The Tortoise Factor has a New Look and Feel.

dreamstime_12228042-50x50-2.jpgBecause I loved the teal look and my little sea tortoise(above) swimming to the light above the sea’s surface, I found it difficult to change my header..  Tortoise is on the beach now and the tones are earthy.  Now, I really like the tracks of other tortoises who have left their trail in the sand and the youngster who is making new tracks.  And this time there are two humans in the scene.  I think the image invites a lot of thought and feeling..  Comments appreciated.  What do you think the humans are discussing?

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken


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Camus, a Romance: Review of Elizabeth Hawes’ Memoir-Biograhy

Hawes concludes her work by saying that through the nine years she passed researching the life of Albert Camus, she felt she had become the friend of a man she never met.  I make no such claim because my knowledge of Camus is minute compared to that of Hawes.  And unlike Hawes, I have not haunted his paths in Paris and Algeria. I have not drunk where he drank nor sat where he surveyed the sea; let alone met his son and daughter. I have not sat in the gravel near his grave. Yet I have felt a peculiar affinity to Camus.  He simply comes to me frequently as an acquaintance whom I would make my friend, too. I have re-read The Stranger several times since I was alone at Meursault’s  age myself.

When I learn from Hawes that Camus drew upon his experience of Melville, again a writer whom I have enjoyed,  I begin to feel a certain circle of influence pressing on me.  The circle widens when I read that Camus had sensitivities for Keats, but then what reader with a heartbeat does not.  In the questions for discussion of Hawes book the editors suggest thinking about Keats’ concept of Negative Capability and again I feel more and more among friends.  Of course, Camus, a fellow tubercular would have been a reader of Keats. In his way Camus is a Romantic, too.

What is harder for me personally to understand is how I, a son of Appalachia and basically the product of upper middle- class, Midwestern influences have been influenced by, I must say it, “existentialist” literature. On the other hand, questions of existence were around long before the bohemian fad.  Camus himself rejected this term and “absurd” as well; therefore I will, too.  I am content with Keats’ preference for a literature that simple does not seek “irritable reaching after fact and fiction” or philosophical labels. That absolves me also from my own attraction to things French.  I have no mitigation nor apology for my respect for la civilisation française.

I suspect that my Francophilia also contributes to my enjoyment of Camus, a Romance (Grove Press, 2009). Hawes is an extraordinary Francophile whose love affair with Camus began as a coed when she pinned a poster of him on her wall in college.  She admits to being a “fan,” but her dedication to and discipline in the biographer’s art impresses me immensely.  Sustaining a professional point of view was paramount and she succeeded. Indeed, her sharing of the memoirist and biographic process makes the book even more interesting.  I passed weeks savoring it as I also tried to empathize with Albert Camus who had never been much more to me than “the stranger.”  And yet, even at the end of his life, he was still a stranger in the world — especially among Parisian intellectuals.  Sartre and others broke his heart over their criticism of The Rebel .  The controversy became virulently personal.  Camus mended, of course, but the scar remained.  Camus condemned capital punishment, terrorism and violence.  His cause for a French Algeria died, as one might say an Algeria died, too.

I was looking for signs of happiness in a so-called “philosopher of despair.”  Hawes found it in his devotion to his sense of responsibility, the most important thing to know about Camus,  she says; and after that his sense for fun.  Hawes chronicles the latter in the man’s love for his women, dogs, friends, Citroëns, the sun and the beach.   Catherine Camus, his daughter, trying to express the intangible in her father,  said of him, “It’s that one feels solidarity in a situation of happiness.” This would account for his passion for the theatre.  And Camus himself said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

His Nobel Prize actually became a burden that required nearly two years of adjustment.  At the end of it, not long before the fatal car accident, he said, “Absence, painful frustration.  But my heart is alive,  my heart is finally alive.  So it was not true that indifference had overcome everything.” In Hawes’ words Camus believed ” it was a duty to be happy [and] not to give in to inevitability, whatever face it took.  Sisyphus speaks here: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”

I will let a photo gallery speak. And you can also visit “Albert Camus Quotations” to your right and down on the Blogroll.

For me,  having read Hawes’ biography, Camus stands even bigger in life.  He was a devout humanist above all.  As for what he does for me, Camus epitomizes what he thought Europe has to offer America — “a useful sense of disquiet.”  In our current relapse into dysfunctional adolescence in the world, American behavior is absurd and a dose of Camus’ conviction taken to heart could do us much good.  He has never been more relevant.

David Milliken

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You’ve Got to Please Yourself

While life in a ravine provides security, the lack of sunshine in these hollers has its drawbacks; so when a day comes with rich, sunlight beaming through the trees, thirty feet above me on the edge of this declivity, I head upslope.  As I  push forth a tune enters my head .  It’s  Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” from back in 1972.  Remember  “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself?”

I say aloud to myself in the woods, “No, you can’t be serious, Big Turtle.  Ricky Nelson, a deep thinker?  Hardly.”

I always figured Nelson must have been singing about some girl friend who jilted him, but not so.  According to Wikipedia, Nelson was lamenting negative criticism about a change in his singing style. That made me think of my own career path which was in crisis around the same year. Thus, I decided — well at least for now anyway — that these lyrics capture the single most important lesson I have ever learned.  A man must learn to please himself and learn it early.

You see, in that same 1972 I was one year away from taking the preliminary examination in PhD school.  I was not optimistic for a positive outcome. Oh, the essay part was fine, but I knew, no matter how much I’d hoped, that my mind simply was not prepared for random questions from the 800-year- old canon of English literature.  I wasn’t a walking encyclopedia. That was for folks who bomb GRE and LSAT tests, the quantitative types. Anyway, I was wondering why I was even at that university, why I hadn’t switched to a school of education, why I hadn’t just become a cub reporter somewhere.  Perhaps I could have found something less esoteric than the historical, finer points of English literature. I was in hell and well behind Ernest Hemingway. Truth is, I liked playing around in aesthetics and literary criticism.

All these years later, lumbering up the steep incline to the meadow, I decided I had not been selfish enough back then, perhaps a better steward of my talents — and that would have included honesty about my real mental skills.   I was not selfish about pleasing myself as the best of the Hippies were doing at the time.  I don’t mean selfish like rejecting the Man or the Establishment.  I was never a druggie  and as a kid I was never one to rule the sandbox or hog the ball.  I mean selfishly manifesting my “rabids” as Dad used to call them.  Acutually I was disgustingly cooperative.

To illustrate, in the Fifties I was enthralled by the anthology, television drama “The Big Story”(1949-1957). Everything from the musical theme from “Ein Heldenleben” to the real life heroism of newspaper reporters kept me attentive to the heroic dramas.  Why didn’t that enthrallment stick with me, set me on fire, convict me of a journalism career?  Well, who can know?  To ask the question now is absurd.  I suspect I didn’t want to start at the bottom.  Anyway, why carry this rumination to the meadow and muck it up with soggy, regurgitated might-have-beens?

“Because . . . because,”  I  said into the woods, “the speculation is worth the effort.  There must be some value in hindsight . . . if not for my life, perhaps for someone else’s?”

You see in the Fifties in the time of “The Big Story” and impressions being made on me, my mother had been dying.  Helen was the mystery parent, the one I  never knew.  She was not there to tell me that her father, my grandfather, had actually started a newspaper.  He had also taught school, been a farmer,  cattle dealer and businessman. I would like to have known him, my maternal grandfather.  The paternal grandfather, the entrepreneurial industrialist, had the stronger sway in family heritage.

I mumbled into the grass at chin level, “I wonder what might have happened in my life if someone had told me I had  a grandfather who was a newspaperman.  But Helen died in 1951, just a  year into the TV drama series,  and I was nine.  And I don’t want to blame anyone for not telling me.  I don’t know, maybe someone did. My dad was busy just dealing with his business and the loss of our Helen. And an electrical engineer wouldn’t have thought of any career coming out of a literary leanings. Hell, I might have been the second James Reston.

A couple years later the big, black Buick four-holer ascended the drive.  The barge bore our new stepmother.  She was in her fifties, lonely, and like my dad bereft of her husband, an eye specialist.  Like Helen, he had died of  cancer.  My father, Helen and Judith had gone to high school together.  Later on Helen and Judith attended the same university.  They were even in the same sorority. Both were liberal arts majors.  “Your mother,” she said once, “was pretty with plump cheeks.  She was kind and gentle, quiet and shy, but slow in many ways. ”  That is the only full sentence I ever heard from anyone, including my father, about my mother.  She has always been a spectre, an enigma in my life. And  yet, I feel her presence now as I recall her picture on my desk.  She was all those things Judith described — a little turtle.  I look at her dimpled picture and all I remember is her once covering me with newspaper on a chilly evening on the porch.  We were moving and the blankets were stuffed in a barrel somewhere.  Oh, and I hear a voice, not a distinctive one, singing “Maresy Doats.”  She has her back to me as I sit at a table.  She is washing dishes and glancing out the window.

So, for certain, I was not born alone like a tortoise buried in the sand on some dark beach. That’s where they come alive, you know,  with not a creature in attendance.  I suppose, when and if they have a long life, its due to hard, lonely survival and luck of health.

After a boy loses a mother without a trace, not to mention a paucity of  anecdotes,  he’s free to invent his own Helen.  This would be a Helen who  had none of the shortcomings, weaknesses and faults of his father and stepmother, himself or any other human contact.  What a nice opportunity afforded the boy! By inference he could create a character  from all the ways his brothers and he himself seem not to match his father and that composite will become his mother, a creature of omissions.  And, of course, whatever pleasing behavior, he doesn;t see in the stepmother will be attributed to Helen.  She will then be a perfect image of someone and an imaginary influence in his life which, if she had survived would have made all things good and happy.

I’ve reached the meadow now.  The sun indeed is out and the day warms. What a blessing to be able to invent your own mother.  A man must please himself and so must a tortoise.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise




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For His Stepmother

No tortoise grows wise by not thinkin’ nuthin’.  Male or female the tortoise who would be wise learns sumthin’ ’bout history, geography, biology and algebra.  Well, I was a nerd in that way — though I still enjoy Art Garfunkel’s “It’s a Wonderful World.”  I dearly enjoyed school, even Mr. Vernon who made us memorize a whole page of key dates in history.  I recall 1453 which marked the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire and in 1066 the Normans came to England. The Brits blew the Spanish armada out of the water in 1588 and the Big Revolution, the French one,  started in 1789, the year the US Constitution was written.  The date for Hammurabi’s Law slips me. Events and dates have always been handy as guideposts for placing the right event in the right century at least.  A man must keep his historical bearings. Since the Emancipation Proclamation happened in 1863, I know that the Founding Fathers did not fight to free the slaves.  These picky things matter and serve as insurance against foot in mouth disease.

On the other hand, one man’s wisdom can be another’s folly.  Proof of wisdom lies in argument, universality and the test of time.  Just because a man lives four decades, it doesn’t make him wise.  Tortoises that old just look wise, but they sure have seen a lot.

My stepmother saw a lot.  She road in a horse and buggy next to  her father, the judge, and she saw the moon shot.  She was privileged to have steamed abroad on both the Queen Mary and the Elizabeth. And she finally boarded an airplane.  Despite the two generations that separated me from this Victorian personage, she was wise in many ways.  At a crisis in my life, she advised, “Trim your wicks, add to your talents and get going.”

I got her letter in 1968 and resented it.  At that point I felt I had been doing just that, trying to find my way.  There she was speaking to me from the distance of two generations. Her good values were Victorian: earnestness, duty, will,  reputation and the Puritan ethic. I appreciate all of them now.  Later on, I became a student of the Victorian man of letters Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy”).  She believed people should stay married, regardless of their misery and regardless of their destiny. It’s not nice to fool with destiny, she would have said. She was not a churchgoer except in Florida where she loved the Sunday ritual of breakfast out, New York Times thrown on the backseat and the glistening Sarasota Bay as she drove the causeway — truly a picturesque place to pray and praise.  Why this rock-ribbed Republican loved the NYT, I could never quite understand.  Robert Taft, the GOP, Standard Oil and GM could absolutely do no wrong.

In her estimation I was a dilly-dallier, especially as a professional student.  She didn’t know that I knew and appreciated the sacrifice of her generation, especially my father’s.  They made the human potential movement possible.  They created the world depicted in “The Graduate.”  I totally identified with Benjamin Braddock. As a Pre-Boomer I never had to worry about a material thing.  Vocationally speaking, I was a shopper.  I don’t know why we see twenty-somethings as strange these days — except for the abysmal economy they endure.  The ritual is ancient.  Whether prescribed by elders or self-inflicted by the young, we (or at least many of us) must go through it.  Searchers are a type. If we don’t do it when we’re twenty-something, we’re likely to do it when we’re forty something or maybe at both times — or more.  The red convertible has many guises and sneaks into the driveway unannounced. I’ve got to hand it to the Victorians.  They knew how to control their libido — or did they just express it in imperialism.  See Freud.

But she was right  in a sense.  What if a man’s destiny is to dilly-dally for God only knows what reason.  Perhaps, like Ulysses, some can only see their “career” through a rear view mirror when they return into Penelope’s arms and look back to see where they have been.  Well, Mom, there was a pattern. There were themes. I slayed a beast or two — nothing big, mind you.  I can see them now. I hope you’re somewhere where you can, too.  I’d like that.

Keep on truckin’,

The Tortoise

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Being and Becoming

Now this subject can become deep and/or hairy, but I’m not going that far. I’ve read my Sartre who knew about being and nothingness.  Camus was a popular, celebrated Algerian Existentialist, writer and playwright.  I could grasp Camus at least and I thought it would be cool to be like him, but then I was only a college sophomore at the time and thought it would be groovy to be a French poet, too.  Sophomores are invincible. Camus’ The Stranger remains high on my list of the greatest books ever written.  Albert Camus died in an auto crash. That didn’t seem so cool.

I am only a tortoise and like all animals, The Tortoise knows that she is what she is. We’re like trees in that sense.  There’s a final form into which we grow, have our being and then depart — well, not really.  Being organic, we ultimately contribute to the next round of  being, be it animal or vegetable.  We’re all content with that, we Chelonians — probably because we do not know discontent.  In a way we do.  We just can’t utter a  word on the feeling.

But you Homo Sapiens, you do have your burdens. You’re saddled with intellect, knowledge, hopefully wisdom, hope, expectation, drive, folly et cetera. If you’re Camus you believe in human solidarity and you act like it.  There’s no escape from action. A Camusian must choose to act and suicide is not one of the choices. Like my species you and Camus need food and shelter, but you also need skivvies, bras, tuxedoes, uniforms, et cetera. For some of you these things must be fashionable and alluring, not just serviceable. You get my drift.  I needn’t go on.

Some want to be something else, hence the absurdity of  my being a French poet.  A tortoise cannot become a gazelle, however much she longs for grace and swiftness.  You’re supposed to learn this stuff in fables and fairy tales.  The point is that Broderick Crawford couldn’t have won a handsome contest over Tab Hunter.  Younger folks won’t get that.  It’s the beauty and beast thing. Broderick Crawford was a fine man and played a great highway patrolman.  Now, there’s a way humans can salve their discontent.  You can act, well, some are better than others.

You know what I think?  I think you’re all growing into some final form that’s programmed in your eggs as altered by your sperm.  You’re not going to be strong as an oak, well, except as a metaphor.  So you’re not so different or superior to a tortoise.  Someday each of you will look back, see your career and say “Aw nuts!” or “Not so bad, considering.”

Anyway, I have to go. I promised the wife a long ride in the old Studebaker.

The Tortoise


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“Don’t Force Things, Son”

After  difficulty trying too hard to write a scintillating blog,  I took a break and clawed out  from under my rock. Then I resumed  a backyard edging project between our patio  and yard.  Staring at the stone retaining wall,  I  recalled “Snake,” a poem by D. H. Lawrence.  The narrator encounters a reptile slithering from his earth-wall.  Eventually the narrator throws a pitcher at the creature and suffers remorse over his mindless pettiness.  This territory is all familiar to me, especially the human vilification of my close relative; nevertheless I do feel  blessed that humans have never reviled me as they have the snake.  I’m not a venomous threat after all. Perhaps I am just cuter.

As I  shoved my dull  edging tool into the hard clay where grass  had encroached on concrete paving brick,  basket-woven, three abreast. I soon felt the same old tug to drop what I was doing at the moment in favor of something different.  Boredom, the sin Kierkegaard clarified for me, was creeping upon me. I thought of other things I might be doing, especially the writing I’d left in my cellar cave; and yet truly there was no better break than digging around in the shrubbery bed — or more productive. Boredom had plagued my career for years,  a lingering,  chronic childish habit. I paused and switched to scraping the thin layer of sod from the bricks.  I paused again and looked along the  line that was beginning to redefine patio, wall and graveled shrubbery bed.  My yard work pursued an end. I saw the ultimate end which would give me pleasure in the end — having unearthed the gray pavers that traced a serpentine path across the yard. Red-blooming Japanese quince once more contrasted with gray brick and brown sandstone in the wall.   In my mind’s eye I could see the final result  and that sufficed. There was really nothing else I wanted to do more.  When I paid attention to a vision of attainment,  I started enjoying myself.  Besides, patience is an effort, not a state.

From this and the snake my thoughts meandered to something Dad always told me.  “Don’t force things, son.”  My father, the electrical engineer, had infinite patience.  Oh, he could display quite impressive anger, but Dad perfectly controlled details as in his beautiful cursive script and block printing. I saw a sheet of his formulas once — a masterpiece.  What Dad had in mind, being the engineer and a tinkerer too, was simply knowing that if you tear something apart, the parts including replacements will fit again.  I had recently dismantled an old four-cycle engine.  It lay in parts for months until I finally trashed it.  “Well, Dad, I’d have welcomed a little help, you know. I might even have become an engineer.  Who knows?”

I never practiced hour after hour at pitching a basefall or swinging a bat.  Even the most casual observer knows I couldn’t dribble a basketball and chew gum at the same time.   I loved to march, though, and pumping a bike up Appalachian hills. Time has marched on into my late, late blooming.

What I practiced  best was reading, writing and rumination.   Folks always liked my letters and some even answered.   Careerwise I made a mistake though — just one, you know.  I believed that having an interest in writing  and thinking would one day make me a university professor with all its tenured prestige.  How we do cherish our face book!  Ah, but I ignored the prophecy of the Oracle at ETS (Educational Testing Service).  I ignored the profound truth of  my insufficient quantitative retention.  I thought I could just hold my pencil tighter.  The LSAT also corroborated this curse from the gods.  “Force or no force, Dad, sometimes things make a hard fit.”

So I forced things.  In spite of many good alternatives like the college of education or journalism I enrolled in a less discriminating PhD school.  Unfortunately  I didn’t know that my maternal grandfather had started a newspaper.  Knowing that might have  squelched a Fifties shibboleth that journalists are a bunch of pinko liberals.  Grandfather was a Democrat, however.   In any case he or David Brooks could have been my hero as well as anyone else — not to imply their quantitative retention was deficient. I was not an early steward of my own gut feelings — too, too influenced by the “right” thing to do and a bag of outmoded Victorian precepts.

And how late can a man bloom?  I’ll keep you posted.  You see, the books and my buddies in those books at Nameless U are still my friends and counselors. Semper Fi. In the end and notwithstanding the Oracle at ETS,  I have discovered how rewarding it can be to create something, perhaps a seminar paper, an event, a program, even a garden pathway — if not original then at least innovative for a particular  place and time.  And that in a sketchy way is how an English major,  grad school dropout and PR man found his way  — nothing like ballyhoo, a good event and a good poem, eh?  Eventually I discovered that my masters from Idaho State and insightful Professor Larry Rice,  had given me all the research skills I needed. After all, as John Barth’s Goat-Boy discovered. “The university is a collection of books.”  Nothing has ever interfered with my love of books.

Happy reading,

The Tortoise




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