My great, great grandfather’s troika

Family stories beyond about two generations ought to be taken with a grain of salt.  But they ought to be taken, all the same, in the same way that myths must be taken.  There is a kind of truth in them, even with the embellishments required to fill in gaps.  This one concerns a great, great grandfather, a mild winter, and a wager.  A good combination, I should think.

It was, in fact, the mildest of winters in a part of the world where children’s tales involve ice maidens and ravening wolves, along with the occasional stark reminder that they’re not entirely fictional.  Snow comes early and often, and once the rivers and lakes freeze over they generally stay that way until the spring thaw.  Even today, in the deepest countryside, horse-drawn sleighs are not rare in winter time.  This particular winter the snows came late, and the air smelt of autumn into late November.  By the first couple of weeks of December, the waters had just begun to freeze, and a decent amount of snow had finally arrived, enough to change wagon wheels for runners in a land where roads were usually just a fond memory by this time.

My great, great grandfather, call him Jekab, lived out his life there, fortified against the deathly winters with buckets of vodka.  And the summers, come to that.  This was not a poor man, as these things go; he had a troika, a three-horse wagon, and any man who could use three horses just to get around was pretty well off.  Jekab even had his own little piece of land, a rarity in that time and place.  To be sure, he worked it himself, with help from the family.  You wouldn’t call him lord of the manor, but he was lord of the local tavern, for sure.  The long winters left farmers rather little to do beyond experimenting with various percentages of blood alcohol.  Jekab’s usual comrade in these endeavors was a sometime roustabout and usual layabout whom we shall call Gint.

This particular winter’s afternoon found Jekab and Gint sitting at their favorite seat at the tavern, overlooking the river.  Snow poured from the sky relentlessly.  The talk turned to a particularly alluring miller’s daughter, God bless and protect her, who happened to live at the mill just across the river.  As it happened, the ferry that crossed from just that point had finally shut down due to icing, and the nearest bridge was at least five kilometers away.  Snow already covered the icy river to a depth above the boot.  Still, Jekab expressed a desire to pay a visit to the lovely young lady, never mind his wife and children at home.  Gint, with his usual gift for claiming the obvious, scoffed.

“The snow’s up to your ass out there!”

“You’re the ass,” Jekab responded,”Knees, tops.”

“But you’ll fall on your ass after two steps, then where will the snow be?”  Both men roared with laughter at the thought of it, tears streaming down their faces.

Silence returned gradually.  Jekab looked straight into Gint’s rather bleary eyes.  “I’ll take the troika, you stupid shit.”

“You’d drive all the way to the bridge for her on a day like this?”  His eyes widened, truly impressed with such dedication.  But Jekab just waved away his words, as if they were no more than summer flies.

“Don’t be daft,”  he said.  “I’ll cross the river here.”

There ensued a lively debate about the thickness of the ice on the river, with Jekab insisting that if it could support all that snow, it could support a troika, and Gint pointing out that the weight of the troika would be added to the weight of the snow.  In the end, a wager was made.

The two men, along with a handful of the curious, stood in front of the tavern.  Jekab harnessed his horses to the troika and climbed aboard, turned it toward the river, and gave the reins a firm and resounding slap.  Off they went.

It must have been quite a sight.  Steam rising from the horses’ nostrils, the troika’s runners cutting through the mighty snow bank onto the river, Jekab swathed in fur, urging his horses into the blinding storm at the top of his lungs.  Then – silence.  They all disappeared.  All of them: horses, troika and great, great grandfather.  None of them was seen again until the spring sun melted the ice against the bridge down river.

Gint had won his bet, but lost his friend.  Life is like that.

T. Orloff.  19th c. Russian

T. Orloff. 19th c. Russian

Detective story

I like detective stories, murder mysteries, whatever you like to call them.  So I decided to write one.  I’ve read enough of them, should be a breeze.

I got off to a good start: an eerily quiet, snowy morning, a kid on his way to school discovers a corpse in a snow bank.  Enter the suitably surly detective, aroused before his shift by a heartless supervisor, and his chain-smoking assistant, as inexplicably cheerful as his boss was sour.  I brilliantly describe a snow-filled unplowed winter morning in a medium sized city in 1957, complete with telling detail, and not too many, not too few red herrings.  The crime scene and the corpse are especially inspired.

The detective mopes about, poking things, occasionally making notes, and getting the photographer to take lots of pictures.  People on the block are waking up and getting in the way.  A rube of a uniformed cop is dispatched to interview everyone while the surly detective mysteriously (or pointlessly?) disappears down an alley.  The body is hauled away.  The investigation begins in earnest, as they determine the cause of death.

Which was?

See, it’s just this kind of meaningless, unliterary stuff that causes so much trouble.  Because I can’t really know the cause of death until I know how the deed was done, which in turn has to be clever enough to confuse the police, and, of course, the reader.  Which means I have to know the ending.

Which means I have to ruin the story for myself before I can write it!

I ask you, is that fair?

The ki to chi

Any one with at least a passing acquaintance with martial arts knows about ki, or chi, depending on the country of origin.  Most can give you some kind of definition, along the lines of, “a mysterious force you can tap into.”  Higher ranks will get you more mystical rhetoric, but the gist is usually the same.  You can “have” more or less of it, depending on your skill level in the art.

This is contradictory, since the force is said to pervade everything, a kind of combination of ancient Egyptian ma’at and the “ether.”  As a member of the universe, then, one has as much of it as anyone else, if indeed such a protean force can be said to be had.  Shin Shin Toitsu (Ki Aikido) recognizes this contradiction, and no longer speaks of an individual extending his or her ki, but rather being mindful of its existence.  There is, however, still talk of blocking ki, as if a miniscule speck can stop a force of nature from acting.  Worse yet, this is usually said to be done inadvertently, as if it is a human’s nature to block another nature.

I have seen amazing things done in martial arts, both in person and on video, even the famous touchless throw.  But all of what I have seen is explainable in terms of skill and timing, and the ability to anticipate how one’s opponents actions will unfold.  So, do I believe there is such a thing as ki or chi?

Yes and no.  If I have to accept a mysterious force that is separate from gravity, momentum, and biomechanics, count me out.  There are ways of moving, however, in concert with those familiar forces that are far more likely to get the results we want.  You don’t have to find a martial arts master to see it in action.  It’s there in a laborer who’s been at the job for years, and has pared down the energy required to dig a hole to the maximum efficiency.  I recall when I was a young man working on construction jobs, coming home spent at the end of the day.  There was an old man, Leroy, who never seemed to break a sweat.  He never hurried, never cursed, and was cheerful no matter what the situation.  Some people said he was lazy.  The only thing was, when you looked to see what everyone had accomplished at the end of the day, Leroy was always way ahead, untired, and still cheerful.  Leroy “had ki.”

Had he tapped into some mysterious supernatural force?  No.  He had simply stopped wasting energy on actions that did not contribute to the task at hand.

I say simply, but I do not mean easily.  His cheerful demeanor was not unrelated to his skill; to do this you must relax everything that isn’t working towards your end.  That includes your mind.  I won’t go into the techniques that will get you there.  Suffice it to say that Leroy’s skill was the result of a lifetime of work.

More examples of this are everywhere.  Think of a skilled musician, a carpenter, a surgeon, an athlete.  Think of yourself walking through a crowd.  Do it.  Go to a crowded mall, walk, and try to think ahead of what to do next to avoid each oncoming person, each person passing, each physical obstacle.  Then just give it up, and walk.  Which was the more successful?

How did you do it?  It’s not obvious.  Watch a toddler try the same thing.  Chaos.  You managed because you and everyone else involved have been walking and avoiding people and things all your lives.  You’ve gotten good at it.  No mysterious force required.

Of course, if someone is trying to harm you, that complicates things considerably;  it’s as if someone in the crowd were deliberately trying to bump into you.  It’s a situation you’re not as familiar with.  But what if you trained to keep your body in a position to move in any direction in an instant?  What if you also trained to anticipate the intention and the momentum of someone coming towards you.  Those things require calmness and total relaxation.  Nervousness will distract you, and muscle tension will impede your movements, so what if you trained yourself in those arts as well?

You’d have ki, my friend, all from within yourself.

What I think I believe: A prose poem

To say there is no duality is to concede there is.

To say God has a list is ignorance.

To say you know anything for sure is naive.

To believe in a separate, personal God is nothing short of ridiculous.

Every religion tells us that God is immutable, omnipotent, and utterly ungraspable by the human mind.  Every religion goes on to tell us exactly what is in the mind of God.

Do you think your one, holy, catholic and apostolic church has droned the same immutable message since it rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire?  Do you really believe your free-thinking, free-wheeling nihilistic Buddha is the same one who sat, perplexed, tormented and impatient under the Bodhi tree?  Can it be your quibbling, etymological Yaweh is the same brutal partisan of the Torah?  Is your pitiless prophet the same one who forgave the Meccans for trying to destroy him?

Congratulations, you have mastered the difficult art of intransigent gullibility.  Nothing is changeless, not even the divine genealogies your ancestors would find disturbing without their context.

Yes, there is a God, created and lovingly maintained by his human masters.  How could it be the opposite?  Does God shave?  What does he eat?  What use would he have of testicles?  Where does he get his clothes?  How can he have demands?

In my universe, there is no god but All.  There are no demands, no rewards, no punishment.  Leave that kind of stuff for humanity.  The meaning of life is life.  The meaning of death is life.  The meaning of humanity is arrogance.  The meaning of good is evil.  The meaning of my right hand is my left hand.

How can it be otherwise?

An alien life

Call him Rick.  He carried a large knife and claimed to be able to see through boulders.  His body was covered with scars and tattoos in a day when such art was usually reserved for drunken sailors.  If you told him someone had “shredded” a guitar, he would have smiled quizzically at the image of strings and splinters strewn across the landscape.

We met on a boat from Barcelona to Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  I had been staying in a fifth floor walk up pension around the corner from the Plaza de Cataluña, up the Rambla from the windy industrial port.  In those days Barcelona was leading a dangerous double life as a haven for hippies and a provincial capital and headquarters for the Guardia Civil.  It had been the last city to fall in the civil war, and bore the scars, both physical and social, to show for it.  The war had also begun there, in typical Spanish fashion, with neither side wanting to be the first to fire upon fellow Spaniards.  The Guardia somehow brought themselves to do it, and three years of hellish romanticism ensued.

This was years before the Great Dictator Die-Off between Franco and Marshal Tito, but the Generalissimo was getting on in years, and things were stirring.  The Guardia were not amused.  I had myself witnessed what can only be considered an early flash mob:  On the busy shopping street below, several young men began running with unfurled banners and shouting “Libertad!”  In seconds, the street was empty.  Utterly.  By the time the police had arrived and sealed off either end of the street, it looked like no one had ever been there.  The overall effect of this seemed to have been to make the already ill-humored Guardia Civil even touchier.  An acquaintance made a disparaging remark about their characteristic (and, let’s face it, ridiculous) hats, stupidly, within earshot.  He was taken into custody and not seen again.  Rumors were circulating that a crackdown on undesirables was imminent.  Then, I happened past a ticket agency, where I saw that passage to Tenerife could be had for the equivalent of about $25 US.  A one week passage on a cargo vessel, all meals included, ending up in the Canary Islands.  That was cheaper than staying put!

The first full day aboard, I learned, among other things, that turning “green” with sea-sickness was not metaphorical.  I’m still trying to figure out the biological logistics of raising that color on a normally reddish caucasian face.  That day I spent shuttling between the rack and the head; by morning, though, I was inexplicably much better, and ravenous to boot, and made my way to the dining room for breakfast.  I found myself sitting next to a wild-mannered, thoroughly engaging presence of a man of indiscriminate age.

He had a full beard and hair that looked as if it had been chewed off rather than cut, skin the color and texture of fine undyed leather, and a few scattered tattoos.  One of them consisted of a much scarred logo with the words “Barons” and “Earth” above and below.  He wore an old but well washed t-shirt of undefinable color, ancient jeans and a coarse belt upon which hung a sheathed hunting knife.  A waiter arrived with bread, and my companion drew his knife and stuck it into the wooden table, turned to face me and said, “Rick.”

In precisely the same way as one reflexively bows in response to a newly introduced Japanese person, I pulled out my own knife, stuck it next to his, and said, “Mike.”  Rick nodded, and we ate breakfast.  That no one on the ship’s crew seemed to find this odd boded well, I thought, for the journey.

I still have that knife, it’s edge still chipped where Rick and I settled an argument about whose knife was made of the harder steel.  I have rarely met a man of such imminent power who nevertheless had the charisma to evoke trust rather than fear.  I have no doubt that he was capable of brutal violence, but there always seemed clear parameters bounding that capability, and he seemed an excellent judge of exactly where those parameters were with regard to any situation.

Once, another passenger, a young, undisciplined toff of a lad had been caught stealing.  The crew had cornered him on the deck, and he had pulled a knife to fend them off.  At a certain point, Rick tired of the melodrama, and simply went up and took the knife away, shaking his head at the amateurism of it all.

As near as I could ascertain, he was originally in Europe on some dubious enterprise which fell through.  He had shrugged it off, and embarked on a purposely undefinable quest for fortune and sustenance. I imagined men and women like him piercing the uncharted wilderness down through the mangled trails of history.  We no doubt owe their kind much that is both joyous and horrific in our culture.

We parted ways somewhere near a goat cave we were using for shelter on Tenerife.  I like to think he still plies the waves of fate, somewhere in that great trackless frontier that is his personal adventure.  But I have a feeling he died long ago, blown away like the great gust of wind that was his life.

Me, in those gloriously sullen days

Me, in those gloriously sullen days