Thursday, June 22, 2017


The brain is a city called Venice, where the buildings line canals instead of streets and when the tide comes in, the water rises, but when the tide goes out, all the debris of business and pleasure are washed out to sea, floating along in a barcarole of renewal.  The buildings, each a small palace of elegance with high ceilings and echoing marble, repositories of culture and memory, while the rising sun tints their walls with the beginning of a new day.

Brain research has come up with another of those surprising metaphorical discoveries, this time that the brain works like a living city of canals, able at night to draw up the neurons into themselves so that the interstitial fluid can wash through the widened spaces between the cells.  This link is a clear vid describing the discovery and what it means.  For instance, this may be a clue to Alzheimers and certainly explains why troubled nights lead to muddy thinking the next day.

The link below is to a longer printed explanation.

Naturally, there will be dozens of entrepreneurs marketing “brain washing” pills, strategies and equipments.  Their first task will be changing the meaning of the phrase away from its long-term connotation of forced power-washing by captors demanding obedience.  In fact, this new discovery is not about “cleaning” the thought content at all, but about the microfunctions of neurons, a general shift from one metaphor based on reflection about one’s own thinking to a far more concrete mechanical process based on experimental evidence.

We’re told that when they judge the efficiency of the cleaning of interstitial spaces by filtering the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) of mice when they wake up, they discover that mice who sleep on their right side have better CSF cleaning.  I get a mental image of waking a curled up mouse and gently pouring brain fluid out its delicate ear, but — alas — I’m afraid they just cut off the mouse’s head with scissors.  More brutal than torturous brain-washing, but quicker.

When I was diagnosed with “dry eye syndrome” not long ago, I began to read about the fluids of the head, because I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening.  The symptom was waking with crusty stinging eyes, an alkaline rime formed at the base of my eyelashes, treated by washing away that rim.  Rimming one’s eyes — hmm.  It tastes like tears, so I suppose it is dried tears.  One adds tear-replacement drops labeled “lubricant.”  (Eyes are so sexy.)

I asked my eye doctor about my theory that a head is constantly bathed in fluids and he agreed but said it was likely to be “mucus.”  Docs are fussy about being exact.  So I look up “mucus” and find “phlegm”, “saliva,” "snot."

“The term water on the brain is incorrect, because the brain is surrounded by CSF (cerebrospinal fluid), and not water. CSF has three vital functions:
It protects the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) from damage
It removes waste from the brain
It nourishes the brain with essential hormones.
The brain produces about 1 pint of CSF each day. The old CSF is absorbed into blood vessels. If the process of replenishment and release of old CSF is disturbed, CSF levels can accumulate, causing hydrocephalus.”

It turns out that:  “Your respiratory system is protected by a special type of mucus, known as phlegm. Its job is to protect the lungs from stuff that could get in there, like dust, pollen or smoke. The stuff that makes it to your nose is called nasal mucus, or snot.”  Couldn’t find a source.  Must be common knowledge.  (When does snot become a booger?)

“Mucus is 95% water, 3% proteins (including mucin and antibodies), 1% salt and other substances. Mucin droplets absorb water and swell several hundred times in volume within three seconds of release from mucus glands. Mucus strands form cross links, producing a sticky, elastic gel.The solid gel layer acts as a physical barrier to most pathogens and the constant flushing movement prevents the establishment of bacterial biofilms. However, the pore size of the gel mesh means small viruses can easily penetrate it.”

This is how I get so hooked on looking things up — there always turns out to be so much more to know.  And it’s useful, so when I got out there and cut my shoulder-high grass and woke up almost paralyzed and stifled by overzealous mucus, I knew to get a decongestant.  Since mucus trying to protect one by plugging up all the bone sinus spaces in the face is so painful, one can only be grateful that plugged up spaces in the soft tissue of the brain are supposed to have no nerves that feel pain, but they still mess up function.

As with “dry eyes” there are two things that can go wrong with fluid IN the brain, that fluid washing out the canals between the cells at night.  One is too much fluid and one is not enough.

"Loss of the fluid that cushions and protects the brain may lead to intracranial hypotension, intense headaches. The most common cause of intracranial hypotension, or low cerebrospinal fluid  (CSF) pressure in the brain, is CSF Leak. CSF cushions and protects the brain and spinal cord. It is held in place by a sac-like covering called the meninges. The thickest outer layer of the meninges is the dura. Normally, the brain floats in this fluid.

We are more aware of hydrocephalus, too much fluid that can actually force the skull to be enlarged from within— but even before that — presses the brain painfully against the bone.  Many of my readers (indigenous people) are aware that Sherman Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, hereditary, and shared by his son.  Recently, Terry Gross of NPR, interviewed Alexie, who told us that in addition to his early surgeries as a baby, he had recently had surgery for a small brain tumor.  The tumor was easily removed, but it had fused with the dura mater, the covering of the brain and also a blood vessel.  This caused complications like blood loss and some loss of function in the brain itself.  He feels that he has been edited.  Some feel this is an improvement.  He still functions well, and continues to write. h

As the screens traditionally put around hospital beds are lowered and the patients speak frankly, we can get a better idea of what goes on within and between us.  My prejudice is obviously towards “knowing more”, though sometimes I hit limits.  (I do not wish to witness the scissored deaths of mice.)  Usefulness and reform is one of the compensatory forces.  Many people prefer compassion.  We should be grateful.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


The candle-flame lichen (Candelareia concolor is a frequent urban dweller.

This review was written for The Goose which is the official publication of ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada / Association pour la littérature, l'environnement et la culture au Canada).

Current Issue: Volume 15, Issue 2 (2017)

I'm gradually working my way through this issue and hope you'll do the same.  This review ill be in Issue 3, I think.

Review:  “An Edge Can Be a Path”   by Mary Scriver

BOUNDARY LAYER:  Exploring the Genius Between Worlds
by Kem Luther
Oregon State University Press, 6 × 9. 36 b&w illustrations. Notes. 240 pages.

Website by the author at

We tend to think of boundaries as linear, delineating edges, rather than being the areas themselves.  We have observed fences with the paths beside them created by creatures paralleling the fence, but we’ve also seen adjoining fields, one with grazing access and one without, and how the ungrazed vegetation is so much more lush.  This book is about a “sheet” boundary where the smallest and most resourceful living things abide and combine, one that can be observed by lying on your face and looking closely, maybe with a lens, almost anywhere on an earth surface of the planet.  This is where you will be in literal contact with the “stegnon,” described as the land equivalent of plankton in the ocean, the smallest units of life.

This author follows the worthy example of John McPhee by taking us through these environments with able interpreters, real human beings who have been devoted to one approach or another and are willing to share what they know.  But the real message of this book, which starts out being about how lichen cooperates with algae so deeply that they amount to a merger, a new creature, is that they are still capable of disengagement and forming new independent strategies.  It’s convenient to just collapse the algae into lichen inclusion, but they are more than that.  It’s a metaphor.

In fact, by the end of the essays we are ready to accept the idea that boundaries are arbitrary, negotiable, and capable of dissolving themselves into something new.  Our own bodies are as symbiotic as coral reefs, as variable as skin and bone, with limits that are negotiable.  Like ideas.

When we have addressed the world, we have looked for what we can group into “things,” give names, and learn about in a way that “stays put”.  But in this paradigmatically shifting world that can be quite misleading.  In this time of metaphorical thinking, we must watch our calques, which are loan translations from other languages where things are parsed in handier ways.

( ) “Boundary layer” is a calque from “grenzschicht”, used by a man named Prandtl at a 1904 conference in Heidelberg.  It was meant for use in regard to aerodynamics, the part of the air rushing along just above the surface of the earth, down where the little things grow and control their small ways.  A boundary is an active transition with its own characteristics, like the edges between meadow and woods where small animals emerge at the boundary between day and night.

Kem Luther lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, so he is aware of the sea and its moving boundary along the ocean shore, the beach where sand moves according to the air currents and the plant complexities which evolved to adapt and control.  A ferry trip away, on the mainland mosses are the focus.  Their sex lives were hard to figure out because in their particulate sporophytes the two nuclear helixes are united, but not in the larger “plantish” parts, which is opposite to what we expect.  In human bodies it is the seeds where the helixes are single and the new creature in which they are double.

Terry McIntosh keeps a roof garden collection of mosses and explains that in the Arctic, moss is the “highest” form of vegetation there is.  The extent of the places where low plants dominate (savannah, grasslands, and tundra) is as large as that covered by tall forests.

Next step is to the fungi, which some are beginning to argue are more like animals than like plants.  Certainly they are exemplars of symbiosis, only apparent when they erupt in mushrooms, but underground thickly woven among the sharing roots of trees through threads called mycellium.  The two large systems of life, the plants and the fungi, create a boundary layer with new ways of intermeshing.  They’ve been doing this for a billion years — a scientific estimate, not hyperbole.
                For a much shorter interval, humans have been studying fungi, and scientists tend to work out systems of thought with various strategies and emphases.  One contrast that Luther noticed early was between British and Continental systems.  Now an alternative division introduces Czechs, Hans Roemer and Adolf and Oluna Ceska, forced to transplant when the USSR collapsed Czechoslovakia in 1969.  There was enough difference in metaphors to reveal new understanding, though also sometimes misunderstanding.

So now the discussion is ready to step to the ecology of concepts, how there are splitters and joiners who create different maps from different purposes.  Kem speaks of “biogeoclimatic zones” which live at the boundary between European and North American perspectives on natural systems.  Andy MacKinnon is the guide.

“Phytosociologists” wanted to study large natural conglomerates, which Luther relates to ‘idealism,” abstract forms as opposed to individual organisms, related to “positivism”.  These tensions and contrasts are everywhere in the ways we divvy up territories and the uses of their divisions, especially in land management.

Back to lichens with Trevor Goward for an inquiry into what happens if you try to forge on through what is accepted to get to new territory.  Getting out of the normal boundaries of thought can make a person seem “dangerous, even deranged.”  A threat to the standing order, in this case, that of the “lichen community.”  What does it mean to live in an “extra-centric” relation to one’s society?  Trevor says “Healthy human societies, like ecosystems, depend on the proportionate functioning of unlike parts.” (p.112)

Really big paradigm shifts and startling insights are hard to grasp.  We need to move step-by-step along the deer paths others have traced out until we learn to “see” more deeply into what life is about.  The effect on us is an increase in knowledge, but also a kind of big-heartedness about the generosity of the surface of the planet from the stegnon to the mosses draping the trees.

When it’s time to confront political quandaries in rending and callousing ways, there will be a stabilizing reassurance that everything can be worked out.  Many small adaptations can shift the world.  Under it all are the plate tectonics of shifting ideas about wilderness.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


People say to me quite a lot,  “You’re a good writer.”  This post is not about whether or not I’m a good writer and not very much about what is a good writer anyway, but about why they say that.  

Sometimes it’s flattery, meant to get me to like them, even if they show no signs at all of reading much of what I write or understanding what I wrote.  A few will give me an example of what they liked or say what it meant to them.  

Most seem to think writing is a personal attribute, like having naturally curly hair, and that I will accept the praise on that level.  “How lucky you are!”  And then that little hint of, “Gee, I wish I were a good writer“ (had naturally curly hair).  Or maybe, “if you’re such a good writer, why aren’t you rich and famous?  Did you do something awful?  Are you afraid of success?”

It was the same with Bob Scriver except it was “you’re a good artist”.  Then the assumption is that having that attribute given to you (um, by “God”?) it’s only natural that you’ve become rich and famous.  It was surely all so easy for you.  Even if one grants that the capacity to become something is there in one’s brain and muscle, they have no thought of the amount of time, effort and choice it takes to make a capacity into something real.  The next assertion is “I don’t have any talent,” as though it were a “thing.”

Back to writing, a few older people are still admiring of proper spelling, agreeing antecedents, reliable punctuation of appositives and participles, clear placement of adverbs, big vocabulary, etc.  If you know what I’m talking about, you probably realize that American schools don’t teach that anymore.  Yet it’s what some ESL people discover can be held against them and the aspect in which savior-minded teachers will offer to “help” but in the process will end up changing both the nuance and the vigor of the unique point of view.

On the other hand are those MFA grads from Back East fancy schools who say they won’t tolerate things like all caps or people who wear round glasses like Harry Potter because they are annoying.  (That’s a quote.)  They get hung up on the Harvard comma.  [In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms.]

But then there are standard usage implications about arcane distinctions between “bring” and “take,” one blunder that drives me crazy. [The essential difference between these two words is that bring implies movement towards someone or something.  “Bring it here.”  Whereas take implies movement away from someone or something. “Take it there.”]

Several times I had tribal kids who read a lot and had learned big words from context.  They produced a lot of malapropisms, multi-syllabic Latinates that didn’t quite mean what they thought, but conveyed effectively the world of someone who has crossed cultural barriers but still isn’t quite in control.  I didn’t want to stamp that out, even though I knew the problem would dissolve over time with more reading.  I was always afraid that coming down on them too hard would shut them up.  “Correctness” can destroy inspiration.  Does a “good” teacher do that?

“You’re a good writer” can mean “I agree with you.”  That’s fine, but a coincidence is not usually a reason for praise.  If they go ahead to explain why, that’s different.  If THEY are good writers, it counts for more.

Opposed to all this fuss about little stuff is the “passionate” school of value.  The more intense, the more personal, the more confessional, the more stigmatized and possibly rude, the better the writing is considered.  I am not talking about true outrage over real atrocities.  I mean “mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most miserable of them all?”  Missing-yous, broken hearts, pity for little fuzzy animals, and all that.  It is VERY VERY hard to write about the ghastly stuff in the world.  The most successful examples are usually a bit understated, specific, and unexpected.  Often narrative.

Cool writing, documented writing, informational writing, journalism, analysis — all have their place and different standards for “good.”  One writes well when one is presenting what the reader can assimilate and value, so part of being a good writer is knowing one’s reader.  In fact, good readers draw out good writing, even define it.  Sometimes I wonder whether I have the good readers (actually listeners since I was writing to preach) I used to have.  So many now push aside the writing and want to have a relationship with the writer, which is not about writing at all, and usually turns out to be about dominance.

It’s ironic that in a time when it’s so easy to research — not just with search engines but also with specialized websites — readers don’t seem to have as much background as they used to.  They need more explanation but don’t always have patience.  Neither do some writers.

What makes a good writer?  It depends on the situation and the individual, not the number of MFA’s accrued.  How much the person is driven, propelled, called, will affect how and what they write.  Mostly a person learns to write by writing and writing and writing some more.  That can’t be taught.  What they are actually doing is creating submicroscopic molecular connections among neurons in the brain which — as they are created — organize themselves or fit themselves into pre-existing categories OR dismiss the connection.  Experience, exposure, is the only thing that can make this happen.  It’s like the concert pianist said, if one does it enough, like practicing the piano, one’s fingers begin to crave the keyboard.

Moving among connectomes controls whether the brain is willing to access, the specific webwork one wants to use.  Knowing what will move one’s mood or attitude into the right place is part of the craft of doing this work.  Lots of little tricks out there to find out about, and one develops their own as well.  A quick walk for one person, a cup of tea for the next, and Hemingway famously sharpened pencils.  It’s simple conditioning, sub-conscious, automatic if conditions are right.

Ah, the sub/under/deep/un conscious!  It might fight you.  It might take you up on wings.  Both happen to good writers and both are useful.  Whether you’re dimpling the paper with tears or causing the pets to come see what you’re laughing about, just keep writing.

If people say you’re a good writer, don’t question it.  Just say thank you.  No one is that sure what writing is, much less which of it is “good.”  "You're a good writer," is often an expression of puzzlement from someone who feels like an outsider.

Monday, June 19, 2017


It's a puzzle what to think.  Easier to feel.

“When asked whom he (Sherman Alexie) considers his primary audience, he responded: “College-educated white women. That’s who buys and reads our books in mass numbers. To say otherwise is to either be purposefully or accidentally a liar. That said, my ideal reader is a poor, weird brown kid. And I get enough letters from them. When a weird brown kid says, ‘This story meant this to me,’ that’s the power.”

So, okay, the success of many NA writers depends upon an alliance between “college-educated white women and weird brown kids.”  I get that.  I’ve been part of that.  I AM part of that, though it is so confusing that I don’t write for publication.  I USED to, in an alliance with weird brown kids, some of whom were just weird and not kids anymore.  Some have died, sometimes of old age.

But what is this alliance?  White women are educated to believe it is their highest value (generations of nurses, nuns, teachers, and mothers have taught this) to be an enabler of a kid who would otherwise be disadvantaged.  That is, stigmatized.  The power of the educated woman goes back to the Victorian women who took on early tribal people and maybe Kahlil Gibran and Zane Grey.  

The practice didn’t threaten white men who could care less unless there was money or political advantage involved, and there wasn’t.  Helen Hunt Jackson could run wild with “Ramona” because it was just “a novel.”  It wasn’t until Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict got serious about weird brown people that men of consequence took notice.  By that time, too late.  The women had become role models.  Which is why a high proportion of educated white women read Native American writing from a kind of semi-anthropological point of view.  And why they get very upset when it turns out they’ve been deceived.  There’s a wicked element of ownership.

Plus, being highly educated, some women assume they know the truth, have special insight, and therefore have more worthiness in an objective sense.  Low status males tend towards this dynamic as well.  It comes out in all the “isms” — "I may not be a “whatsis” but I know more about whatsises than anyone else."  This plays into a kind of mystic fusion idea.  But some men (red-necks, for instance) detecting this, will put a lot of energy into controlling women with such ideas — maybe with violence.  And so will low-quantum tribal women or light-skinned brown women.

You believe what I’m saying?  In part it is recognition of hegemony, the standing order that tries to preserve itself.  But it is also an opening for heiristics.  “A heuristic technique (/hjᵿˈrɪstᵻk/; Ancient Greek: εὑρίσκω, "find" or "discover"), often called simply a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals.”

I’m late to the uproar.  This second related-to-fake ethnic claim being that Sherman Alexie chose for an anthology a white man who used a Chinese pseudonym, the name of a female classmate.  Last time, he attacked a white man who used a Navajo pseudonym, a name created from Navajo language roots.  It’s been pretty obvious from the beginning that Alexie has a controlling obsession about race and class and status and being a  weird brown kid.  To use psych lingo, this “hooks” him.  (Probably his mother as well.)

Both of these situations arose over designations of value/virtue, awarding of prizes, inclusion in “best of” anthos, and all the praise people are quick to award to those who have already been labeled as praiseworthy.  Noting this much earlier ("the plus and minus system"), I have made it my mission to appreciate the ugly, neglected, rejected, outrageous, and even illegal.  Nor was I out there kissing frogs.  I cherish outrageous people for what they are.  This is against the core value of educated white women who feel they must “heal” and “support” — i.e. control.  PTSD is raw meat to them.  They bring in their curative successes and lay them at the feet of the white entitled males, Abraham’s second-hand sacrifices.  

Making you angry?  Good.  Think about it.  You can get famous and rich that way, attacking people.  But I can’t make myself do it.  I like live people.

The kicker is that since it’s educated white women who buy most books of any kind, not just those written by weird brown boys, they have a lot of power, all hidden, but based on having enough income and the good sense to buy books instead of shoes.  Many weird brown boys don’t have enough money to buy either one.  Most don’t have access to publishers, esp. as they have existed in the past.  

Today someone as inspired as Adrian Jawort can declare himself a publisher and sell NA books to NA people, but those who are educated and have money will buy books by Sherman Alexie because white people praise him.  Higher status. And because he’s made money and movies, which are the criteria — not so much for educated white women.   

Much of this shortage of brown boys who write successfully, as Alexie notes, is structural: the number and nature of bookstores, the newspaper pages of reviews, agents at large as well as staff editors who can make silk purses out of pencil sharpeners.  The internet has changed everything, including the ability to spot plagiarism or imitators, and a tsunami of writing — millions of scribblers hoping for distinction in a tech world that can’t tell good writing from bad (as if anyone ever could) but doesn’t care because they are totally absorbed in tech strategy.  Their tech road to fame and fortune is designing the perfect platform.  Content is irrelevant.  In fact, vids, linking, format and fonts totally occupy minds that in the past might have composed poetry or structured books.  

There have been decades by now of scoffing at good grammar, recognizable spelling, word order in sentences, graceful handling of tense, and so on.  Beginning as an English teacher, I value all that, but — having a theatre background even earlier — I still love the intense, eccentric, explosive, morally driven kind of thing that comes from the ESL crowd, even when the first language in question is a kind of pidgin version full of gestures because more often spoken instead of written.

I tried to find the poem that purported to be Chinese and instead found one about acid reflux, which was interesting because reflux plagues me. Everything is personal at root. (“The Bees” by Bruce Mackinnon  

The other one, the one with the long title that was included in the antho is “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve”.  (Easily googled.) To me it doesn’t seem Chinese — it seems like a poem by Sherman Alexie.  How much is value driven by simple recognition?  But it doesn’t seem like an NA poem either, so what does that say?

I tried to find the writer who used the Chinese pen name, Michael Derrick Hudson.  He has disappeared.  No job.  Phone disconnected. That was his punishment.  Sherman Alexie just becomes more famous.  Maybe that's a sort of punishment as well.  Maybe both need witness protection.

Sunday, June 18, 2017


The Reverend Bruce Clear
My Classmate, My Friend

(This is a sermon I delivered on Father’s Day, 1998, at Michael Servetus UU Church in Vancouver, WA.  Their minister at the time was Rev. Bruce Clear, a paragon of fatherliness.  Now in assisted living at Hooverwood Home, Indianapolis, IN.)

(I was living in Portland when this was written.)

In the last couple of years my apartment and the one behind it have acquired renters with little kids, pre-schoolers.  As soon as the one across the back alley moved in, I could hear his little voice now and then, piping “Where are you, Dad?  I love you, Dad!”  The apartment over there has long steps zigzagging down the back from floor to floor and I’d hear his little feet coming down one stair at a time, pat, pat, pat.  Evidently his father was leaving in a car, because his big male voice would come back from out on the street, “I’m leaving now but I’ll be back.  Goodbye, son.”  And the little voice would answer, “Goodbye, Dad!  I love you, Dad!”

The single mother downstairs also has a little boy.  She moved in when she and her husband divorced.  Evidently they have joint custody and she works a late shift, so the father takes the boy with him and brings him back way past midnight.  She refused to give the father a key, so the little boy and his dad would wait under my bedroom window in a little service alley.  

Half-waking, I’d hear them out there, talking quietly.  These folks are not at the high end of the income scale.  Once dad showed up drunk, judging from the sound of his voice, but the son acted just the same.  “Dad, Dad, look at this bug!”  “That’s a beetle, son.  Beetles are good.  We won’t kill it, we’ll just look at it.”

But on another night he came alone, drunk, and the mother wouldn’t let him in, so he broke a window.  There were hours of shouting, which made the boy cry.  The mother has a tendency to acquire boyfriends whom she leaves in charge of the little boy, men who yell at the boy and throw the furniture around.  One was particularly bad.  I don’t know if he ever struck the child, but I finally went to the manager and pretty soon the boyfriend left.  I didn’t go directly to the woman, who was very thin with a great mass of bleached hair.  

Then HER dad began to take a hand.  He kept the little boy for a while over at his home on the coast.  There evidently is no grandmother.  When he brought the boy back to stay with his mom again, the boy cried,  “No, granddad!  Don’t leave me here!  I want to live with you!  I love you granddad!"   The mother wept.  The boy finally stayed.  He’s older now, but when his dad comes, he still rushes out with his arms wide, yelling,  “Dad, Dad!  I love you, Dad!”  And his dad’s voice is full of joy, too.  Not often drunk.

This is thinking about Papa men on a pretty basic level, down where families make it or break it.  This is about managing intimacy and making a living.  Today’s dads often seem to me almost like kids — most of them are young enough to be my sons, struggling along trying to understand what it is they ought to do.  I’m on several email lists, one on the environment and one for Native Americans.  They openly recount their attempts to address what they can’t control.

I don’t often actually SEE “the little guy,” which is how I think of the boy downstairs, even though I know his name.  As it happens, I can hear almost everything that happens in his apartment so I know a lot about him.  When he gets really crabby and cries, I play my “Amazing Grace” bagpipe CD.  When he sounds as though he’s in danger, I sit by the phone ready to dial 911,  When he’s “up” and laughing, I smile as I work.  He doesn’t know any of this.

Recently some company came, relatives who included the little guy’s cousins, also boys about the same age.  These people had been in the armed forces overseas and I have learned to think of them as a type, a class of people in our society — peacetime warriors from an integrated military that is used to being an in-group on alien territory.  We hire them at the city sometimes.  They often speak German or Russian.  They have a strong notion of what a family is and how it ought to act, but they don’t allow much room for people who get in the way of their families.  The first night they had a great time talking and putting away pizza and beer.  The next morning, all the little boys were up early and sent outside to play so the parents could sleep longer.

The little cousins soon organized marching sorties, then raids down the sidewalk into foreign territory.  “Hup, two, three, four!”  I hadn’t heard that in a neighborhood since I was a kid.  And that gun noise that I never managed to make properly.  “Ksccchhhhew!”  When they left, I didn’t miss them but the little guy said he did.

A year or so ago, I went to a meeting after work and came home on a late bus.  I got off behind a man and a child who was sleeping on what must have been his dad’s shoulder.  His dad was wearing an earring and his hair was long.  He looked a little bit tough, which surprised me.  When I had only heard him, he didn’t sound tough.  As I walked behind them, I realized that it was “the little guy downstairs” and his dad, who was also carrying a heavy gym bag.  I had a heavy load, too, so I didn’t offer to help him and I don’t really know him anyway.  

But when we got to the apartment entrance, I went ahead with my key to open the door.  “He’s almost too heavy to carry,” said Dad.  “But I can do it.”  And he did.  He still does as the boy grows even heavier.  

The boy across the alley continues to call out, though his legs are much longer now and he can come down the stairs quickly,  “Where are you, Dad?  I love you, Dad!”

And Dad answers in his deep male voice,  “I’m right here, Son.  And I love you, too.”

Saturday, June 17, 2017


My father, Bruce Bennett Strachan, could not tolerate stress or high emotion at home.  I don’t know what he did at work, but mostly there he was solitary anyway, going between speeches and contacts in the field.

Three kids, plus a wife and oldest daughter in — um — opposition, automatically meant lots of racket and conflict.  He could not tolerate it or understand it.  Probably his own birth family, which was agricultural and outside working most of the time didn’t quarrel much.  As adults they seemed to have a taboo on disagreement.  They all read a lot.

Nor did he have either the inclination, the knowledge, or the skills to sit down with us and work through our issues.  I hope he did that at work, because it seems as though that would have been a big part of the job — keeping co-ops reconciled and functioning.  But I don’t think he did.  I think it was probably like congregations everywhere in that someone in the community knew how to quiet troubles or they just got used to some people being troublesome.

My mother never did know how to work things out either though she had the training as a teacher.  The exception was Mark, my brother.  She would sit and talk to him.  But she wondered about the social workers who came to the school where she taught and took kids into a glassed side-room in the library for counselling.  “What do they talk about?” she wondered. I’ve never heard her discuss abuse of children, sexual or otherwise.  

In her late years, when my brother Paul -- after a concussion from falling -- was clearly never going to recover the ability to sustain himself, which we all denied, she would say to me, “Can we talk?”  But we never did.  There were no real answers anyway.  I was terrified that she would try to make me take over Paul’s care when she died and the rest of the family expected that, too.  But I could see the possibility of writing in retirement at last and he would prevent that.  He didn't want to live with me anyway.

For a long time I was teased by both brothers about my father’s solution for keeping order.  He thought it was effective control, but it only affected the surface.  This was for traveling.  It was a 3 X 5 card clipped to the sun visor with the names of we three on it.  This was called the “Plus and Minus System.”  If we did something praiseworthy, we got a plus; if we failed some way, we got a minus.  

Every morning they were added up and the person who had the most pluses got a dime, the next one down got a nickel, and the bottom one got a penny.  Somehow, most of the things my brother Mark did were worth a plus.  Almost every thing I did was not eligible for a plus because I was the oldest and expected to do those things.  There was an element of sexism as well.  Girls are expected to serve.

My father thought that everyone would be motivated by greed and this would control us.  After I saw through the scheme, which took about two days, I went out of my way to challenge and be defiant.  I set myself to not want or need money or approval.  My brother Mark, aged maybe seven, took me to one side and told me, who must have been nine, that I was a fool.  “Just give him what he wants,” he advised.  “Why invite punishment?”  There was a third option, which was to turn invisible.  I didn’t take it.  A contemporary counselor would point out that picking a fight is always a good way to get contact, which can be “narcissistic supply”.  Or just a longing for recognition and — choke — love. 

My hatred of the plus-and-minus system became a basic rule of my character, very deep.  It’s still strong, the dynamic of refusing control to meet someone else’s desires and the dynamic of just doing without — not wanting.  (When I blog about Oppositional Defiance Disorder, I always get lots of comments, so I’m not alone.)  Part of this was observing that my mother was subservient and obedient to my father.  To her it was marriage’s obligation.  When Bob and I got into trouble, she stayed far out of it, even when I ended up in the hospital and the shrink called her.

In my father’s late years, after Pacific Supply Cooperative had become a corporation and fired him, he taught at small colleges, mostly Christian (though he declared he was atheist) and quiet, and even there he boastfully spoke of keeping order by taking names.  He didn’t do anything about it — no calling on the carpet or penalties — but was pleased that just whipping out a little notebook and demanding their names was intimidating enough to make them back off.  I guess he used grades instead of dimes.

This would hardly be worth considering for anyone except family members except that it is so clear an echo of Trump.  Obedience enforced by bribes and intimidation.

It’s also the way bottom level management has operated in most of the jobs I’ve had, certainly it’s the way many high school principals operate.  In small towns many of them are athletic coaches while teaching and then move up to something like managing the school’s athletic program as principal.  Then they control the money, the permissions, the teachers who don’t cooperate, and can interact with the town’s school board, often men more interested in winning town teams than educational goals.  It helps sales and reputation to have teams who go to state.  It’s a Chamber of Commerce thing.

Bruce Strachan

Curiously, my father was almost always at war with the female editor of PSC in-house newspaper whom he was supposed to supply with photos and stories.  It was hard to know what the problem was, though when he was home we heard all about it at suppertime.  My mother would offer explanations and he would shrug them off.  

My mother, on the other hand, almost always had an older woman friend, someone wise and reassuring whom she valued and helped, more of an aunt than a mom.  Clearly she WAS repeating her family and an early close friendship with her Sunday School teacher.  She got along fine with her male principal and esp. a young male teacher who was Japanese.  But she had a love/hate dynamic going with two other single female teachers.  Some people would sexualize all this.

I find it hard to discuss coherently.  Maybe you can tell.

Friday, June 16, 2017


Lichen, seen close-up

When I was first diagnosed with diabetes 2, which I did not expect and only came to light because of an eye exam, docs and researchers seemed confident of what was happening and what to do about it.  Since then, medicine in general and diabetes in particular has had what used to be called a “sea change,” meaning that there is a massive shift, partly due to research and partly because of social change, esp. that which is economic and partly because of demographic shifts in age and origin.  Some would call it a “paradigm shift”, one that far exceeds changes in the field of medicine and its associated institutions.

I’m reading “Boundary Layer” by Kem Luther because I asked to review it for “The Goose,” the official publication of ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada).  I’ll post the review later, but it is an exemplar of the change in thinking among scientists, including the “soft” sciences of psych and sociology, though advanced physics is part of the shift.  One way of describing it might be that we are challenging the idea of “thingness.”  That is, what we consider to be a circumscribed concept and give a name, like “diabetes”, is really a complex interaction of how people live, how molecules react, and what the emergent consequences can be.  “Disease” itself is a category that morphs all the time.  No longer do we think of invasive bugs/germs to be countered with magic meds.  Peoples’ very “being” is a matter of constant adjustment to everything.

“Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease.”  This is the information that has been the missing link in my planning.  I thought that if I were conscientious and stayed otherwise healthy, I could freeze diabetes 2 where it is, indefinitely.  So when the new doc told me that it might be time to go to a different set of meds plus a weekly injection, I was shocked.  

The implications are not medical so much as logistical.  If I must have a weekly injection, I must either get to an injecting person or they get to me once a week.  In winter Valier roads are often impassible.  I can cope with grocery shopping because intervals happen, but they are unpredictable.  I can get pills and catfood delivered, but no one delivers nurses.  If I really MUST have weekly injections, I will have to move to a larger town, but this house is probably unsaleable.  It stood empty for three years before I bought it.  The outbuildings are seriously deteriorated.

I had expected my eyes to deteriorate.  My glaucoma scores are going up slowly, but are still not to the point where I need medication for that.  For decades I’ve gone to the Great Falls Clinic for eye care, but the third opthalmologist of mine just quit them.  I suspect it’s because they have a practice manager charged with increasing profits, aggravated by the expense of the fancy structures they have built.  Doctor support has been cut back, removing the transcribers traditional for opthamologists and imposing time limits on examinations.  They emphasize computer records, which is not comfortable for some older docs.  

What used to be a slow crawl across my retinas with a big specialized machine is now not much more than a recent high school grad filling out a questionnaire and the doc standing in the doorway to ask me how I am.  Maybe a quick glimpse with a hand lens.  I suspect the big dominant medical corporation, Benefis, is competing with the clinic, but I see that the docs who are leaving are establishing independent small offices.

A few summers ago my eyes became so painful and enflamed that I forced my way into the eye doc, insisting that he see me.  He was flummoxed by the symptoms and kidded me about wearing too much fancy eye makeup, which I wasn’t.  We finally decided it was irritation from field burning.  Then this year he stood in the doorway and said I had ocular rosacea and dry-eye syndrome.  My mother was diagnosed with that many years ago, so it’s not a new medical breakthrough.  Now I control it with a hot washcloth compress and lubricant eye drops.  I got this advice off the internet.  The doc wanted me to go to the clinic dermatologist.  There’s a new pill for dry eye syndrome, a systemic.  

When this doc left the clinic, he joined an earlier doc who had left, one who has established a reputation as the lens-replacement go-to doc.  He sees the world in terms of cataracts.  That’s his “thing” and he lines up surgical assembly lines.  I don’t like that.  I resist specialists and always have.  Much of this is driven by money, as those watching the versions of federal health care law are acutely aware.

If I lose my eyesight, I can compensate to some degree with speaking programs in the computer, but I can’t drive.  There is no regular commercial bus service to Great Falls.  I suspect that the various initiatives for aging services and others will not be sustainable in this government climate.  This is a "family" town where most people have relatives with cars. 

The other consideration besides eyes is the need for exercise to maintain vascular health.  Back in my clerical days one leg developed a tendency to swell and that continues now.  I must remember to stand up and walk every now and then.  I think I might be having “microvascular” accidents, but maybe this forgetfulness is just standard aging:  where did I put my car keys and all that.  But again, a more major accident might mean no more driving.  The Strachan hereditary tendency is strokes.

This summer I’m thinning out my books, reducing the furniture which is easy since it’s all Good Will stuff anyway, but on the other hand hard because today’s Good Will won’t accept furniture as shabby as mine.  I can no longer afford to buy Good Will furniture either.  I would not be able to personally and physically load up a U-Haul to take the basics to a new place, which is how I’ve managed in the past.

This book I’m reading is about lichens which are symbiotic with algae.  “A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi in a symbiotic relationship. The combined lichen has properties different from those of its component organisms.”  One of the messages from Kem Luther is how resourceful this partnership can be.  The organisms can separate, go through stages in which they are quite different, establish new relationships, include other organisms, exchange nutrients, and compensate in many other ways.  They are exquisitely prepared to survive.

Right now we are wrestling with the “thingness” of the government, of the presidency, of the citizens and the whole nature of democracy.  We want uniformity of entitlement and prosperity, but at the same time we want exceptionalism in our leaders.  These are not frozen, stable, eternal phenomena, but rather time-arts that can adapt to new situations.  This is what I’ll do with my diabetes 2, not without inconvenience and a certain amount of pain.  It is what the medical profession must face.  

The message from thoughtful people is that the only way to sustain survival is through adaptation, NOT through clinging to the status quo.  But if we change too much, who will we be?  It’s a time to survey the options and generate new ones.  Lichens are the literally lowest life form and could probably survive on Mars.  That thin layer of adaptable small units is called the “stegnon.”  It is not a THING, but a relationship.  So is diabetes.  How do I find a new eye doc who doesn't think I am a thing.