January 22nd, 2010

How to live life or butcher oxen, part I

When I read chapter 3 of the Chuang Tzu I think of Fillipe.  This is because chapter three is about applying Taoist principles to everyday life, and its core story is about a royal chef who uses the Tao to carve up an ox.

087 Butcher an Ox

I do not know whether Fillipe was a Taoist, probably not.  He was Pilipino and wore a crucifix.  In the early summer of my sixteenth year I had never heard of the Tao.  I was still a child, in fact, this would be the best and last summer of my childhood.  I had been hired at the local lumber mill as a planer chain laborer.  The work was almost easy and almost fun.  Six or seven men and boys pulled finished lumber off a conveyor chain after a planing machine had smoothed and cut it into precise widths, depths and lengths.  Mostly it was two by fours (actually one and fifteen sixteenths by three and seven-eighths)  or shiplap.  We put the lumber in stacks, according to grade and length, that could be carried off by fork lifts eventually to become houses for families.

A few weeks into the job I was asked if I wanted to work on the green chain.  I was making $2.50 an hour (a princely sum for a lad in post WWII Alaska) but the greenchain paid $3,59.  Also the wood was much bigger, rougher, more varied, much heavier and more dangerous to work around.  The work would be very hard, real man's work.  And the other men in the crew fit my definition of "real" men, big, strong Swedes, Mexicans, Indians and Pilipinos--all except  Fillipe; he was a short man, shorter than I (who had net yet reached my full adult height of 5' 6"), weighed about 90 pounds; and though he could have been anywhere between 40 and 70 years old, he looked at least 80 to my juvenile eyes.  I always thought of him as an old man--even after I saw him work.

Fillipe seemed to exert less effort and get more done than anyone else in the crew.  I, on the other hand, exerted more effort and got less done than anyone else.  Fillipe told me he used "Jui Jitsu", allowing the timbers to do most of the work of getting themselves off the chain and on to the proper piles.  He showed me some simple ways of moving and lifting that made the work much easier, and I was soon contributing as much or more than the average person in the crew.  But the real secret, he said was attitude.  Nothing is heavy or light except in relationship to something else., so timber can be perceived as light as easily as it can be perceived as heavy..Fillipe always stayed a few minutes after quitting time to clean up a little to make things easier for the whole crew when they started the next day,

I always think of Fillipe when I read the concluding line of Butcher an Ox.  "The King said: " Excellent! Having heard the words of a butcher, I have found the way to nurture life."