As a child, Sam Magee developed his own code of conduct, the Samurai Code. But he has learned that perhaps the code wasn’t as ideal as he had seen it.
As a boy, descending the stairs much like other children, I would skip a step or two, guiding myself along with my hand on the rail. But not all kids finished off with the reflexive analysis: did I hit the wrong step or skip the one that my foot should have hit? Any doubt and I’d be trotting up and down the stairs again, seeking perfection.
Over time, my repetitive foot patterns, favoring select planks on the pine floors in the family home, a feat maintained throughout adolescence, left their mark, wearing away the wood stain, a tribute to my determination. Even in the tiled kitchen, I took to jumping, as if in a minefield, in my self-assigned pattern, lurching toward the door in a manner that was accepted without question by my distracted family.
“Sam, stop that, you look retarded,” said my mother, once, before dropping the subject as quickly as she’d taken it up. That was during a car ride, and I was deeply caught up with keeping pace with the conversation, using my finger to write every word she, my father, or my younger brother said. I did so in invisible cursive with my right pointer, on my leg, in a script that didn’t allow any corners, only loops.
“R-E-T-A-R-D-E-D.” At least the letters flowed, but I was distressed that my mother, whom I suspected of intellectual laziness at that moment, chose such an offensive and inaccurate term, although the right word for my behavior eluded me, caught up as I now was with tapping my fingers in a grueling rhythm: 5, 4, 3, and back again, until the sets were even. Next I had to tap my teeth, canines first, than fronts, than incisors, all touches, of necessity, being symmetrical in both number and pressure.
Of course, as an adult, I can tell you those habits are long gone, most days, replaced by psychological insight, altered by cognitive behavioral therapy. But before I learned to channel and chill, pre-remedy, I kept my anxiety-ridden fixations under wraps with my Samurai Code. (Cool, isn’t it? A personal code with my name, Sam, embedded within it.)
My Samurai Code began, as I said, as a kind of subterfuge, a way to follow my magical thinking along its tantalizing path without physically acting out the journey. Instead of tapping the arm of my chair in pressured intervals, I did something else. I silently turned my anxiety, my need for obsessive pacts, toward my murky conception of God, a being my Born-Again grandmother made sound chaotic, but nevertheless a convenient source of omnipotent power.
When gripped with fear by a pattern of uneven numbers, say, while walking the hallways of my high school, I’d silently swear a vow to this mighty, temperamental God, the enforcer of my Samurai Code. No Drinking. No Smoking. No Drugs. No Dishonorable Behavior. No Doing Things at Half-Measure. No Second Best.
In return, HE would refrain from terrorizing the earth, and would not smote my loved ones. My Code, an arrangement played out as an interior process, saved me the embarrassment of tapping and muttering my way through my teenage years. But my Samurai Code was rigid and risky. Always, there existed the slight possibility that despite my adherence to the Code, God, sickened by my ongoing failure to skip the cracks on the sidewalks, would forget our deal, and smote my loved ones anyway.
Meanwhile, I grew up determined to be an honor-bound samurai, another conception with murky underpinnings, as styled by my teenage self, but intense psychological consequences. I developed a set of rules to live by, my Samurai Code, and, well, let’s just say it’s lucky I grew up in a Massachusetts suburb where this sort of neurotic behavior passed as “Type A.” My penchant for extreme work and sports habits, as well as extreme trash collecting and recycling agendas, fazed no one.
My Code also passed as a form of “chivalry” in my romantic life, compelled as I was to open doors, buy flowers, create occasions, and, early on, to “rescue” girls and, during my young adulthood, women, from what I perceived as difficult circumstances—only to find my rigid ways didn’t exactly provide them with a haven of solace.
Now that my head is on straight, I see my Samurai Code for what it was—a manifestation of obsessions born of anxiety; chivalry as a form of neurosis. I’ve learned other, infinitely more effective, ways of managing. Without my demanding Samurai Code shaping my daily life, I no longer feel compelled to provide every hitchhiker with a ride; aid every motorist in need of assistance; and arrange seating for every pregnant woman I see on the train. That’s not to say I don’t do these things, but when I do, it’s out of kindness, not compulsion.
Not that I don’t miss my Samurai Code. My creation got me where I needed to go; besides, those self-styled moral mandates weren’t such a bad set of rules to live by. Okay, it’s true, my Samurai Code belonged to a world without flexibility and nuance, an anxious place of shining meaning, discernible to no one but me. So, yeah, I let it go. But at times I do miss the black and white simplicity of it all. In the end though, I’ve realized that the shades of gray, as ambiguous as they can be, are where real chivalry lies.
Art by Sam Magee.