Monday, January 07, 2008


This little scribble was produced at the home of Michael and Linda Sexson, faculty members at Montana State University, at that time active Unitarian Universalist fellowship parents, and noted authors. Lynda Sexson, Professor (PhD, Syracuse University, 1982) Religion and Culture: Literature;.and Michael Sexson, Department of English - Professor. (Ph.D. Syracuse University) Literature & Religion, Mythology.

A list of their books will give you an idea of what their interests and expertise are like. By Michael: Quest of Self in the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Studies in Art and Religious Interpretation, V. 1) By Lynda: Ordinarily Sacred; Hamlet’s Planets: Parables; and Margaret of the Imperfections. Together they edited Corona 4: Marking the Edges of Many Circles. But it wasn’t one of their books that had such a impact on my life: it was a conference they organized in the Eighties.

It was about computers, which they saw in their own unique way and -- because of excellent contacts in the academic world -- could explore from a humanities point of view. Naturally Michael was attracted to the Macintosh platform and the little squibble at the top of the blog was the result of one of his experiments. He sat me at whatever Mac he had at the time (I had never even touched one until then!), turned on a “draw” program, explained a few basics, and gave me a twenty-minute time limit to produce an image. I generally doodle terrier faces, so I did -- a little stranger than usual since I wasn’t used to drawing with a mouse. At some point I hit the reverse button that made the drawing white-on-black. Mike left me alone but when he heard the printing (it was a daisy wheel printer: chatter, chatter, chatter) he came back to see what on earth I’d done! He said NO ONE had ever produced an image like this one, which made me very proud as that was a period in my life when I thought being creative meant being one-of-a-kind.

The image has been kicking around in my boxes of unfiled material ever since. I’ve taken to calling it “The Night Terrier.” When I was doing animal control, I adopted an energetic little wire-haired terrier, probably crossed with a Jack Russell terrier, which I named Pipsqueak. My mother called her “Pippi Longstockings” and she responded to just “Pip.” This morning has an essay about Jack Russell terriers: so appealing, so impossible, such a potential bad dream. They are full of energy, hard if not impossible to control, intelligent and appealing. I gave Pip away so I could go to seminary. She went to a family of kids where she was much loved, kept busy, and lived to a happy old age. In the end she was found dead in one of her favorite sleeping places: the bottom of a closet where the kids’ shoes were piled up. The earlier terrier archetype was Duncan McTavish, a Scottie/Sealyham mix who went with my nuclear family through many adventures. Michael interviewed me a bit about my image, but the real goal was to compile a working document that showed what images computers brought out of people. I never did see it -- don’t know if it were ever completed.

But this is supposed to be about the computer conference. People were PASSIONATE! Far from cool techies! Thomas Moore was there to explain how computers tapped into our human way of making inanimate objects into something human: ventriloquists’ dummies (the computer as Mortimer Snerd), Pinocchio (the computer as liar), and oracles (futurism). They weren’t tools, they were relationships! The psychologist who invented a computerized counseling program (It asked: “How did that make you feel? Tell me more. Did it have anything to do with your mother?”) told us how he came in early from lunch once and found his own secretary earnestly explaining her problems to the computer. She never mentioned them to him! Fred Turner talked about the changing shape of humanities disciplines and what computers and the Internet might do to them. (Little did any of us realize!)

I suppose a conference quite like that might not be possible with modern college kids. They’re into iPhones with images and (more than anything else) music, constant “texting” to friends, and YouTube, Facebook, etc. definitions of themselves not as psychological entities but as consumers, thumbs against the world. On the other hand, I’d love to see what Mike and Lynda would do with these elements. If they aren’t mythic, religious and “in quest of the self,” I don’t know what is. But the principles of discipline and definition that they use are entirely different. It seems to me that kids have pushed computers back to being tools, a “palm pilot” handheld and earphoned expansion of themselves rather than a little separate person squatting on the desk. They are a FAR more suspicious bunch than the generation that included the Sexsons and myself, but also shockingly self-revealing.

Last night my blood sugar sank into the seventies (no bedtime snack), which is not medically significant particularly, but does cause me to have a change in consciousness, a less secure lid on my subconscious. I had a “night terrier.” Not a night MARE, which is something that seizes you and carries you off -- at the most extreme the terrifying ride of the shaman who dies in sleep, is borne over a valley of bones, and is born again at dawn. Night MARES are intense enough that people can die of heart attacks.

No, this was a night terrier, digging and biting and dragging things out of holes. I was on a campus, my shoes fell all apart but they were red shoes: at least the pieces that were left were. There was a huge hole in the earth, an amphitheater, but it filled with water and people were swimming but there were no lifeguards and one woman drowned. Her body was deflated, a rag, and somehow I was responsible for it, so I laid her out on the pavement and asked a nearby policeman (who was the desk sergeant from “Foyle’s War”) to guard it. Then I entered a classroom where there were a lot of big suspicious women and no one was in charge. I was supposed to speak.

Thomas Moore would listen to all this very carefully and then begin to ask me to free-associate. He’s from the James Hillman school of thought: nothing is too sacred to reflect upon because all of life is sacred, but sacrality doesn’t necessarily mean institutional dogma. We each create our own dogmas. (And karmas, and, as in the joke, may your karma never run over your dogma.) I always listen to my night terriers. This one is easy: worrying about whether this bio of Bob is good enough to redeem my seminary years. That deflated person who drowned? She’s me -- the worst possibility. But you see, I found a sympathetic authority figure and went on. Now I think that being creative is a matter of courage.

Duncan McTavish, guardian of the garden -- no garter snakes allowed!

1 comment:

Kate said...

We used to have a little terrier too! What a mess she was, always eating our kids shoes!