I regret that I have to go back to filtering comments with one of those maddening "copy this" gizmos. I was getting too much spam. I suppose when I have time, I ought to figure out where it's coming from. In the meantime, if you really need to talk to me, do it the old-fashioned way: landline telephone. Information has my listing.

SOCIAL MEDIA

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

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE ART OF BOB SCRIVER, PLEASE GO TO: www.scriverart.blogspot.com.

Notes from Alvina Krause between 1957-1961 are posted at www.Krausenotes.blogspot.com


TWO REBLOGS:
Fiction about Indians at www.willowsticks.blogspot.com
Essays about Indians at www.siksikaskinitsiman.blogspot.com



Tuesday, July 31, 2007

INGMAR BERGMAN

In 1957, fifty years ago, I was just enrolling at Northwestern University and adjusting to an entirely new world. Just one generation removed from homesteaders and two removed from the Oregon Trail, I was thrown in with upper middle class and genuinely upper class people (who couldn’t get into the Ivies for one reason or another). I was in the School of Speech which included Theatre, so suddenly confronted an amazing assortment of scholarship people: brilliant, creative, and more than a little bit off the wall -- if they had to tell you so themselves.

I was directed to go to the art movie house to see a Bergman film called Wild Strawberries. I got there just a bit late and stood at the head of the aisle waiting for my eyes to focus: there was an old man, a big clock face with no hands, a creaking wagon that was hung-up and lost a wheel. I thought, “Oh, good, I got here while the advertisements still are on.” Of course, it was not that at all, but the famous and ominous dream sequence that starts a film of reminiscence both tender and terrifying.

It was one of the first movies with sub-titles I’d seen and all the actors sounded like Garrison Keillor’s sound effects man “speaking” Norwegian. I was not shocked by black and white -- we hadn’t been looking at color movies that long -- but the cinematography (a word I had not yet learned) amazed me with indelible visions. Bergman has said that in his childhood he had a hard time discriminating between things that had really happened and things that were stories -- I had had the same problem and here was some secret reality of mine brought to life on the screen. Over the years I’ve seen Wild Strawberries several times more and it never loses its impact, nor does the final scene of the lovely Edwardian family, picnicking on the other side of water, where they are so clearly seen and deeply loved -- but unreachable.

The Seventh Seal had the same effect on me, but the others didn’t hit so hard, except that every time Bob and I had an argument it seemed that somehow a Bergman film were running in the back of my head. I’m sure Bob had no such problem or if he did it was earlier wives’ voices he heard. Maybe his mother’s.

Just a year or so ago, I plucked a videotape out of the $5 barrel at Pamida: Persona. Such a bleak film, such a frightening subject (the escape of one’s identity from one’s self). There’s an intriguing clip of Terry Gross interviewing Liv Ullman now available on the NPR website. Terry asked how Liv, a cheerful young woman, knew how to play those grim, staring sequences of alienation. Liv said that she understood that it was about Ingmar himself, simply transposed over to female, so she just acting out what she knew about him. (They were lovers at the time, so she knew quite a bit.) Then Terry asked whether it was hard to be the Significant Other of someone who at the same time was directing her. Liv said, “Well, it was NOT like living with Bob Hope!” which was so absurd that Terry went off in gales of laughter and found it hard to think of the next question.

That was the other side of the Bergman equation: the riotous farce of Smiles of a Summer Night and the fart jokes of Fanny and Alexander. Bergman, for all his unforgiving theology and oppressive patriarchy, knew how to appreciate the flesh in good living and deep intimacy.

In fact, I think somehow our capricious and matter-of-fact treatment of sex without intimacy has badly hurt our own theology. Easy come, easy go -- God says cheerio! The body is a temple but is there a God in church? Ironically, it is the denial of simple tender physical warmth that leaves us often estranged from partners and self. We get trapped in watching ourselves to see whether our technique, our wardrobe, our decor, is proper and forget that both love of others and love of God are rooted in the marvels of perception which belong to us all to the extent that we are open to them. It cannot be commodified.

It seems impossible for Bergman to be dead since he lives on in so many people in so many ways and, surprisingly, often across cultures. In fact, he was so strangely rewarding that in 1957 I learned right there at the top of the aisle in the dark to seek the strange, the surprising, the totally new vision of the world in foreign films. The Fast Runner, created by an Inuit cast and crew from an Inuit myth, is as exciting to me as Wild Strawberries, though it is a totally different sort of northernness.

What’s even more interesting is the discovery that in every other person there is an inner reality as strange and informing as a Bergman or Inuit film. Our culture (esp. where I am) teaches us to hide our strangeness because many find it disturbing (or maybe racist) and it questions the status quo that makes politics and business go along happily. We’re taught that difference means hostility and loss of control rather than adventure and expansion of one’s world.

Bergman’s genius was giving us the ghastly image of a little girl “witch” being raised into a fire and then redeeming us with the image of Mary, Joseph and the Baby having a picnic in the sun. Maybe this is a way of being true to the northern rocky ecosystem that is so very hard on people and yet where the moment of pleasure, safety and warmth is exquisitely intense.

Would a Muslim who lived in Norway long enough become a Lutheran? I think the desert could make people into Muslims and has. Both places are very hard. Maybe we in the middle have it too easy.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

RULES FOR TRICKSTERS

Some good books exist discussing the traditional tricksters of indigenous cultures: Coyote or sometimes Rabbit or maybe Raven. The notorious Napi (Old Man) belonging to the Blackfeet did such obscene things that the anthropologists had to discuss him in Latin. At the same time, he had another face as the Creator, which the Christians were eager to encourage, most of them not reading the Bible closely enough to realize what a trickster God can be.

When two cultures abut, overlay, entwine, and victimize each other, the result is often tricks, many of them unintended and some of them opportunistic, like claiming to be Indian to get food, or passing as white to get a job. More recently, this practice has been especially common in the arts, because -- as one reviewer who has been around the block told me -- if one pretends that a novel is actual and that the author IS the protagonist, the financial reward (aside from selling the book in the first place) will be increased by hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ll be sure to let my publisher know this, since my biographical memoir of Bob Scriver is real and actual. But maybe it doesn’t work if it’s not really fiction. Speaking of tricksters, there’s a Montana man with the same name who constantly represents himself as Bob’s cousin and is reputed to have impersonated Bob himself in the past, even making business decisions.

Of course, such “playful” untruths can come back to bite you in the butt, as the youngsters would say, maybe speaking from experience. So let me suggest some rules for tricksters.

1. Be clear about whom you’re tricking. Is it yourself? Are you pretending to have a degree or relationship that you don’t have simply because you yearn to have it? Instead of taking a shortcut, why not make the trick real? So much more rewarding. And if you’re hired to teach on the basis of a real resume instead of a faked one, you’ll actually know how to teach!

2. Fake stuff is a lot of work. Are you sure it wouldn’t be easier to be straightforward? Most of us can maintain a facade for an evening’s party -- maybe even for a week’s conference -- but what about years?

3. If your trickery involves pretending to be someone you’re not, either use an identity that is partly true (so that investigators can find something) or make it so fantastic that no one is in a position to look for confirmation. Going to a different country helps. Maybe a different level of society. People have done it throughout history, some of them criminal, which sort of spoils things. But the Witness Protection Program is very intriguing to many. Spies -- oh, how seductive they are!

4. Play into the assumptions and stereotypes of the culture. That makes it easy. They’ll do most of the work themselves. There used to be a big fat fellow, an ordinary salesman really, who would come into a place where he wasn’t known and say, “Who here called the FBI?” They immediately jumped to the conclusion that he WAS the FBI. Whereupon he would say, “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to look at your business records.” Astonishingly, many got out their books and spread them before him. He claimed never to use the information he acquired, but said it was “very interesting.”

5. If you are going to be evil, realize that you might not ever be able to stop. Moral rot might set in. Or consider this: if a man embarks on the fiction that he’s married to a specific woman while crossing his fingers behind his back, the law will simply rule that it is a common-law marriage with all the entitlements and safeguards that are extended to a formal, registered marriage. Next comes those alimony checks. Many stories are told about desperate lies to cover a possible crime, which then require follow-up lies, and eventually force a new criminal action.

6. Never get into a position you can’t get out of. This is sort of related to the above. Like that fellow who pretended to be a surgeon or a pilot, and then wiggled out before actually operating or flying a plane so that he might have killed someone -- what if he hadn’t been able to wiggle out?

7. Make laughter your friend. A misrepresentation that hurts no one and that is rather preposterous anyway, can both entertain and make a point. Years ago on the listserv for the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (so long ago that we used to have very lively and witty exchanges) David Brandt -- who’d been asked who “Prairie Mary” was -- confided that I was actually two gay men in a committed relationship who loved to hunt in the Rockies -- as opposite to me as he could think up. (We’d had coffee together and he knew I was an old, fat, diabetic, celibate woman. He represented himself as a “short Italian, very handsome, which was the truth.) Some people, probably freshmen, didn’t recognize this as the fol-de-rol it was. Recently, I was highly entertained when two gay men in a committed relationship moved to the Rocky Mountain Front in order to hunt. Just because something is a lie, doesn’t mean it can’t become the truth.

8. Attacking people is more likely to motivate people to unmask you, though email flame wars in certain circles are almost a norm. Low-quantum Indians who pursue fakers are sometimes unmasked as fake themselves. (Some of the biggest phonies I know DO have Indian genes -- but that’s the only tribal fact about them.) Animal over-enthusiasts who attack public figures or self-righteous religionists or politicians who savage their enemies end up losing their credibility and sometimes end up in jail. Besides, the modern media seems obsessed by the masking and unmasking of public figures, maybe because Internet access makes it so easy.

9. Make it worthwhile -- if it’s a fake memoir, if it’s a phony painting, if it’s a “long lost” essay or poem, don’t do it unless you can do it well. Of course, if your goal is to eventually reveal yourself, sweeping aside the Cloak of Invisibility, you may have to prompt someone to figure it out. When I was a typist at the University of Chicago Law School, one of the professors, whose specialty was the problem of crimes committed through insanity, decided to liven up the conversation by pretended to discover some essays “written by George Orwell” who wrote exceedingly well. The trouble was that the professor himself was such a good writer that the essays were accepted as actual truth! The professor had to get a friend to “discover” they were a hoax!

10. Don’t try to trick bigger tricksters than yourself. Remember that life itself is the biggest trickster and death is the final one, unless you count your reputation. There are always death-bed confessions, but why take the chance of dying unconscious? Maybe you're not as good a "stick game" player as you think.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Donna Bruno and Mrs. D

A week or so ago the woman I knew as Donna Bruno died, not of any kind of disease or misadventure, but simply of old age. Born in the Twenties, she was much lived and much loved. It’s a little hard to tell how many descendants she had since she was married several times, took in kids, treated everyone as though she were their archetypal grandmother. At her wake it was said that her death represented the end of an era.

If someone came around hungry, she fed them. If they were tired, she found them a clean warm bed. If they needed a roof, they could stay. But no funny business or bad behavior. And you ate what you were served, which meant parts of animals one doesn’t often encounter any more (brains, kidney, tongue) and if the family hunters got something, they ate it. When the Big Flood swept through the rez in 1964, she headed right up to the school, knowing that the refugees would be sheltered there. By the time other people thought of it, she was already tying on an apron and firing up the coffee pot. Later she became an EMT.

Not that she was all grim and serious. On the contrary, she was a gleeful and optimistic bingo player and horserace bettor. I suspect that her pedigree is the usual reservation mozaic of Chippewa-Cree and French we call Metis, Blackfeet and several kinds of white. Well upholstered, she loved the quiet moments, too. Her grandkids said she started her day at 5:30AM with a cigarette and coffee while taking out her pincurls. After a heart attack her Red Pall Malls went out of the house and so did all other smokers. When anyone asked her how she was she’d say, “Pretty damn good for an old woman.” She was what you’d call a matriarch.

Last night I watched “Mrs. Dalloway,” the Virginia Wolff novel made into a movie for and partly by Vanessa Redgrave who more or less channels Virginia in her aesthetic/ascetic/near-neurosthenic persona. The whole day follows Mrs. D’s concern for clothes and flowers as she prepares for one of her famous parties, always thinking about her memories of girlhood -- and then there is a parallel story about the last day of a shell-shocked young WWI veteran. It is a reflection on the nature of vulnerability, how we handle it in society, what it means to the lives of the persons.

Mrs. D. has always been a vital, keyed-up, elegant person who attracts admirers. The partner she chose was one who could provide money, protection, and status -- all knitted together into her parties. The choices she COULD have made were another woman (who eventually married, had five whomping sons, and got fat) and a man much like herself, full of insecurity and seeking. I suspect it was really about Virginia herself trying to justify her own life, with the parties as symbolic of her books. The reassurance is that her parties make a major contribution to political networking and social knitting. Still, she and the male lover of her girlhood have simply not grown-up. They need someone to parent them as they go on through life and though they cannot do that for each other, they can’t give up loving each other either. Mr. D. simply tolerates it, as a good father probably ought to, but it hurts him a little.

Contrast this with the life of Donna Bruno, who put hard work into taking care of others which was returned to her in old age by the many people who still came around to the Senior Citizen Center to see her. She was a grownup who parented others all her life.

And then contrast both female lives with the young veteran in the movie, so timely a character he is again after all the intervening years. His determined little milliner wife is helpless before the authoritarian Papas (doctors) who insist he must be captured and made to understand that he should relax, while at the same time driving him to suicide. He doesn’t trust them, can’t let them take care of him. It’s clear that these authorities (a female meddler included) cannot earn his trust. They are treacherous, wanting to forcibly deport all veterans who cannot “adjust” to Canada, with the excuse that “all that exercise and clean air” would be good for them. And of course, the government would appreciate not having to pay for these weaklings anymore.

Some things don’t change. Except nowadays Mrs. Dalloway would probably be fed a steady stream of tranquillizers and her unsteady but equally upper-class intimate might spend his life in therapy. We do seem to be making teeny strides with PTSS, turning now to a set of theories about brain function and away -- for the most part -- from that old idea that it’s simply a weakness of character not to pull up your socks and forget about all the people blown up in your face, dear though they might have been.

This movie is wonderful to watch, like all those evocations of past upper-class British life. When I was costumer at Eagles Mere, I handled a lot of those exquisite beaded chiffon dresses of the period because they’d been donated by people who hoped they’d be treasured. They were beginning to rot and shed beads. I suppose there’s symbolism in that and in Mrs. D. in the movie, who is sewing beads back on. Something about preserving the old elegance as long as possible.

And there’s a kind of elegance in Donna Bruno, too. A kind of world view of order and sustenance that seems to be changing. How many people in the larger scheme of things really recognized it? Who are the elegant among us now? Who could we do a better job of “parenting?”

Friday, July 27, 2007

WARD CHURCHILL: Lucky He's Not a Bison

As long as I’m talking about controversial figures, I might as well pick up a bit of Ward Churchill as well, since he’s finally been fired. What I see is that this is all part of the retreat from the Aquarian Revolution. Tide’s going out, folks. That’s what some elected George W. Bush to do (with Cheney backing him up and pointing out where he should attack) and they’ve gotten it. National Security is the best anti-hippie device in a long time. Think you’ll run off to Canada and escape the draft, eh? We’re closing rhe border. What about your little sister? We'll draft her, too. See, even the Weathermen and ELFs are coming in from the cold. If torture is now officially legal... And it has become a prosecutable offense to be poor...

I don’t know whether they can stuff the genii back into the bottle. I agree with Ward Churchill that “... those killed in the World Trade Center collapse were ‘a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire" but I do NOT agree that the occupants of the buildings were "little Eichmanns." Few were even CEO’s. That’s rhetorical overkill as was the actual attack, for it was so heinous and horrendous that no one could defend it. (Churchill was joined by the fundamentalists who invoked “Sodom and Gomorah” but who quickly piped down when they realized they weren’t making any points. They'd have done better to think about Samson, whose destruction of the temple brought the roof down on his head.) The folks who think that Bush and Cheney, or some mysterious cabal, actually exploded the building themselves are way off in space, too. Having worked in the Bureau of Buildings with engineers and heard their thoughts, I suspect that the towers were more vulnerable than anyone realized, even the terrorists. Contrariwise the Pentagon, which was built when steel was in short supply, had just been brought up to prescribed strength shortly before the plane hit it, or the damage would have been far more devastating.

But this was supposed to be about Churchill. Native Americans have been thrown into confusion and irony more than anyone else, because in the Big French Theories span of time, they all learned how easy it is to claim to be one of the truly downtrodden in order to gather the benefits and honors that are rightfully theirs. But Churchill was so clever at turning rhetoric against oppressors (probably more over-the-top than even AIM leaders) that they could hardly disown him. (It’s interesting that on the Blackfeet Rez the most effective leaders of full-bloods have often been of mixed blood, for example the two sons of Isidore Sandoval or Sanderville who were half-Mexican and half-Piegan -- but whole-hearted intercessors for justice when it came to the government and defenders of the ceremonies.)

It’s clear by now that Churchill is not a Native American by blood, but he IS technically one in a way. Every tribe has the right to define membership and take anyone into membership with them. They are forever creating honorary memberships and that was done for Churchill, because he was drawing art and selling the pictures as Indian art, which is illegal unless you’re really an Indian. (The law was originally meant to prevent cheap Chinese knock-offs of SW silver jewelry and the like, which made it hard for the authentic silversmiths to find buyers.) Churchill is an “Indian” if any tribe will claim him, and one did to save him from prosecution -- so now the confusion of definitions about the legal status of NA’s comes home to roost. (To say nothing of the complex protocols of “adopting” white men. Tribal resolution? Individual family? Do they get a share in the tribal corporation?)

But the real culprit is the Marxist Aquarian Spirit of lifting up the ethnic, the poor, the female, etc. in the French manner, regardless of their credentials. Suddenly the underclass had a huge source of power. The university knew jolly well when they made Churchill a professor that he didn’t qualify in the traditional way. They took the chance for the sake of their image and now they will probably have to pay a pretty penny, either as a settlement or in proceeds from a lawsuit. As usual, the lawyers who surf the tides of culture-change will net the most.

When Churchill was hired, political correctness demanded that the underclass be honored and given credit for “life experience.” (Actually, it’s not that unknown for someone without a Ph.D. to be a professor, but Churchill -- who is far from dumb -- covered that base too, with an honorary doctorate. He knows a lot about escaping gate-keepers.) Now political correctness has grown to such bullying dimensions that genetic deficiencies can cause one’s termination. (Ward is lucky he’s not a bison -- purists have been going through the herds and killing all the ones with domestic cow genes.) Cultural hydraulics work on the university as much or probably more than they do anyplace else.

Vivid rhetoric, whether fact-based or hyberbolic, has been a Native American art form from the beginning. Without TV and spending long hours healing up or recovering after hunting and warfare (I suppose you thought they were loafing!), NA men sat in circles or groups, talking and signing. Each urged the others on to greater heights of coup-counting, mythic grandeur, and rhetorical straw-man killing. It was an indispensable way of staying psyched up for a short, risky, painful life. Of course, once booze provided a shortcut to the same end, the skill of rhetoric took some hits.

Ward Churchill has learned to talk the talk. (No one walks these days, especially academics.) The Board of Regents took a self-righteous, expedient, and betraying step when they fired Churchill. I hope he gets a lot of money out of it. And I hope everyone cools out a bit about the huge, splendid and seductive mystique of the Noble Savage. But I would not like to see “little guys” pipe down. DEMAND JUSTICE! Otherwise you just won’t get it and neither will anyone else.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

REVIEWING THE REVIEWER Part 3

The proper attitude of a superior person on the rez is “You do something and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” Presumably, if you are doing something really good, you’ll already know it; or maybe it’s its own reward; or maybe I shouldn’t tell you good stuff about your ideas because you’ll get the big head and you might leave. I thought this was a reservation attitude until I began running into it all the time in the white small towns around here. And then my doctor took that attitude... disaster.

A school aide was telling me about the best English teacher they ever had at that school, a model I should emulate. The woman’s chief virtue was that if anyone at any time made a grammatical error or mispronounced a word, she was able to set them straight. No one LIKED her, but they all respected her enormous knowledge and English was assumed to be the sort of thing that no one ever got quite right. This is what many people consider to be good criticism of any kind, a kind of scourging of error, and the snarkier the better because that’s more fun to read.

Often breaking down a larger category into a little typology turns out to be revealing, so I tried that with arts reviewers, but not quite from the point of view of attitude, i.e. those who like everything that's put before them versus those who are never pleased. See what you think of this list.

1. Those working for an institution, such as a newspaper or a TV station. This topic started out talking back to journalists who were asked to review art. They are either salaried or working on a per-piece basis, but in the end they are at the mercy of an editor who is exposed to the pleasure of his advertisers and readers. They are also vulnerable to tradition: what has “always” been considered admirable or “done” in the past. One would expect that to have a suppressive effect on reviewers, though some editors are really quite supportive so long as they aren’t subjected to libel suits or accusations that they don’t support family values. Of course, it varies what one can say in a tabloid versus what one can say in “Vanity Fair” versus what one can say in a small town weekly newspaper. The point of view of the artists themselves is not necessarily noted.

One of the problems of a small-market journalist is to understand local “values” and customs. Since many journalists in “flyover country” come from someplace else, are not paid much (so can’t drive far or network through hosting), and might be too young to have kids in the local schools (thus having a family critic on board), this can present some problems. I’ve known them to form little claques who interact only with themselves and begin to feel more superior than connected, “us” against “them.” An editor might then have to suggest this is better suited for free-lancing.

2. Public relations/promoters. I myself have a tendency to be a promoter, esp. when reviewing community-based arts like school products. If it’s really awful, I just don’t say anything about it. Who wants to crush some kid just starting out and doing their best? This has a dark side among journalists, the suspicion that every bit of information they get from the public is tainted by over-promotion, the shadow of promotional reviewing. On the other hand, there are forces in the commercial world that can crush any journalism that damages their sales, not necessarily just through pulling advertising but also through community pressure and reputation. (I’ve mentioned the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel who would like to think of me as an hysterical and thwarted ex-wife.)

The original reputation of reporters in other fields was that they were tough, I’ve-heard-everything, Studs Terkel people of the masses. Now I notice that esp. arts critics tend to be nice grad school folks who dress well, read the right books, take the right attitude towards cable TV, and somehow expect to be treated like gentry. If people get angry with them, they’re shocked and appalled. In short, they interpret art criticism as an easy field where they can continue their grad school lifestyle in coffeeshops, discussing abstracts. Call the editor.

2. Peer review -- like writers reviewing other writers. (Maybe you’ve had this visited upon you in your job. Ugh.) The New York Times is often accused of making trouble by assigning reviews to known competitors, dissenters or enemies of the author of the book in question. Knowing the inside background makes that sort of maliciously intriguing, but the newspaper always professes innocence, surprise, and hurt at the accusation. (Lie down with artists, rise up with bastards. I wonder if the converse is true.)

4. Mandarins: academic reviewers. Perhaps this developed in imitation of scientific reviews where the idea is to challenge the integrity of the scientific method and the validity of the evidence. Of course, a lot of science, esp. medical science, these days is paid for by pharmacy companies and the like, which skews the results. But I’m talking about arts reviewers. These art mandarins often speak from under the umbrella of the university, invoke “theory” and are used to the coerced agreement of their students. They invent terms and principles that no one else can understand, a secret language.

Story Corps” a project that gathers up people’s personal stories by erecting recording booths where individuals or couples can go in and talk privately, was heavily criticized by anthropologists who said that the organizers “weren’t doing it right.” The protocol, the “structure of analysis” etc, was all wrong and didn’t conform to the scientific standards of the discipline. Oral historians, a totally different and rather more arts-focused discipline, didn’t have qualms about that, but wondered about whether it would cut in on their careers, suggesting that anyone can tell a story. In the meantime the stories that the people told, now archived and accessible through public radio, are so powerful that people sit listening with tears streaming down their faces, tell them to their friends, and never forget them.

5. Unreliable reviewers, perhaps disguised or anonymous, are always problematic, because we judge the validity of the criticism according to the source. On blogs, where the writer is unknown or psuedononymist, the effect is either God speaking from the clouds or a mouse squeaking in the corner -- we don’t know which. No one is omniscient enough to tell us who is authentic, and maybe the argument has enough integrity or resonance that it doesn’t matter. The solution that has evolved is the capacity to respond in kind through comments, which generally set the blogger straight in a hurry, though all parties have the ability to knock out offensive comments. (Joe Nickell has asked me not to comment further on the supposed “banning” of Tim Barrus from “Flyover Country,” esp since I didn’t ask his permission to discuss it in the first place, so I won’t.) Anyway, painters, sculptors, contemporary musicians, and particularly actors are prone to playing with their identities as a sort of adjunct art-form.

6. Visionaries. Some people have an idea of where an art form should “go,” what it could be if properly shaped, and therefore make an effort to bring about that effect. For instance, a critic who strongly believed in the value of repertory theatre might reward with compliments all movements in that direction, while blasting Broadway road companies. Art critics of this type have a particular obligation to state their case clearly and openly, rather than engaging in subterfuge -- not for moral reasons, but because people can’t really sign on to help if they don’t get what the agenda is supposed to be. Visionaries become a kind of artist themselves, as well as being culture critics.

7. Underground, counter-establishment, and alternative newspapers give their arts critics much more elbow-room so long as they stay within the context of the publication. They can review X-rated material, use “bad” language, blast sacred cows, and explore ideas that the larger community would reject out of hand. But in small communities there might not be enough critical mass to support such a paper. The exception is university towns but also publications that rest on dedicated individuals or groups. For instance, the “Canyon Country Zephyr” in Moab, Utah, has persisted a long time in the face of the commodification of natural wonders, mostly through the courage of Jim Stiles. It’s not obscene itself (which is kind of a cheap way to attract an audience anyway), but devotedly uncovers the obscenity of "development" for the sake of profit. Again, though arts criticism is often included, the real criticism is of the culture itself.

Maybe you can think of other types.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

REVIEWING THE REVIEWERS Pt. 2

Earlier this year I sent “Twelve Blackfeet Stories”, one of my Lulu POD books, to one of the online POD reviewers and he wrote a review, which I then reviewed. This bit of circularity worked well, as he was pleased to not have his review a) drop into a black hole or b) trigger a full scale assault on him. What was helpful about his review was that he was telling it the way he saw it from who he was: a youngish guy (compared to me) who values high adventure sci-fi. Taking on my anthropological stories about two hundred years of Blackfeet was a stretch, but he could see the structure and my motivations and gave me credit for that and for competent writing. He just didn’t like that it wasn’t a tight sci-fi adventure. I forgive him. What was NOT helpful was that he put the negative stuff in the first two sentences, which are what show up on a Google entry! Argh!

But this was a guy who read a lot, was intelligent, and though he’s an editor at a small Manhattan publishing business, was relatively humble. Even more humble were the arts bloggers on “Flyover Country” who said, “Hey, I studied journalism but I don’t know anything about art. I’d never be able to give you technical stuff about a play and I don’t ‘get’ classical music. I just know my own corner of the universe.” Or is that an arrogance? An excess of humility?

Well, it takes guts to go out there and confront stuff that isn’t familiar. Still, I thought the idea of journalism was NOT having all the answers but asking good questions. There’s nothing wrhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifong with asking to be educated and reporting the process. I was browsing through Laura Ritter’s charming “arts blog” on the : “Eye of the Beholder.” Great Falls, they say, has an “ugly stepsister complex” -- it’s not prosperous and sexy in the same way as the other big Montana towns. The population is a composite of airmen (and airwomen), grain farmers, and retired ethnic smeltermen (no smelterwomen). Sometimes their idea of sculpture seems to be cement garden gnomes and other times it is fine Charlie Russell bronzes that bring in connoisseurs from around the world. Sometimes their idea of music seems to be accordions in the park bandshell and other times one has to remember the Ozark Club, a genuine black big-name jazz club. (It’s just been reincarnated at the History Center, thanks to Carl Aaberg.)

So Laura plunges into the GF scene and comes up with stuff all over the map: an account of a big papier mache giraffe she made that refused to survive, a walk through “Cool Beans” coffee shop which is currently hanging huge paintings of animals with interesting personalities, and a phone call conference with the director of the Holter Museum who explained the difference between “modern” art and “contemporary” art, which she passed on to us.

Laura does not suffer from Harold Bloom Syndrome. Harold is the fellow who is very willing -- a little TOO willing -- to tell you who the real geniuses in the world are -- on grounds that it takes one to know one -- and why they are so brilliant, because he thinks you couldn’t tell otherwise. I checked his big fat “genius” book out of the library, tried to read it and took it back. I will wait until he can write a clear sentence. With that as my criterion, I doubt I’ll ever have to check out a book by him again. He is among those folks who are suspicious of anyone who does not have to be explained by an expert, preferably an unintelligible one.

ArtsJournal today had a link to the National Book Critics’ Circle Board of Director’s blog: “Critical Mass.” Tim B. had a rebellious and defiant reaction to what must have been the sub-text, as I had quite a different “take” on what was said. (Tim also posed a lightbulb joke: “How many vampires does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” which kept me obsessing about possible answers the rest of the day.)

The article, “Poisoning the Well” was by Lindsey Waters, of whom I had never heard until now. I think I am relieved, as Google tells me he is another of those lit theorists who analyze everything until it’s tied into knots -- all on grounds that they are doing it for “the people,” meaning the oppressed masses who seem to cluster at their feet. Tim probably already knew that, which is how he could pick up the subtext. Waters is a medievalist educated at the U of Chicago, but I don’t pay attention to that. I knew too many of them in the Div School. His Harvard resume says, “...he has contributed to scholarly journals feisty articles chiding certain branches of the academy for requiring tenure candidates to churn out books that often are unreadable, uninspiring, and a burden to their authors, publishers, and audiences.” That sounds promising. If he isn’t just talking about his own thesis advisers.

But then I read “In those glorious days of yesteryear just a little more than a century ago, when the future seemed to belong to the West, Walter Pater urged sensitive souls to always burn with a keen, gem-like flame.” Uh-oh. Genius talk. Tim might ask, “What’s wrong with a honkin’ big ol' priapic smokin’ TORCH?”

Lindsay says, “Beware, I say, lest the whole edifice of modern democratic society collapse if a stake is driven through its heart. That’s what killing books and arts reviewing means. We must constantly be indulging ourselves in the freeplay of critical intelligence.” For instance, he suggests, “Is the new De Lillo book good?” Now I see how the vampire image got into the picture. There’s also a virgin: he values the “virgin encounter” with art. Vampires and virgins always go together. (If I could just figure out how to get the light bulb in there... Hmmm. Dead. Necks. Ideas. Oh, well.)

So the idea is that we should go out there and encounter Art, but depend upon a critic to point out what reaction we should have and how to properly analyze it. It’s fine to read pop best-seller stuff, but one must properly understand what Paul de Man would say about it. It’s like the French analyzing the deep meanings of Jerry Lewis. I suspect that these fancy theorists have done a lot more to kill literature than a lack of critics.

I wonder what Richard Stern would say about all this. Do I dare email him while he’s on vacation? I wonder whether Lindsay Waters ever took a class from Stern at the U of Chicago. Heck, Stern is blogging -- maybe he can get something out of it. “Critical Mass.” http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2007/07/poisoning-well.html

How’s this: How many vampires does it take to change a light bulb? Ans: If they’ve been reading literary theory, they’ll never get around to it. They’ll just talk.

REVIEWING THE REVIEWERS Part One

The internet has totally changed the world of music and the world of publishing. Now it is transforming the world of arts criticism. The depth, subtlety and economic consequences of blogochange are already being revealed. Major city newspapers across the country are closing down their arts sections, dismissing critics who used to be able to make or break fortunes in Broadway or Hollywood investments, and generally acting out the opinions of small town school boards who have been squeezing the arts out of the schools for decades.

But small newspapers are suddenly open to the idea of the arts, eager to print reports of local productions, symphonies and exhibits. The journalists called upon to supply critiques of the arts feel overwhelmed because -- as one said -- “we’re trained to be journalists but we know nothing about fine arts.” Presumably a journalist only does politics, crime, business, and sports. (They’ve always known the “ladies’ section” was not really journalism. Fashions and recipes -- sheesh. Well, unless they're pulling down big bucks, which usually means a man is doing it.)

Even when a journalist knows a thing or two about arts, his editor might present some difficulties. For instance, more than one editor is reported to say, “Well, there’s no point in covering Whatsit, since it’s just a one-time event.” To evaluate or analyze an event that has already left, is pointless to their mind, because the point of a review is to sell tickets. The editor (and publisher) want control over tickets sold so that they will be sure to get advertising business. This is called “service journalism.” The service is presumably the commodification of culture, so you’ll know how to spend your entertainment dollars.

They’ve been talking about this on the blog called “http://Flyover Country.” As Joe Nickell noted: "Newspapers exist to document the things that happen in our communities, and how those things spin together into a community's sense of self and trajectory of advancement. And sometimes, the most important thing that happened yesterday wasn't a murder, or a football game, or a lawsuit filed against the state. It was a concert."

The conversation continues as follows: “I merely note that the old writing conventions of arts journalism -- the consumer-oriented Ebertian thumbs up and down mode of rhetoric -- cannot be maintained in light of this strange new world of the blogosphere."

John Stoehr writes a summary: “Indeed, there's no point in writing a consumer-oriented review when there are people [on blogs] writing faster and better and with far more passion. The consumerist review made a lot of sense in a 20th century dominated by mass media, a time when we were the gatekeepers to what's good and what's bad. But there's less and less mass in contemporary media these days, because there are more and more gates to be kept by more and more people.”

People have been known to sit in the audience of a performance, reporting on their laptops as the event unfolds. Shall we call this “wet paint” reporting?

“Many Flyover commentators noted that newspapers need to stop reviewing and return to the lost art of criticism -- an old-fashioned writing convention employing the somewhat quaint (according to the logic of service journalism) modes of insight, analysis, commentary, historical context, aesthetic sensibility and other modes and forms of respectful, honest and sensitive literary engagement.”

“Habeas wrote: "There's little to respond to when the theatre 'article' consists of a quick plot summary, a compliment or pan to a few of the actors and production details.

“James A. Weaver wrote that critiques aim for illumination rather than mere evaluation. ‘They establish what aesthetics are intended to accomplish," he said, "and they distinguish the difference between good and bad art.’"

“Mike Boehm, of the Los Angeles Times, said "provocative arts criticism is the best way to spark quid pro quo. But provocative criticism, like negative critiques, requires the backing of management: that is to say, the inch-count to develop your arguments with specific examples, fleshed-out analysis and illuminating comparisons. I'd say at least 20 inches, but most reviews are shoe-horned into 10.”

“As Mike notes, with a bonus caveat: ‘First make sure your editors WANT provocative criticism ... Oh, and when the symphony or museum board chairman calls his/her country club buddy, your publisher, be sure your editors have trained said publisher to say the journalistically correct thing, and mean it.’

Colin Eatock hits it on the head: "[An editor under discussion] appears to distrust expertise--at least in the arts. Presumably he believes that a sports writer should know all about the nickel defense and the three-deep zone, whatever on Earth they are. But arts writers are suspect if they know more than the average reader--or perhaps more than their editors...[A particular editor's] idea of the perfect arts journalist seems to be someone who approaches theatre, jazz or visual art with equal indifference, and not too much book-learnin'."

And I’ll give the last word to Tim Barrus, who is banned from Flyover Country. Watch what happens here. Tim is not complaining about critics, he’s using the blogosphere to criticize the the whole flippin’ culture through the use of the arts, mostly visual, on YouTube, a new art form. To him, You Tube is the global small town, a small town connected by the music culture that depends upon being outrageous. This is not a small town that objects to the f-word -- it’s youth culture vocab and youth culture rebellion, the rhetoric of the outrageous. How’s a flyover journalism person, maybe one who is young, on probation, watching his or her step around big shots (let alone the parents of a potential spouse), supposed to cope with that? If it’s the blogosphere doing the critiquing, it ain’t no prob, baby. Esp. if no one in town knows who the blogger is. (If you are offended by the f-word, stop reading.)

Now, I don't feel so bad about being banned from the FLYOVER blog because: 1.) Smalltime art critics can kiss my ass. 2.) I am not only Flying Over fucking FLYOVER, I am Flying Over fucking mediocrity as well. Which is the only thing to do with mediocrity. Fly over the fucking thing and leave it behind you.
3.) Besides, hypocrite that I am, I ban Lars Eighner (Nasdijj) from my YouTube channel daily.
[He’s a Nasdijj wannabe.]
...For most Yanks, art is something you put on your wall so your friends are impressed. Let's be real here.

“I am a mutant. And ART is a process as is my life. [His new idea of painting and then painting over the painting, but filming the process] would destroy the myth that you can own it and through that confirm your status in the group. And THAT is what goes to the heart of what is and is not public art and all the stupid ideas about copyright and who OWNS what in perpetuity when perpetuity is an ILLUSION. You remove the illusion and people are going to want to MURDER you (trust me). The PROBLEM, the REAL problem Yanks have with public art (and why they're so stingy with it) is that what it confirms is the status of the community, not the individual. What Nasdijj [the Tim Barrus version] confirmed was the IGNORANCE of the community and they find that hard to live with. “

I don’t agree that Flyover Country is necessarily mediocre. I think that’s a bicoastal idea. Of course, scoffing at the inland folks been a convention for a century now. (Canadian academics say, “Publish or prairies.”) Time for a genius somewhere to rise up and do something glorious and irrefutable, not necessarily profane. In fact, come to think of it, maybe that’s what the blogosphere IS! A huge work of art in process.

Some reviewers will continue to concentrate on whose kid did a terrific trumpet solo in the annual concert. But there’s a real value in the Barrus-type International Apocalyptic In-your-face Bite-my-elbow Blood-spattered critique of an oil-besotted culture trying to eliminate the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. I didn’t see “Angels in America” on Broadway but I did buy the DVD at the grocery store.

Monday, July 23, 2007

SHOCK & DISGUISE

When I was teaching on the rez almost 20 years ago, the girls in the 7th grade said I didn’t understand what their lives were like at all, I just didn’t know where they were coming from. So that night I wrote a little essay, pretending I was one of them and saying what it was like. The next day I handed out copies for them to read (anything to get kids to read!) and asked them to tell me whether I understood after all. “Weeelll,” they said, “Maaaaaybe.” (The boys wanted me to write one about them, but it didn’t come out so well.) Later I sent some stuff to the Office of Public Instruction and the little essay I wrote was in among other things without being identified. One of the women down there in Helena got all excited about it and wrote me to say that this child just had to have a scholarship. I explained it was me writing and the offer immediately disappeared. I explained that the girls were really like that girl in the essay and DESERVED a scholarship, but they weren’t interested.

A sequence of authors have been unmasked in recent years. JT Leroy is coming up again: a young male victim of abuse who turned out to be a woman fifteen years older. She protested that the abuse was still true, that JT was one of those salvific personas that abused persons develop, but the world was horrified by the false identity -- not the abuse. The “Horse Whisperer” claimed that his father was abusive and beat him with a chain, so he turned to horses. Others challenged that and I don’t know what finally happened. One young ethnic chic lit authoress, fairly shocking, was unmasked as a non-writer who simply claimed the role -- the actual book was, well, more like assembled by a committee, not even ghost-written. The author of “The Story of O” has been identified -- they say. All of these cases had two things in common: they were shocking and the writer was masked. Not at all unusual over history. The examples also tended to confuse the truly offensive ethics of journalists -- real, on a payroll and supposedly confined to the facts -- making up informants and stories.

One of my chief sources of books is remainder houses, and I’m especially fond of Daedalus, which attractively presents books that interest me, so I ordered a copy of “The Boy and His Dog Are Sleeping,” about a man named Nasdijj and his efforts to save a boy suffering and dying from AIDS. There was a dog and a second boy and they were running away from the authorities because the authorities never get it and try to trap you, strap you down, get your fingerprints, make you memorize your social security number, put a microchip in your forearm, put your genome on a computer chip, and issue you a “real ID” card with a retinal scan that you must present at any borders. You get the picture. Everything but a yellow star on your coat.

So as usual, I Googled this guy. Out spills a huge controversy over who the author really is and he turns out to be Tim Barrus, who previously wrote prize-winning SM porn in San Francisco. Oh. And he has a blog which you can find on Google. Somewhere between being a free-spirit and a fugitive, a cultural hunter-gatherer, he moves through a world that has never given up the Sixties and Seventies. Horror, sci-fi, shock... it never ends. This morning I was trying to upload some photos of my earnest threadbare family in the Thirties onto Photobucket and having to work around a huge ad for “Skinwalkers” with headshots of kids with fangs dripping something -- probably KY jelly like the Alien. Not what Navajo envisioned as the original Skinwalkers.

A lot of people are really mad at Tim for not being the guy in the book. Isn’t every author every character in every book he or she writes? The twist is that these readers want to be just like the fictional Nasdijj, they identify with him! The nice lady editors of Manhattan liked him, too, so long as he was down-and-out, but when he popped up in person, liberally using the f-word which we only allow in the movies or among our adolescents, they were horrified.

Tammy Fay Bakker died yesterday and the paper printed her last photo, grotesquely thin but the same crust of makeup on her sagging face, the same preposterous wig. Who was she really? A malicious hoax? We think we can tell by looking at her Halloween getups, but her friends said she was genuinely warm and inclusive, never mean-spirited or self-righteous. A natural Universalist. How much can we really tell by looking at a face, a surface, a presentation?

People might ask what can I know about ghastly shocking stuff when I live in a quiet village where it’s safe. When I’d been here a while, I was told about the little house a block down this street where a babysitter and the children were murdered over drugs and about the young father who was quarreling with his wife and to punish her sat in their pickup a block up the street in front of the bar and shot his very young son in the head -- then himself. Skinwalkers indeed. If I wrote about such things around here, I would be well-advised to fictionalize either them or myself in order to avoid lawyers looking for major settlements and free publicity. The US libel law is beginning to be more restrictive, allowing heirs to sue for damage to the estate of a public person if comments about the famous deceased person diminishes its value. And there’s the whole story.

The commodification of information. Newspapers and publishers are so controlled by advertisers and political friends that they edit to serve the purposes of sales, to maintain image and reputation. So the Great Falls Tribune prints a story about some murder or drug conflagration on the reservations, then -- to escape criticism -- prints a story about a man who cleans up his corner of the rez or a kid who shines academically. Nothing sells so well as the sensational! The gorier and more horrendous a crime is the better the paper sells. The more controversial a book is the better it sells, up to a point. Clearly no one wanted to hear about Charlie Russell’s VD, at least not around here. It might interfere with sales.

So the pressure is towards shocking content, but not from familiar people -- rather from discardable sources. Under-culture folks. A black women once told me, “We know the REAL truth about white folks, because we see them from the UNDERsides.” She meant because whites go slumming with dark people and also pay them to be intimate servants.

Blogs break all the rules BECAUSE they are from hidden sources and often have shocking content, the worst images you can imagine, guaranteed to haunt your sleep. Even Googling won’t tell you whether the writer is honest or competent or whether the content is true -- though there are websites that strive heroically to do what responsible editors used to do: find the truth.

We assume that the underculture has privileged knowledge, and often they do. But they don’t always have the words to tell their story. People who interface with them -- social workers, cops, EMT’s, and teachers -- can do it. (Check out http://ambulancedriverfiles.blogspot.com/) That’s who Tim Barrus really was -- an articulate person who hung with outcasts and told their stories.

Here on the rez they tell about a man who came from outside to teach. Sitting in front of his first high school class, he tried to take the roll by asking the students to give him their names. Every name provoked peals of laughter. Some sounded pretty normal and others were typical Indian names. He couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Finally he came to a girl who claimed her name was “Marilyn Monroe.” He kept her after school. Eventually he found out that really WAS her name and she was a model of diligence and sobriety. The other kids had been giving him the names of all the town drunks. The story is supposed to be about fooling the teacher, but why did the kids think those poor old drunks were so funny?

In 1961 when I was teaching on the rez, some grad students at a major back East university sent a questionnaire they wanted the students to answer. The questions were invasive, even insulting. The kids asked me if they had to give true answers. I said there was no reason why they had to. The rest of the day was given to remarkably inventive atrocities. I can only imagine what the grad students thought, but I think they were entirely willing to believe the tales. I’ve always wished I could see the final report. It was the most enthusiastic writing project all year.

No neat conclusion here, except that our appetite for shock plays into the masking and unmasking of identity. A sense of humor is helpful.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

TELLING MOMENTS: "Heat of the Sun"

Of course, one of the things that makes any narrative potent and memorable is a strong internal structure of forces, some trajectory or impetus that makes things happen or that gradually comes together into a realization of something hidden. But another dimension is the telling moment, the indelible image, the captured vignette that the mind’s eye can catch and hold.

Heat of the Sun” had a problem of its own creation, which is that it is essentially a derivative of “Out of Africa” et al, which gave it a fund of familiar elements to exploit (the givens of colonialism), but also meant that it had to come up with some unique bits of its own. In the third episode “Sport of Kings” there were some nice examples of this. The character of Valentine supplies quite a few all by himself -- studying the books of the corrupt millionaire while barreling along in the back seat of a car on the way to a battle with raiders, using a ruler to follow the lines of figures across. His incredible marksmanship, followed by the matter-of-fact warning, “The next one kills you,” becomes a motif. When he closes his eyes to listen to Morse code coming through the telegraph apparatus as though it were faint whispering, we believe in him.

Another character with a lot of schtick is the flaming gay who is accidentally shot. Throughout, he is just campy enough with his red nails and brassy hair, his ascot and cigarette holder, but especially in the last episode he lets a real person peer through. Very effective. The governor (I think it’s Paul Brooke who has a glass eye which he turns backwards for some parts), the doctor (David Horovich) and the choleric police commissioner (Michael Byrne who plays a lot of Nazis) have longer resumes than anyone else and it’s easy to understand why. I looked up all the black characters and some of them also had a lot of credits, which explains why they are so good. The wonderful British system of repertory does not let us down.

One reviewer complained that there were several really interesting “types” who were never explored (for instance, Singh, the fingerprint expert) and, in fact, Tyburn himself has never had his source of morality explained. He is a high-handed man with a soft spot for children, evidently. Clearly he is “cleancut” and, in fact, clean-shaven, appearing in the intriguing male act of shaving with the substantial equipment of the time several times. The contemporary 3-day-stubble characters, with their accompanying seedy morality, are entirely missing. (The villain is a little bristly at the end.) In a clever moment, he emerges from the station where a mortal battle has just taken place, preparing to send his pilot friend off with a wounded man, and is wiping the last of his shaving lather from his jaw but has missed a white dab on his earlobe. He spots a new attack coming through the bush and shepherds the people back into the building, all with that white dab. He is highly competent, but not omnipotent.

The villain, played by Joss Ackland, is so good that he nearly overwhelms the episode. Beginning, the camera pans across an elegant veranda, into a well-appointed sitting room where a cranked-up phonograph plays classical music, then looks through a set of French doors to the garden where, at some distance, a massive old white man is beating a black boy to death. A slender young woman, well-dressed and made-up, comes to stand in the doorway, transfixed by the violence. The man enters, clearly aroused, takes her by the throat and with his thumb smears her blood-red lipstick across her cheek in an act of defiling control. Between forceful kisses she exclaims, “Daddy,” pronouncing the “dad” as “dead.”

It’s hard to know whether such scenes are from the writer, the director, or the actor or (my guess) a collaboration of the three, but throughout, his filthy sneering, sly eyes, and ripples of malice transfix us as much as they did his “daughter.”

Another nice thread is the missionary’s silent movies, enjoyed by both the black “kaffirs” and by the lower-class white settlers. It’s a wild West show. The Indians are winning when the blacks are watching. When the whites watch, the cavalry arrives in a line along the ridge. This is echoed when the cavalry arrives in the Kenya plot while the “fort” is under attack. Thankfully in a show about horse racing, all these horses really live up to their billing. They are wonderful hotbloods with curving necks and slender legs.

The best bit is right at the end, which is the best place for it, esp. since this is the end of the series. The superintendent and the aviatrix have been flirting all along, she being tough and he being tender. Earlier she has threatened to drag him onto the dance floor but didn’t follow through. Now, after all the excitement and the complicated plot points, there is a simple near-pantomime. It is sunset on the top of one of those African elephantine stone prominences. She is in elegant evening clothes. He is in a tux. A portable gramophone -- the same one that has been haunting this film with memories of Finch-Hatton’s favorite clarinet suite -- is playing. He offers his hand, she takes it, they foxtrot a few steps (rather close to the edge) and they kiss -- the only time in the whole series.

Trevor Eve has been the pivot of a number of detective series, some of them rather long-running. He doesn’t seem to have hit quite the heights of popularity of some of the others, notably Robson Green, but he is a solid actor -- in fact, that’s his keynote: solid. He gets frustrated but he doesn’t get crazy. That makes him more appealing to some, but less to others. In a former movie he played Dennis Finch-Hatton. I’d like to see that.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

3 IDENTITY NARRATIVES

I understand people as managing their identities with three narrative lines: one story about their past, one story about what is happening to them in the present, and one story about what they imagine will happen to them in the future. These are parallel to the three arguments about the existence of God: one saying that God is the origin of all things, one saying that God is a dimension of or participant in existence now, and one saying that God is our destination. There is a fancy Latin world for each one of these, but we’ll just let that go.

The past story changes all the time, because it is meant to explain where the present is. Full of re-interpretations -- some based on wishful thinking -- it is hard to grip. This summer I’ve been reading “The Raj Quartet,” plus my grandmother’s journals and my father’s photo albums, and soon I’ll attend the Piegan Institute’s summer conference where Barney Reeves from the University of Calgary will be presenting the evidence for a major shift in the understanding of the origin of the Blackfeet. (Conventional wisdom has been that they came here from the north east, but Reeves is honoring the claim of the tribe itself that they were “always here.” It makes a difference because one rationalization for white industrial Europeans over-running the autochthonous people is that the tribes themselves were immigrants.)

The part of the Strachan family story that my branch claimed was that they were an educated Scots family who took the great gamble of emmigration from Scotland out of an idealistic longing to be Jeffersonian “gentleman farmers.”


The gentlemen farmers in South Dakota.

Their version was that they struggled to homestead, gradually succeeded, came to Oregon as manufacturers of a clever invention, and then flowered into successful middle-class professionals through shrewd hard work. The evidence is that the Sam Strachan’s had some success, but mostly the times were against them. Sam and Beulah ended up broke.

But the times were in favor of the next generation because of WWII, something that Beulah hated and feared. One parlayed his prairie flying into a military and then TWA pilot career.


The pilot and unicycle rider has a flying friend.

One rose through drafting while ship-making for Kaiser. One throve as a real estate man in booming Southern California. My father, originally intended to be the college-boy star, suffered a frontal concussion that was untreatable in those days and which caused him to gradually unravel an ag field man’s career.


A man with a slow time-bomb in his head.

The next generation, the third, has managed pretty well (allowing for some serious losses), and the fourth generation now has children. Or some of them do. When my cousin and I look at the genealogical patterns over the years, we see that as far back as we know, there have always been people who didn’t marry or who married but produced no children. In each generation there have been a few picked-off by alcohol or misadventure. We get more interested in them than in the stable family people! But for the most part they left little evidence. Still, it was Gene Strachan, divorced and childless, who collected our genealogical base of facts and dates. After a wild sojourn in New Guinea as a flight mechanic during WWII, he made his living quietly keeping books for natural resource companies and died in prosperity.

Here in the reservation the proportion of damaged people is much higher because of being dragged through starvation, massacre, violence, alcohol and drugs and so on. This seems to be more true of those who stayed on the reservation: half have stayed, half have gone. (Half the Strachans stayed in South Dakota; half left.) Those Blackfeet who are gone fitted themselves into individual “assimilated” lives, but often return. Sometimes they landed in urban mini-communities with ties to the rez. Their eyes see different things than those who have stayed and reconciling their stories opens new understandings.

The new culture of healing through recovery of memory has changed the way we look at old stories: the Baker assault on Heavy Runner’s camp, the misadventure with Lewis along the Two Medicine River, the Starvation Winter, are not forgotten, but other stories have risen alongside: the struggle of the Tribal Council to understand its duties in a new world, the development of schools, the meaning of incorporation, shared sovereignty. Gradually, individuals tell their stories of injustice, tragedy, and suffering -- some of them nearly unbearable and imposed by their own people on each other -- and telling them changes them.

Once in the Sixties I passed an old Blackfeet man I knew as “Sam” and said, “Hello, Sam.” He scowled at me, drew himself up tall with dignity, and said in his “you crazy tiresome white woman” voice, “My namesh not Sham.” (His front teeth were missing.) “My namesh Shavier [Xavier] Yellow Mink.” I was abashed and apologized. I never knew whether I’d learned the wrong name for him or whether he’d chosen a new name because he felt changed, or whether he’d assumed the identity of an ancestor, perhaps through a dream. But the right of a person to embark on a transformation was strong in the Blackfeet world.

Not so much in our world. The present has always been seen as a “wide place” and a “real place.” Right now it has become more intense but briefer, more crucial as we try to understand what to do as a nation and face the necessity of change. Our politicians writhe under our gaze, the most “moral” and “fundamental” turning into the most corrupt, the most cynical and secret. The history of Iraq -- “where?” we used to ask -- now unfolds into a fabulous tumult of centuries about the Ottoman Empire as much as the Biblical location or Euro-stories. A generation of American young people, clawed at by war but nevertheless surviving, now know the terrain of a place once simply a vague source of oil.

The Raj Quartet” is a looking-back at such a similar situation in India during WWII that I’m often sharply jabbed by recognition. For so many English, the East was the kind of opportunity that America was thought to be, a way to escape a small island rigid with class into land ownership or mercantile empires in small towns linked by the railroad (catalogue towns). Racism abounds, the same attitudes I see around me in my neighbors. It is an opportunity as much as a restriction, the rules of a card game based on skin, a "skin game."

The future depends on what you think the past was and how you interpret what is happening right now. The scale can be individual or very sweeping indeed. In the new Bloomsbury Review, Gary Snyder suggests that our national future may be devolvement into nation-states as the population empties the countryside and thickens the cities. Others have suggested that we will redraw our boundaries -- state, province and nation -- into ecosystems, mostly around the availability and use of water. Some think we’ve already become infiltrated and dominated by multi-national corporations like the devil’s bargain between China and Walmart. A few see total disintegration, apocalypse, perhaps caused by global change and perhaps by the revenge of tiny bits -- flu pandemics or our own genome mis-folded into prions.

So -- in my present -- it’s watering day so I’ve doused my pots and bathtubs of plants. I’ve had my coffee. Stored a jug in the fridge for cold drinking later and in case the village works on the broken waterline up the block some more. (It was off with no warning for hours yesterday -- like Iraq.) It’s cooler than it has been for weeks. Should I file my heaps of papers? Should I look for a photo a friend badly wants? Should I work on my novel or transcribe my grandmother’s journal some more? Or had I better clean house?

What I do depends on what I think the future holds. That’s the third story. Will this diabetes remain manageable? Will an old friend reappear? Will someone entirely new and unexpected suddenly enter my life? Will inflation drive me out of this house, this village? Will the book about Bob Scriver...?

Bill Houff used to have a great quote: “When we step out into the darkness, we must trust that either there will be ground beneath our feet, or we will be given wings.”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

WHA?

Today's post is over on another of my blogs: scriverart.blogspot.com.

It's about magazines that are about Art of the American West.

Prairie Mary

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

BEULAH'S JOURNAL


1930-31
785 NE 64th Avenue, Portland, Oregon: The "cottage" furnished as below.

Journal of Beulah Strachan

(Born in 1875, at this time she would have been 55 years old. Sam was five years older.)

Arrived in Portland afer visiting Brandon, Man. about Aug. 26. accompanied by May & Doc.

Aug. 28: Bot at M.W. & Co [Montgomery Ward] Gas Stove $14.95, also Wardway Vacuum Cleaner for $24.00. Later to complete the furnishing of our cottage at 745 E. 64th N. we or I did from private funds and monthly allowance bot wicker rocker $6.25, a cabinet of drawers for men’s papers etc. (Sam bot a mate to it later), a few pictures (inexpensive framed ones: Rheims Cathedral, English street thatched roofs, and a Dutch windmill) around 50¢ and $1. Order a bookcase made at a cabinet shop on 3rd Street, a few kitchen utensils and some glassware, crockery, including Pyrex casserole to fit small frame brot from Brandon, few pieces green glassware, a chopping bowl and knife ($1), a dripping pan (10¢) and five stainless steel fruit knives, small percolater (49¢ @). Still later bot small pair grey blankets (1.98) for my own use, cheap quilt (e.98) for May Christmas. On Bruce’s birthday gave him shirt and tie ($2.00) at Christmas time gave Bruce and Seth each a suit of pajamas @ $1.98), Doc a flannel shirt ($1) and Sam a jersey coat ($2.98) and May a scrapbook. Sent Elsie & Glenn [They had remained in Brandon to maintain the Kovar franchise.] each a box of handkerchieves. Also sent Mrs. Sims, Mrs. Boyle, Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. Morris and Mrs. Collie-Brown fancy handrf’s. I rec’d from Seth his photo, from May a hand painting, from Bruce a scarf and a pickle dish, from Sam a game board. [Crocanole on one side, Chinese checkers on the other: I remember this from much later.] Later in the spring I bot May and I each a print housedress and a voile afternoon dress (total 3.75), a navy straw hat for myself, 3 pairs of rayon bloomers (.75 & .50), a corselette (1.98), two pairs of hose $1.25 and two pairs for $1. Jan. 23 for Seth’s birthday bot him 2 shirts $2, 2 comb suits underwear 1.30, 2 prs sox .90 and a suit of pajamas $1.

Still later (May 5) loaned Seth $10 to renew his transport license and to buy some summer trousers and $3 to advertise for flying job in Aviation. Late in March paid for permanent wave $3.

Our last monthly allowance of $35 each (Sam, Bruce and I) ceased with the April Draft and from then on we’ve been trying to finance our own expense here in Portland as far as possible, so in April Sam cashed his insurance coupons for $500 and gave me $60 with which to pay our share of the grocery bill until July 1st. Glenn and Elsie had contributed $200 of their private funds towards the Kozy Kamp business and Bruce and Doc each contributed $25. The balance of the capital coming from the Kovar Business, Sam’s insurance and Kozy Kamp sales, which have run as follows:

In May sold detachable to Deberville’s in Vancouver, WA. (They furnished all material except $10 worth hardware $50.

July 4 sold new detachable to Mpls man. Cash $120.
July 4 sold used Deluxe model to Werschkuls for $120
Late in Aug or early Sept sold Brandon mdoel to salesman with S.R. & Co., $10 down and $10 per month till paid. $40
Same date Sears Roebuck sold detachable on their floor for $162 (time), our share in cash. $105
TOTAL SALES TO DATE OCT 9: $385.


About the first week in August sold kitchen incinerator to Wilson Auction Co. for $10.
About the middle of July we were surprised by a telephone call from Beth Ramsey, who with her mother, Aunt Mary Ramsey, called on us a few minutes later as they left the city on their way to California to visit friends. (Mary Ramsey is the great-grandmother of Kathleen Rouzie who lives in Portland, and is the sister of Archibald’s wife. At this time Mary Ramsey lived in Victoria, B.C.) When they returned in August they visited us one Sunday with their friends, the McKenzies, who were returning with them to Victoria, B.C.

During Septemer, 1931, the three boys (Bruce, Doc and Seth) with May to cook, took a Kozy Kamp and went over to Washington and got permission of a Mr. Arnold on the Evergreen Highway to cut our winter’s wood on shares. Doc & Seth went back and cut enough more to be able to sell 2 cords of ash to Mr. Able @ 7.50 = $15. Bruce having rec’d a call from the Oregonian and was offered a position i their Advertising Dept, he began work with his car which he bot from Seth on terms, on Fri. Sept. 25, 1931 @ $20 a week and 5¢ mileage.


1931

Sept. 29
. In forenoon Sam and I went in search of a wood and coal range to take the place of our little gas range. After looking over the stock at The Trading Post and several places on Williams, Hawthorne, and Union, found one at Belmont “Trading Post” $20. In the evening the Barr family visited us. Spent evening laying charades, guessing games, swinging Indian clubs, etc. Men spent large part of day setting up the new kitchen range and connecting up coils with hot water tank. Put little gas range in basement.

With proceeds of kitchen heater and incinerator, bot arm-chair at Sears Roebuck and a few things for the kitchen. Also bot May birthday gift and one for Sam. Former consisted of two prs. sil hose and pr of rayon bloomers.

Sept. 18 to 24:
During the month of Sept. heard Aimee S. M. Hutton preach several times in auditorium. (Beulah was a WCTU member and strongly anti-alcohol.] Also a lecture on materialism in Russia at lirary, Sam Burnes.

On Thurs. Oct 1 Seth, May and Doc took gray car and Kozy Kamp and drove to Hood River to pick apples for J.D. Smullin, father of one of Bruce’s college acquaintances. They receive 3 cts. per box and a bonus of 1/2 cent if they remain to the finish.

Sun. Oct. 4
Rained most of the day off and on. Bruce, Sam and I at home.

Sun Oct 11
Bruce busy during week ad cooking school (Held at auditorium. Toothpaste, Vapex for colds, etc.) Wed. Eve the 7th he took Virginia, Sam and I in the car to the “Hollywood” to see and hear Marie Dressler & Polly Moran in “Politics.” Not much of importance or of an outstanding nature transpired. Heard from May Tues. and Sat mornngs, asked for a few things to be sent out by Bruce and Virginia who went out there today. When they returned in eve, brot 2 bags of apples.

Mon Oct 12
Foggy & cloudy. Washed but didn’t hang out clothes except hose etc. in porch. Was cloudy and wet. Had small wash as I washed several times last week and ironed everything. Sam and I did our shopping St. eve at Pay’nTakeit.

Tues. Oct 13
Bruce’s pay day. Rec’d for his past week’s board $5. He called at the house twice yesterday: once at lunch time when he shared the meal with us and later to get his raincoat and rubbers, as it rained during PM. This evening when Bruce reached home, I left supper ready to ut on the table and he took me to Pay’n Takeit to get groceries. Last evening Bruce and Sam went to “Circle” to see Chaplin’s “City Lights.” I didn’t care to go, so Sam gave me the price of ticket, 25¢. Today Bruce and the prop of Granada Theatre had a little collision downtown with their cars and as Bruce considered himself mostly at fault, paid over $3 for damage, whereupon the man gav him a “pass” for two to his theatre, good at any time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A GLORIOUS ACCIDENT

A GLORIOUS ACCIDENT: Understanding Our Piece in the Cosmic Puzzle. The opinions of Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel C. Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Rupert Sheldrake, and Stephen Toulmin who were interviewed separately and then brought together as a panel. The book, a transcript of the events, was the idea and project of Wim Kayzer. My used copy came from a public library in the Denver area, a place quick to take up new ideas and then quick to discard them for newer ones.

The original idea was to see to what degree these six edgy thinkers could come up with agreement about our current understanding of reality: civilization, religion, the human animal, and so on. Some of them are far out, others are very popular, and the only one I know, Stephen Toulmin, verges on the inscrutable. I took a class from him but had to drop out because all I could see was the nightsky glow from his light just over the horizon. Gould turned out to be cranky. If I could have dinner with one of them, I would choose Sacks. I knew Dennett the least and steered clear of Sheldrake the most. I kept wondering what Pinker thought.

As “idea beaters” in the underbrush of the intellectual world, they started a lot of rabbits but neither killed nor bagged much of anything. Still, it was fun while it lasted and it provides a kind of summary that many will find useful in trying to understand the gap between the wisdom received in school in the Sixties and the progress of ideas now. To change the metaphor, for we oldsters there is a serious gap between the station platform and the moving train. Indecision can be fatal. Hesitation can make you miss the train. But what happens if you join the journey?

SOME RABBITY NOTIONS OF MY OWN:

Reality is moving, fluid bits which we assemble according to our experience. If they stop fitting together, our sense of reality changes. (See Thomas Kuhn)

Progress is an illusion (this is where my generation parts company with previous ones). Change is compelled, but whether it is “better” is subjective. How much it can be controlled is problematic, as well as the problem of what to change reality “to” and how to do it.

Objects and named processes are useful and operative in our worlds -- therefore they seem “real.” Once they are "unreal" they can't be revived, despite the Pope.

A biological being (including humans) is embedded in reality by consciousness: the ability to receive and organize information. The ability to monitor the PROCESS of consciousness makes us human.

Morality, including sin and evil, is ONLY human and judged by human standards vulnerable to whatever culture seems “real.”

God, if one MUST have God and if one MUST define the concept classically, is best defined as that than which nothing can be greater (i.e. more inclusive, not more admired), therefore God includes EVERYTHING, even non-God and Tillich’s Ground of Being, and cannot be escaped or opposed because that too becomes part of God. Therefore the ultimate human morality is to act in a way that “improves” God from the point of view of the person acting, which might also include denial or destruction of God. The culture helps or hinders.

The “better” morality protects the “better” humans, however the culture defines them.

There are kinds and gradations of consciousness, greater and lesser degrees of ability to monitor process, which come and go.

What we call “identity” is the inner feeling of consciousness and self-monitoring. It does not stay the same and those whose “identity” is challenged or a little out of control are often labeled as having “borderline personality problems.” Therefore, artists flirt with this problem.

Aesthetics -- harmony and beauty -- are a direct, conscious phenomeon which are then subjected to reflection. It can be a kind of morality -- the most beautiful is the most worthy.

A major moral question is what do we owe others and why? What others? What does the culture say? (Most cultures say that we owe our children, because they are the future.)

Physiologically, the intestines or “guts” come from the same original blastosphere part (there are three, but I forget their names) as the brain and operate on the same molecular flows and switches. Eating and thinking are directly related. Therefore, it is not surprising that so many people are not just “obese” but also “fat-headed.” I’m very much aware of how much controlling my blood glucose also affects both my brain and my guts, both my ability to process and monitor process and my ability to feel subtle emotion and aesthetics. Surprisingly, my sense of smell, which is performed by a protuberance of the brain into the middle of the face.

Where does this leave me? I think I’m much better able to withstand the anxiety of the current political predicament which is full-throttle into tragedy with George W. Bush at the wheel. It also gives me a strong premonition that our real destroyer will be something subtle like bird flu or a worldwide plague afflicting bacteria or fungus, on which the pyramid of life rests. That is, we need the little small critters but they could destroy us while we were paying attention to our own affairs, which seem so much more important.

This premonition presses on me the necessity of accepting my own aging and death, the lack of any direct biological descendants (which I accepted long ago) and the silliness of expecting fine writing to redeem me -- while going right ahead with the project. (Hello, Tim!) In short, nothing to lose except my income and safety in this little village for the time being. Just over the horizon (I can see the glow) is whatever will happen when my biography of Bob comes out. This book is supposed to replace the buildings, collections, and coherent estate that have been ripped apart by profiteers. I’ll be very curious to see whether it does and how that changes the process that is me, still living -- so far.

P.S. I got to thinking of my favorite ministerial colleague in the Denver area, Sylvia Falconer. She was a pastor, therapist and story-teller who disappeared from sight. Now I read that she has developed “essential tremor,” the same thing Katharine Hepburn had, and has woven that into her portfolio, which is process-based to say the least! It works.

Monday, July 16, 2007

AFRICA/ASIA/AUSTRALIA = MONTANA?

When the temp rises to a hundred and sits there for a week, the effect is much like the temp sinking to twenty below and sitting there for a week. The young go about their business, sweating and swilling and laughing, but the old sit quietly reading or something comparable. If it’s cold, one wraps up and sits close to the heater. If it’s hot, one wrings out a towel in cold water to hook over one’s neck while sitting quietly. Just sitting is very bad for diabetics and makes the glucose score go up, so it’s important not to eat, but boredom can guide one’s hand and mouth to trouble. Therefore, it’s important not to be bored, to think of things and make plans. Okay.

I’m thinking about this series of movies I’ve watched about Africa and India. (I’m still reading “The Raj Quartet” and have started watching “The Heat of the Sun,” which I gather is not a book.) I would include some Aussie movies in this category. (I was interested that in “The Heat of the Sun” there is a wicked doctor named Strachan, my maiden name. In “A Town Called Alice” there is a faithful soliciter (played by the actor who played “Hudson” in “Upstairs, Downstairs”) who is named Strachan. They pronounce it correctly: “Strawn,” and are clear that these “Strachans” are Scots.

What if this “Strawn” here were to write a novel using these elements, but about Montana? Here’s a list of the elements:

1. A wide grassland with a huge sky, largely untouched and unmapped. (Often portrayed just as airplanes and automobiles come on the scene -- horses still in use.)

2. An autochthonous people seemingly savage but actually fitted to the land in a subtle and self-renewing sort of way, a fittingness soon to be destroyed by “civilization.” A class-based governing structure struggles to impose new standards, sometimes provoking violence and injustice and other times creating huge profits from raw materials.

3. Enough confusion, tragedy and great love in the way things play out to make great stories. Some madness in there. Some courage.

I can’t think of a recent major Montana book about quite this contrast between two cultures and the kind of characters who end up bridging the difference out of force or love. (Maybe Guthrie’s five-book series comes close.) I think it’s partly because Americans are still reluctant to face their greedy intra-national colonizing of a darker people, though they love to read about exactly the same thing when the English are involved. Or maybe it’s because in the US it was done with so little style. Maybe it is a story that must be told in Canada.

These days in the US the mountain men and cowboys are often sympathizers with the Indians, becoming Indian themselves. Native American outrage, fanned to a blaze by post-colonial theory, won’t permit a sympathetic version of white colonizers. It’s ironic that in a hundred years, all the white officials couldn’t change NA’s -- but television did it in ten. The only trouble is that so many, especially the young, went towards ghetto culture: the clothes, the music, the drugs. Off-rez folks are hardly aware of this new kind of Indian.

I’ve been waiting to see how the story of the death of the White Quills boy turns out. His throat was cut early in the morning (a very dangerous time when druggers are coming down, not even minimally rational yet) of last Thursday, the first day of North American Indian Days. He will be remembered for that date. It’s certainly the seed of a novel, but not one I’ll write.

Much of the interest in these tales is in the gradually dawning realization of the complexity of both the “over” class and the “under” class. In Elspeth Huxley’s stories it’s the child who finds out what things really mean and what the dynamics among the various tribes and age groups might be, even as it is gradually dawning on her what is going on among her English elders, their romances, their economic problems, and their tensions with the Boers. Likewise, Isak Dinesen and Paul Scott are good at these complicated and subtle forces. World-wide context is easier to invoke when it is WWI, Depression or WWII.

Here in this corner of Montana the Blackfeet would be the Masai and the Cree the Kikuyu. There are buffalo on both continents, but no elephants (mammoths and mastodons) here. The paleo-scientists have accused the pre-Indians of eating them, but there are no trees. What would the mammoths eat? Those trunks are not meant for grass. They probably declined when the grasslands evolved. Antelope, deer, elk abound -- once in great herds.

Today there might be a plot in the growing tension between the management of wild iconic animals and small ranches where people balance at the edge of disaster because of weather or disease. Could US Wildlife officials be figured as British Army and conservation/protection leaders (“buffalo huggers”) be construed as idealistic landed gentry from “back home?” Could one picture the chattering classes on the balconies of the great log railroad lodges, downing their drinks while holding forth to each other, like over-privileged Kenyans? Could a grizzly attack be the equivalent of a lion or leopard attack and Mike Madel be played by -- let’s see -- someone cleancut and earnest or Chuck Jonkel, wry and dedicated, be played by Trevor Eve, except with a tranquilizer gun? Hmmmm. Sounds more like satire than thoughtful novel.

Actually, when one lays out the list of Africa tales (adding maybe “Snows of Kilimanjaro” -- the Greg Peck/Susan Hayward version?) it is clear they are not in the same style. “In the Heat of the Sun” is a pastiche, written for the star from elements already on hand. It is often farce, or close to it, when dealing with the rich and drunk or perverse, with a bit of overlap with cartoon genre when the hero is attacked: Pow! Biff! Sock! Never a false move. Leaping off burning buildings with a child in his arms and somehow landing unscathed... (The small boy motif probably relates to Eve’s favorite charity, an organization he founded to help children.)

Then there’s Valentine -- I LOVE him -- played by Julian Alistair Rhind-Tutt (what a name!), perfected version of David Caruso’s first draft red-head. He’s an upper-class, super-marksman ectomorph to match Eve’s mesomorph brute-force working man. His trademark is to shoot something out of the villain’s very fingers, then announce calmly, “The next one kills you.” One believes him. Why doesn’t he have his own series?

Flame Trees of Thika” slips into pinafore genre. “Out of Africa” preserves Dinesen’s romantic dignified style. “The Raj Quartet” leans towards the social sweep of David McLean. In terms of Montana, “Heaven’s Gate” overshot and became ridiculous. “Legends of the Fall” approaches the stature of these African tales. Any others? Maybe more titles will come to mind when the weather cools off.

"Into the West." Maybe. I haven't seen the new one about Wounded Knee. "Dances with Wolves"? Hmmmm.

Friday, July 13, 2007

WILLIAM BURNS SHAW

Marshall W. Mason, distinguished theatre director, and myself shared a good friend in our undergrad years at Northwestern: William Burns Shaw. Just recently I made contact with Marshall because of his new book on directing, and Bill came up. Marshall called him “Hume,” because they met in philosophy class.

Bill was my biology lab partner because our names started with “s.” He was not delighted, but we reached an accommodation -- he did all the focusing because I kept ramming the barrel of the microscope through the glass slides and I made all the slides because his hands were too big. In time, we became fond of each other and would meet to sit in the back of the little auditorium of Annie May Swift Hall to audit acting classes. We sat together at biology lectures so we could pass notes back and forth.

Bill’s dad wanted him to be a doctor like his father, but Bill had no interest in medicine. His solution was to aim for psychiatry and he would be well-suited for this, since his brilliant mind dwelt at the intersection of analysis and compassion. I was even more child-like in those days that I am now on the verge of old age, so I think he took a sort of parental interest in me. There was never a physical interaction but we’d go to the zoo together or get ice cream. I was a bit like a monkey raised in captivity who had been turned out in the wild and didn’t know the right signals. He tried to clue me in.

When we were seniors and it was clear our paths would diverge for life, I bought him a big black umbrella with an antler handle for him to use when he became a psychiatrist. (He didn’t. He became a professor of education law; the umbrella worked for that, too.) But I wanted to give him something else, something really extreme and unique. He’d talked about some Inca skulls recently discovered, which had small tiles glued all over them, so that’s what I decided to create.

I found a plastic reproduction of a human skull, smalti (glass, maybe a half-inch square) tiles in shades of blue, and glued the tiles on according to the bone plates we’d learned the names of in biology class. Parietal, occipital, etc. Then I smashed a Coke bottle and put jagged chunks of glass in the eyeholes, painted the teeth silver, and put a graduation card between the spring-loaded jaws. I thought it was quite splendid.

In a summer rain (a Hopi might call it a “female rain”) on a Sunday afternoon I set out to deliver my object in person. I knew where Bill lived -- I’d done a bit of stalking. Went up the back stairs, waited for someone to come out, went in and knocked on his door. No one there. His door wasn’t locked so I entered and set the skull on his desk. Then, accurately feeling I was trespassing, I went plopping down the wet stairs in my big yellow oiled slicker and rubber flip-flops and started down the cobbled alley like a great big baby duck.

Heard running behind me so got over to the side to be out of the way. Elbow hooked over my neck. Dragged along. Realized some black man reeking of moonshine had grabbed me. Never thought of rape. Some hostile, malajusted person who didn’t realize who I was. Tried to knee him in the crotch, but I’d never practiced such a move and it’s not easy wearing flip-flops on cobbles anyway. Struggled and shouted, “Help, help, help!” He started to strangle me and I was blacking out. His finger was in my mouth and I bit it hard, but then I let up -- I didn’t want to bite his finger off.

A scrawny black cat came and walked in circles around us, meowing loudly. Remembering an article I’d read, with the last of my breath, I screamed, “Fire, fire fire!” The man, quite drunk, looked around for flames, which meant I could breathe and anyway he was out-of-breath, too, so we were leaning on each other, panting. Then I played my last card, “Bill, Bill, Bill!”

Some men came out of a garage that backed onto the alley and yelled. The drunk took off. The men came to see if I were hurt and I explained. “Do you think I should call the police?” I asked them. They thought I should. The cat left, then Bill came, and I explained again. We called from his room. More explaining.

The police kept looking sideways at the blue skull. It turned out I’d gotten it all wrong anyway. The remarkableness of the Inca discoveries was that they had glued on their tiles in straight lines, ignoring the natural bone divisions. They asked me to come down to the station and look at the mug files and Bill came along. The police didn’t ask what our relationship was.

The files were in big photo albums. They must have given us the sex offenders. The officer assigned kept asking me whether the man had “touched me.” If he did, I never would have known through that long stiff slicker. Pretty soon they brought in a black man in a red shirt with long scratches down his face. I couldn’t identify him. My glasses had been knocked off early on. The officer was disappointed but also aware that graduation was in a few days and I wouldn’t be around to press charges and anyway, what would be the charge? Minor assault. Disorderly conduct. The men from the garage couldn’t identify him either. If I HAD bitten off his finger, we’d know who he was.

What impressed Bill and I was that in those days they picked up gay men in public bathrooms and we recognized some professors. Such things had not really been in our consciousness before -- it was 1961. We had gay classmates but in the theatre department no one cared. Both of us felt the injustice of draconian punishment for human need.

But the case that stuck with both of us, that we talked about later, was an old demented woman who was repeatedly arrested at the El station for pulling her dress up over her head. She wore nothing underneath. She’d be arrested, booked, and released to the custody of someone until she showed up the next time. Either there was no cure or no one knew how to get it to her.

How to manage an orderly society that is protective at the same time? No real answers. I’ve tried teaching on an Indian reservation, working with animal control, serving in the liberal ministry, working for a city bureau of buildings -- all of these raised more questions than answers. Bill died young of a brain tumor or I’d call him up and see what he thinks now that we’re older and therefore supposed to be wiser. He had married Jean -- his high school sweetheart -- taught at Ole Miss, and had a scholarship named for him when he died. He had the two kids he told Marshall he wanted.

I wonder what ever happened to that blue and silver skull with the clenched jaw.