Twin Peaks Part One

It was a beautiful spring morning. Birds were chirping, children were chasing each other around gleefully, men and women of the village were wandering the streets singing while they went to work, the sun was bleeding in through the window bathing Dak in warmth, and life was good. Except that Dak wasn’t happy. In fact, life was miserable for Dak. Everyone around him wore the same stupid, broad smile and told him that one day he too could be happy, but nobody offered anything to soothe his wounds now.

“I don’t want to be happy someday,” Dak exclaimed. “I want to be happy today.”

“Sorry, son,” they said. “One day you will travel up one of the mountain peaks to see one of the great Teachers, and he will tell you what he told me, and my father before me. You will see. You will be happy.” They usually said it bending the knees a bit and rising up again abruptly while making a swooping motion with a hand, signifying the climb to the top.

But this wasn’t good enough for Dak. Everyone said the same thing: that the Teacher atop one of the peaks would show him how to be happy. He knew he would get to go, if he wished, on his fifteenth birthday. That was actually only in a few days. But he had been feeling this way for months now. Why couldn’t any of the people who loved him so much give him even a small token of consolation while he waited? What would be so bad about sharing their wisdom and helping him, even a little bit, now?

Nobody had good answers for him. In fact, it made Dak uneasy the way people got so uncomfortable when he posed those questions. Their smile would fade. Their eyes would shift. Beads of sweat would appear on their foreheads. They tried to change the subject. They fidgeted. And eventually they would jerk as though snapping back awake after a brief nap, put their broad smile back on their face, and repeat what they had already told him: “The Teacher will reveal all to you once you are of age.” Then they would pat him on the head, or on his back, or anywhere else they could think of that would remind him that he was just a child, and they would leave him.

Finally, the day before his journey into the mountains he resigned himself to accept that his fate would be the same as everyone else’s—that he would learn the key to happiness from one of the great Teachers atop one of the mountain peaks. It was a tradition that went back several long generations in his village. The story claimed that nearly a hundred years ago there were two brothers: Rhoj and Tahl. One day they set out from their home far away to discover the secrets of life. They journeyed for many years together, traveling throughout all the land. They spend time in every city and every village, learning all they could from man. Then they devoted themselves to the earth, living with the animals and the water and the dirt, in order to uncover the secrets of nature. Then, after another several years of silent meditation they were able to piece it all together. Their vast wisdom granted them greater health and a longer life. It was said that, now nearly two hundred years old, they only appeared to be in their mid-thirties. However, with that great wisdom they realized that they had a treasure that evil men would commit atrocities to obtain. In order to protect their wisdom they found two mountains separated from the rest and parted ways. One would live atop each of the two peaks, awaiting the arrival of any seeker of truth in order to enlighten and guide him.

Dak’s village was nestled at the base of the two mountains, just to the south. The two peaks were named after the Teachers, Rhoj and Tahl. Rhoj was the westerly peak, and Tahl was just a short distance to the east. A single road led north out of the village and split near the base. At first people would simply trek up to one of the two peaks whenever they learned of the Teachers there, but over time the village that sprang up at the base of the mountains developed its own rituals and rules concerning visiting the Teachers. One of the mountain paths was said to be more treacherous, and over the years several men failed to return from their journey to see the teacher there. Traditionally this was said to be the path to Rhoj. He was the elder of the two brothers, and according to the legend his wisdom was easier to understand as he was better at explaining things. Though more people tried to reach him, his path was ultimately more dangerous and thus less traveled. Tahl, therefore, was more popular for a time, with many hundreds of people successfully completing the journey and growing wiser and happier as a result.

Dak knew all of this, for it was taught in history class in school. But nobody would talk about which of the two brothers they had gone to see. The rumor at school was that fewer people were willing to look lazy or weak, so they took the tougher road to see Rhoj. One thing was certainly undeniable to Dak: people would often come from afar just to see what was known as the happiest village in all the land. While nobody in town would share their secrets of happiness, the village people stood as a testament that there truly was some secret to happiness, and it could be obtained atop one of the two peaks to the north of their village.

And so it was that Dak eventually, the day before his fifteenth birthday, convinced himself that he was looking forward to making the journey. He began to prepare himself. He had heard that it was useful to bring a sizable sum of cash on the journey, just in case (one of only a few tips previous visitors to the Teachers would give), so he gathered together his life’s savings and put it in his traveling sack. It wasn’t enough to make him rich, but it was a sum that even an adult would covet. He had worked hard for many years to earn that money. He was originally saving it to build a fantastically lavish hut of his own design, but now it seemed better suited to making this journey. What good would a fancy home be to him if he was miserable? He also packed a simple tent and dry food enough for a week, since some people were gone about five days. Having heard rumors of the dangers of the road, he also packed a knife his father had given him and his fire-making tools. The night before he stood looking over the supplies he had prepared, checking and double checking that everything was ready. While most people made the trip in groups for safety’s sake, he didn’t want to cheapen the experience. He would leave at the break of dawn, before most of the others who were planning on going would even begin to stir. He wanted to arrive first and have his time all alone with the great Teacher. He would see Rhoj. He was not afraid of a difficult path, and he wanted the clearest teachings he could get. Plus, in his heart he knew that the harder he worked for it, the more it would mean to him.

Water! He realized he nearly forgot to bring a water bladder. He ran and grabbed two and placed them by his pack, hoping he’d remember to fill them at the stream that he knew crossed both paths to the peaks. Satisfied that everything was in order, he allowed himself to retire to his bed, but he knew sleep would not come easily. He was finally allowing himself to feel some excitement. Would this be it? Would he really learn the key to happiness and never have to worry about feeling unhappy ever again? Finally, only a few hours before the sun would crest again, he drifted off to sleep.

Sure enough, he was out of bed, pack slung over his shoulder, exploding out the door of his family’s hut just as the first rays of the morning began to crawl across the sky. He ran noisily down the central road through town that led north, straight toward the pass between the mountain peaks. But unlike most road that headed toward a perfectly good pass, this road did not pass through. This road forked before sending one path straight up the mountain on the left, and another path up the mountain on the right. Dak had never been this far north on the path. It was generally considered improper for children to stray too close to the mountains, so out of respect he had never really left the northern gate of the village. So, it came as something of a surprise to Dak that there was a booth at the fork in the road where an elderly but tall and slender man sat on a stool waiting for him.

“Good morning,” he called out as Dak approached, now at a brisk walk.

A little confused, Dak replied to be polite. “Good morning.”

“Dak? Is that you?” It was odd to hear the man say his name, for he was sure they had never met in his life. Seeing Dak’s confusion, the man went on. “I know your father well. I saw him come this way some twenty years ago, making the journey that you are making now. I still seem him from time to time in the village, though I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced.”

“No, I don’t believe we have.” Dak wondered why the man was here. Why would there need to be a booth here? “And what do you do here, may I ask?”

“I act as a guide for the young people who plan on making the trek to see one of the great Teachers. I can answer questions you may have, help alleviate any concerns, and even help you decide which peak will be the best choice for you personally. Not everyone gets the same benefit from one Teacher as they may from another.”

Dak considered this for a moment. “And which peak do you feel that I should take?” Dak asked tentatively.

“Well, what wisdom is it that you seek?”

“I wish to know the secrets of life and happiness.”

“Ah, a noble quest. And do you wish to have a clear and certain explanation, or would you prefer a more challenging answer that may take years to understand?”

Dak considered the question carefully this time. He knew that there was some value in lessons that are not fully understood at once, and he did not wish to seem impatient. “I am not concerned with how quickly I understand the lesson so much as I wish to have the deepest and greatest wisdom shared with me.”

The old man smiled knowingly. “Dak, you are deviously thirsty for wisdom, just like your father was. Do you believe that your father saw the Teacher that was best for him?”

“I do not know,” Dak said. “I have never been able to get him to talk much about it.”

“Sure, he may not talk about it, but what do you think? Does he seem happy and wise enough?”

After pondering his father’s happiness a brief moment, Dak said, “I am not my father. He does seem happy, but everyone in town seems happy. I am not sure how many people I know that are truly happy, besides the children.”

“Ah, a very insightful answer. Final question, Dak. Which peak do you think will benefit you the most?”

“I had initially thought to visit Tahl to the east. His easier path appealed to me. But as I have grown I have learned that the things that I value most I have had to work the hardest for. I decided recently that I would see Rhoj to the west.”

“That is a wise decision,” the man said. “I agree that you should go see Rhoj to the west,” he gestured to his right at the rocky path. Dak glanced once more off to his own right. The path there looked well-worn. It had a deeply grooved path where many people had trod. Green grass grew long and tall at the edges of the dirt road. It looked easy and comfortable. Dak knew it would be a mistake to take the easy way.

“Thank you,” Dak said, as he took his first steps off to his left.

“A quick word of caution,” the man said. “Just last week I sent off a group of sixteen and got only ten back. The going is rough, the trail is full of danger, and you will be tempted to turn back. You must not give up. Rhoj has much wisdom to impart, and if you can convince yourself to take another step, to make it just a little further until you find yourself at the summit, I can promise you that it will be worth it.” He gave a warm smile.

Dak nodded in thanks and continued toward Rhoj Peak. The large, rough rocks beneath his feet made the going instantly frustrating. For every three steps he took he felt as though he had only taken a single step. Soon a thick growth of thorny bushes closed in on the path he was taking, if you could call it a path. The road shifted steeply up toward the mountain and he soon found himself panting, wondering where the steam was so he could fill his water bladders.

After a half hour of climbing the path leveled off and he saw the stream ahead. He jogged a bit, eager to get some water. He could hear the rushing of the water flowing down from the mountain as he approached. I knew it could be difficult and dangerous to cross a rushing mountain river, and as he neared he began to worry that his journey could come to an abrupt end if he were careless in the crossing.

His heart took courage, however, when he got closer and could see a little ways up the river that there was a bridge and some other structure attached to it. Perhaps it was some kind of home where someone had settled and built a bridge to help those who would take the more challenging path. Surely this was a kindhearted soul who derived happiness from helping those who needed a little assistance.

He reached the river and filled his water bladders with what appeared to be the clearest and purest water he had ever seen. He took a long swig from the first bladder before filling the second. It was cold and tasted like clear, sweet crystals. He took a few more drinks before filling the bladders all the way and slinging them over his shoulder. After catching his breath he turned to his right toward the bridge. He also looked down river a ways to see if there was another safe place to cross. It was just too wide and the water was moving too quickly. He got to his feet and started making his way up river.

About ten minutes later he arrived at the bridge and found that the structure attached to it was a toll booth. His heart sank a little. Perhaps it was still out of the goodness of the builder’s heart. Inside sat a plump and very grumpy-looking woman, and Dak’s heart sank again. When she saw him she grunted a little and held out one hand while pointing to the price hanging on the wall behind her with the other.

“What?” Dak exclaimed. “That’s outrageous!”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Do you see another way to cross, kid? You can pay the toll and use the bridge, or you can cross on your own at your own risk.” She was still rolling her eyes as she leaned on the counter in front of her and leaned hear head on her hand.

It was expensive, but compared to the sum he had with him it really wasn’t all that much. It was too early in the trek to risk his life to cross a river. He decided he would pay. He rummaged through his pack and pulled out some money. When he reached in the pack the woman sat up and strained her neck to try to get a peek at how much he had inside. When he eyed her disapprovingly she glanced at him and slumped back down into her stool, holding her hand out to accept the payment.

“Wise choice, kid,” she grunted again as she motioned for him to pass through onto the bridge.

He glared at her as he passed. “You’re an extortionist. You’re taking advantage of people.” He kept walking.

She stood up abruptly and something banged against her counter as the stool fell over. “You wanna swim across, kid?”

He ignored her and hurried his pace a little. Soon he was on the other side and he tried to calm himself down. He knew there were people like that in the world, but he rarely interacted with them. He was used to the people in his village who were always so happy and helpful. Sure, people had bad days. Sometimes someone would let something a little rude slip, but for the most part people in the village were respectful and kind. Or were they? It did seem to Dak that some of the people were less genuine than others. Almost as if being so happy were some kind of great burden that had been demanded of them.

Dak looked up and saw that it wasn’t quite noon, but he had skipped breakfast and was getting hungry. He decided to stop for lunch. Looking around him he saw realized it had been mostly quiet. He hadn’t heard too many birds or heard the rustlings of many other animals in the brush. He had seen the occasional bird or squirrel, but none of the dangerous beasts his classmates had talked about when they told each other horror stories about how horrible the journey was supposed to be.

He was disappointed to see that he had spent a little longer eating lunch than he should have. It was well past noon when he finally packed up and set out on his way again. As he walked along he tried to keep himself as close to the apparent path as possible. It wasn’t always clearly marked though, and sometimes he worried he had lost it altogether. He could tell the intended path wound in a spiral up the mountain though. The mountain always rose to his right and to his left he was looking down the slope at the tops of trees. By the time the sun was beginning to set he could look down the slope and see the toll bridge from the late morning. It seemed so far away, but his ears burned when he remembered his encounter there. Surely that woman had never ascended the mountain to speak with the Teacher.

As the sky grew darker, but while it was still a light purple, he saw lights flickering through the thick trees and brush growth in the distance. He had been on the lookout for a good place to set down camp for the night, but for the last hour he had been unable to find even a small clearing for his tiny tent. He hoped the lights belonged to another camp that would offer him some space, or if they had found a clearing perhaps he could too.

Eventually Dak reached the source of the lights, and could hardly believe his eyes. It appeared to be a small inn, or at least that’s what the sign above the door indicated. He knocked on the door and a young woman answered. In the entry way he could see a sign with the price for a night. Again, he was appalled, but he was tired and unable to find a place to set up his tent. At this point he was convinced that he’d be unable to set up camp or a tent or even eat anything he was so exhausted from climbing the mountain.

Reluctantly, he paid the price for the room. His family had stayed at an inn once several years ago when they went to a nearby town for business. For the price he paid for this one night on the mountain he knew he could get two weeks at the other inn. The price did include a meal though.

The young woman showed him to his room. He couldn’t tell if it was because he was so exhausted or if it was his teenage hormones, but he thought she was quite beautiful. He dropped his pack on the floor by the bed and watched as the girl left. Five minutes later she came back with a bowl of soup and some bread. For what he paid he thought a much larger meal would be in order, but he was too tired to protest. Plus, she had smiled at him when she gave him the food, so he didn’t dare argue. The room was small, with barely room for a bed and a small table. He set the empty bowl on the table and settled in bed. He fell asleep quickly and dreamt of the girl.

He awoke to find that the sun had risen at least a couple hours ago. His heart jumped and he raced out the door with his pack in tow, hardly thinking to look for the girl again. He crashed through the brush, letting the thorns snag and tug at him. Branches smacked him in the face as he pressed forward running to try to gain back some of the lost time. After about a minute he asked himself what the rush was. Did he think the Teacher wouldn’t be there when he arrived? That would be silly. He slowed his pace and worked on catching his breath. An hour later he saw a clearing with a small house and an odd cart out front. Next to the house there were some stables where it looked like someone was keeping mountain goats. A man brushing one of the goats waved to him and Dak waved back without stopping his forward march.

Ten minutes later he understood what the man was keeping goats for. The path led right to a cliff face where it looked like you’d need a mountain goat to scale. An odd setup of ropes and pulleys was arranged in such a way as to lift the cart. Dak turned around and walked back to talk to the man with the cart and goats.

“G’ morning,” the man called out when he saw Dak again.

“I suppose,” said Dak. “Say, is there another path ahead that I can’t see?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” said the man. “Though don’t worry, it’s not the end of the trail.”

“I guess you can take me further,” said Dak.

“You’d be correct.”

“And I suppose your services are available for a price?”

“My goats and I do have to eat,” the man said cordially. At least he was nicer than the woman at the toll booth, Dak decided.

The man pointed to a sign hanging in the stalls. Dak had to lean to the side to see the sign on the other side of the man. His eyes got wide. “That’s robbery!” he cried out. “You wouldn’t be able to charge that much if there were another path I could take.” He scowled.

“You’re right about the second part, but it’s not robbery. It’s just business. Trust me, if I could take you for free I would. But this is how I make my living. Surely you can understand.”

Dak wondered how much the extortionists on the other mountain were charging as he reluctantly pushed the cash into the man’s hands.

Once the man had two of the goats hitched to the wagon they both climbed on board. At the very least Dak was grateful to be able to toss his heavy pack into the back of the wagon for a while. Plus, the price he paid would get him a ride to within an hour of the top of the peak, according to the driver. He sat back and tried to enjoy the ride, without thinking too much about how it had taken him three months to earn the money that paid for this luxury.

When they reached the cliff his goats immediately took to the wall, sticking there like some kind of wall-hanging. The driver got down and tied the elaborate rope system to various points on the cart. Then he got inside, grabbed a rope that was hanging overhead and began to pull. The goats climbed the face of the cliff along with the cart and within a few minutes they reached the top. The pulleys dragged the cart up onto the next segment of road. The driver untied the ropes from the cart and the goats began trotting along once more.

Dak watched back as the road fed out from beneath them into the distance. He could see that the wheels of the cart rode in deep ruts. The road seemed pretty well traveled to Dak. He wondered what the path to the top of the other mountain looked like. If this one was so well worn, the other must be even more worn. He turned around and sat back in the bench with his hands behind his head. The cool breeze tousled his hair a bit, but he found it to be a pleasant sensation. Up until now he had been stressed about this trek. At every step of the way he had felt a great burden of some kind. He was on his own. He felt as though nothing would be provided for him. He’d have to fend for his own meals, his own bed, his own travel. And yet here he was, nearly dozing off with a cool, gentle breeze and he suddenly felt as if he were some kind of royalty with servants and not a worry in the world.

He felt clever, like he had somehow cheated without getting caught. This was supposed to be a treacherous journey, and it would have been. That river might have drowned him or carried off his supplies on the first day had he not wisely decided to pay the toll. Had he been more stubborn about finding a camp site he might have found himself tumbling down the side of the mountain, taking a bad step in the dark. Or perhaps a night predator might have killed him. Instead he had taken the opportunity to stay at an inn that he was lucky enough to find. It was in such a thick growth of trees and bushes that he might have walked right past it in the day time. Finally, he could have attempted to scale that cliff alone. He did have rope in his pack. But at what cost? One slip and he could plummet to his death. He was right to turn back for help. Had he not come prepared? He had money. He had food. He had water. Surely those who didn’t make it home from this trek were less clever and less prepared than he was.

The sun was low in the west when they reach the point where he would dismount. He thanked the driver, mostly because he was not as rude as the woman at the toll bridge, and the cart disappeared around the bend into the twilight. He turned to face the road ahead, and saw that there were several clearings around that were marked for campsites. Perfect. He went to one and began setting up camp. Just as he was spreading his tent out someone behind him cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, what are you doing?” Dak turned and found himself face to face with a very short, stocky man with a large beard.

“Well,” Dak began, “I’m set…”

The man, who looked like a dwarf, cut him off. “Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I do know what you’re doing, I don’t know why you didn’t read the sign.” He pointed at the sign labeling the campsite.

That’s when Dak first noticed, not at all to his surprise, that there were prices attached. One price for the use of the site, another price for renting a tent. At least he had brought the tent. The tent rental cost five times as much as leasing the space for it. And even that was about three week’s wages. “Ridiculous,” Dak muttered to himself as he counted out the money.

The dwarf man waddle away happily counting his earnings and Dak continued setting up his camp. He got a small fire going, trying to avoid calling the attention of the man in case there was a charge for lighting a fire. He warmed his meal over the fire and let the embers burn down as he fell asleep.

This time he didn’t miss the break of dawn. Dak packed up his tent and cleaned up the campsite quickly and set out on his way. Just as the driver had promised, within an hour of setting out he saw the mountain peak level out. Ahead, near the edge of the opposite side of the summit, he saw a lavish hut with a beautifully crafted door and white smoke bellowing out of a fine stone chimney.

His stomach fluttered as he climbed the three or so steps to the door and knocked. A moment passed. When he felt he had given enough time for someone to answer, he knocked again. The hut wasn’t large, surely it was a single room inside. He had always heard that wise men lived in simple, single-room dwellings. He was a bit surprised to see the ornate carvings and gold inlays that adorned the hut, but its size was still within his expectation for a man of immense wisdom. Convinced that it wouldn’t be rude to knock again, with sufficient time having passed, he knocked again. Looking around, he wondered if the Teacher had gone out early to meditate. He couldn’t see anyone around.

Dak jumped as the door opened abruptly. The inside of the hut was dark, and the man who opened the door was rubbing his eyes. He was dressed in a white, smooth silk robe with fine gold and silver embroidery. He was balding, but not yet bald. His face was shrouded in a mess of beard and moustache that was nearly white with grey hairs. He wore nothing on his clean feet, but just inside the door Dak could see sandals off to the side. The man moaned and yawned. His hands went into the air to stretch, and Dak could finally see the man’s face. There were numerous groves and ridges in his brow. His ears and nose were large, as though they had swollen with the years. He was not fat, but not as skinny as Dak had imagined him either. The man grabbed the door frame to steady himself. “Good morning,” he started. “And you are?”

“Dak,” he said. “Are you Rhoj?” He was excited. His heart was pounding in anticipation. His eyes were full of hope and desire.

The old man must have seen the look in his eyes. He looked him over, from head to toe and back again. After a brief but mildly concerning hesitation, he replied, “Yes, yes I am.”

Dak hardly noticed the delay. Nearly giddy with impatience and excitement, he blurted out, “I’ve come one this long and terrible journey to the peak of the mountain to seek wisdom from you, oh great Teacher Rhoj.”

Rhoj regarded Dak with another quick glance up and down. “Of course,” he said. “One moment while I prepare.” He disappeared into the darkness a moment. Dak heard rustling, bumping, and a couple of cracks from inside. Eventually Rhoj emerged, now draped in a deep orange robe with a golden sash and carrying a paper and pen. He slipped his feet into the sandals and stepped out into the sun, squinting his eyes. Dak couldn’t be sure how old he was, but he didn’t appear to be in his thirties as the rumors suggested. Of course, he also didn’t seem over two hundred years old, as the legends stated. Rhoj let out a long and heavy sigh as he began to make his way over to a small patch of grass a short distance from his home. “Times have changed,” he began. “At one time this was a lot simpler. People traveled from afar to seek wisdom, I imparted what I could, and they left happy. There were no issues, no problems, and everything just worked. There were more plants and animals up here, believe it or not, and I was able to eat. Eventually the local food ran thin and my visitors provided me with a meal or two here and there. Now, though, I don’t get enough visitors throughout the year.” He sat in the grass and crossed his legs. He motioned for Dak to sit with him. “What was your name? Dak, right?” Dak nodded. “Right. So, Dak, I’m sure you understand that I have to eat. That’s why I was forced to turn this into a business of sorts. Considering the value of my wisdom, I only charge a negligible and extremely reasonable fee that everyone pays happily. I wish I didn’t have to charge, but as I said: times have changed. In addition, I can’t have people going around giving away for free what I have worked so hard to gain. So there is a contract. I don’t like it. I wish things weren’t so, Dak. I really do. But I’m sure you understand.” He smiled sheepishly and extended the paper for Dak to look over.

Dak was in a bit of shock. He had learned to expect the extortion along the road, but this was a completely surprise. He did understand, of course. But how could it be? Did the Teacher on the other mountain have to charge as well? Or perhaps he had more frequent visitors bringing him food. And if his wisdom really was harder to understand he probably wouldn’t have to worry so much about people sharing it. No, Rhoj wouldn’t charge if he didn’t have to. He was wise. Dak was sure this was necessary. He read over the contract. It said just what Rhoj had said about not talking about the experience, but when Dak read the “nominal fee” portion he found that his mouth was agape. It would cost nearly all of his remaining savings. He looked up at the Teacher in disbelief.

“I see you’ve read the price. Let me ask you this: How long would that money last you in your village? A year? Two years? Maybe a little more. But now consider this: How long will the wisdom to be happy last you? Therein, Dak, lies the value.”

Dak looked back down at the contract. He was suddenly unsure. He doubted all of it. He hadn’t wanted to turn back at the river crossing. He hadn’t wanted to turn back at the prospect of not finding a place to sleep. Even the dangerous cliff face couldn’t make him turn back. The irritating campsite experience had, by that point, been barely an inconvenience. But now, sitting across from the great Teacher himself, Dak was tempted to turn back and give up.

“Dak, my son, it is not worldly wealth that brings happiness. There will always be more money, but you only have one life in which to be happy. Do not place the value of money above your own happiness.” If the man was a fraud, he was a darned good one. Rhoj extended the pen and Dak took it. He hesitated again, glancing up at the Teacher before signing and handing it all back. “You have chosen wisely,” he said, tucking the papers into his robe.

Rhoj took a deep breath. It was a slow and steady breath. It was a wise breath. He sucked in until he was twice the man he had been, then he held it. His eyes closed. He seemed to be entering a state of meditation. Finally he exhaled. It was slow and controlled. It went out through his nostrils carrying away any doubt, any ignorance, and any foolishness that may have been inside. “Dak.” He said it as though it were wise to say. Dak heard his name and knew that everything would change soon. “The secret to happiness,” he began, and Dak perked up. He would take every word in. He would never forget the lesson. “The secret to happiness,” he repeated, “is already inside you.”

Silence. Dak could feel tears welling up inside of him. Tears of joy, perhaps, because he was about to learn the greatest secret he would ever learn in his entire life. Or maybe they weren’t tears of joy. He waited. And waited. “Yes?” he questioned. “And what is that secret?”

“That is the secret, Dak. People do not realize that the secret to happiness is already inside of them. If they work at it and act happy they will eventually be happy. That is it.”

The tears began flooding his vision. “No,” he whispered. “That can’t be it.”

“That’s it, my son.”

He fought the urge to get angry. “Then why am I so unhappy, great Teacher?”

“It takes time and hard work, Dak. Only you can uncover the secret.”

Dak stood up quickly. The tears were flowing now, and he was beginning to cry, but he didn’t want to cry. “I worked hard, Teacher. I spent time, Teacher.” He wiped at his eyes, but it was futile. “I spent my life savings for you to tell me the answer to a question, but you have only given me another question.”

“No, Dak. I have given you the answer.”

“That’s an answer any old man can give. That doesn’t help me now. That won’t ever help me.” His anger was building. “You’re a fraud. Give me my money back.”

The old man was shaking his head and he pulled the contract out. “I’m sorry, Dak. You signed the contract. Inside it says…”

“You’re a fraud! Give me my money back!” He was screaming now.

The Teacher stood. He raised his voice to be stern, but he was clearly not as angry as Dak. “Dak, I may be a fraud, but every word I told you about happiness is true and you know it. Sure, it’s not the quick and easy answer, and it’s not the great secret you were looking for, but it’s all anyone can ever give you.” He turned to leave.

“Give me my money back, liar!” Dak yelled.

The Teacher whirled around. “You want to talk about lies? Yes. I lied to you. I’m not really Rhoj. He may have never even existed. He’s a legend. Who knows. And nobody’s been to the other peak in over a hundred years. We’re running a business here. And you signed a contract that says you can’t tell anything I tell you to anyone else ever, as long as you live. You know all those stories about people who come to see me but never make it back alive? Most of them had issues with the contract. So if you value your life you’ll be reasonable and think this through. Those people in the village lie every day. They lie about being happy. But you know what? Some of them actually achieve happiness. I don’t know how they do it, nobody does. Heck, even they don’t know how they do it. But we all know that nobody else does it for them. The fact that you had to spend all that money and trek all the way up here for me to tell you that isn’t my problem. If you’re smart you’ll slap that same, fake smile on your face and go down to the base of the mountain and pretend that I gave you the secret to happiness that you came up here for. In a few years or a few decades perhaps you’ll start to believe it yourself. Until then you’ll be living the same lie as everyone else around you.” With that, the old man waltzed into his hut and slammed the door behind him.

Dak ran over and started pounding on the door, tears streaming down his face. He shouted, he cursed, he kicked. Noon came and went and still he protested loudly. By nightfall he had lost most of his strength and was left leaning against the door crying softly to himself and angrily muttering his disapproval.


There is a lot of talk these days (well, for a while now) about SMART goals. Goals should be S.M.A.R.T., or that is what people say. I get that it’s a good acronym (though I suspect it’s more of a backronym than an actual acronym). But I have issues with the whole thing.

First of all, the only consistent bits are the “specific” and “measurable” parts, but I feel like those are nearly redundant. Of course with an explanation you can see the difference, but how hard would it have been to combine those ideas into something that embodies both ideas? But then it wouldn’t fit into the neat little acronym, right?

And even if you don’t feel like those ideas can be joined together, do we really need to make sure every goal meets five criteria? And don’t forget that some authors add additional letters to the end (SMARTER, for example). I want to write goals, not go through checklists to make sure my goals meet five or seven or more criteria.

For various reasons I have been asked to write a lot of goals lately. And I’ve also been trying to help others come up with and meet goals that will help them improve. And that’s the thing: I feel like most goals should lead to some kind of improvement. Isn’t that the focus, anyway?

So I feel like the first criteria should be that goals focus on improvement and responsibility. Of course, we don’t need to include “improvement” in some kind of “how to write goals” piece, because that’s the purpose of a goal, not part of the design. But it is worth mentioning, in case someone is setting goals that might lead to some kind of degradation. Plus, when we take responsibility for our own shortcomings we set goals. We aren’t blaming circumstances, or our parents, or our spouse, or our coworkers, or our boss, we are saying, “I have something I need to improve because I am responsible for this.” And with that in mind, goals that you set for someone else will rarely be reached, unless they are heavily invested in all aspects of the goal. They must feel that the goal is necessary and be invested in generating the goal to the maximum allowable extent.

#1 Goals should be focused. You should be pretty specific about what category you want to set a goal in, how you plan to execute it, what you plan to do, and why you are doing it. Focus on something, find ways to remind yourself about the goal and the focus. This is something you’ll need to carry with you in the forefront of your mind through to reaching the goal. Focus is key.

#2 The next thing that I think a goal should be is reasonable. I don’t just mean this in the normal sense of the word (that the goal not be absurd or unreasonable). You should be able to reason about your goal, you should have reasons for your goal, and you should reason your way to the goal. Goals should be accompanied by reason from inception through to completion. Of course goals should also be reasonable in the sense of “not unreasonable or absurd.”

#3 The final thing I feel is an important part of goals is that they be restrictive. I know that one is a little odd (especially since it’s such a negative word most of the time), but hear me out. We grow though self-imposed restrictions and through work. We increase in self control by exercising restraint, which leads to work. We deny ourselves instant gratification in order to gain discipline. Nearly all good things in life come through some form of personal restriction and hard work. By restricting our options we gain freedom. There are a lot of potential actions I could take right now, but by removing most of them I am free to chose the best options. For example, I could commit any number of crimes right now, but by restricting myself to the list of possible actions in the “completely legal” list I am avoiding issues with the law (which could lead to even worse imposed restrictions) and I have a much shorter list of potential activities to choose from, which avoids overload. The brain is actually pretty good (most of the time) at removing options in order to more easily and quickly make decisions. And similarly, by occasionally imposing restrictions on ourselves with purpose we can grow more readily and easily. A favorite exercise among writers and one I enjoyed in college was to pick a common word and write a paper or story without using it. You might try writing a short story without including the word “the” or “and” or “then.” By doing so you grow, because you are forcing your brain to work harder than usual to complete a mundane task. Restrictions lead to growth, so long as they are reasonable (see #2). Reasonable here means your restrictions shouldn’t be too loose or too tight. Seek moderation.

Again, like with the mention of “improvement” above, I don’t feel that my mnemonic device need include the final bit of advice. Moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance. These are fantastic criteria for anything, whether it be a goal or an interaction with your neighbor. I seek moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance in all things, and I encourage others to do the same.

So while FRR isn’t a great acronym (Focused, Reasonable, Restrictive), I do feel that it is a better set of criteria for goals. Before finalizing any goal, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the focus?
  2. What are the reasons for needing goals here? Why am I focusing on this? Why do I need the goal? What do I hope to accomplish? How can I reason my way to that accomplishment? (Don’t stop here, there should be lots of questions in the “reasonable” stage, all the way through to reaching the goal.)
  3. In what ways will I restrict myself in order to reach this goal?

The final bit of advice I have for goals is to keep records. Record your progress. Record your thoughts. Record your failures. Reason your way through the records from time to time and take assessment. Do you need to adjust course? Is the goal wrong? Is your methodology flawed? Are there any potential improvements you’re missing?

So while the three steps (FRR) are the most important bit when forming goals, the entire process looks like this:

  • Take responsibility and use goals for improvement.
  • Create goals that are Focused, Reasonable, and Restrictive.
  • Seek moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance.
  • Keep records throughout the process.

If you do all of those things you will have success, which is the primary objective of any goal. If you do not taste the sweetness of success you will struggle with goals for the rest of your life. Start small (and simple), taste the success, and take small steps from there, setting goals along the way.

MSgt Dremel: Thank you for saving a life.

Dear Master Sergeant Dremel,

Honestly, I just did a little stalking and found out that you retired from the military some time ago, but I will always remember you as Master Sergeant Dremel (“like the tool” you would always say, yet I had never heard of Dremel tools). And, in fact, I will always remember you.

I was literally raking sand while waiting for a new job.

I was literally raking sand waiting for a new job.

I won’t blame you if you don’t remember me. I was one of a few young airmen that passed through your office at the advanced Russian school at DLI. Sometime in 2008 I failed the Arabic DLPT and began the long process of reclassifying to another job. My friend (who had failed out of Arabic with me but also spoke Russian) had been sent to work in your office as an aide. He put in a good word for me (because I was tired of sweeping sidewalks and raking sand, literally) and you requested a second aide to help clean up and organize a few things around your office.

I was feeling pretty down at the time, but this isn’t a story about how I was thinking of suicide and you talked me out of it (as the title might suggest). I had signed up with the Air Force to get the $12,000 signing bonus and I felt that the new Arabic test was broken and I had been cheated out of my bonus. I knew that I had the option of getting out of the Air Force at that point, and I was seriously considering pursuing that option.

I will always remember how kind and sincerely caring a person you are. I still remember the story you told about how, at another location, you and a few other guys were concerned about a dangerous section of road that the administration was not taking proper care of–the road required some safety markings (a crosswalk, if I recall correctly) and after months of fighting for the markings to be painted no action had been taken. You and your cohorts obtained the necessary supplies and painted the markings yourselves to prevent further injury at that location.

Similarly, you saw that I was in need of a mentor and you stepped up. I will always remember the day you asked me about my plans for the future and I told you I was planning on getting out. You listened and then, in a few more words, asked me to reconsider and give the Air Force another shot. You talked about the many benefits, to include education and health care, that I would be throwing away, and you appealed expertly to my logic and sense of responsibility.

In my mind, the military represented something I didn’t want to do. I felt wronged by the system, had a deep disdain for all of the running and physical exercise required, and didn’t feel comfortable with the military culture. However, your words convinced me to give it another chance.

Within a year your actions brought me tears of gratitude, and I am sorry that it took me this long to reach out to you and let you know what kind of impact you had in my life. Let me tell you the full story.

I had been doing very well in the Arabic program. I was, in fact, near the top of my class. I was selected to study for a month in Egypt. While I was away at Egypt, on 7 February 2008, my wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl we called Sophie.

The light of my life.

The light of my life.

Sophie was the light in my life. We had another son, but he was my step-son and as much as I treated him like my own, this was my own spawn. She was beautiful. She was happy. She made everyone around her happy.

By the time I wound up in your office she was barely half a year hold. Late December of that year, less than two months after you convinced me not to pursue an early exit from my contract, I got a call from my unit superintendent who informed me that a slot had opened up for “some computer job” and, if I wanted it, I would need to report to the new training by the first week of January.

Bundle of Joy

Bundle of Joy

I took the job and after the training, in May of 2009, we trekked across the country from Monterey, CA to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington DC.

Everything was going pretty well. I still didn’t enjoy most aspects of military life, but it was nice having everything taken care of. In addition to your encouragement to give the Air Force another chance, I had the attitude that a job is a job and having a good one was better than not having one.


She made me happy.

By October that year the first signs that something was wrong began showing. We didn’t notice at the time, but in hind sight it’s pretty clear.

Notice the head tilt.

Notice the head tilt.

She had started walking, running a little, and growing more and more confident in her movements. Then, out of nowhere, she reversed progress. She wanted to hold hands more. She used furniture and walls to steady herself. Her head was almost always cocked to one side.

It took us another month and a half before we were concerned enough to get an appointment with her pediatrician. The appointment was set for Wednesday, 16 December 2009.

Her doctor, Dr. Barnes, wasn’t too concerned on the surface. She thought it could be a nutrient deficiency or something else that could be resolved with medicine or therapy, but just to rule out anything serious, she got us an appointment to get a CAT scan the next day at Walter Reed, the larger Army Medical Center for the National Capitol Region.

So, on Thursday, 17 December, we took Sophie to the hospital to get a scan. After the scan, instead of being sent home and told that they’d get the results to us in the next couple weeks (as is usually the procedure), we waited and waited for what seemed like hours (but may have only been a half hour or so, I don’t know). Eventually we were pulled into a closet of a room with a computer and two doctors. They pulled up her scan and showed us a big black area about the width of a baseball and told us that they weren’t sure what it was, but they were sure she would need an MRI and they were not equipped to do it there. They were referring us to the Children’s National Medical Center down the road. Sitting in that room I looked at my wife and knew that everything had changed and could never go back to being the way it was before. They sent us to the ER where an ambulance would pick us up and take us in for the MRI.

The ambulance took forever to arrive. We were scared and confused. It got late. Sophie had been fasting for the scan, and since she would be going in for another she had to continue her fast. She was hungry, tired, and righteously upset. She was the only one that cried though.

This is the first MRI result.

This was the first MRI result.

They couldn’t get her in for the MRI until the next morning. Immediately afterward they urgently recommended surgery. It all happened so fast. Wednesday: ordinary pediatrician’s visit. Thursday: precautionary CAT scan. Friday morning: brain surgery?!? There wasn’t time to think about it then though.

While in the waiting room we were sitting stoically by a nervous mother. “What is your child in for?” she asked. We instead asked what her child was there for. “He’s getting his tonsils removed,” she replied. We never told her what we were there for.

It was about that time that we got up and decided to walk the hallways for a bit. That was the first time we cried. Still though, our thoughts were focused on our family and our daughter. In that moment I was enjoying a gift you had given me–a gift that I became poignantly aware of less than a week later (we’ll get to that in a minute).

After the six hour surgery, I stayed the night in the hospital with Sophie that night and my wife drove home as it began to snow. The next morning we found that we were snowed in. You may have heard of that snow storm in the news as it was the beginning of the terrible 2009/2010 snow storm that hit the East coast.

The snow gave me a chance to finally update my family on what had happened.

She recovered quickly, and by Monday there was a break in the snow, a few roads had opened, and the doctor told us that we were free to go. Less than a week later, the day before Christmas, we got a letter in the mail from TriCare informing us that all of the bills for the hospital had been paid.

A wave of relief rushed over me. It wasn’t until that point that I remembered that in the civilian world people pay a lot of money for things like brain surgery. I wish I had kept that letter with its 6-digit total. That was the gift you gave me. Four years and almost a dozen expensive MRIs later, she is in perfect health, and we don’t owe a dime for any of it. We received some of the top care in the world, from one of the most qualified and expert pediatric neurosurgeons in the nation, under the guidance of one of the most respected and loved pediatric neuro-oncologists in the world, and it was all for the cost of one decision that you ultimately helped me make.

So, Master Sergeant Dremel, how did you save a life? Surely, even if I had left the military, Sophie would have received the care she needed. We would certainly not have been living near the Children’s National Medical Center in DC, so she wouldn’t have seen the same experts she saw. But, you know what? This isn’t about her life. She might have had a worse time with another hospital, or even had a very similar experience. But it would have cost me a fortune under any medical plan I would have been able to afford (remember, this was less than a year after we parted ways).

There are things worse than death. Not being able to support my family and provide for their needs is one of those things for me. That is my life. And you saved it for me.

Thank you.

Healthy, Happy, & Smart

Healthy, Happy, & Smart (with her Teacher)

For some photos and information about Sophie’s adventure, see:

No Promises

So, I’ve had my head buried in a fun project over the last couple weeks. I want to share it with you.

The basic concept was that I wanted to make a game with transparency in the sprite sheet, but without using a tool that lets me set pixels to transparent (no fancy tools, just basic ones). So I used Microsoft Paint, mixed two types of background colors that I could easily single out later for transparency (I think they are [254, 0, 254] and [0, 254, 0] — notice the “full” values are one value lower than the full 255). Then I drew a grid with those colors (more of a checkerboard) for 16 by 16 sprites, and started making a game. I pasted in a few NES and GameBoy sprites that were the right size just for testing purposes (I will probably replace them later, but they are still there for now). In the JavaScript, I use the HTML5 Canvas ability to pull pixel data, manipulate it, write it back in, and save it as an image object for use later. Because of a security feature with the canvas element (“tainted” canvas or something) this feature doesn’t work offline. So I had to make two rendering modes for testing purposes, but it auto-detects when it’s being served from the web, and uses the appropriate rendering mode.

This is the blank tilesheet I created.

This is the blank tilesheet I created.

Because the transparency is calculated manually, I thought it would be good to only load in the sprites that were needed for each map. This turned out to be a stupid way to do things, so I might be having it just do the process once at the beginning later instead of doing it every time I load a map or the help screen.

Then I wanted to make random dungeons. That turned out to be quite the challenge. I think I mostly succeeded though — I really like some of the designs it comes up with. I’m 100% positive my algorithm is the least efficient way of doing it, but it gets the job done. The maps it generates are really fun and interesting to explore (for me, at least). I hope you like this feature. I’m thinking about implementing a new “rendering mode” that uses these maps for a text based adventure game. All of the creatures, items, and rooms would be the same, it would just present the area to you in text form rather than visually. It could be a fun experiment.

Then I started sprinkling random things in for a while before realizing that I had room for over 1000 sprites, and only had a little over 100. The separate item sprite (for the HTML inventory display) sheet is also over sized. So I’m kind of thinking of filling those spaces with even more sprites. Some things are fairly easy to add in dynamically (like walls, floors, and furniture), and other (more interactive) things are only a little more involved to add in (like trolls who block doors, items, and other characters). If you want to submit some new sprites with descriptions of what they would be or do, let me know (email address on the right).

I also wanted to add a particle system, but I wanted it to fit in with the pixelated environment (unlike the particle system I designed for my space experiment game). The particle system turned out really nice, and I was even able to use it for a visual “+1” that pops up when you pick up or get an item. Particle emitters can behave like explosions (I even used the pixel data to create correctly colored particles in the same locations as the pixels of the exploding block before scattering them), or spray emitters that can be turned on or off, or any number of other things I haven’t tried.

The next thing I wanted was for it to be multi-player. Since I don’t do any server-side code still I decided to go with multiple players on one keyboard. Eventually I added a third player who uses the mouse. The controls for the keyboard players took a bit of work to get right. Players expect a certain behavior (rocking between directions as though using an NES controller D-pad). They want to be going one way, “rock” into another direction by hitting an additional key while still holding the first one to make a turn, and resume the previous direction of travel when they release the additional key. It’s harder to say than to do–you probably do it already naturally. And you expect it to work. Unfortunately it turned out to be a lot more complicated to code. But I succeeded. Again, it’s not the best code, but it does what it needs to do.

I also wanted to add in a leader board. Again, since I don’t do server side code yet the leader board is local only (hearkening back to the days of early arcade machines where the high scores were stored locally and you competed with others who used the same machine as you). I had to add in a way to put your name in (on the character select screen in the very beginning). If you forget, a default name is assigned.

One thing I’m very unhappy with is my persistence in using HTML to supplement what happens in the rendered game screen. Someday I’d like to make a game that has all of its interface inside the HTML canvas. Technically I did do this once, but the game has horrible flickering issues and is so poorly coded that fixing the flicker is nearly impossible. I’d need to rewrite the whole thing from scratch in order to fix it. I did reuse a couple sprites from that game though (since it also used 16 by 16 pixel sprites).

I can’t possibly think of all the other little problems I had to solve along the way (that’s what makes it fun for me). For example, this is my first project to use sound (I based the idea off this tutorial). I definitely need to redo some of the sounds, add more (including background music), and make sure the volume is consistent between them all. I recorded the current sounds (with one copyright-infringing exception that I hope falls under fair use) at 3am while everyone else was sleeping in the house, so it’s all my voice (sometimes sped up or slowed down). Audacity is a great little program for getting that sort of thing done.

99% made in Microsoft Paint

99% made in Microsoft Paint

In fact, nearly everything for this game was created with Microsoft Notepad, Microsoft Paint, and Audacity. One image, a fully transparent gif for the HTML formatting, was pulled from another project and couldn’t have been created with my chosen toolset.

Anyway, here’s the finished project. I call it “No Promises” because the game doesn’t check to see if a level is solvable (I can’t promise you’ll be able to beat every level). I added in the ability to abort a game (pause with Escape and click the screen) in case you get irreversibly stuck. An aborted game that includes at least one solved level will still be eligible for the leader board. Before aborting though, as long as some of the map is still hidden you can wait by the spawn point for random items to spawn. These items are designed to help you if you get stuck. Also, walls can have hidden doors in them (look for a wall tile that is just a little different from the rest).

Father’s Day Story: Borrowing the Jack

My memory has never been my strongest asset, but I distinctly recall having a moment very similar to what I am about to describe. The following is in honor of Father’s Day. It took place many years ago, and thus includes quite a bit of speculation and embellishment, though the basic spirit of the lesson and event remain in tact.

“You’re borrowing the jack,” my father said.

I don’t remember what we were talking about exactly, but I feel like we were sitting on the floor. “What are you talking about?” I asked. Whatever he was talking about, I would receive it with contempt because my father often used stories, parables, and analogies that I thought were stupid, cheesy, or irrelevant.

“You’ve decided that you know how it’s going to turn out without even trying. You’re borrowing the jack. Don’t do that.”

I knew he was going to tell me a story to explain his phrase “borrowing the jack,” but I didn’t want to ask for the story. Not that this was a common standoff between us, but the way I remember it, this particular instance involved me not wanting to ask for the story that I knew was coming. I didn’t realize it then, but it would be one of the best teaching moments I would remember with my father for the rest of my life. It certainly wasn’t the most important lesson he taught me, or even the most powerful, but the story and the moment in which he taught it to me will be with me forever.

Although he told me the story one way, I remember it as I envisioned it in my head as he spoke. Now, with a little detail added in, I will tell you what I saw in my mind.

There was a man, Phil, and his wife, Susan. Phil was an unemployed auto mechanic who was having a very bad day. While out looking for work the day before, he had picked up a nail in his tire, and he discovered the flat tire on the way to do more job hunting in the morning. Angry and frustrated he went back inside, threw his jacket down on the couch, and collapsed in a huff.

“What’s the matter, hon?” his wife asked.

“Oh Susan, it’s the car. We’ve got a flat. I need to change the tire, but we sold our only jack to buy groceries just last week.”

“Well,” offered Susan, “I was out walking yesterday while you were looking for a job, and I saw one of our neighbors at the top of the hill changing his oil. His car was definitely jacked up. I’ll bet you could borrow his jack.”

Phil thought for a moment. “I don’t know him. I don’t think he’d loan his jack to just any stranger.”

“You won’t know until you ask,” his wife reminded him. And with a smile she handed him his jacket and hurried him out the door. “We need you to go find a job. No time to waste. I love you.”

Phil stood outside his house looking up the hill at his neighbor’s house. The house sat at the end of a long driveway that climbed several hundred feet up. He thought about going back inside, but when he imagined his wife’s disappointment he forced himself to begin the climb to his neighbor’s front door.

As he went he thought about how it would go when he knocked on the door. “What if I had a jack still, and a stranger knocked on my door asking to borrow it?” he asked himself. Being that he needed nothing more than he needed that jack right now, except, perhaps, a job, he couldn’t see himself being very willing to part with it. What if the stranger damaged or lost the jack? Some jacks are very expensive, and if the neighbor were as poor as he was he surely wouldn’t want to worry about trying to replace something as essential as a jack.

He was about a quarter of the way up the hill now, and he stopped. “I should just go back home. If he’s as poor as I am he won’t want to worry about replacing the jack. I shouldn’t bother.” But again he was reminded of his wife’s encouragement and decided to keep going.

A minute later he was thinking again about how it might go when he asked. “Perhaps he will see me as some kind of freeloader. I didn’t even bring anything to offer him in return for such a favor.” He imagined his neighbor forever avoiding him and thinking less of him for being so straightforward as to borrow a jack without offering anything in return. “Of course, I have nothing to offer him. There is no use in asking for a favor without having anything to offer in return.” And so he stopped and turned around. But before taking a step toward his house he imagined his wife’s righteous anger at him for failing to even ask. So, he turned back to face up the hill and took another step toward his neighbor’s home.

He managed to make it all the way to the doorstep. He raised his hand to the door, and just before knocking he asked himself, “What if I’m rudely interrupting him?” The neighbor might be very intolerant of interruptions. It is never a good idea to ask someone for something when you’ve angered them. “I haven’t got anything to offer him in return, he probably values his jack as much as I would and would never lend it to a total stranger, and he’s probably busy anyway.” He pulled his hand back and looked over at his shoulder at his own home. Sure, his wife might be disappointed, but she’d be disappointed anyway if the neighbor refused to loan him the jack. And so, without knocking he turned and went back home.

“Not only did the man make several potentially false assumptions about his neighbor, he never even gave the neighbor the chance to say yes or no. This man’s way of borrowing the jack was such that he could never succeed since he didn’t even try,” concluded my father. And the lesson, though lost on me at the time, stuck forever.

In preparation for writing this I did a little poking around and found two other similar stories. Apparently this is either the basis for a joke, or based on a joke that can be read here. Additionally, it also appears as a similar yet distinct lesson here.

I owe my father a lifetime worth of thanks for all that he has taught me. Though I cannot promise that I haven’t borrowed the jack once or twice, I have made a habit of reminding myself as often as possible that you can never succeed if you don’t try. I love you, Dad, and all the wisdom you shared and continue to share with me.

Mary’s Box

Mary slowly drifted into awareness. She struggled against the bright lights as she worked her eyes opened. Sounds drifted into focus, from muffled noise to the calming sound of a loving voice. Something had been placed in her hand. The voice’s words grew clearer as she sat upright.

“Welcome to the world, Mary. I am your mother and this is my gift to you.” Mary looked down at the object in her hand. It was a box no bigger than her opened palm. It fit neatly in her hand. It was cold but slowly warming. The surface simmered with the light of many colors. It had a lid, and atop the lid there was a spout. From this spout was flowing a sparkling fluid that rolled off everything it touched and pooled on the blankets and on the ground around her.

Mary brought her other hand up to touch the fluid. It bounced and rebounded off her skin, but she didn’t feel a thing. She turned the box over in her hands. Other than the spout and the hinges of the lid, it was featureless. She started to open the box, but the woman quickly clasped Mary’s hands to the box and held it tightly closed.

“You mustn’t open the box early, child.” She smiled warmly at Mary. “It will open on its own one day. Hold it to your ear.”

Mary lifted the box to her ear and listened carefully. Inside she heard a faint ticking.

“Do you hear it ticking? It’s a clock, dear. It is counting down until the day when it will open. You must take care not to rattle it too hard, or the clock will tick faster. Put the spout to your lips and drink.”

Unsure, Mary eyed the strange liquid and brought it closer to her face, but she hesitated to drink.

“Go on,” the woman urged gently.

Mary let it touch her lips and stuck her tongue into the flow. It tasted sweet. She gleefully drank some down and chuckled happily.

Laughing, the woman went on. “That is your fountain of life. It’s always sweet at first, and the more you drink the more you will learn and grow. Some day you will take a drink and notice that it has turned bitter. Do not worry, the bitterness will pass but you must drink that too. The sweetness will bring you joy, and the bitterness will bring you strength. You need both to live.”

“What’s inside, mother? How long until it opens?”

“Nobody knows, sweetheart. Everybody has one, and everybody wonders what it holds inside and how long until it will open. A few have opened their boxes to take a peek, but when they do they are sucked inside and their fountain ceases to flow. And since that is also what happens when the box opens on its own, we believe it is better to enjoy the fountain and the strength and joy it feeds us before we venture inside the box.”

Mary’s head was instantly flooded with a hundred more questions, and more and more the box scared her. Mary’s mother saw the fear building in her face and pulled her in close.

“There, there, my child. You need not fear what you do not know. My mother used to tell me that my box had a beautiful kingdom inside, and that the more I drank from my fountain the bigger the kingdom grew. And when I drank the bitterness of the fountain my kingdom grew more beautiful. She said that when I shared my fountain with someone it meant that I would get to see that person in my kingdom. She also warned that if I am not careful with my box then it could cause the kingdom inside to crumble to the ground.”

“Do you believe it, mother?”

“Well, my father told me that my box might have nothing inside, and that when it opens you get sucked inside because the box is a part of you and you are a part of it. But he also said that if you treat your box badly it would just make our time together shorter, so treating it like it has a tiny kingdom inside isn’t a bad idea.”

“Do I have a father?”

“Of course you do. He’s outside waiting for you. He’ll want to have a word with you before you go out and explore.”

Mother helped Mary out of bed and showed her to the door. Outside, Father gave her a big hug.

“Make sure you keep your box with you and take good care of it. And drink as much from the spout as you can, even when you don’t like the taste. Don’t let anyone else touch your box, but you can share from its fountain. And make sure your box stays closed.”

“OK, father.”

As she walked toward the door to the outside with her parents, she took another drink from her fountain. It was sweet, but perhaps a bit less so than before. At the door they all shared from each other’s fountain and said their goodbyes, and amidst tears, Mary stepped out into the world on her own.


Just as Mother had explained, everyone else had a box too. After her parents’ warnings, Mary took great care to keep her box’s lid shut tightly. She carried it lightly, imagining a tiny castle made of glass inside.

Mary enjoyed meeting others. She had many conversations with people, and enjoyed hearing what they thought was inside their box. Some, like her Mother’s father, believed there was nothing inside. Others pictured whole universes. Many felt that drinking and sharing from their fountain was an important part of forming the contents of the box.


Mary often pondered on the contents of her box. Sometimes thinking about it made her afraid, other times it just filled her with wonder.

It frightened her to learn just how fragile the boxes could be. She heard that it wasn’t uncommon for boxes to break open when dropped. No matter how the box opened, the moment it did its owner was pulled inside.


One day a boy approached her and offered her a sip from his fountain. “It’s extra sweet today,” he remarked. Although her parents had urged her to share of her fountain, she had rarely done so because it was not a common thing. Most people didn’t seem interested in sharing, especially with strangers. Mary was surprised by this boy’s offer, and didn’t know how to react. “Go on,” he urged.

Mary took a sip, and smiled. It was, indeed, very sweet. Her fountain had been particularly bitter lately and the sweetness was a refreshing change. “Thank you,” she said. “I’d offer to share mine with you, but it’s been especially bitter lately.”

“It’s no bother,” said the boy, “I’d love to take a sip so we can share the bitterness together.”


“Sure. When your fountain is really bitter, sometimes it helps to share with others.” She extended her box and he took a sip. His face contorted and he shook his head.

“Wow. That really is bitter!” He smiled. “My name’s Tom.”

“Mary. Nice to meet you.” She took a sip from her fountain, and just as he had said, it didn’t taste quite as bitter. “Hey, you’re right. It’s not as bad.”


Tom and Mary became good friends. They spent a lot of time together, and often shared their fountains. Mary noticed that when her fountain was sweet and she shared, it got sweeter. And when it was bitter and she shared, it got sweeter then too.

Mary and Tom grew together. They learned many things. One day they learned that parents build new boxes together and pour from their fountains into the new box and shut the lid. After a while, a child comes from inside the new box. Tom suggested that someday they might want to build a box together and become parents. The idea excited Mary, but she wasn’t sure if she would want to or not.


One day they were walking together and they encountered a man standing alone staring down at his box. As they approached, the man flipped his lid open and was whisked inside. The box fell to the ground and broke into many pieces.

Mary gasped and ran to where the man had been standing. Tom ran to catch up with her. She was very upset. Fighting back tears she asked, “Why did he do that?”

Tom put his arm around her and held her close. “I don’t know,” he said. After a while he added, “My mother told me that sometimes a person’s fountain will be bitter for a long time. When that happens and they don’t have anyone to share it with, some people decide that whatever is inside the box has to be better than the stuff coming out of it.”


The image of that man getting sucked into his box stuck with Mary for a long time. Once again, she found herself fearing her box. Then, one day she and Tom were together when two men grabbed Tom by the arms and a third took his box. Mary was too afraid to run, and watched in horror as the man opened Tom’s box. “Empty,” he said, and smashed the box to the ground. Turning to Mary, he said, “And what of your box, lady? Any treasure inside for us?” The men tried to grab her, but she fled.

Mary ran and ran without looking back. She had always been so careful not to rattle her box, but while she ran she didn’t care if it ticked a little faster. She ran all the way back to where she had started, back home.

Sobbing, she pounded on the door until her Father opened. She fell into his arms and held him tightly. Mother ran to their side asking what was wrong, but Mary couldn’t speak. They all held each other for a while before Mary went back to the bed where she first awoke. Hoping that her fountain could provide some comfort, she took a sip. But it was more bitter than it had ever been before.

She stayed in her bed, crying to herself, for a long time. Her parents tried to help. They wanted to drink of her fountain with her to share in the bitterness, but Mary refused to share.

Days, weeks, and finally months went by. Mary kept hoping that the fountain would once again produce sweetness to brighten her life, but it was always bitter. She often thought of the man who opened his own box, and found herself wondering if it wasn’t true. Perhaps there would be a beautiful kingdom inside. Perhaps it would be better than staying outside of the box and drinking of its bitterness.


One morning she decided she was going to open her box to see what was inside. She had decided that it couldn’t be worse than continuing to drink from the horrible bitterness that was flowing from her fountain. She just couldn’t stand another day of drinking bitterness.

When Father came in to see her as he normally would, Mary told him that she was going to open her box.

“I’m glad you told me,” her father said as he sat down next to her. “But before you do, would you mind telling me why?”

And so Mary told him all about Tom, and the man she watched open his own box, and the men who opened Tom’s box. She told him about how her fountain had produced nothing but bitterness ever since, and that she was tired of drinking it. “I’m not sure what I’ll find inside my box, but I am sure it will be better than this.”

Her father listened carefully to everything she said, and when she was finished he put his arm around her shoulders and lowered his head, letting out a deep sigh. “I can’t stop you from opening your box if you want to,” he said. “These boxes are fragile, as you’ve noticed. They break easily, there is no lock to keep them shut, and somehow or another they all open in the end anyway. And when a fountain goes bitter for a long time it’s a tempting thing to open your box and move on. It is hard to drink from a fountain that is only bitter day after day. One thing I’ve learned,” he held his box next to Mary’s, with the spouts side by side, “is that the bitterness is more manageable when you share it.”

Keeping their boxes side by side, he lifted her hand up and drank from the two spouts together, then had her do the same.

The sweet liquid of his fountain mixed with her bitter fountain was much easier to drink.

“If you share your bitter fountain with those who love you, and mix their sweetness with the bitterness you have to drink, then over time your fountain will once again return to normal. It might take a very long time, but we’re here to share our fountains with you as long as you need us.”

Mary hugged her father, sobbing, but feeling a little better.


My wife and her friend get loud when they’re talking on the phone together.

They have such a good time with each other that over the course of their conversations the world gets smaller and smaller until they are barely aware of anything outside of a very small bubble. Inside that bubble there is nothing but their friendship and whatever topic they’re laughing about. Their “bubble-space fun” is great enough that they’ve decided they want to try sharing their fun with the world (or at least a few interested friends) through YouTube.

Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

It’s not an unreasonable thing to try. Though it’s hard to find exact numbers, there are, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of YouTube channels out there that have a sizable following. As of today, YouTube’s statistics page mentions that they have over a million content creators monetizing on their videos with thousands of channels making six figures a year.

But even if getting rich isn’t your aim, what makes a YouTube channel worth watching? How do you make videos that appeal to people?

I am a shift worker, and every two months I rotate between three shifts. Only one of those shifts has reasonable hours, so on my days off while on the other two shifts I often find myself looking to YouTube to help pass the time (I am not much of a night owl). I currently subscribe to 84 channels, though many of those belong to people I know personally who rarely upload anything.

This blog post is not meant to be the end-all, definitive lesson on how to attain success on YouTube. However, I do want to share what keeps me coming back for more from some of my favorite channels, and a few things I’ve learned over the years about this sort of thing.

Disclaimer: if I were really good at this stuff I’d be making a living doing it. The following consists of a lot of conjecture and heartfelt opinions intermingled with some useful facts that I know. And I’m not claiming to be sharing the secret to viral videos or anything – I’m sharing what I know about content production and audience retention. Also, to get the full benefit from this “lesson” you’re going to have to sit through some videos, and a few of them are rather lengthy and not all of them are kid friendly.

Let’s get started.

Conventional wisdom in the entertainment industry seems to be based around the misapplication of a basic (and true) principle of human communication: know your audience. Rather than just knowing their audience, they are trying to know their audience. Like, in bed. They want to give the audience what the audience wants because that’s what makes the audience grow and shell out money. Appeal to the widest possible audience and you’ve got yourself a profitable YouTube channel in no time.

But what about you? Will you be happy? And what of your audience? Will your audience come back for more because they’re interested in what you’ll post next time, or are you just generating views because your videos show a thumbnail that got someone to click on it out of interest (boobs)?

Cyril Connolly said: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.

I believe that all entertainers should do what they love for their own reasons. Going further than that (here comes your first video assignment, and it’s almost twenty minutes long), Simon Sinek teaches leaders how to inspire people to action by centering everything you do around a primary idea that answers the question, “why?” You will need his advice when planning your content and video “format” (what and how you do what you do).

“Why” is a great place to start. And if you do it right, your “why” is something that is based mostly around feelings. But you’ve got to try to describe it in words.

Now, YouTube is an interesting place. There are a lot of problems with the “audience” on YouTube. The next video I want you to watch covers these issues through a satirical and tongue-in-cheek presentation pretending to be excellent advice on how to run your YouTube channel.

The real trick is in clearly defining why you’re starting your channel and figuring out what kinds of people are going to be watching it. Then you figure out whatever you can about that audience and tailor the presentation to them (not your content).


pewdiepie (Photo credit: pixesophie)

A great example of this is a guy called PewDiePie. He records himself being an idiot playing video games. As of right now, this guy has over thirteen million subscribers (I am not one of them). YouTube channels that focus on gaming are really big right now. A lot of people want to watch people play video games. But what makes PewDiePie number one?

Another channel I watch from time to time is The Game Theorist. He records videos in which he speculates on gaming related issues, carefully researching the topic and assembling an informed theory to explain what might be going on. He has a great video in which he basically proves that Sonic is not very fast. Very fun videos, but not consistently fun enough to get my subscription.

The Game Theorist did a really great video about why PewDiePie is so popular, and in it he outlines a lot of things that any new content publisher should know.

OK, one more long-ish video that you have to watch all the way through, then we’ll get into individual channels.

This next video is by a guy who I honestly did not expect to subscribe to. I remember the first time I saw one of his videos. I thought, “this guy is ugly, strange, and I do not feel like I connect with him.” That, however, was before I started getting into woodworking. When my wife and I started building a major piece of furniture I began looking for woodworking YouTube videos that were helpful for a novice like me.

That’s when this ugly guy’s channel came back up. After watching a few of his videos I subscribed. Then I found out that he had another channel in which he talks about the videos in his main channel. This intrigued me, so I checked out that second channel. Again, I subscribed.

Then I stumbled upon the following video in his auxiliary channel in which he talks about the video equipment he uses to make videos. But that’s not why I’m having you watch it. I’m having you watch it because the guy is awesome at little tips that make videos better for viewers. His video is kind of long, but it is full of outstanding advice for new channel owners.

If you’ve watched all of the videos I’ve prescribed so far, you’ve just watched 50 minutes and 46 seconds of video. Maybe you did it all in one sitting, maybe you broke it up into manageable segments over the course of a day or more. It’s possible that not all of those videos kept your attention for the entire length, but I’m betting that most of them did (if not all of them). Why did you watch those videos? Not just “because I’m trying to learn how to make good videos.” Really ask yourself, “what kept me watching even though those videos were so long?” If you need to, pick one and go back and watch it again, trying to figure out how the presenter kept your attention.

Now, let’s run through a few of my subscriptions and talk about what I love about them.

When I link to a channel, I recommend you familiarize yourself with their top video (or a few of their top videos). To do this, click on the channel link I provide, then look for the “Videos” tab (next to the little house icon, below the channel name). When the Videos tab first loads their uploads are shown in reverse chronological order (newest videos first). Click on the drop down button that says “Date added (newest – oldest)” and select “Most popular” to view their videos from most to least popular. Then watch at least a few of their top few videos to see what they are like.

The great thing about viewing the most popular video on a channel is that you can see the video that resonated the most with their intended audience. It’s usually the video that initially earned them a strong following of subscribers (but not always).

Alright. I’m not going through these in any particular order (well, except alphabetical order because that’s how I’m viewing the list of my subscriptions).

The first channel I’ll introduce you to feels more like a television show, and perhaps that’s why I’m subscribed. As far as I know, these videos do not air on cable. They are just a YouTube thing, but they have exceptional production value and a pretty nice budget behind them, which leads me to believe that they are professionally produced by a crew that also does television shows.

They do a variety of things on the channel, but the videos I like most are part of a series called “Man at Arms” where a professional blacksmith creates video game character weapons. That particular feature got my subscription, but since then I have enjoyed a few of their other videos as well, videos that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t subscribed. That’s the power of gaining subscribers.

  • Check out this channel: AWE me

This next channel isn’t something that I would have initially thought I’d ever subscribe to (DON’T JUDGE ME). I initially happened upon the channel when I was watching a lot of videos of different accents (I like accents, OK?). The video that got me interested was part of a larger playlist that someone else had put together to showcase accents from around the world. To this day, the video of hers that I saw is still her most popular video (and it’s over two years old).

When watching her video I found that I didn’t just like her accent, I thought she had a lot of fun things to say. So I checked out her more recent videos and found that she was video blogging (vlogging) about a lot of topics in an interesting way (and by interesting I mean that she’s being her own silly self without worrying too much about her audience, though she does ask for suggestions from time to time).

To me, her channel is a great example of what one normal person (and sometimes she has her friends on with her) can do to hold an audience, even without great equipment or professional training. With just over 8,000 subscribers she’s not the biggest channel that I’m covering, but she’s got her audience and she does a good job keeping their attention (though I don’t watch her videos all the way through when they stray too far from my interests — for example sometimes she goes to parties and films it).

Here’s an odd one for you. I subscribed to this guy on a whim when I found a video he posted of a nickel ball that he heated with a blow torch until it was red hot before dropping it in some water. I think Randall Munroe linked to it on his What If blog when referring to the cavitation effect (that’s probably not what it’s called) that occurs when super hot things contact water. Anyhow, the video owner got a sudden surge in traffic for the red hot nickel ball in water video and began doing more videos like it (using the RHNB acronym rather than writing out red hot nickel ball all the time). Now he’s got 45 thousand subscribers that just want to see what he’ll drop his red hot nickel ball onto next. It’s a simple premise, but one that has obviously gained him quite a strong following.

Sometimes the best channels are focused on just one interest. In this next channel’s case, it’s slingshots. In fact, he calls himself “the slingshot channel.” While some of his “slingshot” videos kind of stretch the concept of slingshot (see what I did there?), his razor focus on a single subject secures him a steady viewership that shares his passion. All in all he’s just shy of 300,000 subscribers at the moment, and he really loves making his videos.

I recommend you check out a few of his videos for sure. He is a fun, lovable guy and after watching a couple of his videos you’ll never forget the way he says, “That’s all for today. I hope you liked it. Thanks, and bye bye.” Super great guy.

A while back Google released a product that didn’t make a lot of sense. The Internet was complaining about its price, its unusual technical specifications, and all sorts of other things about it. Then I stumbled upon this guy explaining the features of this product and it totally made sense. This kid is sharp, great at explaining things in a way that is relevant to the average technology user, and really gets into the tech industry to relay the best news to his viewers. And it pays off. He’s got over 500,000 subscribers and through his YouTube income is able to pay for all the neat toys and gadgets he could possibly want. Plus, it seems that some product manufacturers send him their latest gadgets to try out and review on his channel.

In addition to having fantastically well planned content and presentation, he excels at production. His videos are clear and vibrant, and they have outstanding audio quality. When my father moved from newspaper publishing to running a couple dozen news websites for a corporation he had to learn to do web video. In his research he found that the main difference between obviously amateur videos and apparently professional videos was the sound quality. Good sound quality can put your channel in an entirely different category when it comes to perceived quality, and if anyone knows that Marques Brownlee does.

Here’s one of those video game channels. This guy is just plain silly. I found his channel when a coworker showed me a video from a different channel and one of this guy’s videos was a related video. I thought his video was way funnier than the one my coworker shared with me. So I subscribed. His videos are almost all short (2 to 5 minutes) and well edited to contain all of the funniest bits and enough back story to know why they’re funny. Do not show these videos to young children.

This next guy came out of nowhere. As someone who once frequented but now occasionally peruses reddit, I have learned to appreciate the power of certain social media platforms (especially reddit). One day this guy’s first video got posted to reddit when he only had about five videos up (to date he still only has 14 videos posted). The video was an explanation of the book Crime and Punishment and the reddit post title indicated that watching this video would grant me some insight into the book that I previously lacked.

The video delivered on that promise and then some. The production quality leads me to wonder if there isn’t a professional studio behind these videos, but I don’t care if they’re just going to try to sell me something in the end. I subscribed because I want to know as much about literature as this character is going to teach me. These are fantastic videos because they provide a service and do it in a way that is more than just entertaining, it is original. Original ideas (or just ideas that seem original) go a long way so long as they are presented well and given the right exposure.

Back when Lindsey Stirling was on America’s Got Talent and her YouTube channel teamed up with some big shot videographer, I discovered another violin-playing girl with a YouTube channel and I decided that I like her style better. And I’m glad I did, because soon Lindsey’s work began to feel heartless. I think more recently she may be rediscovering her old self, but for a while she lost her way when she lost sight of her “why.”

Anyhow, this other violin player has remained humble, innovative, and relevant to my interests for a couple of years now, and she just released her first original song. She may not have as many fans as Lindsey (only 220,000 subscribers vs. Lindsey’s 3 million), but she is just as talented (if not more) at playing the violin. Just looking at the comments on their videos and channels you can get an idea of how her 220,000 subscribers are just as valuable as Lindsey’s 3 million to someone who is not doing what they do for their audience, but for their self.

OK, just one more. This girl is a member of a game-playing, video-making team called The Yogscast. They actually have a Wikipedia page (yes, they’re that big of a deal and you had no idea they existed). They got their start playing World of Warcraft in a guild called “Ye Olde Goone Squad” (from whence they derive their current name, YOGScast) and eventually gained popularity with their Let’s Play video series about Minecraft.

I don’t really care for most of the Yogscast stuff (though some of it can be pretty fun), but I found Hannah’s channel when I was looking up videos of the recent game The Last of Us. I had heard that the story was good, so I wanted to watch someone play through it. Hannah’s first game play video of the game caught my attention when she cried at the end of the opening sequence. I enjoy her accent, her commentary, and what she adds to the game experience just by being herself. Her videos are pretty long (about 20 minutes on average) but I highly recommend you watch one or two of them. She’s great at holding her audience. She does all of her own video editing, and manages to edit out “boring” parts without making you miss any of the important content of the game.

Alright. That is a good general sampling of channels I subscribe to and why I subscribe. There are quite a few more, of course, but I think these ones are each unique enough that you should be able to figure out what you want to do by watching them do what they love.

I apologize for how freakishly long this is and how clumsy my writing is. I wrote it all out and lost the steam to go back and do a thorough editing.

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