Since in my own mind many of these posts have been "chapters," I'm splitting some of them out to separate blogs. But also, my audience is divided and quite different, one part from another. Many have dropped out and many have newly arrived. There are recognizable paper "book" versions of some of the posts that fit together.

I find that some people still assume that a blog is a sort of diary. This one is not. It is not for children, either in terms of subject or writing style. It's not written "down." Think academic magazine or column without footnotes.


My name shows up on google+ and twitter, but I only monitor and will not add you. I do NOT do Facebook though someone with the same name does. Please use plain email. My phone landline is in the phone book. I have no cell phone.

Other Blogs by me


Notes from Alvina Krause between 1957-1961 are posted at

Fiction about Indians at
Essays about Indians at

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Cindy Murray

Cindy Murray is a Global Volunteer and a social activist photographer who has been visiting the Blackfeet Reservation over a sequence of summers.  She was looking for info about the rez and hit my online “book” called “Heartbreak Butte,” about the two years (’89-’91) I taught at the beginning of the high school in Heart Butte, a village in the foothills of the rez.  (   She sent me an email note and included a link to her online photo album.  She had no idea how it would hit me.  I don’t think she realized that had I been in and out of the rez since 1961.  

More than that, I was married to a white sculptor born there who portrayed the nineteenth century Blackfeet by using contemporary Blackfeet tribal members.  Bob Scriver’s father had come in 1903 and founded the Browning Mercantile as a federally authorized trader.  Some feel that the 19th century didn’t end until WWI.  Even when I came in 1961, the people who posed for Bob had been born in the 1870’s and ’80’s -- the Civil War years.  It was the Civil War cavalry veterans who finished the prairie clearances of tribes.  This is not the sort of thing that is always conveyed to Global Volunteers.

The "old" Browning cemetery

The photo that really smacked me was of Hoppy Big Beaver’s headstone, or -- more accurately -- head “board.”  Hoppy was one of “my” kids in my earliest teaching years.  He was a big jolly guy.  In terms of Hollywood casting, he was a little like a baby version of Gary Farmer.  I tell two stories about him.  One was about pulling into the parking lot at the county courthouse and hearing my name shouted:  “Hey, Miss Strachan!  Up here!  It’s Hoppy!  I’m in jail!”  Sure enough, he was looking down at me from up where the holding cells were, waving his arm out between the bars so I’d spot him.  I gave him a big arm swing and shout-out in response.  Since Bob was the city magistrate and justice of the peace in Browning, I knew most of the drunks.  A surprisingly likable bunch.  It's crazy that white people are so scared of them.

Maybe 1963 Indian Days

On another occasion Hoppy was locked up in Browning in the tribal jail, in those days a truly awful place, a small cement building at the bottom of the water tower.  When it got impossibly “grody”, the officers went looking for Ida Cut Finger, affectionally called “Ida Baby” in her street drunk role.  While she dried out in jail, she scrubbed, and she was very good at it.  It was agreed that while Hoppy was serving his time, he should still go to school, but he stunk of vomit and general dankness really bad.  The superintendent of the time, Phil Ward, arranged for him to come up early with a deputy and use the PE showers in the morning.  He was also supplied a set of sweats to be kept in a locker at school.  I don’t recall him being either upset or grateful.  He took life as it came at him.

From here on, I’m quoting a memory supplied by Verena Rattler, who knew Hoppy much better than I did.  For a while she wrote a column for the Glacier Reporter.

Every time I see an Elvis Presley movie or see him sing and gyrate around, I think of my cousin, Vernon "Hoppy" Big Beaver. He would have been around 60 years old now. My Aunt Sarah (Running Crane) LaMott was married to Eddie Big Beaver, and they adopted Hoppy when he was just a baby. He was named Hoppy because at that time Sarah and Eddie were in Washington, picking hops.

When I was really young I remember a lot of people who couldn't find jobs around here, so they would go to Washington to pick apples or hops. Hoppy was a Red Horn. Jackson Red Horn is one of his brothers. If memory serves me right his mom was from the Stewart family of the Crow Indian Reservation.

Anyway, Hoppy was an only child to my Aunt Sarah, and she thought the world of him and therefore spoiled him a bit. Sarah lived in my Grandma Kipp's house at Blackfoot with Hoppy and her husband, Joe Evans. Hoppy's friends (Alfred "Small Fry" Guardipee, Galen Potts and Alvin Monroe, to name a few) frequently stayed with Hoppy at Blackfoot. They were close as brothers to him and were raised together. I and my brothers and sisters used to also go and stay at Sarah's, too.

Hoppy really idolized Elvis Presley. He dressed like him in tight fitting jeans, loose fitting shirt tucked in, with the collar up, and black, sharp-toed boots. He would gyrate around like Elvis and would sing like him. Sarah only had a wood stove, and Hoppy found a really big, long nail and he would heat it up in the stove and have me and Lucille curl his hair on top with it, and he would fix a hank of hair in the front to imitate Elvis. Ho, we really had to be careful not to burn him or our fingers. Then he would put the Brylcreem on so his hair was nice and shiny.

We were raised really close to Hoppy. He was close as a brother to us. Anyway, at a very young age Hoppy started getting in trouble with the law. He ended up in reform school in Englewood, Colorado. He would get out of jail here or there and end right back in there. I guess he was kind of a rebel in those days. Sarah and my mom would be so stressed out all the time, trying to get him out of trouble. My dad would always talk to him, trying to get him to change his ways, but Hoppy was stuck in his ways too much.

At one time Blackfoot, MT. was the end of the Great Northern while the tracks were built through Marias Pass.

He and his friends used to always hitch rides on freight trains at Blackfoot to Washington. Hoppy learned to play the guitar, and he would write me letters all the time from wherever he was and he'd write on them "500 Miles Away from Home." That song always reminds me of him.

Anyway, he got in trouble again and ended up in jail in Monroe, Wash. Sarah passed away around 1970 or so, and the authorities wouldn't let Hoppy come home for his mom's funeral. This really had a big impact on Hoppy because he loved his mom so much. When he got out of jail he came home for a while and stayed at our house in Blackfoot. He later went back to Washington.

I think it was around 1972 or so, and my brothers were riding their horses from Boarding School to town and they were going to let them go home to Blackfoot, down by the old dump road. Our horses really knew their way home. It was blizzarding, and I was waiting below Kicking Woman's in my old LTD and Harold Butterfly pulled up beside me. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was waiting for my brothers and I was going to haul their saddles and bring them home.

All of a sudden we just heard a really loud noise like someone was shooting near us. We couldn't see anyone around, though. Then my brothers showed up and unsaddled their horses and put their saddles in my trunk, released their horses and got in. I told them I heard a gunshot.

Verena Rattler

I lived at Last Star homes at the time, and my brothers and sisters used to stay with me in my new three-bedroom house when they weren't in boarding school. Mom and Dad still lived in their old house, waiting for a mutual home to be built.

I drove them up to Mom and Dad's. Dad came out and told us to get down to the jail right away because Hoppy got shot in Washington and he died. At that time, hardly anyone had telephones. Emergency calls were made to the jail and the police would deliver messages. I must have heard the gunshot when Hoppy got killed. Oh, that was so sad. My mom was crying really hard and trying to get in contact with authorities in Washington to bring Hoppy home. He married a girl from up there and had a baby girl, Verna Jo.

The police told mom that Hoppy was killed over a pool game. Hoppy died at a young age, too young. He must have been only about 24 or so. I remember Hoppy as a person who liked to have fun, have friends around him and he could really imitate Elvis. Oh, and did I say he had a lot of girlfriends, too?

His buddies, Small Fry and Galen, were really close to us, too. Small Fry went to the SIPI art school at Santa Fe and also went to Vietnam. He later had a family, raised his children and later died from cancer from that Agent Orange they used in the Vietnam War.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Misty Upham

The death of Misty Upham is a terrible tragedy, but it can be a crucial occasion to question why so many Native Americans, very often female, die under mysterious circumstances.  Most cases are never resolved and some are never even found.  There are huge grinding dynamics of racism, sexism, international attitudes, literature, and media forces that are hard on almost all women, but particularly women of color from indigenous families.

An old “flamer” from out of the past almost immediately claimed that Misty was not “really” Indian, but a British subject who snuck in through the Canadian border.  This way of relating to indigenous people -- claiming they are not the pure and fantastical figures so many imagine -- is just a way of continuing the justification to wipe them out.  It is smallpox of the mind and entirely too infectious because people always think there is some secret fact they can claim to know.  And if it somehow indicts the victim, that gets us off the hook.
with Benicio del Toro

The Upham family is a deep and valued part of the Blackfeet tribe, which was split when the border with Canada was decided upon, as though it were a ranch that had a superhighway built through the middle of it.  “Doc” Upham played in Bob Scriver’s dance band after WWII.  Hiram Upham is the long-time pastor of a Pentecostal church, the Browning Evangelistic Center.  You can see him on YouTube.   I’ve written about Galen Upham on this blog.  His grave is in the same cemetery as Hoppy Big Beaver at the west edge of Browning, but I’m not sure it has a marker.  His sister told me it’s close to the left of the entrance.  This family is highly spiritual with a general outlook of helping and valuing others.  

Blackfeet families are often split between Montana and the Seattle area because of economics, esp. the industries during WWII, the government effort to relocate Indians to cities, and the use of Indians to harvest crops like apples or to string hops -- seasonal ag labor.  Economic conditions that enforce unemployment push stigmatized people to do hard field labor.  This is another aspect of the grinder.

with Meryl Streep

The glamour industry (international-level corporate movies) and social action (indie and nonprofit movies) have a more subtle economic impact.  The queen-sized tribal woman in a “red carpet” gown has had an impact strong enough that these days the Homecoming Queens of the rez all dress in fancy ball gowns full of dazzle, usually strapless though it often snows during the Homecoming events.  (They are generally rented.) Yet the roles in the actual films are usually country people living in hardship, often historically.  

Role models on the rez will sometimes dress in the 19th century way of early reservation: bandannas, wide leather belts, mother hubbard shifts, high top shoes -- NOT historical beaded buckskin, which can be worth thousands of dollars.  Then the real power women, the ones who moved up through the baby boom, dress middle-class white: permed hair, nice suits, high heels.  This could be seen as offering choice or as making confusion.  The ones who’ve been to college, maybe earned graduate degrees, wear jeans and shirts, not usually cowboy-tailored.  Indian men who’ve been to Harvard wear khakis and blue chambray shirts.

How can a person be effectively “other-directed” if there are so many others, all intent on “othering” you even more by pushing you into roles they want fulfilled?  Most difficult of all are the ones of family, wanting money and prestige and home nursing.  To claim belonging, which can turn into ownership.

One problem with being an actor is always being moved, so where is home?  Even Marilyn Monroe lived in a place that was mostly just a bed and a lot of carpet.  If a person is “on location,” the housing might be almost anything.  The other problem is that one is not in charge of one’s own work.  In the first place, roles that fit one’s gifts are not always there.  Who writes scripts for a young Indian woman who is not Pocahontas?  Not Indians.  So there will be a burst of offers, then silence -- maybe for years regardless of the prizes and praise.  What do you do during that silence?

Even if one is employed, the director is the one who decides what you do.  (Except for the agent on the phone, urging strategy.)  In film one must “become” the character, who is usually a person in crisis because that’s what makes drama.  And always the co-players (among others) are saying,  “Here, take this pill.  It will help you.”  Even if you’re careful not to drink, the pills can get you.  Once your metabolism and deep brain have been contradicted and confused, you lose your inner gyroscope.  The Indian way in this event is to go apart, to find solitude.  If anyone could help, it would be a shaman, but these days they’re all busy getting big fees from white people who want magic. 

Indian/indigenous/aboriginal actors who do a lot of stage work, maybe in a repertory group like the ones in Canada, are much helped by that context, but even Graham Greene can suffer, even in the midst of success.  There need to be plays and movies that reflect, suggest, lay open the wounds in a way that doesn’t infect them.  The Uphams I know are all natural writers, performers.  They have the genes for it.

We can never really know what happened to Misty that night and therefore it’s really impossible to assign blame.  The Northwest forest is underlain with treacherous volcanic terrain, water-soaked soil, tangled vegetation.  It would be easy to fall over a precipice, thrashing and grabbing at ferns on the way.  More tourists die in Glacier Park every summer from falling off a cliff than offending a grizzly.  

Cops are no more monolithic than tribes.  One officer will go out of his way to help, the next will react with resentment or even anger.  Under-funded, over-scrutinized, exhausted officers are more likely to turn their attention away.  Of all the things they’re bad at in a structural formal sense, it is persons whose inner world has seized them who are the most problematic.  How do they have the time and energy to go bushwhacking after a young woman who has already left many times and who always comes back?

If you look at statistics, the number of indigenous women who turn up as bodies, often decomposed, is as shocking as ebola stats, but right here among us -- not far away in Africa.    Most of them were not reported as missing.  Some of them have no known families, though autopsy evidence shows that there must be children somewhere, if they’re not dead, too. Some women have been doing sexwork that turned into violence and the fact that they are “of color” is for some predators permission to kill.  This was NOT the case with Misty.  The line between suicide and murder is a thin one -- some call suicide “self-murder.”  Some are already walking dead.  This was NOT the case with Misty.

What is most distressing about Misty’s death is that her family, the community, the larger world of Hollywood celebrities, all knew her and loved her, but it was no protection at all.  It was no explanation of her last few hours.  There is no one to blame and punish -- or maybe it’s everyone, which is no better.  There should be a play, maybe a Rashomon play, that explores those moments at the lip of the ravine, at the edge of the performance space.  

Friday, October 17, 2014


John Grisham

John Grisham has opened a can of very slimy worms.  Let’s put them out on the table.

First, let me say as background that in 1975, which was almost thirty years ago, my church, First Unitarian of Portland, on a “social action” Sunday had in the pulpit a social activist woman who was trying to get the law for statutory rape changed because she believed it was unjust.  She came to this because, she said, she knew a very bright and promising young man, the son of a friend of hers, now serving time in jail for statutory “rape” that was innocent, consensual, and being unjustly punished out of proportion to the offense.  Would we jail Romeo for that night with Juliet?  Would this woman dare give this talk today?  

Now along comes John Grisham and says that 60-year-old drunk men, like a friend of his, who get bored late at night and watch websites entitled “16-year-old girls who want to be hookers” should not be condemned to years in prison because the penalty is out of all proportion and anyway, “the girls looked a lot older.”  No doubt he would be a little more offended by the recent Montana stings of men who wanted to pay for actual sex with 12-year-old girls being pimped out by their mothers.  Hard to know what he might think about this “sting” in LA:  He did say that it was wrong to victimize ten year old boys, so he seems to have some limits after all.

Can it get worse?  Grisham told the United Telegraph in England that he had no sympathy for real pedopredators but he doesn’t explain how one tells who they are.  One of the first rules of writing a decent law is clear boundaries.  He seems not to understand that England is in the grip of exposées and accusations that major figures of the media and of government have systematically gathered up young boys for “fun” at parties.  Outrage is growing.  If I were Grisham's lawyer, I would advise him this was a very good time to keep his head down.  Maybe he would be impressed by a video interview I’ve seen describing an inadvertent “snuffing” of a young boy doing what one does for old men.  Since he was too young to have a deep throat, he choked to death.  The men involved at least salvaged the video for the sake of the profit in selling it.

Grisham said in another interview that he started writing (after many stops and starts in many different jobs, including tax law) after attending a trial in which a 12 year old girl testified, weeping, about sexual assault and beating.  His reaction was that the father of the girl might want to kill the perpetrator, because no penalty less than the death sentence would do, so the book resulted. 

‘In 2010, Grisham started writing a series of legal thrillers for children between 9 and 12 years old. It featured Theodore Boone, a 13-year-old kid who gives his classmates legal advice from rescuing impounded dogs to helping their parents prevent their house from being repossessed. He said, "I'm hoping primarily to entertain and interest kids, but at the same time I'm quietly hoping that the books will inform them, in a subtle way, about law.’"

Right.  To this former animal control officer, teaching kids that impounding dogs is an atrocity and being evicted is always unjust, is not what the law is about.  He’s informing kids, in a not very subtle way, that formal laws are overruled by self-righteousness and that the work of a lawyer is finding ways of evading the law.  I think he is looking for sales -- and he, like Sherman Alexie, is aware that it’s the kids who have money now.  But also he is incredibly naive about what actually happens to kids when they DON’T have money.  Where is his book about a lawyer who goes pro bono to protect the rights of illegal immigrant kids being held under punitive conditions?  Where is his book about what happens to a five year old kid no one wants who is kept as a slave for who can imagine what?  In the real world they can’t write books about what happens to them until they grow up.  

Will Grisham fight for the nameless man who currently wants to witness about his own childhood?  In England they are not just pursuing pedopredation as a party favor for old men too wealthy to sit on a couch watching depictions.  The court is also responding to a trial meant to prevent a man from writing about the abuse of himself as a child on grounds that it will disturb his son, a boy already afflicted by many disabilities.  The boy is not able to bring the lawsuit, so his divorced mother is the complainant.  The FBI stings of Montana men looking for pre-adolescent girls to fuck have proven to be more productive than anyone would have guessed.  The trials have not begun yet.

Practicing lawyers, law officers, counselors, social workers, activists know more than they want to -- not the shallow fantasies of a thriller writer.  Grisham, who said he would have no sympathy for "a real pedophile," emphasized that old white men who only halfheartedly download child porn while drunk really deserve a break.   "There's so many of them now, so many sex offenders—that's what they're called—that they put them in the same prison, like they're a bunch of perverts or something,” he said.   He sounds like a man with experience with drunken dozing in front of a TV set, but not much sophistication about sex.  Of course, with today’s late night TV fare, he hardly needs to look for a porn site.  If one wants to see sixteen year old girls dressed up like hookers, check “Vogue.

A Paris Vogue shoot featuring Thylane Loubry Blondeau, aged 10

Grisham’s view of law is blinkered by his desire to sell the lawyer as some sort of Robin Hood, outside the system, instead of “an officer of the court”.  Laws exist on two levels:  governing the behavior of the individual and guarding the good of the whole.  What pedopredators do is disastrous for the child involved, and an introduction of rot and and disorder into our society as a whole, making something transgressive and forbidden into a privilege for the rich and powerful.  Hardly a goal of Robin Hood’s, but using trickery and technicalities to baffle unjustified authoritarianism is a lot more exciting than getting to an election booth to vote the bastards out, and it sells books.  

What would these two have to say to Grisham?

I’m an addict of “Law and Order” episodes (I don’t care which series) because each script works through a serious presentation of a situation (often real) where justice and law do not match.  In the real world confrontations full of mixed dilemma and heartbreak happen all the time, testing everyone from the officer on the street to the final jury of the case.  Grisham -- and I may be wrong because I never read Grisham -- is not skillful enough to handle this sort of high-level critique of society.  So he goes low.  Thrills.

Judge Baugh:  Thirty days for a high school teacher who seduced a 14-year-old girl 
confused enough that she committed suicide.

Guess who’s defending him?  The Washington Post!  Wouldntchaknow?  On grounds that, hey, Grisham is pointing out over-incarceration and inequity based on racism!  That’s changing the subject.  Many people, especially on reservations, are protesting the ongoing inequities of racism and our emotional and revenge-based sentencing system.  In Montana we‘ve been dealing with a case in which the judge -- who was out-of-sync with the general public understanding of what is a legitimate sentence and why blaming the victim is wrong -- has suddenly decided to retire.  I hope his television is not in front of his couch and his alcohol intake is modest.  

The sexual revolution is not an easy one: it produces casualties.  In Grisham’s case his self-inflicted wound will cost his publisher and accountant some money.  What a pity.  Oh, and the Little League baseball thing has passed.  (His kids grew up.)  And the lawyer who served a year and a half for watching porn has said he deserved it, that he has rebuilt his life.  You couldn't make this stuff up.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


There’s been some publicity about the GPS in the brain.  Actually, the information about grid cells has been around for a while -- grid cells are a certain kind of specialized cells that keep track of where things are -- edges and spaces.  So old that maybe even a paramecium might have such a basic sense.  How else could it find food or evade danger?  Sort of parallel to grid cells are compass cells that keep track of which direction you’re facing, somehow able to tell north from south which is why birds have these cells, which they use so much for migrating.  No doubt homing pigeons have them, too.

And there’s a third kind of map in the brain cortex, which is that of the homunculus that keeps track of where in the body things are being felt.  It’s not realistically proportioned but is inflated where there is a lot of sensation, and contracted where there is less.  It changes over time, depending on which senses are developed and used.

She read all these things online, sitting at her computer in the stripped-down studio apartment where she was writing.  An aunt had left her enough money to quit all jobs and find out where her talent and capacity really was.  The more she economized, the longer the money would last.  Of course, the writing might eventually pay, but there was no way to know because the world and its willingness to pay was always changing.  She had no control over that.

She was not the kind of writer who had trouble with writer’s block, but rather the problem was so much material in a kind of soft and pressing avalanche, that she had a hard time keeping it under control -- structured -- so she tended to write short pieces which she assumed would later fit together into something else.  By suppertime, she had about used up her energy and attention span.

That’s when her attention wandered across the alley to the other apartment building, which was a little more luxurious and even had a balcony.  She could see though the slider doors into the apartment itself when it was lit in the evening.  The occupant was a man, middle-aged, a little more stylish than the norm.  Even his leather jacket was more creatively designed and embellished.  It was not black or red or brown, but a deep forest green with some kind of silver studs -- flowers? buttons? -- in a line along the yoke.  When he shrugged it on in the evening, he picked up a small video camera, sometimes a camera bag, and then he would be gone for hours.  She never saw what it was he shot because his monitor faced in.  There was only a play of light on his face.

Often this guy had company, always male, generally stylish, often a little younger, but never kids.  Once in a while a distinguished-looking older man.  They talked a lot and that make her envious.  Sometimes money changed hands, which made her curious.  Isolation was the only thing about her self-imposed regime that she didn’t really like much, but it was necessary since people would never keep their distance from a writer.  They all wanted to know what you were doing and then meddled in the process.  They always thought it was about popularity, approval and publication.

Once she broke her routine to attend a play opening and reception for her friend, a college roomie.  She got out her trusty forest-green dress with v-neck, long sleeves, and seam-pockets in the full skirt so she could carry her car keys and credit card case without some kind of bag.  She didn’t like paraphernalia.  It was a good play, everyone loved it, and the reception crowd was friendly.  Normally she was a wary person, but this time she relaxed and had some good conversations.  Then she spotted that unique leather jacket and realized it was exactly the same forest green as her dress.  The silver embellishments along the yoke turned out to be dime-sized paw prints.  She’d never seen anything like it, but tried not to stare.  Watching him across the lobby was not much different from watching him across the alley.  She didn’t stay long.  She did find out his name, but not much about him.  People shrugged.  Once she saw him glance at her and then his companions shrugged.

It was weeks before the man showed up -- not in person, but on her email.  He didn’t seem to know her by sight, to recognize her as his neighbor and spy, but asked if she ever wrote narrative for vids.  She admitted she had.  Then he wanted to know if she were easily shocked.  She thought she was not.  She wondered whether he was talking about sex.  She thought that as a writer all human experience should be observable without moral comment. Nothing happened for a long time.  Then one night late he turned the monitor around so she could see it, though she wasn’t prepared -- didn’t have binoculars.  It was a good-sized monitor, but mostly what she saw was shape and color.

“May I send them to your computer?”  Yes.  

She was entirely surprised.

He was doing ride-alongs with emergency responders: cops, fire, ambulance, animal control, the zoo including their nursery, private fanciers of pigeons and other birds.  But he wasn’t looking for “cute,” or “shocking,” or even newsworthiness -- just trying to see reality with a fresh eye.  He went down along the river.  He attended an urban pow-wow.  Somehow he managed to film the street kids who came just before dawn to use one of the civic pride fountains for a bathtub.  And there were animals she hadn’t realized came out so boldly at night: possoms. foxes, an occasional deer and since cougars go where deer go, now and then a big cat.  He had a fondness for police horses, their sly snatches of sweet clover on empty lots, their bored napping with one hoof tipped up while the humans talked.  In the Mexican part of town, he had captured deadly flurries of cockfighting.

If all human experience should be observed (really -- ALL?) shouldn’t animal life also deserve objective regard and consideration for what they were? Are we or are we not fellow animals?  He made vids of the Humane Society’s pet cemetery where people had spent money for elaborate markers and care in perpetuity.  On the counter in reception were animal-shaped receivers for money.  Then the cyclone-fenced kennels of dogs, some begging to get out and play, others curled and sleeping, a few slavering and smashing against the wire in a frenzy of killer instinct.   Out back there were piles of euthanized bodies, big and little; mottled, fuzzy and smooth.  He was quickly removed by staff.  

She made a rule.  In the very early mornings she would do her own writing because that’s when she was at her best.  Then lunch and a nap.  Only then would she try to understand the vids as they came to her, provisionally edited.  Her own writing was in part about boundaries.  She understood that a grid, which is a source relationship locating where one is, could also become a cage that forbade venturing into unknown territory.  She began to see that society, in its desire to keep order, kept trying to confine life, to put a leash on it, to train it into convenience, index it.  The vids were against that.  They were arguments for flight, for testing boundaries at every point of the compass.  So her rule was not idle.

But did she want to fly?  He forwarded some footage of sail-kiting, paragliding, on the Columbia River gorge where people were soaring in the thermals alongside eagles.  Very exciting.  Very expensive.  The great contradiction of feeling most alive when close to death.

She wrote:  “It escapes both the grid and the compass because now you are in the grip of wind and land.”  That’s when he came over to her building and knocked on her door, both of them full of adrenaline.  The next morning, very early after he had gone, she wrote a sonnet.  She had never been able to do it before, but now she saw that it was only a word grid and compass.  She could use them to fly.  Now she was really writing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"THE TRAIL": Reflections on the movie

Jasmin Jandreau in "The Trail"

It took me a while to realize that “The Trail” (2013) was not realistic, but rather a conflation of “Pilgrim’s Progress” with “The Little Prince.”  It was not until the very end when the story was tied off with a quote from the Book of Luke that it came right out and admitted that everything was metaphor, a classic Christian “trope” for life.  “The Loneliest Planet”, about the couple backpacking across Georgia, was the same trope but in realistic terms, though it was in a place most people don’t know, a little country between Turkey and Russia.  It could have been Oregon, or the Rockies, or Scotland.

The trail in this film is in woods, second-growth, with snow and a farm wagon rigged for migration with hoops and tent sheet.  A woman is stranded there by a mysterious attack, which is a realistic but unseen part, and then tries to walk to some safe place.  In a while a little Indian boy joins her.  They have no food except one small fish, some flour and a handful of beans.  There are no proper blankets.  She has no knife but finally realizes she can start fires with spectacles. The boy says nothing but often is a guide.

In an echo of the trip along the trail, the actual computer streaming of the film kept breaking down and telling me the film was not available.  “Go away -- watch something else.”  Maybe it was an atheist hacker.  But I discovered that if I left and then resumed, I could get another ten minutes before it shut off again, so that’s how I watched, jerking along. When I went to IMDB. the reviewers were all expecting authentic Western history and threw fits over the anachronisms.  Zippers!  Ghastly!   Even the Great Falls Tribune reviewer sounded puzzled.  Without knowing the major canons of our culture (Bible, Shakespeare, Kerouac) it’s not possible to pick up an author’s metaphors.  Somehow, people scorn Bible tales.

Richard Flanagan

The newest prize winning “big” book, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” uses a canon NOT from “our” culture but from Japan.  Luckily the reviewer for the Economist is nimble enough to coach us:  “The title is a clue. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is the English name for “Oku no Hosomichi”, a prose-and-verse epic by an 18th-century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, about a dangerous and lonely journey on foot into the heart of Edo-period Japan. Most Japanese can recite one line: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

Trails and paths and roads -- some built, some simply worn by feet, some not even dirt but rather water as in a river, or a beach going along the water’s verge.  There’s the galactic path across the sky (I can actually see the Milky Way from my backyard).  The Whoop-Up trail runs nearby, followed by whiskey traders, including the founders of towns like our county seat.   There are cat paths across my yard.  One arm of the cat path goes north to an unoccupied red house and one goes south and then veers west to an abandoned old church building.  Cat houses.  Lots of sex and resulting kittens.  Luckily they don’t write books.

Whole categories of theology are about the beginning of the path (ontological) and the end (teleological).  It is a characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, that it’s all about journeys from one place to another, which DeleuzeGuattari characterize as rhizomatous:  a node or plant that extends a stolon or runner out to the next -- possibly subsidiary -- node or plant.  It’s the basic plan of a brain: neuron with long axon connecting to the next neuron.  The brilliance of the brain is that the connections can form or break according to use and an unused neuron quietly withers.  Culture does that, too.

Archibald Macleish and Christopher Plummer, who played Satan.

Archibald Macleish’s play “J.B.” begins with Satan walking down the aisle to the stage while God’s voice booms, “From whence have you come?”  Satan answers the LORD and says, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  I enjoy teasing the cats when they squeeze in through the cat flap by asking if they’ve been going to and fro on the earth.  They say, “Meow.”  At least they’re not redundant.  

The Christian story begins with the trip to Bethlehem and ends with the walk up Golgotha, carrying a cross.  No one jokes much about that.  I didn’t catch the Gospel reference at the end of the movie called “The Trail” except that it’s in Luke, which is a Gospel very much concerned with survival by perseverance when things are tough.  Little old Christianity just starting out and determined to get there.  Whereever that is.   You can watch “The Trail” for free if you can keep the computer from changing the word “trail” to “trial.”  I found it finally by going to Google Images and looking for frames from the movie.  The trailer that is posted at the access to the movie is about some other movie, but it also looks interesting.  I suspect that its title might be “The Trial.”  Googling reveals at least a dozen movies either called “The Trail,” or with “The Trail” in the title, like “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” (the 1936 version) an iconic movie in my family.  We were so dedicated to trails that we belonged to the Mazamas, an organization of hikers and mountain climbers.  But our trees were Doug fir.

There are two ways to hike a trail and again my parents differed.  My father was goal directed, summiting mountains, driving to reach some goal before it got dark.  He took risks but never left the plan.  My mother was a wanderer who didn’t stay on the path.  To walk with her was to stop to taste the root of a licorice fern or to make a willow whistle.

One morning at Silver Falls State Park we woke up in our camp trailer and discovered she was missing.  We were the only ones camped there.  In those days it was a safe place.  We kids were small and it was scary, not because we thought she was kidnapped, but because sometimes she got mad at us and it was easy to imagine that she just left.  Until she came down the trail with her empty coffee mug in her hand, a jacket over her long nightgown, muddied up to the knees.  She’d done the entire several-mile loop through the trail that went behind waterfalls.  She said she hadn’t intended to -- just thought she’d wander a little ways but then ended up going around the whole trail -- several miles.

My own life has covered a lot of ground in the realistic sense, but never left this continent and never went very far south.  (Are you kidding?  There are ‘gators down there!)  I was always struggling to get back to the East Slope of the Rockies.  But in a virtual way (not virtuous) I’ve been on perilous trails, always going higher until now I sit in this back bedroom with my head whirling and sliding far, far away.  Not any more realistic than the heroine of “The Trail” in her flimsy print dress sleeping on a sheet in the snow.  (I was relieved for the actress when a cuff of long underwear slipped down through the sleeve of her dress.)  
"The Old North Trail"by Rob Akey

I just got an email from a former student, Robey Clark, asking if I remembered anything about a play in which he was required to kill a puppy that had been hit by a car.  I do.  I wrote the play.  I made the quite realistic puppy out of a Persian Lamb coat I got from Good Will.  The play was called “J’Accuse” and indicted adults for not understanding kids.  Seemingly, it made little impact and yet Robey has devoted his life to helping NA kids get a good education.  It wasn’t because of the play.  It was because he had the capacity to absorb the play and see that it suggested a life-path which he actually followed.  That's the way it works -- when it works.

PS.  If I were teaching these stories in a class, I would add the very powerful Somali film called "Sounds of Sand."  It's a family looking for water that finds mostly death.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Liminal space or dissociation?

Over and over for decades I’ve been rewriting and extending research on the design of liturgy/worship or whatever you personally call your time that is set aside for focus, reflection, awareness of higher powers, or however else you refill the aquifers of your personhood.  The short version of this is what we students asked in seminary:  “Can you call the Holy Spirit?”  The long version was my attempted thesis which I could NOT get past the seminary faculty but could not lay aside either.

When one researches this field, one soon realizes that a person can go to the library and check out an entire worship service printed on paper, even the music written out and when to stand or ring a bell.   (It's not likely to set your hair on fire.) Therefore, an academic sees writing and words (if you allow musical notes to be “words”) as what liturgy “is.”  No shaman ever thinks that.  Likewise, theology is about words and a certain kind of reasoning.  No shaman bothers with those.

Lately researchers for religion have been fussing that people keep searching for “spirituality” and don’t like institutions.  The trouble is that few seminaries really teach “spirituality,” though some of them are liturgical.  The troubles at General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, Manhattan, can easily be interpreted as the upside-down situation of a lawyer/social scrambler president, who thinks theology is like law, colliding with a student body young enough to want the spiritual content of beloved liturgy.  One clue is his tone-deaf decision to reschedule morning worship from 8AM to 10AM.  It’s a way to start the day, dummy!  Not just another class-like gathering.  He has succeeded in converting a dedicated community into a corporation court trial.

New Guinea peoples keep the bodies of their loved ones.

It was clear to me even when I first gathered my bizarre set of thesis examples (cannibalism in the Andes, New Guinea ceremonies, a wedding with a dead groom) that there were certain “givens” to spiritually transforming or supporting events.  The concept of liminality, for instance -- the creation of a sequestered and safe place where normal social constraints had been removed and emotion could erupt or simply well up -- is a solid indicator.  But words or even an authority figure were not necessary.  I saw that “spirituality” was a function of the pre- sub- un- conscious  and that it was more a matter of art than reason.  It is FELT.  But it is full of MEANING, which some conflate with words, forgetting that “a poem must not mean but be.”  More like dreams.  Metaphors.  Psychoanalysis.  Interpretive dance.

So I feel joyfully entitled to claim the little corner of the current tsunami of thought about neuro-research that I now label “neuro-liturgy.”  I’m not claiming to account for mystical experiences, which is the way the subject has been approached in some literature.  (I googled.)  I want to know what we should keep in mind when designing an effective experience in ANY human context.  How do we call the “unconscious” since it is not cognizant in a spoken way but certainly aware (conscious in a felt way) of anything inside the skin, including those anatomical structures meant to reach out to whatever it is “out-skin.”   How do we discover the nature of DESIRE, which Mark Solms tells us is what Freud concluded drives human life, the key life-force that gives rise to everything else, particularly survival?  

Human identity is an emergent phenomenon dependent on the richness of in-skin experience gathered by the entire body in the course of interaction with the “reality” that is “out-skin.”  Human brain anatomy is “cumulative” which means that each evolved or mutated ability must be built on and come to terms with whatever the brain was doing earlier.  The two main divisions are between the autonomic and limbic systems that are shared with all mammals (some parts of the system with all vertebrates) and those abilities acquired in the course of developing the cortex.  This later part is -- beyond everything else -- responsive, always rebuilding itself in terms of actual tissue.

1.  The sensorium

The single simplest and most potent thing a person can do to strengthen spirituality is to expand consciousness, both knowledge of the sights, sounds, tastes, temperatures, textures, smells of the world and awareness of how they interact, what they symbolize, how they are drawn from the natural world -- and awareness of one’s inner world, how one is “feeling,” in terms of affect but also bodily comfort or tension.  

2.  Maps and Metaphors

There is simply no possible way to keep “in mind” everything the body is capable of sensing, so we have evolved ways to sort and bundle information.  On the surface of the cortex there are evidently at least two maps.  One is a grid (supported by specific cells that note where the body is in space -- “out-skin”) and another is the homuncular map of the body that records the amount of neuron space devoted to intake from any specific point “in-skin.”

Memories are filed according to the emotional “vibe” and the sensory records of the moment, but they are not preserved as remembered units.  Rather, when they are called up they are gathered back together from separate records.  The process of memory can go wrong in ways that have not entirely been explained so far.  Suppressed memory, mistaken memories, memories based on erroneous information, and memories that hijack the emotional system are all being investigated.

The brain connectome

3.  The Connectome

Somewhat similarly, at any given moment the brain is connecting clusters of neurons in a kind of “chord” or pattern of interaction.  These patterns shift according to the task being presented, and represent what is felt as meaning as well as awareness of a certain cognizance.  A common transition to use as reference is “going to sleep” which is sort of semi-conscious but can happen without any intention.  Waking up is an opposite but parallel phenomenon -- not consciously intended but easily conditioned.  But so are many of the things that happen in sleep and a high proportion of what happens when awake.

Oh, yeah?

4.  Expression

Voluntary and involuntary kinds of expression include facial cues on up a scale of intention, control and inspiration to fine arts.  Expression in all ways possible are often guided and powered by feeling, the pre- un- sub- functioning of the brain.  This produces meaning as well as expressing it.

This meaning is often recorded "outskin" either purposely or naively as material culture: clothing, instruments, music, architecture, painting, toys, decoration.  These things are “containers” for meaning.

5.  Community

It appears that the brain functions on several distinct levels, one being the thalamic limbic system of animal desire to survive (which, since we are not up-tight Viennese patriarchs, we can consider a GOOD thing), and the other being the cortex, esp. the prefrontal cortex.  In addition to the small structures or organelles of hippocampus and whatever, there are also individual kinds of cells that specialize in specific awareness.  They are a reminder that we are essentially a colony of collaborating one-celled animals united within a skin.

One of these cell specialties is empathy, which is clearly transpersonal and a way to join human awareness into community.  This is the point where private prayer and devotion meets the congregation that sings, prays, orally or physically responds, and listens together.  It remains a function of the individual human mind.  The generous will extend the ability to all mammals.

When the community of “boys at risk” expresses what they most yearn for, what their lifeforce desire might be, they speak of two modes:  one is the “beloved community” that provides shelter and supports identity (they know who you are and will help you), and the other is deep intimacy with another person.  These are “emergentsurvival-based desires that when satisfied create meaning and transcendent experience.  Those of us who try to understand need great attentiveness to persons, the world, and ourselves.

Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me till
I'm half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I'm not too hard persuaded. 
-- Robert Francis