There was a crooked man
And he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence
Against a crooked stile.
He had a crooked cat
Who caught a crooked mouse
And they all lived together
In a little crooked house.
All of my miles have been crooked. I couldn’t go straight if I tried. People who talk in straight lines – theirs is a lonely and enviable calmness of mind. Or so it seems.
Ah, to be crazy like a fox. Weaving in and out of hedges, jumping ditches, skulking through the corn. The crafty opportunist, the mighty slayer of field mice.
It’s true that an old housemate of mine used to claim I bore an uncanny resemblance to Redd Foxx’s character on Sanford and Son. What resemblance the actor bore to his animal namesake we could well dispute. (I’m sure there’s a story there, but I don’t know it.) In any case, I’d much rather be a gray fox, reclusive inhabitant of the deep forest, climber of trees, halfway between a dog and a cat.
Contrary, my mother used to call me (and still does on occasion). If there are only two alternatives I’ll look for a third. In the company of boosters I’m an aginner – and vice versa. Even as I type this, the words come out wrong. Flagrantly wrong. Dyslexic. Dyslogic.
In a comment thread, C.B. wonders if I’m that bum outside the 34th street station he gave fifty cents to last Tuesday. No, but I think I could be! In all of literature there is no character I identify with so wholeheartedly as the madman of Chu. This is the guy who is said in the Analects to have accosted Confucius with a song,
Hey Phoenix! Phoenix!
What can anyone really do about the decline of virtue?
It’s useless to blame the past;
You can chase the future if you want.
These days it’s worth your life just to take office.
“Confucius got down from his carriage and tried to talk with him, but the man hurried off to avoid him, and he didn’t get the chance.”
This “virtue” (de) can also be translated “power.” It includes both innate ability and cultivated knack or strength of character. (This is the de in Daodejing.)
Zhuangzi gives an expanded version of the madman’s song. In A. C. Graham’s translation:
When Confucius travelled to Ch’u, Chieh Yü the madman of Ch’u wandered at his gate crying
What’s to be done about Power’s decline?
Of the age to come we can’t be sure,
To the age gone there’s no road back.
When the Empire has the Way
The sage succeeds in it.
When the Empire lacks the Way
The sage survives in it.
In this time of ours, enough
If he dodges execution.
Good luck is lighter than a feather,
None knows how to bear its weight.
Mishap is heavier than the earth,
None knows how to get out of its way.
Of using Power to reign over men.
Of marking ground and bustling us inside.
Don’t wound me as I walk.
My walk goes backward and goes crooked,
Don’t wound my feet.
The trees in the mountain plunder themselves,
The grease in the flame sizzles itself.
Cinnamon has a taste, so they hack it down.
Lacquer has a use, so they strip it off.
All men know the uses of the useful, but no one knows the uses of the useless.’
“Good luck is lighter than a feather” reminds me of the fellow I read about in the news this morning, a Canadian who managed to sit on his winning lottery ticket, worth $23 million, for close to a year until he had all his ducks in a row. There’s a man of rare virtue! Compared to him, we’re all a little crooked, I guess.
I found a dime
just before that homeless guy saw it.
Felt good all morning.