Saturday, June 24, 2017

THE SECRET KEEPER (fiction)


The boy had become the family Keeper of Secrets.  He was smart and listened well, so that seemed natural, but the family was large and had a lot of traditional women in it — that is, women who had things to say, but no one listened to them.  So they told the boy.  Also, these women were often rivalrous so they tended to see many little faults in each other, but particularly between the two branches of the family, the paternal and maternal.  He didn’t call them that.  He said, “City family, country family.”

His mom was country family now but she was city family before she married his dad.  It was hard for her to learn how to be country and her sisters could never understand why she married into such a situation, though they liked to visit now and then, if only to inform her how much better their lives were.  Then they’d get the boy off to the side and pump him for information about his mother and father.

He was a good secret keeper and learned early which ones were radioactive and which ones had such obvious and dull answers that they were safe, though he was careful to leave out details or add ones that meant nothing, just to disarm the information.  The trouble was that as a little boy, he really didn’t know the difference between dangerous and innocent and once in a long time he would trip up and hear things screamed at his mother.  Things like, “How can you neglect your hands like that?  When was the last time you had a decent manicure?”  He didn’t know what a manicure was.

The main secret he didn’t know himself was that being a little boy meant that he shouldn’t have been told many things.  Not until he was an adult did he understand that miscarriages, abortions, lovers, early menopause and a host of accusations like “mother always loved you best” were not for little boy’s ears, much less any expectation that he could figure out what they meant or what to do about them.  

Once he went to his father to ask what some of these things meant, but that was a mistake.  His father lost his temper easily and was likely to react violently.  Not that he didn’t slap, grab, and shove both he and his mother all the time anyway, sometimes hard enough to bruise and once or twice violently enough to break bones.  Even if he went to school with a black eye, it was evidently a secret not to be mentioned by his teachers or classmates.  He knew never to tell home things at school or school things at home.

The grandmothers hated each other.  His paternal grandmother dearly loved and praised his father, her cherished only son.  His maternal grandmother had no time for boys or men.  This may have been because his maternal grandfather had disappeared, taking the family dog, and left her to raise all the girls alone.  Most of them worked hard at school and jobs and were successes, but didn’t marry except for his mother. 

So he formed an alliance with his paternal grandfather and the two of them became prodigious fishermen.  Glam told him everything he knew about fish — which was a lot — but when the boy asked about his parents, the old man confided that he didn’t understand women and, frankly, he was afraid of his own belligerent son.  With reason.  His son had once actually punched him out.  He explained it was wrong to go to the police when your son knocks you down.  It was a city thing to do.

There were a few boys at school who had families that were similar.  It was the way of the world to push fathers into these roles, criticizing them if they were weak or talked too much or didn’t make enough money.  Love was a luxury or a material obligation like chocolates at Valentine’s Day.  

The country was rapidly developing as more housing was needed.  But there was still enough undeveloped land around the farms for the boys to find places to gather, even to build a little campfire and gather around it.  They didn’t roast marshmallows — these were boys who kept dried beef jerky sticks in their pockets to chew on when necessary.  The "hotter" the better.  Not that they wouldn’t accept cookies when they were offered, but they tried not to mention that or to ask for them.

They didn’t discuss their families much because it would be complaining, but sometimes a boy caught in a domestic war would spend some time cursing and imagining terrible retributions.  Then one day an uncle showed up, a not-quite-grownup who seemed very worldly.  One of the comforts of the boys was smoking, which was in the comfortably gray area of disapproved and risky but not really illegal, and easily broken down for sharing, one at a time from a pack or handed back and forth, with the little added element of being a kind of displaced kissing.  Nicotine was both arousing and calming.  It helped with the anxiety and the smoke was fun.

The uncle, who was quite a bit younger than their parents but older than the boys, asked them if they ever smoked pot.  The boys were still pretty young and they had not, but they knew what it was.  He had some with him.  Some say pot is a threshold drug and will lead up the primrose path to heroin and so on, but the real threshold drugs were the self-generated hormones of sex and worry.  And the real addiction was secrecy.

The uncle had been in the Navy and the reason he left was a secret.  One summer day he invited one of the boys to walk with him away from the group to a wooded place he knew because he “wanted to show him something.”  It was sexual and began as seduction but ended as force.  Rape, to give it the right name.  The boy yelled and the other boys came.  They weren’t in time but the uncle did not escape.

It was a wooded place because there was a spring and that kept the ground wet and soft.  They buried him there and his remains disappeared quicker than one might guess.  No one ever told the secret and because of the spring that land wasn’t built on for decades.  The uncle’s sister, who was the mother of one of the boys, grumbled, “I understand that men always leave, but he could have taken his worthless dog with him.”  The boy loved that dog.


Friday, June 23, 2017

YARD COURT


Only recently have I realized that my blog snapshots of whatever I found to be an interesting configuration of objects or a keen color of auto body have become targeting material for the town’s enemies of nonconformity.  I am inadvertently painting bull's eyes.  They look at what I took a photo of out of enjoyment and label it junk, nasty, embarrassing, to be eliminated.  Self-appointed village Maenads, they pour their fury onto the mayor, who has a big voice that will discourage fistfights but cannot fend off women on the prod.

An elegant local lady who seemed to already know my name asked me, “Well, how do you like our town as compared to the last place you lived?”  It developed that she thought I’d been living in Browning all this time and naturally she assumed that I was relieved to be safe in beautiful downtown Mayberry.  I didn’t say that my “last town” was Portland, very trendy.  At least until a local weirdo murdered two honorable men and wounded another.  Things are rarely what they seem.

In no other place I’ve lived have women stopped me on the streets to advise me that I’m not wearing the right clothes.  They know the “right” ones and where to buy them.  The idea that I don’t give a rap does not occur to them.  They assumed that, poor lost soul, I just didn’t KNOW.  Right now the ladies are in full flower because of Homesteader Days.  There must be men involved this year because there’s a tractor pull and hints at a beer blast.

Now and then I think maybe I should write a version of “Anne of Green Gables” about Valier, but I’m afraid it would be too dark for most people to read.  At first the town seems “pretty,” and that’s its reputation in spite of the blocks of grain siloes in town.  A good example of the Valier formal self-image is the “VADC” website http://www.valier.org.  The photo that includes the Rockies was taken with a telephoto lens.  (See the town’s official website:  townofvalier.com for a more realistic view.  There are no clues to Yard Court on that website, no name for the town judge.)

I received a letter that I was half-expecting and almost invited by joking about the height of my grass in this good year for growing.  I either mow it all in seven days or a town crew will come to cut it for me and bill me/fine me $150.  I hear rumors it’s going up to $250 which if unpaid, will become a lien on my property.  My county taxes are less money.  Hiring someone to cut grass would be expensive but my yard has to be cut with a weed-whip because of the stepping stones, bathtubs, raised beds, and so on -- my efforts to eliminate grass.  The assumption behind the town ordinance is that yards are flat and can be mowed like fields.  "Tractor Mind."

So the cats and I were doing a little horizontal thinking, postprandial, and I hear a riding-mower roaring out front.  Spilling cats in all directions, I went out in a hurry.  My best hope was that it was Corky again, since a week ago  he had been passing between mowing jobs and knocked down my boulevard (parking strip to some).  He said we should have a talk, but didn’t come back.  (He delivers Meals on Wheels.)  I picked up vibes that he wanted to alert me about Village Disapproval, but he didn’t say anything.  

People just hate talking about problems so they make semi-secret strikes through public opinion in an effort to provoke change.  There seem to be no good solutions.  They shrink from confrontation, don’t want to cause offense and feuds, but their attempts to evade only seep underground and fester.  They stockpile their covert observations of neighbor offences to use in defence if necessary.

Alors!  This time the riding mower was Leo, with whom I wrestle over lead in water and the state of my sewer and etc. because he’s the senior town employee.  And I rip into him, tears and screams, thinking “Migod, I only got the warning letter this afternoon and I’m supposed to have 7 days to comply.”  But he (and his big black dog) beg for mercy.  He thought he was just helping me in passing, the same as Corky.  Of course, Corky didn’t mow my daffodils down, which Leo had just done.  (They aren’t blooming now — but they need their leaves to make next spring’s bulbs.)

When I shut down my outrage, Leo played his own sad song.  He’s actually summoned to COURT over his own lot.  It seems his old cars don’t comply and he has a ticket.  But he has a surprise up his sleeve: old cars are legal if they can run and he has fixed this one — now it will.  

I’m wondering whether I should go “observe” court.  This morning I spent an hour prowling around to try to find “Yard Court” so I could play observer to Leo at trial.  I never did find him.  No one knew about Yard Court, even that it existed, except that it developed that there are TWO, one for the town and one for the county.  My letter came from the town, but possibly Leo’s case is county.  I did take photos of his lots, which shouldn’t endanger him since he’s already written up and by the time you’ve read this, a decision will have been reached.

Part of the problem can be that sons love cars to "fix" but they don't get ticketed.  Dads get caught between the law and the son.

My basic grump around town is that things run like high school, the same popular girls insist on conformity, the same athletic boys trumpet defiance, and both join to resist any kind of outside authority.  There are “memes”, the little social units of response that are played over and over, sometimes word-for-word.  Drugs come from the rez.  Town employees should have irreproachable yards.  Cars are potential fortunes, no matter their condition.  Some memes are contradictory:  lawns are a sign of pride/lawns mean nothing.  In conversation some people will repeat the same observation again and again.  A few memes are stigma declarations, sexist or racist, without any animosity or awareness, as though discussing the weather.  Some of these people are well past retirement.  Some are barely more than kids.

The people who are so concerned about appearance are starting to suggest fences.  Twenty years ago fences were considered a kind of failure, a rejection of one’s neighbors.  I’d be happy to build one if I had the money, and there’s the next rub.  Some people are pretty well-off.  Others are poor.  And some think they are in the Wild West (they didn’t grow up here) and can do as they please.  But probably most in both modes are cocooned.  They don’t want to know, don’t want to act, don’t want to decide.


The town infrastructure amounts to a necessary cooperative in order to support and guide the water, sewer, power, streets, and so on.  But many have adopted the mercantile attitude of the times and the dominant politics, getting what you want on the cheap and not investing emotionally in the core enterprise.  Those with money respond to commercial advertising that dangle the perfect life; those without money defend their egos by scoffing.  It's toxic.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

THE CANALS OF THE BRAIN


The brain is a city called Venice, where the buildings line canals instead of streets and when the tide comes in, the water rises, but when the tide goes out, all the debris of business and pleasure are washed out to sea, floating along in a barcarole of renewal.  The buildings, each a small palace of elegance with high ceilings and echoing marble, repositories of culture and memory, while the rising sun tints their walls with the beginning of a new day.

Brain research has come up with another of those surprising metaphorical discoveries, this time that the brain works like a living city of canals, able at night to draw up the neurons into themselves so that the interstitial fluid can wash through the widened spaces between the cells.  This link is a clear vid describing the discovery and what it means.  For instance, this may be a clue to Alzheimers and certainly explains why troubled nights lead to muddy thinking the next day.

The link below is to a longer printed explanation.

Naturally, there will be dozens of entrepreneurs marketing “brain washing” pills, strategies and equipments.  Their first task will be changing the meaning of the phrase away from its long-term connotation of forced power-washing by captors demanding obedience.  In fact, this new discovery is not about “cleaning” the thought content at all, but about the microfunctions of neurons, a general shift from one metaphor based on reflection about one’s own thinking to a far more concrete mechanical process based on experimental evidence.

We’re told that when they judge the efficiency of the cleaning of interstitial spaces by filtering the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) of mice when they wake up, they discover that mice who sleep on their right side have better CSF cleaning.  I get a mental image of waking a curled up mouse and gently pouring brain fluid out its delicate ear, but — alas — I’m afraid they just cut off the mouse’s head with scissors.  More brutal than torturous brain-washing, but quicker.

When I was diagnosed with “dry eye syndrome” not long ago, I began to read about the fluids of the head, because I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening.  The symptom was waking with crusty stinging eyes, an alkaline rime formed at the base of my eyelashes, treated by washing away that rim.  Rimming one’s eyes — hmm.  It tastes like tears, so I suppose it is dried tears.  One adds tear-replacement drops labeled “lubricant.”  (Eyes are so sexy.)

I asked my eye doctor about my theory that a head is constantly bathed in fluids and he agreed but said it was likely to be “mucus.”  Docs are fussy about being exact.  So I look up “mucus” and find “phlegm”, “saliva,” "snot."

“The term water on the brain is incorrect, because the brain is surrounded by CSF (cerebrospinal fluid), and not water. CSF has three vital functions:
It protects the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) from damage
It removes waste from the brain
It nourishes the brain with essential hormones.
The brain produces about 1 pint of CSF each day. The old CSF is absorbed into blood vessels. If the process of replenishment and release of old CSF is disturbed, CSF levels can accumulate, causing hydrocephalus.”

It turns out that:  “Your respiratory system is protected by a special type of mucus, known as phlegm. Its job is to protect the lungs from stuff that could get in there, like dust, pollen or smoke. The stuff that makes it to your nose is called nasal mucus, or snot.”  Couldn’t find a source.  Must be common knowledge.  (When does snot become a booger?)

“Mucus is 95% water, 3% proteins (including mucin and antibodies), 1% salt and other substances. Mucin droplets absorb water and swell several hundred times in volume within three seconds of release from mucus glands. Mucus strands form cross links, producing a sticky, elastic gel.The solid gel layer acts as a physical barrier to most pathogens and the constant flushing movement prevents the establishment of bacterial biofilms. However, the pore size of the gel mesh means small viruses can easily penetrate it.”  http://theconversation.com/health-check-what-you-need-to-know-about-mucus-and-phlegm-33192

This is how I get so hooked on looking things up — there always turns out to be so much more to know.  And it’s useful, so when I got out there and cut my shoulder-high grass and woke up almost paralyzed and stifled by overzealous mucus, I knew to get a decongestant.  Since mucus trying to protect one by plugging up all the bone sinus spaces in the face is so painful, one can only be grateful that plugged up spaces in the soft tissue of the brain are supposed to have no nerves that feel pain, but they still mess up function.

As with “dry eyes” there are two things that can go wrong with fluid IN the brain, that fluid washing out the canals between the cells at night.  One is too much fluid and one is not enough.

"Loss of the fluid that cushions and protects the brain may lead to intracranial hypotension, intense headaches. The most common cause of intracranial hypotension, or low cerebrospinal fluid  (CSF) pressure in the brain, is CSF Leak. CSF cushions and protects the brain and spinal cord. It is held in place by a sac-like covering called the meninges. The thickest outer layer of the meninges is the dura. Normally, the brain floats in this fluid.  https://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Patients/Programs-and-Services/Neurosurgery/Centers-and-Programs/Cerebrospinal-Fluid-Leak/CSF-Leak-A-Curable-Cause-of-Headache.aspx

We are more aware of hydrocephalus, too much fluid that can actually force the skull to be enlarged from within— but even before that — presses the brain painfully against the bone.  Many of my readers (indigenous people) are aware that Sherman Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, hereditary, and shared by his son.  Recently, Terry Gross of NPR, interviewed Alexie, who told us that in addition to his early surgeries as a baby, he had recently had surgery for a small brain tumor.  The tumor was easily removed, but it had fused with the dura mater, the covering of the brain and also a blood vessel.  This caused complications like blood loss and some loss of function in the brain itself.  He feels that he has been edited.  Some feel this is an improvement.  He still functions well, and continues to write. hhttp://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=533653471


As the screens traditionally put around hospital beds are lowered and the patients speak frankly, we can get a better idea of what goes on within and between us.  My prejudice is obviously towards “knowing more”, though sometimes I hit limits.  (I do not wish to witness the scissored deaths of mice.)  Usefulness and reform is one of the compensatory forces.  Many people prefer compassion.  We should be grateful.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

WAAAAY DOWN LOW

The candle-flame lichen (Candelareia concolor is a frequent urban dweller.

This review was written for The Goose which is the official publication of ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada / Association pour la littérature, l'environnement et la culture au Canada).

Current Issue: Volume 15, Issue 2 (2017)

I'm gradually working my way through this issue and hope you'll do the same.  This review ill be in Issue 3, I think.

Review:  “An Edge Can Be a Path”   by Mary Scriver

BOUNDARY LAYER:  Exploring the Genius Between Worlds
by Kem Luther
Oregon State University Press, 6 × 9. 36 b&w illustrations. Notes. 240 pages.

Website by the author at www.stegnon.com

We tend to think of boundaries as linear, delineating edges, rather than being the areas themselves.  We have observed fences with the paths beside them created by creatures paralleling the fence, but we’ve also seen adjoining fields, one with grazing access and one without, and how the ungrazed vegetation is so much more lush.  This book is about a “sheet” boundary where the smallest and most resourceful living things abide and combine, one that can be observed by lying on your face and looking closely, maybe with a lens, almost anywhere on an earth surface of the planet.  This is where you will be in literal contact with the “stegnon,” described as the land equivalent of plankton in the ocean, the smallest units of life.

This author follows the worthy example of John McPhee by taking us through these environments with able interpreters, real human beings who have been devoted to one approach or another and are willing to share what they know.  But the real message of this book, which starts out being about how lichen cooperates with algae so deeply that they amount to a merger, a new creature, is that they are still capable of disengagement and forming new independent strategies.  It’s convenient to just collapse the algae into lichen inclusion, but they are more than that.  It’s a metaphor.

In fact, by the end of the essays we are ready to accept the idea that boundaries are arbitrary, negotiable, and capable of dissolving themselves into something new.  Our own bodies are as symbiotic as coral reefs, as variable as skin and bone, with limits that are negotiable.  Like ideas.

When we have addressed the world, we have looked for what we can group into “things,” give names, and learn about in a way that “stays put”.  But in this paradigmatically shifting world that can be quite misleading.  In this time of metaphorical thinking, we must watch our calques, which are loan translations from other languages where things are parsed in handier ways.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_calques ) “Boundary layer” is a calque from “grenzschicht”, used by a man named Prandtl at a 1904 conference in Heidelberg.  It was meant for use in regard to aerodynamics, the part of the air rushing along just above the surface of the earth, down where the little things grow and control their small ways.  A boundary is an active transition with its own characteristics, like the edges between meadow and woods where small animals emerge at the boundary between day and night.

Kem Luther lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, so he is aware of the sea and its moving boundary along the ocean shore, the beach where sand moves according to the air currents and the plant complexities which evolved to adapt and control.  A ferry trip away, on the mainland mosses are the focus.  Their sex lives were hard to figure out because in their particulate sporophytes the two nuclear helixes are united, but not in the larger “plantish” parts, which is opposite to what we expect.  In human bodies it is the seeds where the helixes are single and the new creature in which they are double.

Terry McIntosh keeps a roof garden collection of mosses and explains that in the Arctic, moss is the “highest” form of vegetation there is.  The extent of the places where low plants dominate (savannah, grasslands, and tundra) is as large as that covered by tall forests.

Next step is to the fungi, which some are beginning to argue are more like animals than like plants.  Certainly they are exemplars of symbiosis, only apparent when they erupt in mushrooms, but underground thickly woven among the sharing roots of trees through threads called mycellium.  The two large systems of life, the plants and the fungi, create a boundary layer with new ways of intermeshing.  They’ve been doing this for a billion years — a scientific estimate, not hyperbole.
                For a much shorter interval, humans have been studying fungi, and scientists tend to work out systems of thought with various strategies and emphases.  One contrast that Luther noticed early was between British and Continental systems.  Now an alternative division introduces Czechs, Hans Roemer and Adolf and Oluna Ceska, forced to transplant when the USSR collapsed Czechoslovakia in 1969.  There was enough difference in metaphors to reveal new understanding, though also sometimes misunderstanding.

So now the discussion is ready to step to the ecology of concepts, how there are splitters and joiners who create different maps from different purposes.  Kem speaks of “biogeoclimatic zones” which live at the boundary between European and North American perspectives on natural systems.  Andy MacKinnon is the guide.

“Phytosociologists” wanted to study large natural conglomerates, which Luther relates to ‘idealism,” abstract forms as opposed to individual organisms, related to “positivism”.  These tensions and contrasts are everywhere in the ways we divvy up territories and the uses of their divisions, especially in land management.

Back to lichens with Trevor Goward for an inquiry into what happens if you try to forge on through what is accepted to get to new territory.  Getting out of the normal boundaries of thought can make a person seem “dangerous, even deranged.”  A threat to the standing order, in this case, that of the “lichen community.”  What does it mean to live in an “extra-centric” relation to one’s society?  Trevor says “Healthy human societies, like ecosystems, depend on the proportionate functioning of unlike parts.” (p.112)

Really big paradigm shifts and startling insights are hard to grasp.  We need to move step-by-step along the deer paths others have traced out until we learn to “see” more deeply into what life is about.  The effect on us is an increase in knowledge, but also a kind of big-heartedness about the generosity of the surface of the planet from the stegnon to the mosses draping the trees.

When it’s time to confront political quandaries in rending and callousing ways, there will be a stabilizing reassurance that everything can be worked out.  Many small adaptations can shift the world.  Under it all are the plate tectonics of shifting ideas about wilderness.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

YOU'RE A GOOD WRITER

People say to me quite a lot,  “You’re a good writer.”  This post is not about whether or not I’m a good writer and not very much about what is a good writer anyway, but about why they say that.  

Sometimes it’s flattery, meant to get me to like them, even if they show no signs at all of reading much of what I write or understanding what I wrote.  A few will give me an example of what they liked or say what it meant to them.  

Most seem to think writing is a personal attribute, like having naturally curly hair, and that I will accept the praise on that level.  “How lucky you are!”  And then that little hint of, “Gee, I wish I were a good writer“ (had naturally curly hair).  Or maybe, “if you’re such a good writer, why aren’t you rich and famous?  Did you do something awful?  Are you afraid of success?”

It was the same with Bob Scriver except it was “you’re a good artist”.  Then the assumption is that having that attribute given to you (um, by “God”?) it’s only natural that you’ve become rich and famous.  It was surely all so easy for you.  Even if one grants that the capacity to become something is there in one’s brain and muscle, they have no thought of the amount of time, effort and choice it takes to make a capacity into something real.  The next assertion is “I don’t have any talent,” as though it were a “thing.”

Back to writing, a few older people are still admiring of proper spelling, agreeing antecedents, reliable punctuation of appositives and participles, clear placement of adverbs, big vocabulary, etc.  If you know what I’m talking about, you probably realize that American schools don’t teach that anymore.  Yet it’s what some ESL people discover can be held against them and the aspect in which savior-minded teachers will offer to “help” but in the process will end up changing both the nuance and the vigor of the unique point of view.

On the other hand are those MFA grads from Back East fancy schools who say they won’t tolerate things like all caps or people who wear round glasses like Harry Potter because they are annoying.  (That’s a quote.)  They get hung up on the Harvard comma.  [In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms.]

But then there are standard usage implications about arcane distinctions between “bring” and “take,” one blunder that drives me crazy. [The essential difference between these two words is that bring implies movement towards someone or something.  “Bring it here.”  Whereas take implies movement away from someone or something. “Take it there.”]

Several times I had tribal kids who read a lot and had learned big words from context.  They produced a lot of malapropisms, multi-syllabic Latinates that didn’t quite mean what they thought, but conveyed effectively the world of someone who has crossed cultural barriers but still isn’t quite in control.  I didn’t want to stamp that out, even though I knew the problem would dissolve over time with more reading.  I was always afraid that coming down on them too hard would shut them up.  “Correctness” can destroy inspiration.  Does a “good” teacher do that?

“You’re a good writer” can mean “I agree with you.”  That’s fine, but a coincidence is not usually a reason for praise.  If they go ahead to explain why, that’s different.  If THEY are good writers, it counts for more.

Opposed to all this fuss about little stuff is the “passionate” school of value.  The more intense, the more personal, the more confessional, the more stigmatized and possibly rude, the better the writing is considered.  I am not talking about true outrage over real atrocities.  I mean “mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most miserable of them all?”  Missing-yous, broken hearts, pity for little fuzzy animals, and all that.  It is VERY VERY hard to write about the ghastly stuff in the world.  The most successful examples are usually a bit understated, specific, and unexpected.  Often narrative.

Cool writing, documented writing, informational writing, journalism, analysis — all have their place and different standards for “good.”  One writes well when one is presenting what the reader can assimilate and value, so part of being a good writer is knowing one’s reader.  In fact, good readers draw out good writing, even define it.  Sometimes I wonder whether I have the good readers (actually listeners since I was writing to preach) I used to have.  So many now push aside the writing and want to have a relationship with the writer, which is not about writing at all, and usually turns out to be about dominance.

It’s ironic that in a time when it’s so easy to research — not just with search engines but also with specialized websites — readers don’t seem to have as much background as they used to.  They need more explanation but don’t always have patience.  Neither do some writers.

What makes a good writer?  It depends on the situation and the individual, not the number of MFA’s accrued.  How much the person is driven, propelled, called, will affect how and what they write.  Mostly a person learns to write by writing and writing and writing some more.  That can’t be taught.  What they are actually doing is creating submicroscopic molecular connections among neurons in the brain which — as they are created — organize themselves or fit themselves into pre-existing categories OR dismiss the connection.  Experience, exposure, is the only thing that can make this happen.  It’s like the concert pianist said, if one does it enough, like practicing the piano, one’s fingers begin to crave the keyboard.

Moving among connectomes controls whether the brain is willing to access, the specific webwork one wants to use.  Knowing what will move one’s mood or attitude into the right place is part of the craft of doing this work.  Lots of little tricks out there to find out about, and one develops their own as well.  A quick walk for one person, a cup of tea for the next, and Hemingway famously sharpened pencils.  It’s simple conditioning, sub-conscious, automatic if conditions are right.

Ah, the sub/under/deep/un conscious!  It might fight you.  It might take you up on wings.  Both happen to good writers and both are useful.  Whether you’re dimpling the paper with tears or causing the pets to come see what you’re laughing about, just keep writing.

If people say you’re a good writer, don’t question it.  Just say thank you.  No one is that sure what writing is, much less which of it is “good.”  "You're a good writer," is often an expression of puzzlement from someone who feels like an outsider.


Monday, June 19, 2017

COLLEGE EDUCATED WHITE WOMEN AND POOR WEIRD BROWN KIDS

It's a puzzle what to think.  Easier to feel.

“When asked whom he (Sherman Alexie) considers his primary audience, he responded: “College-educated white women. That’s who buys and reads our books in mass numbers. To say otherwise is to either be purposefully or accidentally a liar. That said, my ideal reader is a poor, weird brown kid. And I get enough letters from them. When a weird brown kid says, ‘This story meant this to me,’ that’s the power.”

So, okay, the success of many NA writers depends upon an alliance between “college-educated white women and weird brown kids.”  I get that.  I’ve been part of that.  I AM part of that, though it is so confusing that I don’t write for publication.  I USED to, in an alliance with weird brown kids, some of whom were just weird and not kids anymore.  Some have died, sometimes of old age.

But what is this alliance?  White women are educated to believe it is their highest value (generations of nurses, nuns, teachers, and mothers have taught this) to be an enabler of a kid who would otherwise be disadvantaged.  That is, stigmatized.  The power of the educated woman goes back to the Victorian women who took on early tribal people and maybe Kahlil Gibran and Zane Grey.  

The practice didn’t threaten white men who could care less unless there was money or political advantage involved, and there wasn’t.  Helen Hunt Jackson could run wild with “Ramona” because it was just “a novel.”  It wasn’t until Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict got serious about weird brown people that men of consequence took notice.  By that time, too late.  The women had become role models.  Which is why a high proportion of educated white women read Native American writing from a kind of semi-anthropological point of view.  And why they get very upset when it turns out they’ve been deceived.  There’s a wicked element of ownership.

Plus, being highly educated, some women assume they know the truth, have special insight, and therefore have more worthiness in an objective sense.  Low status males tend towards this dynamic as well.  It comes out in all the “isms” — "I may not be a “whatsis” but I know more about whatsises than anyone else."  This plays into a kind of mystic fusion idea.  But some men (red-necks, for instance) detecting this, will put a lot of energy into controlling women with such ideas — maybe with violence.  And so will low-quantum tribal women or light-skinned brown women.

You believe what I’m saying?  In part it is recognition of hegemony, the standing order that tries to preserve itself.  But it is also an opening for heiristics.  “A heuristic technique (/hjᵿˈrɪstᵻk/; Ancient Greek: εὑρίσκω, "find" or "discover"), often called simply a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals.”

I’m late to the uproar.  This second related-to-fake ethnic claim being that Sherman Alexie chose for an anthology a white man who used a Chinese pseudonym, the name of a female classmate.  Last time, he attacked a white man who used a Navajo pseudonym, a name created from Navajo language roots.  It’s been pretty obvious from the beginning that Alexie has a controlling obsession about race and class and status and being a  weird brown kid.  To use psych lingo, this “hooks” him.  (Probably his mother as well.)

Both of these situations arose over designations of value/virtue, awarding of prizes, inclusion in “best of” anthos, and all the praise people are quick to award to those who have already been labeled as praiseworthy.  Noting this much earlier ("the plus and minus system"), I have made it my mission to appreciate the ugly, neglected, rejected, outrageous, and even illegal.  Nor was I out there kissing frogs.  I cherish outrageous people for what they are.  This is against the core value of educated white women who feel they must “heal” and “support” — i.e. control.  PTSD is raw meat to them.  They bring in their curative successes and lay them at the feet of the white entitled males, Abraham’s second-hand sacrifices.  

Making you angry?  Good.  Think about it.  You can get famous and rich that way, attacking people.  But I can’t make myself do it.  I like live people.

The kicker is that since it’s educated white women who buy most books of any kind, not just those written by weird brown boys, they have a lot of power, all hidden, but based on having enough income and the good sense to buy books instead of shoes.  Many weird brown boys don’t have enough money to buy either one.  Most don’t have access to publishers, esp. as they have existed in the past.  

Today someone as inspired as Adrian Jawort can declare himself a publisher and sell NA books to NA people, but those who are educated and have money will buy books by Sherman Alexie because white people praise him.  Higher status. And because he’s made money and movies, which are the criteria — not so much for educated white women.   

Much of this shortage of brown boys who write successfully, as Alexie notes, is structural: the number and nature of bookstores, the newspaper pages of reviews, agents at large as well as staff editors who can make silk purses out of pencil sharpeners.  The internet has changed everything, including the ability to spot plagiarism or imitators, and a tsunami of writing — millions of scribblers hoping for distinction in a tech world that can’t tell good writing from bad (as if anyone ever could) but doesn’t care because they are totally absorbed in tech strategy.  Their tech road to fame and fortune is designing the perfect platform.  Content is irrelevant.  In fact, vids, linking, format and fonts totally occupy minds that in the past might have composed poetry or structured books.  

There have been decades by now of scoffing at good grammar, recognizable spelling, word order in sentences, graceful handling of tense, and so on.  Beginning as an English teacher, I value all that, but — having a theatre background even earlier — I still love the intense, eccentric, explosive, morally driven kind of thing that comes from the ESL crowd, even when the first language in question is a kind of pidgin version full of gestures because more often spoken instead of written.

I tried to find the poem that purported to be Chinese and instead found one about acid reflux, which was interesting because reflux plagues me. Everything is personal at root. (“The Bees” by Bruce Mackinnonhttps://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/52157)  

The other one, the one with the long title that was included in the antho is “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve”.  (Easily googled.) To me it doesn’t seem Chinese — it seems like a poem by Sherman Alexie.  How much is value driven by simple recognition?  But it doesn’t seem like an NA poem either, so what does that say?

I tried to find the writer who used the Chinese pen name, Michael Derrick Hudson.  He has disappeared.  No job.  Phone disconnected. That was his punishment.  Sherman Alexie just becomes more famous.  Maybe that's a sort of punishment as well.  Maybe both need witness protection.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/books/sherman-alexie-and-the-tricky-art-of-memoir.html?emc=edit_bk_20170616&nl=book-review&nl_art=&nlid=14191488&ref=headline&te=1

http://therumpus.net/2015/09/the-sunday-rumpus-essay-im-chinese-and-sherman-alexie-chose-me/

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A FATHER'S DAY SERMON FROM 1998

The Reverend Bruce Clear
My Classmate, My Friend

(This is a sermon I delivered on Father’s Day, 1998, at Michael Servetus UU Church in Vancouver, WA.  Their minister at the time was Rev. Bruce Clear, a paragon of fatherliness.  Now in assisted living at Hooverwood Home, Indianapolis, IN.)

(I was living in Portland when this was written.)

In the last couple of years my apartment and the one behind it have acquired renters with little kids, pre-schoolers.  As soon as the one across the back alley moved in, I could hear his little voice now and then, piping “Where are you, Dad?  I love you, Dad!”  The apartment over there has long steps zigzagging down the back from floor to floor and I’d hear his little feet coming down one stair at a time, pat, pat, pat.  Evidently his father was leaving in a car, because his big male voice would come back from out on the street, “I’m leaving now but I’ll be back.  Goodbye, son.”  And the little voice would answer, “Goodbye, Dad!  I love you, Dad!”

The single mother downstairs also has a little boy.  She moved in when she and her husband divorced.  Evidently they have joint custody and she works a late shift, so the father takes the boy with him and brings him back way past midnight.  She refused to give the father a key, so the little boy and his dad would wait under my bedroom window in a little service alley.  

Half-waking, I’d hear them out there, talking quietly.  These folks are not at the high end of the income scale.  Once dad showed up drunk, judging from the sound of his voice, but the son acted just the same.  “Dad, Dad, look at this bug!”  “That’s a beetle, son.  Beetles are good.  We won’t kill it, we’ll just look at it.”

But on another night he came alone, drunk, and the mother wouldn’t let him in, so he broke a window.  There were hours of shouting, which made the boy cry.  The mother has a tendency to acquire boyfriends whom she leaves in charge of the little boy, men who yell at the boy and throw the furniture around.  One was particularly bad.  I don’t know if he ever struck the child, but I finally went to the manager and pretty soon the boyfriend left.  I didn’t go directly to the woman, who was very thin with a great mass of bleached hair.  

Then HER dad began to take a hand.  He kept the little boy for a while over at his home on the coast.  There evidently is no grandmother.  When he brought the boy back to stay with his mom again, the boy cried,  “No, granddad!  Don’t leave me here!  I want to live with you!  I love you granddad!"   The mother wept.  The boy finally stayed.  He’s older now, but when his dad comes, he still rushes out with his arms wide, yelling,  “Dad, Dad!  I love you, Dad!”  And his dad’s voice is full of joy, too.  Not often drunk.

This is thinking about Papa men on a pretty basic level, down where families make it or break it.  This is about managing intimacy and making a living.  Today’s dads often seem to me almost like kids — most of them are young enough to be my sons, struggling along trying to understand what it is they ought to do.  I’m on several email lists, one on the environment and one for Native Americans.  They openly recount their attempts to address what they can’t control.

I don’t often actually SEE “the little guy,” which is how I think of the boy downstairs, even though I know his name.  As it happens, I can hear almost everything that happens in his apartment so I know a lot about him.  When he gets really crabby and cries, I play my “Amazing Grace” bagpipe CD.  When he sounds as though he’s in danger, I sit by the phone ready to dial 911,  When he’s “up” and laughing, I smile as I work.  He doesn’t know any of this.

Recently some company came, relatives who included the little guy’s cousins, also boys about the same age.  These people had been in the armed forces overseas and I have learned to think of them as a type, a class of people in our society — peacetime warriors from an integrated military that is used to being an in-group on alien territory.  We hire them at the city sometimes.  They often speak German or Russian.  They have a strong notion of what a family is and how it ought to act, but they don’t allow much room for people who get in the way of their families.  The first night they had a great time talking and putting away pizza and beer.  The next morning, all the little boys were up early and sent outside to play so the parents could sleep longer.

The little cousins soon organized marching sorties, then raids down the sidewalk into foreign territory.  “Hup, two, three, four!”  I hadn’t heard that in a neighborhood since I was a kid.  And that gun noise that I never managed to make properly.  “Ksccchhhhew!”  When they left, I didn’t miss them but the little guy said he did.

A year or so ago, I went to a meeting after work and came home on a late bus.  I got off behind a man and a child who was sleeping on what must have been his dad’s shoulder.  His dad was wearing an earring and his hair was long.  He looked a little bit tough, which surprised me.  When I had only heard him, he didn’t sound tough.  As I walked behind them, I realized that it was “the little guy downstairs” and his dad, who was also carrying a heavy gym bag.  I had a heavy load, too, so I didn’t offer to help him and I don’t really know him anyway.  

But when we got to the apartment entrance, I went ahead with my key to open the door.  “He’s almost too heavy to carry,” said Dad.  “But I can do it.”  And he did.  He still does as the boy grows even heavier.  

The boy across the alley continues to call out, though his legs are much longer now and he can come down the stairs quickly,  “Where are you, Dad?  I love you, Dad!”

And Dad answers in his deep male voice,  “I’m right here, Son.  And I love you, too.”