Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Cage and the Rope

There once was a zoo and in that zoo was a cage full of monkeys. There was a rope near the top of the cage and every time a monkey tried to swing on the rope jets of icy water would come on and blast all the monkeys in the cage. So terrible was the water that the monkeys would attack any member of their troop that went near the rope. After a while, as the older monkeys died off and they were replaced by younger monkeys those who never experienced the icy water would still attack those who got near the rope simply because that was the way things had always been.

You have to wonder, after all the water pipes had been removed and the valve had rusted shut, how many monkeys would have come and gone before one of them swung on that rope? Very likely, long after the water had been shut off, if there were monkeys who considered themselves Guardians of the Rope and they were the ones who would keep the rest of the troop from trespassing. After all, we’re talking about animals who are locked away in a cage not those who are wild and free. A wolf ranging free isn’t as likely to get as wound up over someone in his territory as a tiny Chihuahua in a tiny single bedroom apartment. The smaller the world the larger the fear.

I haven’t had access to a computer for the last four days. I put mine in the shop on Monday and now I realize what it means to have to revert to writing by hand, which is slow, laborious, and illegible. There isn’t any way my hand can keep up with my thoughts and it’s a lot like taking a whale for a walk on a dirt road. This isn’t anything new at all. I’ve never had good handwriting and like the monkey who pulled the rope back in the mythical cage, you wouldn’t believe how many times I was beaten because of my penmanship.

The physical punishment was bad enough but in and of itself, I think I could have survived the daily paddling with a board. The psychological torture was much worse and unlike our simian friends who were imprisoned against their will it was my parents who thought that whatever the school system did to me was the best thing for everyone involved. In the third grade I had a teacher who would paddle me every day before class and she would intentionally wait before administering the execution. I would sit and squirm and wonder when it was going to happen and everyone else could feel the tension building. She would get her stuff organized on her desk, get the paddle out and put in next to her coffee, fiddle around with paperwork and the whole class anxiously awaited the implementation of the sentence. I would hope for a reprieve, hope that she might forget, and hope that some miracle would occur but it never did.
When she finally stood up and picked the paddle up a stir of excitement would slip through the room. Finally, the show had begun! She would call me up to the front of the class and make me say that I would do better,  that I would improve my penmanship and then she would scold me for lying to her, because that is what I told her the day before. One day I actually just went up to the front of the room and asked her to get it over with and that really set her off.

Of course, there was a rule back at home if I got a paddling at school I would get one at home, too. Teachers and parents had an aura of Adult Infallibility and as long as a teacher condemned me then my parents felt an obligation to follow suit. It was for my own good. It hurt them more than it hurt me. There were so few items in their bag of tricks and they were willing to use those few items until I magically developed and there was no consideration as to whether or not their means were effective.  My handwriting didn’t improve at all, ever.

The last few days without a computer have given me a chance to think about why I write and how I write. I sat down in a public library at lunch to write this, without any idea as to what I was going to write, but I knew I was going to write something. That urge has always been with me, inside of me, wanting to get out, but how can the mind reconcile the endless torment and proclamations of “You can’t write!” with the inner Muse who says that writing is what you must do? Without a medium of expression, and trust me, my handwriting is nearly illegible even to me, how could I act upon what there is inside?

But all of this isn’t about me, or monkeys, or even the sorry state of public education, past, present or future. At this point what I would like you to consider is why people, particularly young people, are self-destructive and perhaps just plain destructive? Could it be they’re missing their Muse? Could it me the disaffected and disenchanted out there need an outlet for their creativity? Society gears the games and entertainment towards destruction rather than creation. We, as a society, tend to show a disdain for anything that we do not understand so we cannot connect with the values of those who seem to be more than willing to think outside the monkey cage.

When we see young men walking around with their pants down around their knees or walking around covered with tattoos, what ropes are we actually guarding here? Are these forms of expression really a threat to us or do we merely think if we cannot experience the need for this expression, if we cannot connect to it in some way, does that tell us that it has no value? Do we believe that ignoring these people or condemning these people will cause them to awaken one day and see the beauty and wonder of our world, here, inside the monkey cage?

And what of ourselves?

I ask you not as a member of some societal group or some troop of naked apes, but as an individual, what says your Muse? What does that inner calling ask of you? How do you feed it, clean it, take care of it, or do you just ignore it, that rope hanging from the top of the cage? When was the last time you took the time to wonder what it is you do when you do what you do best? When was the last time you looked at something and realized that, actual and whole, you created it? What stands in your way? Who guards the rope?

Is it you?

Maybe, just maybe, if you swing from that rope you’ll be blasted with icy cold water and those around you will, too. You’ll make a mess of things and it will be awful. But maybe those who warn you of swinging from the rope are wrong. Maybe if you grab that rope and swing from it you’ll discover that you can fling yourself out of that cage and only Doctor Zaius knows what you might find.

For twelve years I was told what I could not do. For twenty more I told myself the same lie because I had come to believe it. But the day I grabbed the rope I discovered there was another world.

Encourage that in others.

Demand it of yourself.

Take Care,



  1. I swung on the rope and was disappointed after the buzz of anticipation.
    So I went looking for more ropes, some with better results than others, but it cost me dearly.

    Of course I regret swinging on some and not trying others, but we are always second guessing choices... it's human nature.

    Now ropes are less appealing because I’ve learned cost/benefit ratio tilts badly with age.

    1. The more badly the tilt the more strongly the reward, Bruce.

  2. I grabbed the rope over 20 years ago, and was rewarded with a new career that was very fulfilling. Everyone told me not to grab the rope because it was something I had no training nor experience for that kind of thing. I grabbed it anyway, and it was the best thing I ever did.

    1. That's why I tell people to swing away, John. People in general always regret those things they did not do more than those things they did do.