August 27, 2014

Zen and the Boxer Rebellion

In China at the close of the 19th century, a secret society called the Fists of Righteous Harmony started a movement to expel all foreigners from their homeland. History knows these rebels as the Boxers.

But never mind them. This is about underwear. Big underwear. Zen underwear.

A while ago, a kind of funk had descended on my spirit... and my unmentionables. Holes everywhere, body and soul. The only solution was to purchase crisp new white cotton boxers. Forward I went to the men's department and picked out a nicely illustrated 2-pack of shorts. Soon I would be the mirror image of the tan, chiseled young Adonis pictured on the package. I was content. Casual, even. I brought them home and tossed them, unopened, into the underwear drawer.

There they lay, furled semaphores of distress, until yesterday. It was one of those "today is the first day of the rest of your life" mornings, and I decided that if the universe was to be my oyster the least I could do was belly up to the raw bar in my shiny new skivvies. Nothing rouses the soul like the sensation of lightly starched percale. I removed the shorts from the plastic wrap (Oh, bliss!) and shook them out in a flurry of anticipation. And then I saw truth stare at me from each sharp crease. I had unwittingly purchased GIANT WHITE DAD UNDERWEAR.

Yes, I bought my Dad's underwear. The shorts were vast, voluminous. They came up to my belly button and down to my knees. Were I to skydive, I wouldn't need a parachute. Were I to camp, I wouldn't need a tent. No windjammer ever raised as much canvas as I easily could. With a favorable breeze I could make Port au Prince in two days.

Evidently, my childhood wish to be just like my Dad was now being granted. There was no end of the Dad-like stuff I could now do. I could stomp around the house at five o'clock in the morning and wake everybody up. I could lay on the couch and watch football games while sound asleep. I could squat down to baste a turkey, giving the world a peek at my giblets. I could fart louder than anyone in Christendom. All I had to do to complete the metamorphosis was put on a T-shirt, some flip-flops, and half a bottle of Brut 33, and I could BE my Dad!

Oh, to know the true meaning of Dad's nasty great flappy boxer shorts. I recalled how as a youth I would sometimes gaze upon them wonderingly, hoping that someday I, too, would be privy to the eternal mysteries written in the warp and woof of their shiny cotton. And now as a man gazing at myself semi-clad in the bathroom mirror, I found that the mysterious garments still cast a hypnotic spell over me: the crinkly elastic waistband that accepts both the shriveled belly of the ascetic and the massive paunch of the technical writer, the label that teaches the true paths to purity and goodness: "machine wash; tumble dry low." And the little slit in the front without which my life would be very uncomfortable indeed.

But it wasn't supposed to happen this way. It was an article of faith that the vast, inscrutable mechanisms of the universe would always ensure that I remained the rippling Adonis of the underwear package while Dad got on with the unseemly business of growing old. From adolescence, I had carefully avoided all the foolish thoughts and behaviors that had brought him to his present state of advanced geezerhood. I had done everything right. The fix was in. He was the Dad. I was the Kid. Forever and ever, amen…

Karma, as usual, had other plans.

My sartorial crisis forced me to consider the possibility that the Kid is, in fact, wearing out. A quick self-examination revealed a spare tire, blown-out knee joints, acid reflux, and a number of less-obvious symptoms of advanced Dadness. Evidently, my obsession with not being Dad was a nasty distraction, one that kept me from seeing what any haberdasher could see: I had attained the girth of middle age. There was a lesson in here somewhere. It remained for me to find it. I didn't have to look long.

We are not supposed to give in to adversity... to use our giant flappy white Dad shorts as flags of surrender, burial shrouds, or something for future archaeologists to pick at... or to burn them in a meaningless protest. But what should I do with these shorts? Should I just throw them out? Make new robes for the Vienna Boys Choir? Start a quilt for victims of middle-age awareness? What? Somewhere in all that white sheeting there was a message, the secret of life perhaps revealed. I felt the burden of thought.

What would the Zen thing be to do? I gave myself a moment to reflect upon religion's answer to this question. Declare my independence from the oppression of appearance? Think about all the poor men in the world who have no shorts at all to wear?

Somehow it occurred to me that this wide expanse of cotton was truth writ large. Mene Mene Tekel... It simply wasn't very healthy to have gotten this big, this fast and, yes, there was a bullet to be bitten: I had to grit my teeth and start jogging every morning. And I had to go on a Sattvic Diet. Sattvic Diet! I finally said the words. The Coke had to go from the Real Thing to the diet stuff. And I would have to weep at all the Snickers. Deserts would have to be forever scratched from my morning line... and lunch and evening lines, too. No quick fixes. No pills. Nothing less than a lifestyle change... Fresh fruit and those things they call vegetables. Tortillas made without lard. Cheese made without rennet. Tofu hotdogs and pizza.No nachos! (There is no end to the punishment for a few years of excess.)

Zen, as you might expect, demands a constructive course of action. The awful time had come to practice what I preached. (Never had I thought I'd see this day arrive.)

True freedom, I realized, comes about at the price of discipline... diligence... sacrifice. It isn't handed to us as an afterthought or a suggestion, a canapé on a tray of possibilities. And neither is good health. We owe something in exchange for this life... and that something is to take care of it. Wow. That was a pretty heavy thought.

I needed some support. I went to my statue of Ho Ti - all that rippling fat and jolly laughter - that belly fit for good-luck rubbing. With a great force of willpower I saw him sitting there wearing white boxer shorts... and the vision was terrible. It's the only thing that keeps me going.