Parable of Sam

Originally published Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Belief creates reality. Argue all you want, pick all the nits you want, it is a fact. If you don’t believe in the fact, well, you are just trying to be difficult and are missing the point. That’s perfectly fine by me, I have nothing to gain by relating the following story to you, but you may walk away with a bit more understanding of what this world is all about. At the very least you may have a moment of entertainment and be able to laugh about that old man who sat on the park bench and told you an outrageous tale of Gods and Heroes in America.

Pardon me if I make an assumption, but you look to be like a standard American Christian. I know, I know, you don’t go to church; you don’t even know what denomination your Mother was when you were growing up. You have friends who are Catholic, but you only know that because on Ash Wednesday they have a gray smudge on their foreheads. One of your friends is a devout atheist and goes purple in the face anytime anyone bases a moral decision on the Ten Commandments or Sermon on the Mount. We all know those types. And lest I forget, you also have that ex-lover who was into banging drums, burning incense, in an attempt to be a Druidic-Wiccan Pagan New Age Shaman Magician, or something. All you really cared about was the fact the sex was good.

If anyone asks you though, you say you are a Christian. It is the way you distinguish yourself from Muslims and that couple that run the magazine stand down the street who may or may not be Hindu, but you aren’t sure because you don’t really care. Ganesha to you sounds like something you eat with hummus. You are secure in your beliefs, so long as no one forces you to defend them. That’s just fine, this is America, you are allowed to believe whatever the hell you want. Remember what I said, though, belief creates reality.

The story I’m going to tell you is about how American belief created new gods. I can see the confusion on your face already. New gods? How can there be new gods if there is only one True God? Just sit down and learn something, won’t you? Gods derive their power from the belief people put in them and to think any one of them is Truer than the next is sheer folly. Your god today has no more or less meaning than the god of the Neanderthals who marched across Western Europe in the Ice Age.

So the story starts with a fellow named Sam. Sam was a respectable man, mature yet not a curmudgeon like myself. He stood tall and had a terrific work ethic. Up before sunrise and wouldn’t get into bed until all the cows were accounted for, all the gates closed, and all the tools put away. Sam was a farmer, a carpenter, a poet, an engineer, and an explorer. As time passed Sam sometimes was forced to pick up a gun and become a soldier, but he did it because he had to, but he didn’t like it. Sam was that kind of guy; he always did what he had to do. Sometimes a fire would have to be lit under his ass, but when he started something he finished it.

Somewhere along the line, Sam started seeing a new guy around who went by the name Bill. Bill wasn’t a bad guy, didn’t seem to work as hard as Sam and over time seemed to become more important around these parts than Sam. Sam was fascinated by Bill and even started referring to him as the All Mighty. Sam seemed to find less reason to work and more reason to follow Bill. It is an odd thing when a god begins worshipping another god, but that is exactly what happened with Sam.

Understand, this really isn’t Sam’s doing. Sam was a product of the belief of the American people. Sam, was the patron god of America, an ethereal representation of what this land was about. Sam had two friends, two beautiful women named Liberty and Justice, but Sam was lured away by the temptress Media. Media had this ability to affect the beliefs of the people and to a god who is controlled by the beliefs of the people, this is a most tempting power. Sam took to Media like she was his lover since the beginning of time. Liberty and Justice were after thoughts. First Media got what she wanted, and if anything was left over Liberty and Justice would get their share. Bill didn’t care one way or another. That was probably what intrigued Sam the most about Bill. Bill could have his way with Liberty, Justice, and Media. There wasn’t anything that could oppose Bill. And Bill had no sense of morality about it.

See, my friend, these are the gods that are in the American pantheon right now. We have the venerable elder god, Sam. A father figure, no one could argue with that. Liberty and Justice, both are maternal, protecting types, though they are at odds with each other at times, quarrelling over what is more important. Bill, the Almighty Dollar, is a trickster god, caring only about self-aggrandizement. There is nothing inherently evil about Bill, but Bill doesn’t care if people do evil in their pursuit of him. Media started off as a naïve woman, a workhorse delivering news and information to the people, until a few found a way to corrupt her, turn her into a prostitute. She became a Siren, luring the unsuspected to her altars, asking them to sacrifice to her and Bill. Unlike Sam, Liberty and Justice, she doesn’t care about America as a concept, only as a means to a greater end, her own power. I would be wrong to omit that Sam has a dark side, a villainous side that rarely is seen but needs to be mentioned. Sam, upright citizen of the world, delves into the dark arts often enough to have a corrupted soul. Part of this was due to his obsession with Bill, but it is mostly due to his desire to set upon the world a certain sense of order.

Look about you right now and you can see the dark side of Sam. The Sam who completely ignores Liberty and Justice. The Sam who willingly sacrifices Liberty out of fear. The Sam who puts a cloak upon Justice out of fear. The Sam driven in a monomaniacal rampage out of fear. Sam does this in hopes of creating a new god, Security. Many have tried to build and maintain enough Belief in Security as to allow him to come forth, shield in hand, as a Cavalier of the Land, protecting all. Security often comes forth on feet of clay, though and cannot be sustained long enough to do any real good. The sacrifices made in attempt of creating the belief in security stay with us for a long time, unfortunately.

That is your fear that is driving Sam to be like this. It is your fear that encourages Sam to torture people in hopes of birthing Security into America. It is your insistence that Media isn’t a lying wench that allows you to believe the other lies in your life. Stand against your fear and believe in the Sam who was the farmer, the Sam who was a worker, the Sam who was an engineer and explorer, believe in the Sam who cared for the world, not about Bill. Believe in the Sam who had the strength to carve out a nation from wilderness, who had the wisdom to bring Liberty and Justice to all. Sam knew, way back then when this nation was crowning from the birth canal that the only real protection comes from these two fine ladies. Sam knew they would be at odds with each other at times and the country would swing back and forth between Liberty and Justice, but that was fine because Sam didn’t know which one was more important. No one does. So it is right to allow them to fight it out between themselves, because deep down Liberty respects Justice and would never harm her and Justice adores Liberty and protects her whenever possible.

Get off my bench, now, and go do something that makes Sam snap out of his dark mood. Do something that empowers Liberty and Justice so they can help Sam come back to his senses. And if you still don’t believe that belief creates reality, then to hell with you, because it does and your belief that America should be afraid and America should ignore Liberty and Justice is only hurting Sam. And when Sam hurts, the world hurts.

Humiliation

Originally published Tuesday, August 03, 2004

It was the day I didn’t fight back and it is among one of my biggest regrets in my life.

High school is not an easy time for anyone. It is even worse for the socially inept. We were the bottom feeders, living off of the scraps from others. We had a good day if we successfully escaped the notice of everyone. We gathered in classrooms during lunch, avoiding the places where the more socially skilled chose to eat. We had our secure locations where we were masters – the computer lab, the chemistry lab, even the art rooms and theater. We also had the one place where we felt our very existence was threatened: the gym.

I had many moments of humiliation in gym class. Not all of these moments were at the hands of my fellow students, many were due to my own lack of coordination or strength. Have you ever seen the cartoon about the boy who climbs the rope in gym and then gets stuck at the top? I didn’t think I had enough upper arm strength to climb the rope in gym class so I trapped the rope between my feet and used my legs. Before I knew it, I was at the top of the rope. My legs pushed me easily to the top. Unfortunately, the same maneuver didn’t work well in reverse. As I lowered my hands on the rope, my torso swung out away from the rope and I started a slow spin. I was stuck there for what seemed like hours. Essentially, the only way I could see to get down was by slowly sliding. Gravity is cruel and friction is evil. The rope burn wasn’t too bad, better than everyone in the gym watching me perform an unintended acrobatic show.

Of course I was picked last for the teams (why gym teachers decided this was a good way to choose up teams is beyond me, they should just assign the teams and be done with it). That is a humiliation that everyone seems to have had… which is odd since only one kid can be picked last. Even I am embellishing here. I was usually fourth or third to last. I would be standing with the rest of the bottom feeders wishing I was dead instead of waiting for people I had no respect for or desire to know decided my fate for the next thirty minutes of my life. There are few things worse than waiting for two people and their advisors decide which is the best of the worst.

On the field, the court, the floor, or wherever – the threat of humiliation was limited and centered mainly on one’s skills or personal appearance. Tripping while running, scoring in the wrong goal, having to be ‘skins’ against the ‘shirts’ when your back is covered in acne. Expect no pity from the gym teachers because they are attempting to treat everyone as an equal. Too bad they don’t realize everyone isn’t equal and their efforts only help hammer home that point so when no one in authority is around, the bottom feeders became fodder.

My greatest humiliation came during my freshman year after the gym class finished that day’s activities. We were all standing in the hall that led to the locker room where we changed. James Allen, a bully since I first met him in elementary school at R.H. Radley in East Helena, came up to me. My instincts were telling me to stop him, the survival instincts built into each and every human by design or nature to help protect the species were screaming at me to prevent him from taking whatever action he was going to take. Yet, my mind was telling me that in a fight both people will get punished. Oddly enough, I feared punishment more than anything. It was my ingrained desire not to cause other people hardship. If I got punished, that would include detention, which means my parents who lived far outside of town, would have to go out of their way to get me.

Let me back up a second so the weight of this decision can be fully felt. I lived some 35 miles outside of the city of Helena. My only connection to the city was by the school bus. Ever since I began riding the school bus there was only one rule: don’t miss the bus. Missing the bus meant my parents would have to make the long trek into town and pick me up. This mandate became more critical when my father suffered his heart attack and no longer went to work in the city and my mother took a job to help pay the bills. Only a selfish child would heap extra hardship onto his family by getting into trouble that could be avoided.

James Allen wrapped his sweaty shirt around my neck and began twisting. I kept saying to myself that if I began to choke, I’d fight back. I just stood there, hoping that in someway there was dignity in silently allowing another person to perform a bit of torture upon me. The shirt never tightened enough to choke me, as that was not James Allen’s purpose. I couldn’t fathom what he was trying to do and even suspected he was merely trying to goad me into fighting back. I figured his strategy was to do something totally benign though bizarre to me in hopes I would fight back and he and the rest of the guys in the gym class would laugh at my antics that would make me look even more like a total loser.

I blacked out.

James Allen’s real purpose was to limit the flow of blood to my brain to cause me to black out. I woke up seconds later on my back with all the guys in the gym class gathered around me. I recall the looks of relief on a few of their faces. I was helped to my feet and seconds later Mr. LeBrun, the gym teacher came to unlock the locker door. I kept thinking how things would have been different if only he would have shown up earlier – either while James Allen had his shirt wrapped around my neck or while I was prone on the floor. I chided myself for getting up so soon, I should have stayed on the floor until he showed up. I kept thinking that in someway I needed the authority figure to acknowledge my victim status and to see the victimizer punished.

It took several years for me to come to the realization that I need only have followed my instincts. I should have fought back. James Allen would have beaten me bloody – his skills at fighting were far beyond my own, but I would not have been a victim. I would have stood up for myself, something I never learned how to do. I can do it for others but not for myself. Many people would have been inconvenienced. I may have even had to go to the hospital to fix a broken finger or nose. The cost of which would have been a drain on my family, but at least I would have kept some amount of dignity and honor. I would have at least established that you can’t play those kinds of games on me because I will fight back. All I established that day was I was a pushover. There are no martyrs in high school. No one recalls the day when I stood in silence as another person humiliated me. There isn’t a section in the yearbook for The Most Victimized.

I have many reasons why I really don’t like being around people. The fact I didn’t stand up for myself is my own failing, my own humiliation that I carry with me. There were nearly eighteen other guys in that hallway – none of them stood up for me. None of them even questioned what James Allen was doing. I learned many lessons that day, and though I fundamentally despise society, I am very willing to stand up for someone who is being victimized. Who knows, they may be able to fight back, but maybe they have to make sure they catch a bus to get home. Maybe they think they are choosing a lesser evil. Maybe they are merely paralyzed in fear. I no longer have to catch a bus and I know it is easier to act on someone else’s behalf than my own.

How would things have been different if one or two others in that hallway would have simply said something instead of standing in silence? I still would have been humiliated but not nearly as badly.

The Ugly One

Originally published Monday, July 26, 2004

Looking in the mirror was never difficult for me. In fact, I was fascinated with my face. I would stare at myself for hours in the window during dinner. My family thought at first I saw something outside in the darkness, but when they discovered I was looking at myself like some psychotic bird that doesn’t realize the thing staring back is itself, I no longer could sit on that side of the table. I now realize that I was staring in the same way a person stares at a circus freak.

As a child I just looked odd. As an adult, I’m homely. Bulbous nose, splotchy pale skin, occasional acne, and hair that refuses to be styled any differently than it was when I was five make up the core of my features. My eyes are a muddled mix of green and hazel and I stand at a mediocre 5’10” or so, tall enough to be tallish, but not tall enough that my height becomes an admirable trait. Just average enough that my lack of attractiveness is at eye level with the rest of the world.

I used to think that my hair was a stand out trait that people would look at and say “Wow, what beautiful hair.” It is red, soft, thick and I’ll have it until I’m ninety. Sadly, hair isn’t a pro trait, only an anti trait. What I mean by that is hair is used to remove someone from consideration but someone doesn’t come into consideration because of hair quality. So the fact I have nice hair doesn’t mean much. Also, it isn’t dark enough to be considered a strong punctuation mark on my image. It is a fading red, slowly turning blondish which with my pale skin makes me look like I am fading out of existence.

I also lack a muscular physique. That would at least be another element like height that I could use to overcome my dismal visage. People would say, “he may be ugly, but he is strong and muscular.” Though it wouldn’t mesh well with my personality. That is the other issue at hand, personality. A person with a great personality often is able to overcome physical shortcomings. A strong wit, charm, extroverted ways can go a long way. I don’t have any of that. I’m a shy person by nature. I am not funny, I don’t tell jokes or anecdotes, and the most charming thing I can say to another person is “I like your [article of clothing].” I don’t even use people’s names while talking, though that is a big charm ‘no-no’ because people love to hear their names spoken. Anytime I try it, it feels phony. Why do I have to keep saying a person’s name in a conversation? Are they suddenly going to forget that I am addressing my remarks to them? I may be boring but I think a person that I am in a conversation with wouldn’t forget such a thing.

I can’t make people laugh. I am less than handsome. I don’t have any interesting personal traits that help overcome my lack of comeliness. What I have is a good heart, soft shoulder, and good intellect. My everyday interests also force me away from normal society. I like movies, but not enough to be a walking Internet Movie Data Base of information. I like music, barely. I don’t enjoy most concerts because I hate standing for hours in the midst of people. I play video games but I rarely finish them and I don’t obsess over my computer system, spending tons of money in order to be able to play the newest games. I can discuss politics and philosophy, but usually my interests in those topics are on a level most people don’t think about. I often believe I am a renaissance man when it comes to knowledge – knowing a lot about many different things. Yet, it is all so esoteric that it doesn’t matter to most people. I can’t tell you who won last nights sporting match-up, who will be in the playoffs, who will be the most valuable player, or any of the stuff that normal people care about.

All this means is my conversation skills are just as bad as my physical attractiveness. I’m more comfortable in the world of ideas when most people just want to talk about what has happened in their day. I rarely talk about what happens in my day because, well, I hate my days. Yes, I do realize that could be why I am a bad conversationalist – I don’t have enough passion about anything to talk about it. Sadly, the things I do have a passion about, I feel most people just don’t care. Honestly, take this piece of writing, does anyone really care that I am ugly? Will this spur others to examine the aesthetics of humanity? Doubtful. Yet, I have a passion about my overall attractiveness.

Maybe a tattoo would spruce up my outer beauty? Shave the beard or keep it? What if I wore contact lenses that turned my eyes blue? How white should I make my teeth? Should I tan? What if I did a spray on tan instead of the harmful UV light tanning? How much change should I go through in order to become attractive? Does God really make unattractive people? We look at many different trees and note which ones we think are beautiful and which ones we don’t but all of them are miracles. All of them are something beyond our scope of accomplishing. Am I not as worthy as all the trees in the world to be considered a miracle? And aren’t miracles by the nature of being a miracle beautiful?

Who am I kidding? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and society shares the same sets of eyes. I am unattractive. I can accept that. I shall serve as a contrast. I may not be attractive but people will be known as being attractive in comparison to me. Perhaps that is the miracle that was planned. How can we be sure if someone is truly attractive unless we can compare him to someone who isn’t attractive? Light and dark, wet and dry, we are known by our opposition.

Play

Originally published Thursday, July 29, 2004

“The trouble with the world today is people don’t play like they used to,” the grizzled old man said to me as we waited for our separate lunch orders at the small deli up the street from me.

“How do you mean?” I asked, expecting a rant against television, videogames, and all that rot that is normally ranted against by someone who think having fun should involve hours of back breaking labor.

“I grew up in southern Illinois, a small rural town and we knew how to play as kids. We’d play hide and go seek until nightfall all throughout the summer. Or baseball when I was older. My friends and I would also go off to the river. We’d swim, eat sandwiches, goof off a lot.”

I nodded. I had a similar childhood. My summers were spent at home on Canyon Ferry Lake in Helena, Montana. I recall playing yard games with the neighbor’s grandchildren. We’d play tag, Red Light, Green Light, Simon Says, and all sorts of other games. We’d do it well past nightfall. Summer also meant fires on the beach roasting marshmallows. The fires weren’t casual things. We’d get down there early in the day, cutting willows for roasting skewers, gathering wood, setting up the fire ring and arranging the seating.

The fire was always large, or seemed large to me in my youth. Roasting marshmallows was a dangerous thing – for the marshmallow as it would most likely burst into flame. With a marshmallow fully alit, I would run down to the lake to douse it. I really can’t give a good explanation as to why I would do such things, I just did.

Around the fire would be family and friends. There always seemed to be a cousin around. That was one of the signs of summer for me. Living on the lake, all the family would come to our house to enjoy summer weekends. The lake itself offered countless hours of entertainment, whether it was swimming, boating, skiing or just floating on an inner tube.

The grizzled old man compared his childhood with his grandkids. “My son has to take them to scheduled baseball games. What is wrong with a pick-up game? If the kids have a moment of unscheduled activity, they are bored stiff. It isn’t that they want to watch TV, they don’t. But they don’t know what to do with unorganized time.”

I understood his point and understood what he was saying about knowing how to play. It isn’t the type of activity that is bothersome. It is about being self-sufficient enough to entertain yourself. While I came from a large family, I was the youngest, so as I grew up, my brothers and sisters left home. My summers in my adolescence were lonely. While everyone else I went to school with were in town going to parties, forming nascent romances, I was still at the lake. The neighbor’s grand kids were older than me and didn’t care to play those childish games like they once did.

I kept myself occupied though. I dove into reading books and keeping in contact with a few friends from school as best I could.

I learned how to entertain myself. I learned about the essence of imagination. What I missed in socialization, I more than made up in developing daydreams and fantasies. I am not going to lie and say I was never bored, but it was rare. There was always someplace I could walk to. Walk the mile to Jo Bonner Park at the base of Magpie Bay, or walk two miles over to Kim’s Marina and Riley’s Bar to play video games. Sometimes I’d just walk up Magpie Gulch to see how far I could get before tiring out. To me it was pure exploration.

The old man got his order and said bye to me. I watched him and wondered if he still played. I could see him enjoying a game of checkers or chess. He seemed to be the type that would spontaneously throw a few sodas in a bag with a peanut butter sandwich and drive a few hours to see the World’s Largest Ball of Earwax or some other bizarreness, just because.

I often lament what my childhood could have been. I could have been one of those city kids with lots of friends around all the time. If that had happened though, how would I have turned out? I know a lot of people now who always have to be doing something. They feel out of sorts with unorganized time. I revel in it. They say they are bored, I say I am set free. Two hours where I am not required to do anything or think about any particular thing is two hours I can slip into my fantasy world: a world that calls out to be explored.

When I was on my own in Chicago for the first time, I didn’t have anything. I lived in a tiny studio apartment, with no furniture, no TV, only the radio for entertainment. I had countless hours of free time and I explored. There was always someplace to walk to, always somewhere to go to see something new. Living without a car, without friends nearby, with only myself for company, I was able to draw upon the lessons of my childhood and the lessons of learning how to play.

Play teaches out how to interact with other people. That is probably the most important part of playing. We learn to share, we learn to compromise, and we learn how to lose and win gracefully. These are the things coaches of team sports stress. What is forgotten, the hidden lesson of learning to play, is learning how to keep yourself entertained. The game you play isn’t important. It is just a vehicle for the imagination. Take two people of the same culture, strand them together with a few small stones, cups, and knick-knacks and if they grew up knowing how to play, they won’t be bored. Those trinkets will be transformed magically into a new game. Or the area in which they are stranded will be thoroughly investigated and explored.

I know how to play. I enjoy playing. From board games and yard games to video games and role-playing games, there is never a reason to be bored. In college, my friends and I would sometimes be lounging, hanging out wondering what we should do. It wouldn’t take long before at the very least, we’d go on a quest of some sort. To those who know how to play, unorganized time is a secret blessing.

Metawriting

Originally published Friday, July 30, 2004

The first sign a writer is hard up for a topic to write about is the writer begins to write about the craft of writing.. Unless the reader happens to be a writer or aspiring writer, deep rooted boredom will set in. There is no reason to read something on a topic that has nothing to do with your life when there are Maxim’s and Glamour’s to be read.

When a writer writes about writing, it is called ‘metawriting’. The most annoying thing about metawriting is the self-referential statements like “this sentence contains the word ‘self-referential.’” All of this, while a bitter disappointment to a reader who wants to read something with wit and verve, is a necessity to the writer with writer’s block.

In each writer is the hope that as long as the quill is moving and the ink is flowing, the block that is preventing a masterpiece of literature from being crafted will crumble. That rarely happens.

Lately, as I struggle with my own craft, I’ve been seeking out places willing to pay money for my work. There is always a demand for writing. Every catalogue, website, or encyclopedia needs a writer [note to self: develop a character who is a writer who writes for an encyclopedia on writing]. In this fruitless search, I’ve come across one publication that wanted a writer to ghost write articles on finance as if the articles were written by a dog.

I’m not making this up. Such a premise is rather stupid to be a conceit to further this tale regarding writing. The ad that was asking for these bits of written work didn’t indicate the publication that would be using these works. I was left wondering if it was a magazine for people who loved dogs or a magazine for those people interested in finance. In either case, I can’t see where a dog would be a sound investment adviser. I could see it if a dog had once made a fortune on a stock market or scrimped and saved over time to buy a house of his own, but really, do dogs even know what money is?

I don’t even think we regard dogs as inherently good at economy. Ants understand the need to save, or at least the parable of the ant and the grasshoppers leads us to conclude they are. Squirrels know about stockpiling, but the truth of squirrels is they don’t remember the location of the stuff they stockpile and in the winter different squirrels randomly find the stockpiles. So a squirrel that is saving isn’t necessarily protecting his future, but the future of other squirrels.

Dogs bury bones, I guess. If I were to write such an article, I think I would do a pun thing based off of bones and bonuses. You know, when you get a bone/bonus, don’t eat it/spend it all, instead bury/save part of it for later. It wouldn’t be a very good article, but honestly, if you’ve taken the time to actually read those personal finance advice columns that is about the level of intelligence they offer.

The odd thing is, as a writer, I find the concept of writing about a dog’s perspective of finance to be kind of interesting. As you can probably tell, I’ve already given it some amount of thought.

Before the original point is completely lost, the idea is writers write about writing as an excuse to not write about stupid things like a dog’s perspective of finance. A writer knows that once he steps onto that path, selling his skill to craft something like this there is no turning back. If Michelangelo had painted signs for vendors at the market instead of works of art, he wouldn’t have ever been known. As I mentioned earlier, there is no shortage of need for writers. There is always a need for another list of the 5 Reasons Why Men Leave the Toilet Sit Up or 16 Ways to Spruce Up Window Bunting.

When you aspire to be a Hemingway or even a Piers Anthony, you can’t if you take that path, that path of selling your skills to craft things that will be thrown out in a month for a newer version of the same thing you had written. When you aspire to write a masterpiece, you are aspiring to immortalize your craft. Every writer wants to write that one piece of literature, one couplet of poetry that others will memorize, keep in their hearts, and repeat hundreds of times in their lifetime.

There is nothing wrong with the writer who does take the path of writing unremarkable things. That writer will have a career and a steady paycheck. The world only has so much room for Steinbeck’s and Grisham’s. There can only be one Tom Clancy and everyone else is a pretender. When a writer writes about writing, you have to forgive him. He is only trying to stay away from that path of writing those things that may be a path to a steady paycheck, but won’t inspire a reader any longer than it takes the reader to flip the page to the next list of things that will make the reader’s life so fantastic that the reader will no longer have a need to buy the magazine that gives out all the advice.

Sometimes, the writer may actually have writen something profound enough about writing that even the most disinterested reader will perk up and take notice. Maybe there is some advice, some element of reasoning in the writer’s opinions regarding writing that might apply to other aspects of the reader’s life. That would be the sign of a skilled writer, though and would be remarkably rare. More likely there wouldn’t be much in the piece that applied to anyone but that particular writer. Such is the nature of the business though. Universal lessons just aren’t that easy to develop, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Road Bandits

Originally published Monday, July 19, 2004

Tizzle sat on the stump and rubbed his foot through his mudcaked, hole-filled sock with his scabbed and scarred hands. Tizzle glanced up the road and saw Rigger striding quickly away. “Wait up, will you?” Tizzle shouted to Rigger getting no response. Tizzle picked up his beat up leather boot with a large hole that ran through the bottom and top of the shoe and poured out equally large pebbles.

Tizzle thrust his foot in the boot. The laces of the untied boot flapped about his ankle as he jogged to catch up to Rigger. In contrast to Tizzle’s raggedy clothes, Rigger wore a fine country suit made of durable cloth, though it had seen better days and was patched in several places. A bowler hat hid Rigger’s bald head and her swung a long stick as thick as a man’s forearm about nonchalantly, sometimes using it as a walking stick and sometimes using it as a club, knocking the heads off of dandelions.

Rigger looked over to the panting Tizzle and asked, “Why are you out of breathe?”

“I got some rocks in my boot that I needed to take care of,” Tizzle said in between breaths.

“If you are going to take shoes from a dead man, you should make sure the shoes are worthy of being worn.”

“They were good shoes, until you shot him in the foot. You knew I needed boots, I don’t know why you had to shoot his foot. Wouldn’t the shin or thigh have served your purpose? Why the foot?”

“Everything is about you, isn’t it? I wasn’t thinking you needed boots back there. I was only thinking that he was getting away. I guess I could have just shot him in the head, but then we wouldn’t know which way the carriage went, now would we?” Rigger addressed Tizzle in a patronizing fashion, using the large stick to punctuate his speech.

“Besides,” Rigger continued, “at least now, one of your feet has a shoe.”

“Always the optimist, aren’t you?” Tizzle mumbled to himself. The two men walked down the road for an hour in silence. The sun had fallen low enough that it was hidden behind a large copse of trees. The two men walked in the long shadows, as the air cooled around them.

“Should we build a fire tonight?” Tizzle asked.

“Guess we better. I was hoping we’d stumble across a cottage or some travelers and set by their fire this evening,” replied Rigger.

Tizzle wandered to the side of the road and began collecting bits and pieces of wood as Rigger continued to stride forward. Once Tizzle had a full load of wood in his arms, he hurried up the road. Night was quickly coming and Tizzle had lost sight of Rigger. Tizzle finally came to a turnout in the road, a site of many campfires from the look of the blackened earth. Rigger sat on a rotting log gazing up at the stars in the clear sky.

Tizzle took a rag from his coat pocket and unrolled it, revealing a small knife and a few stones. He took the knife in his hand and began widdling at a piece of wood, creating as small pile of tiny flecks of wood. Though he wielded the knife as if he had done this countless times before, every once in awhile the knife would slip and he’d knick his hand.

After one particularly painful slice, he yelped. Rigger turned his head to Tizzle and in an unconcerned voice said, “If you’d just get the thing sharpened, you wouldn’t cut yourself so much.”

“If it were sharper, I’d take my finger off when it slips.”

Rigger turned his head back to the sky. He’d attempted this argument too many times to try it again tonight.

Tizzle gathered his little pile of wood chips and then took one of the stones in his left hand. In a quick motion, he struck the knife blade against the stone, sending out a little array of sparks. Tizzle did this several times until a few sparks landed on his pile of woodchips. He bent over and gently blew on the spark. The spark burned the wood, creating an ember. From the ember a tiny flame grew. The flame took life. Tizzle carefully set twigs on the flame. Twigs became finger thick branches, until the flame was able to engulf the chunks of dead wood he had collected alongside the road.

“Good work,” Rigger said, looking at the warm fire Tizzle had crafted. Tizzle pressed his bleeding hand against his dirty trousers and beamed at the praise.

“It is a shame we don’t still have some of that quail from last night, isn’t it. I guess we can savor the memory of it though,” Rigger said, moving closer to the fire.

“Yeah, it sure would sit well with my empty stomach. When do you think someone will find the body of the guard back there?”

“By now, I’m sure the animals have had him for their dinner. My concern is why was the guard back there in the first place. I certainly hope Ardur isn’t aware we are behind him and left the guard there to do us in.”

Tizzle laughed. “One guard? For us? That would be a true underestimation of who we are and what we are capable of. I’d be insulted if that were the case.”

“You are right, chum. Most likely he was a straggler. Probably sent back with a message for someone. It doesn’t much matter. If Ardur is aware we are coming up behind him, there is very little he can do about it.”

Tizzle cackled as he tossed another chunk of wood on the fire.

Rigger laid down on the ground, still staring up at the stars. The fire warmed his face and gave everything about it an orange glow.

The morning was gray and damp. No rain had actually fallen yet, but the clouds were like children carrying full cups of water. They were going to spill, it was just a matter of when. Rigger awoke slowly, the chill of the morning air making his bones hurt in a most unnatural way. Tizzle awoke earlier and gathered berries from nearby bushes. One of Tizzle’s rags sat near Rigger, heaped with various types of berries. Rigger reached for the berries as Tizzle popped up from behind a rock. Tizzle’s face was splotched with redness and he seemed pained.

“Don’t eat the small reddish ones. They’ll give you the runs something awful,” Tizzle said before squatting behind the rock again and making some obscene noises.

Rigger flicked the berries from the rag and sampled the others. “Good thing you told me,” is all he had to say over Tizzle’s moans.

The clouds finally spilt their rain as the two men trudged up the road. Rigger had pulled out a short pistol and looked it over. “I’ve got two shots left and my powder is wet. It looks like Ardur might get an even chance today.”

Tizzle looked worse that before, as a rash had overtaken his entire body. A very nasty reaction to the red berries. All efforts to quell the itching had failed, but the evidence of the attempts was still noticeable. Tizzle smeared mud on his face and he had tried to scratch his back with a branch, leaving twigs and leaves poking out of his jacket. The rain only added to Tizzle’s misery. “I’m in no mood for fair fights today. If we don’t have the pistol, then I say we try to get ahead of the carriage and ambush Ardur and his guards.”

Rigger walked several steps in silence. “Often I question your intellect, Tizzle, but you surprise me. I should learn my lesson. You are right. We’ll cut through the brush when we spot them and take them by surprise. No reason to have a fight on fair ground if it can be avoided, eh chum?”

Tizzle wasn’t paying attention to Rigger as he battled an itch that couldn’t be itched. “Feels like ants crawling on the inside of my skin, Rigger. My empty belly is a traitor to my well being!”

Rigger chuckled at Tizzle.

The two walked through the dreary rain, following the muddy road. Eventually, they caught sight of the carriage. A large armored wagon pulled by four oxen. A teamster on each side of the oxen team and one on top of the carriage drove the vehicle forward. Two guards walked in front and three walked in back. The carriage itself was fifteen feet in height and twenty feet long. Six large spoked wheels carried it along the uneven road.

“We are lucky, chum,” Rigger said in an instinctive whisper in spite of the distance from the carriage and the amount of noise it was making. “The rain has slowed them down even further.”

Tizzle paused and sniffed the air. “Also smells like they need to get some fat on those axels. They won’t be able to move too fast or else the wheels will burn right off that behemoth.” Tizzle was giggling in delight as he bloodied his skin with his filthy fingernails.

The two men trudged through the trees and brush, moving as quickly as they could to get ahead of the slow but steady carriage. Rigger swung his stick haphazardly at bushes, frightening fowl at times. Tizzle scurried behind him, ducking under branches, and hopping over fallen logs. Rigger stopped once and took his bowler hat from his head, wiping sweat and rain from his face. Tizzle caught up to him and collapsed against the trunk of a tree.

“How much further?” Tizzle whined.

“Another hour should give us plenty of time to prepare ourselves and be rested enough to make it a good show.”

As Rigger had said, the two did. Another hour in the forest gave them plenty of time to set up their ambush. The carriage was still a long ways away and the rain had stopped. The mud would still slow the carriage and the lack of water on the axles would also be a factor in how fast the large wagon could go.

Rigger went off an embankment and started throwing stones up onto the road. Tizzle, now mostly over his itchiness, took the stones and started lining them up to form a wall along the road to block traffic. The road was in such bad condition that it didn’t take much to make it impassable.

Once done, Tizzle climbed a nearby tree and sat on a thick branch. Rigger tipped his hat over his eyes and dozed alongside the road.

The carriage made such a racket coming up the road, squeaking and grinding. The sounds of whips and men urging the beasts ever forward, and the good natured conversation between the guards all announced the arrival of the much awaited carriage.

Tizzle gave Rigger a nod indicating that he was prepared. Rigger took cover in the tall grass along the road and continued to wait.

As the carriage pulled forward, the leading guards came across the stones in the road. “Hold up!” one of them shouted. “There’s an obstruction in the road. Come on, men, let’s clear this quickly!”

The three guards following the carriage rushed to the front. The teamster who sat on top also climbed down to lend a hand at moving the rocks.

Tizzle jumped down on the roof of the carriage as Rigger leapt up from the side of the road to the carriage door. The two moved swiftly and in unison. The carriage door was opened and Tizzle swung inside. Rigger still on the ground swung his stick into the carriage and with his free hand pulled at the unconscious guard inside. Tizzle helped eject the second guard.

Those clearing the obstruction turned quickly to see Rigger climbing into the carriage using the bodies of two guards as a stepladder and closing the door behind him.

Tizzle crawled over the lap of a finely dressed man who had an intense look of fear plastered on his face. Rigger took the seat next to the door. “Hello, Ardur,” Rigger said.

“What in the name of storms do you ruffians want?” Ardur shouted in a panic stricken voice.

“Why Ardur, you should know. We only want what you took,” Rigger responded.

“Took from you? I’ve taken nothing from you.”

Tizzle laughed as he explored the immense compartment they were sitting. There were all sorts of little doors, chests, and drawers. One drawer was a larder and contained fresh fruits and smoked meats. Tizzle grabbed a thick slab of black jerky and tore a chunk off with his teeth.

The shouts from outside movement of the carriage indicated time was running out for Tizzle and Rigger. The guards and teamsters would soon pry open the door. “We’ve little time for games, Ardur. The gems. Two weeks ago you and your merry band trapsed through a village and demanded the gems from the church altar.”

“Those were taxes! Taxes owed to the crown!”

Tizzle swallowed his salty meat before speaking, “The church isn’t supposed to pay taxes.”

“Who are you two? You aren’t churchmen!” Ardur shouted. The door to the carriage was now being pried open. The tip of a pike poked into the compartment and pushed the door away from the frame. Rigger slammed his boot against the flat of the pikehead, tossing the guard holding it into the side of the carriage.

“Churchmen? Gods no. We are help for hire. That village was rather upset at your robbery and posted a reward. My chum and I aim to collect that reward, see.” Rigger said as he readied his large stick.

“So where are the gems?” Tizzle asked, drawing out his dull knife.

“Here! Here they are!” Ardur shouted, opening a small chest filled with gold and six perfect sapphires. Tizzle plucked the gems from the box and reached back for a handful of gold. Rigger rapped Tizzle’s hand with the stick. “Only the gems. Our reward will come from the village.”

The two of them got near the door, which was now cracking and creaking with the force of several pikes prying at it. “Are you ready, chum?” Rigger asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Tizzle responded.

Rigger lifted his booted foot and smashed it into the door of the carriage. His strong kick sent the door flying off its hinges. It also provided a shield for the two men as the followed it, tumbling to the ground.

Ardur was already shouting for them to be killed. Rigger pulled out his useless pistol and aimed it at Ardur’s head. “I can hit a fly at this distance, Ardur, and your head is much bigger than a fly.” The guards hesitated. Tizzle fled into the woods and Rigger backed away slowly before turning and diving into the brush after his partner.

The guards ran after them. Tizzle and Rigger sprinted but did not exert themselves too much. The forest was large and they knew all they had to do was get out of sight and lay still until the guards were called back. Ardur wouldn’t like to sit there without all his protection around him.

The two found their opportunity in the form of a giant tree that had fallen many years earlier. Rot had hollowed out most of the trunk. Tizzle uprooted several bushes and used them to hide the hollow Rigger and he could barely fit in. In as much silence as two men crammed in a tight space could maintain, they sat there, listening to the guards trudge to and fro in the forest. The sun had moved from morning to afternoon before the guards gave up and made their way back to the carriage.

“Well, chum,” Rigger said, “It looks as if you’ll be able to get a new pair of boots after all.”

Tizzle nodded enthusiastically as he checked on the six sapphires he had wrapped in one of his many rags.