform shirt, collar high, head bowed, my voice a sigh. What I wanted most was for the teacher not to notice. My next thought was for Leslie, the girl I liked. I hoped she couldn't hear how I sounded. I tried to keep my distance from her but sometimes she tried to stand next to me.

The most frustrating part was that, two years before, I thought I could sing. When I'd chanted "Coming Round the Mountain" as a seven year old, grown-ups seemed to like it. The music teacher smiled at me, the only boy doing his part at normal volume. I ‘had promise.’ Then things started going wrong. The songs got harder. My voice got inconsistent.

In fifth grade, as part of the inconsistency, I saw I didn’t hurt anyone with "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog." On the other hand, I made the adults in the room wince when I tried "Cherokee Woman." For the school play, I could sort of serenade the audience with "One Tin Soldier." When the next piece came up, I had to mouth the words and whisper. I closed my eyes so I wouldn't see my own terrible acting. 

The worst part was the music teacher giving me looks of exasperation. On more than one occasion, she stopped conducting and stared in my direction with her hands on her hips. She knew I could play this stuff on the piano. She wanted to know why couldn't I sing it. And I had no idea. After a few years of inconsistent hymns and harmonies, I left elementary school behind. That was the end of my performances, a huge relief. No one ever asked me to do it again.

But secretly, I sang anyway. In the woods around my new home, alone and lonely, I wailed aloud to the burbling accompaniment of the creek, the cicadas, the frogs, and the wind through the tree boughs. I used no words for my completely-made-up stuff that was almost-but-not-quite music. Whatever I was doing created enough of a tune to carry my feelings. Sounds came out of my mouth, chants like I later heard from the Ojibwe tribe recordings of Sitting With The Turtle. Bellows poured forth from me, usually at dusk after a hard day. I sang in the deeps of the forest, where no one else could hear the melodies of the clouds, the spirits of the river, the deer, and the fox. No one witnessed my chants about the laughing soul of the crawdad-parts-littering raccoon.

That was the best way to let the feelings out. With no one hearing me.

One night when I was fourteen, I went to bed early, around ten, and woke up at eleven. I knew it was snowing outside. The storm had started at dinner time. I'd lain on the couch by the picture window in the living room and I'd stared up at it. The flakes were huge, bigger than my thumb, and they floated down like a parachute army. I wandered outside and stood without a jacket, gaping at the invading force. I crouched to the surface of the deck and ran my hand across two inches of settled sleet and ice. At the top, the snow felt soft.

The sight of the storm got me too excited to go back to sleep once I'd woken. Maybe I wouldn't have to go to school tomorrow, I thought. Then I could sleep in. For the moment, I could use my free time to read. 

Ninety minutes later, I'd finished my book, finished a stack of comics, and started to pace around my bedroom.  I searched for more reading. I cupped my hands to the glass pane and peered outside my basement window. A sheen of white glowed in the starry darkness. There were eight inches on the ground at least and the descent of the white flakes appeared to be relentless.

I stomped into the closet and pulled on my boots. I threw on my best jacket.

Ten minutes later, I was back inside. I had managed to avoid waking anyone but my clothes hadn't been adequate to the whirling snow. I didn't own a hat. Frozen flakes kept slipping down my neck. Some got under my tight, too-short t-shirt and down my pants. Shockingly, I had blundered into drifts that had gotten nearly two feet deep already, far above the protection of my springtime-ready rubber wading boots. I needed something better.

I loved my jacket. It was fur trimmed like the one Sylvester Stallone had worn in the Rocky movie. I imagined it made me acceptable to other teenagers. But it hung open wide at the collar. Its sleeves were wide, not tapered. It wasn't made for snow. I didn't have anything that was.


In the back of my closet, I found it. I swung everything else to the other end of the clothes rod and stared. My mother had bought this monstrosity out of a catalog. It was a real, genuine winter coat. It had a hood. No one I knew except my parents wore a hood or even a hat. The surface of the thing was nylon or something else plastic-like and shiny, and it was decorated in block-like shades of mustard and baby-poop brown with a sort of orangish trim. It came with thick, nylon mittens. Mittens. For adults. The surface was seamless.

I ran my right hand over it and felt its thickness.

No one would see me, I told myself. I would be in the dark, alone. I repeated the thought. Because I had to get out in the storm. I had to feel it around me.

A half-hour later, I was a mile away down by the creek. I was trying my best to get lost amidst the swirls of white-out snow, tromping in my double layer of wool socks, wading boots, extra jeans, two t-shirts, and the abominable snowman knock-off brand coat that draped down to the middle of my thighs in the most socially awkward way possible. I wore the hood I'd been sure no one would ever use pulled up over my head and tied down with brown nylon straps. I would have forgotten about what I was wearing except, every so often, I paused and found myself amazed to feel so comfortable. I hadn't known this was possible.

I'd already twice laid down in the snow just to be there. The unfashionable mittens felt better than the rest and put me in awe of how much better they were than my usual gloves. The hideous outfit was perfect. The forest was dark under the trees, though. If it weren't for the luminous, white carpet everywhere I'd have found it hard to navigate. 

As it was, I knew too well where every tree, every fallen branch, every stump, and every hidden rock lay. When I stepped on a random drift, I knew what depth of fallen leaves to expect in the crunch beneath. When I wandered out onto the rocks along the rapids, I knew the crayfish homes in the slow-moving pools and could study them by starlight. I stepped onto a snow-covered rivulet and laughed when my boot sunk into the frozen muck. It confirmed what I knew about the ugly world.

At one point, I got mad, I think because I was fourteen, and I started throwing snowballs at trees, turning over rocks, and breaking apart dead branches about the thickness of my arm but rotten. 

The forest remained quiet except for the hiss of falling snow. Every sound I made, every move, every grinding step echoed across the hard surface of the world. The defective log bark crumbled like mold in my hands. The wood crackled wetly as I bashed it apart. I got tired. I wandered closer to the creek. There, I sat on a rock overlooking the rushing water.

After a while, I began to sing.

The sounds came low and slow. I crooned a summons to the deer and the fox. I called to the raccoons who kept leaving their shellfish trash, to the one in particular I'd glimpsed, chubby and fast through the blackberries and underbrush. I chanted to the trees and hummed to the water. Five minutes was a long time to say anything out loud when I was fourteen. But when I paused, I became aware of some part of nature, a hiding animal or some other presence far off, listening. I sang again to reach those distant ears. Ten minutes, twenty, all slow and sad. And comforting. I knew the presence didn't want me to approach. But it was curious and paying me a sleepy sort of attention.

The snow that had started with the sunset continued to fall with flakes like quarters, like half-dollars, inch after inch, a blizzard somewhere else but not here in the forest, where there was no wind. The miles of treetops had reduced an awesome force of the world to a gentle spiral from above. I leaned back and sang to the twirling dust-devil that was dizzying itself down to me, to the bare tree branches, to the spirits of life and near-life.

There were no words. My voice gentled the loudness of the blizzard, the crackling of the millions of icy flakes hitting the forest floor cover. It harmonized to the creek racing along through the quick shallows, to the stray eddies of wind in the clearings, the tired brambles, the sleeping vines, the struggling willow tree on the riverbank, the pushy oaks knocking everything else over and jostling against each other. The crawfish tried to hide. But I sang to the distant presence, to the part that listened.

The world was perfect. It always was. I was the only imperfection. But no other human being could hear me. And I sang.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 288: Biomythography - Note 40, When Encryption Was Illegal

Biomythography 40

Encryption Was Illegal, Punk

In the summer when I was sixteen, I made a friend lifeguarding at Williamsburg Square. His name was Adam. 

On the first day, we discovered we had a similar love for punk and new wave music. But we came from different backgrounds and knew different stuff about it. I had only mix tapes from the radio, where I had found WHFS playing songs by Bad Brains, Root Boy Slim, The Ramones, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, and The Nighthawks. My recording quality was terrible. Adam had a paid-for collection, No Wave, with two songs I'd heard from Joe Jackson and the Stranglers but mostly it had tunes by bands I'd never heard before like The Police, Klark Kent, and U.K. Squeeze. We listened to Roxanne and Take Me I'm Yours until the other lifeguards screamed at us to stop.

We listened to those after the screaming, too. 

Adam revealed that he attended Gaithersburg High School. He had lots of stories about it. Coincidently, later that summer I discovered I was going to return to public school, probably at Seneca Valley. That meant we were going to attend rival schools. We laughed about it. 

Between the music and the high school stories, we shared job advice. Even though we both had our pool operators licenses and I had been a pool manager, it was illegal for us to be in those types of positions. You had to be eighteen to manage a pool in our county. That’s why we were working as regular lifeguards. We were waiting for the college kids to leave so we could take their jobs.

It was also against the county rules to have food on the deck of our pool, which is why I got nervous when Adam persuaded me to go halves on an extra large pizza. Our manager had taken off. Adam got me to say yes on the basis that we wouldn't get many chances when our managers were gone. So we ordered. The delivery man came. We ate. Against all odds, the county inspector arrived ten minutes later in a county inspection vehicle. Of course, we had no manager. 

We could see the car swing into the lot while we were eating pizza on the deck. Adam started wolfing his half down. I knew I couldn't finish. Nevertheless, Adam went to delay the inspector while I skulked to the back of the pool office and called the pool management company. Their phone rang.

“What should I do with the pizza box?” I asked while the line kept ringing.

“The trashcan.”

“There isn’t one.” There was no food allowed, so there wasn’t a need for one normally. 

“I don’t know," he hissed through a half-closed door. "Stuff it into a skimmer.”

The company didn't answer their office phone. Then I ran out, did a crap job with the box, and dashed back. When the inspector stepped into the guardhouse, I moved forward to talk with him. He demanded our certificates. Adam made his escape, however temporary, and he saw the edge of the pizza box I'd left poking out of the skimmer lid. He applied extra force to solve the problem.

After I delayed as long as I believably could with our paperwork and the chlorine test kit, the inspector pushed by us, clipboard in hand, and berated us for not having a legal pool operator on duty. Then he inspected the pool, testing the pH of the water and opening up the skimmers. 

He opened the first skimmer top easily. He opened the next. Then he stepped up to the one I'd crammed a pizza box into and pulled. The lid wouldn't come up. He grunted. He strained. He put down his test kit and used both hands. He popped the plastic lid off.

"Huh." He peered in. He put in his fingers and swished them around. "Not too bad."

Before he closed it, I strolled closer and peered in. No pizza box. Adam had moved it.

"Well, that's enough of that," said the inspector.

He switched to testing water in different places because we'd passed his first two attempts to find a violation. He never found the skimmer that was full of wet cardboard and crusts. We heaved a sigh of relief, agreed with the inspector that our pool manager was scum, and so was our management company, and so were we, and we agreed to shut down the pool. We waited a while after he left, opened back up, and returned to running everything in the illegal manner that earned us paychecks.

On the topic of job advice, mine to Adam was that being a pool operator was easier than being a lifeguard. Adam's advice was that the company had no damn choice but to make us managers when the college students were gone. And he was right. By the middle of August I was making more money than I ever had, twenty cents above minimum wage.

Even in the early fall, I kept in touch with Adam. I visited his house with my parents' rusty Ranch Wagon and I got acquainted with cereal in bright green, blue, or red boxes, almost all made from candied sugar that stayed crunchy even in milk. I saw bits of weird, new technology around his house. For one thing, Adam had a VCR next to the television. I'd read about them. I'd never seen one before. They weren’t popular enough to be in the news. Nevertheless, Adam’s parents owned a huge, top-loading steel model.

Then there was the TV service itself. Adam didn’t just have VHF and UHF reception and a VCR. His father had put a metallic dish on the roof of their house. He was able to pick up extra channels with it.

"He's just proving a point," Adam said. 

That seemed to be the case. The pictures on the screen were wonky, sometimes weirdly tilted, although I knew Adam could see all sorts of movies I couldn't, so I was impressed anyway. While I was there, I squinted into the occasionally slanted images and watched part of a Clint Eastwood film that had yet to be released to television. Adam got impatient. 

"Let's go," he said. We turned off the set and headed out. I didn't see satellite television again for months.

When I did notice it at Adam's house during one of my late fall visits, the service had changed. The signal from the satellite had been scrambled more effectively. I could see on the screen how the movies had gotten lost in snow. The receiver picked up no sound. I fiddled with the controls for a few minutes. Someone had changed the descrambler box, I thought. I traced the cables from it but I was afraid to move anything. I'd learned that satellites broadcast television signals to subscribers like hotels because the hotels can't get good reception in all rooms without a special carrier like a cable or satellite business. There were lots more subscribers than hotels but for all of them, they needed de-scrambling boxes from the carrier company. The boxes were essential.

“That’s illegal,” Adam’s father commented when he saw me looking at it. I turned. He was a big man with broad shoulders and a belly like a bowling ball. He had a head like one, too. But he was scowling at the equipment, I thought, not at me.

“Getting satellite service for free?” I asked.

“No, that’s goddamn legal." His voice often seemed angry and insistent. This time, though, his index finger got involved as he jabbed the air for emphasis. "They broadcast it everywhere. Anyone is allowed to pick up a signal if they can. That is the way the law works. It's the way radio signals work, too.”

“What's the illegal part then?”

“They're using encryption to scramble the signal. You have to be a subscriber and use the decryption box they give you to get the shows.”

“Scrambling the signal is illegal?” I was pretty sure it had been scrambled during the summer but Adam's family had descrambled it using the electronic hobbyist gear I didn't understand.

“No.” Adam's father got as exact as a physicist, which was appropriate since that was his job. “Every other kind of signal scrambling is legal except for the one they’re using. They're using encryption. And there is a law in the books that says only the military is allowed to do that.”

At the time, I had to take his word for it. Later, though, as personal computers got popular, I was able to research the history of encryption on FidoNet. There, other computer hobbyists verified the claims made by Adam’s father. They cited national laws. They debated the rules on encryption. The arguments raged on. 

Satellite businesses said the U.S. law about encryption exports didn't apply to them. They weren't sending the means of encryption or decryption out of the country. Everyone else pointed out that the satellite companies sold services to Canada and Mexico. Plus they were broadcasting their encrypted signals over the border. According to those folks, the satellite executives should go to jail. Even those people who thought satellite televisions broke the law, though, didn't necessarily think the law was right.

In an era when hardly anyone had access to a computer, amending the U.S. export regulations to treat encryption-capable devices like war technology made some sense. During the 1950s and 1960s, the rules must have seemed unremarkable. Then in the 1970s computers got smaller. Universities and colleges could afford more of them. Programmers got better at encryption. Keeping secrets got cheaper and better. Companies started to use cryptography to guard communications. 

In contrast, non-technical judges issued rulings that seemed to prohibit talking about cryptography. The courts treated encryption more and more like nuclear codes, which is something they understood. Lawyers took positions against thinking, essentially, or at least against doing certain kinds of very simple math. A lot of people outside the courts - like mathematicians - didn't like the way the rules were headed. The fight wasn't cooling down. It was getting hotter. Anti-encryption laws were coming up against the microcomputer revolution with all of its changes that made cryptography better. 

In the midst of all this, the satellite and cable television companies appeared to ignore the laws. At the very least, their actions pointed out how rules for large corporations and rules for individuals were proving to be enforced very differently. 

In 1989, the United States softened its stance against using cryptography for access controls and message authentication. Legislators kept encryption exports illegal but made cryptography acceptable. Finally, in 1992, the federal government added an exception in the export rules for use of cryptography and satellite television descramblers. 

Encryption had become legal. The lobbying efforts of the satellite and cable television companies paid off. They'd been breaking the law and claiming they weren't for fifteen years. Finally, they had gotten the law on their side. 


As far as I can tell:

In the late 1970s, satellites and cable television companies scrambled their signals with filters. They wanted to keep the customers' neighbors from watching shows on unscrambled signals. But their filter systems started breaking down pretty fast. Hobbyist magazines printed blueprints of the de-filtering boxes. Since determined television viewers could build their own, they didn't need to subscribe to the satellite or cable service to watch cool stuff.

The companies tried other techniques like inverting the signals or adding interfering signals to the video or audio. Hobbyist magazines caught on to those, too. Anything the businesses could make to de-scramble a signal for their customers, tinkerers could duplicate with time, patience, and a friend at Radio Shack.

In 1981, satellite television broadcasters brought out VideoCipher II, which had DES (Data Encryption Standard, a scheme designed to be broken by the NSA) at the heart of it. They encrypted the video to scramble it. This implies they used VideoCipher I even earlier, too. Adam's father was right. The businesses made their move to encryption a decade in advance of any changes to the law.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 287: Biomythography - Note 39, Accused of Not Making It Up

Biomythography 39

Accused of Not Making It Up

When I was seven years old, I spent a day with my friend Richard. He was seven, like me, but with darker hair and glasses, and my visit was like a lot of others before and after. We played in his house for a while. His parents told us to play outside. We occupied ourselves, although not for long enough, and Richard's mother Mary revealed that we had plans. She drove us to the planned event.

I don’t remember the event and don't recall much from earlier in the day, either. The memorable moment, which was one of confusion and revelation, came during the ride back to Richard‘s home.

His family had a station wagon, the color of the trim fairly light. We were sitting in the back of it, maybe in seats that let us face each other. Or maybe we were lounging around and finding positions to talk. The sunlight was bright outside. After a while of looking through the contents of the seats and floor, we discovered we hadn’t brought enough to do on the ride. I decided to make up a story and tell it.

I’m not sure why. I'd been warned against it. However, I had recently written poems that appeared in a children’s magazine, so I might have felt encouraged to speak up. Also, something we had done or a remark from Richard, maybe both together, had given me a story idea. I thought I could tell it like my mother was reading to me from a storybook.

As I sat there with Richard and spun out the Aesop-like tale, I improvised events based on Richard's responses. He liked dinosaurs. So there was a dinosaur. There was a good boy. There was a mischievous boy to cause trouble. In a few minutes, I came to what seemed to me to be a funny and scary surprise ending. Telling it made me happy because it was like one of the kids' books I read. Those were toned-down versions of The Monkey's Paw or of Aladdin and the Lamp. With every victory, there had to be a catch, and I introduced one for the final outcome.

Before this, no one seemed to like the stories and poems I invented. This time, I got a unique response.

“Tell it again,” Richard said.

I stammered for a moment as I was trying to think why the request felt impossible. Then I decided to give it a try because he was my best friend. Right away, Richard called me out on an inconsistency in my retelling. I'd veered off to a different path of events. I remember realizing his objection was correct. If I kept on going, there would be no way to reach the same ending.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was making it up. I don’t think I can make it up the same way again.”

“You were not,” called Richard’s mother from the front seat. Mary's reaction was my realization that she had been listening to us. “You didn’t make up the whole story, did you?”

I had been accused of making things up many times. Often enough, if I were being pressed to give testimony against myself, it was true. I'd make up anything to escape consequences.

“Don’t make up stories,” my father warned me as he caught me in it every time.

“I think you are making up stories,” my grandmother would say in a similar situation, sometimes unfairly. 

This was the first time I could recall being accused of not making up a story. I'd even admitted beforehand that I was making it up. I didn’t know what to say. Mary could tell I'd fallen silent but her eyes were on the road. She started firing off questions. I tried to answer.

Her first thought to ask was about where I had read the story. But I hadn’t. Maybe, I ventured, it was like a kids' movie or something I'd seen on television. From the images in my head, the possibility sort of made sense to me. So Mary questioned me about TV programs. She included her son in the questions, too. Then she added more suggestions but we reached dead ends. The story hadn't come from kids' shows, cartoons, movies, or comic books. The only strong similarity was to the stories in an Aesop collection but my story hadn't been any of those. Mary's inquiries got gentler and gentler the longer her investigation continued.

“So." At a stoplight, she paused to take a different angle on the problem. She hit the gas pedal. "Do you remember the beginning of the story?”

After a bit of consideration, I told her what I thought was the beginning. She and Richard both remembered the actual starting phrase, though, and reminded me. I had to agree. They were right.

After a while, more quietly, Mary said, “I think you did make it up.” 

"Sorry," I said. "I won't do it again."

“No, no, you did a good job." Her voice grew higher and louder for a moment. Then she took a deep breath. "I didn’t mean to discourage you.”

Of course, lots of people did mean to discourage me, often in understandable circumstances. Apparently, at least one person was willing to allow me to make up stories, though.

"Does Ann know?" she asked. "I mean, does your mother know you make up stories?"

"Uh huh." She had been the one to send my poems to the kids' magazine, Kaleidoscope.

"Then she likes the stories. You're doing fine."

My clearest memory of the incident is almost precisely this moment. The horrible confusion beforehand, which you would think sticks out, doesn't. By itself, the panic would not have formed a lasting impression. After all, I spent a significant part of my childhood confused and upset. Another possibility, the paradox of being accused of not making up a story, didn't turn out to be unique, either. Little puzzles with little 'aha' moments are sort of frequent, anyway. When our lives turn on them, maybe they become important to us, but we have to realize their importance, too, or else we take a different direction in our lives without remembering why. We often don't remember, I think.

No, the lasting emotion was my sense of relief and of wonder as I witnessed an adult change her mind. And say so. That was the revelation, one of the ordinary but essential 'ahas' of my life.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 286: Biomythography - Note 38, Driving the Morris Oxford

Morris Oxford Farina via Wikipedia

Biomythology Note 38

Driving the Morris Oxford

I was five years old, hot, and enjoying a cool breeze that circulated above me in the car.  My mother pulled into the Esso gas station on the north side of Greenbelt Road.  The avenue ran east to west, so it was an easy turn  off on her right.  She wasn't in her usual Ford Fairlane; she was driving my father's car, a Morris Oxford.

There were attendants in each Esso service lane. One of them jogged over to meet her as she got out of the car.  The young, curly-haired fellow wore a blue-gray jumper, his station uniform.  It zipped up the middle like an astronaut suit.  There was a dark, oval patch on the left side of his chest, which read 'Earl.'

“What can I do for you folks?” he asked.  He smiled at my mother and spared a glance for me in the car.

“Fill her up,” my mother replied automatically.

I had started out in the back seat but I unstrapped myself as soon as the car stopped.  While the grown-ups talked, I climbed between the bucket seats and tumbled into the driver side.

“Can I play?” I asked through the crack of the window before my mother could leave. By that I meant, could I rock the steering wheel back and forth and pretend to drive?  It's what I always did when she left.  Previously, we had a long talk about not honking the horn in parking lots because it wasn't polite.  I'd shown her I understood by exercising a couple weeks of tortuously difficult self-restraint, so she'd told me I was permitted to play again. 

“Sure,” she said.  She turned from me to remind the attendant to check the windshield wiper fluid because it was low. She asked him about redeeming her green stamps.

After a minute, she left to do adult things, maybe with the stamps, although I never quite understood what she did.  I remained standing on the seat as I played with the steering wheel. I twisted it left and right.  After a while, I grabbed the stick shift and moved it around until I pulled the car out of gear. Then the stick fell loose into neutral and I could pretend better.  I could steer, then shift, then steer.

My mother seemed to be gone longer than usual. The attendant finished whatever he was doing and he left me alone to attend to other cars. I bounced up and down in the seat.  I sat and pretended to be a jet pilot. When I did, I couldn’t see out the window, so I gave up on the idea and stood.  In a few seconds, I was bouncing on my toes.

I turned to the parking brake and tried to push it up and down. For a while, nothing happened. Then I remembered to press the button at the front of the brake lever the way my parents did. I pressed hard, and suddenly the parking brake went all the way down.

I discovered, as I jumped up and down on the seat with all my might and rocked the wheel back and forth, that now I could make the car move.  The Morris Oxford started rolling.  As it rolled, I bounced up and down harder and harder, more and more excited to actually be driving.

For the first few feet, the going was slow. The wheel became hard to turn because I was actually trying to turn it for real. The gas station was on a slight incline, fortunately, and I was facing the correct way.  After a few seconds, the Morris Oxford really started to move.

Around that time, I heard a yelp. It came from the attendant.

"Hey!" he sounded distant because the windows, except for the crack on the driver's side, were rolled all the way up. 

I barely glanced in his direction.  I wanted to face front because I was finally going somewhere.

“Hey!  Stop!"  Suddenly, Earl appeared by my side.  He spoke to me through the gap in the driver side window.  "Kid, stop!” 

He was a grown-up.  I knew I had to listen.  And the driving was starting to feel a little too fast.

“How?” I asked.

“Press on the brakes!  You know the brake?  Press the brakes.”

Of course I knew where the brakes were.  I was five, not three.  But I was standing on the seat. I sat down and immediately I couldn’t see anything out the window, which I didn't like. To show the attendant, I pushed my foot toward the brakes.  I grunted theatrically.  I flexed my feet.  My toes didn't even come close.

“I can’t reach the pedal!” I explained.  He didn't seem to get it.

“How ...” Young Earl looked totally befuddled. “Can you ... jeez kid ... steer!  Steer!”

Apparently we were going to hit something. I hopped up to my feet, so I could see.

“Turn left! Turn left!”

I didn't understand what we were going to hit, maybe another car, maybe a bike or the big, gray trash can, but I knew which way left was.  I pulled hard on the steering wheel.  It spun a little easier than it had a few seconds before, which meant by using all my weight I was able to budge it a few inches.

"Yeah!" He sounded relieved for a moment. But then apparently he realized we were headed for more trouble.

“Unroll the window!  Unroll it!  Unroll it!”  He repeated himself for a long time, looping around to the same request again and again, or so it seemed to me.  He really wanted the window down. 

That was something I knew how to do.  I hopped down and tried to swing the crank.  This time, I was grunting for real.  I got partway.  The crank stuck.

"Almost!"  The attendant tried to be encouraging.  "Keep going!  Unroll it!  Keep going!"

Above me, I could hear the attendant's footfalls pick up speed.  He was starting to jog.  I wanted to climb up onto the seat and see what I was missing.  I must have hesitated, then, because his voice picked up speed, too.

"Unroll it!  Kid!  Please!"

I backed the window up a half-inch, which caused Earl to groan in frustration.  He sounded almost cross.  But I knew what I was doing.  I had seen my parents use this trick.  When the driver side window crank got stuck, they backed up counter-clockwise for a turn and then started another clockwise run at rolling the window down.

"Yes!"  The attendant's feet skipped a step as he shouted.  This time, I got through the tough part.  Above me, a hand shot through the top part of the window and started to take control of the wheel. 

"Hey!" I protested.  He was getting grabby with my toys.  I started to clamber back up.

When I tried to brush his hand aside, the attendant didn't let go. After a second, the car changed direction sharply enough to knock me over, so that I sat down hard between the seat and the door handle. 

"Hold on, kid."  He sounded calmer for a second.  "Uh oh."


"Oh, come on!"  He shoved the wheel hard to the other side.  My body flopped across the front seat.  "Damn, I mean shoot.  You didn't hear me say that, kid."

"Shoot?"  For a moment, I was able to stand up.  The view looked different.  The windshield faced the sun.  While I was working on the window crank, we had rolled past the garage and turned around to face upslope.  The car was drifting in a half-circle and slowing down.  But another car was turning toward us. 

"For Pete's sake!" yelled Earl. He turned the wheel pretty hard.  It knocked me down to the spot between the seat and the door handle again. It made me mad.  This guy kept playing with the car and there seemed to be a lot happening.  I wasn't going to let it happen without me.

"I want to steer!" I wailed.  I shot back up under his arm.


"I want to steer!"  I planted both feet and grabbed the wheel.

"We need brakes kid."

I looked at him.  His curly hair flopped over his eyebrows.  His stubbly jaw needed a shave.  His blue eyes bore into me with a look of calm but definite intent.

"We're going to have to go downhill," he said.  "You've got to get down there and hit the brakes, kid."

I didn't know what he meant but I understood he was an adult and my mother would have told me to listen.  Reluctantly, I got down to the floor.  It happened more suddenly than I wanted because I slipped.  When I righted myself, though, I hit the brakes.

"Good.  Uh, shoot."

I felt the car turn.

"Hit the brakes harder.  Both feet!"

For a second or two, I was able to do it.  But my feet slipped.  My body, fully extended, was inadequate to hold the pedal while keeping the same position. The problem was the way the car lurched and drifted. 

"I want to get up," I announced.  

"Unroll the window more."  Earl sounded very, very sure of himself.  "Then I can pull the parking brake."

"But I want to steer."  His voice sounded urgent so I unrolled and complained at the same time. 

"Sure, sure," Earl replied absent-mindedly.

At the sound of his agreement, I popped up into the driver's seat.  I put my hand on the underside of the steering wheel, ready to take over.  At the same time, Earl reached across me.

"Sorry, kid."  His arm trapped me in the seat for a moment.  He pulled on the emergency brake.  The car rocked back and forth.  

"Now, please?"

"Uh, yeah."  He turned his head away from me as he let out a soft chuckle.  "Okay, it's your turn, kid. You're steering."

Slowly, I rose to my feet.  I noticed that Earl hadn't let go of the steering wheel.

"Can I help a little, kid?" he asked me with his most charming smile.


"Just a little."  He never let go of his grip.

"Okay."  While I was on my tiptoes, I gazed  around.  I didn't see the gas station anywhere.  "Where are we?"

It looked like we were on the highway.  Sure enough, this was Greenbelt Road.  I recognized it.  For a few seconds, I stared.  The car had stopped on the shoulder, next to a twenty foot drop down a grassy embankment. 

"Don't get out," he told me.  "Wait for your mother."

His words gave me the cue to turn myself around almost all the way.  I wasn't about to take my hand from the steering wheel but I wanted to see my mother.  There she was.  It took me a moment to recognize her.  She was forty or fifty feet behind us as she marched down the shoulder of the highway.  


That's where the story ends but it isn't quite where my memories end.  I remember the attendant and my mother politely but firmly arguing about the emergency brake.  The attendant carefully mentioned that she must not have left the car in gear or engaged the brake.  My mother said, maybe the car wasn't in gear, that could happen, but she always set the brake.  Always.  As I remember it, she always did.

I kept trying to find a way to tell them about the brake but they never seemed to want to hear me.  After a few minutes, I gave up.


Here's a note about power-assisted brakes and steering: someone has since told me the car might not have had them.  I haven't been able to find information on whether the Morris Oxford (specifically the Farina model) came with manual brakes or manual steering.  In any case, if my father's car was manual for either - if power-assist was an option he'd declined to pay for - it might explain why I had so much trouble.

Being five years old would have something to do with it, too, yes.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 285: A Response to Addiction in Buddhism

Wikimedia Commons,
A Response to Addiction in Buddhism

In Thailand in the fall of 2022, the police arrested monks from a Buddhist temple. In fact, they closed the monastery. Buddhist authorities defrocked the monks, dismissed them, and sent them into a drug rehabilitation program. Every one of the monks had tested positive for methamphetamine.

Imagine their saffron robes thrown into a fire. That sort of thing has happened many times over because this incident was not an isolated case of monks behaving badly. Monks not only in Thailand but everywhere and over the span of history, have been convicted of corruption, murder, drug trafficking, and essentially all other crimes possible. Their arrests and convictions seem inevitable because there have been enough clergy and more than enough history for all those things to happen. The clergy, after all, are human. 

What strikes practicing Buddhists as the oddest aspect of drug addiction among monks, though, is the disparity between the actions of the clergy and the core tenets of Buddhism.

In a discussion, imi loa wrote: 

a core tenet of buddhism is minimizing attachment, with drug addiction being an intense form of attachment...

For me, reading with a sense of history makes these incidents more understandable. It's true that the difference between practicing non-attachment and acquiring a drug addiction is stark. However, not all official Buddhists follow what in the west would be called Buddhism or (by traditionalists) Western Buddhism. Instead, it might be more appropriate to say they practice their local traditions.

The history of Buddhism makes it different from many other major religions, as there was no event that corresponded to the Council of Nicaea that unified official Christian teachings. Instead, followers of the Buddha spread out; Buddhism received different sorts of emphasis in different countries; even today there's serious debate about whether Zen Buddhism is proper Buddhism.  As a philosophy, the teachings remain stable and coherent.  As a collection of temples, though, the organization of Buddhism allows a tremendous amount of diversity and differences in emphasis on the precepts. The differences include some temples conscripting young men from villages or temples recruiting children. It encompasses ceremonies left over from pantheistic religions of ages past. 

From NPR:

“The ultimate goal of Buddhism is for the people to get enlightened,” said Somboon Chungprampree, a social activist and executive secretary of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. “But most of the society is learning that not all those who are wearing saffron can be a holy or respectable person.”

In all religions, there is a tendency for a subset of lay practitioners to be the real followers of the faith, while the professionals and religious authorities should be regarded as suspect. This is for good reasons, as noted above and, in fact, as seen throughout the course of human history.