The Tortoise and the Writer, a Fable (Corrected and Revised1/4/12)

Just around noon a tortoise and a writer met along a creek bordering a meadow.  The tortoise had felt the writer’s presence from the vibrations of heavy foot steps.  The tortoise, hidden as well as possible near rocks and bushes, quickly pulled his tail and legs into his shell and his head, too;  except that he left just enough of a gap to spy on the intruder. He noticed when the writer caught sight of him, slowed his pace and quickly acted as though he hadn’t seen the tortoise. Then the human sat on a rock, pretending to ignore the tortoise.  He began unwrapping a sandwich and opened his water bottle.   Tortoise watched, waited and determined the vibrations to be friendly.  Slowly his head, limbs and tail emerged.

“What are you eating?” said the tortoise.

“Goose liver.”

“Good, one of my forebears had a bad experience with  flying geese, you know.”

“So I’ve heard,” said the writer. ” The geese dropped him mid-air.  Splat.”

“Not very sensitive on your part, but yes, he died.  But you got the story wrong.”

“No, I know the story.  The tortoise should have kept his mouth shut even though the humans jeered and mocked him. It wasn’t the geese’s fault. The tortoise couldn’t take the ridicule. Everyone knows that.”

“He was angry, just trying to save some pride.  We have as much right to pride as any human. ”

“Why bother? There’s nothing wrong with a little humility.  It just is.  Humbling passes and besides, humility can be the start of new experience if you apply a little effort. You have to do something with humility. Humility comes before meaning.”

“That sandwich smells good.”

“You’re an herbivore.”

“You’re misinformed. Who are you anyway?”

“I’m a writer, an absurdist.”

“What does that mean?”

” An absurdist doesn’t believe life has any inherent meaning.”

“So?”

“I mean that life has no essential meaning.”

“I don’t understand you. I can’t ask such a question, let alone answer it,” responded the tortoise.  I just eat, poop, pee and procreate. I bask in sun and rain alike.  Oh, I hold on to life for dear life, but I know there’s an end.  I’ve seen tortoises die —  sad vibes when life is over,  like one day the light never comes.  In the meantime I enjoy a warm flat rock in the sun. I fight for as much of these things  as I can.”

“What do you do for meaning, Tortoise?”

“I can’t do for meaning, don’t you see.  I do for doing. I’ve tried to tell you that. I like pleasant scenes,  especially in the meadow, but that’s a risky trip to the meadow.  I go anyway.  I’m cautious in the meadow — and watchful. Good vibes give me pleasure.  Simple stuff satisfies me, but you’d have trouble sharing my vibes.  Vibes are tough to communicate to a human. We could rub each other’s neck, I suppose.”

“Maybe later.”

“I have good vibes right now — about you I mean.  Put your finger just below my head.”

“Well, okay.”  The writer put his fingers on Tortoise’s neck.  “Hmmm,  hmmmmmmmmmm!  Feels good.  I can’t get any meaning from it.”

“Isn’t feeling good enough,”  said Tortoise.  What’s this “meaning?” You got pleasure, didn’t you? I like to be stroked by a human. That’s the best I can do for you, but I don’t want to go home with you and be your pet. I like being a wild tortoise.  You’d know if I sensed you were bad, believe me.  I don’t get bad vibes from you.”

“Meaning?”

“Get off it. Bad vibes make me uncomfortable, wary, defensive.  Worse case, bad vibes would tell me if you were more interested in turning me into soup than enjoying my company.  I can be a companion, not like a dog, but I can be your friend.”

“Just pulling into your shell wouldn’t stop me from killing you.”

“Sure, you’re the dominant dude in these parts. . . Yikes! There’s more humans headed this way from up the path. I’m not getting good vibes at all.  Excuse me,  my friend,  while I sljp this mobile home into the brush here.  Keep those folks busy, okay?”  Whereupon the tortoise crawled back into  the brush. The writer rose and walked toward the strangers.

He noticed that the men  carried fish nets, clubs, fishing poles and tackle boxes. Their eyes scanned the water and creek bank.  One of them waved at him.  Quickly the writer emerged from the brush and faked fiddling with his fly and said,”Hi, men, caught me in the act of nature.  What are ya fishin’ for.”

“Catfish here in the stream and snappin’ turtles if we can find ’em.”

“Not a fisherman myself.”  He glanced carefully back at the bushes while he closed his zipper and noticed the dark, brownish rump of the tortoise mostly concealed in the bush and was amazed at how much like a rock he looked.  He walked closer to the fishers knowing they’d love to club a large tortoise.  Without being obvious he tried to obstruct their view of the tortoise posing as a rock behind him. After more pleasantries the fishers moved on.  The writer walked the opposite direction up the path, long enough for the men to disappear; and then he  returned to the tortoise.  He was still tucked inside his shell. He spoke to the tortoise, but heard no reply, nor did he come out of his shell.

For some time, perhaps an hour, the writer waited, speaking occasionally to the inert lump before him. He sat on the tortoise and felt the same vibrations as when he’d stroked his neck, only more intensely.  He thought long and deep about this accidental  event in his life.

The writer struggled in his head for the meaning of what had happened.  The vibrations from Tortoise, like a purring cat told him he was quite content. In the end the writer decided that the only meaning he could bring to this happening was the pleasure of fooling  men with  nets and clubs.  Acting to help a threatened, humble creature can be a good adventure.

David Milliken

 

 

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Email: david@thetortoisefactor.com

 

 

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Knowing Yourself, Career and Life: Imagination Is All

Regret cannot be avoided. Dwelling upon it can be.  Regret brings lessons in life;  but along with these lessons, if one is not vigilant, regret can debilitate. Regret and lessons learned are part of knowing the self and therefore must be acknowledged freely and honestly.

In my own case and I have no other laboratory, part of my self-knowledge has meant recognizing that I am a late bloomer. The early bloomer, a better rationalist than I, looks logically at his world. He assesses the facts of his experience and then makes choices. He has a facility to sort wheat from chaff.  For example, I have a friend whom I deeply respect who tried college for a semester.  “Sitting in a philosophy lecture,” he said to me,  “I just decided that higher education was not for me.  I left that college, never returned and never looked back.”  Charley reads good books and has a tolerant spirit for views and ways not his own. He acts quickly on his choices.   His kids have all graduated from college.

I am often envious of people like Charley whose clear reason guides them as  a helmet lamp guides the miner  searching for a rich vein of ore. And they pick away diligently exploiting the promise of reward. I knew several boys in high school who excelled in athletics, the classroom and socially. Both went to college, picked majors that led to conventional careers and financial success.  One chose the law, another the air force and the third became a businessman. As an observer it seems to me that their lives went seamlessly in the conventional way,  owning homes and raising families. One of them reached the pinnacle of corporate success as a multi-millionaire. I do not know if he is happy. If he doesn’t feel successful, he needs a shrink.

But not I.  I wanted the unconventional and I wanted to find, not just a career, but a destiny.  Where this need came from,  I cannot say.  Dad would have said, “From all those novels you read.”  I had to test my notions, all the while expecting a great eureka moment. I examined one possibility after the other. I can count seven distinct career choices.  The problem with this approach is the shortness of life itself and the required time it takes to get established in any field. Although I finally spent thirteen years in the chamber of commerce industry,  I discovered the field too late to advance very far.  Life absolutely demands a certain amount of dues paying.  This is a law of livelihood.

There was also in my class, a friend for a time, who wound up a drunken waste. He attempted a few things and never arrived at any success or any happiness. Kenny was affable enough, but his good spirits masked a troubled mind and soul — as it had his father.  Kenny died young. There was a juvenile delinquent — well at least in those days — in my class.

Chip caroused, laid the girls, drank beer and got thrown in jail. He never went to college, but wound up very wealthy in the real estate business.   The point is, the “successes” all chose and proceeded seemingly without ever questioning or looking back; or perhaps they did, but they gave it up in favor of just shucking setbacks and getting on.

For me career choice was like picking a flavor at Baskin-Robbins and when I finally chose, I tended to long for at least one of the flavors I had eliminated; and yet, had I better observed my actual preference pattern, I was decidedly a man of chocolate taste.  For me the consistent vein of chocolate has always been writing.  While I wrote a lot professionally as a PR person,  I felt the pleasures of writing only as means, not as an end.   Why?  I don’t think I wanted to starve — and that was sensible enough.  However, writng is the only ordeal I cannot leave off. The only pain I love most of the time. I used to read my articles over and over again. And the funny thing is, writing is not a common choice for an INTP.  We INTP’s lack the sensing and feeling normally assigned to artists. I did not when younger appreciate how diverse the writing profession is. I tended to put the novelists and poets on a pedestal.

I once asked a fellow officer aboard my ship, “Tom, why are you staying in the Navy?” I remember his looking over the rail and then back at the stern wake, then forward to the bow wake. He did not look me in the eye, but rather he stared into the water and said, “What else better to do for a history major?”

In contrast there was the gunnery officer, a finance major, a short fellow, prematurely balding who seemed the flibbertigibbet  He walked with mincing step in quick time and giggled a lot. Steve was funny, a stitch actually — a quite lovable little fellow. “You know,” he said, ” I chose the Navy because I couldn’t decide between becoming a stockbroker or a priest.”   Steve and I were good friends. When I left the service, he signed up for five more years of recruiting duty. The next I heard Steve was dead with a mystery surrounding his fate.  No one I looked up would talk to me.

But I’ve said I was a late bloomer, a pursuer of destiny, a destiny I would know when I discovered it. Life has been an odyssey for me. The causes for this elude my total understanding, but I did have a partial insight one day recently when I was reading my own set of those fateful autographs penned into our high school yearbooks.  I could not recall Amanda without her photo. Her message written in the late Fifties took me totally aback. “Good luck to you,” she wrote. “You always thought you were smarter than you are.”

I have pondered this like Poe pondered his raven. Reflection tells me that this sometime acquaintance may have been prescient; or maybe even a would-be friend whom I snubbed in some way. This has been a hard truth of self-knowledge to swallow. Indeed, the explanation  relates to the meaning of “smart.” Obviously this is an intimate matter. Why I share it, even for me, remains mysterious, but I must. It’s an emergent light from the shadows of what other sees in us that we do not.

I was a precocious lad. Ironically I was never among the elite, i.e. consistently an A student. Oh, frequently I rose to an A in physics or algebra — enough that with a lot of application I might have been an engineer.  By some miracle I got a B in trig. There were two or three rabid A getters in my class of forty. I was Beta Club and I held my own, but I never matched Robert, the all-round athlete, lady’s man and scholar. His nerdy brother, a fair jock, was also a genius. Robert always had a cheerleader pressing her cheek against his upper arm. His brother and I? Never.  I was simply afraid of engineering.

I was, however, good in English and heard big or unusual words at home where my stepmother  played the crossword puzzle daily. We played Scrabble together, Judith, Dad and I. She read Time and The New Yorker, completely and regularly. She read the bestsellers on the NYT list. Our coffee table on the breezeway was piled high with eclectic interests: National Geographic, Arizona Highways, Reader’s Digest (for Dad), the journal of the Ohio Historical Society, The Ohio State University Monthly, The National Observer, American Heritage books, Smithsonian magazine plus the latest book of the month.   Oh, and also for Dad a pile of journals from the American Institute of Electrical Engineering.  Even after he became in his own words a “mud magnate” in the clay industry, Dad never forgot his favorite flavor — electrical engineering.  I cannot remember a time when I did not see my stepmother reading or hearing her expostulate from her reading.  Her expostulations always came with her social biases. And as I heard all the time, I was “second generation college.” Judith was also my best friend and two generations removed from me. I still have not fathomed her influence on me.

But I was also the son of the village’s co-manufacturer and I lived in a big house aloof  on a hill where a collie escorted me, morning and afternoons, to and from the school bus. I flaunted those big words on the day in the sixth grade when I asked the music teacher why she never played Moussorgsky in class. “Why do we sing “Polly Wolly Doodle?” I don’t remember how well I pronounced the Russian name. I don’t know how annoying my proclivity was, but analyzing my behavior as an adult, I now believe it was one cause of my isolation or my withdrawal from the circles of friendship.  In effect I was telling the world that I at home listened to symphonies. Because I could not carry a tune and because I was disinclined to join in athletics, I must have exaggerated my verbal skills to compensate. A boy had to have something of his own.

In Monroe Village intelligentsia included schoolteachers, the doctor and ministers who came to their profession by revelation and adult study. I remember two adults who fancied themselves as students of current affairs, a shoe salesman and the barber. I regularly dropped in on the shoe salesman for discussions. The barber and I discussed politics and events of the day. After that there was one English teacher, very reticent about putting her opinions forth, except in the most strict way related to reading, grammar and composition. She had a reputation for being tough and demanding. She read my poem aloud in class and praised my senior paper on the Irish potato famine.  I loved throwing around the term phytophthora infestans instead of “potato blight.”  As far as extra-mural activities of particular interest to me, there were none. There was no debate team and our school paper  cranked out in purple ink was produced by girls in the business courses. I did participate in grade school spelling bees and senior class play. There were 522 citizens in Monroe Village, mostly solid  working people, railroaders, farmers and merchants. For awhile there were a number of productive farms around, topped off by two fruit farms, a few larger dairies, a manufacturer of mining safety equipment and my family’s industry in clay drainage materials.  When the State of Ohio re-routed the highway, Monroe Village died.

Thus, in high school I was mostly bored and overly anxious to board the train for The Ohio State University. My stepmother supported me in a choice to shorten high school by one year. To do so I took tutoring in the summer in junior English, civics and American history. I joined in with the current seniors. Our effort caused two other students to do the same. They were the Yoders of Mennonite background. Susan appeared daily in braided hair and long, print dresses; her brother in bib overalls and flannel shirts. They were polite, laconic, scrubbed, proper students who humbly blew the tops off every test they took. They came to school, studied and went home to chores. Neither of them ever saw a prom. Thus, the three of us advanced, much to the disapproval of many in the community.  Some, I know, believed my early graduation was in terms of social maturity.  Another listless year would have done nothing for my maturity.

I will not say much here about my days at Ohio State, fraternity life and a social experience that both pleased and daunted me. Having been “second generation Buckeye,” gave me confidence to meet the challenges — after all I had two brothers, a stepbrother, a father, mother and stepmother who had preceded me. Besides, I had experienced several football weekends and felt I knew the ropes. And I did, I even dated a Jewish girl and while Ohio State was a veritable cornucopia of new experiences and intellectual awakening, I believe now that an alternative choice might have been better.  Dating the Jewish girl made me feel independent and rebellious.

In one way the decision to matriculate Ohio State early was an alternative to an earlier, briefly considered plan to send me to Western Reserve Academy. In short there was fitful awareness  by myself and in a wiser way by my stepmother that I simply was not getting the particular schooling I needed. My talents lay in English and the liberal arts and they reflected, undervalued,  strong interests — perhaps even inherited persuasions from my real mother, the English major, teacher and ceramic artist of the family. Her father had also been a teacher.  He founded a newspaper.  However, the paternal side dominated as my father was the  engineer, industrialist and model for all things professional. The scientific genius made it clear, almost proudly, that he had flunked French dismally. The notion of intellectual broadening in the arts and humanities was lost on him. I also believe there was a conscious decision not to send me to prep school because I was always to be my stepmother’s “second little boy,” the raising of whom would compensate for her loneliness and sacrifice in leaving the city and taking up her mission in a small, rural, Appalachian village. She was miserable there. In the end there was no prep school. I don’t  know why I didn’t speak up — naivety I suppose,

Regarding the choice of say a Kenyon or Wittenberg for me, Dad said, “Oh, son, I think Ohio State is good enough for you.” And, of course, it certainly was and the problem was resolved — except for the unpopular snobbish behavior of baling out of Monroe Village a little early. Looking back at my own evolution, I do not regret the experience of a large university; however, I often wonder what might have happened for the better if I had experienced the closer attention of a smaller school — especially one which might have channeled me into the humanities earlier. In those days you could still find employment with a humanities major. Unknown to me at the time, I needed a tighter, more disciplined instruction and far fewer choices and interferences. God bless the University, she broadened me.  I came out too liberal for my parent’s liking.

The problem with hindsight is its utter uselessness beyond a mere, momentary comment on a person’s odyssey. The real problem is that the gods, Prometheus in particular, gave us hope instead of foresight.

This conundrum lies at the heart of man’s existential dilemma. In short, there is no reason to believe that my having been an English major and graduate of Kenyon or Wittenberg instead of an international studies major at Ohio State, would have made me one whit more successful or happier than the fate I received — not without a lot of fear, optimism and panic invested — which I ultimately experienced anyway. I might have been more disciplined in humanities study and been successful as a PhD candidate, might have met people who could have shown me how to play the academic game better, might have gained admission to a top graduate school with excellent pedagogy and guidance in the humanities — or not. An exclusive college might have imbued me with the egoistic, vanity it takes to succeed in the arts.

Instead and down the road, I encountered the game of board-executive relations in chamber work.  I just encountered another series of challenges  on a different sea. Once you’ve steamed more than one ocean, the random turbulence and calm is remarkably the same.

I might, for another alternative, have still gone into the Navy and either stayed there or left the service (as I did in life course A). I might have wound up on the USS Iowa and been killed by that magazine that exploded. I might have chosen the infantry instead and wound up dead  during the Tet Offensive. I might have had a long career in the community college system. I might even have been elected county commissioner — then what? I might have … I might have … How absurd!

Instead humans are given hope, not foresight. I happen to believe the poet Shelley in the final stanza of Prometheus Unbound has given us a way to look at all this, perhaps even to sin more boldly: “To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates/From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.” We must love, and bear through the illusions and delusions of our hopes and dreams and we must do it like Sisyphus did, over and over again — creating a new “thing” to contemplate for each ascent up the hill in a hilly, even mountainous  existence. We must apply Hope with the big H, i.e. what Shelley would call Imagination, over and over again. We must live in the full knowledge that Imagination in work, career, living and loving — life itself  — requires a special kind of Hope, formulated from our own best notions, modified as best we can by experience, knowledge and art, but still hopes which are as likely to wreck us on shoals as blithely sail us to happiness.

Born alone, not quite as lonely as the tortoise, we die alone hopefully with luck and again, not quite as lonely as the tortoise dies, but we do die by how we choose to hope, see it dashed and then create another hope, then play out our destiny, even in the smallest of ways. That we are captains of our souls and masters of our fate is pure bunk. Perhaps we control our fate for a day, a college term, for four years in college, but then it ends. Give me a day of control  and I am happy and thankful.

So, very well, ye gods, you have given us hope with all its folly, futility, deception, disappointment, and yes, its promise. Let us hope, then, even in defiance if need be, but give our hope Imagination in all we do. Make it Hope, that’s all. May we examine life. criticize life, but bring something of our own to life.

Steadfast and cautious,

 

D. Taylor Tortoise

 

 

 

 

 

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