Thoughts on John Barth’s Every Third Thought

As I browsed new books at my library, I had first and second thoughts about reviewing John Barth’s Every Third Thought. God, Barth again? Do I really want to? Do I really want to visit the floating enigma again? The man must be in his eighties. Well, shit, you’re and old fart, too; try him one more time. He’s teased you for years, why not once more?

So, I checked out the book, for reasons probably as inexplicable as my decision to write a Master’s thesis on Barth back in 1970. Oh, I’ve dabbled in Barth since then; but one cannot really dabble in this author any more than he can dabble in James Joyce — not if you are a just reader. I didn’t know this when my thesis adviser voiced some reservations about the use of my time. “Study Swift instead,” he said. But back then, I was an artist, too. We were all creative sophomores.

It’s a small book, but still capable of delivering moments of boredom as Giles Goat Boy delivered in spades. (I learned to like Giles.) And George Giles redeemed himself, just as G.I.N. did. After all, the Barthian experience is still an aesthetic one. In Barth there’s probably a reason for boring dear reader — just as Anastasia’s violent rape had its purpose in Giles. This latest story tells us about G. I. Newitt (G.I.N.) and his wife/muse Amanda Todd, an English professor, boys and girls exploring each other in the attic and somebody’s fascination with coincidental events linked to the number 77; the seasons, both calendar and philosophic. The surprise ending for the first time in my reading of Barth, brought me close to tears. Passion and sorrow amidst the meta-fictional caper make a very conventional statement in the work of this unconventional, original writer. Growing old is no caper.

What still remains in Barth are the auto-biographical hints, no sooner given than fused into some other purpose or effect. Who is John Barth and where is Barth’s Barth? Where has the Narrator gone now? The reader still knows that while he’s reading a masterpiece, he’s also captured by a master magician (Prospero?). There’s no breaking the Barthian code which a young graduate student thought he might do over forty years ago. Barth is a writer’s writer, assuredly and a determined reader’s rubik’s cube.

Read it, but if you read it, read it twice, thrice or more. As usual, Barth is no quick read.

Thank you, Professor Barth, for your floating enigmas,

David Milliken



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Career: Be a Monopolist, Says David Brooks

A competitive mind-set is productive only to a point. It’s important not to lose sight of value defined by other metrics. Peter Thiel’s argument for monopoly may provide an alternative framework. More . . .

April 23, 2012

via David Brooks – The New York Times.

Some skills of a monopolist (one who dominates in a “distinct market, niche and identity”) are “alertness, independence, and the ability to “reclaim forgotten traditions.” Brooks would also have the young re-examine the “status funnel,” a lemming-like obsession to compete for the best colleges, banks and companies.

Brooks does not develop his idea of reclaiming forgotten traditions. However, I would suggest that he hints at discretion being the better part of valor as one of them. If a pitcher has just suffered three home runs in one inning, for example, it might behoove him to take his bat and glove elsewhere. Perhaps he should find a blank space where everyone else isn’t. Take your sophisticated urban skills to a smaller community and make change where you have a chance or might be more appreciated. You might not even need a Stanford MBA.

American tradition honors wealth and success, but not always has America revered the drive for celebrity. Americans are an egotistical lot, but we have not always been narcissistic. There have always been people who wanted their photo and name in the newspaper, but not until the age of television, Internet and the plethora of electronic Media did we drool at the prospect of ten minutes of fame. Time was when a man or woman could feel wholly content and successful having tended well a relatively private garden in life.

Today we measure our own self-esteem against the best, the brightest, the “seen”ones. Often parents regarding the “status funnel” expect and often drive their kids into inappropriate careers and expectations — resulting in nothing but heartbreak. Some teachers belong in public school classrooms. They are called to it. One doesn’t have to be a university professor to be a good teacher and worthwhile human being. Life at the little end of the funnel is not necessarily a happy place. But, as Brooks says, when “the intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value, that’s what happens.” Knowing one’s self is very much a traditional value and that means knowing one’s league and being happy in it.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken



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Surely the Cavalry Is at Hand!

I mean really!  The Kansas City Star was depressing this morning.  Leading the anguish was the KC Royals stunning eleventh loss in a row. That hasn’t happened to a team since 1913, They’re off to Cleveland to run another Tribe gauntlet. Krauthammer lamented the end of Discovery, the space program.  It seems we are bequeathing American world leadership to China and Russia.

I read elsewhere that the social security trust fund’s crisis has moved up three years.  Also the first French president Americans have been able to like is running second against a socialist.  Never fear, I understand the senior partner in Europe, Inc., i.e. Germany, will keep the “conservative” flame burning.  Ahh, there will always be a France!  Humanity must have a France!

And Mr.  Romney inches into just what the Republicans always wanted in the first place.  Both the Democrats and Republicans continue to ignore the Simpson-Bowles Report and the tough choices that must be made.  This partisan stuff ain’t working.  And Americans wait as usual for a crisis big enough, so devastating that there is no choice but action in the nick of time.  Are we waiting again for cavalry to arrive?

Steadfast and cautious,
David Milliken

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Spirituality Not Given Us by God, Professor Says

A researcher, Brick Johnstone in the University of Missouri has been studying “Right Parietal Lobe ‘Selflessness’ as the Neuropsychological Basis of Transcendence” (Kansas City Star, 4/20/12, p. A-8).

It’s about the so-called “God spot” in the human brain. It seems now that there is no single spot as previously thought, but multiple spots.

Until now belief in a higher power has been associated with a reduced parietal lobe, the area just above the right ear, the home of self needs.  A person with brain injury in this area tends to think less about self and more focused on the spiritual. In experiments the left parietal lob seems to respond to pictures of others — meaning it is the place for otherness?

But now this science finds spiritual connectedness in the frontal lobe as well, the office of planning and coordinating. Increased participation in religious activities shows up in the frontal lobe, too.

Johnstone notes that the study “supports the idea that our spirituality is based in the brain rather than given by God.”

The assumption would be then that a divine power might not have given us the brain. I do not imply that the brain was created on Monday of Creation Week either — unless perhaps that First Monday was an  eon long.

I’m sorry, being of a more poetic persuasion, I find “God spots” in a bucolic meadow, a Liszt composition, a Keats sonnet, a charitable act, the face of dogs offering unconditional love,  etc.

And finally, a brain injury, heart attack or recovery from any emergency surgery might make anyone more spiritual. I don’t care where the “evidence” shows up. A miraculous recovery might make a man believe in good angels, too.

Steadfast and cautious,


David Milliken



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A Message for Tortoise Factor Followers

The Tortoise Factor is just a little over one year old.  I am very pleased with its progress.  Statistics tend to support the existence of a growing number of visitors who return again and again.

Thing is, I don’t really know who you are.  Too few of you leave a comment.  I especially want comments and suggestions.  In some cases I have written blogs on a past search topic, e.g. point of view of the writer of the “Tortoise and the Geese.”  That was fun, but it was after the fact.  If I had more suggestions and questions, I could take The Tortoise Factor in new directions — with your help.

You’ve noticed that I am all over the place doing reviews of a few books, offering views on career, the political scene and literature I know a little about.  Believe me, it’s a smattering.  I have a current events focus.

And then a take tangent and post a love poem by George Herbert, a 17th Century preacher and poet.  His poem is timeless and beautiful — at least for me.  It is pleasant to read a traditional sonnet with rime, formal structure and timeless content.  But that’s my take, not  yours.

Please let me know what you think.  I promise not to drown you in emails.  I promise to keep your address confidential — but I’d like to make you friends of the Tortoise.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken


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A George Herbert Poem



Immortal Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beauty which can never fade,
How hath man parcel’d out Thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which Thou hast made,
While mortal love doth all the title gain!
Which siding with Invention, they together
Bear all the sway, possessing heart and brain,
(Thy workmanship) and give Thee share in neither.
Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the game,
Thou standing by: and though Thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th’ infernal pit,
Who sings Thy praise? Only a scarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.


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The Effect of the Tortoise and the Geese

A blog viewer has asked about the narrative effect of this story.   In this fable the narrator lets behavior speak for itself as in most fables.  Of course, the fabulist has picked the matter, action and consequences. He obviously knows his human nature.  Human beings will say and do what is necessary to survive as do animals ; but  natural reactions, especially perverse ones, often turn against us (fate?). The tortoise’s anger at the jeering crowd trumps the better nature of enduring patience and keeping one’s mouth shut.  Who knows whether the tortoise had a better nature which he ignored or was she totally incapable of keeping her mouth shut.  As a result he failed to live another day. He had to yell at the mocking crowd.

The effect for me is a sense of  tragedy.  The fabulist manages to create much sadness and empathy for the flawed  tortoise.  If we do not do what we would and should do, we suffer consequences.  Death makes the effect intensely powerful. There is also a clear statement that help in this world is available if we want to commit to it (the geese).  A child, of course, will feel sorry for the tortoise, perhaps hear a truth about living and perseverance, but most likely will only be lucky if he or she carries the lesson into adulthood.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken

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Does the invisible compliment the visible? –

“As I watch the enormous shell of the tortoise, I cannot help but wonder that it’s the life in the apparently invisible body of a tortoise that not only [carries] this mountain of a shell [but] enhances [it] to grow over the hundreds of years.  On the other hand suppose Nakayima had sat on the bear tortoise or we [had hit]  it directly with stones.  Would the tortoise [have survived] all these years and wars? . . .”

via Does the invisible compliment the visible? –

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Feeling Unoppressed by Government

When I honestly try to list the personal freedoms which I have lost to government, I don’t come up with many. When the law requires me to wear a seat belt, I don’t feel oppressed. I don’t particularly feel oppressed at the airport when I have to sit in a chair while someone fetches a wand to verify that yes, indeed, I have metal knees. When I became eligible for Medicare, I was more relieved than anything else. And I can find no discernible difference between the private coverage I had and the Medicare coverage I have now. All I lost was the privilege of shucking out $12K per year for COBRA benefits.

Since I love animals I am unaffected by animal cruelty laws, but the animals deserve them. The animals are important and the way we treat them says much about civilization. I’ve gotten used to separating my weekly rubbish into various containers. Even the little message that tells me not to stick my fingers under a running mower doesn’t bother me; but then I don’t underestimate the number of people who might.

Gun control? Well, somewhere around my house I have a 22 caliber pistol. I’m being facetious. I know exactly where it is but I don’t know if I have any bullets for it — maybe a handful. I suppose I should fill up my magazine and be ready for danger. You know, keep the clip on my nightstand under the Mentholatum jar. At the same time I don’t have any immediate plans for joining a militia and I can’t think of one instance where a loaded pistol — ready to fire with safety on — would give me more happiness, liberty or security I have no desire to shoot a damn thing. I’ve always been a little soft.

But I do feel the loss of freedom, mostly my God-given right to dispose of my time as I so chose. I feel oppressed every time I cannot talk to a fellow human being when I have an issue of customer service. I feel a loss when I cannot find a personal banker closer than 800 miles away whose qualifications are unknown to me — and yet I must discuss with her my refinance questions. Every time my Internet service glitches. I resent the time it takes to have a techy ask me if the thing is plugged into the outlet. I feel like I have more to fear from creeping corporatism and New Paternalism than Frenchmen bearing pommes frites.

I’ve asked a few small business people if taxes keep them from hiring or expanding. Most say no and tell me they need customers, customers, more customers.

When I get the message that I am less a human being than a consumption machine, just one of millions, then I feel oppressed.  My freedom frankly has been seriously infringed by commercials. If they are amusing or creative, I enjoy them — particularly the little green Geiko gecko or E-Trade’s little babies. I don’t watch the National Geographic Channel or the History Channel because there are too many commercials. It’s my choice, of course, and the producer’s necessity, but I miss some good content due to my peeve. I miss a strong, influential PBS.

No one is forcing contraception on anyone. To my knowledge no agency is forcing anyone to marry, sleep with or otherwise fraternize with an “other” whatever the current other is. Knowing about the “other” is a good thing. Actually I fear the self-appointed morality militia more than government. They will, of course, lead to their own invidious “government” and in a form of stifling intrusion or omitted action far worse than a “liberal” can describe. Rightist extremism bothers me more than socialism.

When the Supreme Court cleared Citizens United for takeoff, I definitely felt oppressed. No, these days restriction of my freedom results from a little arthritis, the challenges of retirement, notably the fact that I don’t have an active job “out amongst ’em” like I used to. But these are existential matters of natural processes and making way for the young, not hanging on, and finding usefulness in new ways. The latter is a form of free enterprise. In short I can’t find a lot to blame on government.

We need more of what’s best for all and then lots of live and let live in this country.

Cautious and steadfast,


David Milliken


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