Allegory 1: Unwritten laws

In a dusty corner of my memory lie a few short stories from my grade school days. Most of them were read aloud by my teacher, although the one below was in a textbook. Hackneyed though they may be, for some reason these stuck with me. Here is the first as I remember it:

A group of cowboys were in line at the chuckwagon, getting their supper, when a stranger rode up. He dismounted, wordlessly greeted everyone with a nod, and joined the food line. He sat down alone and ate quickly. When he finished, he walked to the chuckwagon and prepared to wash the dishes, because one of the unwritten laws of the West was that a stranger pays for his meal by washing up. As he worked, the stranger often glanced back in the direction from whence he came. An older cowboy recognized his look, and began to prepare the stranger’s horse for a hard ride. Soon a dust cloud could be seen in the distance — someone else was approaching. The stranger became visibly more nervous but kept working. The moment the last dish was washed and dried, the stranger gave a nod in farewell, ran to his horse and galloped off.

The cowboys never learned what deeds the stranger was escaping from, but he had obeyed the unwritten laws of the West, and so could not have been all bad.

Recently I found this list of unwritten laws of the west, although it didn’t include one about washing up.

Off the grid

After discovering that a favorite physical therapist no longer worked at the clinic, I thought to myself “hey, no problem, I’ll find him online.” Except that I couldn’t: Google, Facebook, white pages, name misspellings… all my attempts failed. The fellow seemed to have no online presence at all. At first I was frustrated, then I laughed at myself. How quickly we become accustomed to the new reality — just fifteen years ago the Web didn’t exist.

The ability to ‘disappear’ and re-emerge elsewhere with a new identity is as old as history. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to Ithaka after 20 years and pretends to be a beggar: as no one recognized him, he could have remained so indefinitely. In the California Gold Rush, many men chose to leave their old lives behind, giving themselves new names and life stories. This was paralleled in the 1960s and 70s, notably by gay men escaping small towns for more tolerant cities such as New York and San Francisco.

Today, it is essentially impossible to disappear and move unnoticed to another state, another country, another continent. We can’t board an airplane without our ID. We can’t take our money because it’s all electronic and traceable. We can’t hide because everyone in the world has a TV and a cell phone camera.

So where did my physical therapist go? Darn!