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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Hey, buddy!  Want out?

Scientists spend a lot of time figuring out how to test things that are impalpable, like the deep patterns in the limbic brain.  Some might be physical, dependent on some small cell or curl of flesh.  Others might simply be assumptions about the nature of the world that one learned in infancy.  So the psych folks, not all of them shrinks, run people through the fMRI, ask them questions, use various smoke and mirror techniques.  But sometimes nothing will do but to test a rat.  How do you question a rat?  With behavior.

Peggy Mason, a highly qualified professor of neurobiology at the U of Chicago who offers an open online course “Understanding the Brain: the Neurobiology of Everyday Life” through coursera (  Her blog is at

Peggy Mason and hooded rat friend

In the attempt to understand “empathy” -- understanding what another creature is feeling and addressing that helpfully -- Mason and her co-conspirators put a rat in a rat-sized tube of plexiglas that it couldn’t open from inside and then put another rat in the same larger space.  The tube was in the middle, which meant that the outside rat already had to violate its protocol, since rats like to stay on the boundaries.  In fact, if you have rat traffic in a building, a “black light” will reveal their trails by making their pee florescent --  always along the walls. 

So the rat in the tube wants out, the second rat sees that, and being a good-hearted rodent goes over to see how to get him out.  And does.  Then they run off together.  Not necessarily a hetero pair and not for sex.  Here’s the kicker: the rat will only release a rat that looks like rats he was raised with.  An albino rat won’t release a hooded rat unless he was raised with them.  But if he grew up with only hooded rats, he won’t release albino rats.

Social cohesion holds groups together by getting their emotional states in sync.  The eventual impact of this on the others outside the group is not considered here.  The study is about the emotional sharing called empathy, one-on-one.  Without empathy the result might be a shrug or targeted cruelty.  Think homeless on the streets. 

Prob'ly just spend it on booze.

The interaction between an emotional state and its expression in muscles and the functions of the autonomic nervous system is two-way.  Put on a happy face and one’s mood may lift.  Surprised or embarrassed and your face, if it is pale enough, is likely to change color.  I once had a black counselor who would remark with laughter at how much my face blanched or blushed.  These are the kinds of clues we pick up on as empathic observers.

What prevents people from experiencing empathy or acting to help a person in distress?   Being upset and in trouble oneself.  But helping the other who is in distress, one’s own feelings improve.  Sadly, not everyone realizes this.  “Emotional contagion” is not a universal response.  It appears that it is learned in childhood through interaction with family, whether or not the family is genetically related.

Family secrets

Another experiment is designed for both chimps and children.  An experimenter puts an object in the reach of the subject but out of his own reach.  He or she shows desire for the object trying to get it and failing.  Chimps handed over the object about 40% of the time.  Human infants (infants!) handed over the object 60% of the time.  It’s pretty difficult to discover whether this is because of the brain structures for empathy are missing or whether they were simply never developed by group identification that would lead to practice of helping others.  (“Please pass the butter.”)  Some of the specific brain parts and paths are known because of fMRI studies.

There is a phenomenon called “down-regulation” which is when the helper has learned to block empathy for the distress of others.  This is helpful to people vulnerable to excessive social distress and anxiety, leading them to withdraw to their own safe group and place.  But it also is a response of professionals who must cause distress, for instance, medical people who give shots and so on.  

Think of this in terms of cops or soldiers, who trouble us so much when their “down-regulation” is so thorough that they only have empathy for “their own kind” or -- as they put it -- “the man on my left and the man on my right.”  It will take work for them to bond with female soldiers if they have down-regulated in gender terms.  Cops who have down-regulated too far will use force even on children.  It isn’t righteous or rational -- just a survival mechanism in a group that must expose themselves to danger.

The whole point of empathy is to cause groups to form, because they protect the individual and make shared projects possible.  But it is probably a biological accident that this means like-bonding-to-like, whether all Irish sticking together or criminals having each other’s backs or HIV sufferers forming a political block -- though that’s a bit more problematic because it’s hard to tell who belongs by looking, which is why they need that red ribbon loop.  Maybe the success of zebras is due to their strong ability to recognize each other.

Group identification has been experimentally formed by giving people such small clues as eye color or wrist bands.  When nice college kids are divided into mock “guards” and “prisoners,” the experiment can cause the more powerful group to “down-regulate” to the point that the experiment has to be stopped.

The Lucifer Effect

But it is possible for the prefrontal cortex functions of justice, protection, and higher goals, to curb personal distress enough to manage behavior.  A comrade who is plainly distressed by over-reactive behavior due to down-regulated empathy may cause enough competing empathy for the more empathic comrade to become aware of what he or she is doing enough to become rational, realizing that an action is not really wanted.  Once, in a classroom situation, I became so angry at a defiant student that I was on the verge of striking him.  Another student cried out, “Stop, Mrs. Scriver!” and it worked.  I was literally stopped, frozen, my brain slowly coming back online.  In fact, the whole class realized that they weren’t powerless and their social anxiety diminished.  The girl who cried out was a teacher’s daughter, less anxious about challenging a category she didn’t consider quite so threatening.

Most of the time we see each other “through a glass darkly,” esp. if "they" look different, but sometimes it seems as though someone distant or submerged approaches us until we can read their faces.  Media stories sympathetic to the "other" help.  But survival anxiety -- constant fear of losing one’s home or having enough food, being able to cope with diseases or pressure at work -- can set up “fear contagion” and “down-regulation” that makes us willing to accept behavior that erodes our solidarity until we find ourselves at war.

Anonymity drives group callousness.

This way of thinking makes it easier to understand those among us who have no empathy -- maybe their limbic system lacks that ability, maybe there is no rational control in the prefrontal cortex, maybe their bonded group is too small, maybe they are just too anxious to be conscious.  We need their “black boxes” for more study.  Clearly they are trapped in there.  We might not be willing to release them, but empathy would let us enter their world if we can keep our own distress under control.

"Black Box" was a tv series.
The neuroscientist is on the right.

Monday, January 26, 2015


What lurks in us?

The crown of evolution turns out not to be rational thought, but rather empathy: the ability to see what others are feeling in their own heads and to respond to it.  Of course, those who don’t believe in evolution don’t believe in doing that.  But then, they don’t believe in rationality either.

Rationality is one of the excellent reasons for empathy-driven social progress, when the evolution of memes is prompted by understanding how other people feel and using that understanding to benefit us all.  It is rational to make social progress -- meaning developing a world in which everyone has a place and all of the individual worlds are woven together into a planet where survival at every level is possible.  It is irrational to let huge populations of any life form be eliminated out of failure to understand or deliberate destruction that DOES understand but only wants benefit for our selves.  Some of us still think that survival is a matter of taking everything for ourselves.

I’m talking about all the life forms, all the territory, and the air -- the basic fabric of life for creatures.  Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean the biggest, strongest, most potent -- it means what can survive the circumstances.  The planetary circumstances become more and more subtly hostile to humans, in spite of their evolved empathy which has helped them work together to create circumstances that diminish disease and send research vehicles to the moon.  We aren’t saving the frogs, the bees, the coral reefs, the acid/alkalai balance of the ocean.  This is irrational.

My sort-of denomination has been trying to attract new members and improve their reputation for do-goodery based on 19th century reforms, marching at Selma, and developing principles.  They are doing this the high school way: t-shirts and slogans.  At least the t-shirts aren't pink, but the slogan is “standing on the side of love.”  Every teen can get with that -- there must be a song.

Compassion: does she know how he sees the world?

But it makes me think of a meeting in the eighties at the former Beacon Street headquarters.  In attendance were newbies like me, but also some of the most revered and dignified of our leaders -- all white males over sixty at that point.  We were in a conference room with ground-level windows that opened behind a lot of shrubbery.  Suddenly we were distracted by a shabby whiskery young man who was inadvertently mooning us because he was doing his business in the shrubs, not realizing he was presenting his nethers to a mixed group.  One of the most intellectual and brilliant of the leaders opened a window and berated the man with profane and damning shouts.  The man, unimpressed, took his time rearranging his jeans and leaving.  I forget what his t-shirt said.  Given the times, it probably said "peace."

25 Beacon Street

Why do people want to be do-gooders and why doesn’t it translate into rational provisions for the needs of others?  If a minister can't understand the urgent need to move bowels, what CAN he understand?  Do we ignore such matters because we think angels don't shit?  Politics is one reason.  But it’s not enough to have the American flag flying over the front door and be located by the State House with its gold dome, if there is no support downstairs for rest rooms the public can use.  Oh, well.  The new building has no shrubbery.

Love is an emotion so Hollywoodized and splintered into sex, dependence, and commodified into Valentine candy and diamond rings that it’s pretty much empty now.  The internet is jammed with pastel glittery butterflies and clever infantalized ponies and rainbows, all declaring love.

Compassion is often the watch word.  It’s taken me a while to realize that compassion is not about the receiver but about the provider.  This is why Christopher Hitchens got so upset by Mother Theresa -- it was all about how “compassionate” she was in the many images of her in her plain cotton sari, embracing babies and dying adults.  Our own empathy went out to her as we “became” her, and felt the aching desire to help those suffering.  We didn’t even look at the faces and bodies of the emaciated people on racks of beds -- who would want to empathically share what they were feeling?  Questions about providing meds or preventing starvation didn’t come up until late in her career.  And then we found out that our ability to empathize accurately was faulty.  Her journal describes a terrible darkness, depression that holding infants did not help.  Nor did her fat bank accounts get used rationally to improve conditions.
Can you empathize with this man?
Without scolding him for smoking?

Rational response to suffering is addressed by our nation and our various religious affiliations who send subsidies, food, used clothing, various chemicals produced by our industries.  It’s true, as Rev. Bill Holway used to say, that it feels good to give, but that’s about us, isn’t it?  It’s sometimes a good chance to get rid of stuff we don’t want: the two worst (but funniest) examples I remember are crates of high-heeled strappy shoes sent to Saharan tribes -- evidently because they were labeled “sandals”-- and tons of canned tuna fish but no can openers, also sent to the desert where no one even knew what a fish was.

Such nonsense is good for the survival of politicians who want to please those who provide generous election donations by disposing of excess production of food or by providing living experiments for pharma corporations.  Opportunities for international extortion and blackmail abound when large segments of a nation are dying from malaria or HIV.  Empathy never arrives, but the sudden realization that ebola travels by airliner can speed up our meme evolution to at least protect us -- which can only truly be achieved by protecting those interfacing with the diminishing jungle.  

Not Mother Theresa

Justice is a more stern and durable source of rational intervention for the common good.  M├ędecins sans Frontieres provides a valiant and life-threatening counterforce to ebola.  For once there is focus on the victims -- the engulfing spacesuits prevent us from even distinguishing the doctors from the local practical nurses, their billowing tyvex other-worldly against the black and bloody bodies of the dying, every figure in front of those ubiquitous turquoise walls. 

Still, less noble and professional institutions are careless enough to let pirates and profiteers skim off profit for their own survival.  What would empathy with the bad guys tell us?  Crippled brains, irrationality, desperation, dead hearts.  But they DO survive.  Up to a point.

Empathy-based compassion is not pretty stuff, often painful, but it offers the real stuff of survival: if not truth, than reality or as close as we can get to it.  When Jack Nicholson sneers, “you can’t handle the truth,” he’s really saying we can’t handle empathy, the knowledge -- no, the FEELING -- of what the others are experiencing.  Of course, that was a movie character he was playing when he said that.  In real life he had no insight into the people who loved him.  He didn’t allow empathy to penetrate his personal life even though the work of an actor is exactly that: empathy.

The model of compassion is often mothers, who undeniably must empathically understand what their infants need and who mostly will privilege the child’s survival over their own.  But this pattern can become controlling, a capture.  A father who is constantly “mothered” instead of partnered, can be crippled.  “Love” can be used as ownership, entitlement, justification for imposing goals “for your own good.”  Then empathy thins and disappears.  The Lover becomes the Joker.  And Batman?  We hope for justice at least.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"FIGHT CHURCH": Comments on a movie

You want church porn?  I’ll give you church porn.  And it won’t be naked ladies pretending to be angels, either.  Carnal?  Oh, yeah.  Knowledge -- well, they say so but it’s only of a certain kind.  It works within a particular circle of people.  I suppose I can’t get off the hook -- I like rodeo.  I’d be interested to know how rodeo and cage-fighting compare in attendance in Great Falls -- both of them much promoted and popular.  The cowboys and football players are also claiming Jesus, mixing competition with Christianity.  It’s pervasive.  God, the coach.

Here’s the link for the movie:  “Fight Church.”  Not Brad Pitt stuff.  Documentary.

They have a little legal prob with the NY state legislature -- which was refusing to legalize MMA, the fight organization.  Therefore this problem is about Sin, not Evil.  Sociologically, they are NOT on the same wavelength as a bunch of legislators, who are likely to be lawyers.  Check out the fans.  I don’t think that anyone on the scene is really aware that the phenomenon of empathy means that when the combatants go after each other, a faint reproduction of the fight is happening in the nerves and muscles of every person there.  Watch them flinch and weave in their seats.  It’s more powerful than playing computer combat games.

Like boxing, MMA devolves into black against blonde.  
Racism IS Evil.

One pastor says,  “This gives a level of excitement beyond any other sport.”  Soon he’s wondering whether kicking someone in the face is, um, “spiritual.”  Isn’t it more like the Roman gladiators?  But we love the emotion of it -- Russell Crowe surviving tigers.  In fact, we love emotion in a pornographic way, feeling it secondhand. How is all this fighting different from jihad?  Consider just about the most addictive drug there is: adrenaline.  Nero knew.

I’m not out of touch with reality enough to think that boys don’t “grapple.”  But then these guys move on to big guns.  Do you really want a five-year-old, a twelve-year-old, trying to control an assault weapon?  Do you want him to think that if he can’t, he’s an (ick) girl, a coward?  A warrior ethic is taught by a huge dad who smacks a little kid for not being tough?  Brass casings from a gun pelting the kid in the face because his protective goggles are up?  What about his eyes?  Where’s dad?  If the kid goes blind, will he just throw the weeping boy out on the street?  Probably.  The kid believes that.

An accident.

What about the dynamics between a kid who’s traumatized and crying and the father who MUST have a winning kid?  What about small towns where local high school athletes are pushed to extreme fighting in back alleys so adult men can bet on the outcome?  And maybe a few drunks and certainly a lot of alcohol will be involved.  What they THINK they are doing is not at all what these “fighting pastors” are doing, though I don’t know what that really is either.  Esp. when it’s girls getting bloodied by girls -- domestic violence anyone? 

How does it go?  Let the little children suffer?

These guys are really into the porn of the Demon -- the Gates of Hell.  Here’s where the Devil comes "into" his own:  bedtime wrestling, tickling, controlling.  You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it.  It turns sexual so gradually that no one can quite believe that it has slid into rape.  That’s not love.  

Trash talk is trash talk, even if you mention Jesus.   “We don’t use trash talk,” says the fighting pastor wearing a windbreaker with an acronym on it:  “P.I.M.P.”  Using Peter as a justification for a sword completely ignores Peter as the guy who blunders, who can’t walk on water, who DENIES Jesus because he’s afraid.  These fight guys hop all around, picking up phrases.  They are ORAL thinkers, not print folks.  In fact, they are physical strategists, a useful skill but not for theology.

So then the movie turns to a conflict -- “disrespect,” “insulting my wife,” so one of these fighting pastors goes on crusade.  The difference from a street fight is that “I have trained responses.”  Privilege, status, “I’m better than you.”  It was the wife-insulter who won the fight.  Hmmmmm.

Both guys got kicked in the testicles in spite of wearing cups.
What about "go forth and multiply?"

Nice to see these families bring their little kids to see Daddy get beat up.  If the worst happens and Dad drops dead, at least they were there.  Oh, yeah, the kids will like the flashy near-naked ladies, too.  And seeing Daddy almost kill his opponent.  So the next day, the pastor says,  “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Right.

They’re doing it for the institution: the church, their pastorate.  It’s show-biz, a power base.  And an income.  And in the case of some of these guys, an inherited pass-along, Game of Thrones style.  (Hey, I’m the one who complains about denominations turning “pink,” not Commie pinko but mommie pink, girly pink.  Soft.)  Increasingly this is mocked in the larger culture, drowned in the constant stream of suffering so vivid on the media.

Jesus wept.

But hard can be mocked as well.  (Game of Thrones again.)  Sooner or later someone brings a knife to the fistfight, a gun to the knife fight, a dragon to the gunfight and the A-Bomb nukes the dragon.  And anyway, we’re all discovering that a tiny smoked bat on a stick can kill more efficiently and cost more than any guerrilla king in the jungle, all the while mixing sex with violence.  The blood oozes out your eyes without even a wound.

The people gathered into “fight churches” do not belong to mainstream denominations.  They’re rather pentecostal in the generic sense, a little like snake-handlers, hooked on adrenaline.  There are vulnerabilities built into every religious system and in Christianity many of them have to do with the old patriarchal impulse re-surfacing, displacing Jesus’  compassion, consolation, and healing.  They are “Old Testament” Christians.  What holds them together is the fact of family: the basic attached mom-and-dad pair plus child.  With this as its core, “Christianity” can travel anywhere there are traditional families.  Systems based on a landscape or a specific ecology can’t do that.

Pastor Paul is accused of sexual misbehavior.
That's a family buster.

No wonder they are so terrified of any departure from that Trinity of mom/dad/child: same sex marriage, childless marriage, single parent marriage, daughters instead of sons, people who never marry.  In a poverty-limited place the mother -- who is assigned the role of the family “Jesus” in terms of compassion and forgiveness -- may be a drunk or just gets into the car and drives off.  (Mama Absconditus.)  Or maybe it is the father who can’t earn money, beats his kids instead of using his strength to make things, and destroys even the saintly mother.  

I read something the other day that suggested in a world without fathers, it’s easy to imagine God is dead.  But then what do you do with the Mother, since she’s supposed to be the Mother of God.  Must she simply grieve forever?  There are places where that’s exactly what the mothers are doing -- grieving for the men and boys.  Are there Christian congregations for them?  Ask Pope Francis, who constantly confronts the women of South America who hold up photographs of their disappeared loved ones.

Plaza de Mayo

Congregations are open to the culture and draw like-to-like.  These tattooed, Mohawked, bleached, and belligerent men with guns tucked into the back of their belts were there already.  To draw them into a group that uses Christian metaphors for the Great Mystery is to at least give them a handhold in a whirling world.  But advocating rage and violence, even caged, is a deadend.  They are neither fish nor fowl.  Neither swim nor fly.

The larger culture will tolerate them until they begin to look like a threat, or the women among them say, “No more.”  Then they will either have to give up the Christianity or the combat because it threatens the family, which is Evil because it threatens the survival of the species.  Threatening one part of society or even threatening one religious system is merely sinful, maybe illegal.  But they did finally legalize MMA in New York.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


Notre Dame in Paris, France.

I say “church” because the Christian name for the institutional gathering of people in the name of religion is familiar and this argument here is that institutions make pornography out of spirituality, meaning direct experience of the Great Mystery that produced us and will end us, sustaining us in between -- or not. 

I say “porn” because it is something that people desire, even yearn for, are aroused by, but never quite satisfied by because it is only a representation of what is really desired.  It’s not the church’s fault.  Porn is in the psyche of the individual person, maybe fanned along by media representations that don’t care about the reality -- just teasing the culture enough to make some money from it.  Another case of selling sizzle instead of steak.

For porn to work, the real object has to be mysterious, not quite accessible, and implying status, wealth, privilege.  Both sex and religion, often involved with each other, have these qualities.  The real goal of sexual porn is the projected image of an impossible intense wrenching, emotional experience in a number of ways, engrossingly physical, possibly flipped over into black mass or the demonic and thus violence or torture.  Privileged to be the narcissistic target.   Maybe expensive in more ways than money (addiction).  

Sexual porn may be doomed now.  When you can go to wikipedia to find photos of all the things that weren’t even hinted to exist when I was young, then the exclusiveness is burnt out.  In adolescence I spent whole afternoons at the library trying to find out what “carnal knowledge” was by looking in bigger and more omnipotent dictionaries.  The main thing I got was that it was red, which was encouraged when I ran across a Biblical quote:  “Behold a woman of virtue -- her value is beyond rubies.” Or something like that. “Incarnate”: red meat.

The Stained Glass Jukebox

“Fifty Shades of Gray” is meant to catch all the moms up on the basics of pornography. Grandma already knows: she watched “9 1/2 Weeks” in 1986.  No one will ever match Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, partly because it was the first of its kind and people just aren’t like that anymore.  Sex becomes more and more innocent (babies get stiffies in the womb), less and less a status symbol (though -- flipped over -- the status of a pedophile is the lowest of the low, which is a distinction of a kind), less and less mysterious as research explained from analyzing internet porn hits, “A Billion Wicked Thoughts.”  Surprisingly, the more we all know about how to do naughty things, the more the juju rubs off and we don’t bother.

I’m not sure that people have quite realized that sex is in the body -- not pictures -- and everyone has a body.  Everybody has an unconscious, a complex of reflexes that live everywhere the brain can reach with its molecular electrochemistry, not just in the genitals.  It’s how you think abut it that can make things happen, even if there is no one else within arm’s reach.
Teophania Garcia Vega

But now it’s spirituality that has become a kind of pornography of religion.  Thrilling, “life-changing” theophanies.  "Mine was bigger and more intense than yours, and, no, I really can’t tell you about it."  And (like sex) no book is ever more than a handful of clues.  But something definitely happened.  Where are the Masters and Johnson of theophanies to explain?  The Billion Blissful Thoughts?  

The “porn” part of the word comes from “prostitute” so at first it meant writing about prostitutes.  Temple whore?  Ritual intercourse?  Sex surrogate?  Surrogate mother?  The point is survival of the individual and survival of the group.  There were times -- still are in other places -- when having a baby would endanger your life so your handmaiden had your baby for you.  That’s Biblical, as Biblical as comments on homosexuality and masturbation, which weren’t good for the survival of the group because they didn't produce babies.

But let’s look at the “graphy” part -- “graphic,” which is not just writing but any kind of depiction, which is so powerful that it is celebrated in temple friezes in India but a killing offense in some Islamic minds.  Graph is to write.  I begin to link the pornography of religion to writing, though some will link it to idols, depictions of the Great Mystery using the metaphor of a human being, maybe extra big or with flourishes borrowed from other creatures (Ganesh and his elephant head).  Through writing we turn our attention away from Evil, which I’m defining as the welling up of destruction and suffering, and towards Sin, which has to do with laws and their punishments -- all defined and enforced by humans no matter how many gold tablets may have rained down out of the sky or been etched on granite by thunderbolts -- all that theatrical stuff is part of the pornography of religion.

Jesus, Buddha, and many another leader have said that compassion/empathy is the only efficacious way to handle human sin.  There is NO way to handle the suffering that comes from Evil, whether it is earthquake, famine, firestorm, volcano, drought -- except that we must help each other instead of blaming it all on God, a suspiciously humanoid figure evidently in the sky, who is no more than a graphic and pornographic figure.

Jesus is depicted with only a diaphanous loincloth as he hangs on the cross.  The pornography doesn’t come from hiding his genitals, but rather from presenting his suffering.  It is the suffering, the willingness to tolerate or even to impose such exposure and death, that is pornographic.  Sin is pornographic.  Evil is not.  The crucifixion was not imposed by anything supernatural, but was a common penalty imposed on a whole population that those in authority found troublesome.  The most accurate depictions show Jesus crucified between two thieves, but also roads lined with crucified people.  We just let them die of disease now.  The same Evil still wells up in humans, part of our evolved heritage that has turned demonic.

Robson Green and James Norton in "Grantchester"

People have many varied tastes when it comes to church porn.  I just watched the first episode of “Grantchester” with Robson Green.  This is a mystery series involving a young vicar played by James Norton, the usual big handsome hunk  -- Green is the local police chief.  The first episode suggests an outlook rather like “Morse,” with Cambridge airs, quite unlike Green’s previous two series in which he collaborated with Val McDermid, a writer of great viciousness who writes about torture, death and pedophilia -- even interviewing the notorious Jimmy Saville.  The TV series, "Touching  Evil" and "Wire in the Blood" were diluted in comparison with McDermid’s books.  But “Grantchester” is drawn from books by the son of Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.  I suggest that McDermid wrote about Evil and Runcie’s scripts will probably be about sin.  And yet they break through each other -- Evil erupting out of Sin, and vice versa.  McDermid is frankly pornographic -- Runcie probably far more subtly so.

Some churches suggest virtue, honor and status by being magnificent or at least striking.  Others propose that it is the humble and simple that allow meaning to break through the bric-a-brac.  At one time the chapels of England had in their rafters two often repeated figures: a "Green man" (face often made of leaves) holding his mouth open and his tongue sticking out and a woman holding open her cunt as if to say, “here’s where you came from.”  In times of Puritanism, these were mostly destroyed, but a few were missed.

Green man

Pornography, whether that of sex or religion, is best handled frankly and with accurate understanding as a small institutionalized and graphic depiction of something so intense and mysterious that no human mind -- conscious or unconscious -- can ever grip it.  But all of us can feel it in our own bodies which sustain and express themselves in minds that can depict, enjoy, participate if we can just figure out how to do it.  Probably not in a book.  Check the rafters.


Friday, January 23, 2015


This is a list of books on my shelves, some of them read and reread, and others still unread.  They take totally different approaches.   I’m putting bibiliographies on a blog called  which is long but easy to remember.  I won’t annotate them there.  Other bibs will focus on Montana, Blackfeet, acting, neuro-research, and other categories that might be useful to others.  I'll add more books if I run across them or acquire them.


Sierra Club, 1994, pb

RETHINKING HOME:  A Case for Writing History
University of California Press, 2002
(Most places have active local writers who write about what they know and love.  They won’t be reviewed nationally, might not be much more than pamphlets, and sometimes must be bought on the spot, but for a person who travels, this is an excellent way to connect.)

Beacon, 1964  pb
(Bachelard is French philosopher who is a dazzling and poetic writer who is worth searching out.  I go back and back to his books.)

FRESH TRACKS: Writing the Western Landscape
Polestar, 1998  hb  (Canada)
(Canada has a vital, active environmental community that is very useful for the northern tier US states.)

Of the Nature Conservancy
HEART OF THE LAND: Essays on Last Great Places
Pantheon, 1994
(I tend to be suspicious of some of these big organizations and I’m tiring of the idea of “last” and “great” but still you can’t go wrong with an anthology of well-written essays.)

IN PLACE:  Stories of Landscape and Identity from the American West
High Plains Press, 1995
(Dunno.  Haven't read it yet.)

Pantheon, 1981  pb
(I read it but don't remember anything.)

NORTHERN LIGHTS:  A Selection of New Writing from the American West
Vintage; Random House  1994   pb
(When I was circuit-riding in the seventies, this was a major dynamic cross between magazine and newspaper.  At first it was pretty dynamic and original, then it gradually became pot-bound.)

Penguin, 1959  pb
(One of my father’s basic geology books.  It’s probably out-dated, though you wouldn’t think rocks would change much.  Thinking about them certainly has, esp. since satellites.)

ARCHETYPE WEST:  The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region
Oyez, 1976  pb
(This is also an old enough collection of writers to be interesting again, as history.)

HOME: American Writers Remember Rooms of their Own
Vintage Books, 1995  pb
(This is sort of a maverick book -- almost interior decorating -- but many people are conditioned to write in a certain place, and people are endlessly curious about writer’s everything.  I have a couple of others of this category, but didn’t find them this time around.  I think they're big picture books, so on a different shelf.)

THE POWER OF PLACE:  How our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions
Harper Perennial, 1993
(Very pleasant sort of reading.)

THE PRACTICE OF HOME: Biography of a House
Lyons Press, 2004  hb
(Another sort of popular book, but what’s wrong with that?)

THOUGHTS OF HOME:  Reflections on Families, Houses and Homelands from the pages of House Beautiful Magazine
Hearst Books, 1999 pb
(Close to interior porn.  Prosperity based.  Again, pleasant and reassuring.)

Felix: a Journal of Media Arts and Communication, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1995
LANDSCAPE(S):  Esta dedicado a la memoria de Juan Downey  pb
(Post Modern high philosophical stuff.)

THE EXPERIENCE OF PLACE: A New Way of Looking at, and Dealing with our Radically Changing Cities and Countryside
First Vintage, 1990  pb
(City planner ideas.  They need to tell the rest of us what they know.)

SACRED TRUSTS:  Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility
Mercury House, 1993  pb
(Verges on political)

U of Oklahoma Press,1990  hb
(Frank politics of the left-handed persuasion.  This is a Montana author, much beloved.)

Mariner-Houghton Mifflin, 1998   pb
(A good story that gets you thinking.  European.)

Series called “Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics” edited by Werner Hamacher and David Wellberry
Stanford, 1995  pb
(Fancy thought.)

WRITING MONTANA:  Literature Under the Big Sky
Montana Center for the Book, 1996  pb
(I might move this to the Montana list, but people seem to like to think of it as place-defined.  Or did.)

THE GEOGRAPHY OF THOUGHT:  How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why
Free Press-Simon and Schuster, 2003  pb
(This is a seminal sort of book that will challenge assumptions.  Vital.)

IN THE SNOW FOREST:  Three Novellas
W.W. Norton, 2000    pb
(More environment-dependent thought that’s attached to stories.)

A PLACE OF MY OWN:  The Education of an Amateur Builder
Random House, 1997
(I may move this to architecture, but it’s a very hands-on detailed account.)

BROKEN COUNTRY:  Mountains and Memory
Henry Holt, 1996  hb
(Poetry by a philosophical sheep herder.  Recommended.)

Princeton University,1979  pb
(High flown stuff)

CITY LIFE: Urban Expectations in a New World
Scribner, 1995  hb
(This may be outdated now -- twenty years later and much, much, bigger cities in what begins to look like an intransigent Old World.)

MAPS FROM THE MIND:  Readings in Psychogeography
U of Oklahoma Press, 1989  hb
(Also a little dated, but sometimes that’s useful.)

CRAZY MOUNTAINS: Learning from Wilderness to Weight  Technology
SUNY Series in Environmental Public Policy, ed. by David Orr and Harlan Wilson, State University of the New York Press, 1995, pb
(Environmental rules, technologies, laws, and public uses are not my fav aspect of place, but important.)

THE SOUL OF NATURE: Visions of a Living Earth
Continuum Publishing, 1994  hb
(People keep trying to connect spirituality to landscape.  Sometimes it works.)

SPACE AND PLACE: The Perspective of Experience
U of Minnesota Press, 1977  pb

TOPOPHILIA:  A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values
Prentice Hall, 1974 pb
(Yi-Fu Tuan is not Chinese -- it's a pseudonym.  Why are they sometimes honorable?   Tuan tries to take a sort of Buddhist approach.  He's from the past, but a key person.)

Island Press,  1997  hb
(A category of land that is pretty crucial in these water-short times.)

GROWING UP WITH THE COUNTRY: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier
University of New Mexico Press, 1989  hb
(This is another cross between territory and history, through the eyes of a human developmental stage.  It’s a friendly book but still eye-opening, esp. in our cushy liberal times.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Unconscious is like the filaments of mycelium under this moss: crucial.

Recently there is great fuss about consciousness -- not just “thinking” but also speech and objectivity (as opposed to subjectivity).  It has been demonstrated again and again that one’s point of view (what one has at stake; one’s idea of one’s identity; notably gender assignment, training and education) all affect what one sees, thinks, assumes is reality.  It is clear that the very grammar of our sentences as well as our vocabularies and their trailing veils of association, are constructed and “national.”  We know that even scientists making every effort to be objective, “real”, statistical or instrument-proven, are vulnerable to fooling themselves in subtle ways so that decades later the work is challenged.

There is concern that if we admit consciousness is produced by our brains, that means we are robots or denying that we have souls.  All of this produces talk, even though our vocabulary doesn’t include words for the concepts we’re encountering, which makes it very difficult to talk about with others or even think about privately.  But we no longer worry about whether consciousness is present in animals.  Except that a few people are still trying to get gorillas to speak and claim Lassie understands words or even that porpoises recognize themselves in mirrors.  Animal: somewhere between robot and angel.  They can count low numbers, but they can’t do math.

A cell that perceives time.

Not much thought is given to the UNconscious though it is what controls our bodies, maintains the homeostasis of life, weaves the substrate of our identity and awareness.  A moment of reflection and attention can make us aware of our body’s state: contented or irritated or in a rage.  Those who take drugs -- legal or illegal -- can tell us how undependable and phantasmagorical the so-called conscious mind can be.   Athletes and musicians can tell us that their muscles know what to do and playing is unconscious once they have installed the movements and associations with the desire for them.  Desire lives in the unconscious, not the spoken conscious mind which struggles to express it but never quite succeeds in any final sense.

The unconscious is in the whole body: gut feelings, the clues that a lie detector records, posture, tension, staying upright, heart and breath which are powerful symbols for the conscious mind.  In fact, until the prefrontal cortex evolved, the brain was probably unconscious in the sense of being aware of itself and reflecting on decisions.  But both the conscious and the unconscious are complex, informing and controlling each other.  

Our capacity for empathy is considered the crown of evolution so far, carried by specific cells and accessed often through sight, but it is not necessarily conscious.  One sign is that two people sitting across a table for conversation will often show by their body language whether they are attuned.  Those in agreement often assume the same pose.  Those against may throw up a physical guard, like crossed arms, but may not realize they have done it.

The neuron connectome makes a cat’s cradle back and forth through ALL the neuron cells, reaching from over the eyes clear back to the top of the spine, moving from the muscle-connected neurons to the hormone-excreting organs to the autonomic system in the viscera, possibly changing the code slightly as the message moves through nerve nodes that sort and edit.  Neuron activity that is anchored in the "limbic system" -- which is in all animals though possibly not very well developed -- constitutes thought as much as conscious words in sentences and might have more to do with identity than anything the person could name when asked.  

“Felt concepts” is a category that interests me greatly.  These are the elements of the unconscious that show up in dreams, that make "Freudian" associations, that come to the surface in art work, stories, music, dance -- whole body concepts that a dancer can express with no words at all.  Felt concepts are what led me into the “religious” context, though it trapped me in the institution.  Felt concepts are “spiritual.”

One category of felt concepts may be quite concrete, the “haptic” objects we handle in our lives: food, weapons, each other, our pets, furniture, clothing, ornaments, plants.  These things we put our hands on daily become the source of metaphors, some of them deep enough in our assumptions that we’ve forgotten where they came from.  (“Chairing” is quite different from “tabling” and lately people talk about “plating” food.)

Another category is about motion which is change in both the position of the body and its orientation in space.  It is suggested that when the symbolism of sounds (speech) developed in the brain, it formed on the left half.  In other mammals the “grid” of knowing spatial placement and orientation is on both sides, as so many brain parts are, but now in humans it’s mostly on the left side, which controls the right side of the body, the “handedness” primary, thus tilted to the concrete. The “haptic” side and maybe the old “gps” grid have persisted in our grammar and our assumptions.  Nouns for objects, things we could put our hands on, are strong.  Verbs, when we move around, describe what we do.  So then are keyboards “hyperhaptic”?

hyperhaptic or hyperoptic?

Perhaps the idea of math being on the left side of the brain comes from the grid cells remaining.  Once I had ocular migraines that were expressed in lines, “graphs.”  I notice that some people who are capable of dissociation make art that is similar.  But it is the right half of the brain that is metaphorical.

Research is now telling us that memory is controlled by indexing sensations: smell, sight, taste and so on, which is why past moments are sometimes vividly triggered by a scrap of music or drift of fragrance.  The moment of recording and the moment of remembering are somehow connected -- they are telling us now that's probably by re-assembling the markers (not necessarily accurately and sometimes including things that weren’t originally recorded or dropping out other parts).  Also, they feel they have found cells capable of recording the time.  Both moments of memory (original and recalled) are conscious but where are they when in between?  In what state?

More than any other aspect, human bodies are governed by rhythms, those wavy lines we see in every medical story with patient's “brain waves” being recorded and presented on instruments.  Mostly we are only conscious of brain and heart rhythms, which are unconscious until we think of them but not necessarily controllable unless one is a yoga adept.  One researcher suggests that there is something like the sweep arm on a radar screen that keeps all this stuff more or less in sync.  If something ultra-brief happens quickly enough that the arm never hits it, it will not be perceptible.  Pretty arcane.

This TED talk by John Searle is a big fav in a certain crowd.  Here’s this old white man who cusses and he seems to be taking down the idea that the “problem” of consciousness can be solved.  He’s defending rationality, the uniqueness of humans, and the superiority of those who “think.”  But this old white woman is here to tell you that he’s way behind the research.  We are NOT robots, we are NOT angels, but we ARE animals with a few evolved abilities that keep us VERY busy.  I remind you that computers don’t have gut feelings.  They have no guts.
Except in the movies.