Thursday, April 30, 2009

Merchants of Light

I'm in Dumas, Texas, at the Window on the Plains Museum, and I'm thinking about Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis, written in England in 1623. It is a resolutely utopian work of thought and political philosophy, and I'm struck by the role of the "Merchants of Light" -- individuals whose job it is to traverse the world for intellectual treasures and to bring them back to share, and to create repositories of knowledge and learning.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009


Podcast: Biggles Murply.
Winston, the chubby miniature pug, had eaten all the snacks in his dish. Bliggles Murply, the pug with floppy ears, still had kibbles and bits. So, Winston decided to eat them while Bliggles Murply was not looking.

Winston ate things so that the other dogs could not. He would eat their food even when he was not hungry and when he knew it would make them angry. Winston was not afraid of the other dogs’ reactions.

Perhaps Winston should have been afraid, though. Perhaps he should not have eaten Bliggles Murply’s food.

Bliggles Murply was magical.

Bliggles could read dogs’ minds. It was partly because he was a dog himself, and it was partly because he had sneaked into the kitchen when Great-Aunt Erlitza was brewing a potion and he lapped it all up while it was cooling in a bowl on the countertop.

It was supposed to make a person invisible, but, like all of Great-Aunt Erlitza’s potions, it did not work as intended. Instead of making bodies invisible, it made thoughts visible – but only to the person or the dog who happened to drink the potion.

“What’s mine is MINE!” thought Winston. For Bliggles Murply, Winston’s thoughts were like a bright green neon sign.

“You are a greedy little thing, aren’t you?” muttered Bliggles Murply.

Winston looked at Bliggles Murply. He snuffled, snorted, and drooled a bit as he smiled.

“What’s mine is MINE!” yapped Winston.He trotted over to Bliggles Murply’s blanket. Then he sat right down on top of it.

“Just saying it is yours does not make it yours. You are sitting on my blanket,” said Bliggles. “I’m going to tell Little Anna.”

“So what,” said Bliggles. “Little Anna is mine, too.”

“Well. I will fix that!” thought Bliggles Murply. Winston would learn the error of his selfish ways.

While Bliggles Murply thought about what he would do to teach him a lesson, Winston ran upstairs to Little Anna’s bedroom, scurried under her bed, and pulled out her left shoe. Winston chewed on it, the corner of his lip turning up in a big, fat smile,

In the meantime, Bliggles Murply decided that he would he would hide Winston’s dog dish. That would teach him that he could not eat everything in sight.

Winston ran down the stairs, Little Anna’s chewed shoe in his mouth.

“What is mine is MINE! Little Anna’s shoe is mine! She is mine!”

Bliggles Murply sat down, scratched his ear, and shook his neck until the dog tags rattled against the buckle of his collar. He was frustrated. Didn’t Winston realize that every cat and dog that met Little Anna thought the same thing? Everyone thought that Little Anna belonged to them, and them alone.

“If I had a dime for every dog, cat, rat, or human being who thought that they owned something just because they wanted it, I’d be rich,” thought Bliggles.

Time to teach Winston his lesson.

“I ate your food,” said Bliggles Murply to Winston.

To his surprise, Winston did not care. Instead, he started gnawing on the corner of the heel of the shoe.

“Hehe – you thought that you could take Little Anna away from me by stealing my dog dish. You are wrong. You were busy stealing the little prize. In the meantime, I grabbed the bigger prize. I have Little Anna’s shoe.”

“What kind of prize is that?” asked Bliggles Murply. “It will just make Miss Anna angry with you!”

“Which is bad? I don’t think so,” said Winston. “After all, she will pay attention to me. In fact, she won’t pay attention to anyone else while she is trying to teach me new tricks.”

“You mean tricks like sit and shake hands? You already know how to do that,” said Bliggles Murply.

“She doesn’t know that. She will think that she’s taught me all sorts of things. She will love me. I will own her.”

“Oh.” Bliggles Murply did not know what to think. Obviously, Winston was right.

“I own her” glowed in green neon over Winston’s head. Bliggles Murply growled low in his throat.

Winston snorted and smacked as he returned to chewing Little Anna’s shoe.

Bliggles Murply wondered: Should he chew up Little Anna’s other shoe? Should he start a fight with the cats? Should he make a mess in the kitchen?

No. It was too much work.

So. Bliggles Murply slunk off to his dog bed. Then he tried his best to ignore the neon green thoughts flashing over Winston’s head.

He hoped Great-Aunt Erlitza’s potion would wear off soon. People’s thoughts were too hard and conflicting to ever really get a clear picture.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Miss Boots pranced around the yard. Fats Furblurglurz, the bully cat, was sneaking through the flowerbed. There was something about Miss Boots that made him angry. He did not like her perky little happy self.

He wanted to be her friend, but he did not know how to be her friend. All he knew how to do was to scratch and claw.

Fats Furblurglurz was big and awkward, and he did not have a smooth, glossy coat. His fur was rumpled, and there were small bald spots from where he had gotten into fights, and where he had rubbed the fur completely off from worrying himself when he felt especially angry. Things were worse after his mother’s leg was broken by a butcher who did not like her stealing sausages for her kittens. Fats felt angry all the time.

It felt good to be a bully. He liked the idea of scaring little animals who were small and weak.

Because Fats Furblurglurz was big and fat and loud, he was not very good at being sneaky. Miss Boots spotted him right away as he crashed through Aunt Erlitza’s bright red zinnias.

“I see you, Fats Furblurglurz!” meowed Miss Boots. “Stay away from the flowers! You are crushing them, and I know someone who will be very angry.”

“Is that right? Making someone angry makes me happy. In fact, it’s the only thing that makes me happy any more.”

Miss Boots leapt lightly to the top of the fence. She was very graceful. Her elegance made Fats Furblurglurz even angrier. She groomed herself daintily as she watched Fats continue walking through the flowers.

“You are a pretty thing, aren’t you?” snarled Fats. He wanted to bite Miss Boots right on her soft, white paw.

The sound of footsteps on the flagstones made Fats Furblurglurz aware that someone was approaching. Miss Boots could see it was Little Anna. She sat up very straight, waved her tail in the air, and meowed. “Hello, Miss Anna. Nice day for a walk!”

“Flatterer! Butt kisser!” snarled Fats Furblurglurz. “Stop trying to be her favorite cat! Let me have a chance!”

He said it under his breath, so no one heard it except for Miss Boots. Miss Boots glanced down and then smiled even more brightly.

“Little Anna, I love the skirt you are wearing. What a nice idea! Stars, flowers, and rainbows, with a matching rainbow scarf!”

It was more than Fats Furblurglurz could stand. He tried to leap onto the fence so he could bite and scratch Miss Boots, but he was too fat. He fell back into the garden, but instead of falling into the soft zinnias, he smashed into the rose bushes, which were full of thorns.

“Eeee yow!!! Ow ow ow – aeeiiii!” howled Fats Furblurglurz in pain.

Little Anna heard the fat cat cry in pain. She had a very soft heart and it made her feel very sad to hear him. She ran to the rose bush, where Fats Furblurglurz was attempting to pull thorns out of his tummy. A pink rose perched on the side of his left ear, and a stem of roses draped over his shoulder like a necklace.

“Oh you poor, poor cat. Oh my, you’re stuck with thorns." She lifted him delicately after carefully extracting the thorns. Fats Furblurglurz looked up at her with warm, grateful eyes.

“My, you are a very heavy cat, aren’t you?” Little Anna grunted as she tried to hoist him onto her shoulder like a baby.

Miss Boots looked down with dismay.

“Little Anna! You know, that fat cat tried to attack me,” she said fussily. Her voice was snippy with frustration. She crossed her paws in front of her and waved her tail.

“Did you ever try to be his friend?” asked Little Anna.

“Why no! Of course not! Fats Furblurglurz is fat. He is different. He does not have a pretty, smooth coat.”

Little Anna looked very sad.

“Miss Boots, you are a very pretty cat. Are you just as pretty inside?” asked Little Anna.

“Yes, I am,” said Miss Boots.

“I am glad you think so,” said Little Anna. “You are lucky. So, I am going to invite Mr. Furblurglurz for lunch.”

Miss Boots did not know what to say.

Little Anna held Fats Furblurglurz on her shoulder. She patted Fats’ rough fur. For the first time in a long time, Fats Furblurglurz did not feel angry. Instead, he began to purr.

Good Deeds Society: information about purchasing the book.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


The coffee shop where Tinguely had decided to get a venti decaf americano with 4 packets of Splenda and a solid splash of half-and-half was in a boutique-crammed shopping center adjoining the city's most exclusive hospital, a compact high-rise complex of wings and new additions dedicated to specialties unique to a chunk of territory encompassing northeast Oklahoma, southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, and northwest Arkansas. It was not a quiet place. Med-evac helicopters landed regularly on the roof. The persistent chunk-chop-chop-chunk of blades cut large, anxious swathes of air.


It was New Year's Eve, and Tinguely was trying to finish a report her dad was waiting on. Her small laptop was perched in front of her.

She was having a hard time concentrating. She asked herself questions she really would prefer not to. Did blood drip from the door of the helicopter? Who paid for the medivac flight when the insurance would not? Why did all BlackBerry text messages have the same tone, causing everyone to look to their BlackBerry at each "booiiingoing"?

Tinguely took out a lime-green leather-bound notebook from her peach-toned leather tote bag and made a few notes on the smooth cream paper. Writing in her lizard green notebook was an extended metaphor for the quest to think oneself capable of responding to wisdom.

The idea that wisdom might exist at all in the here and now gave her pause. Could it? She preferred the blissed-out state of non-wisdom, non-thought. The image of lights encircling and imparting energy and joy. That was easier. It just was.

But, she had to write. The dull ache in her heart was pushing her to do that.

** I'm here -- in the intersection of the fight for life and the fight for loyal customers. All predicated on the idea that individual life actually matters.

Does the individual matter? At times, Tinguely sincerely doubted it. Her own individuality was problematic. She knew her role in life was to serve. Was it to serve her her fellow man? Her aging parents? The people she might meet who needed a cheerleader? They needed lifting up, or they needed the kind of structured interaction that caused them to think, to analyze, to create things that lived in the world. It was about making something you could perceive into something you could touch, right?

Now, the paradox came in when she knew she had to serve, but the individual she had to serve was inevitably part of a group.

Either way, Tinguely envisioned herself as a shiny, colorful hot air balloon. She did not think of herself in the role of a med-evac helicopter, as one hovered overhead. Why not? In a word, because she couldn't.

In her life, she lifted up people who were already healthy. They saw the rainbow silks, the heaving balloony body, panting to lift off the surface of the earth, and they smelled the fresh air, felt the cool air stir the hairs on their arms, and they simply could not get on board fast enough.

The balloon really did not take them anywhere, and it did not actually give them a view of the earth they did not already know. They felt, however, heightened senses of themselves. They loved looking out from the basket, listening to the "whoosh" of hot air, and listening to yard dogs bark frantically as they passed over neighborhood homes.

Later, Tinguely's balloon riders bounded across the grass to the parking lot, eager to share their experience. Tinguely loved seeing the satisfaction on their faces, their renewed sense of self, the restored sense of beauty and order in the world.

Yup, that's what I can do, thought Tinguely. That's what my "job" is -- at least in a purely existential sense, she thought. Instead of feeling satisfaction, Tinguely felt tired. Who cared about lifting her up? Who would lift Tinguely up?

Inevitably, it was Tiinguely who watched the colorful silk collapse to the grass, and then slowly scooped up the soft parachute silk.

Who fired the flames that would heat the air inside her heart and set her soaring?

No one. Everyone.

The question was almost not worth answering. Tinguely did not actually own hot air balloons. This was purely metaphorical. But, the role certainly fit Tinguely's public self.

Her private self was a different story altogether. She was no cheerleader, or pilot of a glorious hot air balloon. If anything, she had a small cave hidden away in a snaky, thorny arroyo, where she lit candles at night and prayed alone as she watched the stars and the moon move across the sky. She was alone in her cave. In fact, Tinguely pushed away anyone who tried to share her tight quarters. She accused them of being invasive, controlling, pushy. Or, she rationed the pleasure of their company in order to not want it too much. She did not want to crave what she could not have.

The cave was metaphorical as well. In reality, Tinguely was working for her dad. She was trying to focus on the report, but the med-evac helicopters distracted her. The sound made her tremble.

And here it was again. A helicopter hovered overhead. The sound was almost deafening. Tears rose in Tinguely's eyes, and she turned to the corner so she could discreetly cross herself, even though she was not Catholic. Somewhere overhead, someone was fighting for something they couldn't have; and they were craving what could never be.

They wanted to be happy, healthy, autonomous, desired / desirable, and, well, alive -- forever. The energy of the world compelled them to long for and crave what they could not have. Why? Continuance and continuity were the frightening obligations consciousness pushed down into humans -- as a race -- as a clutch of dreamy-eyed tribe-makers.

She expressed her thoughts to her dad. It was a quick call on her BlackBerry. It was not as reassuring as she had hoped. "Don't worry, Tinguely. You're only 30. When you're 45 or 55 and still have these thoughts and these patterns, you should start worrying. Right now -- well -- nothing to worry about. You just haven't met Mr. Right."

"Thanks, Dad. Yes. You're probably right," she said.

"Yes. Just keep your eyes on the prize."

"And what's that?" asked Tinguely.

"It's a super-giant oil field," he said. "You'll be rich. I have found one. The new methods are working. Just get the leases, line up the drilling contract, and we'll get started," said her dad.

"But, the price of oil is still in freefall. The price has declined 70 percent in 7 months."

"Think long run," said her Dad.


Another helicopter. Tinguely had to hang up. The noise was too loud. She thought about leaving and going back to where she was staying. There was a time when traveling would have pulled her out of her mood. That time was long in the past, though.

She was not Muslim, but she appreciated Ramadan. Perhaps her problem was that she had not gone through the purifying self-control of Ramadan -- the prayer, the self-abnegation, the fasting, the refusal to feast on food, bad thoughts, bad intentions -- for 28 days.


Someone's BlackBerry was bleating. She glanced down at hers, even though she had turned hers off. She glanced at the floor. A wooden stir stick, a crumpled napkin, and a pricetag from the American Outfitter store next door clung to the space between the tile and the wall. X-Large. $34.50. A tiny ziplock bag containing a white pearl button. Clearly a shirt. A dress shirt. For a man? For a woman? A man was talking loudly into his cell phone. Tinguely thought about leaving before another helicopter flew overhead.

Boinnggoiing. Bleet!

Another BlackBerry from another table across the way. The messengers were all the same. The BlackBerry boinngoinngs were identical. The messages, though, would be different.

Repeating the thought, Tinguely scribbled into her notebook:

**The messenger is always the same. The message is always different. Even if the words are the same, the message is unique. Why? The context, the sender, the recipient, and the medium are all unique.”

Tinguely told her dad she often preferred the messenger (the BlackBerry, the emissary) to the actual communication.

"The messenger is service-oriented," she explained in her journal.

Would anyone ever read her words? She doubted it. She had lost track of how many journals she had left behind at exotic roast coffee bars and Whole Foods salad-by-the-pound shops.

Perhaps she'd go and drive by the river, listen to AM Talk Radio. The message was always the same, but in this case, the context and the receiver were always different. Sure, she was the same person, but the rant of the host would be mediated by the glorious glow of lights, the longing to share, and the bitter realization that she could not really share her thoughts with anyone. First, they may not be available. Second, they might twist her openness and desire to talk to play to their own agenda.

It was not that everyone had to have her best interests at heart, nor did they have to be in the service of her whims. However, in a world of equilibrium and balance, human invention and whole-heartedness, well, perhaps there might be a sweetness, a warmth of give and take. She could at least hope for that, right?

These thoughts stung. The feelings they elicited were needle-sharp, sad. Tinguely looked up at the hospital, toward the helipad. She envied the doctors and the nurses. Their activities were so engrossing, they probably did not have time to entertain painful thoughts. Further, the adrenaline surges would keep them in a zone...

**What is it like to have an all-absorbing job -- like, say, being a med-evac nurse or helicopter pilot? Their job was to lift people up. They lifted them to, they hoped, a very dramatic change -- snatching them from the bowels of certain death. It must be quite a rush to be lifted up by one's job as one lifts others up. When you leave the cocoon of your job (the helicopter, the emergency room, the emergency situation), how does the "real world" feel? Is it flat? Is it dreadfully open and empty? Does it leave you with a flatness, a lack of affect? Is it what occurs when all the adrenaline, endorphine, and other stimulating chemicals your body manufacturers have been used up?

It was New Year's Eve, and Tinguely renewed her attempts to motivate herself and finish the report her dad was waiting on.

It had been a sad, empty day. Now the day was almost over. Twilight crouched around the corner, helicopter blades made their chunky chopping sounds as they cut through the 20th-floor air to the helipad.

It was good to be alive, but conditions had been far from ideal for most people.

Tinguely realized, with a rather cottony thud, that everyone she knew would say "good riddance" to the year. The year had not been bad for her, just filled with rather unexpected and sometimes unwanted changes.

Booingoiing. Someone's BlackBerry went off. It was Tinguely's this time. She did not answer.

It had gotten to the point she did not like surprises. And, well, her BlackBerry was no helicopter. It was no soft, billowing hot air balloon. It would not lift her up. Or, well, more likely, it probably would not lift her up. Quite the contrary. It could crash her to earth. Catapult her into her cave. Better not to answer.