Since my posts sometimes cluster naturally, I compile them and post them as one long document. Nothing fancy. No images.



(Main blog, daily posts)


Heart Butte School, Montana (Non-fiction, the school and its community.)

Robert Macfie Scriver and Art: An archive. Books by Mary Scriver

ON AMAZON: "Bronze Inside and Out: a biographical memoir of Bob Scriver" and "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke: sermons for the prairie."

Saturday, September 24, 2016


“Audrie and Daisy” is just now streaming on Netflix.  It is a high school version of Krakauer’s “Missoula” book, taking a closeup over time of girls who are invaded and shamed by callous boys.  The point that the law is helpless — stymied by politics — is repeated.  Strangely, the girls blame themselves.

There were a few things in the movie I noted in passing.  One was that in the end the girls found each other and made common cause, which changed the equation without getting hysterical.  Another was that the mayor, a vestige of decades ago, confidently explained that the problem was bad publicity focusing on the girls instead of the major achievements of the Mid-Western town:  their man-made lake for recreation, their good fishing, and their golf course.  (Valier has no golf course.)  He was an old guy totally out-of-contact with the real world or with his own value system.  He didn’t mention jobs or infrastructure.  I wouldn't bet on his city sewer system being up-to-date.

One incident wasn’t so much about “sex” as about childishly writing on the body of a comatose girl, as though she were a t-shirt begging for quips.  “I thought it was just fun,” said one of the boys, though the incident ended with them parking the marker in her vagina.  “We’ve always done that.  You know, drawing a mustache on someone who went to sleep.”  I’d be willing to bet these were day-care kids without the kind of parenting that creates empathy.  Watching the boys with the police it was clear that they were not thinking through what they had done, but only trying to evade consequences.  These were not boys who had felt the full force of the law or who really believed in the existence of prison.  I predict that these will eventually be brought to their attention.

There are always many ways to look at a situation.  I always go for the broadest and most inclusive methods and patterns, which is what made me think that seminary and divinity school were good places to learn and also what pulled me out the other side when I realized that many of these schools are defending their institutional existence rather than the search for understanding.  Of course, at some point one must stop and commit, at least temporarily, but I’m too eclectic to fit one place mentally.  (Physically I’m no longer a traveler.)

Let’s try this as an approach to the very real problem of vulnerable individuals being attacked and humiliated sexually.  First of all, human females have never been able to prevent pregnancy in the past; also,  in the past giving birth was too often deadly and still is.  Death in birth is closely related to poverty, disease, and broken cultures where there is no communal help for individuals.  Every whole and prosperous culture has a broken edge.  But this time a medical advantage has removed the protective value of risk consciousness.

Jared Diamond approached cultures by looking at the kind and amount of resources of an ecology, very basic things like the kind of food, means of transportation, mineral deposits, available water.  These dictated social arrangements and therefore moral codes.  This is all still true but we don’t accept limits.

Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads” takes an historical view keyed by the shift of economic resources BETWEEN ecologies either as trade or as raid, according to the ability to transport goods or to produce violence.  He proposes that the first trade was explicit trafficking of slaves.  “The Game of Thrones” genre (I just watched “The Last Kingdom,” one of the better iterations — though no dragons.) repeats and repeats this version.  It also supports the “boys against the girls” schism of European ag-based gender-roles that is one source of trouble and confusion now.  And flatters the “white is entitled" notion.  

European nations as we know them were forming about the same time we were destroying the Native American nations.  The 19th century was a hinge time in which science finally challenged religion effectively, and produced some versions of science that were as toxic as religion.  “Survival of the fittest” was warped into an excuse for oppression, a rationalism for theft and violence.  It works if you don’t value human life.  

The survival part was true.  I mean, the more closely the people fit the culture and the culture fits the ecology, the more people will happily survive.  The catch is that evolution proceeds by change but people and institutions don’t like change, try to prevent change, and often succeed in compensating for change — but the planet earth is ALWAYS changing, sometimes drastically, and — so ironically! — as a RESULT of human efforts to prevent change.

Change kills.  The terms of survival change.  Failure to adapt kills.  The more young people can find new ways to survive — usually but not always based on sexual self-protection, habits of constructive activity, and lively empathy for others — the more they are likely to have a mental and emotional understanding of more than one small town where reputation controls what jobs you can get, whether your business will prosper, whether your house is safe, and whether the cops will be willing to believe your complaints.  (Institutions work as small towns.)

In America the public high schools and corporate universities were assumed to be teaching these life skills.  But television was teaching the opposite.  What began as Sesame Street is now Big Bird fried on a plate.  Masterpiece Theatre is now defined by fee-for-service.  Even as a minister to elite populations in university towns, I found resistance to any sermonic idea that challenged the status quo.  But people were susceptible to flattering promotional sub-set of ideas.

After reading these stories of girls abused by entitled boys, it’s interesting to read in VICE about the rise and fall of male stripper popularity.
It doesn’t sound like role reversal as sex objects is a very good alternative to just finding a niche that fits the individual.

“Thinking in terms of populations, rather than individuals, is primary: the genetic diversity existing in natural populations is a key factor in evolution.”  (from the anonymous Wiki contributor).  It appears that diversity is a good thing.  I’ve just downloaded a paper from the Royal Society concerned with Biological Sciences but haven’t read it yet.  It promises to be a consideration of the evolution of ideas about evolution, which is something like thinking about the evolution of the human brain -- not the history of thought, but the physical development of its parts.  What we have here is paradigm shift to see reality more accurately.

These two popular and meant-to-be-shocking accounts of the treatment of young respectable women in American mainstream society are essentially evidence of gender relations that pretend to be about sex.  The anguish of the people involved should move us to rethink.  Football coaches might well give some thought to paradigm shift in terms of game-based careers that don’t destroy young people.

As for universities, I’m in favor of taking them down to the ground and starting over with a log where a teacher can sit with a student, thinking.  I’d pull down the religious edifices and go back to campfires, but not human sacrifice.

Friday, September 23, 2016


Rage in a time of confusion, when actions overwhelm words and words overwhelm thinking.  I’m thinking about these forces in our society, mostly because it’s pushed in my face.  The newspaper says Krakauer is still in pursuit of more documents in the Missoula rape cases he described in his book.  Netflix is pushing a documentary about girls being raped.  And Trump is literally stripped and minimized by art but goes right on raging.  The strange part is that people I respect as sensible do not see this as strange.  Somehow it is the norm.

I’m only partway into Krakauer’s book.  In spite of Valier girls attending in Missoula, this library didn’t have the book.  We had to get it through Interlibrary Loan, but discovered that most of the neighboring county libraries had it.  Krakauer tells us right up front that the rape rate in Missoula is not higher than in comparable towns.  What justifies a book targeting a town that in Montana is supposed to stand for “elite.”?

Not that I’m a Missoula fan.  I went to in-service teacher’s conventions there in the Sixties, attended the Montana Festival of the Book in the Twenty-oughts, served as the Unitarian-Universalist minister there 1982-85.    I knew students and profs there, Rollie Meinholtz (drama professor) was a classmate at NU, and Jim Welch (the writer) was a family friend.  Kim Williams, the NPR personality, was often with us.  But I didn’t know any football players and until the last decade or so the school was quite different.  It was the “intellectual” capital of the state and that meant in the public mind professors more like Norman Maclean (who taught at the U of Chicago) than Richard Hugo, that much loved but often depressed barfly.  

Missoula is, as Krakauer describes, a two-tiered place.  On the one hand is the illusion of an archetypal New England campus and just under it is economic suffering, drunkenness, drugs and rage which sometimes leaks into the rez world — or is it that the rez rage leaks into the campus?  At the same time I served Missoula, I was circuit-riding to Bozeman where those forces were NOT in the air.  It was the ag school with a cowboy vibe, and a strong scientific bent.  People were busy and athletic.

So far I’ve only encountered the cases of Keely Williams and Allison Huguet.  Tonight I’ll watch the Netflix documentary.  But one thing strikes me and it is not about the girls.  In fact, I haven’t run across any mention yet of what to me is most obvious.  These cases are NOT about whether or not the male had consent.  They are outright assaults in which big muscle men forced their FINGERS, two and three at a time, into the women with such rage that the tender vaginal walls were torn by fingernails, possibly also rings, with such force that one of the girls’ beds was soaked with blood.  That’s not sex, even if you “like it rough.”  It’s almost vengeance, irrational as road rage, an act of war, regardless of how long or how well the rapist knew the woman.  The fact of gang rape, far more cold-blooded, is even closer to an act of war.  Police are not capable of responding adequately.  Female officers only complicate the matter.  In another era, those young men wouldn’t even be tried — just tossed into the army.

CONSENT is a non-issue in these cases.  The girls were dehumanized, their brains disconnected by booze and drugs — they were only inert bodies with fleeting hallucinations and no power to act.  The CONSENT was given by themselves, voluntarily, when they arrived at the party with no protection other then a girl-friend.  Two people getting into bed together have removed the line between consent and permission.

Incidentally — so far I’m only on p.79 — Krakauer has not addressed the fertility issue, although he’s focused on the female side.  Maybe because he’s focused on the female side.  In some times and places the point of rape was illicit fertilization of someone else’s woman.  Thus the questions about boyfriends.  Not about jealousy, but about “ownership.”  To be someone’s girl friend is a pale version of being his chattel.  This might be more compelling to a potential rapist than the wishes of the woman.

We have not settled the rule changes derived from the Pill.  Big questions about inheritance and responsibility for raising a child still pertain, though these days we don’t argue much about who inherits the throne.   So far in the book there’s no discussion of sex education.  One of the rapists was a male virgin who clearly needed to learn to distinguish between seduction and entitled force.  None of these people seem to have smarts about emotion.

The law about such matters often lags behind the reality of what happens these days and this confuses the prosecutions even more than when morality was simpler.  We haven’t even settled the legality of abortion.  On the emotional side, the latest neurology would not so much propose that these men were reverting to the neanderthal state, as that they were lost in a vortex of conflicting brain commands — bull-riding with themselves as the bull.  We’re not clear about how much men are accountable for themselves nor for each other.  Do brothers let brothers rape?  If they’re too drunk to drive?

What struck me even harder was the similarity to the rape of boys, often as young as eight, both those who do sexwork for survival and those who are simply members of abusive families (as they are loosely defined now) or available in such settings as migrant camps.  How often their abuse is connected to that same kind of violent rage and destruction, with the same kind of damage to the rectum as the women suffered to their vaginas, and both sometimes suffered to their mouths.  It seems not just sexual rape rage, but a truly vulpine urge to “eat” their victims, to get inside of them, to penetrate the mystery of them and punish it.  Sometimes to beat their faces as though erasing identity, or beat their backs as “whipping boys,” displacing punishment that belongs to the beater.

If I try to imagine why men would be so enraged, I think about our Prussian-style schools (ranked and graded), burdened with war-like “games” that destroy brains and knees, giving the good grades to women, and hiring women as “counselors” though some play out as “enforcers”, gate-keepers.  I watch my cop shows and see how the men get scolded and outwitted even in a script.  

A few times I was in a situation where I was the scolder and used the teacher’s weapon of preventing boys from competing because of bad grades or bad behavior.  The rage that came at me was not from the boys, but from the male athletic directors, principals and superintendents.  When their faces contorted and they sprayed spit, I wished I were wearing my sheriff’s uniform and badge.  I saw the same thing on the street when I interfered with some guy’s dog, his alter ego.  (Some dogs were their owner’s rage and legally defined weapons.)  In the end the school officials who had hired me with the expectation that because I’d taught on the rez (where they assumed the athletes were animals) I’d be able to control a class of boys no one could manage except the coach — who WANTED them to be animals and slipped them steroids.  These guys were not big on strategy.

In confusing times, people have trouble sorting out what to do, but the worst things don’t happen with time enough to pick through the evidence or the options for redress.  Combat decisions.  That means polarization so that only the extreme opposites are in mind— black or white, male or female, rich or poor, smart or stupid, employable or loser, puritan or hedonist.   

Knowing I was going to either quit or be fired, I spent some time talking frankly to this bunch of players.  As soon as I started in that school, girls had come to me privately to complain about the way they were forcibly treated and “slagged” if they didn’t accept their assigned roles.  (I never figured out how to help them, which is shameful.)  It took some time before the boys began to discuss how they were being gamed and betrayed — not by girls, but by older men.  

This is not Pat Williams talking about the university admitting “thugs” instead of real students, although that’s related.  This is school administrators and town officials trying to inflate status through boy gladiators because local older suits and greed-heads knew it would increase business and alumni contributions.  It’s become the American Way.  Justice has little to do with it, and it’s not just college towns.  Individuals are not as important as the system, which sometimes renders “justice” a misnomer.

But, as a local prominent businessman told me at the library yesterday, universities are just for partying.  For real success, you’ve got to learn on the job.  We thought that computerizing everything would mean more people would need college educations.  They forget that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both dropouts.

More later when I finish the book.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


On the East Slope of the Rockies there is a brief few days of glory when it has been cold enough to kill the chlorophyll in the leaves so that they are all bright yellow.  Not many red underpigments in the plants around here unless someone has deliberately planted some, like maples.  The bright red and orange leaves are colored by glucose responding to the combination of bright light and cold — sweet!

But on the East Slope there is wind in fall (also in spring, winter and summer).  The wide leaves of deciduous trees get ripped off in a hurry.  The vaguely round leaves of the aspens blow away in showers too easy to compare to gold coins.  The poplars started spinning off single leaves back in August.  The ones on the north side of this house will be only branches soon.  The big cottonwood on the south side of this house will keep its leaves longer.  The truth is that it comes from a different ecology than here and is always slightly out of step — branches too low, too long, trunk too multiple, too inclined to hollow.

Photographers who happen through this time of year are always smitten.  But they must make it snappy to capture the color.  I took a photo of my neighbors' trees (top), the yellow contrasting nicely with the dark of the blue spruce, which is also not native.  In the water-saturated overcast day, the colors are "saturated", though the definition is not the same.  Here’s the formal definition of saturated pigment:

“Color saturation refers to the intensity of color in an image. In technical terms, it is the expression of the bandwidth of light from a source. The term hue refers to the color of the image itself, while saturation describes the intensity (purity) of that hue. When color is fully saturated, the color is considered in purest (truest) version. Primary colors red, blue and yellow are considered truest version color as they are fully saturated.

“As the saturation increases, the colors appear to be more pure. As the saturation decreases, the colors appear to be more washed-out or pale.”
A three minute vid 

Marshall Noice, a Kalispell painter who took the photographs for Bob Scriver’s self-published high-end art books, turns nature’s phenomena on their heads to wake us up and make us look again.  Some might categorize the work as “fauvist” meaning “the wild beasts,” a French art movement maybe responding to oil paint in tubes, a revolutionary idea, rather related to plein aire painting.  Color, even as a single raw pigment, is powerful — in juxtaposition it can almost cut the eye.  And yet, the opposite art strategy, called tonalist, is used by Russell Chatham, famous for his subtle colors and formal composition.  It will soon suit our landscape very well.

Harvest always struggles with these fall rain storms.  The heavy heads of grain, now shading from gold to brass to ochre, bend over, evading the blades of machinery.  If they touch the ground, they’ll begin to grow again as though it were spring.  We’re not likely to have lightning storms with hail now, but a transient snow storm can crush everything.  The quality of grain can be compromised and profit depends upon quality as much as quantity.

Animals, including cats, are hyperphagic in fall.  The spilled grain feeds the hurrying mice and the cats follow on.  People who want all cats confined to houses don’t understand barn cats.  Cats do eat birds, too, which take shelter next to the tree trunks a cat can climb instead of out on the waving twigs that drop cats to the ground.  The grizzlies have finished with the chokecherries along the creeks now and are thinking of apple trees, which brings them to yards and even into Valier. They don't eat cats; coyotes and domestic dogs eat cats.

Latest Valier bear

In Portland there was a friend who always had an apple cider party this time of year.  He had an old machine that the gang would take turns operating while the rest brought in the apples from a nearby old orchard or even from other sources, maybe their own yards or vacant lots.  Apples are everywhere in Oregon.  

I suggested that idea here and was met with many objections: some of the apples might be diseased, it would be too hard to schedule given the season of sports, powerful families would dominate.  Clearly this culture has given up the old co-op model of the prairie, but I’m not sure it took hold here in the first place.  It was the product of necessity and in Valier the main necessity was always small grain irrigation and therefore individual water rights controlled by shares.

All my windows are glazed with rain, but I think it’s coming mostly from the north, which means that it’s time to put the plastic sheet slipcover on the garage screen door.  It’s a good chance to check the tarps on my roofs and as soon as the poplar leaves are down, I'll dig out the gutters.  I’ve diverted some old corrugated metal to patch together on the outbuildings, but never did get it attached.  You’ve got to fasten it down securely or it will sail off in the wind and decapitate someone.

This house has no eaves for two reasons.  One is that eaves would offer leverage to high winds prying at the roof and the other is that in winter sun will melt snow on the roof, but when it tries to drain the eaves will have a buildup of ice that won't melt because there's no house warming the underside. Some people install a rickrack of electrical heat tape.  But water is getting inside the walls of this eaveless house.

In Portland today's weather would be replicated almost every day until Spring.  In Oregon this house would rot to the ground, but here on the East Slope we go from bone-dry to tightly frozen with only a few weeks as interval.  The animals figure out how to cope.  So far only little birds have come through, obeying their migratory strategy.  The big V’s of waterfowl haven’t begun yet.  In Portland when they came over our neighborhood, we'd all rush outside and begin to sing the Frankie Laine song:  

My heart knows what the wild goose knows
And I must go where the wild goose goes
Wild goose, brother goose, which is best?
A wandering fool or a heart at rest?
Tonight I heard the wild goose cry
Hanging north in the lonely sky
Tried to sleep, it wasn't no use
Cause I am a brother to the old wild goose

(Oh, my heart knows what the wild goose knows)
(And I must go where the wild goose goes)
Wild goose, brother goose, which is best?
A wandering fool or a heart at rest?
Woman was kind and true to me
She thinks she loves me, more fool she!
She's got a love that ain't no use
To love a brother of the old wild goose
The cabin is warm and the snow is deep
And I got a woman who lies asleep
She'll wake up tomorrow's dawn
And find, poor critter, that her man is gone

(Oh, my heart knows what the wild goose knows)
(And I must go where the wild goose goes)
(Wild goose, brother goose, which is best?)
(A wandering fool or a heart at rest?)
Let me fly, let me fly, let me fly away
Spring is coming and the ice will break
And I can't linger for a woman's sake
She'll see a shadow pass overhead
And she'll find a feather 'side her bed


Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Steven Pressfield features “Writing Wednesdays” on his website,  This 8/21/16 is Wednesday and he’s picking up the Emily Dickinson/Van Gogh conundrum: if a writer is never published but is an excellent writer, what does it mean?  It’s a bit of a tree-falling-in-the-forest question: if no one observes, notes and publicizes the tree, did it really fall?

One of the senior UU ministers, charged with the task of tracking down his classmates for a fifty-year celebration, found someone he’d forgotten all about and so had everyone else, but who had been a exemplary and well-loved figure his whole career in a small midwest town.  No one farther away than a few counties had any knowledge of him at all.  Was he lesser than the ones (men) who had the big churches in the big cities?  Don’t we recognize cream because it rises and isn’t risen cream a good thing?  Didn’t Jesus rise?  

“Published” is a brainwash game.  “Best-selling,” “most popular,” even “made into a movie” (which may mean it’s totally transformed) is just part of the same game.  Why does no one rebuke publishers for not finding really high quality and game-changing books?  Why do publishers pay for excellent writing and then tinker with it to make it into something more commercial?

Someone asked to borrow my copy of “The Black Moccasin,” by John Tatsey, a compilation of John’s newspaper columns here on the rez in the Sixties.  It should be called the “Black Mock-a-sin”, since that was the content.  Tatsey was the only law officer in Heart Butte and made his daily arrests and investigations into Dogpatch tales of great energy and exaggeration, because “Stay Away, Joe” was popular at the time.  Mike Mansfield was so tickled by these tales that he had them read into the Congressional Record.  It’s unknown whether he realized they were self-mocking comedy that was defending against the real tragedies and poverty of the people.  Everyone mistakes the stories for reality.  I do not loan the book.  But doesn’t that mean it might as well not exist?

When one joins the company of — whatever the company is that is rather sequestered but high status whether ministry or writers or even publishers or politicians— it is a great fascination to hear all the privileged “inside” stories, which is what people thought Tatsey was writing.  The UUMA (the ministers for the UUA) are still having to handle the hot potatoes roasted by clerical misconduct.  Curiously, very few talk about draining money or letting the church building deteriorate or being rotten preachers — most of the gossip goes to sex and most of it has no helpful context.  For instance, if the stories are looked into, they often turn into sad tales of addiction, broken families, domination by powerful people, one of those narcissistic hunger-holes demanding admiration.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of institutions, because these are the usual context of all this power over individual creativity.  I’ve been a blogger for a decade now.  Some metric monitors say I’m read by 400 people a day and some say 1,000 or higher.  Few single books are read that much. There’s a natural ceiling because of the cost of the materials, storage, and distribution.  But blogging costs nothing, not even the computer to write on unless there’s no library around.  (A book on the shelf is just one book — a computer on the table is the world’s libraries.)  It’s very much a straw into gold project.

Writing on the Internet can be in the interest of a cause, can be “fenced” to be read only by certain people, can use any subject matter or genre, UNLESS the writer can’t resist the big money-making platforms like Facebook or Medium.  You can quickly become infamous there.  (They don’t make money for YOU, but for the platform owners, who sell their lists of clientele.)  It is a way of evading publishers who buy the writers’ works and change them to suit their own purposes which are mostly sales.

Because SALES are what publishing is about.  And that means advertising and product tampering.  “Listen, Ernie, no one is interested in some old man catching a fish all by himself.  There’s a sportsman’s industry you’re damaging by making it seem so primitive and unreasonable.”  The youngsters won’t even know what I’m talking about in this little joke.  They want graphic, in both senses.

The people who bow down in obeisance to publishing and take “publishing a book” to be the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval are just social climbers who want status, confirmation as though they were still in school and working for good grades.  They’re Victorian.

So what ARE the markers of “good” writing?  If it isn’t financial and social admiration, what is it?  If it has a major life-changing impact on one other person, is it “successful” writing?  If John Tatsey weren’t so funny and colorful, which is what got him published far more than any sober anthropologist, would he have been so successful?   Or did he do actual damage, like reporting the murder of an officer, so that every time the account was republished due to popular demand (about once a decade), the story of the murder was taken to have just happened.  The family suffered again.  Finally, they took action by nominating the officer for a hero award, which established the facts and restored the seriousness of death.

Who will EVER be able to disentangle the chaff from the wheat in the present election run-up?  The subjects attract everything from stunning analysis to clown-level satire, and that doesn’t include what the candidates themselves write.  No doubt there will be incredible novels that inspire absorbing video serieses.  A thousand years from now, what will it matter?  Whose mom will be proud?

If one can write a truly satisfying balanced and memorable sentence, that’s a good thing, but no one will put a gold star on your chart.  (The reviewers and the publishers of reviews have withered.)  

If someone has lived a life in the underworld among people no one even realizes are there and then writes about it (without getting killed for breaking the code) is that a good thing?  What if you can’t tell a sociopath from a PTA president? (I suppose they COULD be the same person — what a plot premise!)  We’re confronted with writers who are convincing misery fantasists and others whose reality is mocked as fantasy.  The unmasking might sell better than the original.  And then there are the stories that are plainly labeled fantasy — dragons and all that.  And all the stuff we don’t really want to know about, fantasy or not.  I’ve seen enough severed heads, thank you.

Aside from the honor of it all and the skill of word-smithing and the new knowledge transmitted and the reactions of the readers — all of which tend to push writing and publishing into certain expected channels — now and then some visionary or innocent throws an explosion of words into the public awareness that changes everything.  Access to it might not be a matter of publishing at all, at least not in any known mode.  That’s where writers and ministers meet.  They have in the past and they will in the future.  You might not notice.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Actual human relationships are not my strong suit.  I do better with other animals, but on the basis of empathy, feeding and physical contact.  I’m pretty good with cats, but even then when it comes to a divergence of desire (Bunny just brought in a half-killed sparrow.  I took it and threw it out the door, too late to save it, so whom was I helping?  My interior decorating — since all the hurtling about of pursuit was breaking things.)

I do better with the abstract than with the practical concrete — I mean, I speculate, write and empathize but don’t volunteer at soup kitchens.  It’s always a problem when I see a need for help and the needy person doesn’t.  I learned this as an English teacher, as a minister and as a dogcatcher.  Not everyone wants to be improved, and the emotional rewards of what society criticizes is probably a good part of what fills our prisons.

But, since emotion is involved, I get hooked by need or potential or witnessing misery.  They’re often mixed in a confusing way.  I was looking for photos of our library for a bulletin board the librarian wants to create and came across one of those “convicted criminals in your area” websites.  I knew the majority of them at least by sight, but two of them more closely.  One was a former student who was convicted of Murder One, though the situation was more like manslaughter, and who served a decade in prison which bent him into a permanent violent violator, dependent on imposed limits for survival.  The other was a man I worked with, a stupid hustler whose wife ran him.  Both fancied themselves as able to step outside boundaries and both were enslaved by their self-image.  They are extreme examples.  Maybe.

The latter has no sympathy from me.  He’s a materialistic lowlife in spite of having a good family and standard opportunities.  I have no idea how he got so corrupt and no interest in finding out.

But the former, as a student, was my formal responsibility and also had potential as a writer, though his content was violent and highly political.  His father was also my student, not a writer but a mystic in a political way, a Missoula shaman verging on witchcraft.  We’re talking Blackfeet Indians here — oh, the dream of it all on the shoulder of the Rockies where misfits come to hide, believing they are going to a high pure place.  Where politicized Vietnam veterans came to find a family and were willing to carry water, chop wood, learn stories, hunt.  So mixed.  This boy’s grandfather and great-grandfather worked briefly at Scriver Studio.  The grandfather was honored in WWII and owned a ranch for a while.  The great-grandfather lived on Moccasin Flats in a log-cabin.  

There is no helping now.  The generations have died except for this last middle-aged man with the heart of a five-year-old wanting to be a vampire while he sits in prison tattooing his own arms.

There are different kinds of help.  With this boy what I tried was mostly transactional — that is, he was getting practicalities out of it.  When he was in prison, he asked me to relay messages to his family because their phone was cut off.  I sent him books and he wrote me letters.  He asked for “Heavy Metal” magazine (which I read before sending) and that was my introduction to “graphic novels” and a specific pattern of need and rescue.  The relationship thus served me well by giving me access to a different world.  I haven’t seen him since before the first imprisonment, but he has "tattooed" me.

“The Crow” was his avatar superhero of the rotted urban scene destroyed by CEO’s whose fat greed sucked the life out of once-thriving cities.  The Crow lived high up in abandoned skyscrapers.  (This local man never lived in any city.)  He was a person of darkness, neo-noir, and those he saved were the babies, the tender, the helpless, the female — those he could dominate, who were extensions of his own vulnerability.  The pattern it set was of extremes that eliminated the moderate, the measured, the reflective, the gradual.  

The usual SuperHero pattern prevents any intimacy between equals, often gender-assigned or age-separated like Batman and Robin.  The Senate versus the Poor, the Minority, the Unemployed.  The blurring of reality was completed when Brandon Lee was killed during production of the movie version of “The Crow”.  It sold well.  It is a hinge.  Sort of a conflation of Johnny Depp’s version of Tonto and the Joker from Batman.  Knock-offs abound on YouTube.

Help for persons in this gestalt means surrendering identity.  It means letting someone else be the Crow.  Risk, disease, cold, hunger, invisibility are a challenge to empathy.  But how else can it be figured out?  The ones gripped by major trouble have a hard time getting through a day, so how can they be asked to explain it all?  But why should they accept our explanations?

We need the ones who’ve “been there, done that” and somehow managed to escape to tell us.  The hardest thing for them to give up might be their conviction that they somehow deserved what happened to them, because that leaves them at the center of their universe with a causal relationship to their universe.  I used to say:  “witness and testify” and some of the people who accepted that advice were killed, like one brave boy who was chopped up with machetes.  There’s a step or two missing in this formulation.

One is how to stay alive if you’ve seen something dangerous.
One is allowing yourself to really “see” the forbidden.
Another is how to keep from running around crying “wolf.”
Another is how to evade predator helpers who have uses for you that are not yours, like keeping you for a pet or a mascot or making you yourself into a weapon.

And then what happens after the testimony?  Does the Crow start a daycare center or learn to create computer programs?  Does he find “good” CEO’s who will invest in the redemption of old rotting skyscrapers?  (They call that “gentrification.”)  Does he start a bike shop?  This kid I’m talking about once had a scheme for silk-screening t-shirts to sell at pow-wows.  He had the skills, but he didn’t have the inner stability.  

What kind of people can provide stability to the unstable?  A whole new line of inquiry:  how to help people survive in an unstable world.  When is it an advantage to be unstable?  Maybe it’s just adaptability.

Monday, September 19, 2016


My favorite hinge is the spine of a book.  One could wax lyrical about opening a book to a new world and I have, probably will again.  But to talk about book burning and banning today is to complain about the horse manure in the streets.  Now the stink is in the air itself and it is not fertile.  Civilizations will not be destroyed by books because they were only the carriers of the ideas that now stream through handheld devices.

Once it was true that Bible, Koran, Upanishads,  and other great synthesizing codexes and scrolls were the carriers of revolution and shock, but also salvation and devotion.  Now?  A throbbing song with a hard beat.  Once it was hopeless to discover slang for sexual parts by looking in a dictionary.  Now you can google a photo of it in action.  Hiding that information only created a sucking need for it — or so folks thought.  Knowing the name of any physical act, even seeing it enacted, is only the beginning.

The control of ideas is what paved the way for Trump.  Suppress people’s rancour and resentment enough and you build the legitimacy of lies and slander.  It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.  Authoritarians never know the tropes of oppression.  They’re insisting that boys take their hats off in school but not insisting that their fathers not beat them.  These days if you challenge a father’s right to beat his boy, the father will come up to the school and beat YOU.  Books or no books.

The invention of writing meant the possibility of control and preservation of thought and speech.  Law books.  The invention of cyber-screens meant the IMpossibility of control.  The mistaking of books for the thought they contain adds to their commodification, their value as markers of sophistication, rebellion or illiteracy.  One cannot ask a friend “have you read such and such” without them hearing, “if you haven’t read this book, you’re a dummy.”  Even if you just want to know if they have that information so you can talk about it together.

But you want to be careful what you leave out on your coffee table if people are coming over, be careful what you read on public transportation unless you put a brown paper wrapper on it.  Some people will assume that what you read is what you do.  That’s if you’re still using books instead of screens.  Screens still seem more imaginary.

I watch what people do when they come to my house and have access to my wraparound bookshelves.  Some books have their spines turned to the wall.  A certain kind of person will go right to them and take them out to see what they are.  One guest actually got down on the floor and crawled behind the furniture to see what I might be hiding.  If there is “sex” in the title, some people will grab it out and others will try not to look at it.  

Ken Wilber’s “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: the Spirit of Evolution” was near my “guest chair” but I finally moved it because people’s eyes kept going to it.  But it would take a certain amount of education to read.  No need to ban it, because it has a built-in fence.  I mean, do you realize how difficult it is to read James Joyce or Henry Miller?  Especially if you don’t understand irony and reversal, can’t tell what’s a joke or an aside, only read for plot.

But the idea that educated people can handle risky subjects and therefore if something normally taboo is written out in Latin only “safe”can people read it, has turned out to be an evil idea related to the class-based education systems of Europe, because now people associate forbidden things with being elite, which means to them entitled to — for instance — abuse little boys.  

Also it plays into the religious idea that only the institution’s designated high priests can read things, know things, own books full of juju and woowoo.  It helped to create the nasty chasm between academic anthropologists and the people who were living in a different system that had different taboos.  Eventually the human lab rats discovered they could get the Latin translated and were indignant at what was said — as indignant as any shopkeeper’s wife would have been if it had been originally written in “English.”  I’m not just talking about Ecuadorean tribes, I’m also talking about sub-cultures and niches of people right down the street.

Books are banned when authorities are afraid of them, when they symbolize that “mud people” can be empowered, when the authorities find they can’t understand them.  Banning is about controlling — whether the authority is a Roman Catholic Cardinal or somebody’s inexperienced but righteous mommy who gets hold of a shocking paragraph or a neighbor’s inaccurate account of it.

Books are not banned because of what’s in the book — they’re banned because of what’s in the people and their goofy ideas, often religious nonsense, superstition, or fear of the “other.”  The book is just a physical symbol from the material culture.  The idea itself is only carried by the book and might not even be in words.  The objection to the book might have nothing to do with the actual book, but really be about the author and fantasies about the author.

We’re at a fascinating and ridiculous point in the history of the world.  The sexual revolution, powered by the pill, has left housewives reading trivial nonsense.  The realization of the vulnerability of children has revealed abuse that some people crave to know about, but don’t know what to do about.  A huge percentage of the world’s population is insisting on their women going around in draperies while another “civilized” country is arresting women on their beaches for wearing too much clothing.  

A rich man is only presumed to be rich if he shows certain characteristics. If he can manage to talk like a redneck in a wife-beater undershirt sitting on his front stoop with a beer can in his hand, he is suddenly drafted to be the hero of the masses who can’t remember the rules for political correctness.  No better, a rich and powerful woman who has been at the table with the top of the top, must produce a cookie recipe to be respected.  And just who does she think she is with her entourage, anyway?

Not only do we not know what to ban anymore, we couldn’t do it if we tried.  The walls we try to put up to protect us are useless.  Now we must go back to building character, the internal compass.  Anyway, walls and prohibitions just don’t work.  Not even tunnels.  Human beings cannot be contained and banning books doesn’t contain them.  Not that there aren’t limits and not that we don’t suffer the consequences of knowing entirely too much, constantly wanting what we just found out exists, never having the discipline to choose.

And there I am, finger-waving, ever the school teacher and preacher.  I have a heckuva lot of books.  I had thought I would write them and be published and all that doodah.  But instead it’s blogging, a steady stream of ideas that shock a few, are appreciated by others, and never become monetized.  I can’t even sell my books since the really good bookstore got run out of Choteau.  Not because they are banned, but because the physical objects that are books cost money to store, to ship, to sell.

When you get right down to the core of the issue, banning books makes them a more valuable commodity in monetary terms.  But learning to read and think is where the real value is, which can just as easily be onscreen and just as conveniently be handheld.