Gulag Zen

My wife has a bit of a flair for the dramatic. Years of chronic drug abuse have left her emotionally unbalanced. This morning, I woke to find her standing fully clothed at the foot of the bed.

“I”, she said, fixing me with an unnervingly level stare, “am going out!”

“What’s up? Have we run out of milk?”

“No. I am going out. For the day. Alone.”

“But what abou….”

“I”, she cut in, “am going now.”

“Are you taking the ki…”

“ALONE!” her voice cracked like a whip and she was gone.

I’m still not quite sure what she was on about. While I’ve been slaving away at the coalface of Christmas in retail, she’s been at home relaxing. Even better, the kids have been on holiday for nearly two months now, so she’s had a wonderful chance to spend some real quality time with them. She even went on a little mini-holiday with them; a quick seven hour drive followed by four days of real closeness in an isolated bungalow out in the bush. They even shared the same bed. Some people have all the luck.

Anyhow, she’s gone now (maybe she’s going to get me a surprise for all my hard work!), and I can go on with my day. I have plans. I’m going to find my centre.

I’m not a religious person, nor a spiritual one. But my head isn’t in the right place at the moment. I’ve been working like a dog leading up to Christmas, and stressing (don’t you hate that that is now a legitimate verb!) about the future of the book trade. I need to come back down to earth. Simplify my life. Empty my mind and soul of all but the most important things. I need to breathe. I need to just be. I need me some Zen.

I’ve taken some days off, to relax with the family and tidy up my life. But first, I need to find that still, quiet place within myself. And I know how to do it. Haiku. I’m going to spend a little time sitting quietly out in the garden, distilling the calm beauty around me into a series of perfectly captured instants, using words to channel the serenity around me into brief, black and white images of peace.

Our haven of peace and tranquility. We call it Ragnarok.

Our haven of peace and tranquility. We call it Ragnarok.

But first, I have to feed the family.

That should be easy enough. Time to whip out Larousse’s “Cold Cereal Cookbook”. Or not. I made the mistake of asking them what they wanted. Not wise. In order to protect the identities of the innocent, and out of sheer laziness, I’m going to call the three year old girl “D” and the eight year old boy “S”.

ME:        “Time for breakfast, guys. What would you like? Cereal or oats?”

D:            “My tummy hurts, Daddy. I’m not hungry.”

Me:        “You have to eat something………”

S:            “Two minute noodles.”

Me:        “What? You can’t have two…….”

D:            “Two minute noodles!”

Me:        “I thought your tummy hurt.”

D:            “It only hurts for cereal. I want two minute noodles.”

S:            “Mom lets us have two minute noodles all the time.”

Me:        “You do understand that I actually live here. I see you eat breakfast every day. I’ve never seen you have two minute noodles. Cereal or oats?”

D:            “My tummy hurts.”

Me:        “Two minute noodles it is.”

That was simple enough. I thought it would even buy me a little peace. After a brief but acrimonious discussion about which channel they were going to watch, I settled them down in front of the TV and headed outside with my laptop. Ah, serenity. Haiku time. Or so I thought. I was a little distracted by the small, black and white bundle of fur bouncing up and down next to me like the little yellow ball on one of those karaoke screens, and barking shrilly (also like karaoke). Bugger. I forgot to feed the dogs.

No problem. I took them inside and laid out their bowls. That was easy. Serenity time. I settled down again.


I rushed inside to find D standing on top of the backrest of the couch, clutching her noodles to her chest and staring fearfully down at the perfectly placid little dog looking calmly up at her.

Me:        “What?”

D:            “Charlie’s trying to eat my noodles!”

Me:        “Fine. I’ll take him outside.”

I let him out the kitchen door and headed back out to my haven of silence. And I very nearly got there.

D:            “Daddy.”

Me:        “Yes”

D:            “I finished my noodles.”

Me:        “You most certainly did not! You haven’t even touched them!”

D:            “But I’m not hungry.”

Me:        “But you said that… Oh, fine. I’ll put them in the fridge in case you want them later.”

Time to head outside. I reached for the door.

D:            “Daddy.”

Me: (Sighing deeply)      “Yes.”

D:            “I want a biscuit.”

Me:        “But you sai……..

S:            “If D’s having a biscuit, I want one too.”

Me:        “Right. Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to fetch the whole bag of biscuits. I’m going to put them on the table. You are going to share them. The first one of you to come outside before they are finished is going to watch the other one’s TV for the rest of what I’m laughingly going to call a meal.  If your mother asks, you had oats. Understood?”

D & S:    “Yes”

I don’t know why people say this parenting think is tricky. It’s all about psychology. Haiku time. I paused as I reached the door, just in case. Nothing. I stepped outside. Time to get those creative juices flowing.

After I find out what a haiku is. Hello Wikipedia.

A haiku is a strange little thing. No other form of verse is shorter. And none has more rules. In English, it’s supposed to consist of three lines, of five, seven, and five syllables. It’s supposed to contain a seasonal word. It must display some sort of contrast, highlighted by a “splitting” word. And that’s just to start.

What you’re supposed to do is that you’re supposed to have a “haiku moment”, a moment when you are struck by the beauty of an image. An epiphany. Then you’re supposed to think the crap out of it to make it fit all the rules.

Clearly I need to do a little more reading on this whole Zen thing. I thought it was all about emptying your mind and living in the moment. Not haiku Zen. Haiku Zen is the Gulag of Zen. The U.S. airport security of Zen. Zen designed by the tax man. To practice haiku Zen, you glimpse a moment of perfect beauty, then turn your back on it to go inside to beat it and twist it and mould it and stretch it until it fits the rules.

Sounds relaxing. I’m just a beginner, so I don’t think I’m ready to be that relaxed yet. I decided to start with a simple five, seven, five, and see how it went. I looked up and saw the bright morning sun filtering down through the wispy green leaves of the pepper tree. Perfect.

Harsh light of summer

Softens down through feathered green


Still better than the day we found the TV remote. Or my glasses.

Still better than the day we found the TV remote. Or my glasses.

Not bad for a first try. I even managed to get a seasonal word in there. I think I might have gone a little over the five syllable limit on that last line though. Maybe a little walk around the garden will inspire me. I’m very proud of our garden. When we moved in, it was mostly bare earth. Now it is a riot of colours and textures, all put in by us. But first.

D:            “Daddy, I want to come outside”

Maybe this innocent request needs a bit of an explanation. South Africa is a bit of a tricky place. It’s beautiful and warm and friendly and exciting. And pretty bloody dangerous. In the last few months, two of our neighbours have been burgled in broad daylight. Two weeks ago, some other neighbours were surprised in their home by six armed men. They, and their two small children, were tied up and held at gunpoint. This is not unusual.

So we don’t just have doors. We have security gates. And we keep them closed. Even when we’re around. I opened the gate.

D:            “Hello, Daddy. I am a mom”

Me:        “That’s nice. I’m going for a walk. Do you want to come with me?”

D:            “No. I want to go inside.”

Me:        “But you just came outside!”

D:            “But I need my baby.”

Me:        “Fine.”

I opened the door for her. And closed it. And set off on my stroll. I got ten steps.

D:            “DAD!”

Me:        “What?”

D:            “I want to come out.”

Me:        “But….. Fine.”

Open. Close. Set out on my walk.

D:            “Dad.”

Me:        “What.”

D:            “I need to go inside.”

Me:        “Of course you do.”

D:            “My baby needs a blanket.”

Open. Close.

D:            “DAD!”

Me:        “Yes?”

D:            “I want to come outside.”

Attica! Attica! Attica!

Attica! Attica! Attica!

I want to come back into Attica now. I can't adjust to life on the outside.

I want to come back into Attica now. I can’t adjust to life on the outside.

Me:        “Right! Here’s how it’s going to go. I’m going to make you a tent. You can play in there with your baby. You need to get everything you need right now. No more in and out. OK?”

D:            “OK, Daddy.”

Sadly we couldn't afford the deluxe version, which comes with a lockable door.

Sadly we couldn’t afford the deluxe version, which comes with a lockable door.

A mere thirty minutes later I was ready for my stroll. Relaxing time.  I set off.

S:            “Dad, can I play Nintendo.”

Me:        “Fine.”

They may not be educational, but TV games bring real joy to a child.

They may not be educational, but TV games bring real joy to a child.

And I was off. This was it. Instant inspiration. I was ready.

A riot of green

Pushing up through rich brown soil


We all work hard in the garden. Some more constructively than others.

We all work hard in the garden. Some more constructively than others.

This whole garden thing didn’t seem to be working. It kept messing with that final line. But I had an idea. Roald Dahl used to do all his writing in a shed. I have a shed. Or at least the children have a Wendy house. I painted it like a little stone cottage and everything.

Charming. From the outside.

Charming. From the outside.

They don’t use it. They say it’s creepy. But if it’s good enough for Roald Dahl, it’s good enough for me. I gathered up my laptop and set off. Almost.

S:            “Dad!”

Me:        “What now?”

S:            “Can you come and play this level for me?”

Me:        “What?”

S:            “I can’t get past this level. I need you to play it for me.”

Me:        “Why don’t you play something else?”

S:            “NO. I like this game. Play it for me.”

Me:        “But I want to…….”

S:            “Pleeeeeeaaaase”

Me:        “Fine. But then you need to leave me alone. I’m Busy.”

Lego Star Wars. Cool. I’d spend a little time with the boy, and then head off to the shed. I sat down and picked up the controls.

Me:        “Where are you going?”

S:            “To my room.”

Me:        “But I thought we were doing Nintendo?”

S:            “No. You need to do this level. I’m going to my room to play with my toys.”

Me:        “So your plan is to force me to play TV games by myself while you go off and do something else?”

S:            “Yes.”

D:            “Daddy.”

Me:        “What?”

D:            “I want to come inside.”

Open. Close.

Me:        “Right! I’ve had enough. We’re going to have lunch, and then it’s nap time. What do you guys want? A chicken salad? Quiche? Some Amuse Bouche?”

S:            “Can we have two minute noodles?”

Me:        “No. You had two minute noodles for breakfast. No more.”

D:            “I want two minute noodles, Daddy.”

Me:        “But you didn’t eat them this……


Me:        “Fine.”

The morning seemed to be a write-off. But they ate. I watched them eat. I was not inspired. I was too busy looking out for the early signs of rickets or scurvy. And then it was nap time. Sweet, blessed sleep. While the small one slept, the boy could play his own bloody Nintendo and I could write a relaxing bloody haiku and find my bloody centre before I killed the bloody dog.

At last, peace. I headed down to the shed. I sat myself in a children’s plastic chair and looked up to the roof for inspiration. And started to write.

Eight legged horror!

A thousand eyes stare me down!

A waking nightmare!

The mother ship. And yes, those dots around it are spiders. Some of the spiders.

The mother ship. And yes, those dots around it are spiders. Some of the spiders.

Jesus! Up on the roof was a huge round ball of leaves held together with a net of silk. Around it sat at least a thousand small black spiders. I looked around. There was another nest in the corner. Smaller spiders. But more of them. I’m not an arachnophobe, but there is a critical mass to everything. Two thousand spiders is apparently pretty close to my critical mass. I stood. And then I felt it. A soft but substantial bump on my shoulder. I froze. And then nothing. For a few precious seconds I felt nothing. It was not to last. A gentle creeping sensation moved from my shoulder onto my back. I shrieked like a girl and leapt for the door, desperately trying to make my forty year old arms slap at the middle of my back. And I got it! Something hairy brushed my flailing hand and fell to the floor. It was one of these.

Not my wolf spider. My spider made me sad, so I didn't want to play with him anymore.

Not my wolf spider. My spider made me sad, so I didn’t want to play with him anymore.

Time to leave the shed.

There is nothing like mortal danger to focus the mind. I have conquered the haiku. And my children. My moment of epiphany happened on the way back to the house. My wife had taken a picture of a beautiful red-hot- poker just days before.

My wife's beautiful flower.

My wife’s beautiful flower.

It was dead.

The same flower. For me. On haiku day.

The same flower. For me. On haiku day.

Dried petals hang slack

Vibrant red gone forever

All beauty must die.

Brilliant. Five, seven, five. Image captured. Time to put these haikus to good use. I went back inside just as the kids woke up.

Right! Sit down you two.

We are going to colour in

And you may not talk.

D:            “Dadd………”

There is no more food

Just bread and warm tap water

Until supper time.

S:            “Can I just….”

No television

If you want something to do

Go play in the shed

D:            “I want to go ou……

The gate won’t open

The key has metal fatigue

And I can’t stand up

This was it. I had found my peace. And a whole new parenting style. It was magic. The kids even went off and played quietly in their rooms. I thought about writing a book. “Gulag Zen Parenting; Mastering Your Home Through the Ancient Art of Haiku.”

I breathed. I lay back on the couch and just was. I found my centre. Until suppertime.

Me:        “Right kids. Suppertime. I’ll go and get your two minute noodles.”

D:            “But I don’t like noodles.”

Me:        “……”

S:            “Can I have some oats?”

D:            “Yes, Daddy. We want oats.”

Me:        “……”

Sadly, I went and made them some oats. Still, I had parented the hell out of them that afternoon. Or so I thought. Until I went through to their rooms. My daughter had spent a happy afternoon drawing a cheerful family scene in life size on the back of my son’s door in permanent marker.

Mom. A photorealistic interpretation of how she looked this morning.

Mom. A photorealistic interpretation of how she looked this morning.

Before she found her mother’s makeup.

She's still learning to colour in the lines.

She’s still learning to colour in the lines.

My son hadn’t noticed this, because he had found my precision screwdriver and had taken apart my calculator and my electric razor.

Daddy's little engineer.

Daddy’s little engineer.

‘Round here, things don’t fall apart, they are taken apart. The end result is the same. The centre cannot hold.

My wife should be back soon. I’m not looking forward to it. Not that I didn’t miss her or anything. I’m just not sure how she’s going to take it when I tell her I’m going out tomorrow. For the whole day. Alone.

Maybe she’ll feel better about it if I write her a haiku.

97 thoughts on “Gulag Zen

  1. It’s really not this bad or this good. Right?

  2. LOVE THIS!! Read it twice, the first a bit seriously, the 2nd with much cackling and falling out of the chair! Most excellent.

  3. Johna Till Johnson says:

    You’re HILARIOUS! Fantastic blog post. And love the haikus.

    Jesus Rodriguez is not the only treasure I’ve discovered today, thanks to you..

  4. Dina says:

    🙂 This is my first visit to your blog and for sure not the last one. I had the best laugh of the week. Great writing. Gorgeous kids, I am doglover, shit happens. I do look forward to more from the Zen-apprentice. Say hell to the lady of the house. 🙂

  5. narf77 says:

    MAN I love this blog! I savour the posts…I wait…I let them mount up and I read them like I eat chocolate hiding in the cupboard cramming chocolate into my mouth but these posts are my mental equivalent of chocolate…my head is full of melted brown and I can’t stop laughing and my significant other is tired of loud guffaws followed by haiku that only make sense if you have read the whole post…my sides hurt and the dog is walking slowly back from me and I DON’T CARE! I haven’t laughed so much in ages and I bestow you with the Patch Adams award for taking the piss out of yourself and letting us all share our common flawed humanity through your posts…Bravo sir, you are indeed a Zen Master!

  6. This inspired me and I’ve included link in my today’s post.

  7. […] my Twelfth night post from my email signature and queried the phrase helping keep it in mind. And 23thorns inspired today’s […]

  8. Simply lovely blog, so glad I found you. I do Haiku at Haiku Heights you should check it out. BTW, the key to child-rearing is essentially bribery. My kids are now 18 and 20, great manners, well-liked and charming. Just not to us. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Happy to have found yours!

  9. ksashia says:

    Wonderfully fantastic. You’ve successfully summed up how my husband feels on my days out, lol (I write this as my son gives me every excuse in the world not to do his homework). Glad I found this blog!

    • 23thorns says:

      Ah, men without women! Society would collapse within days if you guys took a collective break. Glad I found yours too. Nice to know than even stuff that dark can be beautifully written.

      • ksashia says:

        Well, I suppose it’s a good thing that we don’t all go out on the same day! Thanks for your comment. It’s still in its baby stages, but growing by the day. Happy Wednesday!

  10. blowingoffsteamandmore says:

    This. Is. Awesome. Except for the spider. If you knew my history with spiders… let’s just leave it there.

    • 23thorns says:

      I’m not really all that freaked out by spiders. I am, as I rediscovered, a little freaked out by large, unseen creatures hurling themselves on to me out of the shadows. And that bugger was large!

  11. You made me laugh along with you. What a day you have had. I enjoyed this very much. I will follow your blog from this point forward.

  12. shaddicus says:

    I loved the bit right at the beginning when I couldn’t tell if you were an oblivious ass or not playing dry irony… It was also sweet when I had the delayed realization that the orders to the kids were coming out in haiku.
    Nice post.

  13. A most humorous account of your domestic trials. Well done! THANKS for visiting my “pun-ny” photoblog and leaving a “like.” I can’t help hearing plants, animals, and objects “talk.”
    –John R.:

  14. t.a. says:

    What the heck is a 2 minute noodle?

  15. Lynda says:

    I don’t usually guffaw. You made me guffaw!
    Thanks, it was fun! ~Lynda
    (Oh, and thank you for visiting me today.)

  16. brenda says:

    wide-eyed innocence
    fetter’s a father’s desire –
    seedlings of haiku

  17. Hi, thanks for stopping by my blog, which has led me to yours. My daughters are young adults, so parenting posts don’t often interest me, but yours made me laugh so much, so I read some of your other posts too. Your writing reminds me of David Sedaris. Good luck with the novel.

  18. Reblogged this on This is your real mother speaking… and commented:
    I love this blogger’s humor as much as his writing. I think he’s going to be FAMOUS someday! 😀

  19. You’re a genius! 😉 I wish I could write like that. This was the funniest thing I’ve read for a long, long time. I had to show it to my husband. He laughed hysterically. (We have four kids) Thanks! Re-blogged it.

    • 23thorns says:

      Kind words indeed. Thank you. And thank you for reposting me. I’m not so sure about the fame thing though. The yachts would be nice, but my house is a little too small for an entourage!

      • I am (sure), but you would have to decide whether you wanted to compile these into a book or become a columnist; and then start submitting things to publishers and editors. 😉 You’re a great writer. Keep up the good work.

  20. dweezer4 says:

    Dude, so incredibly awesome. You’ve just described life in the day of a Mom to a tee! And how fun was THAT? As a mother of four, now grown and only recently, the last one out of the house, may I also suggest a homemade tent made from sheets hung over the dining room table. There they can be whereEVER they want, and if you keep chucking in food, they might stay in all afternoon. Until it’s loud, obnoxious cartoon time of course. Ir if you want to go to the bathroom. Or make a phone call. You sound like a real trooper. Haiku to you! 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      We don’t even need a tent. My daughter has taken to closing herself into her brother’s cupboard for hours on end. We would take her for therapy, but the peace is just too blissful to give up!

  21. Malcolm Pemberton says:

    Much of this sounds so familiar! My kids are much bigger now, but their pets … bunny ate Play Station cable and the bed leg, the cat destroyed my wife’s finely restored chair and the dog (today!) ate the thumb off my wife’s best leather mitten. The story continues.

    • 23thorns says:

      if the bunny, the cat and the dog are all running loose together, it sounds like you guys have really mastered that whole “empty nest” thing!

  22. Holy Roses to Moses, I love your wife.
    And you’re allright too. 😉
    Seriously, great post!

  23. Kami Tilby says:

    Oh my, thank you for that wonderful, sidesplitting foray into a day in the life of parental insanity. I hope you’re able to get some therapy soon.

  24. smallpebbles says:

    Great…….perhaps in the end Zen is about not taking “oneself” too seriously…..hmm… about no-self……thanks for the laughs….great!

  25. heekeow says:

    Thanks for visit
    A Zen Far Away Land
    Your “Haiku” is awesome!

  26. t.c.jock says:

    That was an awesome post. I especially loved the repetition of your daughter wanting to go in and out of the house.

  27. This is GOLD! :D. Thanks so much for the laugh. As a Mom to a 7yo I feel your pain… daily….

  28. Kannan says:

    I personally prefer sonnets for I can make sense of at least one out of the fourteen lines without the headache Haiku gives 🙂
    Your pains notwithstanding, it was an enjoyable read!

  29. javaj240 says:

    I usually refuse to read Internet poetry. I made an exception for you. Glad I did. Also, what the hell are two-minute noodles.

  30. I am laughing too hard to come up with a haiku! I remember those days and have to say: Serves ya right!

  31. You haad what has become my days since laid off, i can tackle any job with a whole lot less stress after many a days spent with a 2 year old. Funny loved the post!

  32. Laugh-out-loud funny
    Is what you always achieve.
    You have a talent! 😉

  33. Learning the hard way says:

    You have mastered art form
    now ready for Tanku grasshopper
    five sections instead of three
    more room to detail vagaries of offspring
    and record deserved abuse from venerable wife

    (ok, more rules too…but even the Japanese are ignoring them now)

    loved your blog 🙂

  34. Like your blog; admired your haikus (I could never get them right- too few words for me), smiled at your kids and yelped at your GIANT spider picture.

  35. Domestic haikus
    Breathe life into old art form
    And make us all laugh

    Your posts truly brighten the day. Please tell me you did something with the millions of spiders?

    • 23thorns says:

      Of course I did. I ran away. On the plus side, I went back for a peek today, and they were all gone, leaving behind their shed exoskeletons. Which means they’ve grown. And are moving up towards the house.

  36. i’ve just reevaluated my holiday break with my kids. it was more relaxing than i’d realized. less life-threatening anyway.

  37. That made me laugh lots
    It cheered up my evening no end
    Smile still on my face

    • 23thorns says:

      My evening was fun, too. My night, however, was filled with fitful dreams of eight legged, eight eyed horror, creeping, crawling, closer, ever closer. In the morning, we had oats. My wife is back.

  38. Marcia says:

    O.M.G. O.M.
    O.M.G. O.M.G. O.
    O.M.G. O.M.

    (I can say no more.)

    • 23thorns says:

      I know when I’m beat. Seventeen syllables is tricky, but with seventeen letters, you have officially reached perfection, and there are no more haikus to be written.
      On the plus side, I can stop these ludicrous haiku replys.

      • Marcia says:

        I recognize pain and suffering when I see it, and I live to serve. I’m so glad I could put you out of your seventeen syllable misery. Now, take Granny’s advice…next time you are overcome with an urge to get all Zen-ly, go draw in the sand. Much easier. And the kids and pets can join in. See? All better now? Thought so.

        My work here is done.

  39. Incredibob says:

    A very good read, well done!

  40. Sue says:

    A gift to parents everywhere!

  41. kelloggs77 says:

    Exactly my life
    Only in South Africa
    It IS a small world

  42. disperser says:

    I can only somewhat relate, as we opted not to have children, and Haiku for me is a nice place in Maui (me no be liking poetry much).

    Still, a fun read, as always.

  43. Lol! There is nothing zen about fatherhood, and your first haiku definitely lacked that zen quality. However, I believe you mastered the haiku with your later attempts.

  44. Chanel Hason says:

    Holy cow I would have freaked out with all those spiders in the shed! EEEEEK!

  45. lylekrahn says:

    Funny with a great ending.

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