(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."

Friday, October 09, 2015


A brain without a body is not a brain -- the body IS the brain.  The brain only sorts the experience it acquires through the body.  it's just the dashboard.  A computer can only perform a few of the sorting abilities of a whole body.   For instance, it has NO autonomic nervous system, therefore no emotion.

Some of this short film is old-fashioned, dominated by the same prejudice of our culture that “smarts” are “brains” and that it is equipment-and-function-based.  The newer analogs leave this machine context and go to music.  It’s vibes and immersions, not wiring and transformers.  Very hard transition to make for most of us.  

The time dimension of evolution and mutations interacting is totally ignored in computers.  The difference between a worm and a human is partly in the brain, but if a worm is A and then B is added, and then C is added, and then most of the ABC worms die for some reason, but there are a few ABCD worms, who are now able to do ABCDE because of some adaptation to the conditions that killed the merely ABCD worms and because of the space and food left when the ABCD worms were gone, and this adaptation adds a new capacity from the interaction of the ABCDE worms, which creates an ABCDEF worm that can dominate the space.  Then some new shift in the environment (temperature, an evolved virus, a new predator) creates conditions that can only be survived by collaboration among the ABCDEF worms that gives the ABCDEFG (those who WILL collaborate) an advantage.  All unconsciously.

‘Experience-dependent plasticity’ is pretty much ignored by these thinkers because is not something you can see in tissue -- so far.  But any teacher knows that the capacity to change people is not just a matter of instrumental intervention or memorizing facts.  You cannot create a piano player by surgically adding fingers.  The plasticity part is vital -- you can create a piano player with practise, practise, practise, which is an interaction feedback loop that connects the fingers with what are probably a range of brain functions. (hearing, muscle control, “perfect pitch,” ability to perceive structure in sound, love of a particular kind of music)  Music can be composed that will adapt to missing fingers or even one entire hand.  Music can be created and played with only one’s mouth.  One discovers how to do it by doing it.

It is not enough to invent a prosthetic arm, because it will take a long time and a lot of effort to get the brain to recognize the connection to the machinery and then learn how to make it move.  Brains are not “plug and play.”  Part of the feedback loop will involve the eyes taking in the phenomenon of a moving arm and admitting it into the idea of their “selves.”  We’ve learned a lot from people who have lost an arm but can’t give up the idea of it and therefore often suffer.  The researcher Ramachandran invented a new feedback loop with a mirror and succeeded in teaching the brain a new version of the body.

What we think about something changes our attitude towards it, our action towards it and its response so that what actually happens can be wildly off the mark.  I loved the story about the woman who got the idea that a vacuuming “Roomba” was a living autonomous creature, a pet bumbling around the kitchen eating crumbs.  In the end, according to her neo-liberal “theory of mind,” she became convinced that the Roomba longed for freedom and to meet another Roomba for a pair-bond.  So she set it free and it went lurching into the woods, never to be seen again.  

I don’t know whether this an apocryphal story or just another “Simple Simon” tale meant to alert ourselves to the importance of being appropriate, but it certainly applies to what are now being called “neo-liberals” who believe that everyone should want what they want and set about forcing them to want freedom.  Or die.

Plasticity responds to time, which means that the brain and all the rest of the body must constantly adapt to change through interaction.  This is why solitary confinement destroys people, esp. young people who are passing through windows of capacity.  The brain can learn to speak, to write, to pair-bond, at certain intervals of growth and then can’t; don’t even know there is anything to learn, might learn basics but only with considerable protection, guidance and new experiences.  

We think of brains as pre-programmed into apps, but each person writes code, has code written on them, shares code with others.  Even gut biota code us.  Some of this learning by experience is considered play in some cultures.  Others guide everything into what they think is good for the culture.  But if the culture shifts (and cultures MUST change or be snuffed or deformed), the person faces something close to insanity.  In our own American “television” dominated lives, we are full of subtle perceptions about electronics and untested-by-reality assumptions that can become obsessional, like the idea that Obama is Muslim without any real understanding about Muslims.  It’s like believing that Obama is a witch or a zombie -- just a label carrying something mysterious and dangerous.  The whole strategy of him traveling around talking to people is to demonstrate that he’s just a guy with a certain set of experiences.

Look at this experience thing from a slightly different angle.  Our culture BELIEVES intensely that what is conscious, what is verbal, written, academic, what is certified by the culture with test scores, degrees, and high level jobs, is what is BEST, a value judgment that then controls what experience is offered and controlled.  Literacy and reason are valued as the pinnacle of what a brain can do.  And yet much of our humanity, our empathy, our motivations, and other vital abilities (the ability to survive pressure, the ability to accept comfort, a sense of humor) are not consciously achieved but appear and survive below language, below the concepts about experience, in the world-frame developing already --  even in the womb while gestating.  At that earliest point one’s own motivation is pretty much irrelevant.  

Once my mother and I had one of our monumental conflicts, usually basically because she thought survival mean conformity and I thought being “normal” was being mediocre, that the point of living and learning was to be exceptional.  Suddenly she burst out, “You’ve always been against me!  Even when they brought me to you when I had just recovered from being knocked unconscious for your birth, you fought me and wouldn’t suck.  There was a big red-headed nurse who was very angry at me.”

It took me a little while to assimilate this.  I have red-hair and somehow got confused with that nurse.  Neither of them had been educated about how to support “latching on,” which is a matter of getting a newborn to discover “nursing.”  Nor was the nurse “nursing” -- just forcing an over-conscientious new mother and a resistant baby.  So then I protested through tears, “Mama, I was just a little tiny infant!”  She looked very confused and the quarrel ended.

In adulthood she constantly tried to get me to go on walks with her, driving to one of the many pleasant paths in Portland.  I always balked, because inevitably when she got me where I couldn’t escape, she started again on her three-cornered theme about how she tried to guide me, how I refused to be helped, and what the world expects.  Now I find that I sometimes begin -- without any consciousness of doing it -- to re-enact that pattern but it never works.  Staying with the trope of nursing babies, some people are guided by La Leche League, some mothers are living at ground-level life in remote places where they never thought of it as a problem because they were just trying to survive.  Some people are hypnotized by pretty advertising images; some people are as driven to control as if they were boa constrictors.  Some people have milk full of poison and a baby half of whose beginning in semen was also poisoned.  Think of THAT!!

Each of these little vignettes represents a difference in experience that results in different people, different actions, different cultures, different brains.  No computers.  It's the differences that give us survival.

Thursday, October 08, 2015


Translation is a tricky little task.  Consider this haiku submitted to the Economist for a competition:

With newfound passion,
Leaves burn at nature's call as
Summer fades to fall.

Consider the double meaning of “nature’s call.”  Very often the funniest and sneakiest puns are euphemisms for something not said bluntly in polite company, so they tend to have that little overtone of naughtiness.  Like “tricks”.  If you’ve ever taught junior high school you’ll know that the English language is packed with double-meanings, every writer has his packages.  (At least the males.)  But beyond that, fall is not a synonym for autumn in every language.

Since so much of the flavor of haiku is related to seasonal shift, a kind of mingled sadness and new beauty, it’s a challenge for a poet in the tropics or the Arctic.  I suppose one would have to turn away from vegetation and depend upon day length.

But meaning is only one dimension of sophisticated writing.  The “rhetoric,” the choice of actual words carries tone and cultural dimensions, so that some people will like a haiku that has a rhyme in it, and others will feel it is succumbing to a nursery habit, a sing-song, call/fall.  What about the rhythm in haiku?  To my ear, this one is a little rocky, maybe because the author has a Chinese name which suggests a Chinese ear for rhythm, QUITE different from English which is different from American.

The tension between spoken sounds and marks on paper only approximate the words out loud, though the latter has breath breaks, pronunciation variants, some of which change the syllable emphasis -- tomato/tomahto. Body language, facial expression and pauses are like diacritical marks and punctuation on a page, but a page has no “mirror cells” that will pick up emotion from faces.  Thus the invention of emoticons, which also seem babyish.  Then there’s uppercase that is taken to be shouting in an emotional way, not just a way to emphasize or formalize.

But now there is a new language, for the eye rather than the ear.  I just spent a couple of hours trying to proof an article to be published in England for an international readership.  “Proofing” a final copy is a practice that arose with a paper copy that is physically sent to the printer with any corrections added by hand with a pen or pencil.  But now I send in the copy through the computer.  I can no longer use indicators that I habitually use when blogging.  (Use of bolding and italics for instance, or changing the color or size of the font or even using a different font for an interval).

What’s worse is that the computer itself had opinions about spelling or punctuation even what word I’m using and automatically changes it to suit whichever code writer wrote its original standards.  Not only that, but it changes in transit while sending, so that what I write is different from what I sent, but I don’t know it.  This is especially true when translating between Macintosh and Windows, which means going from one code to another.  

The editor of the magazine I’m sending to is extremely literate in print but evidently farms out (consider the implications of that phrase) all questions about code and other mysteries of computers to a little cadre of females, much younger.  So he, captain of the ship, says, “Make it so!”  If the translators try to explain why some change won’t work, his response is something like “that’s too far beneath my pay grade for me to waste time on it.”  There are a lot of modern computer operations that will work a lot better when the oldest people die so that everyone is computer-literate.  The trouble is that by then the computers will have changed so much that the problem will only have moved along the time-line.

For people working with immigrants problems might be more global.


Con pasión recién descubierta,
Las hojas se queman a la llamada de la naturaleza como
Verano se desvanece a caer.


With newfound passion,
The leaves are burned to the call of nature as
Summer fades to fall.


Na ọhụrụ ahuhu,
Epupụta ọkụ na ọdịdị oku dị ka
Summer dịghị-ada


And a new passion,
Leaves and nature as calls
Summer does not fall.

Here’s another machine retranslation which reports accurately that in that place summer does not fall.  So are any trees there deciduous?  Leaves suddenly can depart, a new metaphor different from falling.  Maybe something about wind, which is right now tearing leaves off the poplars in my yard.


With newfound passion,
Leaves burn at nature's call as
Summer fades to fall.

The leaves are personified, as though they have emotions, as though they were little persons.  They are said to burn, which means that the changing of the colors of the leaves when the chlorophyll dies goes from what we consider a “cool” color (green) to what we think is a “hot” color (red or yellow).  Color-metaphors are always tricky.  In English “Blue” is sadness, but no leaves turn blue.  A blue flame is perceptibly hotter than a red or yellow flame -- but we’re talking about emotion (passion) rather than temperature.

“Nature” is also a personification, but treating a season as a call is a little deceptive in part because the original concept of “season” and the original idea of “nature” as in Mother Nature have been culturally portrayed so much that seasonal change has separated from the scientific realities.  Jack Frost is realer to us than temperature dropping causing leaves to color change.  Anyway, sometimes the leaves are responding to day length more than temperature.  The concentration (the computer changed this to condensation three times before I could get concentration to stick) necessary to a haiku is harder than in prose, where you could go on to say elk bugling is calling the leaves off the trees, a fantasy.  There are no elk where there are no deciduous trees.  This is the kind of quibbling that I was taught in high school in the Fifties.  


With newfound passion,
Leaves burn at nature's call as
Summer fades to fall.

So leaves as persons -- okay.  Hot colors equal passion -- okay.  Nature’s call does not mean having to pee -- okay.  Does summer “fade” to fall?  Is a riot of green that becomes a riot of red a “fade”?  Could you make anything of the film term of “fade”?   How does it feel to assume that the passion of fall colors is “newfound”?  Was it lost?  Or is it recurrent?  What makes it new?  

Poets think about such things but they are usually not aware that they are doing it.  In fact, if you think about this stuff consciously, it will probably kill the haiku.  The best strategy is to think about it, do a bit of research, walk around outside while leaves drift down, and so on.  Then wait 24 hours before jotting it out as fast as you can.  Let yourself be “called” with “newfound passion.”  You might even take a leaf home to be a bookmark or put into a scanner for an illustration.  Scanner.  Scan a line of poetry.  Scanner that reports all calls for police action like crimes of passion . . .

Big thanks to the original poet!  If you're interested in this sort of thing, I recommend the Video linked below.  I hadn't read it when I wrote the above.  The gimmick of marking words with color goes back to my interpretation classes in the Fifties.  I used colored pencils then.

bLina Reinsbakken

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

No post tonight

Not enough sleep.  Too many ideas.  See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

EMBRACING AROUSAL (This oughta get hits!)

Philip Bromberg
Allan Schore
Ed Tronick
Dan Siegel
Pat Ogden
Joseph Ledoux

These are the names of the shrinks that Mike Defreitas brought up in his desire to go back to the more classic theories of trauma.  I pulled up on the computer each of their biographies, websites, blogs and webinars and came away with a lot of suspicion about how much money each of these guys is making, why those archetypal Manhattan Jewish Freudians still migrate to Berkeley as soon as they’re famous, and how much they moosh together a lot of stuff that will soon turn your own brain to moosh if you try too hard to grok what they’re saying, even though most it is perfectly obvious.  

The main thing I get out of it is that Mike’s little rhyme-- “name it to tame it” is both helpful and not helpful, because so much is in a name, particularly if it's a catchy phrase like “Standing in the spaces” (I love it, but what the heck does it mean?) made up by some academic prize-winner with a very big income.  We’re still talking about less than 12% of the earth’s population, the same college students (white, male, professional) on whom the research community standardizes their ideas.  It’s a circle.  Because the troublesome psychic mismanagement of whatever it is, once named, hands over a script telling what to do next.  And that controls the results of research.

Mike also nailed another problem: that people like the soldiers who have volunteered for our modern military are not just likely to be from the stigmatized margins (in color much more like the people they are fighting) but also from a different generation; contemporary people but not equipped with all the post-modern philosophical equipment available to upper-class college grads.  When I googled, it appeared that the thinking about contemporary military issues was mostly about the equipment.  It’s all about guns.  Soldiers, not so much.

This morning it was clear that I had to do my monthly 5-load wash at the laundromat.  This time I chose the Cut Bank version because the owners tend it well and hand over change instead of depending on a machine.  They also provide coffee and conversation.  The man is 89 and fought in WWII in Germany and France.  He started to tell me about what it was like to walk through a city reduced to rubble and decomposing body parts, but his eyes began to tear and he said,  “It’s not a good thing to talk about.”  We’d only stumbled into it because he admires Richard  S. Wheeler’s account of the San Francisco earthquake, an account that includes heroism with tragedy.  I had given him my paperback copy of "Aftershocks" more than a year ago, but he's still thinking about it.

San Francisco earthquake  

Then my friend wanted to tell me what a terrific writer John Grisham is and wanted to me to read one of his novels he had been working on.  I had brought along my “Neuroanthropology” book and he looked it over carefully.  “Is THIS what you read?” he asked.  “Well, everyone has their own preferences, but if you want to read something really good, try Grisham.”

I tried to explain how many PTSD people live around here and how I was trying to understand them, but how difficult it is, since each person’s gestation, infant framing of the world, acquisition of elementary skills, sexual flowering . . .  But I could see I was losing him.

He sighed.  “There’s just so much to know, so much new stuff.  What’s this about mice now?”  We visited a bit about the very new discovery of stem cells in the brain that keep creating new neurons.  A mouse makes maybe a hundred new neurons in the timespan that a human makes a thousand.  I started explaining how each neuron has a specialty and some let you know whether you are right-side-up, but I’d lost him again.

Part of his endearing old-fashionedness is that he won’t let me complain.  (I’m not a fan of Cut Bank.)  But he did like hearing how Pat Fields’ boot heel got shot off at the U of Texas when Whitman flipped out and started shooting people from the campus clock tower.

In the end the theme to our conversations is always the likelihood of coming disasters: more earthquakes, local scandals, flooding.  And always the economic worry.  This couple has run small businesses all their lives, knowing everyone,  watching kids grow up, securing their old age with the laundromat and attached car wash.  Their sons are local and attentive.

Few reflect much about how brains work.  I keep thinking about my 7th grade library teacher’s version, much like a Escher print: little paths going this way and that and teeny messengers running along them.  She believed in learning something by repetition -- “keep your feet on the path.”  There are good guys and bad guys and not much point in knowing a lot more about it, like what it is that keeps them the way they are.  They don’t dissociate -- they just get drunk, and if that doesn’t work, they pick a fight.  Thinking about it will just screw your head into the ground.

I’ve been thinking about “arousal” and Defreitas talked about “hypo” (too little arousal) and “hyper” (too much arousal) and made a case for self-awareness in terms of arousal because either too much or too little can shut out information you need to know about your own state so you can either wake up or calm down.  These days I can flash into rage in a second, but then it’s gone.  People tell me I sound angry, but I don't feel angry.  More frustrated.   Both arousal extremes will shut down the pre-frontal cortex.  Maybe even put a person into a state of dissociation where info just isn’t getting through.  He suggests this is why people become inconsolable (no comfort can get through to them) or lonely (same problem).

So I googled arousal and you can guess what I got: page after page of how to arouse a woman for the pleasure of a man.  (None of the suggestions mentioned washing the dishes once in a while.)  Strange on a planet where even one-celled creatures can under-react or over-react -- surviving in happy non-arousal in some ecologies and doing very well in an aroused state in other ecologies -- even if they are sexless and reproduce by simply dividing in half.  (Mitosis.)

They don’t bother about guns or death.  Maybe violence -- does anyone research one-celled violence?  I suppose it’s absorption by a bigger, meaner cell.  Can a mitochondrial inclusion in a mammal cell feel pain and regret?  I wouldn’t rule it out.  Or is there a social dimension? Does one pond algae put a pseudopod around another and say,  “That’s okay, little buddy.”  In the end it’s all secretions, so why not?

Monday, October 05, 2015


For the next few days I’m going to be working my way through a pile of materials about PTSD, which necessarily pulls in narrative-based theory (telling your story) and other subjects like cross-discipline studies, experience-based learning, fMRI, and so on.  It becomes clear that PTSD studies are in a state of reconsideration and reconfiguration.  I’m not part of any academic group, but my community here in Montana includes people who need more understanding and better strategy than drinking, which is already a problem.  I see that depression is part of this complex and recognize in myself that anger is an immediately effective way of handling depression, even if you have to fantasize about the target and even it doesn't work very well in the long run.

Daniel H. Lende with PTSD support group

If you want to follow along, I’ll identify what I’m reading and how it strikes me.  The place I started was a book called “The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology” edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey.  So far I’ve only read one article:  “War and Dislocation: A Neuroanthropological Model of Trauma among American Veterans with Combat PTSD” by Erin Finley.  I was impressed enough that I ordered her book, “Fields of Combat.

Greg Downey and his cross-species relationship, Louis

It hasn’t come yet so there will be a “second wave” of thinking when this book and others arrive.  In the meantime I found her 2008 article called “Cultural Aspects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: thinking on Meaning and Risk.”  The gist of it is that “meaning” is one of the factors that can relieve trauma that won’t end otherwise.  An expert told her that “meaning” was about depression rather than PTSD, but she found in her research that the two overlapped a lot.

Dr. Edna Foa

At the time she was writing, two people were working on what is called “Prolonged Exposure TherapyDr. David Riggs and Dr. Edna Foa.  It’s a strategy of reiteration to the point of habituation, which is sometimes used for phobias and obsession.  I don’t find it attractive, so I skipped it for now.

Finley’s point of view is more research-oriented so she wants to know what makes one man vulnerable and not the next, what makes one event traumatic and not the next.  Cultural meaning, life history, genetics, echo from previous traumas, all seem relevant.  She was particularly interested in NCO’s whose place in the social and power structure of the military is both to protect the men under them and obey the men over them -- which sometimes puts them in impossible conflicts.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman points out that one way to resolve this is to define some people as evil (ok to kill) and others as innocent (must protect).  Surely we see this in our whole society as a political tool demonizing the “Other” and even in the erratic thinking of deranged shooters.  I once read a bit of memoir by a woman who worked one summer in Alaska canning salmon.  Her job was to separate the dark meat of each fish from the light.  She found herself demonizing the dark, at first as a fantasy, but then the dark fish meat became in her mind “bad” and even “evil.”  This suggests to me an organic brain function left over from evolution and coming down to “ingroup” versus “outgroup.”

Memory, which is narrative, seems important to study.  Here Finley talks about Theresa O’Nell, an anthropologist working with Native American communities in Montana, who answers the question of why just telling stories down at the VA bar isn’t effective, but the stories that leave men weeping and distraught after protected sharing can have profound effects on them.  

There is a lot of plot-fodder in this, but O’Nell has a new “take.” which is from a different culture.  (Sioux) They speak of iglata, stories that are funny and often told when a little bit “mellow” from drinking.  Many of my Blackfeet friends tell these stories, but get upset when I retell them, because they are about “owning” the experience while putting a collar on it, deflating it.  The contrast is wagtoglata, which is to “retell one’s heroism.”  This is often translated as “boasting” when anthropologists explain that important events are preceded by the oldest, most important, and most respected men telling their achievements in order to endorse the importance of a ceremony.  

There is another level of story in the Blackfeet context.  One is the sweat lodge stories that go deep (men-only among Blackfeet) and the other is the old women’s stories in the wee small hours when no one else is around, which are also truth-telling but more moral, more focussed on the group, its “way.”  World-making.

O’Nell’s book is called Disciplined Hearts: History, Identity, and Depression in an American Community.”  25¢ at Amazon.  Grab it!

In her article in “The Encultured Brain” Finley offers six elements: 1) cultural environment, 2) stress, 3) horror, 4) dislocation, 5) grief, and 6) cultural mediators.  In a long comment on the article, Mike Defreitas (no background) takes exception.  He wants to focus on a physiological neurological tension between hyperarousal and hypoarousal and the various ways people handle this universal reciprocal relationship.  It is controlled by the sympathetic/parasympathetic system and therefore not conscious, except for the effects, like panting or increased heart rate.

Philip Bromberg

The expert he quotes is a psychoanalyst, Philip Bromberg, whose books are “Awakening the Dreamer: Clinical Journeys” and “Standing in the Spaces: Essays on Clinical Process Trauma and Dissociation.”  (Expensive books.)  DeFreitas recommends “mindfulness,” which is very trendy just now.  Most of the time I find psychoanalysis full of moonbeams and self-congratulation, but Defreitas also brings up Joseph Ledoux, whom I respect, in order to recommend a duality that I knew from theology:  one is thought from inside the circle of believing, which Defreitas identifies with thought from inside the experience of hyperarousal, even trauma; and thought from outside the circle, when reflecting safely and therefore free to use the pre-frontal cortex to be rational.  

There is a new suggestion (several books) that suggest functioning morality is a matter of bringing that sort of rational reflection into reconciliation with the under-consciousness, learned by experience without realizing it, cultural conviction of what seems intuitively right.  Without that, finding a satisfactory and vivid personal meaning is not possible, no matter how rational a taboo experience may have been.

The little story I wrote about the “Bear Knife” was meant to approach a narrative that would suggest this reconciliation, but I’m not the first to try this -- in fact, the most famous and beloved story of this kind is “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko, which describes a Navajo veteran coming back into meaningfulness.  Maybe “The Man Who Killed the Deer” by Frank Waters is aligned with this strategy.

So much to read, so much to think about.  Possibly lives renewed by new ideas.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

BEAR KNIFE (fiction)

The loud crash of his revolver going off woke him up from the alcoholic stupor he needed in order to sleep.  He really had fired the gun -- he could smell it and it was hot in his hand.  Usually he hid it at suppertime because otherwise he would do exactly what he had just done.  It was PTSD, he understood that, but he hadn’t been able to control it.  The VA was no help.  It was already hard to find a place to live and shooting in the night would get him evicted from any apartment building.  But he must have been too drunk too early to remember to hide it.

Now he heard a thin wail from behind the sofa.  “Don’t kill me, mister!  Please don’t kill me.  I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”  His head swirled, pinwheeling through the realities and fantasies, memories and imaginings, symbols and . . .   What the hell was a child doing in this little old house he had rented?  

“Come outta there,” he shouted, juiced with adrenaline.  A bare-chested and ribby little boy came out, very slowly with his hands up.  Information came to the man like words forming underwater.  This boy was his son, a boy he had never known, who had been born while he was fighting in Afghanistan.  He’d hardly even known the boy’s mother who had died after her own long hard-fought war with health.  Paperwork sent him the boy.  He was the only relative of record.  For a long time the kid had disappeared and he didn’t turn up in a good way.  Actually, in Juvie.  Even after feeding him and taking him home to sleep on the sofa, the man could hardly recognize his son,

What registered with him now was huge eyes with hair falling over his forehead.  He saw that the kid had big ears and his nose was snotty from fear and tears.  “I didn’t do anything, honest,” he said. “Don’t shoot me.”

The man was deeply ashamed.  He threw the gun into the nightstand drawer and slammed it shut.  Sitting on the edge of his bed, also bare-chested but hairy, he rubbed his head and closed his eyes, trying to find some kind of reference point.  Then there were small hands on his knees.  

“I would never hurt you, kid.  You are my son.”

“I know.”

“I can’t even remember your name.  I forgot you were here.  I’m so very sorry.”

“Don’t send me away.  I’ll do whatever you want.”  He ran his small hands over his father’s furry chest.

“What are you doing?”

“I could comfort you, make you forget your troubles.”

The man stared.  The boy hands wandered down over his stomach until they came to the boxer elastic.  “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Men always like this.  I’ve made a lot of money.”

He grabbed the boy’s hands.  “Not me.  I’m your father.  It isn’t right.”  It wasn’t that he hadn’t . . . but the others were adults.

The boy was crying again.  He didn’t make a face, just wept.  There were scars on his little chest.  The man was overcome with pity, very close to being love.  He enfolded the boy and rocked him.

That night changed everything, but slowly.

As the boy grew more accustomed to the man and felt a little more secure, he began to ask questions.  “Is it because you have PTSD?” he asked.  And then he wanted to know about the shot fired.  “Was there someone in the doorway, very big, coming to get you, to make you scream with pain?  That’s the dream that makes me want a gun.”

The man stared.  He said,  “It’s not quite a dream, is it?  A sort of hallucination.”

“Yeah, like drugs,” the boy said matter-of-factly.  He was not like Americans think boys are like.  More like an Afghani boy.  “Everybody knows about drugs.  They make things seen lots better.  Less pain when they go in you.  If you get the right drug.  Afterwards, weed is always good.”

The man had a quick thought that if this kid found his weed stash, he would smoke it.  What really happened was that the kid hid the gun in a place so clever that that the man never could find it again.   The boy promised that he hadn’t ditched it -- after all, the boy might need it himself.  He didn't even look for the weed.  Clearly he was safer if his father used it.

Over the months the pair grew calmer.  The boy tried school, though he sat in the back not saying much.  It wasn't as bad as he remembered.  The man found a group for sharing.

Then one evening, the boy asked, “Are we Indians?”  He’d been watching the trailers for “Jimmy P” and “Winter in the Blood.”  He was sitting cross-legged on the floor with the man’s iPad.  With his head bent forward, the nape of his neck showed, tender and vulnerable.  He had black, straight hair and his skin was fawn-colored.

“You are.  I’m not.”

“Then what are you?”


The boy glanced back to see what that meant.  He decided he couldn’t get it.  “Let’s do something Indian,” the boy said. “There’s a pow-wow here on Saturday.”  It was Laura Grizzlypaws, the only woman bear dancer.  Paws -- not claws.  She stood for peace, harmony, belonging.  When she danced, she WAS a bear.  He found the vids and watched them over and over.

They did go.  The man wasn't Indian but he could explain the powwow.  The boy was enchanted.  “I thought bears were scary,” he declared and then his eyes brimmed over.  His father understood and his own eyes welled up.  “Thinking of your mother,” he said and the boy nodded.

That night the man didn’t get drunk, so he lay awake in that twilight state before sleep.  He was sweating and hearing the woman screaming.  The Afghani one who had been raped and decapitated in a small building while he and his comrades were held down behind a wall by gunfire from inside.  They were very close to the house.  An eviscerated man lay by the front door.  It took them a while to realize that the small piles of rags in the yard had been children.  

They could hear her screaming but if they raked the building with gunfire they might kill her.  What they imagined was happening was worse than what they might have seen -- but they could guess because they had seen remains before.  Finally, one of them couldn’t stand it any longer and risked throwing a grenade through the open front door into the house.  After the explosion everyone inside was quiet, both the criminals and the woman.  The silence was paradoxically loud.  "She would have wanted it," declared the man with the good throwing arm.  He was that man.

Through the horror replay in his mind, the man felt the boy’s hand on his shoulder.  He sure could creep around really quiet.  “I’m scared,” admitted the boy. “Can I get in this bed with you.”  The man just swept him under the covers without saying anything.  

They lay side-by-side, not touching while their breathing synchronized.  Then the boy asked, “Do you know any bedtime stories?”

After a bit of thought, his father said,  “I’ll tell you one I learned from your mother.”  He could feel the boy grin.  “It’s about a Bear Knife Bundle and it’s a warrior’s tale.  A Bear Knife is a really big knife and the handle is decorated with a cluster of brass hawk’s bells among other powerful things.  It is kept in a Bundle which is transferred from one man to another.  That means it is Holy and handled with respect.  It carries power which is why it must be properly transferred, or people will die.” 

“In fact, besides the receiver learning certain songs, gestures and taboos, the way it is transferred is by the previous Keeper throwing it at the head of the receiver.  If he can catch it safely by the handle, he is the new Keeper of the Power.  If he cannot catch it, he will be killed.”  The boy sighed with satisfaction.  He admired power. 

The next day when the man came home after his day of looking for work, he found the biggest kitchen knife on the table, decorated with a cluster of Christmas jingle bells and ribbons.  “Hey, dad,” said the boy.  “We’re both kinda dangerous, but I think we’re Keepers.  Like, for keeps.”

“Yeah.  Survivors.”  Their grins were nearly identical.

Saturday, October 03, 2015


I was looking for the stories about the old woman killed in her kitchen by a bear she had been feeding.  Instead I found this vid.  

Laura Grizzlypaws in costume

Laura Grizzlypaws carrying her costume

The dancer is Laura Grizzlypaws.  (Laura Blackwolf) Her costume is created from a bear rug with what looks to be mink hides pendant from her arms.  It IS a grizz, judging from the coat, and seems small, like a female, so it fits her.  The head is glued to a standard taxidermy form made of papier maché, a shell, no skull, adapted.  Her dancing is an uncanny imitation of a real bear, but also includes traditional dance steps.

A friend of mine, white, was impressed by the women who literally supported her, the child who ran out with water, the feeling that she was part of the people there.  Clearly, she was at extreme physical limits because of her heavy costume.  Traditional women’s dances are like those of the splendidly arrayed women around her, very poised, almost dancing in place.

In this vid s

She speaks her language but I couldn’t catch what tribe she is.  Maybe Cree. 

“I walked where the Grizzly Bear dances. I feel his pleasure, excitement and freedom on the earth and in the wind that carries his messages from the past. I dance where the Grizzly Bear danced his steps leaving an ancestral footprint on the land like a cellular memory in my blood. His face is a shadow that calls to me as the wind calls his name “St’alhalam.” The Grizzly Bear he sings his songs as we unite under his skin. I now walk where he left his ancestral footprints. I heard his prayer, I felt his pain, I am his anger, I am his hope, I am his faith. He now dances upon the earth, now, only where I leave my ancestral footprints.”

And there’s an “iksokapi”  (Blackfeet for “really good”) Profile at

Tomorrow’s post (I hope) will be a story inspired by the dance in the videos above.   I’m going to try to mix it with reading I’m doing about PTSD.

There are two stories I value that are about female bears.  One comes from “Daughters of Copper Woman” by Anne Cameron, which has just been re-edited to include more material, some of it new and some that had been dropped earlier.  Barbara Anne Cameron is a Canadian novelist, poet, screenwriter and short story writer. Cameron legally changed her name from her birth name, Barbara Cameron, to Cam Hubert and later changed her name from Cam Hubert to Anne Cameron.

Her story is about an Indian woman who was independent and liked to live alone away from her British Columbia village.  Pretty soon she began to have the feeling that someone was watching her go through her day as she moved around with firewood, water, and things to hang up.  So she figured out where the person was watching from and surprised her stalker.  Except that it wasn’t a person -- it was a glossy little black bear who had fallen in love with her.

“I would like to come and live with you,” the bear said.  “I could help you and take care of you.  We would be married. There’s just one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m a female bear.”  The Indian woman looked at the bear and considered.  She was an independent thinker.  Finally, she said, “Well, we’re already different species so I don’t see why our same genders should matter.”

I used this story in a sermon about inclusion in the Seattle University Unitarian Church.  Afterwards I overhead a young man saying to his friend,  “I don’t get it.  There was just a bear hanging around.  So?”

The other is Marian Engel’s “Bear”.  I hope you can overlook the salacious cover (the young man probably would not) and take the story in an open way.  In fact, both stories could be called “queer,” which means not conforming to Victorian expectations.  This story came out of a bet among some Canadian writers who were enjoying a relaxed visit in a bar at a conference.  The men thought it would be impossible to convincingly portray a sex act between a human and a bear.  Engel said it could be done, so they dared her. 

Engel took the bet and the resulting book has been a Canadian classic book ever since.  Her strategy was that a lonely and thoughtful woman had been hired to stay on a solitary island to sort and evaluate an eccentric deceased man’s estate, which includes many books and a chained-up miserable old bear.  She tries to get the bear healthy, which means a lot of feeding, bathing and grooming until it is a physical relationship full of hands-on, haptic knowledge, so the sex is the result of nurturing, an element of love.  It is not an imaginary sex act of penetration featuring a bear’s big penis -- a bear, like a gorilla, has a small penis.

What not to do.

In the real world bears are not so benign.  Recently near Kalispell in a rural area where there are lots of old orchards, exhausted gardens, and people who feed birds, there are people who like to feed bears.  One of them was Barbara Paschke, 85, who died in hospital.   It was unclear how the bear got into her kitchen but it smashed its way out the window.  It was still warm weather, so probably it just walked in an open door. 

Food-habituated bears are being hunted and traps are set.  So far two bears have been killed and both had stomach contents indicating that people were continuing to feed them, in spite of the incident, but neither bear could be connected to the victim.  There were no witnesses to the attack.

This bear is tranquilized.

Food-habituation is a different issue than hyperphagia which is a natural change in bears that prepares them for hibernation by making them crazy-hungry.  The attacking bear didn’t eat the woman but badly mauled her, which suggests that she fought it, the way one might chase out an invading dog.   But it was hyperphagic.

It is illegal in Montana to feed bears, partly because they are hunted for their parts, and it is “baiting.”  People who feed bears for the fun of watching them or because they like the idea of being providers or because it makes them feel in control or because they feel they “own” the bears or are particularly compassionate, are probably acting out the way they relate to people.  Sometimes the consequences with people are just as tragic.

Laura wrapped in her costume.

This is not the world of Laura Grizzlypaws, who knows that respect is also an element of love.  Her way is one of understanding elemental seasonal drives like hyperphagia, which is as strong as meth, and letting animals remain wild.  She doesn’t treat bears as children to be fed.  Rather she dances the bear, becomes the bear.