Tao of Sam

It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims. – Aristotle

Chapter 157: I saw a man pursuing the horizon

24 February 2014 by Sam

Poetry and songs have a reflective quality; we find meaning in them based on where we are and what is happening around us. While I’m not sure where I first found it, the following Stephen Crane poem has been the most reflective series of lines I have ever encountered:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

When I read this poem in high school, I was the narrator, the pragmatist, the rational observer. I saw the world for what it was, is, and always would be. Surrounded by silliness in high school, I worked minimum wage jobs with coworkers at various points on the path to self destruction or mediocrity. To high school Sam, the narrator was the sympathetic party; his insight into reality could prevent the pointless tribulations of others if only they’d listen.

When I read this poem as I was applying to law school, I was the horizon pursuer, the poet, the irrational chaser. I rejected the nihilism of my early patent office days. Sitting in a comfortable chair and nitpicking everyone else’s achievements and delusions was no way to experience the world. To future law student Sam, the chaser was the sympathetic party. Even if all you did was chase, that was a source of meaning in and of itself. Happiness is doing, not getting what you want.

When I read this poem more recently, I was both. Everyone was both. In every direction, people chasing and others rationally tearing them down. Every decision had consequences. Nothing was clear cut. Move to the suburbs and raise a family? You’re crazy to give up your independence. Stay in the city and dive into your career? You’ll look back and regret the life you never started. Drop it all and give in to the wanderlust? You’ll give up your friends, your career, and your life for a handful of expensive stories. Cling to your reality with all of your strength? It’ll change anyway, and those stories you’ll never have are cheaper than the regret of not having them. Everyone searching for an adventure, a challenge, a dream. And everyone else out to validate their dream, their challenge, their adventure. None of it wrong, and yet none of it right.

Each of these readings was a reflection of a moment. In high school I was slowly realizing that I did not belong in rural Pennsylvania. In considering law school I was realizing that my career path was no longer exciting. More recently, the post law school expanse of opportunities stretches out before me with countless options. All of them with upsides. And all of them with downsides.

Some days I chase the horizon. Some days I stand my ground. And some days the world is too big to fit inside my head.


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Chapter 156: Road Trips and the feeling of Floating

14 September 2013 by Sam

When I was a kid my family would take me and my brothers on lots of trips, and some of my strongest memories are from the river trips. We’d load up our van full of gear, strap one or two canoes onto the roof rack, and drive off somewhere remote to find a river. The canoes would be hauled into the water and loaded with camping gear, food, and supplies. We’d strap on life jackets and climb into the boat, and my Dad would push us away from the shore, jump in, and then paddle us into the current.

The moment we’d sever our connection with the land was always quietly momentous to me. It was the moment we started to float. Everything we needed was in the canoe and we could stop anywhere, whenever we wanted, or continue on for hours at a time. We were a floating spaceship that contained all that we needed to survive. Whenever we stopped at a sandbar or river bank, we could create a village of tents and shelters, with hot food and drinks and maybe a fire, that could survive rain and windstorms with ease. The next day we would pack our village back into the canoes and push off into the river again. Back into the current. Back into the freedom of choice of where to go and what to do. Back to just floating.

The feeling of floating builds up over time. It starts small and grows into a habit over the days and eventually into the Fact that meandering down the river each day was the most natural thing in the world; who would want to camp in one site very long when there was so much to see further down the river? Floating meant freedom and exploration and the future.

Floating is fundamentally a feeling of travel. Pushing off into the unknown with the expectation or hope that it’ll all work out alright. Backpacking, whether through the woods, Europe, or India, captures much of it. Whether you sleep in a tent or a hostel, wandering through cities and mountains for long enough convinces you that you could go anywhere and do anything, given enough time, food, and money.

In each case the medium of travel defines the experience of floating. Backpacking requires public transportation or a trail, and river trips require a river. The most American medium of adventure is of course the wide open road. In America, we take road trips.

You load your car full of gear, food, and supplies. You strap yourself into your seat, turn the ignition, and drive away from your house, into the current of a great American highway. Everything you need is in the car, and you can stop anywhere, whenever you want, or continue for hours at a time. You become a floating spaceship that contains all that you need to survive. Each day you stay in a hotel or camp you create a little home, but the next day you push off into the current of the highway again. Back to the freedom of choice of where to go and what to do. Back to that feeling that meandering down the road each day was the most natural thing in the world.

Back to just floating.

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Chapter 155: Life is about saying yes to things

04 August 2013 by Sam

20130725-090317.jpg

A year ago today I married the most wonderful woman I have ever met. The following were my vows to her.

I can tell you the exact moment that I realized I wanted to marry you.

It was December 31st, 2010, about a year and a half ago, and we were riding up a chairlift in Colorado. It was, without exception, the single coldest day of skiing I have ever experienced, with a temperature of negative 8 degrees and at least 30 mile per hour winds. You are always, always colder than I am, so if my fingers and toes were freezing together then you must have been close to turning into a popsicle. This was only your second time skiing. But you knew I loved skiing, and you wanted to go out and share that with me.

When I put my arm around you and asked if you were up for another run, you replied with as much gusto as you could, “Yes.”

And in an instant it clicked. I saw a vision of us, of our lives together, and I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you.

Because you say Yes to things.

You say Yes to adventures, to dinner parties, weekend trips, house guests, staying in, going out. You say yes to hitting every restaurant in old town, to learning my favorite board game, to going out of our way to visit Andorra even though it’s kind of a dump, to simply taking a walk because I need to clear my head.

And it’s not just the easy things. You said yes to dating a compulsive traveler, someone who left for two months after a single date. You said yes to dating someone who could have moved away to law school, to the idea of long distance if we had to. When I did stay, you said yes to moving in with me the same month I started school, something widely considered to be a crazy idea.

But then you said yes to coming to live with me in Germany last summer, to going on an impromptu road trip to Venice, to taking a walk to Piazza San Marco, to turning a corner to find an empty bridge, and … to me when I got down on one knee and asked you to marry me.

So my vow to you … is that I will say Yes to things too.

I will say yes to adventures, to dinner parties, to staying in, to going out. I will say yes to doing the dishes, to the ups and the downs, the twists and the turns, the joys and the sorrows of life.

Because life is about saying yes to things, and I want to spend the rest of my life saying yes to things with you.

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Chapter 154: The day I learned about Santa

23 December 2010 by Sam

The following took place around Christmas, 1990. I was 8 years old.

The Bells

After struggling to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, eager to discover Santa’s bounty, I was woken by an unmistakable sound. It took a while to convince myself that I wasn’t dreaming, but the sound seemed to be coming from above me and outside the window. Sleigh bells. Consistent and continuous, like the sound of a Salvation Army volunteer. My understanding of Santa and his transportation of choice gave me the impression that it must be coming from the reindeer on his sleigh.

I grew up with dogs, and I knew the sound their collars made. It wasn’t consistent and continuous, it was random and based on their movement. The reindeer would have to be shaking their heads or bodies like the Salvation Army volunteer’s hand to be making this sound, and no animal I had ever seen was that well trained. Even if Santa had trained them, the sound continued for quite a while. How could Santa make it to every house in the world if he just let his reindeer stand on my roof shaking their heads? I don’t remember the bells stopping, but eventually I fell back asleep.

The Bounty

In the morning there was the usual and joyous Christmas celebration, the discovery of stockings and unwrapping of presents, and I briefly forgot about the sleigh bells. However, one present concerned me: a child-sized plastic house (somewhat like this one). It was an excellent plastic house, but what concerned me was its relative size compared to our chimney. It was my understanding that Santa used the chimney to deliver our presents. The plastic walls were too big to even fit through the fireplace opening, let alone the chimney. It was possible that Santa came through the front or back door, but he would likely have set off our burgler alarm and woken us all up. I imagined all sorts of possible rolling or folding techniques for the plastic walls, but all of them seemed impossible without causing damage.

The Breakthrough

Several days later, sitting at the dining table with my mom finishing some math homework, I decided to vent my frustrations about the plastic walls and the chimney. I explained to her how I didn’t think it was possible for Santa to squeeze the walls through the chimney, but also that every other explanation I came up with didn’t make sense either. Just before I started to wade into the sleigh bell issue, she stopped me.

“Sam, do you want to know how Santa did all that?”

I knew there was something going on that I didn’t understand, and I wanted more than anything in the world to know what it was.

“Well, Santa is this wonderful thing that parents do during Christmas …”

As she explained, I became very quiet. The world had shifted in an instant. Basic axioms of existence were thrown out the window. Past experiences reanalyzed. And it made sense. It made so much sense. I had walked up to the door of enlightenment without even guessing it could be opened, and it remains one of the most bewildering and exhilarating moments of “A-ha!” I have ever experienced.

That said, I still have no damn idea where the sleigh bells came from.

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Chapter 153: El Ruedo de la Malagueta

09 June 2010 by Sam


El toro bravo chasing banderilleros

I stumbled on the bullfight by accident. I was at the start of an 18 day trip to the Iberian peninsula and I was traveling by myself, hoping to do something my later trip partners might find repugnant. My research told me that the first week of April was early for bullfighting, so I had decided to let fate make the decision of my attendance for me.

Walking back from the beach in the Spanish town of Málaga, I noticed a crowd of men standing, waiting for something. Seeing nothing of note around them, I happened to look up to see what appeared to be a renovated Roman Colosseum. La Plaza de Toros La Malagueta. A bullfighting arena.

I scalped a ticket and was ushered onto a stone bench next to some excited British men. The arena filled to capacity, the thousands of people being mostly older men, but with many wives and children accompanying them. We sat hip to hip, knee to back, struggling to fit modern bodies into a space designed for the nutrition of the past. Hands were shaken, beer was purchased and peanuts cracked.

The corrida de toros began. Three ostentatious toreros strode into the dirt arena, followed by banderilleros (“flagmen”), picadores (“lancers”), and numerous hangers on. The crowd cheered and the parade eventually exited. When the arena had calmed, the trumpets announced the arrival of the true star. El toro bravo.

Through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular bull I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, a locomotive of muscle broken free from his tracks. He chased the banderilleros and their pink capes behind the protective ring at the edge of the arena floor, his horns clanging against the metal with each near miss.


La Plaza de Toros a Malagueta, Málaga, Spain

The first torero, Javier Conde, took to the center of the arena and began to dance with the bull, pulling him close with his cape, only to step aside or whip the cape away at the last moment. Whenever the bull began to tire, a new horrific measure was introduced to give the bull new life.

First, the picadores, men on blindfolded and cloth-armored horses, used lances to stab the bulls’ back. The bull would attempt to ravage the horse with its horns, but the armor provided enough protection that the bull would soon gave up. Later, decorated javalins were stabbed into the bulls back by the toreros. After three failed attempts by Conde to strike the bull through the heart with a sword, banderilleros tried to get the bull moving by pulling its tail. The bull lay defeated, but not dead. The latter was accomplished by a knife, twisted once inside the bulls skull. A horse drawn wagon came and hooked the dead beasts’ horns and dragged it across the arena, out the same door it had entered.

The trumpets sounded again, and through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular toro I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, una locomotora de músculo, broken free from his tracks. The second torero, El Cid, was much more skilled. Each swirl of the cape had more flourish, more confidence, and he brought the bull closer to his body on each snarling, rampaging charge. El Cid managed to strike the bull through the heart with his sword on the first attempt. The bull lay panting, dying, and was finished with the same flick of the knife.

The mood of the Brits sitting next to me had changed. Gone were the smiles, the jokes, the eating of snacks. The closest to me turned and said “We’ve seen enough.” They fought to find a way out, their empty seats quickly cannibalized by space hungry Spanish bottoms.


David Fandila, better known as El Fandi

Then, with trumpets roaring, through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular toro bravo I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, una locomotora de músculo, liberado de su pistas. He chased and charged the hapless banderilleros, the master of all in his domain. Then came El Fandi.

What happened next was the most graceful, poetic and loving murder of a dangerous animal I could have imagined. El Fandi’s dance was so fluid, so sure, you could almost see him caress the toro‘s brow as it roared past him, trying to kill him with every muscle in its body. The bull was stabbed, taunted and provoked, all so that El Fandi could dance ever longer. I was mesmerized, only snapping out when the knife was twisted and the bull let out its final twitch.

Through I had only seen half of the corrida, as each torero fights twice, I realized that I had seen enough, and walked out in the chaos of intermission.

Most cattle that have died for my benefit have done so in factories, leaving this world in a mechanized ritual with no celebration. I doubt I will ever pay to see another animal tortured to death, but if I had been born a bull, I would rather die in the arena than in a factory.

Only in the arena, in front of an audience of thousands, can you stare your murderer down and, with a single twist of your horns at the final moment, make him look like a fool.

See: Wikipedia: Spanish-style bullfighting

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