Absalom Hanging by His Beautiful Hair

It’s that usual story of doing

the wrong thing for the right

reasons—defending the honor

of the raped and all. Then

a revolution to topple 

Dad, the old fuddy-duddy. 

And taking three darts in

the heart for it. “Oh, that I 

had died,” said old David

“in his stead,” which, truth be 

told, he could have, simple 

enough, by only holding still. 

Yet when you’re a wily old 

killer, it’s hard stopping short

of hanging … whoever up

by his beautiful hair and all. 

Tinfoil Hats and the Examined Life

Let’s say I tell you I’m wearing a tinfoil hat today … What does that say to you? Crazy? Paranoid? Safe from the mental meddling of governments and/or extraterrestrials?  

It’s shorthand, isn’t it? A tinfoil hat says crazy or paranoid or safe, not because of anything inherent in the tinfoil hat, but because we equate wearing a tinfoil hat with a set of behaviors that could be well described as crazy or paranoid or staying safe—“tinfoil hat” is a symbol for a set of beliefs—that, for example, space aliens or perhaps one government or another is sending messages into my brain by electric means. 

The first known appearance of a tinfoil hat is in a science fiction story published in 1927 by the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. In that story, tinfoil hats prevent interference from mental telepathy. 

Now, if you look for how tinfoil hats work on Yahoo Answers, you will discover this advice:

"Tin foil does not work. I tried aluminum foil for my first thought screen helmet in 1998 and it was a failure. Thought screens made from velostat work. I’ve been making them since 1999 and sending them to abductees all over the world for free for 13 years."

Now, in case you’re like me and didn’t know, velostat is a packing material used to block electronic effects. So it goes. 

I want to notice two things about this brief look at tinfoil hats. First, “tinfoil hat” has come to mean something way beyond merely a hat made of a particular material. And, second, how quickly we rocket from a discussion of tinfoil hats to a discussion of more efficient hats to evade thought surveillance. 

Both of these things have to do with the human imagination. How the human imagination works. We make symbols. Then, often, we fall into the trap of treating a symbol as if it were a reality. We easily mistake symbols, and symbolic statements, for literal truths.

The simplest example is perhaps flags. We create a flag to symbolize a nation or some other grouping of people. Then we create rules and customs around how flags must be treated. 

 I’ve heard people debate whether a particular piece of cloth is a flag or only bunting—because you can burn bunting, but burning a flag might get you into trouble. 

We create a symbol, then we treat the symbol as a reality. The flag becomes the nation. And so on. 

 Educator Hugh Mearns had something to say about this propensity back in 1899 when he wrote a poem in response to a brouhaha in the town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia concerning a ghost sighting. One of the poem’s verses goes like this: 

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

It appears that we can make symbols of things that aren’t there at all. And then the symbol becomes a thing we can imagine. 

We enter into pretend realms very early in childhood—you be Batman; I’ll be Joker. I’m an elephant. I’m a unicorn. When we play these games, we agree to certain rules. We agree to be bound by the logic of the game. Just as do the folks who wear tinfoil hats or who set out to make a better tinfoil hat. Or who imagine little men on stairs that aren’t there. 

We can go to a murder mystery dinner party set in the 1920s and act as if we have murdered someone. Or act as if we are a Belgian detective. We can go to a Renaissance festival where corporate lawyers become barmaids and carpenters become knights. 

We choose a game, we agree to obey the rules of the game, and then we act … as if.  

This is how fiction works. There are all sorts of fictions, each written according to the rules of the game that the author asks us to play. Perhaps the novel is naturalistic—in that case, everything that happens will happen according to the observable and describable rules of the universe. 

We can have “magical realism,” in which the world operates more or less as it does in our own world, but occasionally odd things happen—such as people flying away. 

We can also have fantasy—that is, a world in which the rules we know do not apply. But even there, notice, there ARE rules of the game. Devotees of Star Trek or of the World of Warcraft will be quick to point out when an action goes outside the rules of that particular fantasy world. 

We agree to the rules of a particular form of government. Or of economics. Of of religion. In these cases, usually, we have very little in the way of choice about playing the game—we are born in places where a set of games with rules are already in place—this is called culture and tradition. 

Those who choose to ignore the rules are ostracized or punished. The rules of the games called culture and tradition often insist that you WILL see the little man on the stair—or at least say you do—, even if you cannot see the little man. 

However, the difference between knowing you are playing a game with rules and thinking you are seeing reality are very different things, aren’t they?

Some games we choose, and some we don’t. No one is born wearing a tinfoil hat. Or saluting a particular flag. Or worshiping a particular god. Mostly, such games with their particular rules are forced upon us by geography or social status or educational attainment or mental health. 

Am I really equating tin foil hats and patriotism, you might be asking. Yes, I am. Because I think the examined life requires that sort of examination. Until we see the games we are enmeshed in with some clarity, we have seen neither truth nor reality. We have not examined life.

So, what’s your game? Do tinfoil hats come in handy?

at Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

at Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Daodejing 34 


The essence 

of the way

is left, 

is right, 

is all around. 

It gives all, 

takes nothing. 

It accomplishes all, 

claims nothing. 

It clothes all, 

feeds all, yet

seeks no 


There it is, one

of the smallest 

of things. 

Because it 

has power over 

everything yet

claims no power,

it is the most

powerful thing.


Those free of themselves 

may learn from this: 

power comes 

from …

not seeking power.


The Constructed Life

Delusion can be cute,


biting their own tails.

But usually not (no, 

not us)—gods, laws, 

punishment and such—

with all its machinery. 

After the kitty sees 

the truth, she knows

(but, no, not us), that

if you want to bite 

your own tail, fine, as 

long as you live 

with the results.

(But, no, not us.)

Kitties soon enough

learn that life is 

its own answer—

what kitties bite is 

their own darn fault.

(But, no, not us.)


Heroes at the End (Seers in Retirement)

At the end 

you’ve seen

it’s a lot like

Romeo and

Juliet with cell

phones. So 

there’s no 


It’s all about

the, LOL, 


It’s all about

how it ends

in dismal

scenes, only

some plots

are longer 

than others. 

You’ve seen

this, haven’t

you—that the 

master’s life is

as empty as

he’s made the


he stares at 

the same 


in finer linen. 

Yes, in your 

younger days

you cruised

the labyrinth and 

slew the monster

at the center and

gathered yourself

into your own 

sacred myth. So

let’s just say

I promise to 

grab your 

black heart,

your box of 

ashes from 

the alter there.

Let’s just say

I’ll feel the 

darkness, always, 

of your passing

into the bits

of the universe,

into the fire.

Let’s just say

I will grab your 

black heart then. 

For now, 


in the dark,

if you will.

And you will,

since after

you’ve seen

some darks

are darker

than dark,

you’ve seen

there’s no 

one here

but us.

Words Out of Nothing

The sudden spring snow

melts back to mud with

plop and plop somewhere 

on the roof. It’s so hard

not to think it’s saying 

something, to think 

this world so rich

in contradictions, 

caressing as it kills,

isn’t mouthing something

more than the words

I put into its mouth. 

This world so rich

it creates imagination

then kills it, whispering, 

there’s more. More. 


“Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing … Thus, no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation. ~Søren Kierkegaard”