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 have a break from me. 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 to use, 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, and they were often requirements. My grandfather, who commonly enough 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 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. It didn't happen often. Usually, I witnessed the creation of mason jars filled with mundane ingredients like green beans. Even the beans, though, 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, his screwdrivers, 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 accommodate 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 significant time during 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 to 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. 

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.