The Perfect Christmas Story

A few weeks back I wrote about what Christmas means to me. I mentioned a few famous Christmas stories too.

My favorite Christmas story is O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. I think it’s the perfect Christmas story, if such a thing can exist. It has all the ingredients: sadness, humor, love, and generosity. “The Gift of the Magi” has the phrase “went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love,” a phrase that evokes more about the spirit of Christmas than maybe anything else ever written.

It has “like a Coney Island chorus girl” too, which keeps things right here in real life. That’s important in a good story.

While Dickens paints you a fanciful but still very complete and realistic picture of Victorian London during the Christmas season in his famous novella, O. Henry whittles a tiny wreath into the head of a toothpick and sends you back to your best Christmas in just over 2000 words. Henry is the epitome of a wordsmith. A distiller of feeling and meaning.

I’ll show you, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

THE GIFT OF THE MAGI

BY

O. HENRY


ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And
sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two
at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and
the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent
imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied.
Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven
cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the
shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which
instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of
sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding
from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home.
A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar
description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout
for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no
letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal
finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a
card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a
former period of prosperity when its possessor was being
paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20,
though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a
modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham
Young came home and reached his flat above he was called
“Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young,
already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with
the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully
at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.
Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with
which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny
she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a
week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had
calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for
Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for
something nice for him. Something fine and rare and
sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy
of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier glass between the windows of the room.
Perhaps you have seen a pier glass in an $8 flat. A very thin
and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a
rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly
accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had
mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before
the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face
had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled
down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham
Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s
gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s.
The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in
the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair
hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her
Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the
janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement,
Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed,
just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling
and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below
her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then
she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered
for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on
the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown
hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle
still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the
stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair
Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected
herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly
looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s
have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a
practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings.
Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores
for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim
and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the
stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a
platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly
proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by
meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It
was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew
that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and
value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars
they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87
cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly
anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch
was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the
old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a
little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons
and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages
made by generosity added to love. Which is always a
tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny,
close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a
truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror
long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before
he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney
Island chorus girl. But what could I do—oh! what could I
do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was
on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her
hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that
he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair
away down on the first flight, and she turned white for
just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent
prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she
whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He
looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only
twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! He needed a
new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter
at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and
there was an expression in them that she could not read, and
it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor
disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she
had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with
that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way.
I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived
through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow
out again—you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My
hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and
let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice—what a
beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as
if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the
hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like
me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air
almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I
tell you—sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be
good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head
were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness,
“but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put
the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He
enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with
discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other
direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is
the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the
wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was
not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated
later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw
it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I
don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a
shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less.
But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me
going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper.
And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick
feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating
the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the
lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and
back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window.
Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled
rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair.
They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had
simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope
of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that
should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was
able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair
grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and
cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it
out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious
metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and
ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find
it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day
now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and
put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away
and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at
present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your
combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise
men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They
invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise,
their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the
privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I
have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two
foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for
each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a
last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of
all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give
and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they
are wisest. They are the magi.


This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net

Photo credit: Norbert Schnitzler

That Hotel Robe

So here’s the deal: what I really want to do is write fiction when I grow up. I’m going to be posting short stories here from time to time. Maybe even once a week. What I would like is feedback. Please. 

The gnashing of the coffee grinder sounded harsh, making him wince. She had been sleeping in lately and he worried about waking her, even though he ground coffee every morning and it rarely seemed to disturb her. He really didn’t want to have to talk to her this morning.

He could swear he had seen her entering the kitchen just as he left the house on Monday, almost as if she had waited for him to leave. He didn’t want to think about the implications of that,but he didn’t want to talk to her either.

He threw a couple of eggs in the pan while the coffee brewed, and listlessly poked at them with a spatula. His commute sucked. His work sucked. Life sucked. But that’s what being an adult means, right?

The dog lumbered into the kitchen. Stopped. Turned twice in place, and dropped dramatically and somehow hungrily onto the kitchen tile. The man smiled. At least something didn’t suck.

When did things get this bad? It seemed like only a few years ago that they bought this place, adopted the dog, and settled into what was supposed to be the American Dream. Was this what a “midlife crisis” felt like? Didn’t they come with cars?

He turned to the cabinet as he thought about a Boss 302, grabbed a plate, and then deftly let it crash to the floor. The dog jumped up as if scalded and clattered across the kitchen tile to the hall and into the bedroom.

“DAMMIT!” he cried. And then slammed his mouth shut, realizing that if that racket hadn’t woken her, he just had.

As he swept up the debris she shuffled into the kitchen wrapped in her robe, the dog cautiously peering around her. “What did you do? Fred is terrified.”

It was the robe she had taken from the hotel in Niagara during that unseasonably cold weekend a few summers ago. He remembered her wearing it to bed both nights they were there and threatening to wear it to the restaurant, just to tease him. Things were better then.

“I dropped a plate. Sue me.” He snapped, pushing down the memory of the robe as quickly as it had surfaced.

She looked wounded. He immediately felt bad, but his own embarrassment stopped him from apologizing.

She reached into the cabinet, grabbed a plate, and plated his now-crispy, but still listless, scrambled eggs.

“Trade ya’ for some of that coffee.” She grinned as she held out his breakfast.

He softened for a moment, in spite of himself. “OK.”

They sat at the small kitchen table, facing each other. He jabbed at the eggs. She watched him, taking a sip from her mug.

“You’re still thinking about yesterday at the office.”

“Well, I do need to go there today. It’s not like I can just forget.” He replied, acidly.

She briefly looked hurt again. Then her mouth set.

“I don’t understand why you don’t just talk to him about it, honey. It would be better than taking it out on me.

He briefly looked chastened, and then managed to work up some indignation. The indignation of someone who knew he was wrong and took umbrage at having it pointed out.

“It’s not that simple! You just don’t understand.”

“I don’t understand. What is it exactly that I don’t understand? Someone is taking credit for your work. Is there something else to it, or is there some secret code you boys work under that we simple-minded girls don’t understand?”

The sarcasm stung. As did the way she said boys.

“Look if they can’t handle it, forget them.” Forget was really meant to be another word, but she had always refused to use that one. “Quit. I don’t know why you put up with this. You know you can find something somewhere else, and if we’re going to have to go without your salary for a while, now is the time. And seriously, if you’re just going to come home and take it out on me…”

As her voice trailed off it became just a little bit hard. An audible ellipsis.

The ellipsis was loud enough to wake him up. More than the smell of the forlorn eggs. More than the rich aroma of the freshly ground coffee. It was louder than the plate, even. He assumed that she couldn’t understand the “subtleties” of his job, but here she was showing him how it affected their relationship. The relationship that he had more or less forgotten while wallowing in his self-pity.

He looked at her with new old eyes. She was his girlfriend again. The girl — the women — he met at the bar when Mike dragged him out for beers during finals.

The girl that changed a flat on the way home from his parents when his arm was in a cast. The girlfriend that fixed the toilet in that crappy apartment in Chelsea. The chick that stood up to the washing machine repairman when he was afraid to argue over a warranty.

The surprise must have made it to his face.

“What?” She said. “Stop staring at me and get to work. You don’t want to be late, especially if it ends up being your last day.”

She downed the rest of her coffee like a shot of tequila and headed to the bathroom.

Photo Credit: Karen

 

I Was Addicted to Coffee Before It Was Cool

The first time I remember drinking coffee was at a Sunday morning church social at the age of 12 or 13. I guzzled down I can’t remember how many cups, heavily seasoned with milk and sugar. It tasted like candy to me, as coffee with anything added still does to me today. It went well with the cheese danish and apple strudel, and I definitely over-indulged. I don’t remember anyone saying anything to me, but I have a vague memory of being hyped-up from the caffeine. I don’t know how many cups I drank, but I can tell you it was enough to make me violently ill.

Fast forward a few years and I take a summer job on the night shift at 7-11. It had apparently been robbed at baseball bat point, and the owner wanted a couple of large men (well, boys) to avoid this happening again. Stating that I would “take the bat away and shove it up his ass” with the bravado of a 17 year-old was enough to ace the interview.

Black coffee and cigarettes became my fuel, a way of life. The 7-11 coffee tasted much better than I could get at home.  Right from the beginning I had a notion of “coffee” and “better coffee.”

Soon after I entered the Army. Other than during one specific event I don’t remember drinking any coffee in Basic Training, despite the stress and sleep deprivation. Of course, the only time we had access to it was the mess hall and by the time we had breakfast we had been up for several hours running, jumping, and doing Army things.

Before we finished “Basic” we had to go on bivouac or the “field” as it was called in 80s Army lingo. Early one morning I was detailed to the mess tent. This was fine with me, since it meant skipping a morning of running, jumping, and doing Army things.

I was assigned the task of making coffee. (It was fate!) Making coffee meant boiling a huge pot of water, pouring in grounds, and stirring. The cook considered the stirring very important, or he just didn’t like the idea of a buck private standing around doing nothing. This coffee was good. It may have been because it was after 7 weeks or so of stress and uniformly bland mess hall food. It may have been good coffee.

I spent 11 months in Alabama at Redstone Arsenal. This was my “advanced training” after Basic. It was mostly classroom training where a coffee pot was usually nearby, and many nights were spent partying and drinking. Coffee and cigarettes were my fuel again.

Redstone Arsenal was the beginning of the “paper cup phase” of my coffee consumption. Paper (and of course Styrofoam) cups of coffee were scattered in my wake as I hurtled through training and then to Germany. Nights, of course, had a wake of empty beer bottles.

Years ago, when my father was talking about quitting smoking he shared the technique of changing brands every couple of weeks. (I think this may have come from Smokenders?) The strategy was based on the fact that one could habituate to any brand after a few weeks and that repeatedly changing makes it easier to cut back.

During the “paper cup phase,” which extended from Alabama to Germany, this ability to grow accustomed to different brews applied. I could tell the difference between Folger’s, Maxwell House, or Martinson’s, and had a preference (Martinson’s) but it stopped making a difference a few days into whenever a new can was opened.

After two years in Germany I started dating the person who would become my wife. She too loved coffee and through her I discovered German coffee. This was my first experience with the Good Stuff and the Really Good Stuff.

My wife was a college student, so coffee and cigarettes were her fuel for what would be the equivalent of Grad School here in the U.S. She usually had a drip coffee maker going in her room because like me she would drink coffee morning, noon, and night.

The Good Stuff was Aldi house brand coffee (I don’t remember the name. It wasn’t the “fair trade” stuff I see now at Aldi in the U.S.) It was better than any of the American brands I had had to date. It was thick and rich, with no bitterness at all. Unlike the American stuff, I could only drink one or two cups and I was done.

The Really Good Stuff was Jacob’s Kronung. It had the extra thickness and richness of Aldi, but was somehow more fresh and never bitter regardless of how strong you brewed it. My girlfriend would measure the amount of grounds based on how much schoolwork she had to do. No measuring cup, metric or otherwise, was required. Only a syllabus.

The real mark of quality for Kronung was that I could drink it cold and still like it. Try that with Maxwell House. Actually, don’t.

We moved in together and the ever-present drip coffee machine filled a thermos that accompanied me to work. I was on night shift again and the prospect of actually having to drink the American stuff was something to be avoided. I even added a coffee machine and German coffee to my arsenal for the field. The “paper cup phase” was on hiatus.

I returned to the U.S. in 1989. This is before the “gourmet” or as I call it, “decent,” coffee movement took hold. I was working 2 jobs and it was back to the paper cup.

Within a year I was working in New York City and discovered the bagel trailers. While the bagels tended to be too “bready” and the cream cheese tended to resemble a cold slab of edible lead, the trailers’ coffee was often excellent. While it lacked the texture of German coffee, it had a rich and nutty flavor that I adored.

Otherwise Dunkin Donuts was, as silly as it seems now, what passed for good coffee.

Once I flew to Florida for an Aikido seminar. Finding coffee was an important task. On my way to the first session I stopped at a Krispy Kreme and picked up coffee and a doughnut. The coffee was awful.

When I related this to a friend at the seminar I heard for the first time that you go to Dunkin’ for the coffee and Krispy for the doughnuts.

I don’t remember when I first encountered Starbucks. I’ve always considered them overpriced, and until they introduced Pike’s, their coffee always tasted burnt. What I appreciated was consistency: I could get a decent cup of coffee almost anywhere, and in NYC that really was anywhere. For a few years I think there were more Starbucks than parking spaces.

The coming of Starbucks coincided with the coming of “gourmet” coffee. I don’t which is the chicken and which is the egg. By 2010 Starbucks had ample competition here and going to them is something I settle for now.

My relationship with coffee has mellowed now, and I can even go an entire day without coffee.

Not that I would want to.

Commute

It’s 7:45AM when I grab my jacket and head out the front door. The morning chill greets me as I pull my arms through the backpack straps and head to the street.

Pine Drive is quiet on this October morning. Most of the birds that serenaded me on warm summer mornings are gone. The clatter of acorns falling from the trees across the street ended last week. A squirrel suddenly scrambling up a maple tree next door breaks the silence like an tank division moving in. I moved here a few months ago because of this quiet.

I make the left onto Highland and head down the hill. The leaves look slick, so I shuffle-step a bit as I descend. A fall on this steep slope would hurt. I hear the approach of a car from behind and shuffle to the side of the narrow street to let it pass.

Like Pine Drive, Highland’s narrow span is bordered with leaf piles. I don’t want to plunge into the damp leaves and end up with wet and stained shoes, so giving way for the car is not as easy as most days.

After two blocks I emerge from the umbrella of the tall pines and oaks and into the morning sun. The sky is clear today and the difference is startling. Highland widens here, while it flattens out.  A woman who is often out walking at this time of day passes me going uphill. We trade the acknowledging nods of the early shift.

7:45 isn’t really early. I’ve been up for more than two hours already, and by now most commuters are already well on their way. But the low sun, thanks to the silliness that is Daylight Savings Time, as well as the quiet neighborhood, makes it feel much earlier.

I reach the end of Highland and make another left, onto Brookview. A car whizzes by, racing from Clinton to Washington, probably to avoid a red light. I’m about halfway to the bus stop now and it will feel less and less like an idyllic morning with each block.

As I round the big bend where Brookview becomes Carnation Street I see the older couple with the little Shiba Inu. Like every morning the dog is out front with her nose on the ground, the man is a few steps behind with the leash, and the woman brings up the rear with a handful (literally) of shopping bags, poised for action when the Shiba finally finds her spot.

Carnation straightens out and I arrive at the last intersection before Washington Avenue. Two cars and a school bus pass through the intersection before I can cross. I’ve descended the hill and it’s no longer a quiet morning.

It’s rush hour, and I am starting to feel rushed.

I reach the end of Carnation. Cars, trucks, and buses stream up and down Washington Avenue. It’s longer than a minute before I can finally cross to reach the bus stop.

Three people are already waiting for the next bus, resignedly checking their watches and phones for the time. Two more people arrive. There’s a bus after a few minutes but it’s standing room only and none of us board

Four minutes later another bus arrives, verifying that New Jersey Transit is having a typical day. (Buses are scheduled to be 15 minutes apart.) It has seats for all of us.

There are two types of bus driver: those that are aware that there are passengers on board and those that are not. The drivers that know we are here are mindful of stopping and starting. The drivers that are unaware of us leave us feeling like James Bond’s martini when we arrive at the bus terminal. Today I am lucky. I’ll be able to read, and maybe even type on my phone or netbook. 

Two more stops and we are underway. The bus bobs and weaves down Teaneck Road toward RT80 and the Turnpike, weaving left for a beer delivery truck and bobbing right for a minivan making a left toward a school.

I open my Kindle to Rabbit, Run. Harry Angstrom is a louse, but Updike makes the ride recede into the background until we exit the Turnpike and approach the over-capacity express bus lane.

The daily queue of 20 pounds of buses into a 10-pound bag commences. I try to focus on the book, but the stop and go of the bus constantly reminds of how pathetic New York and New Jersey’s efforts (if the word even fits) to get people to work are.

We eventually get into the bus lane and creep toward our goal. I look to my right at the car lanes. As slow as the buses move, the cars are moving much more slowly. New Jersey Transit is unreliable, but driving is often worse.

As we approach the terminal the book pulls me in again. Updike is truly a master. He writes the way I want to write when I grow up. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is the kind of jackass that if I read about him in a news story I wouldn’t make it past the lede, but Updike sucks you in with his prose, and hooks you with his internal dialogue.

We finally make it through the tunnel and into the terminal, but NJ Transit and the Port Authority aren’t done with us yet. The daily ordeal of disembarking passengers, rehearsed for decades now, is still full of surprises. It’s Groundhog Day with hundreds of buses, thousands of people, and tens of confused employees. They’ll get it right someday.

I exit the bus and descend through the terminal. The Port Authority Bus Terminal serves as a reminder of the still-dirty New York of 1990 that I started w0rking in after the Army. The terminal is still grubby, overcrowded, and it’s even starting to fill with homeless people again. The neighborhoods around the terminal have, for the most part, been scrubbed clean by gentrification and tourist attractions but the terminal stubbornly refuses to develop any redeeming characteristics at all. Neglect is a powerful force.

Being where it is, the terminal sees its share of tourists. Whirling, twirling, gaping, and gasping, roadblocks to be dodged on the way to the escalators and doors. I work my way through the crowd, and onto the corner of 42nd and 8th.

As expected, all four corners of the intersection are clogged with people. The two eastern corners sport people handing out free newspapers nobody wants. The western corners; people selling bus tour tickets few want. And of course each corner is crowded with people trying to cross the street. This all combines to make an already crowded situation stifling, a noisy situation cacophonous.

This is morning in the Big Apple, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo Credit: Bosc D’Anjou

Three In The Morning

A monkey trainer went to his monkeys and told them:

“As regards your chestnuts: you are going to have three measures in the morning and four in the afternoon.”

At this they became angry. So he said: “All right, in that case I will give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon.” This time they were satisfied.

This is Chuang Tzu’s “Three in the Morning” as presented in  The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.

The monkey trainer is skilled at something that I have always had trouble with: separating what I need (or want) from getting my way. He needed to ration out 7 chestnuts a day. It didn’t make a difference to him how the chestnuts were distributed — just how many. By separating that from insisting that the monkeys accept his offer, he got what he needed.

My Father used to say “Give ’em what they want and they’ll leave you alone.”

My father was an Army guy, where this advice is pretty obvious. There’s little room for negotiation in a strict hierarchy, and even less for a compulsive contrarian like myself. It’s a wonder I lasted 2 enlistments.

But Dad applied it to his regular job too. He worked in a quasi-sales/engineering role so keeping clients happy while protecting his employer’s bottom line was his bread-and-butter.

Like many things my father used to say, I often think of this right after a situation where remembering it would have been a better strategy than what I ended up doing.

A few weeks ago our car got a flat tire. Well, it didn’t get the flat so much as develop it. Dagmar noticed one tire was very low and I filled it. A few days later it was completely flat. This tire really wanted a lot of attention, perhaps even a career change as a backyard swing.

This caught me off guard since I thought of the car as “new” and “low mileage.” Then I realized it was 9 years old and mileage didn’t matter: tires dry out and crack and I had somehow managed to keep a single car long enough for that to happen to one tire, and the other three were just biding their time.

We’ve just moved to this area and my regular guy for auto repairs, an “independent” that has his place walking distance from our old house, is too far away now. I discovered him when the Honda dealer “recommended” $1200 in repairs and he did what was actually needed for less than $250.  But the logistics of getting the car there and then back home would have been too much.

So I was going to have to find a new place.

There’s a tire place about a mile and a half from our new home. I called them from work and they assured me they had the tires I needed. He cut me off before I could ask some qualifying questions about type, but I assumed (oops) that the tires for a 2007 Fit were a common size that most places would keep in stock, in multiples of four.

So naturally when I got there the next day they didn’t have the tires.

I can laugh now, but it was truly an exercise in frustration. The “salesperson” (I use the term loosely) kept pushing me toward the cheapest tires they had. When I asked hime for a price to get him away from me long enough to look for what I actually wanted he discovered they only had 2 in stock.

When I found what I wanted (all-weather radials with a long warranty) he found they had only one of those.

This lead to him asking if I could have the flat tire replaced now (I drove there on the “fake” spare) and then coming back the next day for the other three. This didn’t work for me. I was already taking a “long lunch” on a work-from-home day and had to go back to the office tomorrow. Since they didn’t open until 9, dropping the car off and then taking the bus would lead to getting to work too late.

I was really annoyed that they didn’t have tires when I had called to confirm the day before. This was foremost on my mind, was influencing my attitude about the entire situation.

Finally the manager showed up. He offered to have me leave the car overnight. I immediately became even more upset. How was that going to help?!? I wanted tires! They didn’t have them!!

He pointed out that I had mentioned taking the bus in to work tomorrow. I could pick up the car after work. They were open late tomorrow.

The manager figured out what I needed and offered it. I just needed to get off my high horse long enough to hear him.

I left the car. They ended up getting the tires early enough to finish it the same day anyway.

Focusing on the desired result, rather than short term “moral” victories is a skill I need to cultivate. I wish I realized this long ago.

photo credit: miss_millions

The Pursuit of Good

“When all the world recognizes good as good, it becomes evil,” because it becomes something that one does not have and which one must constantly be pursuing until, in effect, it becomes unattainable.

This is the paradox of Lao Tzu as quoted in The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.

On the surface it looks a bit cynical. If pursuing good leads to evil, than why bother? But what it is really about is the bother.

It becomes something that one does not have and which one must be constantly pursuing. It’s the pursuit of good that creates the evil.

This is a theme that has recurred frequently in current events. (Not that it isn’t something that hasn’t been recurring since the dawn of civilization.) In Syria, Iraq, Paris, and maybe even California, we have Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, whatever) seeking to quite literally enforce their notion of “good” and “right” with bombs, swords, and guns.

Meanwhile Russia is killing civilians in their attempt to stop Daesh and other groups of Syrian rebels in order to pursue their notion of good in the area. The U.S. can’t really say much about this without bringing attention to the drone program that has been, and still is, in effect in the general area for more than a decade.

A few days before I started this post, a man shot up a medical clinic killing three people in order to enforce his notion of good.

And a few days after I started, a married couple killed fourteen people in what may have been their effort to make a statement about their version of good.

An more secular version of this paradox can be found in Mark Twain’s notebook: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”

Twain seems to have been displaying that cynicism that I referred to above: he implies that at some point the majority always becomes the wrong “side.” But one can also read his statement as saying that it’s time to pause and reflect not on what “side” you are on, but on what is being done by the majority to accomplish its goals.

This interpretation brings Twain closer to Lao Tzu’s paradox. When the pursuit of something — anything — becomes an obsession, evil will follow.

There’s not much we can do when this happens in society. Over the past fourteen years we’ve seen a lot of changes in the U.S. related to “battling terrorism.” (I put “terrorism” in quotes because what it is has been open to fierce debate, especially recently.) These changes range from broad surveillance of U.S. citizens, to the imprisonment and killing of civilians, including U.S. citizens (not that it should make a difference), without due process.

No amount of Facebook posting, tweeting, Instagram, or even voting is going to make it stop. Insightful, heartfelt, or angry posts to social media are cathartic, and can garner many likes and new “friends,” but they are not going to really change anything.

We Americans love to think that if we can just elect the right guy, everything will be better. It hasn’t happened yet. Even when we elect a guy that promises to stop the excesses listed above he doesn’t fulfill the promises, some because he promised too much, and others because, well, he just decided not to.

So what do we do?

Over the past few years I have wavered in my approach. At times, I just shut myself off, abandoning all or part of social media and news for weeks or even months. Other times I redoubled my effort to do something, posting angry rants or insightful (I hope) essays or pleas to authority and compassion. Each time I ended up at the same place: angry, frustrated, sad, and despondent.

Taoism is about internal development. Developing the self. There’s no “before” either – it’s not “get yourself in order before interfering with others.” It’s simply “get yourself in order.” Developing the self is a lifelong pursuit, so “before” and “after” is superfluous.

Fixing one’s self is incredibly difficult. Self examination is painful. As the motto at the top of the blog says: “The problem with introspection is that it has no end.” It seems like there is an endless list of irreparable faults within ourselves. Even if one has the fortitude to identify what one needs to be improve (beyond superficialities  like “losing weight,” “watching less TV,” and “remembering to put the seat down”) taking the steps to change them is remarkably difficult, and introspection often concludes that nothing has improved. Later, rinse, repeat.

It’s much easier to focus outside ourselves and decry the various injustices, faults, and follies of the modern world. A quick look at the news, social media, or blogs yields bushels of low hanging fruit. Once the fruit is picked, one needs do little more than hurl it at the stage with a jeer or, if one has a few minutes, a pearl of eternal wisdom.

The hard work, the work that actually can improve the word by starting with your little corner, is to work on oneself.

This is the work I need to do.

How am I going to do that? I’ve started by trying to improve my physical health which as I alluded to above, is the easy part. Developing the ability to assume positive intent, approach others with generosity and empathy, and finding perfection where I used to find fault…that’s the hard part.