Amoeba’s Lorica: Me-Ning

The old white sage, grizzled and frizzled in his gray hooded robe, sat cross-legged in front of the mouth of his cave, high above the treeline in the mountains, looking every bit like the stereotypical old white sage sitting cross-legged in front of his mountain cave.

He watched while the much younger man, looking every bit like the stereotypical much younger man climbing to the summit of the mountain to seek wisdom and enlightenment, strode, and occasionally clambered, up the last few hundred feet of the ascent. A thin green streak crossed the sage’s vision, as he remembered when he was young and strong enough to make that ascent that easily. Then he remembered how uneasy his mind was when he was that age, and acknowledged, for the thousandth time, that he was unwilling to make the trade.

The climber’s head popped over the edge of the ledge. His eyes met those of the sage. The sage braced himself for the inevitable formula. O great wise Guru …

Instead, the climber said “Hi.”

The sage nodded, slightly startled but showing nothing.

The climber hauled the rest of himself over the ledge, stood, swaying slightly (that last clamber had been harder than it looked) and staring down at the personage he’d come to see. “I suppose the first order of business is to find out if you speak English.”

I suppose that the answer will depend on what you define as English. After all, Bernard Shaw did, apparently, speak of two peoples irredeemably separated by a common language. Would not a websearch have given you your answer?”

“By the time I thought of it, I was out of cell range. Anyway, we seem to understand each other well enough.”

“Most of those who come here have said so when they arrived. Far fewer, when they left. Please sit down, lest you sway once too often and find yourself back down at the bottom of the mountain. I would not have you discover that you’ve wasted your time quite so soon, or in that particular way. Among other things, it would be painful. Also, my neck would appreciate your courtesy. Speaking of pain.”

The young man looked about him, to make sure that the place he chose to sit was not primarily occupied by empty space. Then, he did sit, facing the sage, who radiated far more serenity than when he was having to crane his neck to retain eye contact with his visitor. For a time, neither spoke; the sage suddenly realized that his visitor was still trying to catch his breath. Some more of the greenness went away. Sensing his advantage, the sage spoke first.

“So, young man, you are here to ask me about the meaning of life?”

“Yes. I am the stereotypical young man climbing to the stereotypical mountaintop to ask the stereotypical question of the stereotypical wise mountaintop guru. And please, please don’t tell me that the answer is 42. Or 17. Those answers are so last century.”

“Douglas Adams is long dead. I am not. My answer, though, is not much longer than his, and is not intended to be humorously futile. It is this: “Serve others.

The young man considered this in silence, and as he considered, his face registered progressively deeper disappointment. The sage observed this and, at length, challenged, “You do not like this answer?”

“I was hoping for something a little more, ah, personally fulfilling.”

“Then you have indeed wasted your time coming here.” The sage’s serene tone was tinged with a ‘for the thousandth time this week’ hue of frustration and resignation. “You do not seek the meaning of life, you seek the ME-ning of life. You seek to achieve the gratification of your own desires, while escaping the pain, and the consequences, of trampling on the desires, if not the persons, of others while you do so. This quest is indeed futile. It cannot be accomplished. Even if you manage to silence your own qualms, you cannot forever silence the mounting complaints, never mind the revolts, the revenge, of others.

“And why would you risk all that to amass things for yourself without regard to serving others? Sooner or later, you will die. As will I, as will each one of us. And when you die, you will cease. And all those things you have amassed will mean nothing to you, and can mean nothing to you. Because you are no more. All the mythologies of the world, including those three Middle Eastern fantasies whose ridiculous squabbles may yet destroy this world and everyone in it, try to tell you that you can retain some portion of this life in perpetuity, can claim some sort of reward for what you amassed in it. They are lies. Damned lies. Lies usually told by some Authority, so they can amass more authority and hold you in thrall to it. For their purposes, not for yours.”

“But why would anyone do otherwise?“, demanded the youth. “If this life is all the existence we get, and what we get in this life is all we get forever, then we may as well get all we can!”

“Because”, the sage replied, his serenity fully restored, “while the things you leave behind will mean nothing to you, they will mean something to others. Not only the things themselves, but the manner in which they were gotten. Did you leave money to bless those who follow after you, or debts to burden them? Did you leave enterprises behind? Do people rejoice in those enterprises, and strive to maintain them as you would have done, or do they curse them and try to purge them of their history, if indeed they do not destroy them and all the memories associated with them? Did people respect your opinion in council, and deem your behavior worthy of that respect, or did they think you a proper scion of a line of fathers who all bore the inscription ‘died of drink’ on their death certificates? If your son is happy and prosperous, is it because of the example you set, or despite it? All of these things are measures of your service, and how that service is remembered and valued. How many times have you heard it said of some persons who give gifts, ‘They’re only doing it to look good’? Those gifts don’t have meaning, they have ME-ning. And if they come to define those persons, then the persons become forgotten, or remembered as evil, and anyone bound to them by blood or association carries a heavy load. If you would prosper, and have those that follow after you have the best chance of prospering, authentically serve others.”

“Lucking fovely!”, the young man snorted.

“This is English?”, the sage inquired.

“This is me trying not to swear outright!”, his visitor retorted hotly. “For a young person, your definition of ‘service’ might as well be spelled S-L-A-V-E-R-Y. ‘Do your duty, young’un, without thought of reward, and maybe, at the end of the day, or at the end of your life, there may be a coin or two at the bottom of the box!’ I may as well sign up to be a pirate!

“Precisely”, the sage replied, calmly.

“… whut?” Whatever response the young man expected from his outburst, this wasn’t it.

“There are reasons why the romantic image of pirates persists to the present day, in blatant disregard of the facts of who and what they were, and you have hit upon the main one. The pirate metaphorically represents the rebellion of those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are not being served. You, whoever you are, whatever position in society you hold, are not uniquely held to the principle of service. All in society are so held. Chiefs in Polynesia and Melanesia understood this: in return for the service and adulation they received from their subjects, they would offer service to their subjects. If the chief received a mighty gift, his subjects would receive a portion. A substantial portion. Or that chief would cease to be a chief, either through internal rebellion or external conquest. The conquest of Jerusalem by the Neobabylonians, the defining event in Judaism and a key element in Christian theology, happened because the kings of Judah, seeking ME-ning in their own lives, no longer provided enough service to their subjects to hold their allegiance, and thereby no longer possessed the strength to stand against the invader. Facebook is a morass of communities, each against all, whose members feel that they are not being served. It has become the poster child for the dysfunction of social media, and the society that it reflects.

“When you serve, and you feel that your service is not being honored, that you are not receiving service in return, then, sooner or later, passively or actively, you will withdraw that service. And be entitled to do so.”

“And be entitled to be fired, and blacklisted. Thanks a pantload.” The disgust in the young man’s voice was palpable.

“Indeed. This is how empires fall. Personal, and political.” If the sage took notice of the jibe, his face and voice showed no sign.

“Well,” the young man scrambled to his feet, “I hope you’re not pinning the saving of any empires on me, because it’s not going to happen. I’m going to get mine, and if others are stupid enough to let the whole thing fall down, then I hope I get zapped quickly, because then I won’t care, now will I?”

“So it may be. Or not.” The sage’s tone was one of farewell.

“Right, then, goodbye.” The young man put his toes over the ledge, let himself slide down until only his hands and head showed. “Hey. Speaking of ‘getting mine.’ How the hell do you – any of you ‘guru’ types – get yours? I don’t see food, I don’t see water, I don’t even see or smell a latrine! It’s not like there’s a Starbucks on the next peak or nothing. How do you survive?”

The corners of the sage’s mouth turned up ever so slightly. In response, with a grunt, the young man’s head and hands vanished.

The sage sat motionless, watching the young man descend the mountain as he had watched him ascend it, until finally, as the setting sun reached the horizon, he disappeared behind a ridge. A shaft of light from that setting sun illuminated the interior of the sage’s cave. Seeing that, the sage arose and walked into the cave, all the way to the back, and pushed a small rock-grey button embedded in the wall. There was a buzzing sound, and a quick flash of light.

The sage stepped out of the transporter into the second floor hallway of a mansion in the Henderson neighborhood of Las Vegas, opposite the master bedroom. A butler awaited him.

“Welcome back, sir. Your clothes and shower toiletries are laid out per usual. Your guests from the Luxor will await your pleasure in the banquet hall at 7 this evening. There have been no matters arising today that the staff could not take care of. The tariff situation remains disquieting, but there is nothing to be done before tomorrow, you will be briefed at 0700.”

“Thank you, Rodrigo, you may go and attend to the banquet preparations. I will call if I need anything, otherwise I will see you at 7.”

“Very good, sir.”

The sage entered the master bedroom, saw that all was in order, including the pretty blonde trophy wife sitting on the bed. He kissed her on the cheek, said “I’ll do this job properly after I’ve had a chance to clean up”, and then strode to the window overlooking the entryway. A chauffeured Cadillac had just driven up to the porte cochère, the valet had opened one of the back doors and saluted the filthy beggar who emerged. That beggar then entered the valet’s office. On seeing this, the sage snatched a phone from the top of one of the dressers, punched a button. The beggar’s face appeared on the screen.

“Hey, bro.”

“Hey, yourself. Back in town in time for the Luxor party, huh? How’s the guru gig going? Dispense any enlightenment today?”

“Usual problems with the English language.”

“Two countries separated by a common language?”

“Yep. How about you?”

“No enlightenment dispensed, but a fair amount of charity received.” He held up a ratty bag that bulged with paper and rang with coin.

“More swag for the petty philanthropy fund. See you in your monkey suit at 7?”

“I’ll be there.”

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Amoeba’s Lorica: Of Pirates

Happy happy joy joy. It’s Talk Like A Pirate Day, and already Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba can’t escape the aaaaarrrggh! The day even has its own Wikipedia page, which incautiously names the perpetrators of this ‘event’. And also incautiously reminds readers that “The holiday, and its observance, springs from a romanticized view of the Golden Age of Piracy.” Yeah, ‘romanticized’ is right. Ahoy yerself.

Once upon a past life, in the southeastern corner of the great state of Massachusetts, Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba found himself playing … wait for it …

Miniature golf.

As you probably know, no miniature golf course worth its price of admission just gives you a ball and a putter and Astroturf and leaves you alone. Oh no. You must have a theme. Props and gadgets and sound effects that squawk at you just as you’re lining up your thirty-foot bank shot around the rock formation. And, YFNA swears, me hearties, 17 out of every 10 of the miniature golf courses within the city limits of Hyannis has a pirate theme. Arrr!

Given the continued popularity of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, not to mention the seafaring history of this portion of the world (the soil being unable to sustain any crops, to speak of), YFNA supposes that this particular class of infatuation makes commercial sense. Given that the gift shops associated with the golf courses couldn’t keep Captain Jack Sparrow hats in stock – during the early spring pre-tourist slow season (the timing of YFNA’s singular experience).

But YFNA rapidly felt a sense of empathy with the long-suffering workers who had to put up with the same canned pirate captain’s command (“Fire at Will!”) every five minutes, all day every day. Not to mention the wiseguys on the course who yell back, surely a half-dozen times an hour, “Which one’s Will?” By the tenth iteration, YFNA was ready to destroy the power grid of southeastern New England if it would only silence that bloody recording.

After a day of hearing every cliché in the pirate canon except Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum (and YFNA can’t figure out how he, or they, missed it), he was not surprised to find a book about pirates in the house, a recent reprint of Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly, first published in 1996. When YFNA mentioned it to his companions on this expedition, he discovered that they had found it unrewarding, and stopped reading.

YFNA soon found out why. They had been expecting Cordingly to present Disneyesque narratives of the pirates of history. Especially those pirates active in the Caribbean during the 17th and early 18th centuries, the buccaneers of the so-called Great Age of Piracy from whom most of the romanticized outlaws of fiction have sprung: Long John Silver, Conrad, Hook, Jack Sparrow.

Alas, writes Cordingly, the sober historian finds no data to permit the spinning of such narratives, even for the most notorious captains such as Sir[?!?] Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and William Kidd. Cordingly arranges the scant facts according to themes, not chronology or biography. From him, YFNA learned what he already suspected. That the lives of real pirates were short on glamor, romance, and time, and long on brutality and violence. That the men and women who sailed under the Jolly Roger were neither noble rebels nor cartoon villains; they were terrorists. Terrorists who, appalled at the prospect of long lives of hard labor at slave wages, opted for a life of large profits, quickly gained and as quickly spent … while the spending was good. “A merry life, and a short one”; such is the sentiment attributed by historians to the blackest of the pirate lot, Bartholomew Roberts.

What YFNA had not previously known was the organization of the terrorist cell known as a pirate vessel. Each voyage was conducted under a set of written articles, signed (willy-nilly) by every member of the crew. Each signer was then entitled to vote on all matters relevant to the craft and its maintenance. The crew voted in the captain (and not infrequently voted him out), the cruise route, the rations, codes of behavior and the punishment for violations of same, the distribution of plunder, and the compensation due those injured.

In other words, at a time in the history of the world when most governments were headed by absolute monarchs, these ocean-going vessels represented the planet’s most able and active democracies, embodying liberty, equality, and brotherhood a century before the American and French revolutions. Democracies of violent men, which existed solely for the sake of plunder, for the unrepentant robbery of the wealth of others …

Avast, ye dogs! This here pirate talk be now the law of this ‘Murican land, as befits ye scurvy knaves what live in it. Or ye’ll walk the plank! Arrrr!

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Amoeba’s Lorica: Eat No Fat

The sun was setting on a forest of low scrub, gray and bare, eking out a living on a soil of dun-colored sand. It was cold, near to freezing, and looked colder, because the November winds had already blown what few leaves had fallen into sparse piles deep in the forest, leaving most of the open spaces barren.

A man walked along the path through the forest. He was in his 30s, moderately tall, nearly six feet perhaps, but he walked with a shamble of weariness and disappointment that took an inch or so off the total. And he was gaunt, nearly to match the malnourished woods through which he walked. His bare head revealed a shoulder-length expanse of brown hair, ropy and unkempt, and a similarly tatty beard reaching to the base of his neck, all framing a grimy tan hatchet face with a slit for a mouth, a beaked nose, and two hazel burnholes for eyes. His right cheek was deeply scratched, and bleeding. His clothes – red flannel shirt, blue dungarees, brown hiking boots – hung loosely on the skinny frame. They were tattered, stained, and reeked faintly of wool wet with pond water, wood smoke, and body odor; the man was grateful for the cold wind even as it chilled him to shivering. In his left hand, he carried a bucket and a fishing pole. On his right side was pinned a piece of what looked like a thin sliver of aluminum house siding.

After a few minutes, he turned left off the path into a small clearing, in which sat a dilapidated white-sided mobile home. Missing slats along the short wall nearest the path were similar in their size to the sliver that he carried. Smoke arose from a metal cylinder, about two feet high, just in front of the main door, perched midway along one of the long sides of the house, with two rough, decaying wooden steps to the equally rough ground before.

The man walked, almost reluctantly, up those two steps, and rapped on the door: two short raps, a pause, then three more raps. A woman’s voice from the other side called “Speak!” He answered, “Friend”. There followed the rattling of chains being disentangled, and then the door swung open a crack. An older man looked through the crack, saw who was there, and then swung the door open with a shout of “It’s about time!”

The older man was gray-haired, about 60 years of age; behind him was a 30-something woman and a girl of about eight; tokens on the interior wall behind her suggested that she had once had sisters and brothers. Both the women had mousy brown hair below the shoulders, ropy like the man’s. All wore similar clothes, in style, repair, and aroma, to the man, and all were similarly gaunt and haggard-looking. The woman grabbed at the bucket, looked in it, and then at the man in anger and horror.

“Is that all?!?

The bucket contained a single 12″ yellow perch.

Daddy!“, screamed the 8-year-old. “You’re hurt!!

“A scratch”, replied the man. He lifted the aluminum siding slat. It was maybe a foot and a half long. It had a wooden crosspiece nailed to the base. Its tip had been filed to a point, and its edges sharpened. The point and edges were black with dried blood. “The two yahoos who jumped me, trying to get at that fish, were not so lucky.”

“You didn’t kill them?” demanded the woman.

“Didn’t do enough damage. They ran off.”

“Incompetent fool!” the woman snarled. “We could have eaten them!” She started to shove him out of the doorway, so she could take the bucket with the fish in it to the fire and start cooking it – but then she froze. As they all did.

Out from under the interior wall of the home, directly opposite the door, a single palmetto bug crawled, antennae waving anxiously, aware of its peril in the presence of the four humans, but driven to take the risk by the smell of fish, the smell of food.

The girl was closest. She waited, immobile, while the insect crept closer, crept past her, intent on the prize the man had brought home. She waited … waited … then with a sudden, practiced snatch, grabbed the roach with her right hand and, in a single smooth motion, jammed it into her mouth, crunched, and swallowed.

“Great!”, the woman cried out in bitter rage. “One of us gets fed tonight!” She then did leave the house, brusquely, and not entirely accidentally, squashing the man against the door jamb in the process, and then slamming the door behind her. She would take the fish, gut and fillet it, grill the fillets over the wood fire, and return the four meagre portions to her family. She would then take the remainder (skin, bones, guts, head) and boil them. They would all drink the boiled broth in the morning.

The man picked himself up after the drubbing, and stood downcast, looking out at his wife, while she prepared what passed for their meal, through the small, grimy window, with its rotting sill, beside the door. After a moment, his daughter, who had gone into the kitchen and returned with a wet rag, beckoned him to sit in one of the rickety, soiled living room chairs, sat on his right, and began to clean the cuts on his cheek.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, child?”

“I love you. Mommy does too. Sometimes”, she stifled a sob, “she even remembers.”

The older man – his father – came over, silently, and put his right hand on his son’s left shoulder. A portion of the arm stuck out beyond his sleeve; the skin of that arm was six sizes too large for the arm itself. The son’s mind wandered into the past.

“They called me sick,” the father had said. “Diseased! Back when those things worked!” He had pointed to a pile of boxes and what he had called ‘screens’, stuck in a closet in the home they used to occupy. That was before the drone strikes wiped out the neighborhood, and they had fled to this remote scabland in a desperate attempt to get out of the warzone. In the equally desperate hope that the nearby pond would sustain them, and would only have to sustain them and not the hundreds of equally desperate others that had since shown up.

“You, they said, are part of the obesity epidemic. You, they said, are fat! We’ve got to stop this! What are you going to do about it?

“Buy all of your fancy pills and prescriptions and plans that don’t work, and fatten your damned wallets and egos so you can live as high on the hog as you think you need to, at my expense. Of course. Not! Look, I told them, food is more plentiful and cheaper now than at any other time in the history of the planet! Of course people are going to eat it! Especially if you keep selling it! You sell food, you sell diets, you sell food, you sell diets. Nice racket if you can keep it legal! As if anyone in these Untied States cares about ‘legal’ any more. Unless you’re Mexican or Arabic. Of course.

“Hey idiots, I said, you want to fix the obesity epidemic? I can do it real fast for you. All you need is a good famine. Peeps in Europe were really fashionably skinny after World War II. You think they did that by fancy diets? They did that because none of the farmers could plow their fields without hitting some unexploded bomb and putting themselves beyond all cares! They didn’t eat food because there wasn’t any to eat! ‘What am I doing to stop getting fat?’ What are you doing to make sure we don’t get massive crop failures? Or wars that wipe out swaths of global food production? Or control ocean fishing before we wipe out all the fish?!? Huh? Trust me, brother, you get one of these food calamities going, you’ll be looking at this ‘obesity epidemic’ like a golden age of civilization and we ain’t never had it so good! Amirite?!?”

“You were right”, the son said aloud.

The father patted his son’s shoulder. A thin smell of grilled fish wafted into the decrepit home.

A week after YFNA posted this story, this article appeared in the Huffington Post. Behind the ‘personal bleat’, the ‘woe is me, I’m so picked on, and it’s all their fault!!’ that is, YFNA thinks, the principal ‘hook’ HuffPo uses to attract its readers and get them permanently attached to the purse-vacuuming machinery, there is a lot of sound, and contrarian, information about the ‘obesity epidemic’ and how We the People are ‘managing’ it. And this is where YFNA confides that, over the past nearly two decades, you can count the number of times he has been in a physician’s office on the fingers of one hand. Because the BMI labels him ‘diseased’, and he’s sick of hearing about it. Which is the only actual sickness he’s been aware of having over all this time. And, he’s not dead yet.

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