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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Friendship

Text:     Dear Friend: —  If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I would never think again of trifles in relation to thy comings and goings.  I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed;  yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment.  Thine ever or never.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

In a crass, profane age of advanced species endangerment, global warming, 16% real unemployment and constant threat of economic collapse worldwide, surety is indeed a rare and precious commodity. Paralyzed leadership and dysfunctional government clouds our hope even more.    My best friend tells me this quotation will be unfathomed by at least 90% of the American public; alas, she may be correct — judging from our current cultural mess.  Nineteenth-century prose and syntax puts us off and tries our patience in the digital age.  And yet, who doesn’t still need a friend.

In his essay Emerson cautions the reader that “these fine pains” in regard to friendship are for curiosity, not for life. We should not indulge these high-minded notions lest we “weave cobwebs and not cloth.”  Emerson was an idealist but he knew the place of idealism:  — examining the conduct of life against an ideal. In the Twentieth Century JFK”s New Frontier and Johnson’s War on Poverty come to mind as examples of idealism’s limits. Another contrast is the inspiring rhetoric of JFK contrasted to the plain-spoken realism of Harry Truman.  We are sadly lacking in both these days.

Assuming that sure people make sure leaders, I want surety not only in my leaders but in my friends.  When I see a potential friend approaching, I am immediately cautious, guarded, ready at any moment to withdraw my head back under my shell.  However, I also want to stick my neck out, take a risk with a new acquaintance in the hope that some bond may be built between us. I want surety in my friend

I do not  claim to be all wise. I try not to be dogmatic despite apparent evidence that may challenge my set beliefs. I often fail in this.  My beliefs do not go willingly into doubt and then into renaissance.  As a true liberal I have a little dogma myself, but I am not worthy of liberal mindedness if I don’t try to know my own prejudices.  I’ve got blind spots in my vision as do all men and women.  I must keep an open mind, for example that libertarians and conservatives can be right.  I must at least entertain the possibility that Michelle Bachman can harbor a thought worth considering.  And she and anyone, politician or not, must have the same openness to me — if America is to succeed.  I expect a friend to listen.

Regarding “perfect intelligence” of another, I don’t possess it. I have no radar or sonar that can reveal the truth to me about a potential friend approaching me.  Late at night in the middle of the Pacific when my ship steamed alone in unlimited acres of water, we came across  other ships.  Depending upon whether the blip “closed” us or seemed intent on its own course, we in the radar shack were more or less curious.  At some point we could use  IFF or identification friend or foe.  If the contact responded with the correct code, we were assured of a bogey and not a skunk.   Human beings apply the same technique when they take fine pains.  Trifles indeed can be excellent warnings if they are confirmed.   The more trifling thoughts we can dismiss regarding another, the greater the potential of safe passage or encounter in the darkness. Without this process, we are naive sitting ducks. We must presume in others the same intelligent facility of us.  Thus begins the delicious torment.  The mutual sniffing begins.

Unfortunately we often  refuse even to sniff around, to check each other out, to even participate in trying to understand another person and his opinion.  It is quite unnatural to behave this way.  Animals instiinctively perform this ritual that ends up in coitus, play or battle.

We no longer quite understand genius as the spirit of a person or a place.  We think of it as bright IQ.  Nothing can be more unfathomable to one person than the spirit, largely intangible and powerful, of another.  Truthfully we do not fully understand our own spirit, our own genius, but it remains our essence.  The best we can do with the genius of a friend is to love it, to befriend it without question.  Of course, we must have decided it is a genius worth respecting.  More often than not,  liking a friend will be non-rational if not irrational.

All of this goes on whether we have a personal agenda or not.  So when Emerson says, “Thine ever or never,” he means “I apprehend your genius and I determine that it is good and at least compatible with my own which you must also see in me.  When we do this we cease to make of our friendship “a texture of wine and dreams.”  Instead we weave “the tough fibre of the human heart.”  And he adds, “The laws of friendship are austere and eternal.”

“Twitting” and “friending” on the Internet are nothing more than the sniffing when two dogs meet — assuming we don’t leap into a bad deal.  Children and young kids are incredibly vulnerable to predators because they don’t understand the virtues of coyness, camouflage, watching the back trail, reserve. playing hard to get, checking things out, even those trifling thoughts.

Steadfast and cautious,

 

David Milliken

 

 

 

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Would Ralph Waldo Emerson Have “Friended” Face Book?

No. And he would have known the transitive verb “befriend.”

Emerson in his Transcendental, philosophical way regarded friendship as sacred — in similar esteem with love in St. Paul’s I Corinthians 13. Emerson would not have trifled with Face book and other abominations. “I hate,” Emerson said, “the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances.” And so do I.

The faceless Face book Team and 600 million aficionados of Face book would not agree and they would scoff at such high-mindedness. Perhaps they would say what is really meant by “friend” is contact, target or even better, mark. Very well, then use these words. I suppose that early on there might have been some credence given to real friendship or at least genuine acquaintance when the purpose of this monolithic engine was to unite groups of people in order to share experiences, opinions and ideas in some tacit personal way. That was before the mania of contacting expanded unto the thirteenth cousin and the infinite generations of contacts. Face book does foment revolutions which requires revolutionary camaraderie.

Before I dropped out of the fad, my circle of people whom I barely new personally came to thirty. Some of them were good and fine acquaintances, none intimate. Eventually the White House got onto my list. In my cyber stumbling I must have authorized a feed. A couple of businesses were continuing to update me. I like the White House and I like the particular businesses and I will go to them when my mower needs care and I need insurance. Until then I don’t need to know about the Toro Open. However, I truly don’t know what to do with the plethora of photos of people gathered round picnic tables, some with obvious physical endowments clutching thermos bottles or swinging a stein in some California bar. Whatever am I to do with an unknown someone waving from the top of the boarding ladder of a Delta jet. Family albums are for families. Period. There seems to be no remote awareness of ecology in cyberspace. Don’t all those pixels take up room in cyberspace? Is there no end to expanding band width? And why can one only hide and not delete posts from his Wall? Tidiness is next to godliness except on the Face book Wall.

I would be posting this on Face book, if I still had my account there. Actually, I still do, but it is inaccessible now, so the world will miss me grinning and waving from out of a social event absolutely no one could care about. I’ve been hacked, the Face book Team told me. Ah, so there are enemies on Face book. Of course, the friendly folks on the Team are so anonymous and totally hidden from the slightest accountability that I could not send back a message. I did receive a reset code, twice, which turned out to be invalid. I sent disgusted messages to the robot anyway after I despaired of getting any help from anyone anywhere — after I had just managed the day before to post my mug on my profile. Pf-ft. My handsome face is hidden. I will never reach the celebrity for which I am destined. Alas and damn, I am only one speck among 500 million. Now, I would sooner talk to the Borg even though I know resistance is futile. I also know what one gets is what he pays for. So I can’t expect much.

In his famous essay Emerson suggests a possible letter that a man might write to all candidates for his friendship. It reads::

Dear Friend: —

If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I should never think again of trifles in relation to thy comings and goings. I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever, or never.

Emerson goes on to say that this letter works for intellectual bemusement and distinctly not in the real world of real people. To apply its austerity to real people will make a person very, very lonely, I think; and that’s where love takes over. Nevertheless, I found Face book a very, very dangerous and alien place.

Never again, Face book.

Cautious and steadfast,

The Tortoise

 

 

 

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