Sunday, September 24, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 319: Biomythography - Note 64, The Lonely Surprise

Biomythography 64

The Lonely Surprise

We were talking about the sculpting of moments because I'd brought it up again.

"I think it's an art form," I said. My girlfriend, Kate, nodded beside me. A hint of a smile graced her lips. She knew to anticipate the next part. "A deeply moving moment in life conveys, well, at least as much inspiration as a painting."

She was descending with grace down the staircase of our dormitory. I was thumping down the stairs just in front of her, grabbing both handrails and lifting two legs at a time, moving like a kangaroo or a hyperactive child. It was what I always did. The walls beside us were grey. The steps underneath us bore a different shade of grey with a darker edging. Kate touched one of the steel railings as she turned a corner. When we arrived at the bottom, I landed with two feet together. A few steps beyond, we transitioned from the tiles to a strip of brown carpet.

Everything about our scenery seemed uninspired. But it was college. It was a dorm. Anyway, the students seemed so alive, sometimes, that meeting them in a dull setting felt almost unreal. You could be walking among the stained greys and browns with your footsteps echoing like in an abandoned building; then you would glance up and spot someone at the other end of the hall and feel for an instant like you were encountering a spectre in a graveyard. Look, we have found unexpected life amidst these ruins.

"Or like a scene from a dance?" Kate suggested.

"Even better, yes."

My comparison to paintings came from my reactions to them. Images gave me ideas and impressions but they were never transformational for me in the way books were. This was my sense of most of life's planned moments, too. On the occasions when other people had planned something for me, their event seemed inevitably to be a brief handshake or an award.

Here's a painting scholarship - and a pause for a photo. Here's your sixth grade diploma - with a handshake and flash photograph. Here's your swimming trophy - handshake. Here's your birthday song - and a slice of cake. Here's another diploma - and a photo. As with a painting in a museum, there was usually a visual element to the organized moments. My parents pasted the photo prints into a book to be regarded with embarrassment later. (The embarrassment came from me. I usually experienced it when looking at my plaid trousers or something similar.)

My parents were exceptions. My mother, at least, was a planner and a wrapper of presents. But I didn't have much context for their actions. I liked buying and making presents myself. I planned a great deal about each gift. But it didn't seem to be as much of a thing with my peers. Most of my friends didn't seem to enjoy the planning as much as I did. Still, once or twice, some of them showed forethought directed my way and it stunned me. Another teenager at work, Adam, copied music onto a tape and gave it to me. The effort gave me a hint of the transformational feeling I sometimes got from books. It was a feeling of commitment. At the least, sharing passions about punk and new wave music shifted Adam and I from being co-workers into being friends. Later that summer, I left an album that I'd liked on his doorstep and drove away.

Kate, though, was a dancer. That was the context for her comparisons. She was right about how the shaping of a moment was like a part of a dance. It's what dancing is. So is love-making and, I think, ritualized fighting like tai chi. Sometimes, I'd include basketball in the list. These kinds of activities are not always thought of as arts but they are, each in their own way, designed to culminate in a particular spiritual effect.

"Sometimes I hear the music of bodies," I told Kate. Well, I heard the rhythms in women's bodies. The sense of underlying music was there at non-sexual times and in less sensual modes, too. When we moved together in a task like washing and drying dishes or in making the bed, it was there. 

"You hear music in a lot of things," she observed. She laughed. With a shrug, she added, "But I do, too."

"I like making everything culminate in the right moment."

"Hmm." She made a more skeptical face. "Are you talking about things with your old girlfriend?" 

I hadn't mentioned her. However, Kate and I had reviewed this topic too many times for her not to spy the influence of one of my former lovers, who had heard my ideas about the 'art of the moment' and turned them toward our sex life with good results. Her determination made for many learning experiences. At that point in my fairly young sex life, it proved important to spend time with a woman who talked about sex directly, who possessed humor and excitement, and who encouraged me to experiment with her. She had always felt she wasn't good at art but the art of the moment, at least, she spotted as being perfect. 

We worked on the art of many moments. We played. We danced at parties where I was the DJ and at some others where I wasn't working and we were just part of the crowd. 

Those moments achieved emotions on the scale of a painting or a poem. They produced slight transformations, sizable only over a great deal of time. I couldn't think of a single planned moment that made for an entire novel's worth of transformation. Some novels like Siddhartha, Le Morte D'Arthur, or Lord of Light had come along at the right time in my life to pivot my worldview. That hadn't been true with the 'art of the moment' so far.

"Let's forget it," I said. The subject of old lovers was a lopsided one and never a fair topic unless Kate asked. Not even then, really.

"We don't have to," Kate replied.

"No, it's better. Let's just have the afternoon out together."

"Okay." Kate's face relaxed in a smile and my heart eased with it. For a glorious moment or two, we walked in silence through the campus quad in front of the dorm. The January air was freezing but calm. The result felt awakening. Kate asked, "Did your brothers call?"


It was my birthday. I had hoped they would. But they had missed me calling them a week before and that one had been planned. Anyway, I knew I wasn't likely to be on their minds on a Wednesday.

A year ago, my parents had forgotten my birthday, a normal thing given how I'd been living away from home for a few years. Nevertheless, it also seemed unsettling, especially with regard to being forgotten by my brothers. I had fallen out of the thoughts of my entire family, it seemed. And so I had been, ever so slightly, dreading the possible loneliness of a birthday mostly alone, wanting to talk to my brothers but not feeling welcome to call them. 

Kate, fortunately, had let me know she wanted to take me to an early dinner and keep my birthday celebration small. I felt good about it. Her affections reassured me that any stray expectations about my family that I hadn't fully extinguished would soon be forgotten. I would exist only in the moment and in Kate's presence. 

Dinner in Amherst was unmemorable, which means it was probably good. I drove my steel blue Mustang there and back. At least, I know I must have. I don’t recall the driving or parking or walking to the dorm except for a pleasant sense of listening to Kate. But near the top of the staircase, suddenly I can summon up a vision of how it was.

We stood on the second floor landing. Kate moved in an unexpected direction. She didn't turn left toward her room but strode toward the common area. The light in the hall seemed dim but warm. She touched the common room doorknob. She turned her body towards me and studied my face. 

"Did I give it away?" she asked. 

My body language made her suspect I knew something. I didn't, though. She hadn't revealed her plan at all. Whatever she was talking about, the first clue I'd had was when her march up the staircase started seeming a little bit off. There were small changes she made that didn't add up to anything I could identify. She took faster steps, then slower, and she seemed a little nervous. It was nothing much. 

Then she turned and I guess I hadn't looked surprised about it.

She opened the door. My internal vision of the moment grows dim at that instant, as if parts of the memory have been overwritten by my sense of astonishment. Light poured out through the door, I know.

I recovered myself and stepped into the common room. 

"Surprise!" a crowd shouted at me, more or less together.

Six of Kate's hallmates, including Lisa, Michael, and Annette, stood in different positions around the room, surrounded by streamers and balloons, red, yellow, orange, and blue. Other friends had come from farther away like David, Andrea, and Mark. They totaled over a dozen and it wasn't a big room. Someone had brought cake. Someone else had hung a cardboard Happy Birthday sign with string and tape. Friends of ours from the other side of campus had arrived and helped themselves to the punch. Next to them, on a counter top, rested a punch bowl and a stack of cups. 

"Holy crap!" I responded. Overwhelmed with an emotional shock, I had no great words to express my astonishment. "Wow!"

For a while, I walked and talked. I couldn't help thumping the balloons with my knuckles, as if I thought they might cease to be real. I ran my fingers over the streamers. The fragile banner, I didn't dare to touch. And then I noticed the cake. People, actual grownups, lit candles for me on the white icing. They sang a song. It was amazing. And off-key. They stopped once to ask me to hum along as they re-started. Then Kate tried to pass off the cake-cutting duties to me. Another woman stepped forward to save me the effort. She cut me the first piece.

Happily stunned, I took a seat. I gazed at everyone's smiles. I couldn't quite believe them. Our friends had planned this for days, at least. 

"Oh my god," a young woman told me, hand on my elbow. "I thought you were going to catch me when I was in the fridge yesterday."

The stories began spilling out from them. Half of the planners had close calls to share. Chuckling, they confessed when they had made mistakes. Lots of the conspirators had grown suspicious that I was catching onto them as they slipped up. They thought I had clued in. But I hadn't. 

As they sat and laughed with one another, I looked around again. There were so many faces, so many smiles. They were so pleased with themselves and so happy and relaxed with one another, it made me want to slow down time and linger in this moment. 

"We really fooled you!" the woman said. 

I grinned with her. Our gaze drifted toward Kate. Earlier, she had positioned herself at the head of the party with a taut stance and business-like expression. After the celebration began, her tension turned into something more flowing, a sort of ready energy. Her nervous joy and surprised-at-herself triumph were easing into happiness. She wasn't looking at me but she was grinning. She hadn't stopped grinning for minutes.

This is it, I thought. She did it. She created the art of the moment. It was perfect art. 

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 318: Biomythography - Note 63, Hot Books

Biomythography 63

Hot Books

"What's that you're reading?" my English teacher asked. 

In alarm, I straightened from my slouch.

I'd thought I was alone. Certainly, I had turned on the lights, taken the classroom over for myself, and rearranged my corner of it. I'd chosen my seat from one of the standard thirty. Although it was a plastic, green student chair, it was a comfortable one, and I'd propped my feet on a desk to read. 

Sometimes I arrived at the school early because I was sixteen and I could drive. Sometimes I circled back late, when everyone had left. This time, I'd arrived an hour before the first bell. Like I'd done several times before, I had wandered through the building and explored the unlocked rooms. On previous occasions, I had found the teacher's lounge, the teacher's library, and a lab left open. I'd never had the luck to get into the student library, though. The door was always double-locked. 

I sat up, startled, and I closed the brown, hardback book in my hands. I read the cover.

"Modern Rhetoric," I said. 

"We don't use that anymore, Eric." He put his hands on his hips. This teacher was a dapper man, always dressed in a blazer and tie. He trimmed his close beard to exact lines. His voice remained on level pitch even when he was stern. "We haven't used it for ten years. How did you get a copy?"

"I, uh ..." I took a moment to contemplate my possible alibis. None occurred to me. "The library was open."

"That's a copy from the teacher collection."

"I guess so, yes."

"I've never had a student steal anything from that before." His gaze narrowed.

"Sorry." In truth, I didn't much feel I'd done anything wrong. If I felt contrite, it was about taking my reading spot for granted and getting caught. I lifted the evidence between us. "Why don't we use this book anymore?  It's good. The teacher library has lots of books that are better than the ones we have now."

My voice took on the tone of an accusation, as if the English department were hiding the best stuff from me and knew it.  

"What essay?" He straightened from his inspection of the cover. When he lifted his chin, he exposed the perfect knot in his red tie. He was not a large man but he was smart and patient, which could be tougher. He had gotten his doctorate in English and likely would have been an excellent university professor but he had been drawn to our high school, where he was chair of the department.


"You were reading." He leaned closer.

"Oh." I flipped it back open. I'd kept my place with my finger. "Well, I've read all the metaphors. So I skipped those today. I was looking through the passages on narrative tone. This one is by Dos Passos, I guess. Then comes Mencken."

The texts from them were both good but different, one friendly toward President Theodore Roosevelt, the other spiteful and sarcastic about him. 

"Do you know who John Dos Passos is?"

I shrugged. "He wrote experimental stuff."

The department head launched a verbal quiz. I didn't feel bad about taking the books; I wouldn't have minded a detention or getting flunked; I'd read a fair amount from the teacher collection; so he got opinions out of me pretty quickly. Some of them made him scowl. He liked Joseph Conrad and I didn't. I had found a passage by Conrad I enjoyed, though, and he was happy about the discovery. 

"How long have you been doing this?" he asked. He glanced in the direction of his reserves of teacher volumes. 

"All semester."

"Do you like 'Modern Rhetoric?'" he asked.

"Yeah." The lessons written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were acceptable at best. In their examples, though, they cited a lot of the best passages from the best writers in the English language. So the bright spots in their collection were fantastic - almost as good as anything could be, really.

He took a breath.

"Keep it," he muttered.

"What, really?"

"Yes. We're throwing it out." He looked away to the open front door of the classroom, not the back door to the teacher lounge and library. His gaze seemed to verify there was no one around, no other student or teacher anywhere to overhear us.

"Well, don't," I protested.

"I've been ordered to destroy most of the books in the teacher resource room. I've been holding off because I like them." His shoulders slumped for a moment under his blazer. "And you cared enough to steal one. Well, borrow, I suppose."

"Steal," I admitted. He didn't know it but I had already helped myself to a volume of Modern American Poetry, which had verses from the beat generation in it. Their poems were fantastic. I kept them next to my bed. Also, I had taken a text called Understanding Fiction. In that one, I had read "Christ in Flanders" by Honore Balzac and had been so moved by it that I returned on a later morning to read it again. Even on my second reading, I got teary-eyed and decided to take a copy. "There was a textbook with a lot of short stories ..."

"You took Understanding Fiction?"


He gritted his teeth for a moment. He may have been regretting his earlier pronouncement. Before, he had seemed stern but indulgent of my thefts. Now I saw a flash of heat on his face and I got a sense of his irritation.

"I wondered where that went," he growled. He paused and took a big huff of air. "Don't take any more." 


It occurs to me this sort of incident is no longer possible. There are no storerooms of forgotten tomes to discover in most American schools. No student gets bored enough to read textbooks for fun. In fact, currently in America we have made boredom nearly disappear. 

A lot of the books I discovered by wandering through shelves were dull. But I never would have discovered Balzac or good poetry or many other fine, strange and low-circulation volumes without the time spent in boredom, on my feet, and in my many journeys of mindless browsing. 

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 317: Biomythography - Note 62, Cold War Games

Biomythography 62

Cold War Games

Nowadays, we act like the threat of nuclear war didn’t inform everything we did. For the first twenty-nine years of my life, though, it lay at the root of all reasoning.

It was always there, looming in the background of each everyday decision. 

Everyone I grew up with experienced hour-long conversations about what we would do if the bombs fell and we were left alive for a while. These weren’t survivor scenarios. They were ‘dead in one week’ storylines. That's what we talked about because that’s what we believed was realistic. Those conversations were sometimes how you discovered most of your friends would moon over their crushes. They would fantasize about sex, about defying their parents, or at least about achieving some level of romance. Other friends, though, revealed that they harbored lethal grudges.  

If the bombs fell and they had a week, they would immediately go to their torturers' houses with machetes and carve them up. It was what they said, anyway.

“But they’re going to die no matter what,” I responded, because it was part of the assumption. “Everyone in our blast radius has at most a week.”

“I’m going to see them go first.” 

“Okay.” I secretly doubted the ability of any of my friends to dispatch their enemies even when overwhelmingly armed. It wasn’t a matter of will. Although I was usually shocked about the murder plans, I certainly believed the levels of their frustration and hatred. Mostly, I felt suspicious of their strength and hand-eye coordination. 

Likewise, I doubted my ability to get a date even when the world was ending. We all have our handicaps.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 316: Biomythography - Note 61, Spare Time

Biomythography 61

Spare Time

Time is precious; there is none of it spared. However, no one's life should be a flurry of panic. We should merely acknowledge to ourselves that all time is spent and some of it must be spent on necessities like food, water, and shelter. As much of the rest as we can manage should be used to bring joy.

On a spring day in 2021, the sun shone bright but not warm enough. The morning air chilled us through our clothes, right to our bones. The Frederick Home Show was holding its opening ceremony outside for the first time. We had gathered in our group, jackets on, and waited through the introductions. Our singers had been paid to perform the national anthem to the gathering of state senators, businessmen, town council members, event organizers, and other honoraries. After a brief round of their talk, we took off our masks. We gave them our best rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

This was 2021 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitalization numbers around our area waxed and waned. Small businesses struggled to adjust to State of Maryland social isolation rules. No one seemed entirely happy.

"That was good," one of the singers said as the crowd applauded for us. We glanced at one another and nodded.

Every time we appeared at the Frederick Home Show, we volunteered for a level of extra effort. We walked around the area to sing barbershop songs to the vendors in their stalls for an hour. In those relatively dark barns, we found free corners and sang to the home remodeling business staff. Physically, the one-story aluminum sheds, sixty feet on the smallest side, a hundred forty feet on the longest, were cold and tough places for music. Sounds echoed down the rows of stalls. Or they died in a display of water fountains. Hard ceilings amplified us or, sometimes, sent our notes at angles and in directions we couldn't track. Once, fans turned on and drowned us out. It was simply hard to judge the conditions before we sang.

"Those folks over there are waving to us," the director said. He marched in their direction. We followed.

Even with smiles and gestures, it could be as hard to judge the people as it was our physical circumstances. Some vendors danced as we sang. Others just four feet beyond, scowled. We were interrupting their business. Often, opinions about us varied within a single booth. It was that way every year. Music fans stood next to hostile guardians of a few square feet of vendor territory. 

"Some of these folks are still mad about last year," one of the singers remarked.

In 2020, the state government had shut down the Frederick Home Show due to the pandemic. Our local construction companies still felt bitter.

We sang Java Jive, a song about coffee, next to a vendor selling bags of ground coffee among their wares. In the early morning, the song always makes people smile. In that way at least, it is utterly reliable. Next, we tried Wink and a Smile.

Farther down the row of vendors, we stopped to sing them a love song. Around the corner near the back row of the vendor displays, we tried a traditional ballad. We finished to a smattering of applause.

"How about 'Sold?'" one of our singers asked.

Instead of answering, the director raised his arms. Collectively, we turned back into a two-row semi-circle and we took a breath. When he lowered his arms, we launched.

'Sold' is a fast-paced, foot-tapping number. It's also a fairly recent tune, so folks in the barn knew it. Next to me, a young lady busted into a smile. She started clapping to the beat. Softly, she sang the words. Across the aisle, a booth of vendors and customers halted their conversation. Grins on their faces, they turned toward us. Passers-by stopped to listen.

And we kept going.

The notes came through us in a patter, fast and light. Another young woman in a dress joined the first next to me, singing the words half under her breath. And next to her, a young man in a sports jacket tapped his right foot. Everyone smiled.

Everyone relaxed except an old man in a black shirt, who had looked sad and lonely at the start. As the other folks around us seemed to get happier, he got more glum. He turned angry. His expression grew bitter.

It can be hard to tell why some people seem to make a conscious decision to be in a bad mood. But they do; and that's fine or at least it's perfectly usual. Maybe for him, he wasn't getting enough work during the pandemic. Or his adult children had told him they weren't going to give him grandchildren. Or his wife had refused to come to the Home Show with him. Or maybe he was bitter and lonely because, unwittingly or not, he had arranged for his life to be that way. He had determined that he didn't like people. Who could blame him, really. If you're hoping for humanity to be nice, disappointment is normal. Anyway, nothing could make him smile.

For a moment, he folded his arms and stood with his legs wide, determined to block the air of happiness as it tried to sneak past him in the corridor. 

In another minute, we reached the end of the song. The crowd that had gathered around us burst into applause. Most of them fell into a few seconds of laughter, too. Half of the people dispersed to their business that we had delayed. Some gazed at us hopefully, as if we might be persuaded to do it again.

"Hah," grumbled the old man. He gave us a sneer. “What do you all do in your spare time?”

In a way, it was a compliment. He meant it as a statement that we had nothing better to do, perhaps, but it was an acknowledgement of our skill all the same. I don't know why, but I suddenly felt determined to make him crack a smile.

"Chess," I snapped in a voice as loud and clear as his, so he could hear me.

The reply stopped him mid-step. He had been about to pass through our group. But he paused to think and he snorted. It was an odd sound because he cut it very, very short. He had a lot of self-control. Then he turned away. As he spun on his heels, I could see the start of a grin on his lips. He didn't want anyone to see it. He didn't want to concede his bad mood had been spoiled for an instant.

He adjusted his body so that, despite the crowd, he managed to face no one. He strode away down a clear path between vendor booths. Where he had stood crouched and sullen before, he marched upright and with a purpose as he left. Also, he kept shaking his head.