(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."

Monday, February 08, 2016


The two female clinical psychologists had sat up talking so late the previous night that they decided to clear their heads by walking.  Nothing drastic — no competitive hiking, no trails through the hills, just a pleasant stroll through an ordinary neighborhood with few distractions and not much traffic.

“Do you have any professional insights about transference?”

“Well, I suppose everyone’s understanding of transference is inevitably guided by one’s own emotional attachments.  One can’t exactly be cold and theoretical about them because that would kill all empathy.”  They slowed to step over a place where roots had buckled the sidewalk.

“And yet, empathy — which is directly feeling what the other person is feeling — CAN’T be like one’s own experience.  The whole idea of empathy is that one can actually feel in one’s own heart what is so strongly and differently felt by someone else, sometimes to their pain or harm or why would they deliberately come to an office and ask for help?”

Two boys went whizzing past them on their bikes, charging down the sidewalk so fast they almost knocked the women over with their pure slipstream momentum.  The women laughed, stepping aside just in time.

“It sounds as though you have a specific case in mind.”

“Yes, and it’s not quite like an office practice where the person comes knowing what the terms are.  This is a social relationship, but not really a very close one.  It’s nothing like dating.  There’s a surgeon I know professionally, a bit older, very respected.  He’s trying to pull me into his orbit.”

“What does that mean, his “orbit”?  Sounds planetary.”

They had to pause on the corner for a delivery truck before they could cross the street.  

“He’s between wives and wants me to be a kind of surrogate, a person to escort to events who will make it appear that he has an active relationship but without actually having one.”

“So this is not what the youngsters are calling ‘friends with benefits.’?”

“No, and I don’t think he’s gay either.  But I think he had a lot of therapy in his adolescence — he’s hinted as much — and he may have transferred that to me, though his therapist was male — this was years ago when ALL therapists were male.  It feels more like Asperger’s, which would not have been a diagnosis then.  It wasn’t named until 1944 but not really understood very well for many more years.”

“I suppose it was confused with post traumatic stress syndrome from the war.”

Their attention was grabbed by a passing ambulance with lights flashing and siren going.  Emergencies hit both of them in the gut and it took a moment to settle into conversation again.

“Since then, in the Fifties, there’s been such emphasis on being brainy, having professional status, and dividing up the genders so the men are steely and the women are cushions.  It’s hard to separate the cultural from the personal.”

“So give me some specifics.  Why can’t you just say you’re not interested and let him find someone else.”

“Because he’s begun to gaslight me.”


“He made a play for me a few years ago and I had the conventional reaction, but I probably explained too much.  It was when I started to work with delinquent boys.  I think that’s what stirred him up.  On the one hand he seemed to think I shouldn’t do that, that I would be contaminated somehow, that their stigma would rub off on me.  That I was not sane to help them.  On the other hand he seemed to think I knew something magic about those kids and that he wanted to know what it was.  That I was withholding it.”

They walked several blocks without speaking.  Dogs barked at them from yards.  There was a little girl sitting on her front steps, but when they came near, she went inside and closed the door hard.

“He’s begun to hint that I have a romantic interest in the boys.”

“Do you think he’s a pedophile?”

“Possibly, but I don’t think so.  I don’t think he’s a person who has desire at all.  I think that’s the mystery to him.  But he’s not a patient and I know nothing about his background.  If I were guessing, I’d say he had distant parents who related to him only if he were a high achiever and gave him no emotional contact.  He’s almost like a person raised in an orphanage, but always makes it a point in conversation to emphasize how important his father was.”

“What did he do?”

“I think some kind of executive in a corporation.  Not an academic, not political.  The kind of person who is high enough up to watch his back and worry about respectability.  I think this surgeon has thoroughly internalized that.  He’s very concerned about how he dresses and what he eats or drinks.  He would never sit around in his underwear swilling beer.”

The listener laughed.  “Back in the day people cared about such things!  And could actually define it!”

A woman in an apron and a straw hat waved from her yard. Digging in her flower borders, she had made a pile of pulled weeds beside her on the grass.

Now the listener turned the conversation back to her friend in a new line of inquiry.  “There’s really only one way to solve this and that’s to see what the counter-transference might be.  You can’t control him, but why does he bother YOU?”

They passed a barbershop, complete with the spiral-striped pole, and both the barber and the man getting a haircut waved at them cheerfully.  The bright interior of the shop was gleaming with mirrors and bottles of mysterious liquids.  But the protective sheet that hid the man from the neck down was bright red!  His feet stuck out the bottom: he was wearing sneakers.

“It would be so easy for him to spread hints about me in a way that would destroy my reputation and get my insurance canceled, if not invite law enforcement to take a look.  So much of our work depends upon how people understand what we are doing, but the culture doesn’t keep up with us.”

“There’s got to be more.”

A little string of birds flew overhead and lined themselves up on the telephone wires, or were they power lines?  How does one tell the difference?

“Those boys.  They suffer so much.”

“It’s transferring to you.  You are suffering with them?”

“Some days I’m enraged at the way society destroys its own future.”

“It’s more than that.”

“I suppose it’s something almost like PTSD.  I wake in the night hallucinating that the starvation, the beatings, the sexual assault, are happening to me . . .   and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

They had come to a Starbucks.  Exchanging glances, and then a hug, they went in for what they jokingly equated to drugs: caffeine and sugar.  But so trendy, so upscale.  They could afford it.  One said — it doesn’t matter which one, “We’ve got to find a way to be more political.  This is systemic.”

When they had their fancy coffees, they took them to an outside table.  "See, the real trouble is that one can't defend one's patients -- known, loved, and understood -- without revealing them.  But to reveal them is to expose them to destruction."

"Does that include surgeons with no hearts?"  They laughed a little too hard.

Sunday, February 07, 2016


One of the first sci-fi stories I ever read was H.G. Wells' story about the evolution of humans played against the economic gap in English society.  It was represented by the rich becoming more and more “elfin,” meaning effete and ineffective but surviving by the magic of belonging to an upper land-owning class.  The desirability of the upper class life was signed by a beautiful blonde emotional woman.  (With pet dragons?)  Like many of the descendants of this plot plan, the “lower” working classes were underground, based on the reality of coal mining, tough and physical.  In the Ring films, the real brutes roll out of the mud in the walls of excavations, like grubs.  The big strong tough miner wins the girl, right?

One of the echoes of this wrestling with evolution was knowing that the early hominids — the ones that weren’t even first-draft moderns — were as sexually dimorphic as many four-footed species.  That is, the males were big, heavily muscled, with jaws that had teeth (as some anthropologist said) like pegs, fit to tear raw meat off bones.  The women were half that size and more lightly built.  Change came about when fire allowed cooking so that big teeth weren’t needed and hunting and gathering began to rely on knowing things, planning, cooperating as a group with clever strategies, and sharing food.

Nevertheless, constant concern remains over what is male or female in behavior, body conformation, dominance, and economic opportunity when the forced roles of reproduction are blunted by contraception.  That's saying nothing about the ability to change genders convincingly.  How much is genetic and what does the new shift from industrial to technology mean?  (For some reason penises are getting smaller.  Auugh!)  Even war is changed by technology, since it is now much more of a video game with predator drones managed at consoles in middle America.

Controls for a "Reaper" drone

This is another shift from dyadic systems of the past to more of a monoculture.  Except that there is a new dyad operating — several, actually.  I subscribe to The Guardian, an English newspaper, which turns its attention to America and sees the same Wellsian split between industrial labor and investment capitalists, the same split between haves and have-nots.  It’s an irony that England should have to tell us what our own newspapers don’t because the papers are owned by our rich and control the news.

I’ve lost the link to an article about free-lance writing that mentioned the national split that haunts us in Valier:  it is that between the cultural evolution of the city and our ways in the rural or “flyover” middle continent.  Both urban and rural are in the grip of media-enforced stereotypes, writers’ rooms where a certain kind of person sits developing by committee the stories the unwary accept as truth.  Sometimes they are didactic and even progressive.  They were the force that transformed the stigma against gays, so long as they were a certain “kind” of gay — respectable, loving, protective.  They were the people who taught us blacks are like whites.  (Cosby threw a hand grenade into that — or maybe he only turned out to be just like a white predator.  And maybe blacks are NOT like whites.)  The writers never have figured out what to do about Indians, or Chinese, for that matter.  The editors who assign stories do not know the middle of the country exists.

When I am in Portland, my preference for wearing denim cowboy shirts, tails out, over bright print skirts and with big craft earrings, made people think I was lesbian, which was an advantage since the management was lesbian.  (I'm not.  I'm solitary and celibate -- much more shocking.)  

In Valier my work shirts and sweats are seen as poverty.  (I stopped bothering with earrings.)  But there are lots of people around here in that category.  In neither environment am I seen as a writer because there is a split in the stereotypes. Writers are either wise old weathered males in university towns or smart pretty young mothers on ranches.

Jim Harrison

Beyond that, cities suck profit out of the rural.  Rural professionals are no longer the kind and principled lawyers of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or doctors like “Marcus Welby.”  They are third tier scramblers trying to pay off their grad school loans as soon as possible.  Or sometimes they're escaping from the quasi-law of regulations, which are state-by-state.  I include teachers.  An insurance cartel is busy acquiring as many delinquent tax debts as they can, often because the owners either died alone or left for warmer weather, shorter distances, and better managed McDonalds -- abandoning their property.  What was originally devised as protection is now predation.

Thin populations spread over great distances means more need for public infrastructure from bus lines to fiber-optics to water management.  But here there are more tax cut-outs from the public body, from reservations to Hutterite colonies to giant corporate ranches to federal wilderness.  Montana's statistics are always distorted because they don't include the many reservations.  On purpose since they would drag down the evidence of prosperity to what would look a lot more like Butte.

Butte -- the M is for mining

As the article from the Guardian notes about Butte, the difficulties are resulting in what in biology is called “apoptosis,” simply stopping to exist, dying spontaneously.  The medical news feeds are announcing a recent study that showed if mice have all their senile cells (those on the verge of apoptosis) removed from their systems (I still don’t understand how) they make a sudden gain in vitality and live longer.  Consciously or unconsciously, there are people who would like to do the same thing in the human population: remove all the sick, depressed, hooked, unemployed, old and “foreign” people.  I have no doubt this would mean a jump in prosperity.  And a lot of empty houses to get people off the streets, though there probably ought to be a housing apoptosis to get rid of all the sub-code structures.  The apoptosis of small towns with no profit-making source of "new blood" is already happening.

Landed gentry, as portrayed in movies.

The trouble is that, like English landed gentry, evolution would take the remaining people and settlements towards not just cultural deadends, but towards that same cell-selecting apoptosis from the same causes.  Technology doesn’t just mean that all the money rolls into one corner, but that money suffocates.  And because of technology, we can all see it.  We just haven’t figured out alternatives yet.  Capitalism, communism, laissez faire and regulation have all contributed to the problem.  And the REAL problem is that we’ve just about used up all the free profit from the environment, the ore and oil and even fertile soil, which erodes quickly when irrigated.  And that exotic little trace element needed for Apple cell phones.

If one adds up information like the cultural shift away from grain-fed beef, the collapse of countries that once made deals to get our wheat, the growing allergies to gluten or to trace molecules of fertilizer and pesticides, antibiotics being worn out, erosion, climate change, and water shortages (which may only be distribution patterns changing), one is sharply and chillingly aware of the possibility of the whole grain industry collapsing.  It’s beginning to happen with corn already.  One fast-developing wheat virus would end Valier.

Small towns like this one have had imposed upon them by state and federal officials a host of infrastructure requirements: legitimate regulation of water, and sewer as well as profit-making provision for electricity, internet, gas and so on.  Some communities have dwindled below the critical mass necessary to support schools, churches, libraries, grocery stores, service stations.  

What that means is that a different kind of culture is unfolding in the country than in the city, but the city doesn’t know anything about it.  They pass laws that don’t fit, make assumptions that aren’t true, and use their greater population density to become technologically more clever — and more expensive.  One great vulnerability is the electrical transmission systems that power all the gizmos. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower

When Eisenhower was president, he insisted on a transportation system that would support war of the WWII kind.  It also exploded (increasing prosperity) the American automobile industry.  We all hit the road.   We still use the transportation systems to shift goods across the nation, though the bridges and railroads are decaying.  But the electronic infrastructure is probably more vital and it could be shut down by a teenaged hacker.  (Can you tell I’m now watching the series called “CSI:Cyber”?)  It’s already happened.  The intimacy of the computer screen beats even the intimacy of a parked car.

Worst than than, if cities collapse due to disaster or rot, the population will fall back on the country and they might not be welcome.  I still remember a right-wing friend who expected atomic bombs to prompt a migration in this country like the ones across the Middle East.  He had wrapped greased sem-automatics in plastic and buried them.  I don't know where.

We could always go back to basics, like “knowing things, planning, cooperating as a group with clever strategies, and sharing food.”  We're not quite to "apoptosis," but in many aspects we're suffering from "inanition," failure to thrive.  We're not quite to class war, which will not be between rich and poor but between urban and rural.

What's your Precious?

In Saskatoon I developed a vigorous theological elaboration of the rural prairie.  It triggered a passionate response from another female minister, defending skyscrapers and sidewalks.  People who knew both of us would tell you the chances of reconciliation were nil.

Saturday, February 06, 2016


The earliest days of gestation

This is a quote from the website of TransOva, which moves the little conception starts of a new creature at the 7th day of development, out of one womb into another.  “Embryo Transfer (ET) is an advanced reproductive technology and a progressive tool that can help you produce more offspring from an elite cow and can extend the impact of outstanding cattle genetics. . .

“Conventional (in vivo) ET involves specific hormonal treatment (with follicle stimulating hormone) of donor cows and heifers to cause multiple follicles to ovulate. The donors are bred using artificial insemination (AI) following this superovulation regime and estrus or standing heat.  Approximately seven days after insemination, embryos are non-surgically collected or “flushed” from the donor’s uterus and transferred fresh into synchronous recipients who will serve as surrogate mothers. The embryos may also be cryopreserved or frozen to be transferred at a later point in time.  The frozen embryos will be maintained in liquid nitrogen storage vessels until they are thawed and transferred.” 
Fisting a cow to transfer an embryo

The process is the same for all mammals.  The relevant practice for humans is called surrogate pregnancy.  It’s quite common for humans and very ordinary on modern ranches.  A ranch here in Valier ships frozen cattle embryos around the planet.    

In the natural world, no one knows how many morulas and blastocysts don’t survive.  It turns out that the uterus is not very pleased to shelter a new being of a different genome. Some morning sickness is partly the result of the uterus thinking there’s a germ or foreign object to get rid of, while the developing embryo claims its right to exist and grow into a real baby.  There’s a certain amount of grappling that goes on and sometimes the embryo loses.  This kind of loss is usually early in the first trimester.

The eight cell stage

Recent thinking about humans is that there are three trimesters IN the uterus and a “fourth trimester” of development, actual gestation, OUTSIDE the mother but as close as possible to the mother (or a clever imitation of her, an incubator).  It is during this fourth three-month trimester that the most human parts of “human” are completed.  None of the great apes have a fourth trimester, because they don’t need it.  Their heads never get that big.  (Go ahead, make a joke.)
Beginning the fourth trimester.

I’ve ordered this book since it hints at how all the mind-boggling bits come together.  How New Humans Are Made: Cells and Embryos, Twins and Chimeras, Left and Right, Mind/self, Soul, Sex, and Schizophrenia  By Charles E. Boklage.  The tiniest dropped stitch, misfolded molecule, varied isotope of an element, and the consequences could be death, malfunction for life, or something new that opens up potential.  Like a gene that confers immunity or at least resistance to HIV.  Pygmies have several of these immunities because over the aeons they’ve endured waves of different strains of HIV.  Many deaths mean tough survivors.

Genetic instructions and their consequences must always grapple with the circumstances of the moment, physical, emotional, geographical, situational.  The mother is a buffer until the “fourth trimester” when the world outside her body, possibly outside her control, get access to the infant at the most vulnerable time of its life.  Many die.  At that point men may be saviors or killers or merely torturers.  Hard to think about.  Often in the newspaper.

Benjamin C. Campbell

A professor requested an article of mine published on paper in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counselling, which made me curious about his work.  His name is Benjamin C. Campbell and he works at the University of Wisconsin.  His specialty is “The 7R Polymorphism in the Dopamine Receptor D4 Gene (DRD4)” and its consequences in terms of the behavior of men, particularly financial risk-taking, impulsivity, sensation seeking, and some others.  The idea is that particular variations of this gene set produce more testosterone than the average and that the increase endows them with more boldness, willingness to move away and explore, aversion to child-raising, and so on.  All the things we associate with testosterone because it is a politicized hormone, accused of violence.  Many are interested in which components of sexuality can be inherited.

I got these papers off of “Researchgate,” one of several websites that publish academic papers.  They are not easy to read.  Campbell’s studies are very specific about what tests they used: simple “buccal swabbing” which is the q-tip to the inside of the cheek seen on crime shows that reveals DNA, plus a test for testosterone in saliva, which is a fairly stable indicator of testosterone in the whole system.  They (there are several authors for each paper) never make definitive declarations about what testosterone does — it is not established in terms of personality, but that’s why they’re doing the research.  It’s a reality check.  What they found was not either/or results, but rather subtle tilts of a scale.

This is my hand.  What do you think?

Some tests were physical.  It’s proposed that a test for exposure to testosterone in the womb, mostly coming from the mother being under stress and therefore producing adrenaline which converts to testosterone, is that the infant’s index finger will be shorter than the ring finger.  It’s still controversial — far from being a fact — but I’m interested because this is true of my fingers.  My mother is dead, but I think it was probably true of her as well.  And one aunt.  But the three of us had quite different lives, depending on the circumstances, opportunities, educations, and vicissitudes of our times.  None of us had mothers who were safely protected.  My aunt was an army nurse in WWII in London and Rheims.  My mother lived in a neighborhood that became a ghetto.

Among the other tests, which were physical, was one paper and pencil instrument, a Sensation Seeking Survey.  You can take a sample test at  It’s speculative.  You might like Myers-Briggs or even a Tarot deck better.  But it’s a good conversation starter. Another test was for markers of masculinity on a full-frontal scan of the face: heaviness of bone around the eyes, size of jaw, beard and so on.   The more like Arnold Schwartzenegger, the more testosterone.

Arnold Schwartzenegger

There was no test for being gay.  Gay includes a broad span of types of men.  There IS no genetic test for desire.  What arouses desire, what the dimensions and intensity of it might be, what kind of person — not just what gender — triggers attachment and loyalty, all of that is ground for exploration.  Simple lust, the kind of thing testosterone is supposed to impel, can make a person with a penis fuck a watermelon, regardless of its gender.  But this is not the kind of desire that leads to love attachment.

What Campbell was testing was “the 7 R (I think that means there are 7 repeats — genes often repeat) Polymorphism" (that means many forms) in the "Dopamine Receptor D4 Gene (DRD4)."  We have to pause to say that dopamine is a molecule that carries messages through the neurological system.  It works, like most of the loops in the body, by going and coming, rising and falling, and in reciprocity with an opposite, and affecting other molecular pathways.  As with the familiar phenomenon of diabetes when a cell's receptors won't let insulin into the cell, what Campbell et al are studying is not testosterone itself, but the number of receptors in the cells.  I don't quite get this, but I think they are not looking at the generation of testosterone, but rather the ability to use it in cells.  This is something like measuring antibodies (a response) to determine infection.  

Dopamine is one of the most important circuits, but more than that, it has been implicated in reward and motivation, sexual and pair-bonding behavior.  Long alleles (an allele is a section of genes along the chromosome) of these specific genes that seem to affect behavior are DRD4 and DRD2.  (I haven’t decoded them yet.  They’re about location.)  They seem to influence the desire for sexual novelty, early first intercourse, and some confusing variations in the number of children produced: fewer for some ethnic groups and more for others.

Prairie Voles in Love

We’ve all been fascinated by the two kinds of prairie voles which are either faithful to one partner for their whole lives and dependably help to raise the children if they live on the flats and the opposite if they live in the mountains.  It is genetically controlled: the epigenome has shut off genes in one or the other.  But so far the experiments I’ve seen only deal with vasopressin and oxytocin rather than dopamine.  The idea is that the difference arose because of different chemical systems, like the testosterone tilts that make some people more up for adventure and exploring.  Those voles went uphill and in the process lost the loop for loving family.  Some suggest that American pioneers did that as well, making them poor husbands and fathers, even dangerous for fourth trimester infants.

These dopamine alleles might have originated -- and been positively selected for -- between 40 and 50 thousand years ago, about the time Neanderthals began to die out.  These alleles might key into the great migrations of people across the Eurasian and African continents, but would also be affected by the climate of the times — temperature, water levels, and so on.  I’ll keep thinking about it.  I think some boys who are now discarded by our society as too rowdy, too inclined to trouble, too sexy, might be exactly the people we need and who will survive the terrifying migrations we are witnessing in our own times.

 Homo ergaster boy found at Koobi Fora (died at 12)

Friday, February 05, 2016


I’ve never forgotten the trepidation — but also driving curiosity — of learning to read.  With no idea of what happens in a brain to allow such a thing, I simply did what I thought was trying:  staring hard while running my eyes along the lines of print.  Something like trying to ride a bicycle.  You push off and pedal.   At some point something happens and you’re doing it.  So that’s how I’m trying to understand discussions of genetics and the influence of certain molecules.  I just run my eyes over the sentences, which are full of mysterious stuff, in hopes that I’ll suddenly understand.  It’s not the same as taking a class.  Far more disorderly.

So far, I’ve got this:  “Humans normally have 46 chromosomes in each cell, divided into 23 pairs. Two copies of chromosome 8, one copy inherited from each parent, form one of the pairs. Chromosome 8 spans about 146 million DNA building blocks (base pairs) and represents between 4.5 percent and 5 percent of the total DNA in cells.

Google could not tell me the difference between paired chromosomes and the double helix (paired) genes.  I think many people confuse the two.  But chromosomes are much bigger than genes which are molecular.  Genes are on the helixes, not on the chromosomes.  This is where one needs a teacher.  But my conception is that the helixes on which the genes spell out formulas must be curled tightly as yarn strands to amount to chromosomes.  Uncurled, they stretch tremendous distances.

“Identifying genes on each chromosome is an active area of genetic research. Because researchers use different approaches to predict the number of genes on each chromosome, the estimated number of genes varies. Genes on chromosome 8 are among the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 total genes in the human genome.  Some of these genes appear to be the difference between human and chimp.

“Chromosome 8 likely contains between 700 and 1,100 genes.

“Chromosome 9 likely contains between 800 and 1,300 genes. 

“Chromosome 14 likely contains between 800 and 1,300 genes. “

As nearly as I can tell from Google, the pair of sex determining chromosomes is the 23rd pair.  The two chromosomes of the pair are mismatched: one is X and the other may be Y, which is much smaller.  Some suggest it is an X with an "arm" or "leg" torn off. If there are two XX chromosomes in the pair, the result is female.  If it is XY, then the result is male.  The number of genes would be unequal between the two chromosomes.  Presumably, what is missing is the instructions for the egg, which is much bigger than the little halves of code with a tail called sperm.  The egg needs directions for all the machinery of the cell.

The criteria for a species is whether the creature can reproduce within that group.  It's not about size or shape of genitals -- it's about molecules.  Even though human beings, chimps, and bonobos (our closest relatives) share 98.8 of their genes, we can only overlap, not be fertile inter-breeders, because we have been evolving separately for a very very long time.  In fact, the genes are arranged into a different number of chromosomes.  BUT humans carry neanderthal genes and we did overlap in time.  So are neanderthals the same species as we are?

“If human and chimp DNA is 98.8 percent the same, why are we so different? Numbers tell part of the story. Each human cell contains roughly three billion base pairs, or bits of information. Just 1.2 percent of that equals about 35 million differences. Some of these have a big impact, others don't. And even two identical stretches of DNA can work differently -- they can be "turned on" in different amounts, in different places or at different times.”  DNA instructs the construction of molecules — it is the MOLECULES that matter.

Human v. chimp

Brains, just like the rest of the body, evolve.  By slightly different timing, sequencing, and combining of molecule production, all human organs and cells work a little differently from those of each other and more differently from other species.  All humans of every "race" can produce children together.  African, Chinese, Swedish, whatever.  So far.  More and more humans are struggling to make babies. Our molecule management systems are having to adapt to molecules that never existed before.  We made them in a lab.  The body doesn't know what to do with them. Infertility is becoming a problem.  Fishes are getting scrambled about who is the female.

Scientists can compensate in many ways, which offers very expensive experiments. For instance, in a recent lab experiment, the short section of genes containing the molecular instructions for fertilizing an ovum were separated from their Y chromosome (male) and were used to make “sperm” which did indeed fertilize ovum and start them growing.  This is not parthenogenesis, which is an ovum that just starts growing without a sperm, maybe because of some kind of shock or special condition, like PH.  In some lower orders of creature, this is not problematic. Just another way of doing business. 

I don’t know whether the lab-made “sperm,” which would normally be half of a set of double helix human instructions,  were conveyed right into the ovum with a pipette or were actually cells with tails and the proper “sonar” for seeking and penetrating an ovum.  A condition of being allowed to do the experiment was that the scientists destroy the resulting “morula” before it could develop further, maybe to the next stage: “blastocyst.”

“A morula is distinct from a blastocyst in that a morula (3-4 days post fertilization) is an 16 cell mass in a spherical shape whereas a blastocyst (4-5 days post fertilization) has a cavity inside the zona pellucida along with an inner cell mass. A morula, if untouched and allowed to remain implanted, will eventually develop into a blastocyst.” 

In these experiments, the scientists are required to destroy the blastocyst to keep it from developing into a monster, but something in the body must check what’s going on at this stage, because even naturally many of these little beginnings are lost. Part of the experimentation is to find out why.  Clearly for many there was a glitch in the code that prevented further development.  

But what drives the funding of such experiments is cultural -- long-standing convictions that to many people are real. They become obsessed with the idea that they MUST have a baby with their own genetics, which was only situational and emotional — nothing to do with science or human tissues.  We are hypnotized by these convictions, which are driven by the inheritance of wealth and power down through centuries.

One MUST have children to inherit one’s wealth and status.

One OWNS those children, because they are an extension of oneself through time.

Sons are JUST LIKE FATHERS and will manage wealth and reputation just as their fathers did, which is good for everyone.

If those children get out of control or are a source of disgrace, they should be killed. Like a lab morula. 

An honor killing victim.

In the Middle East, men legally kill daughters, wives, and sisters, in a set of laws called “honor killing.”  Women are captive, sequestered, and cloaked because resources are scarce and the guarantee of biological origin is of extreme importance.  Motherhood can be witnessed, but until we figured out the genome, fatherhood was never provable.  Women could claim to have been impregnated by God to avoid being punished or killed for unfaithfulness.  It worked for Jesus' mother, didn't it?

These rules are good for the group, and in a situation where one is dependent on group support in order to survive, individualists are identified and driven out or just killed.  This is biological, sub-human, almost insectoid.  It persists because in places where there is not enough, it works. Evolution is about what works, even when the context is behavior rather than what cells and inheritance do.  If we have the technology to intervene, what should we do with it? What do we do about imitation inserted non-complete "code dads" when we still haven't figured out what to do about donor dads who sold their sperm?

Behavior that tends to break up the group consensus and identity will put the individual at risk.  Some groups will simply pull away, some will incarcerate, some will kill, and some will ignore to the point of death, as with troublesome children.   Social evolution happens when there are enough ignored, starved, troublesome individuals that they band together to support each other.  Those who have been resourceful and clever enough to survive into adulthood may remember and reach back to help younger versions of themselves.

If they only duplicate the behaviour of the original group, the tragedy will repeat itself.  If they can find new values and strategies that make both groups “richer” by adding new ecological niches, then they can co-exist and both groups thrive.  Killing is no longer helpful to the group.  Protecting everyone’s children creates wealth.

A petrel flying in a storm

Even in my nuclear family I’ve been an oddball, obstinate, defiant — what one ministerial supervisor called “a stormy petrel.”  This gives me a special sympathy for the rest of my outcast flock of friends even if I insist on flying into the teeth of a storm alone.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

THE TRUNK: (fiction)

The old-fashioned trunk wasn’t delivered until months after her former student’s  death.  He was a gifted writer.  She had been his English teacher but that was a long time ago.  She was retired now.  She had known about the trunk, even wondered about it, but hadn’t expected it. 

She let the trunk just sit in the garage for a while, though the garage was not the modern kind with drywall, a near-room, but rather an ancient lean-to built to shelter a Model T.   Out there she sometimes sorted papers, alongside her little woodstove, meant mostly for disposing of windfall branches from her yard trees, but handy for flammable things she wanted to discard.  As she grew older, there were more of those.  It always gave her a pleasantly tribal feeling to be by a fire, though she was only a standard old white childless woman, a whitebread type.  Over-educated.  Never married.  Full of notions and the confidences of children, even if they were adolescent.  Make that “because.” 

So she knew whose trunk this was but was partly constrained by knowing that there are some things she really did NOT want to know and partly by not knowing what she was meant to do with it.  She was well-aware that the writing was molten lava.  It was almost remarkable that the trunk didn’t burst into flames.  This had been a student who wrote all the time and who had finally become very famous, the toast of the town, and then was thrown down, mocked and humiliated.  Not because he pretended to be an Indian — he WAS an Indian.  His offence was pretending to be white — “passing,” Blacks called it.  It had nothing to do with writing -- it was politics, "hate" politics.

At some point his writing had not been his anymore, but had become a football used by others who were barely literate.  Not because of the beauty, skill, accuracy or sheer energy of his writing.  Few ever read the famous books, which were famous because a lot of copies were sold, going up the best-seller lists, making a lot of money for the small group of industry employees at the publishing house.  The writer made the smallest percentage because “expenses” were billed to his advance account.  That included the high salary of the publisher.

What percentage of the books were actually read?  5% she would guess and call it generous.  Nice covers though: horses and powwows, feathers and “peace pipes” — none of which were in the books.  Once he was established as being indigenous, he was assaulted from all sides for supposedly destroying his own heritage by ignoring his culture, promoting assimilation, being an "apple."

He went back to the rez, moved in with his old auntie (who was actually a great-aunt since his mother’s generation was the one when rez women had begun to drink) and then he himself began to drink.  But he didn’t stop writing.  He just stopped writing for anyone but himself.  The paper piled up in his trunk, neatly tied with ribbon and stacked in chronological order.  At least that’s what she’d heard, and when she finally opened the trunk it turned out to be true.  The ribbon was typewriter ribbon, the kind divided between black and red.  That was a comment.  There’s no such thing as white typewriter ribbon, though later typewriters had correction tape.

She took one manuscript from the bottom and another from the top — the oldest and the most recent.  The oldest, which was hard to get out of the bottom, was the most grammatical, but also the most conventional.  The newest was almost unreadable, stamped with rings of coffee and booze, but it was hair-raising to read — once it was deciphered — and deciphered was literally the word because he had developed a code system of his own, mostly abbreviations of the phrases he used like refrains from a song.  Some she recognized as being from actual songs but mostly she didn’t.  They were too tied to a culture she didn’t know — not Indians, but rural, saloon-music, blue enough to make a hound moan with sympathy.

Beyond that, his old auntie had been a Blackfeet speaker and he had begun to pick up vocabulary from her.  Some of her words stood for things that non-Indians didn’t know.  There ARE dictionaries of the roots and grammar, but it’s a difficult language to learn.  Blackfeet, like all the North American indigenous languages, was oral, NOT written, and included sounds not represented in an English alphabet. The spoken words were inflected like Chinese so that by changing the emPHAsis a bit, they meant something else.  It was also cumulative like German, so that one word was several combined.  

Then there was the element of signtalk, which added gestures to words and phrases so as to made them clear and complete.  And, of course, it’s tough to recognize sarcasms and kidding without knowing the actual life among the people.  And since the tribe was bi-national, the spelling of words was different on one side of the border than on the other.

More than anything else, language arises from the ecology, the land and relationship to it, and to achieve an understanding of that, one had to live there a long time.  The academics that produced dictionaries usually left in winter, so they never learned the words for intense blizzard or paralyzing cold, let alone the euphoria of a Chinook wind in January.

Ask Gyasi Ross -- he knows

Giving this trunk to a youngster of the tribe who had writing skills would have made more sense.  But none of them spoke Blackfeet, much less wrote it, and none of them that she knew of wanted to write anything but white man’s best sellers.  They had caught the greed disease.  As soon as they made enough money, they would move to the city.  She didn’t dare say that to anyone, but she thought it.  None of them was mature enough yet to focus and stick with the task.

The early manuscripts told about hard winters and idyllic summers with an indulgent and competent grandfather.  They didn’t have much, but what they had was well-managed and anyway, in those days if you had family you had everything.  Part of the reason the youngsters thought like white people was that their indigenous families had disappeared, broken.  Even the land was broken, fractured deep underground, scythed by windmills high above ground.

She had been sitting still long enough to be cold, so she roused to put more sticks in the stove.  The most recent manuscript was written after his old auntie had died.  It was incoherent, hallucinatory, and yet full of intense poetry, metaphors of reach and power.  Much of the writing was accusatory, paranoid, and yet it could not be refuted — it was true — and it could not be explained.  Nor could it be cured.  It would cure itself or the tribe, the species, the life of the planet, would simply implode and be no more — not even someone to care about it.  Many people were already gone.  Even places were gone.

There she sat, in an old wicker chair with a faded and torn cushion she couldn’t bear to toss into the stove because she loved the bright pattern of the fabric so much and had already kept it so long.  She held the two manuscripts, a beginning and an ending, and what was she going to do about it?  Join the hordes of young lemmings with glittering eyes who didn’t realize they were running hard in a hamster wheel meant to preserve the domains of publishers?  There were no more commentators to warn them, no more reviewers who weren’t burnt out or bought out, no more in-house advocate editors because they had all been laid off to become agents scratching at the edges.  There were no more authorities; no one was in charge.

But what was the difference between these valuable, hair-raising and often beautiful writings and some rare flower — just as transient.  Surely there had been writings in the past, just as remarkable, that had simply vanished — possibly unread.   First of all, you can’t publish a trunkful of paper.  It would take a lot of winnowing and organizing.  

Suppose she could write a grant that would pay for the printing and binding of some of these pieces.  Then she would need another one to pay for publicity, distribution and book reps who visited stores — that was the real meaning of publishing.  People thought it was an honor, a certification, a diploma, only received by the worthy.  But it was no such thing.  It was just ink on paper.  Meant to make a profit. 

Maybe she should just chuck it all into the woodstove.  Maybe she should go get her own writing and chuck that in, too.  But she didn’t.  It was like having some ghastly disease and hoping that a cure would be invented soon enough to save this body of work.  But even if some reckless publisher took it on, who would read it?  Who was teaching people how to read?