|Oct/Nov 2005 Nonfiction|
The superior man has three things in which he delights, and to be ruler over the empire is not one of them.
Guy walks into a Long John Silver's and orders up fish 'n chips. When he gets to his table, he notices that instead of the standard three hush puppies that come with the meal, he's ended up with four. What good luck, he thinks. Lifting the first hush puppy to his mouth he discovers that it's hard as a rock, as are, he finds upon closer inspection, the other three members of the good luck quartet. He returns to the counter, to the attendant who filled his order, and says, "These hush puppies are hard as rocks. They're completely inedible."
"I know," the attendant concedes. "That's why I gave you an extra."
This dense bit of slaw-house lore was told to me by the man who put his teeth on the line to get it, nearly three decades ago in bluegrassed Kentucky. He told it in first-person incredulity, and I spun it into a third-person yarn. The meeting with this man, who I now wouldn't know if he fell from the sky at my feet, was a chance encounter, gone from my life shortly after delivering this message, which I've carried and repeated, more often than not as a joke. Most jokes I hear are naturally red-shifted, slowly withdrawing as the everyday expansion of life pushes them into the distance where they eventually fade into the accumulated noise. A good laugh is a good reason, and almost reason enough, to drag this one from place to place, to keep the memory fresh in order to draw another laugh, though I realized long ago that I'd stopped laughing. I smile, sometimes snicker, shake my head, raise a brow, but rarely, if ever, do I laugh. I tell it as an enigmatic cautionary tale with a potential, though unspoken, lesson. It has become for me the words of a distant god as delivered by a witless prophet: That's why I gave you an extra.
In order for this fragment to become relevant, this brief exchange needs to become something more than just another moan from the padded space of boneheaded oblivion. It has to have the ring of paradox. If a whispery hint of mystery and divine was added in the telling, parable becomes a possibility. As a joke, it is always and only just a joke, doomed to eventual forgetting in the shearing winds of passing time. But as a parable it would have the potential for a life of its own, a life beyond the peripheral flash of a giggle, beyond the ticks and tone of a cow-eyed, aproned messenger, beyond the confines of the ever Here 'n Now. Uttered in 1970s Kentucky it seemed like just another goofy verse from the Book of Rube, as it would be anywhere else in the expanding universe of fast-food handlers. But I felt there was a possible metaphor living in these words, and it was just a matter of time before I found it.
Implicit in a parable is the pearl of a godly message, words that help to shore up the fragile, human hull as it plows through the waves of real life. I have never been one who has spoken with gods, though in childhood, as a Philadelphia Roman Catholic, I did, for awhile, attempt to contact one in particular who I finally reckoned must have been forever busy with more pressing things. That there was never an answer to any of my queries was finally enough to allow me to draw the conclusion that most of our gods are either deaf and/or dumb, and that those who actually do break the silence are of a much lower class, the mercenary deities with direct connections to very earthly fundraising schemes. But an unwitting medium from a franchised food hut named after a pirate, and where tipping was not an issue, was something else altogether. Though I wasn't the direct recipient of the "extra" message, this is as close to the Burning Bush as I've ever come. And until a voice whispers directly in my ear, I can only assume that this is as close as I will ever get, even if the message has remained in the murk. Finding the venue where this could conceivably be transformed into something more than an absurd joke has not been an easy journey, but after seven years observing the world from within the walls of China, something akin to parable has finally become a possibility and the windfall hush puppy more than just a punch line. That these expatriate observations are of my native land, America—an America that has been ruled by the second Bush president in my lifetime—has finally allowed me to begin to crack the hard shell of this petrified little nugget.
Perhaps tonight there will be no disasters.
—Late Shang oracle-bone inscription
Pyroscapulamancy. Nothing else says it quite so well: fire, bone and divination, the recipe for forecast in a world where disasters were frequent and feared. Disaster has been a fundamental human concern for as far back in Chinese history as we are able to read. Two major uncertainties that commanded much divining time and sacrificial mammals were the restless enemies on the borders and the unexpected arrival of bad weather. Keeping the kingdom secure was not only a duty, but also a necessity for maintaining the rule. Long before Doppler (LIVE Super Regional Digital XT, etc.) radar, in the archaic world of Late Shang China (1200-1045 BCE) there were turtle plastrons and bovine scapulas that, when "charged" with regal aspirations and put to a highly directed heat, would crack with a pop, cryptically revealing the words and proclamations of invisible gods and long dead ancestors. The backs of the shells and bones, pre-hollowed in orderly patterns, had been carved to within a few whiskers of the fronts — the numinous 'speaking' surface—which would pop and crack when heated, and the stressed lines interpreted as being auspicious or otherwise. Chinese proto-characters—the first words we have from this world—were added later as a record of the cracking event. The charges would be along the order of "If we make offering to the Huan River, there will be rain." "This season there will be no floods." "The king goes to the hunting field; the whole day he will not encounter great winds." More than 7% of the thousands of published oracle-bone inscriptions refer to the weather: the coming of bugs like great winds or great winds like a myriad churring of bugs; hard rains and no rains and field-baking droughts, floods that swept away royals on their hunts, as well as the kingdom's crops and the peasants who grew them. The world, then as now, was a dangerous place with forces afoot that needed pacification. There are some things that never change. That Yahweh was referred to as the "rider on the clouds" tells us that anxiety over the weather was not only restricted to the bone carvers of East Asia.
In the Shang spiritual landscape there was a nebulous high god, referred to as Di, and what appears to have been gods of a lower order with more specific tasks and regions under their control. And, as always, there were dead ancestors as well, who held some sort of sway over Late Shang time and space, and who could be petitioned in hopes of affecting certain outcomes. This hungry band of spirits had some sort of inside track on droughts, floods, winds, infestations of locusts, enemies on the borders and, of course, the fortuitous birth of sons to carry on the kingly line, and they liked mollifying meals. There were diviners who figured which ancestor or god needed to be the object of a particular offering in order to ensure favorable results. These forecasting activities included the offering of meat to the targeted god and/or ancestors: dogs, sheep, cattle, pigs, and, periodically, some of the folks from the borders, all religiously dispatched in hopes of gaining good fortune down the line. Divination was a major part of the ruler's responsibilities. He not only addressed the spirit world in these smoky, bloody rites, but he was also the wielder of the ceremonial knife. The dispatched were cooked up in highly stylized bronze sacrificial vessels, some of which were "charged" with inscriptions whose messages were possibly intended to be transported, via the sacrificial smoke, to whomever was on duty in the Shang heavens. These were people, like all people, who took their local weather seriously, and mammals, large and small, higher and lower, went up in smoke to help secure "auspicious" judgments. At the end of each and every day they were doing their best to secure their future. We can only imagine that a ruler whose divination rating was slipping in the stats might end up in the terminal minors for failing to hold up his end of the deal, since a low average would have meant that Heaven disapproved of his position in the order of things. To rule assumed that the ruler had to do more than just show up.
I looked up at the sky and said, "God, please let this be the last disaster of my term."
—Gray Davis, Governor of California, November 14, 2003, after five inches of rain and hail fell on Watts.
At the end of a political term, shortened though it was, Gray Davis, the former ruler of the State of California, looked to the heavens for help in warding off any more natural or man-made calamities from a tenure that had seen fatal fires and floods, as well as critical power shortages. His plea to God to spare him any further disasters in his term tells a story with which we have become inured: a public official petitioning a god to spare him from the pains of having to deal with any more catastrophes while he remained in office. We've always expected that, in their private moments, public officials pray self-centeredly, perhaps in huddled coveys, cooing odd requests to the sky to increase their lot. It's a private moment, it's their god; who are we to say they shouldn't do it? But less frequently do they do it in public. Mr. Davis' plea to spare himself over the next three days, and, by implication, not his people over the much longer haul, was a telling of the secret that, by brotherhood of limited rule, he was sworn to keep: "We don't really care about the people." Mr. Davis' term was in its final three days and by framing his petition within the confines of "my term" he breached, again, the public trust by putting himself above the longer term interests of the "people." If he had said, "God, please let this be the last disaster for the next three days," he'd be off my hook and swimming limply into the golden-gated void. But he was the one who determined to use possessive singular on this one, and by doing so, he spilled the magic beans.
His aspiration was an expression of extreme, limited vision, a vision that went no further than the imagined relationship between himself—three days shy of forced exile—and the intended receiver of or potential responder to his prayer, in this case his capital gee God. This sort of plea, either public or private, is within acceptable bounds if you're a convenience-store clerk whose shift has been punctuated by blown fuses, fires in the dumpsters, and a broken water line that's managed to drench the floor in the vicinity of the near-meat rotisserie. To petition a god to end all disasters for the rest of "my shift" would be a request we could all sympathize with, bad days being what bad days are. The supplicant, in his or her role as convenience-store employee, has limited public responsibility. Most of us would probably agree that one less disaster would be something we'd pray for if we found ourselves in a similar situation. An enlightened convenience-store employee might even include his or her coworkers in the plea and broaden "my shift" to "our shift." I deeply suspect that there is a much higher percentage of convenience-store clerks capable of making the leap into plural inclusion in their personal appeals to divine authority for rescue from disasters than we would find among politicians in the current arena.
If Mr. Davis actually heated turtle plastrons in his final days at the helm of the good ship California to fend off further disasters, it appears he was successful, though, in hindsight, unlucky Watts would have encouraged him to make his crackings a day or two sooner than he did. Though nose-diving Mr. Davis had already lost the Mandate to a chemically altered robo-man who was publicly doing political pushups in the televised wings, I feel certain that his gaffe did not go unnoticed by the gods who oversee California. While they spared the good citizens for those last three days in mid-November 2003, retribution will eventually be theirs when they whisper their version of the histories to the recorders. That's the way this business works. No one gets out alive. When his petition to Heaven appeared on the AP wire, I imagined Davis' prayerful words carved on a reptilian breastplate excavated three millennia from now in some buried vault in the ruins of crumbled Sacramento.
The lesson here is as obvious as the certainty of the next disaster: be careful what you say and how you say it, since someone may actually be listening. But Mr. Davis, the lamest of ducks when he raised his voice to the heavens, was allowed to waddle away. After all, he was full of enough lead already that anymore would have seemed like shooting into a coffin. He was only three sunsets from his exit, not three years. And he was only the governor of a state, albeit a big one, not the president of the country.
Brownie, you're doin' a heck of a job.
—President George W. Bush, Sept 2, 2005, publicly praising Michael D. Brown, undersecretary of emergency preparedness and response, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), four days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and three days after sections of the New Orleans levee system collapsed, catastrophically flooding the city, resulting in the deaths of thousands.
Guy walks into a Long John Silver's...