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.

A Fish Tale

Originally published Wednesday, July 21, 2004

I am not a fisherman.

I grew up on a lake in Montana and I am not a fisherman. I have fished. I’ve sat along riverbanks, trawled on boats, stood in the middle of streams, and shivered on ice sheets in the middle of winter. I am not a fisherman though.

I’ve hooked perch and carp. I’ve pulled in a sucker and a very small rainbow trout. The perch were the easiest to catch because I would take a lantern and pole out at night, go into Magpie Bay, sit on a neighbor’s dock and reel them in one after the other. The lantern attracted so many perch that I didn’t even need to bait my hook. Drop the hook in the water and a perch was bound to snag itself.

I am not a fisherman. I never had a fishing license. I’ve never woken up at dawn in order to go fishing. I’ve never fished for more than thirty to forty minutes at a time. Even the one time I was deep-sea fishing, I became bored very quickly and preferred to watch the ocean instead. The most compelling piece of evidence I can offer as to why I am not a fisherman is I can’t clean a fish.

Take my brother as a point of contrast. My brother is a sportsman, a term that encompasses being a hunter and a fisherman. My brother would willingly get up before the sun in order to drive an hour to go fish at some obscure river for an entire day. My brother would not willingly get up at any hour to go to school. My brother would sit on the ice that covered the lake for hours, checking homemade ice fishing poles, clearing ice from the holes, and drinking coffee from a thermos. His fingers would be red and chaffed and each fish he pulled out, he would toss on the ice until it was dead and then with his fillet knife quickly and efficiently clean it.

The cleaning is the real sign of a fisherman. You see the stereotype fishermen who bring home their catch and have their wives clean it. Those aren’t fishermen. Those are guys taking a weekend and pretending to be fishermen. Real fishermen takes his catch, handles it, cleans it, and fillets it. The cleaning is a matter of pride. Much like baiting your first hook with an earthworm, cleaning is yet one more step in becoming a real fisherman. I ran into problems in cleaning. First, the bones of the dorsal fin always stabbed me like needles. Second, the damn fish is so slippery and the knife is so sharp that I have the basic fear of slicing open my hands. And third, the smell of fish does not come off your hands, no matter how much soap and lemon you use. The guts don’t bother me. The innards are usually what disturbed most people, or the sound of descaling. Neither had much affect on me. Growing up in the country, there are just things that don’t bother you much. If it isn’t cute, furry and a pet, there is little emotion attached to dead animals.

The third and last step is cooking the fish you catch. Once again, my brother had this down pat. He would create a beer batter for perch and fry them up. Freshwater perch are small fish and don’t yield a lot of meat, so it does take five or six to make a meal for one person. That is five or six fish that need to be cleaned before they can be cooked. Once cooked, the perch tasted terrific. I cannot attest to the exact recipe that he used, but it was basically this:

1-cup all-purpose flour
1-teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon baking powder
¾-cup beer
½-cup milk
2 eggs

There had to have been some other spices in the mix. The fish fillets would get dredged through the mix and tossed in heated oil until golden brown.

I am not a fisherman and I don’t pretend I am. I never owned a fishing pole, though I found many that I used. I never had a tackle box, but I would walk the shoreline looking for lures that trawlers lost when the lure snagged on rocks or sunken branches.

Just because I am not a fisherman does not mean I don’t have a fish story to tell. Seeing that I am not a fisherman though, my fish story actually doesn’t have anything to do with fish. My fish story begins at Kim’s Marina, a small marina on Canyon Ferry Lake in Montana. The marina had two or three long docks that people could park their boats at. Off to the left of the main docks was a smallish area with a simple dock that people would swim in and like this one occasion, fish. I can’t directly recall my age when this occurred, but I had to be in my mid-teens, maybe 14 or 15. My Dad, long since retired from the Post Office, worked at the marina as a handyman. The marina was only two miles from my home and the owner’s son was my friend. So I had all sorts of reasons to be on the dock on that summer day with a fishing pole, pretending to fish.

When I fished on a dock, I had two methods I used. A bobber was my preferred method. The red and white plastic doohickey that would float on top of the water and jiggle if something was nibbling at the hook, the sign you need to jerk the rod and set the hook in the mouth of the prey. Using a bobber meant just sitting and that can get boring. So the second method was casting. That was fun but reeling the lure in at a steady enough speed so the hook didn’t settle on the bottom was difficult. I’m sure real fishermen understand at what rate you need to reel in the different types of lures to make sure they are at the appropriate depth to catch the type of fish you want. I lacked that knowledge then and still lack it now.

Often my hooks would settle on the bottom and I would spend ten minutes trying to undo the snag. That is what happened on this fateful day at Kim’s Marina. I snagged something on the bottom. Luckily for me, the hook seemed to get free fairly easily. When I pulled the hook from the water, there was a wristwatch attached. It was an older watch, waterproof, luckily and it was still working, though thoroughly caked in mud and muck. Probably the best thing I could have caught seeing I don’t have a problem cleaning a watch.

I wore that watch for several years. I wore it all the way through high school and into college. My freshman year of college, I went to South Africa. The story of why and how I went to South Africa is unimportant at this point in time. The important point was I was on the beaches of Durbin South Africa, swimming in the warm and intimidating Indian Ocean. Intimidating because I had only ever kind of, sort of swum in the Pacific Ocean and intimidating because of the shark warning signs that were posted on the beach.

As I bobbed in the water, struggling against the giant waves and dealing with the rip current, a mysterious thing happened. The current was so strong, it stripped the watch right off my wrist. The watch I had caught with my fishing prowess in Montana was suddenly a part of the Indian Ocean.

To this day, I wonder if that watch had a specific destiny it was trying to fulfill. Maybe it was on a journey back to the factory that created it somewhere in Asia. No matter what the truth of the watch’s journey was, it remains my one and only fish tale that doesn’t have anything to do with fish. That’s okay; I’m not a fisherman.

Fear

Originally publishedFriday, July 23, 2004

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. Frank Herbert wrote this as a litany of his futuristic vision of religion. It is often quoted because it is real. It is meaningful. It resonates with us. We know in our hearts, in the depths of our soul, that fear is a vile and weak reaction. Those who cower in fear are forever enslaved.

Fear is the mind-killer.

When we fear something, we cede power to it. At that point, rational thought no longer works. Fear corrupts logic. Fear can actually make us act against our self-interest by creating a mirage of what our self-interest actually is. We fear something and we think by avoiding it, by giving into the fear, we are acting in our self-interest through self-preservation. We assume that which we fear will destroy us. We make that assumption because we have rolled over and given ourselves fully to our fear. We become the puppet.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

Every time we cave to fear, a part of us dies. It can be a slow painless death though. We may not even realize it is happening, like falling asleep in a room filled with carbon monoxide. A slow gentle death. Whether you die quickly or slowly, painfully or painlessly, the end result is the same and it is a matter of whether or not you choose to rage against the dying of the light or accept it with nothing more than a whimper.

What has fear prevented us from doing? What choices have we made only because we feared one path over the other? There are many metaphors that come to mind when discussing fear and how it destroys us. Imagine a man who has capsized his boat in the ocean. The boat sinks and he is left floating above it. The shoreline is miles away but visible. He wears a floatation device and knows how to swim, but he fears being in the ocean. The fear has led him to hold on tight to a rope that is tied to the boat, which is now resting on the bottom. He lashes the rope around his waist believing that if he can stay put, help will arrive. As the tide comes in, he is held tight by the rope. The waters rise above him and his life vest wants to lift him above it. Soon the water is above his head and he drowns.

Admittedly, that’s a pretty stupid man, but the metaphor is sound. Do we hold onto our fears stronger than we hold onto the willingness to save our lives?

Fear is easily dismissed when it comes to life and death situations. In the movies the person who has a fear of heights needs to jump from one building to another in order to escape a certain death. Guided by competing fears, the fear of death wins and the person jumps, overcoming the fear of heights.

What about if the issue at hand isn’t a life or death issue? How do we handle fear in those cases? Take the fear of rejection as an example. It is a common fear that most of us have experienced. No one likes to be rejected, but many of us have an absolute fear of it. Being told no, in our warped belief, will destroy us in ways we can’t even imagine. Some of us are able to overcome the fear and actually take the risk. The more often the risk is taken, the greater the chance that the rewards will be reaped. Those of us who never overcome our fear, will never reap the rewards. That is a fact.

Fear of the unknown is the one fear that gets to most of us. Before us are two paths, one that is clear and known, though one that we really don’t want to take. The other path is completely unknown. There are no guidebooks, no rumors about, nothing. Taking that path means accepting whatever horrible, awful things might come along. We can imagine all sorts of ways in which that path might destroy us. Many of us can’t see the potential rewards as being worth the risk. A few of us, though, who don’t allow fear to control their lives, forge onward and walk into the darkened path, facing the unknown, taking the risk, and possibly reaping the reward.

Too many of us will take the clear path, because known risks and sacrifices are more acceptable than unknown risks and sacrifices.

What are you afraid of? Rejection? Failure? Success?

Personally, fear of failure weighs heavily on my mind. I fear making decisions that will leave me homeless, leave me bereft. One of the reasons for that fear is the lack of a solid safety net. Most people have families they can fall back on to help them through difficult times. I cannot. Some people have significant savings they can use to bridge those gaps, my savings while existent, is less than significant.

The laws of chance dictate that if risk isn’t taken, no rewards can be given. Unless we ante up, we won’t have a chance to see if we can win the pot. Failure is assured by not playing. And we can’t kid ourselves into thinking that we won’t ever fail. Failure occurs more often than success. Luckily, while we may hold onto our failures for the rest of our lives, the world as a whole only cares about our successes. We have the world’s permission to fail as often as we need to until we succeed. All the world cares is we never stop trying. Stop trying and then the world will brand us as a failure. Better yet, we need to not worry about the labels success or failure and just keep doing. Keep moving. Like a shark, we die when we stop moving.

Fear nothing.

Roosevelt wanted us to fear fear. Quite the contrary, we should fear nothing. We should realize that we are the masters of our world, our universe. Fear should never be taken into account when calculating risk. Fear clouds our judgment and does nothing to truly protect us. Fear is the reaction of the weak. We can be frightened by something, but never fear it. Fear is what the deer feels when it freezes in front of the headlights of a car at night. Fear contributes nothing to survival, except in those rare cases where non-movement and inaction prevent you from being killed. We can easily see now how fear is a throwback reaction to being hunted by small brained reptiles who could only find their prey when the prey fled.