Sunday, April 21, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 350: Biomythography - Note 91: Strange Bedfellows, Part III

Strange Bedfellows, Part III

One Bus Ride

My book was Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. My bus was Metro 31, a smelly but efficient single decker. My ride was going to take me from the bus stop at school all the way to Friendship Heights, the border between DC and Maryland. I clung to the bus handrail, standing, with a book bag hooked over my right shoulder. In my left hand, I flipped the pages of Lucky Starr. 

The bus jerked to a stop at Tenleytown. A dozen people got on. Another burst of a dozen clambered in, too, a lot more than usual. I had to guess there had been some sort of event downtown and it must have ended not long ago. I sighed and tried to let the fresh faces slip past me. 

Although a seat had opened up for a moment, I missed it. I had to remain standing.

Of course, everyone getting on had to find places to stand, too, but there was room. For a minute or so, I drifted between asteroids with a ray gun wondering what to do about the bad guys. Around me, the other passengers settled into their positions. 

"What does the pink triangle mean?" asked a brash voice, a woman. "Is that a civil rights pin?"

"No," said the man holding the rail across from me. "It means gay rights."

Usually, no amount of talking would rouse me out of a book, even if the story was kind of crap. This time, though, a hush fell across the bus that was so dramatic, I looked up. My head turned first to the young, attractive black woman who had asked the question. She wore a fashionable tan jacket, big earrings, and she looked sort of rich or at least well put together. A few feet from her stood a thin man in a denim jacket. He looked disheveled in a deliberate way. 

"Are you?" the woman asked, her eyes going wide.

"Yeah," said the man. 

While I replayed the entire conversation in my head, trying to understand, the crowd of black women from Tenleytown backed up the aisle. They pressed as far away from the man as they could. A few seconds later, the nearby white riders and one Chinese-American man took their cue. They retreated from the gay protester in the opposite direction. Even people in their seats shuffled their feet as far away as they could from touching the gay, brown-loafered feet. One brunette woman twitched in her spot. After a moment of agony, she got up and dashed to the front to join the black women. A younger brunette, curlier-haired college student leapt into her spot. 

In a few seconds, I was the only one left. Every other passenger had moved as far away from the gay man as they could. 

I glanced forward. The prettiest black woman stared at me with wide-open eyes and made a frightened, come-hither motion. In other circumstances, I would have swooned to see the gesture aimed at me. But not then.

I glanced to my side. The gay man, in his denim outfit and close-cut beard, stared at me expectantly. Expecting what, I wasn't sure. 

I took a step. I shuffled a second step, too, towards the black women. But then I glanced to my side again. The gay man looked so disappointed, I stopped. Now I didn't know what to do. 

Here, I should probably mention I was thirteen and didn't know what 'gay' was. It seemed to be something bad. I gazed to the back of the bus, where the white men and women had clustered. All of them seemed a little wild eyed. They were giving me warning looks. About what? Something. I was the only one who didn't know.

We came up on the next stop. Most of the bus riders kept staring at me to see what I would do. Enough time had passed, though, I had begun to feel impatient. I figured that, whatever these people were up to, it didn't matter. Pretty often, I had discovered, it really didn't. And this guy was clearly just a guy. 

I backed up a step. After a moment, the gay man stood a little closer to me and I noticed he smelled kind of perfume-y, for a guy. And sweaty, too, like he had just marched for a mile or two, which he probably had. But he was in a jean jacket. And I was in a jean jacket. 

Then he leaned even closer.
Was he trying to scare me? Was he trying to get me on his side? What were people being so weird about? Fuck them all. Fuck every single one. I opened up my book. The Lucky Starr series is not very good. I started shoveling through the prose like a post-hole digger within sight of the last fence post in the row. In the silence, someone cleared his throat. The bus stopped. More people got on. Slowly, in my dim awareness of the outer world, I heard the normal noises of the bus resume.   

When I got home, I asked my parents as I came through the door, "What does gay pride mean?" 

My father turned sort of pink around the ears and wouldn't answer. That was a response I hadn't expected. He lit up another cigar and wandered off, mumbling to himself. 

"Do you know what it means?" I asked my mother in the living room. 

"Well, it's men who may be a little confused," my mother said, not quite knowing how to put it, "but they deserve rights, too. Everyone does."

"Well, yeah."

"Why do you want to know?" she asked. This was maybe the beginning of her suspecting I was gay (although also still in dire danger of getting girls pregnant) for the next few years.

"Because I didn't know," I answered. In retrospect, that was probably not the most helpful response to her ears. But it was the truth.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 349: Biomythography - Note 90: Strange Bedfellows, Part II

Strange Bedfellows, Part II

Next, the Pinko

"You're a commie, ain't you?" said an older boy.

We stood in the mulch next to the asphalt playground. It was the spring of 1972, or pretty close, and it was sunny and mild,a perfect noontime for games. At the end of our touch football scrimmage, I had said something as we walked off the blacktop. I don't remember what it was but it stopped him. So I stopped.

He poked me in the shoulder and I poked him back. He was the class bully, more or less, and we had fought a few times, though he had mostly given up on fights. (In retrospect, he was a pretty good kid, well behaved except for his perfect teasing skills. He was just big and smart. He was our best athlete at a time when it made him the leader on the playground.)

"Commie or pinko," he insisted. "If you're against war, you're a pinko. Against church, you're a commie."

I felt ashamed but also enlightened. At last, I understood what a pinko was, sort of. And I probably was one. And I was also everything else bad, I knew, although I always seemed to end up being those things without meaning to be.

In the 1960s and 1970s, what folks would shout at an atheist was most was, 'commie.' As a non-believer in elementary school, I got called that, plus 'red,' and 'pinko.' I'd heard those names before, starting years earlier, due to my voicing of support for civil rights. By the time I was nine, I was ready to accept I was some of the bad things, even though I didn't understand the terms. 'Pinko' in war and civil rights seemed to mean I was a sympathizer the idea of basic fairness. Other people were mad about it.

He shook his head at me and walked away in disgust.


I didn't comprehend the context, of course. I didn't understand the epithets. My friends and I used some of those phrases ourselves because adults did. The fact that some kids could use the terms accurately seemed weird. One boy, Stanley, knew what "fuck" meant when he was eight. Another, Mike, knew what a "pinko" was by the time he reached fourth grade. I didn't know the cultural history behind any of it. None of us did, really, even the boys who were fairly savvy.

It's not that we were completely ignorant - but mostly, yeah, we were. 

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 348: Biomythography - Note 89: Strange Bedfellows, Part I

Strange Bedfellows, Part I
The Non-Believer

When I was six, my grandmother decided to take me to her church. We stood on her screened-in porch before the trip. She tidied pulled out the crease in my pants. She straightened my collar. 

My parents had brought me to her house for the weekend. They already knew my grandmother felt it was scandalous that they hadn't taken me to get baptized. She had warned them of her intention to take me to her church. Forewarned, my father decided to prepare me. In the car on the way to her house, he reminded me of all the philosophical arguments he had drilled into me about logic being better than religion.  

His reminders:
  • Grandmother and her church members would probably say, everything has a creator and therefore the universe must have a creator. My father taught me to reply, 'Well, who created God, then?' If he exists without a creator, then things exist without someone to create them. Otherwise, God must have a creator.
  • God permits evil and natural disasters. Therefore, he isn't good. If he exists at all, he doesn't deserve worship.
  • The concept of omnipotence creates logical paradoxes. My father reminded me, 'Can God create a rock so heavy he can't lift it? If he can't lift it, he's not omnipotent. If he can't create it so he can't lift it, he's not omnipotent.'
  • The problem of hell. My father didn't need to remind me of this one, actually. Punishment forever, whatever the cause, is a moral horror. No one can condone it. At the age of six, the problem was maybe more obvious to me than to my father, who was accustomed to hearing the concept.
  • The lack of evidence. This was a tough one for me but my father encouraged me to let people try to present evidence. My problem (because I was six) was I had only a vague idea of what good evidence might be. (If three good friends pinky swear it's true, is it evidence?)
Fortunately, my grandmother realized she couldn't debate me, partly because my logic was good, and also because I had almost no understanding of the world. It didn't make sense to argue. In her eyes, the real path forward was to put me into a church environment to see if I could be lured in by the kindness of the place. At least, I think that was her plan.

On the car trip, I napped. In the pews, I dozed off, too. My grandmother tried to keep me awake. In an effort to please her, I strove to be alert. My time in Germany with nannies there had taught me to keep still (or else get a smack) but no one could quite make me pay attention, it seemed, if I wasn't doing anything.

My only memory of the actual church was the struggle to stay awake. When everyone around us started to rise, my grandmother took my hand. That woke me more completely and made sure I waited for others to leave our bench. She led me at a leisurely pace down the aisle toward the exit.

"Well, I'm going to go off with the ladies, now," my grandmother announced as we approached the main doors.

"What do the ladies do?"

She shook her head at my question and instead introduced her own line of thought.

"You are going to go to Sunday school," she said. "Won't that be fun?"


"It's fun. You'll see."

At that point in life, I didn't mind school - the reverse, really. Schools, since the age of two, were places where I met and played with my friends. Even better, the classes were sometimes interesting. At their worst, they were rest periods between my games outside.

The church had built its school in the attic. The young woman in charge, wearing a blue blouse, led me up a narrow staircase to it. In my mind's eye now, as an adult, the classroom spaces look like an afterthought added on much later. The church had decorated the area well, though, with dark wood paneling in some spots and olive green paint on the main wall. The seats were sized for children, mostly, and the partial attic had been divided into four quarter sections for different activities. The mothers in charge had bought mats, alphabet blocks, and bins of play equipment.

I am not sure how the argument started.

There were eight or nine other children. The Sunday school teacher asked questions about what everyone believed, which seems odd in retrospect. It could mean my grandmother asked the Sunday school teacher to talk with me and this is the way she decided to start.

At any rate, I said, "I'm an atheist."

If you can imagine a thirteen year old bookworm wearing wire-rim glasses, her blonde hair pulled back tight in a bun, dressed like an adult but still looking like a child even to younger children, that was the Holy Babysitter I faced. She seemed smart and sure of herself. She decided to hold a debate with me.

We proceeded through my father's list, almost in perfect order. When I said "Who created God, then?" she seemed shocked and had no other answer than God was exempt from needing a cause. Like a good six-year-old student of logic, I pointed out that meant the universe needed no cause, either.

When we discussed the paradoxes caused by omnipotence, she said my example was 'silly,' which seems fair. But when I asked for an answer, she turned to the other children for a while to move them away into other activities, lest listen to us too much. Also, maybe she wanted to think.

When she returned, she folded her arms and said I should believe or else I'd go to hell.

"Do good people go to hell just if they don't believe?" I asked. 

"Yes." Her response was immediate. Yet, after she said it, her expression fell from stern to sad, almost crushed. She didn't want it to be true.

"Doesn't that seem mean?"

She gave me a worried look. Arms still crossed, she tried to talk about infinite goodness for a while. It's a concept I find attractive even as an adult. As a child, it was certainly something I wanted to be true. I think she could see by the expression on my face that she was making progress at last. 

"He is the best, the goodest, the nicest." She pointed all around the school, as if to indicate how beautiful it was. "If you could see Him, you would want to be his friend. You'd want to stay with Him forever."

I didn't have a counter-argument and, from her point of view, I calmed down. But when she kept talking, I started looking at the covers of the books around me. One of them said "Hymns" and I asked if that's how she spelled God's name: Hymn.

"You can read?" her eyes widened.

I had been reading for years. To her, this was a welcome revelation. She had reached the point of wondering what to do with me now that I had been intrigued by the idea of infinite goodness. In a few seconds, she searched for and found a  big blue book called The Bible Story. It had short words on the pages, printed in big letters. She held it open for me. I started reading. She put it in my hands. I sat down to turn to the next story and gawk at the illustrations.

Half an hour later, the Sunday School leader called me over to the rest of the children.

"But I'm reading," I protested.

Here is where I joined the other kids and my memory ends. I suppose I found playing with the children boring that day. 

So this is sort of the story of my grandmother's strategy. And my father's. And the tactics of the Holy Babysitter, bless her. But in a way, it wasn't my tale except as the tiniest soldier in a spiritual battle. I didn't have my own plan. What I have left from the incident is this slightly embarrassing memory of my grandmother's church.

It may have been embarrassing for my grandmother, too. She never took me back.  

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 347: Poem - Your Pyre

Your Pyre

Forgive me this flatboat;
I feel I have sinned against you
with this crap of logs and planks
but honestly, it was hard work. 
Your wife could not afford a longboat replica.
Worthy ships are expensive, my friend
and you did not save enough. 
This is as much as she and our crew could do.

Forgive this tarp for a shroud because 
we meant to get silk  
but they don't have it at the craft store. 
Anyway, I bought a bolt of linen 
and it didn’t quite cover you. 
You got to be kind of a big guy,
big guy, there at the end,
and you looked too much like a body last night.
So this morning we pulled out the canvas
from your shed.

The boat rental shack gave me no trouble.
Your wife was right about that.
The lady there sold me a tow line, too, 
no questions.
I think I could have been drinking
from an open bottle of whiskey while I paid
and not gotten that woman to care.

Like you asked, well, demanded,
we have loaded you up under the tarp
with all your worldly treasures
but not all, only the ones your wife said were okay.
Ceremonial sword, class ring, 
favorite watercolor painting, lucky cat figure, 
the gold coin, although I hid that from your wife
- look in your inside pocket if you can -
and two pennies taped over your eyes. 
You don't get your wallet in the afterlife, friend,
but I'm pretty sure you won't need it. 

Forgive this kerosene because you asked for tar.
Sure, your idea would work but straw doesn't stay dry
and tar is slow to paint on.
We did paint and paint for hours
but this is a pyre on the water, buddy.
We couldn't rent a boat that's good on the open sea
so the other boats will see us.
I added the cans of kerosene and hair spray
because we won't get many shots at burning.

Forgive your brother and me for almost dumping you
when we lowered your flatboat into the water.
We brought the right equipment, dammit, 
but this stuff is hard.
I almost got caught between boats by the winch
when the tow line pulled down, sudden-like.

Forgive your brother for yelling when I started to light up
because he wanted more distance between the boats.
I'm using an actual fuse for the kerosene.
Well, six of them and two waterproof clotheslines
because I may have to do this twice.
Anyway, be happy. I humored your wussy brother
like you always wanted.

And I only lit it once.
I’m surprised. 
Apparently, I know how to build a bomb, sort of,
and now all the painted tar looks great.
You had a good idea there, buddy.

I remember in high school 
when we were young and strong 
as we drank by a campfire. 
You talked about having a Viking funeral 
and I realized you had fixated on this
since you were about eight, maybe.
We had decades and decades to prepare
but this is as far as we got, man.

Your wife did bring me whiskey.
A whole bottle, bless her,
so I will sit and listen to her speak.
Your brother started cursing at us
but she revealed a pack of cigarettes,
just for him. And so we sit.
We listen.

Well, here come the police, man.
I see the flashing lights in the distance.
Forgive me if I don’t go down fighting. 
I’m not headed for Valhalla.
Anyway, it's just one car.
They don't even have a boat
but I see them waiting at the rental dock.
I think I’ll just let them laugh at me 
And berate me a little 
And I'll sit on this deck and listen to your wife 
as she explains to them in full voice
like the fucking Viking soprano 
you always said she was.

-- Eric Gallagher, 2024 for a friend

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 346: Biomythography - Note 88, Painful Relationships, Part II

Painful Relationships, Part II

How do you tell you're the relatively clueless one in the relationship?

When I was twenty-four, I started dating a woman who, in retrospect, arranged our circumstances so we could become a couple. For a few months, I'd hung out with her and her friends. Twice, maybe three times (it's hard to tell what was going on, especially in retrospect), she stopped her girlfriends from hooking up with me. This included bursting through doors into rooms where I was cuddling. At the time, I figured I had developed a bad reputation and she was simply protecting relatively innocent young women.

One day, she invited me to her place to hang out. Her boyfriend was gone for a few days and she was bored. Despite telling me repeatedly she was lonely, though, she didn't seem to want to socialize with her friends. She kept me in her bedroom instead and confided in me about her problems. They were interesting to hear about, especially her difficulties in college, but as it got later at night and I figured I'd better leave, she grabbed my wrist to stop me at her door.

"You're not tired," she said.

"Not so much." The conversation had gotten sexual and I'd grown uncomfortable. I felt the opposite of tired. Her innuendos had me wired up. I liked her boyfriend, despite her problems with him, and if she was worried about our reputations it couldn't do any good to have me spend the night.
"I've done all the talking." She gently released my wrist.

"I don't mind." I felt flattered she wanted to talk to me so much. She wasn't being selfish. "Really, I like it.

"Well, why don't you tell me about your problems for a minute?"

"Eh, mine are just failed affairs with women."

"Tell me about the one who came down to see you from New York."

After a while, I sat back down to conduct my self-analysis. The young woman made jokes about my love life. She teased me about the former girlfriend who had visited weeks before and another, too, from a couple months before that. After a while, she started touching me. After long enough, I lay down on her floor, in the center of her rug, partly to relax from the tension between us. It was a good place to talk more and listen to her thoughts. Past midnight, she lay down next to me. As we talked, she snuggled up. Her touches grew more sexually direct.

We spent a long few hours, both of us, enduring sexual teasing and tension. Finally, she set up camp on the floor and told me to go to sleep. It took a while, but I managed.

The next day, she fed me before I left her place. At noon, while I was doing chores in my apartment, I got a phone call. It was her. She announced she was breaking up with her boyfriend. She asked me to pick her up from her place and take us out to a restaurant to talk about it.


How can you know when a relationship gets too painful?

I think when nurses attach a ECG to you for a week at a time, when you're put on a hospital diet you didn't want, when you have 'heart blocks' induced by your experimental medicine, when you run out of veins to give blood tests, when the nurses start jabbing up and down your limbs, bruising the back of your arm, bruising the back of your hand, and they rip away patches of skin as they remove ECG pads from your chest, then at last you have a baseline for comparison. When everyone around you is groggy from lack of sleep, when your nurses are crabby with you, when your temporary friends feel glum, and you look around and wonder what's wrong with you, that's how you know.

When being an experimental subject feels light and carefree compared to the rest of your life, that's the  clue. I looked around at my smelly roommates, my medical surroundings, my tubes dripping into red bags, my swathes of tape, my nurses in blue smocks, and I felt good. 

In a situation like this, you want to know why you're happy. Why are you relaxed and joyous when everyone else is concentrating on their imprisonment and torture? It doesn't take long. It just doesn't take much thinking to figure out how the unhappiness is missing. After I considered the problem for a minute, I couldn't escape the conclusion. I dreaded going back to my girlfriend.

At this point, we had been living together for years. She had moved with me from Massachusetts to Maryland. We paid rent on an apartment together. We raised cats.

Before her, though, for two decades or more, my friendships had been the most important aspect of my life. That was a problem, now. My woman couldn't stand for me to visit my friends, even though I tried to include her in every event. She couldn't stop resenting the time I spent writing, either. In fact, any moment I spent not focusing on her was becoming the subject of her ire. The situation had gotten exhausting for me in a way I hadn't been able to recognize until the experiment.

“Can you skip the party this time?" she said, on several occasions. "I’m not feeling well.” 

At other times, it was, “Can we do something else? My foot is sore.”

And, “Aren’t you done yet? Let’s do something together, I'm bored.” 

Every time, she steered me to what she wanted. Also every time, it made perfect sense. If I wanted to go out and do something she didn’t like, she would let me make the arrangement. Then, at the last moment, she would get sick and ask me not to go. Her injuries and ailments were real. I don’t think she was faking anything. In some way, it made her feel bad to have me leave for a few hours.

She genuinely developed medical problems or she felt them more when the time came to see my friends.

“I would like it if you take care of me. Stay for a while.”

“Don’t leave me when I’m feeling feverish.” 

By the end of a couple of years, I had lost day-to-day contact with all of my friends except her. I no longer knew when they were available. They no longer expected me to call.

She was a good person, too. By then, I knew she was being manipulative. She couldn’t stop and she couldn’t really hide it. But she was still good. A lot of people would have liked all her attention.

Here was a thing I was discovering about myself, though. I couldn’t really live without my friends. I couldn’t stay in one place and not leave the house except for my job. I couldn’t live closely with someone who resented my time writing or exercising or dancing. I needed to dance and sing a little. I wanted to exercise more. I yearned to write or, at least to feel the afterglow of having written something.

I no longer wanted to live without the possibility of having children, either. That decision was my betrayal of our relationship. She had said from the beginning she wasn’t interested in having children. On that issue, it was me who changed.

My desire to have a family would, by itself, have signaled the end. I had gone from being slightly interested in parenting to, somehow, feeling sure I could be a decent father. Maybe books were to blame. By that point in my life, I had read Mario Puzo's The Godfather three times and I had solidified my ideas about family.

There is no good compromise over the issue of children. In every other aspect of my life, like everyone else, I was accustomed to making compromises. But there is no raising half a child. There are no part-time parenting jobs. And I wasn’t going to feel right without the sense I was trying to grow a bit more goodness into the world.

Even though she was a manipulator, even though my friends called her out for it and resented her control of me, she would have been a very good match for someone right then, just as she was.


How can you ignore what everyone is telling you? 

For a couple years, my friends had been indicating I was too much in the sway of my woman - that I had stopped doing things that made me happy because of her. Some of my friends didn't use gentle words. But I ignored them. And when I realized, a couple years later, how unhappy I was and decided I had to end the relationship to preserve myself, a lot of the same friends circled back to tell me again.

The result of the decision, though, was a slow, multi-month breakup. 

Not all of our friends were happy with it. Some of them asked us if we would get back together or if we were even really sure about breaking up. 

When they inspired doubts, I remembered the euphoria I had felt in the midst of the medical torture. When everyone else had felt down about our living conditions, I had experienced sublime joy. Yes, she was my life partner and I was happy with her presence. I did my best to look after her and she looked after me. She improved me, day to day. Yet somehow, over a longer stretch of time, the direction of my life made me miserable. 

Over the course of the relationship, I had become more aware of being manipulated. I had considered it a bonus, sometimes, that I was being forced to defend myself more and more. Why not? I could handle it. I figured I could handle pretty much anything. But the revelation was: I was handling it and nonetheless was miserable. 

All it took was a moment of relative freedom for me to understand how off track my life had gotten, how unhappy I was to be stagnant and bereft of small joys. It seemed I would rather be woken up every night to be stabbed with needles than to keep on with the way I was living.

I should have done better. I should have fixed it from the start, somehow. I should have stopped the patterns of manipulation. But I didn't. Couldn't, maybe. And finally I had some awareness of the results.

A year after our breakup, we were still friends. When I visited on an autumn day, she told me she was having hallucinations. They happened often enough she decided to go to the doctor about them. She started taking medicine to control them. 

"I don't like the pills," she admitted. "But I think they help."

She turned her life in a different direction. Knowing about it felt good. Of course, I should have done better myself, earlier. I should have suspected a medical problem. I should have figured it out. But she was and is very smart and good at getting her way. I don't know that better understanding on my part would have helped. It might have set things back a bit if she perceived me pressing her into a decision she didn't trust. 

She made the choice. Although she had been determined to avoid it, when she needed to make the decision, she did. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 345: Biomythography - Note 87, Painful Relationships, Part I

Painful Relationships, Part I

In the spring of 1989, I was working at a full-time writing gig for the University Publications of America, which was in downtown Frederick. I walked to the UPA offices on bright, crisp mornings. Window panes reflected sunbeams down from the upper stories of the brick buildings along my way. The air was cool. The streets were paved. The sidewalks led my way unevenly, their cobblestones at weird angles beneath my shoes.

As with most other small cities in America, Frederick's facades had cracked. Half the residents had fled. And literally, building fronts (although usually the sides) had fractured. Some downtown streets, long ago damaged by Hurricane Agnes, had been left unrepaired for decades. A few buildings on my path remained boarded and windowless on their bottom floors.

The town was poor but somehow, it remained cheery. The streets remained clean. The people I passed on my stroll smiled at me each morning. I waved. We traded comments about the spring weather. And eventually, after enough years, our optimism about our surroundings turned out to be justified.

The downtown revival was a decade away from starting, though. At the time of my UPA job, the city was desperate for money and I was, too. I was lucky to have the gig but my salary barely paid the rent for my multi-room apartment. It didn't let me build up my savings. All the math I did told me was headed into more debt, even beyond my weighty college loans. I needed car repairs right away.

At the end of one of my many morning walks, I picked up the newspaper. Three copies of the Frederick News-Post and one of the Washington Post were delivered to our offices every day. Since I arrived second earliest, I often picked them off the floor behind the transom.

I marched to the front desk and leaned against the corner of it. There, I flapped open the News-Post. Next to me on a shelf by the desk sat sections of the Frederick News-Post from the day before. I could see the classified section on top. Plenty of the editorial staff had been scanning the classifieds for side jobs. I had, too.
Not the paper I was reading but a paper I was writing for.

Do you have two weeks of vacation? read one of the ads. A pharmaceutical company was willing to pay young men to leave their families, a week at a time, for a two-week drug trial. You had to stay on their premises, which was a bit like a hospital. On the other hand, they would feed you. I'd been looking at the same deal for three days.

It was right for me. Sure, it would be a harsh way to use vacation time. But I didn't have much choice.  
I copied down the information.


Somewhere in my notebooks are journal entries from the experience. At the time, I believed I would look through my records to relive the horrors of being an experimental subject. But why would I do that when the memories are so vivid? Besides, since then I've been spoiled by searches through local computer files and online archives. My forays into my paper notes have diminished. By a lot.

Fortunately, I used my journal notes right away to compose a piece for The New Paper in Frederick. I no longer remember what title I gave the article but I know it was not the one the editors decided on. They made it, "Confessions of a Voluntary Guinea Pig." (My paper records were good for this much; I found a copy of the printed article.) Even decades later, the title seems hokey. Did it pull in readers? Probably. But it didn't match my intent or tone.

The editors made me research a side story. It was less fun and they printed it in bigger type, like an ad. They chopped up the prose I'd written for the main Confessions, much to the detriment of the coherency of it, but I know they had to fit my prose into their January 3 edition. They cut their articles to fit, like all editors. My submission excited them but it was also bigger than they found comfortable.

For the first week of January, The New Paper paid me more than usual. I think it was $95 for the pair of stories.

As I re-read my article, I discovered I had forgotten a few things about my time in the experiment:

  • We had to shave our chests. All the men objected to this until threatened with lack of pay.
  • We weren't allowed to eat meat or have caffeine in any form, not even in chewing gum. The company running the experiment checked on it.
  • One guy had abnormal ECG readings and a heart block before the experiment. We teased him. Eventually, he dropped out.
  • After the doses began, we laughed at one another for having heart blocks induced by the medicine.
  • Toward the end, the technicians woke us up to draw blood every two hours.
  • Lack of sleep and hematomas made us lose our sense of humor. We weren't joking at the finish.

Most of all, though, I learned a stranger lesson than I wrote about for the newspaper.

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 344: Biomythography - Note 86, Oppositional Thinking

Oppositional Thinking

The fish I pulled from the pond next to my grandmother's house was bigger than my two hands together. Since I was six, that wasn't much, but it seemed huge at the time.

"Fish don't feel pain!" my uncle Mike shouted. He danced around the silver carp. 

The carp flopped on the sand and rocks, where I had reeled it in to meet our lack of net. Mike skittered beside it, unsure of where to put his feet, unsure of even his hands. He waved his arms without making the move to pick it up. Clearly, I had upset him with my burst of anguish. I'd scowled and cried out when I found I'd caught a living being with a hook through its mouth. It seemed cruel, like a big kid sitting on a smaller one. This time, I was the bigger kid.

I wasn't as big as my uncle, of course. Mike was around twelve, maybe thirteen. He had grown tall and thin with pre-adolescent vigor. Or maybe this was his early adolescence but acne hadn't set in. He hadn't reached his full height, for sure. He seemed to think like a big child, to me, rather than a young adult. He had volunteered 'to teach me how to fish' most likely because he wanted permission from his mother to go fishing. I probably had seemed underfoot, asking lots of questions. He saw it as an opportunity.

"Save it!" I pleaded. I grabbed at the fish. The fins of the carp expanded suddenly in my hands. A spine cut my hand near the thumb. The fish escaped me. 

"I'm trying." He knelt. The carp flopped hard twice, three times, and eluded him. He looked at where I had dropped the fishing pole. He ordered, "Pick it up!"

"I'm hurting him!" I yelled. But I picked up the fishing pole. 

"Fish don't feel pain," he insisted. "They proved it."

I stared at the flopping carp. It had started to tire. Its gills flapped more slowly. Its tail kicked its body over but no longer knocked it into the air. Mike was able to grab it. His fingers found the base of the hook. He started shifting the metal wire from side to side.

While Mike worked the barb free, I gazed into the panicked eyes of the fish. That was pain, in there. And exhaustion. And defeat. I knew I didn't care what anyone said they'd proved. 

This was a new concept to me. I was starting to realize that people sometimes told me things that were wrong. People lied, and not just my little brother when I caught him sneaking a treat. My father told lies. My uncle told lies like this one, apparently. I was starting to sense a pattern. People lied when they wanted to justify something. If the world was a certain way and they didn't like it, they were going to pretend it was how they wanted it to be. 

Part of me, even then, dimly realised Mike insisted fish didn't feel pain because he didn't want to accept the obvious. 

He wasn't the only one. Even in school, I read lessons and talked with teachers about aspects of life that were written down but couldn't really be true. Among those were an insistence that animals couldn't feel pain. 

There are a number of other things I was taught that turned out not to be true:

  • Chicken bones
    • The first time I heard chicken bones are dangerous to dogs, it upset me. A lot. I'd been feeding chicken bones to dogs for years. In my life, it was too late to hear it was dangerous. Since then, I've seen bunches of dogs eat bunches of chicken bones. There's never been a problem with it. My dogs have all been mutts except for one abandoned Brittany Spaniel but the Brittany Spaniel ate bones, too. And lived to a grey age. 
  • Animal pain
    • It's not an "other" thing but if you object to this, you could be on the autism spectrum. It's more likely that you're willfully delusional, though. Also, just wait until the next item on this list.
  • Plant pain
    • It's obvious, if you watch plants, they have pain reactions. Even one-celled creatures have pain reactions you can see under microscopes, so this is nothing startling to hear about in plants. On a multi-cellular (but largely invisible) level, cilantro, marigolds, and other plants exude scents to attract predator bugs when they are attacked by aphids. Acacia trees react by releasing tannins and ethylene when antelopes eat their leaves. Their tannins poison the leaves and the ethylene warns other trees. You may not feel empathetic towards plants but nevertheless, they have pain reactions. 
  • Slavery
    • In elementary school, I was taught slavery had been abolished. Since I had read every book I could on Harriet Tubman and wanted the victory to be true and complete, I believed it. By junior high, I was starting to notice references in the newspaper to what seemed like slavery. By college, I understood a bit more about human nature. Also, newspapers had started to acknowledge slavery hadn't been wiped out everywhere. 
  • Blood plasma 
    • In my first EMT class and similar classes on first aid, I was taught that blood plasma infusions restore needed fluids to the body and keep veins from collapsing. In fact, administering "plasma first" was killing people at the time, lots of them. In the 1990s, Dr. Jeffery Kashuk and other researchers figured out the problem and proved it to such an extent that they changed the standard practices of trauma care. The death toll estimates from this single, bad medical practice soared into the millions. People started wondering if lawsuits were coming. Then the newspapers stopped printing anything more about it.  
  • The human brain
    • In my youth, a debate raged over whether humans were effectively pre-programmed or the mind was a blank slate. We now know definitively the mind does not begin as a blank slate. Studies of language acquisition and other forms of cognitive development show we have hard-wired inclinations. The extent of what this means is still a great topic but the blank slate part is done. 
  • Continental drift
    • When I was a child, the continents were static and unmoving in my textbooks. And in my school teachers. The debates over the topic raged even while the older generation of geologists died off and continental drift won acceptance. 
  • The land bridge
    • Early studies showed the diversity of American Indian languages meant the group of people speaking them had been isolated from the Old World for about 60,000 years. I didn't know this particular fact when I was taught about the land bridge in elementary school. Even in fourth grade, though, the idea of an ice-free corridor seemed suspicious. The theory eventually turned out to be a weird sort of wishful thinking from scholars who couldn't stand to see the Americas having a long human tradition, sometimes for religious or ethnic reasons. 
  • Earthworms
    • Everyone told me earthworms were good and natural when I was growing up. In the Americas, they are invaders and powerful predators in the soil. After the icebergs receded, there were no earthworms in North America until Europeans came and introduced them. American soils were a completely different biome from the Eurasian one. The toll on American microbes and other native life is still uncounted - and perhaps uncountable.
There are plenty of other examples but so many, in fact, I know I'll never remember them all. Lots of concepts I was taught in my childhood have not held up. It's easy to see the patterns of commercial interests and just plain wishful thinking that won people over to these views and makes them linger today despite the facts and obvious pains staring us in the face. I would attribute, in part, my "oppositional thinking" habits to observing so much wishful thinking from my friends and family. That, and my father being so quickly oppositional, himself. He set an example. 

Wishful thinking might not always win. It certainly remains a powerful force in our lives, though. It always will.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 343: Biomythography - Note 85, Cultural Identities

Terminology and the Times We Live In

Generally, people don’t have much emotional understanding of how great the differences are among our cultures. We don't get to live in different societies (there's not enough time nor enough travel in our lives) and, in particular, we underestimate the gaps in comprehension imposed by the eras in which we live. 

Nowadays, the linguistic terms for many aspects of life are changing. Having more gender terms is a big social movement. This sort of language drift is natural. It happens more or less constantly. Sometimes it leaves me behind or I find I've gotten too far ahead in some way. I have internalised Buddist, Stoic, and Daoist terms and definitions because they are appropriate to the way I think. For a while, this put me ahead of some American cultural shifts. Since then, a lot of our sub-cultures have adopted aspects of these schools of thought. They've added to the lexicons of them as well, so I find myself needing to catch up.

It surprises me still how much the Buddhist outlook affects my everyday, moment-to-moment living. (Although I refer to Buddhism here for the sake of being understood, Daoism and Stoicism would be as appropriate. All three philosophies share a core set of values.) 

Sometimes I hear trending phrases like, "I identify myself as ..." from a Buddhist perspective. A basic tenet of Buddhism is the need to erase the 'self.' Identity is not merely irrelevant; it's contra-indicated by the philosophy. This makes the current, popular obsession with identity seem like a wave of anti-enlightenment. Perhaps it is. 

We don't need to know a person's identity to treat them well. We don't need to know, maybe, even if they are a person or not.

Of course, part of the difference in the context of 'identity' is generational. Maybe the trend in terminology represents a group of people taking an outlook in their sub-culture that I did not take, that was not even a concept when I was young enough to be influenced by it. Maybe I am bereft of modern conceptions, like my old boss was when I mentioned the term 'people skills.'

Early in my computer science career, I had a supervisor who was fairly nice and constantly made a bad impression. He had a grating voice. You could hear him in a crowd of thousands without him raising his volume. He looked unathletic. He wore unfashionable clothes. Worst of all, in his conversations he always challenged everyone else's ideas. That was his conversational reflex, a habit burned into him by either his family or his academic environment. 

If you proposed a solution, he would say "No, that won’t work! This is how it works. Here’s why."

He expected you to challenge him back. It was how he conversed. It was how he solved problems. If he was shown wrong, he changed his view to something better almost instantly - a highly admirable trait. To me, it became obvious how to challenge him casually. To his co-workers, apparently it was not so obvious. Many of the doctors he worked with hated him. His fellow scientists found him irritating. His bosses tried to fire him. 

He was so bad with people, I tried to coach him how to be better. (He accepted the coaching, too; he knew he had problems with his co-workers.) In the process, I remembered an odd moment from when I was growing up. One of the neighbors on my block turned to another and said, "Well, you are either good with people or you aren't."

For a moment, I wondered why such an old memory would come to me. Then I realized: my boss belonged to that generation. He had grown up with the idea that you were either good with people or you were not. And he was not. Once he had understood his place, he never tried to change it. The idea that you are born a certain way is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. Eventually, he didn't want to hear anything more about improving his people skills.

Moving back to the concept of identity - the current emphasis on it can feel like anti-enlightenment activity but maybe it's really not. When people study Buddhism, Stoicism, or Daoism, they mostly focus on improving themselves. The canons of those systems focus on how an individual can be better. What they hardly ever mention is how cultures can clash, how one sub-culture might affect another, or any other aspect of people in large, organized groups. In the context of groups, using the term 'identity' may mean something different than it does in the context of individuals. Admittedly, it might not be different enough to avoid reasonable Buddhist objections. But still, subscribers to the Way may understand the word 'identity' in this group sense is meant to be interpreted as a place within a culture.

Saying, "I identify as a Buddhist" might not signify anything more than "I am an office worker." There is not necessarily a problem with either statement. If one arises, it's likely to come from how the person making the statement is clinging to a sense of identity. No matter how noble, ignoble, or simply socially aware a sense of identity happens to be, the attachment to it seems, to me, to be the real issue. 

Picking up these senses of identification in their context and then putting them down when the context changes should be fine. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 342: Biomythography - Note 84, Sadmares


The last time I had a nightmare sufficient to wake me, I was twenty-one. That fall, on the campus of Hampshire College, my girlfriend kept telling me about her dreams. Every breakfast for weeks, for months, I listened to those tales. My mind and body reacted oddly to the constant discussion of dreams. After enough time, a) I started remembering my own, b) I experienced more lucid dreams, and c) I experienced my last nightmare before having children. Those things changed our conversations.

In my last nightmare, I ran from a monster, turned around, discovered it was a large dog, and killed the dog. It may not qualify as a terror dream but it was enough to wake me, heart pounding. There was a horror to the triumph over the dog, plus fear and anger. After I had children, of course, I experienced occasional nightmares concerning the death of one child or another. Every parent has those, I think, or at least they seem to be common occurrences.

Until the death of my mother, though, I had never experienced a dream so sad I woke up from the surge of emotion. I've never even heard of other people having those. I didn't know the experience was one of life's options. Or that I would not have any other real option, myself.

My mother died on Memorial Day. The evening after was a long one, restless and full of family duties. When I finally felt I could sleep, the time was past midnight. I glanced at the clock as I forced myself to lie down.

I remained in bed for a self-disciplined minute, exhausted and fidgeting. When I closed my eyes, I fell asleep. I emerged into a blackness followed by a room with light green walls. I found myself striding toward a seat in the room. The furniture was white and cushioned. The area seemed a little like a hospital. But the room was quieter than I expected. The furnishings were in soft focus, glowing. Even as I took my spot, I didn't like the place. I knew I was waiting to receive news I didn't want to hear. In a moment, my mother came out. She was dressed in a green, short-sleeved shirt. She sat down in the chair next to me. Her eyes found mine. I stared back, knowing she was dead, knowing she had come to tell me about her death. Sorrow welled up in my chest as if I would burst. And I awoke.

My arms turned my body. I rolled out of the covers before I was completely aware of myself. And I stood in such a pang of anguish that for a moment I couldn't breathe.

My body heaved with slow inhale, deep and calm. I was awake. There was no question of getting back into bed. A sense of misery had enlivened every nerve in my body. In a minute, I got dressed. As I finished putting on my socks, I glanced at the clock. Ten minutes had passed since I forced myself to lie down.

The next night, I experienced more of the same. I slept for a few minutes at a stretch. Each time, I started doing something ordinary in my dream. My mother appeared beside me. Sometimes I spent a few seconds with her, feeling the grief well up inside and all around me. Then I awoke.

I rose, paced the room, and returned to bed to repeat the process. After about two and a half hours, I decided to stop trying to sleep. I started my workday early.

On the third evening, I slept almost a full night. I woke once in a feverish bout of dream-sadness. After that, I dozed with the deepness of the merely exhausted.


Four years later, my father fell and broke his hip. His doctors didn't want to operate because they thought anesthesia might kill him. They had to try, though, and he survived their operation. He felt much better after it.

Then the hospital administered opiates. Everything started going wrong. As had happened to him before under opiates, his digestion slowed and part of his intestine died. This time, unlike when he was sixty, the doctors declined to try to stop the spread of sepsis. He was eighty-three. They felt sure he wouldn't make it through a second operation in three days. Instead, they committed him to dying as the sepsis took over.

For a few days, he lay in a sort of in-between hospital care, not in a hospice ward but in a room posted with instructions on the limitations of his treatment. Instead of medicines, the staff increased his doses of morphine.

On the morning he died, I made these notes after I woke to go see him:

I dreamt about seeing my dad in Holy Cross. It was room 10, all normal, but my dad was unconscious. I was out in the hall talking with my son, Dylan Kyle, watching my dad through the glass.  Then my mom showed up in the hall looking about fifty-five. She had a baby carrier in her left arm and the infant Dylan Kyle in it. She was beaming, happy. But then I knew it was a dream. And I got really sad and woke up.

The night after his death, which was the next night, I wrote about a different sort of dream to my wife.

I was walking on the street carrying groceries. My father called me on the phone. I looked up. Although he was calling over my cell phone, I could see him in an apartment high up above. I knew it was white and green on the inside.

"I have done part of the crossword puzzle," he told me. He was dying. I knew he was dying. We had been through this before. He had been dying every night. Every night, over and over.

My father knew that he was dying, too. I could hear it in his voice.

"The crossword puzzle," he insisted. "Take a look at it when you come up."

I climbed the stairs to the apartment knowing that he would be dead when I got there.  A feeling of sadness swept over me, as I knew that it had before. But this time he had started the crossword puzzle. That was the thing. He had called because he had wanted me to know he'd left me something to do.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 341: Biomythography - Note 83, My Personality Type

My Personality Type

The popular personality tests used in business - the Myers Briggs Indicator, the Eyseneck, the Hogan Personality Inventory, Keirsey Temperament - are all junk. Well, maybe that's too harsh. Maybe they are just misused.

Underlying these measurement systems is the obvious ability of any quiz to classify people according to answers they give. Is the classification useful? The usefulness must be linked to the questions and whether they matter to why you're organizing or re-organizing your people.

Why are you sorting people?

Sometimes, you need to arrange individuals into teams. That's a time when we all want to understand who we're dealing with. A test can be useful in that situation. I admit I've met at least one good personality metric, a U.S. Army psychology regimen developed for building compatible teams. Long ago, the Army tried to build superteams of its best performers and they failed. Utterly. Gunnery squads from from tiny West Virginia towns, within which there were some members who couldn't read, were better than the superteams of best performing artillery gunners from across the country. Why? The Army tried to systematically uncover the reasons. They managed to do it, too, to a great extent. And they learned to build better teams.

I'm not going to go into the how or why. I've noticed the information about the Army system has disappeared from the Internet so I'm going to assume the Army has quietly pulled it back, probably because someone thinks it's useful.

Instead, I'm going to talk about DISC.

DISC stands for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance. The terms could be anything, though; with the right questionnaire, sorting people into Hogwarts houses would be equally valid.

"Boss, I don't like it. This is bullshit," one of my staff murmured to me as he accepted his paper copy. His face wore a resigned frown.

"Me neither." With an eye on our overboss, I sat down and started penciling in answers. "Let's do it."

He sighed. "Sure."

My specific sub-culture at work consists of people who are notorious for not liking team-building exercises. That's how technical people usually are. Nevertheless, we were called upon to join in. We met in the main conference room with the rest of the staff and filled in our forms. My crew members whispered their complaints in low, careful tones.

As with most personality tests, we had to answer different forms of the question, "what are people like?" I felt so tired that I didn't try to game the system by filling in answers I knew my bosses would prefer. It probably wouldn't have helped anyway, since the DISC survey addressed most subjects in a narrow fashion. For example, I remember "Do people turn in assignments late?" as one line. There were other, similar options posed in the same, constricted, yes-or-no manner. Because of how each had been worded, there was no honest choice. No one could have truthfully answered anything other than "people turn in work late" because people do, sometimes.

The questions forced my answers and I didn't fight. I gave in to the over-simplified views even though I knew that each topic had to be used to categorize workers. So people must, as a rule, interpret the DISC questions and statements contrary to the actual words. I turned into a literalist, which is a very computer scientist thing to do, and finished my survey second out of a group of thirty even though I felt as if I had dwaddled through it, fuming about the wordings and the inescapable logic of each narrow focus.

"We'll be back with the results in a minute," said one of the organizers. Her team graded them as we handed them in. Since they were using an apparently customized DISC with forty questions, the grading didn't take as long as 'full DISC.'

While we waited, I helped other early finishers adjust the labels for our DISC profile groupings. Following the guidance from a DISC moderator, we had posted signs around the room with eight designations. I moved a sign, found tape, and handed out pieces of tape to others who wanted to straighten up. The eight signs said, D (for direct/dominant), Di (dynamic), I (interactive/influential), Si (agreeable or trusting), S (soft-hearted), SC (cautious), C (reserved/unemotional), DC (disciplined and critical). We had them spread around eight 'corners' of the room.

It was our biggest conference room, thirty feet long. Even with the furniture in it, we had space to move.

"We're ready to begin the grouping," the moderators said when they re-entered the room. Due to luck of the draw, or perhaps because they used a last-in-first-out system as they graded, the announcement for my assignment came near the end. First, I got to watch as each staff member in turn walked to a DISC category sign. Many of them ended up in sensible locations, I noticed, although a few seemed mildly wrong.

"Eric," the shorter, darker-haired moderator announced. She picked up my paper and read from the top. "C-D."

She meant the DC group, which was the disciplined and critical people. As I stood up, to my shock, several women hissed. I heard a gasp escape my boss before she covered her mouth. Another supervisor covered her mouth, too. I paused. Then I continued my stroll toward my group. It had taken me a second to understand why everyone had such a strong reaction. The DISC process had lumped me together with the two unfriendliest people in the office.

These two stern women were both black and middle aged. They liked me well enough and I enjoyed working with them, too. Oddly, though, they didn't want to see me grouped with them. One of them crossed her arms and frowned. The other, shaking her head with a warm smile, leaned close as I arrived.

"I think you might be in the wrong place," she whispered.

"Maybe?" I allowed. I considered the reasons why it felt uncomfortable. Why were they perceived as unfriendly and I was considered warm and gentle? Sex? Race? Being disciplined and being critical were both appropriate traits to assign to me. (So were the other categories, really, but that's how these exercises work.)

I glanced around. Women and men seemed distributed fairly evenly in the room. Black women had a pretty wide distribution, too, and I knew them all. The reason other people didn't like me in the critical group didn't seem to have anything to do with sex or race. The two people next to me in the DC category really were the most stand-offish we had, except maybe when they worked with me. They were infamous for not being friendly to their co-workers.

"He is really results oriented," the friendlier woman said to her shorter, more sullen companion.

"Huh." The comment made the woman's shoulders relax. "Yeah."

We talked about the questions for a few minutes. Maybe we should have been listening more to the moderators but we had gotten interested in what made us similar. And intrigued by what made us so different, too. Pretty soon, I realized that these women answered "people turn in assignments late" on the quiz with a sense of disdain. To them, other people weren't dependable. Ever. In fact, the reason they liked me was because I didn't over-promise things. I delivered what I said I would. They were prepared to be disappointed in me eventually, as they had been with everyone else, but so far, I was still acceptable. 

"Okay!" Clap, clap, clap. The taller moderator strode forward. She brought her hands together, trying to get our attention.

"Okay, okay," said other women around our office, including the second moderator. The first moderator clapped three more times.

"Some of the people here feel they have been mis-categorized," she continued. "It happens pretty often with mid-level DISC questionnaires. We have an approved method of dealing with it. The DISC certification authority said our method is fine."

Her partner nodded.

"What you do is, you can make one diagonal move. You can walk from the SI sign to SC or you can walk from SI to DI. That means you can change one letter if your measured DISC scale has two letters. You can't go to a neighboring scale because that's not the way the questions work. You have to move on a diagonal."

I already knew where I planned to move. As I leaned toward it, the woman continued, "And you have to give a reason."

That made me snort. I already knew my reason. I'd come to the conclusion while talking to the others in my assigned scale.

At first, I was the only one to make a move. The call for a justification statement about the change made everyone else hesitate. But I already knew. And as soon as I'd moved from DC to DI, the moderators surged toward me. The exercise leader posed as if she were a reporter on the street who had caught a politician before he could escape to his car. Using her right fist, she leaned an imaginary microphone in my direction.

“You left the antisocial group," she said. "I mean, the skeptical and critical scale. Can you explain why?”

“People are awful,” I told her. A couple people gasped, including my boss. “But I love them.”

This brought on a second gasp, which modulated into a collective sigh. The room seemed to breathe easier. I heard someone giggle. Everyone smiled except my interviewer.

“Oh!” She cocked her left eyebrow.

From another diagonal, I saw an office mate practically skipping towards me. She was making her move and she knew her reason. She grinned like she had just finished laughing, which maybe she had.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 340: Poem - Gentle into the Night

Gentle into the Night 

Gaze with me into the darkness of the night
During our lazy stroll at the close of day,
Talking, holding hands in the waning of the light.

The first star twinkles in a blue twilight
And beside us rests a glow of orange and gray.
Let us share a smile as we pass from dusk to night. 

We have not triumphed. We have not reached our highest height.
We have tried and we fixed things along our way,
Talking, holding hands in the waning of the light.

In this trail of shadows, you are my heart's delight
You are the source of my excuses and delay
So I am amused by my dotage as I pass into the night.

My body will cool. My limbs will lose their youthful might. 
Still I am comforted by our habitual dance and sway,
Together, holding hands in the waning of the light.

In the dusk I toil, my eyes failing their mortal sight.
Far from family, on rocky paths my footfalls stray
But with you in mind, I am at ease as I pass into the night.

If I am blessed to be with you again, the evening set to right,
We shall in good company keep our work and play 
Together, holding hands in the waning of the light.

I will walk at whatever pace you need into the coming night.
Together, holding hands in the waning of the light.

– Eric Gallagher, for Diane, 2024

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 339: A Sort of Logic

Not Even Not Zen 339

This is a fragment of writing that will likely never appear in a story. I don't have a place for it currently, at least, and no plans to build around it. The dialogue would fit into a stage routine. Nothing else seems likely. The stage routine would likely have to be disjointed.

The Process of Induction

"Therefore an orbit is a rotation because it comes from ..."

"A rotato?"

The instructor lowered his arm. He looked at his student for a moment as if he did, in fact, believe his ears but he wished he didn't. 

"Perhaps I misheard," he said in a voice that reverberated with 'but I doubt it.'

"You know ... a rotato?  Using logic."

"Pray tell, what is the logic you say you have involved?" The fellow's voice sounded weary but his upturned eyebrow revealed that he was curious. 

"Vodka is a potation because it is distilled from a fermented potato."

"Odd, but I suppose that's true."

"A rotato is implied. An orbit is a rotation because ..."

"Ah," the instructor interrupted. He didn't know quite what to say yet. "Ah. Aha."

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 338: Biomythography - Note 82, Die Metzgerei

Die Metzgerei

This is a fragment of a memory. 

Walking as a toddler was exhausting. When I recall details from incidents like this one, though, I'm surprised to rediscover my child-like sense of how difficult it was to move at the pace of grown-ups. In the last half of toddler-hood, it did get easier. Early on, when this takes place, my exhaustion was a burden on everyone, including my parents.

My understanding that I was a burden was limited. I had a vague sense I should be faster. I should walk for longer without needing picked up or getting to rest on a bench. 

I may have been two, about to turn three.

"Look, I'll give you a treat," my mother promised. 

We stood on the street, blocks from home. My legs ached. My eyes had fallen half shut. I'd missed my usual nap time an hour before. I had burst into tears twice on the shopping trip. But my mother needed to visit what locals called der metzger, the butcher. 
"Lollipop?" I asked. I knew the butcher kept a jar of them on the counter next to his cash register. My father had refused to get me one, last time.

My mother nodded. I stifled my sobs and accepted her hand over mine. She guided me into the shop. A bell on the door rang. I shivered at the noise. 

Immediately, the scents of disinfectants and raw, red cuts of meat wafted over me. From experience, I knew parts of the butcher shop smelled weird and other parts were good, especially when I was hungry. Bright red cuts of meat lay behind glass cases. Most of them shone, they were so vivid, dramatic, and neatly done. The fat around the edges glistened white. Below the cases, the floor looked dull. It smelled of leaf dust and concrete grit tracked in from the sidewalk. The stone tiles of the shop looked clean, I knew, but I could smell the detritus from shoes. More, I felt the mustiness of centuries. This building had been around for hundreds of years. And as we passed near the register, I smelled sugar. 

The lollipops sat like a bouquet of perfect flowers in a brownish, clay jar. The jar rested on the counter. My mother let me gape at the arrangement for a few seconds, those yellow circles atop white sticks, each in a cellophane wrapper. Then she took a number from a machine that dispensed customer numbers and we waited. 

Rationally, I'm aware it must have taken time to get a cut of meat. It always did. But I don't remember waiting. I have a vague sense of dialogue above me. It took place in a mix of English and German. I may have fallen asleep on my feet for a while. I may have talked with another child in the line. None of it made much of an impression.

I don't remember getting the lollipop. Suddenly, I had one in my right hand. That part is clear.

I gaped in wonder. I raised it to my mouth. When it hit my tongue, I shuddered. I was startled by the lemon, sour taste. A moment later, I slurped on it again, drawn to the sugar. I suppose I would have eaten anything mixed with enough sweetener. Above me, the conversations continued in English and in German. After a while, I got the impression that the butcher thought my mother and I were cute. Or maybe he was just being nice. He was a large, scary man. He had a dark shirt and a white apron, smeared with blood stains. Usually, his demeanor was stern and demanding. This time, he had decided to not to charge us for my treat. 

"Say thank you," my mother whispered down to me. Suddenly, she seemed embarrassed. It was certainly true that, by the rules of our house, I hadn't been polite.

I took the treat out of my mouth. But the sight of the butcher, even when he was smiling, intimidated me. He put his hands on his hips. He tapped his foot once as he waited. Before I could speak, I had to step behind my mother's leg. I paused, trying to remember how best to be polite.

"Danke shoen," I said. I'm not sure why I answered in German. It seemed the thing to do.

The huge man could not have been more delighted. He must have expected an American toddler in his shop to issue a grudging word of thanks in miserable English. Instead he got a formal, extremely polite 'thank you' from me and it was in German. Startled, he roared with a laugh. His voice was so loud, it frightened me all over again.

"Bitte!" he shouted.

I burst into tears. 


As usual, even this brief memory is more fragmented in my mind than it appears on a page. I'm guessing at some of the dialogue and inferring a sense of continuity for the event. Internally, the aspect of this that stands out most in my recollection is the deep voice behind the word 'bitte.' It frightened me so much, it made me remember some of the details leading up to it, I suppose. 

I notice in my description of the butcher shop and elsewhere, too, how the smells from my childhood seem exaggerated as I write about them. But I'm being true to my memories. 

Before we learn to make sense of the world visually and to describe it to others, again mostly visually, the rest of our senses may loom a bit larger. 

When I first saw spaghetti on my plate, I was five years old. The sauce-soaked pasta looked disgusting. I refused to eat it. I was risking a spanking when I said no. My parents weren't patient about food, usually. This time they were, at least a little. They waited. As the lump of leaking stuff sat in front of me, smelling better and better, I gained a different understanding of food. I learned the sight of spaghetti didn't have to be associated with the disgust reserved for entrails. 

The sense of smell won again.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 337: Biomythography - Note 81, Schvartz Pater

Schvartz Pater

For Germany and for December, the weather was good. There was no snow on the ground. My mother had dressed me warmly, in layers. The outer layer included my plaid driver's cap and heavy jacket. 

I squinted away from the sun as we walked. The sky was clear above except for a few, wispy clouds, which meant the day felt too bright. Breezes swept across the street. They came in gusts, always unexpected by me, and they chilled my ears and face. However, my mother kept my hand in hers. I constantly felt her warmth. Once or twice, she stopped to visit shops along the street. When she did, I took shelter from the wind behind her legs.

"Home!" I begged as my mother engaged in a long conversation with another woman from the American military base. I pulled on her jacket sleeve. "Please home!"

"I don't know where your father is," my mother sighed. "He should have met us here."

"Home, please!"

After I continued pleading for ten minutes or so, she nodded. She said goodbye to her acquaintance. We walked forty meters and turned a corner onto our street, only a few blocks from our home. There, we wandered into an unexpected throng of people. They lined the sidewalks on either side of the road. We heard noises from pedestrians striding up the middle of the asphalt. To my puzzlement, some of the people wore costumes, rough leather on the men, green dresses on the women. A few of the women sparkled.

In my toddler range of experience, no one walked in the middle of the streets in Bitburg. No one wore outlandish clothes. Adults would shout if you tried either of those things. I stared at the approaching parade, fascinated.

The rough-looking men passed through. A pair of wooden carts followed them, pushed by boys and girls, then the women who sparkled. A man in a blue and white robe marched toward us. Some of the Germans in the crowd muttered a phrase I knew, 'Heiliger Nikolaus.' Someone else said, 'Sinter Klaus.' I started bouncing on my toes. I wasn't sure about Nikolaus but I knew Sinter Klaus. He gave out gifts.

"Oh, it's Saint Nicholas," my mother said.

As the figures grew closer, I noticed how the saint looked thin and stern. He thumped along with a tall, golden scepter. Once or twice, he stopped to threaten us by waving it around. He seemed ready to bash anyone who didn't act pious enough.

"He’s scary," I whispered.

"He's fine. He's good," my mother assured me. "He's not going to hurt you."

I remembered my father telling me that Saint Nicholas was holy and benevolent. One of his partners, though, was the dangerous one, Schvartz Pater.

Every town in Germany and, in fact, every municipality in Europe had a different tradition for Saint Nicholas. I didn't know the differences then. Even now, the town traditions are changing slightly every year. I don't think anyone can really know all the differences in all the places in Europe. As a toddler I had a basic level of awareness from my parents. I knew Bitburg had a folklore about Schvartz Pater (here, I am spelling it the way I heard it as a toddler). I may be confused in my fragmented memory. I was seeing the pageant as a small group of volunteers in a relatively small town played it out in the middle of the 1960s. 

Behind and to the right of Saint Nikolaus strode the bad guy, Schvartz Pater. Pater was thin and moved in an exaggerated way. His legs took him on a course that weaved from side to side, not the straight path that Nikolaus chose. He wore a grey jacket, shabby trousers, and a bag thrown over his shoulder. In his off-hand he carried a thin bundle of sticks. He had smudged his face lightly with charcoal but he had neglected to smudge his hands.

Even to my three-year-old eyes, Schvartz Pater was a chimney sweep. In this particular parade, he had dressed very much like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a movie I had recently seen on German television. I didn't understand a lot of the movie but I loved the Dick Van Dyke character. The figure of Schvartz Pater was meant to scare children but the local actor who played him hammed it up so much that he smiled, enjoying himself. He seemed ready to burst out into a dance with penguins. I didn't find him anywhere near as threatening as Heiliger Nikolaus.

"Oh, there you are, Ann." Apparently, my father had arrived. He didn't smell as much like cigar or pipe smoke as he usually did, at least not on a windy day in the outdoors. I hadn't noticed him approaching. Although I must have glanced at him, the sight of my father could not compete with the parade. I don't remember how he looked. When I noticed Heiliger Nikolaus looming close, though, I backed up.

My parents chuckled. So did a few other adults nearby.

"Be careful," my father warned. "If you're bad, Schvartz Pater will put you in his sack."

Many of the Germans nearby nodded. They understood English well enough to hear the warning. They approved.

My father had explained it several times before. If parents felt a child of theirs wasn't obeying instructions and needed a good scare, they could pay Schvartz Pater to pretend to kidnap him. The parents would act helpless, of course, as if under a magical spell from Heiliger Nikolaus. Schvartz Pater would put the child in his sack. Then he would carry him for a while until the child cried. Pater and Nikolaus, maybe as a team, would make the child agree to be good and listen to his parents. Nikolaus would order Pater to release the boy (well, it was almost always a boy) on the condition that he improve himself and listen to his long-suffering parents. 

The fact that my parents had explained this as I was reading (or, when younger, simply looking at) books of German fairy tales, made the sight of Schvartz Pater seem almost friendly. Heiliger Nikolaus strode by and he paused to berate someone for not being holy enough. His presence intimidated me but, fortunately, he kept moving. Behind him, Pater tapped someone with his bundle of sticks - or merely tried, as the boy dodged - and he chastised some other youngster. When he passed me, though, he crouched and gave me a big smile, just for an instant, then he rose and marched onward.

I didn't want the parade to leave. Most especially, I didn't want to let the chimney sweep Schvartz Pater escape my sight. But I was surrounded by adults. They loomed. They seemed to exist in a huge, frightening world of walking in the street, shouting, and waving. It was all too much. I stood frozen, gaping at the characters as they left. If they had circled around the block, I could have gawked at the parade all day.


Zwarte Peter

The above is my dim memory of an experience with a character I remember hearing as Schvartz Pater. The scene had to be from Bitburg or Hamburg. Those cities were the only two in Germany with army bases where my parents taught after I was born.

Zwarte Peter, though, is a character I've read about as an adult. That makes him different. Do I need to have an opinion on customs in another land where Zwarte Peter is a black man, a freed slave who serves Heiliger Nikolaus? Not necessarily. I'm almost certainly under-informed. 

I'm aware of the history enough to know Zwarte Peter was a character created out of good intent. An abolitionist wrote him into the Christmas Pageant stories to show that black men could be good, too. But he seems like a bit of an afterthought in most of the European celebrations, a token, and when he plays the role that Schvartz Pater or Krampus plays in other towns, well, it's confusing to outsiders, I'm sure. The only dark-skinned character is an enforcer for Saint Nicholas and kidnaps children? Great. You can see how any of the few dark-skinned immigrants to Germany might be bothered to see Peter as the only example of an African visible in the parade.

You would think most German townsfolk would shrug and say, oh well, it's time to let this part if the story drop out. But no, once something is established for a generation, it's loved by anyone who grew up with it. People like traditions. They like obedience in children, too, and Zwarte Peter helps to reinforce it.

One obvious solution to the European image problem with Zwarte Peter, if the various towns regard it as a problem at all, would be to include a number of other African or Moorish characters in the celebration stories. That way, Zwarte Peter would not be such an obvious token. It wouldn't play badly to have him an enforcer, even, if other characters who looked somewhat like him played the parts of (for example) Reindeer Herder or Spring Approaching. They wouldn't have to push out established characters. Add more in.

It's worth pointing out that Saint Nicholas himself grew up in what is now Turkey. He was lean and pious, by most accounts, but surely it's reasonable to portray him as fairly dark skinned, too. 

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 336: Biomythography - Note 80, On Novocaine (III)

On Novocaine 
Part III

When my wife got fully employed, we switched to her insurance. We explored our new healthcare options. I settled on a dentist after years of searching. The reason I settled on one was unrelated to our insurance, unfortunately. (It was unfortunate for our finances, not our health. Our health improved with a better dentist.)

We had moved from practice to practice while we tried to find dental care we could tolerate. Finally, through a recommendation, I located an excellent dentist. Unfortunately, he did not take any insurance. At all. I was shocked by how expensive he was. But despite his higher costs, I brought the family into his offices. I'm cheap, yes, but I wanted all of us to benefit from his care.

Some professionals have a deft touch. They are so much better than others you would think they were in a different, higher calling. He was one. He also took a 'no pain' approach to his practice, which I felt was an impossible but noble goal. He came surprisingly close to achieving it. In retrospect, his personality helped. He talked me through the procedures. He acted as if I were interested in the art of dentistry. He made it interesting. With him, root canals seemed routine. Years ahead of anyone else, he declared that enamel fillings and caps were his standard. He studied the results of each procedure with care and taught me not to accept sub-standard work. 

"Speak up if something doesn't feel right," he would say. He knew from his first look into my mouth that I had a tendency to accept bad work. 

He also noticed my twinges of pain before I did during each procedure. He renewed my doses of novocaine when he felt it was appropriate. His careful attentions lulled me into feeling I was normal with respect to my body chemistry. Well, I mostly was, I suppose. But everyone responds a little differently to medicines. Everyone fits into the human range of reactions. It's rare to find a person who has the typical response every time to every treatment. 

Just as it turns out hardly anyone has a normal body temperature, it's unlikely anyone has a completely typical internal chemistry. 

The Final Clue

After the birth of my third child, I talked to my doctor about getting a vasectomy. She gave me a referral to a specialist less than a mile away, a woman who did the procedures on an out-patient basis. (As it turns out, the operation is almost always done in an out-patient way. I had never given it any thought before.) 

I reported to my first appointment and found it was mostly an explanation. I had to listen and fill out forms saying I agreed to have the procedure done. I don't remember any other preparation. My second appointment with her was the operation. 

As with many previous procedures, all with dentists, this one started with a shot of novocaine. The surgeon did such a skillful job of it, though, I don't remember the injection. My first vague recollection is of her testing the results.

"Do you feel this?" she asked.

"Yeah, a bit." I couldn't see what she was doing but I could tell the location on my body. 


She administered another dose, possibly the third in her series. She returned a few minutes later.

"Can you feel this?" she asked. She poked me where she was planning to make her incision. 

"A little."

"Does it hurt?"

"No." Now that I had an idea of what I should say, I tried to let her know it was fine to proceed. I wanted her to get on with the operation. "I can always feel pressure, heat, and cold after novocaine. But my dentist goes ahead and drills anyway. It's fine."

She had finished her pre-surgery preparations earlier. She had tidied up around me after the last shot. There really wasn't much more for her to do except start cutting. So she positioned her chair, sat in it, adjusted her position relative to me, and made the first cut. I felt the pull of the incision but there was no pain. 

I smelled rather than felt the soldering iron when she burned the ends of the vas deferens shut. It was something I had expected in a rational way. The reality seemed a bit different, not bad but definitively medical. Five or ten minutes passed as she worked. I wasn't paying attention to the clock. After a while, she started on the other side. 

This time, I felt the cauterization. 

No location on a human body is a good one to feel searing heat. Places where lots of nerves cluster together are even less ideal. But as my awareness grew more acute, I surveyed my situation. I understood that the doctor couldn't stop. Today, she had to operate alone. For whatever scheduling reason in her small practice, she had no assistant to prep the equipment, to help her pause what she was doing, or to administer another dose of novocaine to me. There was nothing I could do except lean into the sensations, accept them, and keep as still as possible to avoid distracting her. 

The novocaine continued to wear off. After the first burn, there was a second. The sense of it wasn't much worse but it felt janglier, more alive in my nerves. When my flesh stopped searing, I shivered. The contrast in temperature felt so strong, I couldn't persuade my body to ignore it. Next, the doctor grabbed her needle and thread. At the first stab from her, my body shook. 

"You're feeling it, aren't you?" she lifted her head to grimace at me. 

"A bit, yeah." The needle jab had felt like a sewing accident.

"Shit." She shook her head at me, reproachfully. She glanced around and performed the same mental calculus I had. She had no one to help her. By now, she had observed I was a hell of a bleeder, too. She had complained about it and made me realize I'd forgotten to mention it ahead of time. I should have. I had known how doctors sometimes found it inconvenient. If I'd been thinking better, more in advance of all this, I would have mentioned how fast novocaine wore off on me. 

"I don't think I can stop," she announced.

I nodded. 

"Try to hold still."

The next few minutes was a good exercise in accepting sudden pains. Although the novocaine hadn't worn off completely, I possessed the full range of sensations in my skin and the flesh underneath. I felt every pierce and pull for every stitch. The jabs produced the most reactions from my body, I thought, and I concentrated on holding still each time. I mostly succeeded in the aftermath to the reflex. But the pull of the thread through my skin produced its own teeth-jangling sensibility. It hurt but, more distinctly, it felt odd.

"Wow," she said as she tightened the last set of stitches. "Wow."

"Everything okay?" I asked. 

"Yeah. We're good."  She kept working on the tie-off or whatever the last step was. I couldn't see most of it. "You're really feeling this pretty intensely, I can tell."

"You can?" I thought I'd been holding still. "I was trying to be really good. To stay really quiet."

"Well, you were good. You held still."  She finished and rose from her chair. She took a deep breath and relaxed into a smile. "But you made some noise."

"I did?" I hadn't been aware of it but, thinking back, I definitely had heard myself emit some kind of sound. 

Just as with my previous injections, the painkiller for my vasectomy wore off early. At this point, I was sort of ready to learn the lesson. Although I'm happy with novocaine, I have to say it has a short-lived effect on me. That is, whatever a doctor or dentist seems to expect in terms of deadened nerves, my body gives them about forty percent of the time they're looking for. 

If they estimate correctly with most of their patients, I suppose that means something in my metabolism eats up the novacaine a little faster in me for some reason. I don't know why. I also don't know how often it happens but my impression from the vasectomy surgeon is that it's fairly rare. My impression from my best dentist, though, is the opposite. He recognized immediately when the painkiller was wearing off. So it can't be too unusual - just enough to surprise the doctors and dentists who haven't administered topical painkillers to enough patients. There must be a reasonably-sized minority of people who live on my end of that particular spectrum. 

The real lesson, maybe, is that I need to speak up. We all do. We need be convincing about our past experiences or at least coherent when we describe them. A doctor might not want to believe a patient who is unusual in some respect but, when you're the patient, you still have to do your part.