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



Friday, April 30, 2010

VERTICAL MARKETING FOR BOOKS

The latest buzz for marketing books is “the vertical” which in other contexts is roughly like “siloing.” Or maybe not. The idea is to market books from a website that aggregates resources (books, vids, movies, websites, art, whatzits) specifically for a certain demographic as sorted by a computer algorithm: age, gender, employment, hobbies, income, politics, region, etc. The producer buys access to the vertical website, which then pitches -- or at least connects to -- that particular audience on the assumption that the percentage of buyers will be higher.

It’s like pitching all the other commercial objects: this is what pre-teen girls are wearing, this is what cool guys are driving, and so on. Books end up here because books are objects. Esp. books with dust jackets that announce image, affiliation, loyalty, Who-I-Am. One of the main examples is an outfit called “Verso.” If you Google that you can see what it looks like. I notice the spam that is showing up on my gmail account lately is more likely to be about selling “sorted lists” of internet addresses than it is to be about Viagra. (I think it’s maybe dawning on some people that a “stiffie” will not get them love. Or maybe they realized that half their audience was lost right of the, um, "bat.")

One of the reasons I withdrew from the ministry was that the national denomination began to say, “These are the demographics you should pursue. Because market research shows that these are the kinds of people who are most likely to join us." (The intelligent, the educated, the wealthy!!) “Good” congregations, “good” ministers, are defined by big memberships of wealthy people and the “Christians” are getting ahead.

I felt the same about market research even before reading Adam Curtis’ theories about how this practice came out of psychoanalysis, propaganda, and advertising, but after reading his ideas and watching his videos I feel MUCH more radically about it. Not least because it is a form of manipulation that works through the unconscious use of images. The best example I can think of right now -- because I passed one of the billboards yesterday -- is the campaign against meth in Montana. Simply big photos of meth users in the last stages of addiction: skin in shreds, teeth gone, hair falling out, skin over bones. No one is lying. That IS what it does -- and more -- but beginners never “see” that. It has been very effective. Human brains form visual associations quickly and are guided by them.

The opposite is a little harder, but not much: the newspaper today reports a study that kids who watch R rated movies tend to be heavier drinkers than kids who don’t. (It was corrected for general family policies other than movies.) Presumably it’s because all those glamourous people go through the plot with elegant glassware in hand, making a big point about what they drink. Even I make the association, though I’m more interested in the crystal stemware and decanters than in the “Stolchi.” (You can always tell the favorite drink of the person who wrote the script.) For a while I fell into the advertising trap of believing I was only a $35 appliance away from health and happiness (electric tooth brusher, shoe polisher, clothes steamer, CD player). Smart people read this -- successful people wear that.

Cass Sunstein has raised the question of whether everyone getting sorted out by demographic, especially politically, doesn’t tend to pull the country apart, simply confirming prejudices. In periods of high immigration there have always been programs to try to get everyone onto the same page, the same idea about what the country is supposed to stand for and how it works. Lately it seems as though we need that kind of program for the people born here. Anyway, demographics doesn’t find me. Going by demographics will tell you I’m a good cook and housekeeper, that all my friends are female, that I read Christian romances, and that I like diamond jewelry. Wrong. Who would predict that I was co-writing with a scandalous younger man in Paris whom I have never met? I reserve the right to be totally unexpected.

We want our people in categories. We constantly ask Indians what tribe they belong to. But some NA individuals belong to three or more tribes. The census people created a furor over THEIR categories. Why are they “racial”? What use are they? Won’t they mean stigmatizing whole groups of people? Of course. But we’re allotting them funds according to how stigmatized (poor, excluded, disadvantaged) they are so, hey, get with the program! As a Bibfeltian ( defender of the Both/And) I object to having to choose only one of anything.

Why I can’t I say I’m genetically white but in sympathy with the Blackfeet? This is true and what’s more insidious is that it’s a marketing opportunity. If you get everyone separated into groups, then one group can develop an image of another without that group ever having a chance to correct it. Consider that many of the successful books about NA’s (“Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Laughing Boy,” Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, “Stay Away, Joe”) were written BY whites FOR whites. Vine Deloria, Jr. (Sioux and assimilated) said he asked his publisher how many copies of his new book would be sold on the reservations. “None,” came the answer. “Indians don’t read books.” Hard to get past that. But what does it mean that people won’t read books about themselves, esp. if they are written by themselves? Isn’t that about as vertical as you can get?

“Identifying” my education won’t tell anyone anything. I completely scuttled a lawyer’s strategy when he got me onto a jury thinking I was religious, therefore conservative. (He didn’t know religious people could be liberal.) None of the Verso categories appeal to me at all. They are far too “algorithm” dominated. That is, formulaic -- and those FORMULAS were thought up by cubicle dwellers in Manhattan who know nothing about my worlds. (note: plural) Those guys are not vertical, they are space aliens. Lately there have been jokes in the funnies about “others,” that pretend it is a defining category. The category that would fit me is “eclectic.” I drive Netflix nuts because I watch all kinds of movies EXCEPT the ones they predict I will like.

I do subscribe to some “vertical” listservs: the Humanities series that all start with H-. I belong to ones about the environment, animals, stories, American Indians, the American West, literature of the American West. What makes these work (more or less) is that subscribers are for the most part university graduates. There ARE major differences in what we think, but people have enough manners and reasoning ability not to disintegrate into name calling. At least not overtly. It’s part of what it means to be educated.

Algorithms put the emphasis on aggregation, accumulating items that are assumed to be similar. The problem in this age of computers is that there is soon a HUGE tsunami of lists and the problem of sorting is right back again. Then the problem is “curation,” which is specific description and some kind of indicator of usefulness. But that’s another post.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

WIT: A Review

My recent visitor, Jim Stebbings, explained that his son, a junior in college, is of an age to accept fatherly advice about women. So he advised the son that some people are intensely passionate and live their lives directly up against the grinding wheel of experience, but others are more measured and prefer calm reflection. In the movie called “Wit,” Emma Thompson’s character is from the second category. (As is Jim, and probably his son.) To me she was my step-daughter’s story. My step-daughter, who was a year older than myself, died of cancer in May, 1968. She was thirty years old and had four small children.

This movie version of a woman’s cancer death is edited down to a simple line: the life of the mind, thin and sharp as a scalpel, compromised by the life of the body, rather neglected and ignored. Accepting of the intellectual enterprise as defined by male authority figures and hierarchical institutions, she takes as her role model a strong woman, a prestigious professor of poetry, who would object to these alliterations even as she scrutinized the punctuation. Rigor and nuance are what count. Tough-mindedness. Independence to the point of isolation. She accepts the surgeon’s recommendation of eight courses of chemotherapy, the point of which is to push her to near-death in hopes that the cancer dies before she does. But it doesn’t.

When I was a circuit-rider for the Montana Unitarians, one of my groups was in Missoula. Late one snowy night (not so violently stormy as today is -- which keeps knocking off the electricity) I was slowly driving on a residential street when I recognized a figure going along the side of the street because the sidewalks were impassable. It was Kim Williams. If you don’t know or can’t remember Kim, here’s a quick way to catch up: http://lowbagger.org/odetokim.html She was a renegade for sure, but always in the most constructive earth-centered way. (The group never quite recovered from eating her chili with mystery meat that turned out to be earthworms.)

I stopped and offered a ride, but Kim wouldn’t take it. I had just heard she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer (the same as the movie character) and, as often happens, we did a little reflection session right there through my van window instead of in some office. Kim had decided not to accept treatment: no surgery, no chemo, no hospital. Her husband, also a bit of a pioneer, accepted this. She did die and I don’t know what her arrangements for a funeral were. She really had more allegiance to the Unity Church than the Unitarian group, but she walked to church and we were closer. Her 1986 obituary was in the New York Times. She was 62 and had had many adventures.

Kim was not so different from the character in “Wit” except in terms of the choice she made. The rigor of her integrity and her wry humor in addressing the ridiculousness of “Sister Ass,” as St. Francis called the body was the same but Kim was far more accepting of grounded life. Emma’s character did her soaring in the poetry of John Donne -- you know, that guy who said “do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls -- it tolls for thee.” All about the confrontation with death and what it means to be focused on the search for Salvation. Yet, when the humanly intelligent nurse in the movie (black, of course) asks whether Donne ever reached Salvation, she was told no and was baffled.

This is helluva tough movie but it is not without Salvation. What the Emma character either didn’t “get” in college or suppressed because of relating only to an intellectual father, was the compassion and simplicity of family. It turns out that her strict and rigorous mentor had children, indeed, clear down to the level of great-grandsons. She is quite capable of mothering and comes in time to tell the ultimate bedtime story, about being sought for and brought home.

The doctors, portrayed at several levels, are clearly meant to be targeted, both the senior researcher who sees his patient in terms of her value to research but also respects her for the qualities like his, and the dummy of an intern who has taken the patient’s class and learned nothing real from it, though he earned an A minus. Even as he clumsily administers a pelvic, it’s all about him. A panel of interns comes to do “rounds”, jostling each other jealously in a way that suppresses the woman among them. Since a teaching hospital is an extension of the academy, the professor recognizes the dynamics and wryly claims they make her feel comfortable.

This is a 2001 film in which Emma’s character directly addresses us, though no other actors step through the “fourth wall.” “Wit” began as a stage play which was “opened up” by flashbacks but it mostly remains captive in that stark white hospital room. At Cinematheque we often wonder whether art can change culture. This is a good example of a change agent, though it’s a little over the heads of a lot of folks -- at least the talk about John Donne and Stage 4 cancer might be. But surely plenty of us have experienced enough of this story to get the point. I’m sure it did kick off a series of conferences and papers about how to make the system more human. There is nothing in it about hospital chaplains or ombudsmen or the hospice movement, all of which are meant to protect people from the loss of their personhood and dignity. But make no mistake: the practice of Code Blue still attempts to maintain people as though they were parsnips. There’s money in the strategy. Bringing money into the discussion would have confused the simple impact of this film.

Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols co-wrote this screenplay, drawing on the stage play by Margaret Edson. Reviews go wild over the quality of Thompson’s acting -- which is top notch and exactly matched by Eileen Atkins’ portrayal of her elderly professor. Fewer see that this diamond-hard focus is itself the result of a unique interweaving of intellectual rigor and delicate compassion. This is high art with no hint of sentimentality. But I ended up crying hard.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

COLLATERAL DAMAGE AT THE CMR

One of the intriguing and problematic features of the water developments in Montana is the diversion canal and siphon that changes the destination of the Milk River, which arises pretty much in Glacier Park, from going north into Alberta and makes it travel along on the south side of the Canada/Montana border. This water has made it possible for a line of small towns to develop in country otherwise too arid for farming. It’s so old that it’s deteriorating and the small towns must either shutter themselves or find a way to repair it.

A mini-version of this has developed at one point along the piped water-course, a leak has developed that has now been exploited by plants and animals until it has formed a small and pleasant ecology, the way any natural spring would. If the pipe is repaired, that little community will be destroyed. But this is just a parable.

Auctions bring in people with money. Around here we know that water is the same as money. An ecology of art auctions has sprung up in Great Falls around the annual celebratory auction on Charlie Russell’s birthday in mid-March. In the early Sixties Van Kirke Nelson had tried to establish such an auction in Spokane through Father Schoenberg’s work to establish “MONAC,” the Museum of Native American Culture in Spokane. (See “Indians, Cowboys and Western Art: A History of MONAC” privately printed by Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J., 1981.) For whatever reasons, the auction collapsed, so did MONAC and, tragically, Father Schoenberg.

Beginning as a benefit for the small museum of minor Russell works the artist’s librarian friend had collected, after forty years of successful auctions the C.M. Russell Museum has grown to a city block of grounds that includes the Russell home, Charlie’s log studio, and a massive structure. Not only that, the original local gala event in the Rainbow Hotel, now a retirement home, burgeoned into a whole complex of vaguely related auctions and shows: the Indians are back with their own event, the accoutrement people show guns and so on, the women artists have a show, the local artists show together, and two major galleries clean out their back rooms with an unjuried auction ("March in Montana") that includes on-line bidding, as does the Russell Auction. The pipeline was gushing. Rich people flew in from back East. They say during that week there is a whole row of Lear Jets up at the airport.

But other dynamics took hold. The board of the CMR museum had been local people with a few wheeler-dealers protecting their interests. Now the bigtime national high-rollers came in. The board was split into two boards: one the money people who were endowing the museum and the other the local people who felt invested, including Bob Scriver -- sworn enemy of Nelson. Across the country millionaire collectors were endowing a network of fine museums featuring Western art. The biggest is still the Buffalo Bill Historical Center which consolidated different interests into one complex, earning it the nickname “The Smithsonian of the West.” Even in Great Falls, a town of less than 100,000, there are multiple museums: one for Lewis and Clark, one for modern art work, one for local history, one for children, and that’s not even counting the small cowboy museum. The fact that the CMR building was so grand meant that maintaining it was expensive and more high-powered staff was vital. The need to stage major shows thinned the always permeable membrane between profit-making galleries and more protective museums.

One of the most energetic developments in terms of the annual auction, which the museum came to see as an entitlement they could count on, was due to the structure offered by the auction events happening in a motel, convention-style. Motel management was inspired to offer the motel rooms as individual galleries, removing all the furniture to huge vans in the parking lots. It took heroic effort, but the result was a kind of artists’ rendezvous at which a person could go through the halls surveying the year’s innovations and developments among the art community, meeting and greeting old friends, and making new contacts. Artists began to come a distance, some of them with works so monumental they had to remain on trailers in the parking lot. It was great stuff and the whole community was aware if not involved.

Last year proceeds of the Ad Club Auction sank from the high of $421,280 a few years ago to $120,829. Most people blamed the depression. Others looked around the seminars with their dwindling and white-haired audiences and noted that the Ad Club is a young person’s game. Others said that Western art had become too much of a muchness, something like Scottsdale where cowboy art spills out of gallery after gallery. Where was the new insight? What did this have to do with contemporary life? Maybe Charlie had been done to death.

The consequence was splitting the Auction in half -- or doubling it -- depending on how you look at it. Now it appears that the CMR Museum version has netted $605,473. The Ad Club is not saying much except that they did all right. They have not said where the profits will be sent. Some snakebit unidentified persons suggested that if the CMR Museum had put in as much effort on behalf of the Ad Club in previous years, the original Auction might not have struggled.

But the real damage was suffered by the artists in their individual room/galleries. Though it was nice to have elbow-room and a slightly less feverish atmosphere, some artists found auction bids were low and they made fewer sales independently. Customer traffic was scattered all over town instead of concentrated in one spot. I don’t know how many Lear Jets brought in big bankrolls or how many bids were Internet. I’m not sure anyone could or should try to figure out the total of what individual artists made, though everyone is quick to publicize high amounts achieved by individual painters. It’s the possibility of “winning the lottery” that brings in the tickets.

The whole complex is an ecology, one small thing enmeshed with another to amount to something big. The public mostly sees a surface, not the global forces at work, which are as important to the auction complex as the annual snowpack in the Rockies is to the High Line water supply.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

THE IMPERMANENCE OF IMAGES

Blog subjects just come to meet me. I got up early to drive to Cut Bank to get blood glucose strips because I was out of them and discovered they were, too. But I ran into Mary Lynn Lukin in the salad dressing aisle and we had a good conversation about rounding up the photographic records of the past. She was saying how often she would go to visit some of the older folks on the rez and they’d hear about her putting photos on line or in archives. (She says use TIFF, not JPEG, because JPEG’s deteriorate more quickly and here I’ve been using JPEG exclusively!) They sit over their coffee thinking for a few minutes, then go into the back room and bring out a box of old photos -- like a hundred years old -- and dump them out onto the kitchen table regardless of what else is scattered on it. Mary Lynn yelps and rescues them.

Native Americans get emotional whiplash from the twists and turns remembering can take. First around were the artists without cameras, people like Paul Kane, Bodmer and Catlin, who portrayed Indians as accurately as they could -- paraphernalia in great detail -- but never quite got bison right. For a long time then Indians were supposed to forget Indian stuff and just try to be like the whites around them. (Which was only one way for whites to be: after all, cavalry, priests, cattlemen and sheepherders are not exactly typical.) Then, if they put on buckskin parade suits and rode horses around, everyone thought the past was a great thing. The anthros came and wrote down a lot of stuff, took a lot of photos, put them in books, advanced their careers, got a lot of stuff wrong.

There are a lot of photos you never see unless you’re pretty close to Indian families. Indians in bobby sox and sweater sets, riding around in the big cars of the Fifties, the girls all with perms and head scarves. Mom and Dad playing love bird at the kitchen table. These are the people who grew up speaking Blackfeet but gave it up and didn’t teach their children. They thought life would be like in the Small Town Fifties forever more. They swilled Coca Cola, smoked cigarettes, and danced to the juke box. They felt American and played basketball with all their hearts, even the girls. Won, too.

Then the people began to split up: some went city and some went ghetto and some went beatnik and some just stayed home in the little cabin where their grandparents raised them in the foothills. They all took photos, but what people want now are the posed photos of white photographers who were selling re-enactments what was being stamped out just decades earlier.

Last night’s movie was “In the Light of Radiance,” 2001, shown on PBS, available at Netflix, narrated by Peter Coyote and Tantoo Cardinal. It’s about the tension between Native American sacred places and commercial interests like mountain climbing, ski resorts, and gravel pits. This is a genre I mostly see for sale on DVD around here. The photography is gorgeous and there are many references to Mother Earth. Tense but earnest forest rangers talking to naked New Age people.

The resident wise man of the film is Vine Deloria, Jr. (b. 1933 - 2005). A local cinematographer, Darren Kipp, has just finished a video about him. Some people, local and Indian, have already forgotten or never knew who he was. http://blogs.nwic.edu/deloria/ If you’re in doubt this website will help you. You might want to attend the symposium, but if you do or if you want to be a presenter: “Individual presentations may be formal or informal, but in keeping with the spirit of Vine, there will be no PowerPoint or other electronic presentations.” (Big story about the military’s overuse of this in the New York Times today!)

Deloria was actually quite assimilated -- his father and grandfather were Episcopal priests and he himself had both a theology and a law degree, as well as being a Marine. His hat trick was turning everything around and examining the reversal. His most famous book is probably “God Is Red” if not “Custer Died for your Sins.” His formal position was that white civilization was decadent and corrupt, dead on its feet and raiding red civilization in hopes of recovering its vitality. He makes a good case.

Since Bob Scriver’s life (1914-1999) was so entwined with NA lives, I looked through piles of rez photos from the Twenties. Recently I’ve been posting Twenties photos from my own family, the Strachans, at www.swanrivermanitoba.blogspot.com. They aren’t so different. My friend Jim Stebbings was here yesterday. He’s been retrieving historic photos of the St. Louis stockyards where he worked as a kid, cleaning them up and placing them with societies who will presumably protect them and use them for study. There are always two schools of thought about such things: those who want to preserve it all and those who say it’s OVER, dump it. Forget it. Don’t obsess so much.



Both are reacting to the power of photos to SEEM as though they’re telling us something about reality, when in fact they are not, except that time passes quickly and even the photos that seem to have frozen an image are vulnerable. I sit and look at a photo of Louis Plenty Treaty taken as a young man to prove that Blackfeet can successfully grow kitchen gardens. There he is, handsome and strong with his shovel in his hand. And then I look at a photo taken of him in old age to prove that Blackfeet are religious people who attend Christian churches, and there he is, still handsome but now his braids are gray. In fact, he was one of the most serious of the Bundle Keepers and an important leader, but how would you know that? Photos of the ceremony are forbidden and he didn’t write anything that I know of. What did he really think? I never thought of asking him and I doubt he would have told me anything. Photos are but a faint shadow of reality.

And just now the pharmacist called to say that my glucose monitor is obsolete. He can’t get me more strips.

Monday, April 26, 2010

DOG-CATCHING IN AMERICA: A Review by Stephen Aronson

A while back I reviewed Stephen Aronson’s fine and necessary book, “Animal Control Management.” I didn’t realize that he had in turn reviewed MY book. Here’s the review.

"DOG CATCHING IN AMERICA" By Mary Strachan Scriver
Reviewed by Stephen Aronson

This is a memoir of sorts of the author’s experience as an animal control officer for Multnomah County, Oregon during the period of the 1970s plus some observations of this field in recent years. It was a time when the term “dog catcher” was still in use and those engaged in animal control work were often looked on with derision and sometimes viewed as the problem itself, rather than rightfully attributing the problem to the animal owner and his/her animal. Formal training for animal control officers in the field in Multnomah County, Oregon at the time was limited and can more aptly be described as a short apprenticeship to someone with a little more experience. Scriver was the first female officer hired by that County. She quickly discovered that when she responded to a call she was expected to solve problems on her own using common sense and her own wits, at least most of the time. Backup from police or the sheriff often resulted in other officers responding to the scene who were more than happy to let the dog catcher handle the most unpleasant aspects of the situation.

Scriver worked for Mike Burgwin who later became a founder of the National Animal Control Association and who was one of the more progressive animal control directors at that time. She readily gives him credit for his contributions to animal control work.

A student of human and animal psychology, the author offers her unvarnished opinions of a wide range of situations she encountered in working with animals and people. While animals may cause problems, whether it is unwanted noise or a danger to public safety, Scriver looks to the animal owner as the one who has failed to exercise the necessary responsibility for the animal whether it is a domestic pet or some member of an exotic animal species. She is right and while the animal is not necessarily an innocent victim, owner attitudes were and continue to be problematic.

Her experiences are reported in a clear and honest voice in an earthy way. This book is about the good, bad and the ugly side of animal control field work. It is not for those who will get upset with the blood and guts of her stories or the cruelty and neglect inflicted upon animals by humans or how people responsible for the care of their animals neglected and abandoned them at will. The episodes reported in this book could just as well have taken place today rather than more than 30 years ago. It would be nice to believe that both animal control and people have progressed along a more humane path in how animals are treated in our society. Animal control programs have made much progress in that direction, but it seems we still have more that needs to be done. Some animal owners still have a long way to go to be considered responsible pet owners. That in itself is disturbing.

At times Scriver waxes philosophical about humans and animals, but she is also outspoken and opinionated. She writes: “Few people spend much time examining their treatment of animals, though most are good at prescribing what others should do”. She states that “Animal abuse is a good indication of human abuse” and she offers enough proof for that statement through numerous incidents that she encountered in her work that are described in this book. At times she wisely acted as a counselor when needed, offering advice to those who needed it. She is at different times witty and compassionate, but also determined and tough when necessary.

Another Scriverism is “Kindness that is not informed is no kindness at all”. She was referring in this instance to a hamster giving birth but the mother feared that humans who were watching her were predators and thus she killed her babies. She also shares practical advice with the reader that she learned though her own experiences. In one humorous example, she encountered a man who defied authority and let one of his several dogs run at large. Scriver, instead of chasing down the dog, simply sat down on the curb and ate some cookies. Soon the dog was slobbering over her shoulder and she was able to take the dog in custody because it was on public property. The animal owners pleaded “entrapment” in court, but it was all legal.

Animal control is defined by the author as a mechanism for responding to emergencies involving animals that are in danger or endangering others along with a host of other problems common to neighborhoods such as barking dogs and unsanitary conditions. The author views animal control agencies as governmental, trying to keep order in communities through law enforcement for the most part. She sees humane societies as dependent upon the culture through the media, because in her view humane societies are composed of volunteers and have no legal authority to act. Today, this is not always the case. She also draws a number of other distinctions between animal control agencies and humane societies. Our democratic political system imposes some restraints on the powers of animal control officers and at the same time allows complaining parties to game the system for their own self-interest. Scriver finds this frustrating and so do I.

The author’s commentaries on books, articles and stories written by others, were a distraction to me. Her own stories and experiences are interesting enough to want to read her book.

Those who currently work as animal control officers or at one time had those responsibilities will be able to relate to what she has to say. Few books have been written about the experiences of animal control officers, so this book makes a contribution to animal control literature, because the author through her writing, shares with the reader her experiences, frustrations and her accomplishments in ways we can relate.

Stephen Aronson
www.animalcontrolblog.com

Sunday, April 25, 2010

HARVEY LITTLE DOG (1946 - 2010)

“Harve’ Little Dog, 64, the East Glacier Park Postmaster, passed away Tuesday, April 20, 2010, at a Kalispell hospital due to cancer.

Survivors include his brothers, Forest Little Dog and Floyd Middle Rider, both of Browning, Donald Little Dog of East Glacier, Howard Little Dog of Heart Butte, and Wheeler Little Dog of Kalispell; Germaine Little Dog and Lee Ann Hoyt as well as numerous other nieces and nephews.

Harve’ is preceded in death by his parents, Richard and Louise Little Dog; sisters, Germaine Little Dog, Lorraine Little Dog and Hazel Anderson; and brother, George Little Dog.

He was born in Browning, March 12, 1946, to Richard and Louise (Spotted Bear) Little Dog where he grew up and graduated from high school.

He had worked with the US Postal Service for the past 20 years and served as the East Glacier Park Postmaster for the past many years.

Harve’ was an avid art and antique collector.

__________
Yesterday was the funeral mass of Harvey Little Dog, my former student, my postmaster for several years and my friend. There’s another dimension: because Richard Little Dog’s father was a Bundle Keeper and transferred that Bundle to Bob Scriver and me in the Sixties, I am in the Old Way a member of that family. Bob was given the Blackfeet name of Middle Rider (Sik-pokes-si-mah which translates to “He Who Likes His Backfat Burnt Black.”) In the old way, of course, I would have picked up the obligation of helping to support and serve that family. I didn’t. Partly because I moved away and partly because the other members of the family went in very different directions. Harve’, for instance, was a faithful member of the Church of the Little Flower in Browning with a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. However, Forest Little Dog gave an eloquent prayer in Blackfeet and Father Ed emphasized that there was no contradiction between the two Ways.

This was the first time I’d attended a funeral mass after a cremation, which rather derailed the conventional mass in subtle ways. Since there was no coffin, a simple shrine included the cremains, photographical portraits, and flowers, which are not usually present as the same way as secular and protestant memorial services. Immediately after the service the cremains were taken to the Little Dog ranch and scattered, which is also unconventional. (I approve. Too many people have cremains in their closets, unable to part with the last traces of a loved one.) Father Ed confronted the ashes straight on: “This is what happens to the human body after death,” he told us. “We must see that fact and grieve for it, but Harve’ was a good Christian and lives on.”

Then he said something else. He said, “Some people think of heaven in which we eternally indulge in our favorite practice for the rest of eternity. Consider what it would be like if you loved fishing and continued to fish forever. You’d get tired of it.” But I know people who would not! Lofty mountains and rushing streams beat pearly gates and golden streets! I understand what Father Ed was trying to get across: the terms of Heaven and Eternity are not human terms, but utterly transformed into something we cannot conceive of on this side of the barrier death erects between this world and the other.

The Church of the Little Flower is in Browning, but Harve’ was part of the East Glacier community. I don’t know how to get an accent mark on the second syllable of his name and neither did the funeral chapel, so we’re both using an apostrophe instead. Harve’ was out of the closet. When someone teased him about his name by Frenchifying it, the same way that some pronounce “Tarjaa” to convey that Target is a high class big box store, Harve’ embraced the practice and put it on his official postmaster ID tag.

He was an EXCELLENT postmaster, in somewhat the same style as the beauty parlor operator in “The Ladies Number 1 Detective Agency” or the nurse/friend in “Angels in America.” That is, compassionate fact-facing and practical help. East Glacier is a resort town with a lot of young people living away from home, a lot of drifters, and -- esp. over the winter -- a tendency to get embroiled in small but hot feuds. A postmaster, like a hairdresser or bartender, does a lot of counseling and advising as well as a bit of detective work (to find out where to forward mail) and a certain amount of bending the rules. He received awards for excellence in service.

The congregation that gathered was far more eclectic than usual with no big shots or politicians. The three resort towns of the rez (East Glacier, St. Mary and Babb) have more year-round white people, so park rangers, shop-keepers, retirees, cooks, and teachers were there. Other gay people were not necessarily public. I caught up with several friends I hadn’t seen for a while. Dr. Dorothy Still Smoking, one of the founders of the Piegan Institute, drove all the way from Coeur d’Alene where she’d been attending a workshop on racism and tribal sovereignty and arrived just in time. Harve’s companion, guardian, and chauffeur (Harve’s feet had suffered amputations.) proudly offered his love and appreciation.

Because Highway 89 is being drastically rebuilt where it crosses Two Medicine, I went up the “inside road,” which pretty much stays close to the mountains and overlays the Old North Trail. Springtime in the Rockies means intense sunlight between and through massive clouds moving swiftly towards the east. Clouds on the ground crept through every high pass and cleft and gap in the mountains, coming like nebulous cats out onto the prairie where they sprang up into the sky, vaporizing. I’d allowed lots of extra time, just in case, so I got to Browning early and went on up to East Glacier for lunch and to look around. I lived there after Bob divorced me, trying to decide what to do next. For those who are bound to ask, I had a grilled cheese sandwich in the Little Diner at a table next to Joyce Clarke Turvey and her granddaughter, Chantell, who is a park ranger on the west side of the mountains, a botanist who moved a year ago. Joyce was also at the funeral mass. She has a Blackfeet name, since she was adopted by John Clarke, the famous woodcarver, but the grand-daughter has none. I would call her “Sweetgrass Woman.”

This sort of weather, this depth of history (many photos of the original Little Dog in Washington to discuss treaties -- the Clarke family deeply embedded in events) weave on the loom of time a transcendent tale of cross-purposes and deep friendships. Harve’ was one who understood that, even as he contributed his rich, proud strand. I think Heaven will look familiar to him.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

TOWARDS A PHILOSOPHY OF LOVE

Imagine a continuum of emotions from regard to attachment to enmeshment to obliteration-by-fusion. That’s the topic here.

When I was little, my family would visit close friends (our grannies homesteaded near each other) the “mother” of whom made stuffed dolls, little fellows with knots of yellow yarn hair and authentic-looking bib overalls. I would play with them and then I longed to take them home with me -- I’d become attached. They wouldn’t let me and I grieved. I still have their sense memories in my arms where I rocked them. They were meant for this, but they weren’t mine.

When my brother was little, we camped for a few days along a lake full of mud puppies, salamanders. He played with them and became attached and longed to take them home with him. Told that it would kill the little creatures to take them out of their lake, he protested that he would “keep them in my pocket where they’ll be safe.” Some people would have let him find out for himself what would happen to them in his pocket. I’m glad none of them were there. Salamanders were not meant for pockets.

I had a major emotional attachment in my twenties. Everyone is bored with hearing about it. I came rushing right up through attachment to enmeshment, then close to fusion/obliteration and balked. Any more and I would have lost my identity. I didn’t particularly value my identity in a conscious way, but without meaning to, maybe subconsciously, I began to start fights with my significant other. It was a way of keeping myself separated. I only wanted a little more distance but the force took on a life of its own and we exploded apart. It’s hard to negotiate the proper place on the continuum.

Some people maintain contact by fighting. Some people take refuge in a side-by-side uncaring relationship, a sort of business arrangement. Other people never dare to come close to any other person to whom they might become attached. The Internet is a great way to become intimate and even attached, while blocking the actual fact of problematic contact -- like if you’re contagious. Or ugly. Or old. Some have a taste for passionate “hot” encounters. Others would like it cool and measured. Still others yearn for intelligence.

Complex as all these free-choice, individual-based forces might be, they are greatly amplified by the confronting, subverting, compromising arrangements of our changing economies and various ethnic contexts. We have very little guidance about how to thread our way through this thicket and many become impaled. Our relatives, our lawyers and doctors, our social workers and landlords mess us up right and left. Economic necessity locks people into bad marriages -- or maybe religious laws about divorce. Some people are true captives with scars on wrists and ankles, quite literally attached. Others are freed against their will by the death of the person they love.

A Sonoma county story tells about a couple who had lived together happily and securely for twenty years. One was a little older than the other. They had all the legal papers for “marriage” and money arrangements. One fell on the steps and that simple accident led to them being separated, thrown into separate nursing homes, losing their home, their possessions sold to pay bills -- stripped. They were both men. When one was dying, the other was denied the chance to attend him. This also happens to male/female couples. And it happens to young couples. And conventionally married couples. We cannot seem to keep our legal and economic arrangements lined up with ordinary standards of compassion based on recognizing the emotional enmeshment called love.

To youngsters, it is this enmeshment that seems to them more important than anything else in life. It’s not based on the birth and raising of children, but on the identity stability of the persons in question. They yearn for deep contact, emotional and physical at once. If they are separated (like Romeo and Juliet) their desire to be together may carry them into the tragedy of mutual annihilation. How do we think about this? Can it even BE thought about? Can it be understood, dissected, controlled, prevented? I wonder how.

Erich Fromm wrote a book in those watershed years when we were trying to understand arts and humanities issues instead of money and technology. It was about love, which he analyzed in part by showing four circles: side-by-side, overlapping, a big circle that included a small circle, and circles exactly congruent. I think overlapping was supposed to be best -- each person having a separate part and a shared part. My paternal grandparents were nearly congruent. When grandpa died, grandma didn’t last much longer and those few years were spent as a ghost.

I remarked to my past Sig Other that his attitude seemed to be that if he died, I should commit suttee, the practice in India of widows throwing themselves on the funeral fire. He said, “I should think that if you really loved me, you’d want to.” Strange kind of love. He was twenty-five years older than me. He’d already consumed the idea of my human individuation. Both his children died before he did. He did not throw himself on their funeral pyres.

I am not bitter. I am wondering. Where does all this come from? What strange mix of culture and personhood presents these situations? I witness. Can I interpret? Just that mine was not true enmeshment, which is about MUTUAL love, love between equals. This was unrequited love. Useful but different. He knew about it from the other side. I mean he yearned for those he could not have. He didn’t think a person who would have him was worthy of him.

One of the big theological issues is whether, if God were entirely removed, anything would remain. If God is only a great big person, there would be a LOT that remained! But God, by definition, has no partner. S/he’s just a great big ultimate circle with everything inside.

We’re talking about relationship. Maybe the goal here is to become enmeshed intimately with another person without losing one’s self. Then the second goal is how to legally protect that, as much as possible, how to find a religious context that respects it, and a community that will work to preserve both of those. It means loving equals who will return love without bondage and accept love when it is freely given.

Friday, April 23, 2010

NA CONTROVERSIES: Genome

When the “tribes” -- which were a concept introduced by Euros -- were mapped (as they were at first contact), given names, assigned territories, engaged in treaties (some of them never signed by both parties), organized and reorganized, they ended up becoming corporations. That was the metaphor for self-governance: that each “member” was defined as owning shares in a “company” which had the object of doing business, i.e. making a profit. The best reaction to the way things turned out is probably sustained laughter. Nevertheless, in this monetized world, the idea keeps its grip on “tribal business councils.”

So do the ideas of tribes, reservations, treaties and -- come right down to it -- money, which basically a system of standardized IOU’s backed up by bureaucratic record-keeping that hasn’t changed all that much since it was invented in Egypt to keep track of crops along the Nile. The whole notion of unitizing value in some standard way (dollars) and then writing the amounts into ledgers dominated the army -- which was in charge of all Indians at first. Not only did they deal in dollar values (which might not really represent the true value of the food and blankets, esp. after some of them were siphoned off during transport or from warehouses) but also they had to figure out a way to quantify the Indians themselves.

Since most officers were from Britain where domestic animal breeding had been very successful at producing defined kinds of dogs, cows, pigs and so on, all of them susceptible to the idea of prestige eliteness (“King Charles Spaniels”?) and since they could not wrap their heads around the humanness of indigenous people, they went to the idea of pedigree. These would be people with “papers” -- sound familiar? “Tribes” equals “breeds.” So they lined them all up and asked everyone who their parents were, thinking of parents as the two exclusively defined and limited mater and pater they knew from their own lives and had many many laws and moral prohibitions to define for sure. Of course this hardly fit the reality of tribal life where all aunts and uncles were defined as auxiliary parents and people freely adopted children, entirely forgetting who the biological parents were.

Still -- illogically calling these pedigree papers records of “blood quantum” -- access to food and other commodities, assignment of lands, and the fact of being a shareholder in the corporation that was the tribe all hinged on “blood quantum.” It was not until WWII that “blood types” (A, AB, B, and O) were widely known because every soldier had his blood type on his dog tags in case he needed a blood transfusion in the field. Now, of course, we can quickly look at genome snippets and learn far more. Part of the secret of successful organ and bone marrow transplants is getting a very close genetic match in the gene sections that seem most crucial. Celebrities go on TV shows to explore their genome, believing that it can reveal their “racial” heritage, unconscious that humans everywhere share almost all the code. Snippets might be more common in one place than another, but very few are unique unless they’re recent mutations. Anyway, it’s unlikely that their entire genome will be de-coded. We’ve only recently discovered the “epigene,” which influences the genes tremendously.

Indians are hoping they will be descended from famous chiefs, but they are just as likely to have inherited the genome of a mother kidnapped or seduced from some entirely different tribe. But since adjacent tribes are often derivatives or break-offs from other nearby tribes, their genomes will be very similar, indistinguishable. Most shocking of all, since American Indian genetics derive from Asian “rootstock” (quite apart from the controversy of how they got over here) they are possibly related to some ancient Chinese emperor! And then there are those troublesome very ancient “Caucasian type” bones that turn up now and then.

All this nineteenth century thinking has been coming into increasingly urgent collisions with modern monetization of everything and the interests of the corporate tribe versus some other corporation, esp. the big Pharma corporations. First it was the Pima, whose systems had adapted so exquisitely to their ancient foods that they reacted to modern Wonder Bread, soy mayonnaise and Twinkies by blowing up like balloons and then dying of diabetes, the Isles of Langerhans in their pancreases devastated beyond salvation. Exactly how this happened interested the scientists very much. The next tribe to be studied was the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, who were having so many deaths from diabetes that they could hardly refuse “help,” esp. when there was a little money involved. So they all gave blood samples.

Then the unthinkable happened: some of the tribal members went to college, learned how to use search engines, how to interpret medical studies, and so on. The white scientists in the ivory tower were still 19th century, thinking of people unlike them as never being able to understand what they did. And anyway, that old agreement made at the time of the blood drawing never to use the blood for any other studies, was forgotten, molding in the bottom of a drawer somewhere.) Those Havasupai college students realized that the blood was being used in studies of things like psychosis and in-breeding. Hot button topics when you’re trying to convince the world that you’re as good as anyone else.

Since tribes are corporations, they had lawyers. They knew how to go to court. The agreement they reached with the researchers included money, return of all blood samples, and an apology. By this time some tribal members had also returned to the 19th century and were “remembering” all sorts of rules and beliefs, all of them religious, about blood. By the time they brought the blood samples “home” any onlooker could see the ghosts of many bygone people whose blood represented them. That much, at least, had escaped the corporation context.

Can’t a people own their own genome? Is declaring a blood draw sacred the right thing to do? In what way is owning one’s blood formula the same as owning the right to depict the people as mascots? Spirituality becomes monetization, control becomes self-defeating. It is very hard to find a genetic database for organ and bone marrow donors that includes enough American Indian people to get a good match. They don’t want even the cheek scrape that will give the docs the code for fear of betraying ancestors. And yet, one of the common consequences of the rampant diabetes is the need for a kidney transplant.

Indian people are mostly poor unless they’ve found something to monetize like gambling or minerals. But the thing they are most short of is trust. You can’t buy it. It cannot be monetized.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN, A Problem

William T. Vollmann is a big problem. Even people who are unintimidated by Tim (so to speak) are pretty wary of Vollmann. Incredibly gifted in an accessible way, Vollmann is both an artist and a writer who is on the surface a journalist in the purest sense of reporting on life. He produces huge books that are supposed to be impossible to publish and yet are, to great acclaim, each written in a clear beautiful way about subjects that are so nasty and taboo -- like killing street people with Drano -- that most people will have nothing to do with them. Yet he is as morally direct, as careful in what he does (which also includes breaking taboos), as some religious ascetic of long practice. Maybe that’s what he is.

Originally I was attracted by reviews of his seven-part (incomplete) series on American (the continent, not the country) authochthonous people, partly because instead of imposing himself on some poor reservation people in all the dangerous glamour of their lives, he went up to the arctic and camped in a most risky manner. He went “under” today’s proprietary tribes. He’s an eater of suffering. Then I read “Rainbow Stories” which is more about his real life and it stood my hair on end. I read “Rising Up and Rising Down,” the abridged version, because I worry about violence. (Thank you, Interlibrary Loan. There was one borrowable copy in the state.) I just finished reading “Poor People,” which is a straightforward bricolage of interviews and visits around the world, aided by an army of sometimes scandalized and sometimes terrified interpreters, and which is bound with 128 photos he took.

Reading Vollmann doesn’t change me, but it sharpens my own issues and challenges whether I’m really rising to what I believe. This is the opposite of being in the ministry, where many things are pre-determined and the denomination tries to guide and protect. Solitary tap-dancing on the ice is quite different and only a few people understand. In particular they don’t “get” how I can stay in one place to write, fairly secluded, but maybe they don’t understand that I’ve been packratting experience all my life, which is also like Vollmann. He was born the year I was a junior in college, doing what my family and teachers expected by living in a gothic stone dorm with high income people and taking conventional classes. But the contents of some of those classes -- moral and artistic -- are what make Vollmann so interesting to me.

“Poor People” is quite accessible. He’s talking about rock-bottom poverty, bare survival that is just slipping over the edge into death. I would guess there is no one around here that poor, but I haven’t looked. Maybe “street people” in Browning, though most of them could step out of their lives if they would accept help. Like Vollmann, I’ve asked them why they live drifting around those alleys. They say they love the freedom and the camaraderie. When the weather is fairly warm and they can get their fav numbing drug, it’s an okay life. There’s a shelter they can go to, run by a former employee of ours, a man I worked alongside for a decade.

Portland had a LOT of poor people and I intersected with them now and then. Street kids with puppies on a piece of twine. People with nonfunctional minds packing cats and garbage into an SRO hotel room. Then there was the bag lady who managed to live most of the winter in the ground floor ladies’ room of the Portlandia Building. She wrapped herself and her shopping cart in sheets of white plastic, so people called her “The Bride.” The security guard told me he let her stay at night because he felt sorry for her.

I was cashiering in the Permit Center and used that bathroom. I didn’t mind her until she began to intrude on employee conversations and advise us about how to run the city. Then I turned her in because she bugged me. Two belligerent old women -- that was us. I saw her getting on a bus once. They told me she had a daughter who was always trying to recapture her and make her live properly. She had money. She just liked her life on the street. As my mother was fond of saying, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” (She owned her house, had a good pension and lived to 89 with no major health crisis.)

Vollmann confronts poor people and minimal living -- or maybe totally different and highly intricate cultural developments like his current book on femininity and Noh theatre -- with a formidable mind, a shuttling loom of ideas and patterns that he is happy to share because there’s always plenty more where that came from. One of Tim’s boys is of the opinion that good writing is when you can look up the writer’s ass and see his or her tonsils. (Mine were removed long ago -- I don’t know what that means.) This is true of Vollmann in one way except that for all his veracity and detail, he is curiously opaque. Maybe you see past his tonsils and out his mouth: he is a tube.

You can ask about Vollman’s biography and consider what it means to be raised around universities and move all the time, but I’m not sure what good it would do you. You can know he has a young daughter whom he takes to his art studio, an old commercial site where rough floaters camp and defecate against his walls, and he asks her to shake hands with these campers, whom he insists are welcome or at least will not be evicted, but then he and his daughter go inside and both scrub their hands well. I’d love to hear that daughter and Tim’s daughter talking together. The daughters, like their fathers, have an age gap of about a decade.

The publishing world that is collapsing across the continent, dominated by six “heritage” Manhattan firms mostly owned by conglomerates, has little or nothing to do with this kind of writing and does not publish it. The closest the media comes to this kind of work is the simplified versions that we get in those TV series based on extraordinary men who have some problematic gift that makes them never settle. To the people around them, they are often a big problem.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

AUTISM IS A BLACK BOX

A little black box sits on the table. It has a switch so you push the switch to see what the box does. It begins to vibrate and hum. A little trap door opens in the top, a ghostly hand comes out, reaches over and shuts off the switch, and goes back in the box. Snap. The trapdoor is shut tight again. You used to be able to buy these out of the backs of comic books.

Autism is a black box. Mysterious -- and determined to stay that way by staying shut up inside while everyone circles around trying to find some kind of aspect they can get hold of. In the first place we want to know the state of being of the person. They won’t interact with the “outside” world for their own internal reasons. They are a medical problem that no one can figure out, but we believe there’s a person in there. If you’re the parent, you badly want to get your child out of that black box so you can relate to them, love them.

One approach is to create a safe place and be patient. You sit with the box and talk to it, keep it warm and fed, just BE with it, until one day the trapdoor opens up a wee bit and you can see two eyes peering at you. Or not. Part of the problem is taking care of yourself in the outside box created by determination to stay put and be patient.

People understand things by putting them into categories. In the very earliest days of humans, the categories available included the possibility that such a black box was sacred, because it’s mysterious. Or if you live in a more pessimistic and suspicious age, one major category was the devil or witchcraft. When the case of a 12-year-old boy who seems by modern diagnostic measurements to be severely autistic, Martin Luther thought he was “a soulless mass of flesh possessed by the devil and suggested that he be suffocated.” (Does that echo for you what it does for me? AIDS sufferers in the last stages being helped into death by their partners? Luther was not acting out of compassion, but out of fear and condemnation. That persists.)

In the eighteenth century people were more compassionate, thinking that such children had been raised by wild animals. In the forties the category was separated out from “schizophrenia” (already a troubled category) and named “autism,” drawing on the Greek prefix “auto” meaning self -- the box turns itself off. Bleuler, the man who invented this term described it as “withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance.” The category of Asperger Syndrome came from a different man, Kanner, who spoke of “autistic aloneness” and “insistence on sameness.”

Once these guys gave up the idea that the hand shutting off the switch was just being ornery and was in there in that box doing something narcissistic, they looked around for a new culprit and decided on Mom. IMHO it was a fluke of timing, part of the backlash against Mom Worship during WWII, and also a period when the influence of child-raising practices were in question, the rigid Teutonic discipline that made good soldiers being contradicted by Dr. Spock, who said, “Pick that baby up and comfort it.” The demand in the Fifties was for that ghostly hand to come out here into society and develop a nice personality. (“Or I’ll give you a licking you’ll never forget.”) I used to lock myself in my bedroom literally. Now I live in a little house in a small village and sit at the computer all day. Same thing. Except I really AM doing something narcissistic and coming out for pie and coffee would destroy my blood glucose level.

When one looks through lists of symptoms of autism, they’re pretty fuzzy, hard to separate from other problems like fetal alcohol syndrome or the results of trauma. If a child has been trapped and raped, I expect a black box with a tight door sounds like a very good idea. But still, hopefully, we don’t think children make themselves autistic on purpose. It appears to be a processing problem in the brain, it seems statistically (if you can trust statistics) that it is inheritable but no one has been able to pin it to any particular gene or mutation. It is developmental, in that the baby starts out seemingly okay, but then gradually begins to accumulate deficits. Brains are so intricate (“symphonic” I say) that the problem might be in the chemical soup between neurons, in the characteristics of the neurons themselves, in the way they interact, in the failure to develop or the overdevelopment of the separating structures we are only beginning to understand. Though it feels to us like a psychological problem, because it expresses in behavior, there seems to be consensus that it is a glitch in the machinery of thought, emotion, and all that stuff behind the forehead that lets us interact with each other.

People confronted with a child who has this problem can become convinced that the problem is this or that (mercury preservative in vaccines has become a fixation) and, like a person determined to get into that black box by using sharp tools, have been so convinced of the value of chelation or special diets that they have killed the child. An artist friend of mine who is a gentle soul has turned to Blackfeet healing processes, small ceremonies of harmony like smudging sweetgrass, which is sensory and shared.

What I’m thinking is that the problem is in the epigenome, the newly discovered molecules closely associated with the double helix of the genome that control the turning on and off of the genes. The conductor of the orchestra, one might say: the inner clock of each cell that appears to guide the individuation of cells into organs and bones, to start up the growth spurts and then shut them off, and a host of more subtle interactions. If these things don’t happen in the right way at the right time, the result is vulnerability. A child who hardly knows where he is, cannot interact with others, becomes prey unless the larger creature, a social construct, protects that black box and addresses whomever that hand might be connected to. When the eyes peer out under the lid, they should see a friendly face.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO

I SOOO enjoy all the blundering around in people’s minds triggered by Obama’s genome and multi-cultural background. Everyone keeps trying to fit him into a pre-existing category, but he’s not a category -- he’s unique. I thought that was supposed to be the idea.

The latest twist in the plot was “accusing” (and that IS the word) Obama of being a secret Unitarian!! Egads! Not THAT!! Aren’t Unitarians those upbeat people who are always intolerably cheerful? “Poor Man’s Christian Science?” Oh, no. That’s Unity. Well, then Unitarians must be some kind of a cult, some kind of weird California hot tub thing, where people just make up any old theology so long as they can keep their sexuality. Um, Church Universal and Triumphant, right? Oh, that’s a Montana thing -- about over now.

Adlai Stevenson? Thomas Jefferson? Emerson and Thoreau? You’re just making it up. Unitarians go around claiming anyone who’s the least bit brainy and liberal. As one of the right-wing-nuts put it, Unitarians are worse than Mormons! At least once we claim them after they’re dead we don’t try to baptize them or marry them. We do look to see whether they signed the local membership book. There are SOME limits to our fantasies. But UU’s rather overreach when it comes to famous people and minorities, so one would expect that they’d make more of a fuss about claiming Obama than they do.

From the inside of UU stuff, there are several things to point out. One is that it is a “double-yolked” denomination and the Universalist part has always been Christian, even when it was a heresy. Their heresy was rejecting Calvinism on grounds that if God was good he would not condemn anyone to eternal hell. The “universal” is universal salvation. This has pretty much mainstreamed by now. It is the idea that “I’m saved but you’re going to hell” that has remained popular in some quarters, mostly among those who believe they are saved, but it is beginning to sound like heresy.

The other observation about UU from the inside is that though the group explicitly wants to include all minorities (so as to show they are not prejudiced) the Unitarian side has been from the outset an elitist point of view. Arguing for monotheism at the expense of the Trinity is for theological hair-splitters, an argument that goes back thousands of years and affects the nature of Whatever-in-the-Sky not at all. The UU’s don’t exactly go looking for stupid downscale people. As one observer put it, “They want people just like them except for being a different color or having a colorful past.” Otherwise, they get pushed into the role of receivers of do-goodism. Clients. Not leaders.

There was a period during the years of anti-segregation when some UU’s became very active and made friends with black people, introducing them into the UU orbit. This turned into an internal confrontation wildly chaotic and emotionally devastating for a lot of people, not to mention expensive. And there was one UU KIA. BACA and BAWA are what you want to look for in the archives. The worst crime -- the one people remember -- is that at a denominational General Assembly the black forces physically captured the microphone, which shows they had a sharp awareness of symbolism. “Speaking Out” is the UU way, isn’t it?

The facts are that Obama’s grandmother was buried from the Honolulu First Unitarian Church, which meets in what is described as a “mansion,” but looks like a nice two-story house to me. The Right Wing Nuts dug around in history (the newspaper) and turned up another big congregation-splitter among the Unitarian Universalists: the Vietnam War. Yes, indeed, they did help young men escape the draft compelling them to serve in what they considered an unjust and illegal war. (Remember the draft?)

Just under the description of Madelyn “Toot” Dunham (“Toot” is short for Tutu, which is Hawaiian for Grandmother) is the implication that she was so wildly liberal that she let her daughter go out into the world and make a shocking marriage to an unstable black Kenyan man which led to divorce in two years. And you know what THAT means! Such marriages produce children who are half-caste, ignorant, ineducable, rebellious -- they will NEVER become the President of the United States and therefore Obama is NOT the President of the United States. He just CAN’T be or my whole world-view is WRONG!

The smoking gun for these people is that in a speech Obama said his mother had a “healthy skepticism of organized religion.” Not to worry. Even Garrison Keillor never accuses UU’s of being organized, even after decades of workshops about how to do it.

But for me the funniest part is trying to pin East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, on Obama because Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, Obama’s grandparents, in 1955 moved to Mercer Island and attended East Shore while Obama’s mother went to Mercer Island High School. This is before the Universalists came aboard the denomination and during another major controversy, the Cold War transition from Russia as our friend and ally during WWII to our bitter enemy as “Communists.”

I served the congregation that split from East Shore and moved up the lake to Kirkland because they wanted to do more aggressive social action. Bellevue is a money town, with a high per capita income. Kirkland is an “arty” money town, not quite so upscale. East Shore Unitarian Church has as their long-time minister one of my most conservative seminary classmates and housemates , a Princeton grad who fussed at me constantly because I didn’t wear house slippers. (I do now, but in those days I was still young enough to have warm feet.) So what was his reaction to all these accusations against a congregation that defends everyone’s right to free speech? He sent out a letter asking the members not to speak to the media, to let him control the spin.

Well, as Obama knows, it’s one thing to have high principles and it’s another to try to make them work. Since laughter is based on incongruity and contradiction, I find the whole thing hilarious, but the kind of human comedy that makes for warmth and connection. Universalist. And truly, I would loved to have known Obama’s whole family. I did spend an evening in a group with Rosemary Matson and her husband, now gone, founders of Honolulu First Unitarian Church. She and her husband were as close to saints as I ever expect to meet. She is widowed and ancient now, so I’m glad she lives in lovely upscale Carmel where Clint Eastwood was mayor. I won’t accuse her of guilt by association.

Monday, April 19, 2010

CINDERELLA BOOK -- Or Is It?

Today’s New York Times has an article by Motoko Rich called “Mr. Cinderella: From Rejection Notes to the Pulitzer.” It is meant to reinforce a stylized mercantile myth as seductive as a Harlequin novel. It’s meant to convince readers that one similar novel after another is unique and to convince writers that they too can get a book published. The story behind the story is that if these two convictions were to disappear tomorrow, the last moldy old apparatus of book publishing would collapse. Because book publishing’s main purpose is to employ the people in the book publishing business. Readers have long since wandered off to other media or to the used and remainder book markets. Writers no longer make money: they are living on dreams.

Let’s look closely. I’ll admit right up front that I haven’t read this book, but I will argue that it’s of no matter. The content is the last thing that makes a book live or die. If you want to read it, the author is Paul Harding and the name of the book is “Tinkers.” I have no doubt it is pretty well written. He is, after all, a graduate of the elite Iowa Writers’ Workship which is a passport into the inner circle that is normally earned with some solid achievement. And I’m not surprised that this is represented as a “slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book” about a “New England clock repairer with episodes about the dying man’s father.” It has no car chases, which Harding claimed caused some of the publishers to turn it down, which is like turning down Norman Maclean because he has too many trees in his stories. I would be surprised if a graduate of Iowa Writer’s Workshop wrote a book with car chases, unless it were ironic. But it would be interesting to count the deathbed scenes.

Before he went to Iowa, which is a GRADUATE workshop, Harding worked his way through the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, majoring in English and taking six years to get his degree. No shame in that. Terrific connections. He reads Karl Barth (just as John Updike did), physics and 19th century novels which were often preoccupied with the relationship between science and religion, although usually because of evolution rather than particle physics. Right on target for the most trendy subject around just now.

AND it keys in closely with the preoccupations of Marilynne Robinson, his professor and mentor at the Iowa Workshop, whose recent book “Gilead” caused a stir, at least partly because of her beloved book, “Housekeeping.” She has stayed friends with him and supplied blurbs and (probably) connections in case Amherst didn’t. Before being accepted by Iowa Writer’s Workshop he took classes at Skidmore College from Ms. Robinson. After the Workshop he was teaching freshman comp at Harvard, toting his laptop around to coffee shops where he wrote, we are told, “guerilla writing” as well as scribbling on the backs of bookmarks and receipts. Presumably his batteries ran out and no laptop plug-ins were available. We see it all the time, even out here in Montana.

Harding sent his novel to “a handful of agents and editors in New York.” It was rejected. Hey, those people are going broke! There are only six major publishers left and they want sure things. They “package,” and what they package is concepts, not books. But he eventually found a publisher, the Bellevue Literary Press which is housed in the famous Manhattan hospital whose psych ward has been a home-away-from-home for so many writers. From their website: “The mission of Bellevue Literary Press is to bring together medicine, science, and humanism through literature. The unifying theme of the press is the conviction that in sharing what Anatole Broyard termed “the wonder, terror, and exaltation of being on the edge of being” (Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness), physicians and patients might be better informed, able to cope with the demands that illness imposes, and that medical care will be more humane.” I don’t quite get how “Tinkers” fits this, but okay.

His advance was $1,000. This is not an endowed or academic press, they hasten to say. It is funded by individuals and foundations. Piegan Institute in Browning, the Blackfeet academic think tank, has always operated this way because of the greater freedom and, frankly, the greater generosity. Universities are notoriously stingy with their presses.

Then comes the next obligatory scene: the place where the author realizes the structure of his book is faulty and sits up all night with scissors and scotch tape, reorganizing the whole thing. (He had a little sipping whiskey on hand, but we are not told about cigars. He's not a bloodless guy -- he used to be the drummer in a rock band.) It was not reviewed by the New York Times. BUT the director of the Bellevue Literary Press and, more importantly, the sales rep of Consortium, the distributor (an aspect of book publishing that is invisible to many people and passive in many quarters) pushed the book to indie bookstores, which is called “hand selling,” and the clerks in the stores all pushed the book. It sold 7,000 copies. This was considered remarkable.

NPR and The New Yorker noted the book. Next the writer of Bookslut, a well-known influential book blog, raved about it. Then that same woman promoted it to a former editor of the New York Times Book Review who is the chair of this years’ Pulitzer fiction jury when they both attended a New England workshop on book reviewing. Marilynne Robinson is a former winner of a Pulitzer prize. Now that “Tinkers” has won the Pulitzer Prize, we are not told what his sales figures are.

When I buy books in person, which is seldom, I quiz the clerks. They all believe they have the potential to win the Pulitzer if they finish writing their book. They assume this means that they will make enough money and establish enough creds to never have to clerk in a bookstore again. They are BELIEVERS. It’s hard for me to tell whether Motoko Rich was writing with her tongue in her cheek, but those bookstore clerks believe this Cinderella story based on humble merit just as strongly as they believe they will go to heaven when they die.

Which means sometimes "absolutely," and other times they have serious doubts. I doubt that you could find a copy of a Karl Barth book on any bookstore shelf in Montana and it is also doubtful whether Barth would help a bookstore clerk who read it. Unless they went to Amherst or Harvard or some other good place to make connections, like the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"LIE TO ME," Part Two

Consider what difference it would make if the title of “Lie to Me” were “Tell Me the Truth.” Consider the famous Jack Nicholson put-down: “The TRUTH? You can’t handle the truth.” After watching a full season of “Lie to Me” in two days, my premise is that it is NOT about the detection of lies, but the handling of the mix of lies and truth we all face every day. In fact, I take the position that just as the great Fifties wave of Westerns was about force, “standing down” from WWII when anything was permitted in service to the urgent necessity of winning that war, now our best films address information. The Western heroes were always the white, male, morally coherent men that we thought our soldiers were. Today’s hero is shrewd and tricky.

In the new information-based series like "CSI" (medical) or "Law and Order" (legal) we have moved to a global context of mixed races, ages and genders (even adding a few new ones) so that our old clues about who was lying have been discredited. We used to assume that our out-groups were lying and our in-groups were telling the truth, or at least managing information for our benefit. The newspaper prints little thumbnail portraits of major characters in stories and I find myself scrutizing them: is this the face of a killer? Is this the face of an honest woman? It is significant that the opening to “Lie to Me” is a montage of very different faces.

And interesting that Tim Roth has often played shifty villains in the past. He is not a hunk or a lunk, like those cowboy heroes. There is a lot his character doesn’t know and his “partner” -- who is really more a walking conscience -- accuses him of knowing too much while having too little compassion about it. The cold fish scientist. But he obsesses about the ability of his own mother to deceive the scientists (shrinks) in order to kill herself.

Consider the multitude of issues in our society. First of all there are so many questions that simply cannot be resolved with an ordinary education because they are based on highly technical and specialized information. Economics is one category, to our grief. How could we know which asset management companies were lying to us when they themselves hardly understood what they were selling? Theories like evolution or climate change are likewise pretty opaque to an ordinary person on the street. Even within the field there are varying schools of thought and models. A proper understanding of statistics -- as Nassim Taleb keeps telling us -- is very difficult to achieve (tell me about it!) and yet bell curves and standard deviations are the models we depend on for business and education decisions.

Probably no lies are so devastating as the ones we don’t even recognize: that everyone who gets a degree from a good college will succeed, that everyone who tries their best and is loyal will keep a job, that everyone can live the kind of life depicted in television series, get enough to eat, be attractive and have a wonderful sex life. Only a very specific group of people get even 70% of this: the others don’t ask why not. They simply believe the observably false lie that good things always happen to the deserving and deny that prosperity is built on social structures that impoverish others.

Today’s Americans move a lot, going to places where they are not known. Much of the knowledge about them is on the computer, granted, but it’s all data and all data is corruptible. Since it is based on names, your birthday, your social security number (which was once supposed to be inviolably private), and documents that can be bought, people are able to slip out of one life and into another without a whole lot of trouble. Because they often move in and out of relationships all their lives, producing children they might or might not know about, Dear Abby is constantly answering questions about how much they should tell their current partners or their children. The legal categories pant along twenty years in the past, trying to figure out who is responsible for what. Private eyes make their bucks trying to uncover doubleness, whole secret lives. A booming business.

Strangely, we approve of and reward actors, who are technically “lying” when they portray characters, like Cal Lightman. In fact, it’s hard to imagine someone more different from Tim Roth’s character in “Rob Roy” -- which he worried was “over the top” in terms of wickedness -- and the actor Tim Roth. If you want to see just how much he is acting as Cal Lightman, in this age of video it’s easy to pull up one interview after another. Analyzing Roth’s body language is a blast: displacement, distancing, itchy nose, glances down and away . . . Which brings up the topic of humor, which keeps these series tales from being grim. Much humor is based on surprise and incongruity, which abounds in the plot twists and character revelations.

Acting is about managing one’s internal consciousness in a particular way. One must convince one’s self of the reality and coherence of the character’s internal state while also keeping track of the actor’s reality: hitting the mark, pleasing the director, timing. We all do it to some degree. Some actors make a fetish of it, staying in their character even off-camera or off-stage, as though they are afraid of losing that inner compartment where the character lives. Yet people who develop multiple-character disorders can manage as many as dozens of internal people, each with a voice and mannerism. It was interesting that Roth reports when he sees movies he’s in, he doesn’t enjoy them because he doesn’t see the illusion. Rather he pulls up internally his memories of the day of the shot, remembering what was for lunch and whether it rained. That’s where his consciousness goes, unless he directed the scene. Then he goes back to what he was thinking while keeping an independent critical awareness, moving the ability to judge outside the experience of being “in” it.

Our society insists that the morality of the writer is different than that of the actor. They insist that what is represented in writing be “truth,” even though it’s pointed out again and again and again that the “author” as represented in the writing is not the same as the “ink-stained wretch” who actually produced it. Readers want to believe that writers are “channeling” their real lives, maybe. Or does this leak over from the idea of Biblical inerrancy, which is self-evidently not true? Even my co-writer and myself sometimes have to remind each other that we are not quite exactly like the representations in our work. “I” is NOT “I.” And yet every character we invent is “we,” including ourselves.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"LIE TO ME" Part One

The television series called“Lie to Me” is so interesting to think about and so relevant to some of the issues I roll around in my head, that I’m going to write a two-part blog. You might want to read the first part today or you might want to wait and read both parts at once tomorrow. I don’t know what to recommend, except that this post is going to be full of spoilers: it would be better for those who hate them not to read this at all until they’ve watched the series.

“Lie to Me” echoes “MI-5” quite a lot, both in things like scene transitions (the sound of a big noise -- door slamming?) and in the context set-up. The idea is that through the technology of micro-emotions and subtle physiological changes that people cannot normally conceal, Tim Roth and his staff can see things that you or I would not notice, esp. since we lack the capacity for super-closeups and slo-mo technology which they can use on wall-sized screens controlled with amazing precision. “MI-5” (aka “Spooks” elsewhere) used the same “shot-through-a-glass wall” or “shot through wire mesh” sorts of strategies. There is again the BBC-type axis of one powerful man who drives and shapes a staff including glamorous women and eccentric men. And the set-up for the writer is to play the private lives of the in-house professional staff against the public professional situations, which in this case is again governmental, law enforcement, and international diplomacy “needs-to-know” -- all webs that require secrecy and guile.

Assertions are explored. Some people are said to be “naturals” because their lives, esp. in the early years, have demanded that they learn to read people in order to survive. Children of abusive parents, prisoners, minorities in police states, and so on. One of the staff members IS a natural who was abused in childhood and this serves as a writer’s gimmick since things have to be explained to her: scientific studies named and so on. She is also the one who questions WHY the personal lives of the staff are protected: they lie all the time about their intimate partners and private lives and everyone can see it. But no one says anything. They don’t call it. The hubristic young man who claims a policy of radical truth, allowing him to be offensive and aggressive, is quick to abandon his policy when it is a matter of protecting his ego and his job -- and yet he goes to the “natural,” a Latino young woman, to tell her the truth because it burdens him. So what’s she supposed to do with all this stuff?

Especially when she begins to “see” into the Tim Roth character, marvelously played with all sorts of guile and twists. In the tradition of “Cracker” (the first of these in the BBC collections that I watched), “Chancer,” and “Wire in the Blood,” “Lie to Me” is way out in front. And again, the Latino “natural” is meant to explore the absorbing issue of what motivates a person to study lying so obsessively and what it does to his private life, which is elaborated through his teenaged daughter. She’s at the lying age, but she is also pretty open to life, aware that she’s learning. Roth’s character’s mother, alive for us in an old movie, is key to Roth’s character in the scriptwriter’s mind. It remains to be seen how this will play out.

This sort of “scientific” plot requires a lot of explanation, which is a bit of a weakness, but the audience seems to have an appetite for it, the same way that they do with the CSI and the Law and Order series. So much that happens to us now gets covered with media kudzu, which hides more than it explains. We’d like to have the tools ourselves without having to go to the library and read through stacks of “Psychology Today,” which the writer seems to have done for us. Most of this information has been around for a long time, just not so vividly presented.

Issues include how one can mask to hide from lie detectors (mild sedatives) or be misread by observers because of causes other than one’s natural responses (a woman suspected of murdering her child because she shows so few markers of grief because she’s been having botox injections in order to look younger).

Another brilliant stroke is that when the character (the actor, of course, who is being coached to produce the specific facial expression wanted) makes a certain face, it is immediately compared with photos of public figures making exactly the same face. Cheney, Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Clinton -- a LOT of Bill Clinton! -- all flashing disgust, contempt and just plain prevarication. Outright lies are not so common as small gestures: a woman sits alone waiting to be interviewed and she has steepled her index fingers together, then rested them against her mouth, which the team says is “hushing” and indicates guarding a secret. Sure enough, there are the public figures again, doing exactly that in circumstances that we know caused them to resist disclosure.

Another gimmick is rewatching a moment with the sound turned turned off. Deaf people have famously seen through hypocrisy because they are so attuned to tiny signals that most of us neglect because we’re following along the words and trying to integrate meaning that way.

One of the most powerful scripts is about a criminal gang leader, a murderer, who claims he has changed in prison because of solitary confinement which caused him to read all he could which meant that his natural intelligence has been captured and dragged him to empathy he didn’t have before. The problem is to discover whether he is lying.

Another fruitful course of inquiry is the person who is lying, sure enough, but not lying about what one THINKS they are lying about. In this age of illicit sexual liasons and private little money arrangements, there is a clutter of such dishonesties. Wading through them is one of the challenges of daily life everywhere.

Cultural differences are also fertile ground. The captured spy signals when forced to repent on camera by speaking in what seems to be a rather drugged way that her captors, who don’t speak English that well, can’t detect. Signals are sent by differences in formal bowing. Therefore, the Tim Roth character has to have lot of background in anthropology, which is great for set-dressing. Masks everywhere. Just like real life.

More tomorrow.

Friday, April 16, 2010

SMALL ROAD ON AN IMMENSE PRAIRIE

This morning I crossed my fingers (the pickiup has been making funny noises), used some laundry quarters to put a few gallons of gas in it, and drove the thirty miles to Cut Bank to get the kind of cat food Crackers likes. They didn’t have it. New manager. New assortments of stuff. Always change.

That’s not really why I drove to Cut Bank anyway. I just wanted to get out on the road in the most beautiful weather so far. The recent blizzard has plastered the stone walls and blades of the Rockies with white that translates into proper spring run-off for the fish and crocus. The Sweetgrass Hills were hidden in mist from the moisture now suffusing the air, unstirred by wind. By afternoon that will have gathered into thunderclouds and possible showers. Pale stubble and fallow stretches out on every side of this cyclorama of scenery, streaked with snow reflecting pale blue sky. One field is even beginning to green.

This north/south drive is a lesson in geology for those who know how to read it. In the distance is the Lewis & Clark Divide, the edge of the Missouri/Mississippi watershed that determined the 49th parallel would be the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. The whole area is streaked with streams gathered from the Rockies, each folded into its own coulee, steep inclines going down and then up -- the opposite of mountains, unseen until you drop into them.

This half-hour drive is a survey of wealth, almost all of it on the Blackfeet Reservation. At “ground level” are the irrigated alfalfa fields. Next up, the fat Charolais cattle with their bulky calves beside them. Then the nodding pumpjacks of the oil still found underground after all these years. Hard to see in the mist are the windmill turbines, as thick and tall as Oregon Doug firs, hundreds of them, barely turning this morning. The road is crossed and re-crossed by high tension power lines going somewhere. Don’t get too nosy about it.

I haven’t driven this way for a while but knew there was scheduled upgrading. So far that consists of a ribbon of asphalt in each lane, a gutter in the middle exposing the center line. It’s carelessly done with gaps and holes. Is this because it’s a sub-layer, because the machine was malfunctioning, because it’s “only the reservation,” or because it’s good enough for the real purpose of improving the road, which is not for the sake of locals but because there will soon be a huge transport of machinery meant for the Athabasca tar fields, far to the north in Alberta?

The machinery (I’m not sure where it originates -- Asia?) is expected to come on barges up the Columbia River to Lewiston in Idaho, then transfer to huge trucks (a typical semi-trailer is 72 feet long -- these are 162 feet long) which will follow highway 12 to Missoula, crossing Lolo Pass, then go up highway 200 through Lincoln, Augusta, Choteau, onto highway 44 that goes through Valier, north again through Cut Bank, crossing the border at Sweetgrass. I haven’t heard the town council talk about this except off-hand discussion about the blinker light where the road to Cut Bank turns north from 44. We can either ask them to take it down temporarily to let the big loads through (thirteen feet, six inches high, 24 feet wide) and then put it back up -- or maybe we don’t really NEED a blinker light out there. People don’t interpret it as a caution/slow down, making full stops instead. (And then there are always the knotheads who don’t even slow down.) Highway 44 and 89 from 44 to Browning have been under so much construction these past few years that it’s hard to guess what “normal” traffic flow might be.

The newspaper story is quite frank about meetings scheduled to “invite comment.” The loads MUST go through according to the law, they say, so long as any impacts are mitigated. The point of the comments is to turn up any “impacts” that the engineers missed. And head off lawsuits, no doubt. So far the most serious opposition is from Jim Hepburn who lives in Missoula and guides river trips on the Lochsa River along the highway and from Northern Rockies Rising Tide, which objects to the whole oil sands project on grounds that the release of ancient methane will contribute to climate change.

In my own case, the Athabasca tar sands have “impacted” me, as they say in their ugly vernacular way, though publishing. So many workers are making so much money so far north that Athabasca University was founded to give them a chance at education up there. It is not a campus university, but rather it is “virtual,” online, with some classes in rented spaces like the meeting rooms of banks or shopping centers. They also have a press, which is virtual, making books available online as well as bound. Edmonton, the nearest city I know, is a HUGE sophisticated city and the location of the University of Alberta Press where there is an Espresso machine that makes books on demand.

I sent my biography of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out,” to the University of Calgary Press just before the head editor was fired. He was almost immediately rehired to run the new Athabasca University Press. The woman who acquired my book had a contract to find manuscripts about major Alberta figures. Bob qualified because of his relationship with the Glenbow Museum and because the Blackfeet (who are much of his subject matter) had a range far north into Alberta. This acquiring editor went north as well, but my manuscript stayed with the U of Calgary Press. Except that the original people called one dark night and asked me to cancel Calgary so as to go with Athabasca. They said Calgary had neither the skills nor the resources to properly develop my book. They were right. But it struck me as unethical to just dump one press for another. So I didn’t.

The Athabasca tar sands reach into my life from the deep geological past, changing the course of my writing career, changing the little town where I live, changing my grocery path, and possibly even changing the climate. The 200-plus loads will be on the road for a year, often traveling at night. The project belongs to Imperial Oil/Exxon. Uh-oh. Always change.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

SMALL TOWN DRAMA

We’re just emerging from a major record-setting snowstorm that brought enough moisture in from the West Coast to let the flowers bloom at last. Softball is just around the corner. And suddenly there was a notice at the post office calling a 6:30 PM meeting of the town council to discuss Conflict of Interest. So off I went with my clipboard because there is no more vivid on-going example of process dynamics than the town council of a village of 350 people and a history that reaches back in time to 19th century Belgium.

The precipitating event was that Jerry had threatened to sue the village, or at least the mayor, because gravel for the streets (another spring event is reclaiming the streets from winter’s damage) had not been bought from him -- rather from an out-of-town person. Jerry is a hard-driving guy (one heart attack recently) and carries much of the town’s underground history (literally -- of water and sewer pipes) in his head. I like him because (ironically) you’re never in doubt about where you stand and his goals are pretty clear. His methods are direct and, sure enough, he had brought a lawyer.

The mayor had just gotten back from Arizona. She is a retired corporate veteran with expertise in insurance, so one of her preoccupations is liability. She bought a cute little house, owns a new car, and stirred up the town right off the bat by challenging a springtime event a few years ago: nesting. Lake Frances, alongside the town, has an island that is normally isolated by water and thus is a good nesting spot for herons, geese, and seagulls, ground nesters. Seagulls are not well-loved around here. When the drought lowered the water enough for people to drive four-wheelers out to the island, some heinous person entertained himself by driving over seagull nests.

The mayor, a romantic full of Seattle liberal sentiments, was horrified. She writes poetry about that lake and island. http://runningatlarge.blogspot.com/ So she protested and even contacted the Audubon Society. She had no idea what she was stirring up. First, the lake is not a natural lake but an impoundment reservoir for the irrigation system that is the raison d’etre of the town. It is only secondarily an aesthetic or recreation asset. Water is one of the most emotional topics around, interwoven with lack of water which means going broke. Litigation over the water that has been owed to the Blackfeet but used by white farmers is very hot because it will mean the end for some people. Almost all of the laws involved are confused, insufficient, and on many levels.

Second, the lake is owned, both water and shore, by an irrigation company that allows the village certain privileges, like a campground. A walleye fishing society has made improvements. People forget who owns what and why. But not the canal company. You want to make trouble? Fine, we’ll just bulldoze the damn island. Environmentalists know that farmers and ranchers are waaaay leary of letting federal fish and game come around making rules to save something like sage grouse at the expense of making money, for instance through the hundreds of wind farm turbines you can see from here. (The wind farm is the new canal company.)

Mackenzie knew none of this. She is a small elderly woman and the town women rallied around her, seeing her as sophisticated and courageous. There’s an element of “boys against the girls” mixed with something that purports to be “educated against ignorant” but isn’t. The first I knew of her directly was when she called me on the phone to ask me to run for alderman while she ran for mayor. Plainly she thought that I would be her ally because I write and that I would be eager to be on the council since I attend all the meetings and take notes. She had never attended a council meeting herself. She wanted to meet for coffee. I refused. She was elected because she was unopposed. The Catch-22 fact that she ran for the office shows she was not qualified for it because she didn't understand it. What does the fact that no one else ran mean?

She had asked the town’s lawyer to attend last night’s meeting. There were two cruxes of the matter: one was whether gravel could legally be bought from a member of town council. The law governing that is confused. One of the forces at play is the state’s effort to “educate” and regulate the small towns. The only new alderman is Rod. I’ve written about him before. He’s big, he’s tough-minded, and he plays fair. As things went along, it turned out that there had been TWO gravel purchases for ten thousand dollars or so each and neither had been run past the town council members. They would have no knowledge of the purchase and delivery until they went to sign the bills at next month’s meeting. ZOWIE !!!

Jackie, the town clerk and a protective woman, began to raise her voice to protect the mayor, whom she considers to be her boss. The council soon set her straight that THEY were her boss. Leo, one of the two town maintenance men, was the one who chose the gravel company but he had sent his wife in his stead because he was teaching a hunter safety course. His wife has been a focus of controversy because the school fired her last year and she fought it. There is ongoing tension over both maintenance men. One ruckus bounces off another one and the town aligns and realigns itself into factions. Mackenzie is a Venusian in a town of Martians. The Earthlings are missing in action.

Both lawyers sat bemused. Finally the town lawyer made a little speech about trying to improve communication and people calmed down a bit. The issue had shifted back to whether a council member could profit from anything the town did, which is pretty crucial in a place so small that everyone on the council is a businessman. “Do your business at home,” is a Big Red Rule here and it ought to be. The town’s lawyer said he would re-examine the state regulations to find a work-around.

Just as that issue seemed at least tabled and the lawyers left, up popped Homer, who has been obsessing about the water meters we’re more or less forced to install. The mayor left. Jerry and the other councilmen stayed to answer Homer’s questions and I found out a lot of things myself that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. This story is not going to end soon. It may never end.