The Monk and the Interrupting Ghost

Commentary on a Fable

There’s a story from old Japan about a monk who liked to go off by himself to a secluded garden and meditate. It was his favorite thing to do. Yet there was a problem when he tried to avail himself of this simple pleasure—a ghost kept interrupting his solitude.

Every evening there was the monk in the garden and there was the ghost, that of a wild-haired young woman who never spoke. She simply appeared some short distance away and stared at him. Naturally, the monk assumed that some devil had sent the creature to either tempt or distract him away from his meditations and so set obstacles in his path to Enlightenment. The monk resolved to meditate even harder. He meditated with a new and fierce determination, and the ghost continued to stare at him

Despite himself, the monk began to wonder about her. In the monk’s world, ghosts were dangerous and deadly creatures, usually bent on the revenge of some wrong. As he had been dedicated to the temple at birth, he knew that he himself could have done nothing to arouse a spirit’s ire. He was neither a former lover nor in his life had he ever harmed anyone. Then there was the ghost’s appearance. Aside from her wild hair and pale, haggard countenance, she didn’t seem especially threatening, nor had she ever taken any action to harm him. Which, he had to admit, would have been easy enough to do since he normally meditated with his eyes shut.

Yet, as I believe I’ve already mentioned, all she did was stare, expressionless, neither seductive nor malevolent. She was simply there, and what he had once considered the greatest pleasure of his life had now turned into a nightly battle, and the monk was not enjoying himself. He was starting to drag his feet a little when the time came to go to the garden, knowing the ghost would be there.

This went on for quite some time, until the monk had to admit himself defeated. He wasn’t getting any meditating done, his path to Enlightenment was as obscure as it had ever been, and the ghost kept their rendezvous night after night after night, until one night the monk broke down.

“What in the world do you want?”

As if a spell was broken the ghost smiled, lost her haggard appearance, and explained to the monk that she had died for love, and so was attached to the physical world and could not move on. All she wanted was for the monk to cut her hair and make her a nun, so she could finally renounce the world and leave. He did so. She left.

There are those who want to attach a lesson to the fable about perseverance, which makes no sense. Yes, the ghost was persistent but the monk caved, and it was only by abandoning his own stubborn perseverance was he freed to remedy the situation. Bit of a mixed message there. A far better lesson might be the one the monk never did seem to get:

It ain’t always about you.

It’s Not Just a Bad Idea, It’s the Law

The Law of Unintended Consequences (TLOUC). Supposedly coined by the British Philosopher and Physician John Locke in the 17th Century. Roughly stated, Unintended Consequences are any unforeseen effects of a deliberate course of action. Example, when kudzu was brought in as an erosion control plant in the 1930s Southeast. Now it covers large areas of my home state and others because…well, it grows fast. In hindsight, they should have seen that coming. I’ll give the soil conservation people a pass and say they didn’t anticipate just how much kudzu would love that steamy climate, but the damage is and continues to be done.

Now consider the humble tomato. I grew up with home-grown tomatoes. They were delicious. Were. Now, not so much, and I’ll argue that anyone under the age of forty who says they don’t like tomatoes have never had a real one. See, sometime in the past century people got together to solve a problem in the shipping of tomatoes. They bred varieties with a tougher skin that would survive shipment better. Didn’t taste as good, but who cared? It solved the problem. Now almost any tomato you buy or grow tastes the same, because pollen is a promiscuous wanderer and the new varieties cross-bred with everything. Now, I do accept the idea that a person’s tastes change as they get older, and maybe I’m remembering the older varieties with a touch of nostalgia. Maybe, but every now and then, against the odds, I’ll get one that tastes the way they all once tasted, and get mad all over again.

While dwelling on these I was thinking, as almost universal as it is, TLOUC doesn’t cover everything and maybe we needed a new formulation. Maybe the Law of No Skin Off My Nose, to cover cases where people knew there would be problems with a course of action but did it anyway. When I looked up the formal definition of TLOUC, however, I found that TLOUC has three categories:

  1. Unexpected Benefits. As when a policy/action has a good effect no one saw coming.
  2. Unexpected Drawback. The same, except not good.
  3. Perverse Result: The action/policy has an effect opposite of the stated intention.

So the actions of the Governors of both Texas and Mississippi in repealing the Mask Mandate before the Covid vaccine rollout is complete still fall roughly under the umbrella of TLOUC. If I were feeling kind, I’d say #3, since the stated goal of restarting the economy will take a huge hit if Covid spikes again, as seems likely. If I’m not feeling kind, I might think #1 applies, since the people most at risk are not necessarily people who would vote for them anyway. It takes a leap of faith greater than mine to think this hasn’t crossed their minds.

Or maybe I’ll be generous and say they just don’t give a damn, in which case The Law of No Skin Off My Nose probably applies better. Even to the tomato thing.

Apologies for the lateness of this and my absence last week. Sometimes adulting is just too hard.

On the Road to Shalas

Lots going on in the world, but nothing I want to talk about. So instead I’m offering a snippet of the WIP. Marta is returning to Shalas after the events of Power’s Shadow, and the vague “he” referenced is a person she doesn’t know she knows, and that’s all the context you’re going to get, because that’s what the book’s for.

The next morning Marta reclaimed her horse and set out on the road south. Dessera had tucked herself out of the sun and into some quiet crevice of the saddle bag. Bonetapper rode on Marta’s shoulder, sound asleep. He’d spent the night scouting the southern road until it reached the sea and turned east toward Shalas and didn’t return until just before dawn.

“Didn’t see anything or anyone at all until I reached the sea road,” he reported. “Traveling merchants, one or two wandering priests. Not much else. Either he didn’t go that way or he’s better at hiding than I am at looking.”

“Interesting, but not very reassuring. No matter; we have to take this route if we’re going to reach Shalas before winter.”

That was the end of the discussion and Bonetapper nodded off soon after. Marta rode on, enjoying the silence. She was tempted to turn west when she reached the sea road; it was the most direct route to Lyksos and home. Yet circumstances had dictated that she leave her cart and pony in Shalas, and she was not inclined to abandon either. As for home…was there really any point in going there at all? She would only have to leave again when the Arrow Path relented and showed her the path to the Seventh Law.

Assuming it ever did.

This possibility was one Marta did not enjoy considering. The Arrow Path asked a great deal, whether you were the witch following it or the one who incurred the Debt because of it. Those who accepted the bargain an Arrow Path witch offered did so freely if not always wisely. They weighed the value of what they received against what they gave up, and for them the scales balanced. For those who followed the Arrow Path, the bargain, both in terms of value and loss, was not so clear. Yes, it led them to the Laws of Power without which they would be unable to meet their obligations, with the promise of both power and the freedom to use it however one saw fit at the end of it all. That was the lure that brought so many to it. But was this ‘promise and hope of mist and smoke,’ as the child’s rhyme went?

Has anyone ever found all Seven Laws?

Perhaps her mother had done so. She was, after all, widely regarded as the most powerful witch in the Seven Kingdoms. But if she had found it, why had nothing changed for her, in all the time Marta had known her? And then there was the undeniable fact that Marta’s own discovery of the Sixth Law owed more to dumb luck than guidance and she did not feel any pull from the direction of the Seventh Law at all.

We had a bargain, Amaet. Me, my mother, and every Arrow Path sorceress who ever lived. Are you going to honor it? Or have I, after all I’ve been through, misunderstood everything the Arrow Path was supposed to be?

It was a careless thought which Marta regretted immediately when the voice echoed through her skull like a bad memory.

“Smart girl,” said the familiar voice. “Would you be surprised to know your mother asked the same question? It’s true. And she had her answer. Will you have yours? The anticipation is delicious.”

“And when will I know?” Marta asked. “Will you tell me that much at least?”

“Certainly, because it’s something I need you to understand when the time comes.  You will have your answer,” Amaet said, “When you find the Seventh Law of Power.”

“But—” Marta didn’t bother to finish. The silence in her mind told her not to waste her time.

(c) 2021 Richard Parks


I’ve mentioned Stirling the Cat (aka Lord Flopsnuggle) who recently left us. One who hasn’t left us is his brother, Sheffield.

Both are/were gray and white, the white parsimoniously applied and strictly at random. From some angles it was difficult to tell one from the other. Sterling was a bit smaller than his brother, had slightly more white fur. Sterling had a white fur patch on his face, but the only one on Sheffield’s face is a narrow bit centered on his upper lip, which makes him look just a skosh like Hitler’s reincarnation. If said reincarnation was a negative of a cat, I mean. I’ve always thought of him as Sterling’s dumber younger brother. I have no definite proof of that IQ difference, only my observation that he’s always been a little slower on the uptake than his brother.

Sheffield’s a bit of an oddball, even for a cat. More vocal than his brother, and consistent in what he “says.” For instance, over the years we’ve learned to translate two phrases, usually emitted when he comes through the cat door after a jaunt outside. One means “Come see what I found.” (usually a small animal, alive or dead) Then there’s another which is more along the lines of “Where is everybody?” The two phrases sound almost exactly the same. The difference is all in the nuance. “Come see what I found!” always sounds joyous. “Where is everybody?” has a more woebegone vibe.

Never understood that. It’s not as if we’re hard to find, but I suspect he always expects us to be right where he left us, and we keep moving.

Then there’s the mystery of the desk. My desk, specifically. When I’m downstairs, watching a bit of mindless tv or noodling on my tablet, he ignores me. Unless I’m going into the kitchen, in which case he hurries after and tries to convince me hasn’t had any kitty treats since forever.  Forever being maybe an hour. However, when I’m upstairs at my desk and trying to do something on the computer? He’s suddenly in my lap demanding all the attentions. Not when I have time to kill, only when I’m trying to work on whatever.

I think he does it on purpose. Much like a cat will ignore the shiny linoleum and barf on the Persian rug, so too  the matter of choosing its time.

I’m on to you, Sheffield.

Not that it’ll make a bit of difference.

Time is a Trip. Literally.

I figure it’s time for a little perspective. Not that I can speak for anyone else, but I definitely need it now and again. It’s easy to get hung up on the slow pace of a particular piece of technology that you want, like yesterday. Never mind self-driving cars, I’m annoyed about no ubiquitous flying cars or true immersive VR…

…and I still am. But I did get a touch of epiphany from something which, these days, is almost as common as dirt–smartphones. I have one. Not the latest model, I hasten to add, because when it comes to tech, I remain one generation or so behind. Partly as a creature of habit, but mostly because the technology is more tried and true. At least some of the bugs have been tracked down and eradicated by then.

So what do I use it for? A little light web surfing, texting, music, and checking the weather. Only, under duress, will I actually use it as a phone. I hate phones because I hate talking on them. But I like my smartphone since I’m not often called upon to do that thing I don’t like on it. Another use? Setting timers. Handy for making cornbread and other things you don’t want to burn. But I don’t call up the timer app. I just say, “Hey Siri, set a timer for 15 minutes,” and as if by magic, it’s done.

Handy, like I said. But only a very small fraction of what it can actually do. Remember a month or so back when I was noting the difference between knowing and realizing? I mean, of course I knew the thing could do a lot more than what I used it for. I may not write much science fiction but I was in IT for over twenty years and I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world of computing/tech. Consumer-level quantum computers? Can’t wait. Seriously. Probably won’t live that long.

(Step away from the tangent, fella.) Complying, officer. Anyway to put things in perspective, I was part of what was very likely the last generation of college students who owned and needed to own, a slide rule. I’m thinking most of you out there either don’t know what that is or know them only through hearsay. Regardless, my first class in inorganic chemistry required a lot of fiddly calculations that took too long to do any other way. And before anyone asks, yes, electronic calculators did exist, but it was very early generations and they were too damn expensive for most of us. That was first semester. The slide rule saved my butt and I got fairly proficient at using it. I wanted to hug it, that’s how much I appreciated the darn thing. Second semester? We were almost all switched to hand-held four-function calculators as the prices fell rapidly. By the time I graduated, I’d completely forgotten everything I knew about how to use a slide rule.

Now what has that to do with anything? Only perspective. Seeing something you took for granted in a new light. After casually giving Siri an order, I stopped, and really thought about what was happening. From slide rules to a handheld device that, within limits, does what you tell it. Almost like it was a person, if that person had the Library of Congress for a brain. Siri, what’s the reciprocal of 87? Siri, tell me the molecular weight of Cadmium.

And it just does it.

I have to admit, and realize, this is pretty cool.

Granted, it’s still no flying car.