Monday, January 31, 2011
Sunday, January 30, 2011
The difference between a living creature and an inanimate object is that the world is constantly passing through a creature, rushing in at one end and out at the other, and while it is in the creature it changes. The earthworm is the most obvious example because it eats the dirt it crawls through and then leaves behind “castings” that have improved the dirt, made it richer and more fertile. Humans take in the world through their senses as much as their mouths and when it comes out -- if this creature is truly creative to the degree it can be -- it is art. Or possibly religion. The world is then richer and more fertile.
Some people do not accept this point of view. They are like children with workbooks and must have lines to color within, stickers to put in the right place, lines of connection to draw between things that are defined as related. They are teacher-pleasers. Their religion is prescribed and they must follow it or be in trouble. So when Wojnarowicz shows ants crawling on a crucifix, they find it a violation. Ants are something to get rid of, signs of poor housekeeping -- one doesn’t want bugs. A crucifix is something to honor, something holy to be put up high and -- well, not quite “worshipped,” but an object of devotion. So how can the two things be together? When ants are on a crucifix, the dissonance in categories amounts to a heresy -- for them.
When I entered the Browning Catholic church one day, I saw that the life-size version of Jesus on the Cross that Gordon Monroe had made, inspired by the small one Bob Scriver made (I have a bronze casting of it on my bedroom wall), had been given a gold lamé robe. Then I thought of heresy, because the whole point of the crucifixion is that it be ghastly torture -- like being staked out on an anthill smeared with blood so the insects would bite and bite in fiery stings. It was supposed to be after He had risen that He had the royal robes. But one old lady, hearing my concern, said that she simply wanted to honor and cherish what was a real person to her and clothed Him as any mother would clothe her son. Some cultures delight in adding wreaths and crowns.
The mother in “Equus” was also very focused on her son and she, too, found it a heresy when her son differed from her. In fact, she went further and named it Evil. Evil was -- to her -- disobedience, and since her obedience came from God, then disobedience must be Evil. A common human error, to think that they know what God thinks. And yet the boy’s intensely raw sexual obsession with horses -- not fucking them literally, but merging with them by riding nude -- was only a deepening of her own narrowed ideas so that his desperate eating had to be done through a too narrow straw.
The Cinematheque Films story of the last four years has been almost like a film shooting script. It was happening in reality -- the world rushing in at one end and the emails and blogs and videos pouring out the other. By the time I read a post it had been digested to some extent and when I went back to line out the events in what was basically chronological order there was not much more to do. In the early versions I tried to explain and annotate, but by the later manuscript all that had fallen away so that one could simply see what had happened.
Why do young beautiful boys die of HIV-AIDS? It can’t be because they are bad boys. They are not bad except in society’s workbook of lines and stickers. Each must find his own answer by eating the world for himself, getting what nourishment he can with his senses. The answers will be different according to how sharp their teeth are, how clever their tongues are, what they see and hear and remember. “Why are we even here?" they ask. "What is the POINT?” demands one. To eat the world. To participate in creation.
For a while there was a little theological discussion about whether the planet itself could be considered Jesus, because in sophisticated systematics, Jesus was supposed to be the only intermediary between the creation (this world) and the Creator (the next world). It is the earth itself that accepts our bodies and makes them into something new. To a grave, we are the communion, the body of our humanness.
In fact, Jesus is one of a class of “persons” who are able to go to the Other world and return, able to die and then transcend death. Orpheus also belongs to that category and so do the circumpolar shamans who are said to be able to ride their black horses over the valleys of bones and skulls in order to bring back the dead. In the Blackfeet system it is Star Boy or Blood Clot Boy who goes into the sky to live and then returns. But other systems advise us not to want the dead back because that stops the forward flow. It must go on. We only occupy a small part of a torrent of life.
My movie tonight was “Vincent and Theo.” I watched the Altman interview “Film as Fine Art” as well. Altman explained that this version distilled down the story to the essential forces under the facts. Exploring the trinity of religion, art and madness in Van Gogh’s later life, this version also portrays the devotion between two brothers, which is another category throughout mythology. Sometimes the brothers are twins. In some of the apocryphal gospels Jesus has a brother named John whom he often draws to himself and kisses. In this film, all the while the story unfolds, the camera eats the world and lays it out like a communion on the screen.
Some people will find this little essay of mine deeply heretical and others will find it religiously valid. What I want it to do is to jar the boys of what used to be Cinematheque Films out of their workbooks and into eating the world. I would like their story in “Orpheus” to do that as well, because that would bring it to life. The ultimate art form has got to be life.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
New forces seem to be at work in Blackfeet history. For a while now there have been enrolled people with solid academic backgrounds who have organized conferences, produced papers, attended workshops and so on. They bring family stories and an experienced context to what they say. Piegan Institute has been archiving materials for more than twenty years, always keeping them accessible. Blackfeet Community College and the Museum of the Plains Indian also have records. From early times white people have been interested, some of them mixing history and historical books into their business of artifact trade which they value because the material culture gives them daily reminders of old times.
As materials located in Europe but about Blackfeet have begun to be translated by people like Mary Eggermont-Molenaar, a whole trove has been revealed like glaciers melting back to reveal long-lost bodies. The letters of Jesuits, like Father Philip Rappagliosi edited by Robert Bigard, are an entire library. (The Pope could make important reparations to religious boarding school victims by underwriting the wholesale translation of all those papers into English.) Ray Djuff started out to discover everything about his beloved Glacier National Park and is now accumulating information about the Two Guns Whitecalf family. Andrew Graybill is closing in on the final manuscript about the Malcolm Clarke family, marveling at the fact that Helen Clarke, Malcolm’s Blackfeet daughter, was the first Montana school superintendent while the present Montana Superintendent of Schools, Denise Juneau, is also Blackfeet. Greg Hirst is working on the Chief Heavy Runner family tree, which includes him. My book about Bob Scriver, who was white, draws in a lot of local history. Jack Holterman’s books, many published privately and now out-of-print, are among my most reliable reference works.
Almost all of these people share a special interest in the 19th century Blackfeet. Local Blackfeet often say to me, “I’m going to write a book of Napi stories and get it published.” They don’t know that the whole industry of publishing is in the midst of chaos, unsure what to do. But they are even less aware that the anthropological and ethnic tales of the early 3-named white writers (James Willard Schultz, George Bird Grinnell) have given way to the newer academically based writers like John Ewers, Clarke Wissler, and Adolf Hungry Wolf or even tribal members like Percy Bullchild -- and those in turn have given way to a wave of reconstructing writers like Ted Binnema, Roslyn LaPier, Dave Beck, and Jack Brink plus a horde of enrolled scholars from Canada who are deeply invested both in early history and contemporary technology that reveals subtle traces of all practices. Many of the older historians around small-town Montana are still clinging to the tales of the Indian wars, the forts and whiskey trade, and the earliest white settlers -- often because those were their relatives.
Just recently, seining the web for information about my co-writer, Tim Barrus, I pulled in an old argument between David Treuer, an Ojibwa writer whose work I don’t know http://www.davidtreuer.com, and Sherman Alexie http://www.fallsapart.com who has managed to become the first contemporary pop Indian writer. Sherman quickly jumped on the platform for allowing only Indians to write about Indians, on grounds that it is a) privileged information (the old anthropological gold standard) and b) the value of it should accrue to Indians since their lives have been so exploited by fictions. There are auxiliary corollaries, like the idea that only an Indian could properly understand or that there is an Indian “way” to write. Treuer’s argument is that Indian writers should be held to the standard of any other writer, free to create any style or point of view that is aesthetically valuable and coherent. (I’m unclear as to whether he defends the cynically sentimental and pandering “Education of Little Tree,” written by a white racist and still such a best-seller that the University of New Mexico Press can’t afford to stop selling it.) It’s like a wrestling match between a fox and a hedgehog view of Indians, the former valuing many approaches and the hedgehog sticking to his one “true” view.
This is relevant to Blackfeet history because there are two similar views: one is that only the 19th century ecology-based pre-contact buffalo culture of the people identified with this tribe is “real,” and the other is that any concern about or by the people associated with this tribe is by identification “Blackfeet.” The latter group asks, “Where are the books about the twentieth century’s successful middle class on or off the reservation?” And then they ask, “Where are their books, the ones they wrote?”
Here’s my answer: they are on tape. Yesterday’s novelist is today’s videographer. After all, video has two strong characteristics that are quintessentially Blackfeet: the camera loves the land and pulls it into the story on every side and videos are a media most often collaborative among a people that is suspicious of the lone genius. Whether it’s Piegan Institute’s ground-breaking “Transitions” about re-learning the language, or “A Dream for Water” their collaboration with Native Waters through Montana State University, or John Hall’s “Rez Dogs” through the film program at University of Montana or even a curious collection of unedited videos that Paul told me about late last night at American Indian Film Gallery: The Films (http://www.jfredmacdonald.com/aifg/ ) -- this is all “writing,” making a record. Here’s Eloise Cobell, so young I barely recognize her even though I knew her then. She is now history in a way she could never have anticipated and neither could anyone else. Suddenly, footage of her carefully explaining her job as the Tribe’s treasurer is invaluable.
So we’ve got three changing forces here: a mutating media, an evolving people, and a challenged understanding of what “writing” or “publishing” or even “history” really are. If there is so much happening in so many ways, how can anyone -- even Sherman Alexie -- suggest that it ought to be -- or could be -- fenced, “owned,” restricted in any way? We are challenged just to understand what is happening while we are making new history.
Friday, January 28, 2011
Possibly you’re in need for an antidote after seeing the ballet movie, "Black Swan," which is being hailed as either camp or horror or both. Definitely erotica. Well, you’re in luck. I have the recipe right here:
Take one “Anne of Green Gables” and triple her.
Add a third of a cup of “Harry Potter.”
Sweeten a little too much.
More than a trace of Indiana Jones.
A half-cup of “Poor Little Rich Girl.”
A sprinkle of “Mary Poppins.”
A little Moira Shearer but nothing tragic.
Spread, dry to the consistency of “Masterpiece Theatre.”
No salt, but lots of pluck, grit and laughter.
Some will already have recognized “Ballet Shoes,” which was not developed from a fairy tale but rather from an inspirational book written for our grandmothers (well, mine more than yours, probably) about three little orphans full of talent. Briefly, very rich but eccentric GUM (Great Uncle Matthew) as played by the enormous and droll Richard Griffiths, is pressed to accept into his huge fossil-packed mansion his niece and her governess/guardian/nanny. Though he objects at first, he soon gets so used to it that when he continues on his nineteenth century style round-the-world journeys, he brings home charming orphan babies. Finally off he goes again, leaving pots of money, but this time doesn’t come back and the money runs out just as the girls reach consciousness.
A second layer of family forms when the niece and nanny take in lodgers: a committed pair of female professors, an energetic and exotic dancer, and a melancholy young man whose wife and child died. Anyone capable of holding a crayon could draw the rest of the plot. One girl is a natural mechanic, a second wishes to act, and the third was the daughter of a Russian ballerina and has her ballet shoes to prove it.
The mystique of toe-dancing ballet shoes is very strong, a meshing of enablement, torture, skill, and distinction. The mother had already sewn on the long pink ribbons of the shoes -- these are not red shoes nor were they worn. Working on one’s shoes is a constant preoccupation of dancers but that’s not the level of concern in this story. Rather the idea is the having good character, excellent manners, and finding something decent to wear.
Posy, the girl who dances, finds her champion in Madame Fidolia, the Russian owner of the studio. This book is so beloved of girls in the UK that a couple of distinguished actresses signed on. One is Gemma Jones, who was our spirited “Duchess of Duke Street,” and another is Eileen Atkins. I just watched “Equus” (the 1977 Richard Burton version) and was amazed at how young Eileen looked. She was born in 1934, which is about when this story is supposed to be happening, and she’s still going strong, looking wonderful in full Moscow aristocrat drag with glamorous raccoon eyes. Born in a Salvation Army Women's Hostel in north London, her father was a gas meter reader and her mother, a seamstress and barmaid. She’s the real thing.
How real is this story? Easily as real as “Black Swan.” What’s the big deal about reality anyway? Do you know the real life of Lucy Maude Montgomery, who wrote “Anne of Green Gables”? The wife of a minister who suffered from deep depression, she covered for him while she wrote books to pay the bills, which she didn’t much enjoy doing, and raised their sons (not daughters), finally committing suicide. Do you know the real life of Louisa May Alcott? A brilliant but improvident father, a sister who died of TB as did her close friend Henry David Thoreau -- writing heart-warming tales of close family while raising her niece, keeping the family fed by writing, and suffering not so much from a disease as from the supposed cure: lead-poisoning from the medicine which finally killed her.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A908985 is an interesting guide to “Ballet Shoes” and how it was the beginning of the type of series that wear out their authors. Every title in this parade has “shoes” in the title. (party shoes, circus shoes, etc.) Emma Watson is in this version of the book, the second or third since there were earlier BBC versions. No doubt her “Hermione” role from Harry Potter was what financed the film and I hope that it will be a good transition for her -- “rite of passage” if you wish -- as she moves into adulthood. She said it was really nice to be with women instead of all those boys, but several other Potter actors came along.
Grandmothers who are authors aren’t what they used to be, though they still write books that have little relationship to reality, being about vampires and true and faithful love forever with no worries except modern problems like drug addiction or parents who can’t stay married or whether they might actually be lesbian. But the idea is still to offer examples of success in the vein of Oprah. The more clever writers come up with cat-woman versions like Lisbeth Salander. (How Louisa May would have loved to wear a cat suit and ride a motorcycle -- I’m sure of it!) Nevertheless, the basic advice has to be the same: guts, tenacity, imagination (thanks, Anne) and -- well, the ability to assemble your own family.
These are not gender-assigned or time-bound qualities. I suspect the first andros who gave up walking on their knuckles were successful only if they had these traits. But for a while there when times were changing and Western women were finally escaping generations of constraints as Asian, African and Middle Eastern women are doing today. They needed the encouragement and examples, unrealistic as “Ballet Shoes” may be. Today’s book aggregators are swamped with ethnic and white-bread-but-disadvantaged versions of this story.
A little Googling will yield free streaming versions of this movie plus access to the books and shoes in general. Watch out for “red shoes” which can grab your feet and dance you into “Black Swan” territory. You want to stick to PINK ballet shoes. I think I still have mine somewhere, though Mr. Oumansky said I was not ready for them and he was right, so they’re barely worn.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
The infrastructure of the small towns of Montana -- the water, sewer, electrical, gas conduits that support our houses -- are about a hundred years old. Every town employee knows about the emergency pipe breaks, the increased but unmet state standards, the public insistence that dust and potholes take a higher priority than the town wells. To some engineering firms, this looked like a gold mine opportunity in a time of contractors‘ drought.
Coming to Valier, they laid out their claim that the town was going to be in dire straits unless they contracted for some upgrades, among them a new water tower. When eyebrows went up, they rolled out the usual big gun of modern business: fear. They produced charts to show that if there were a major fire in Valier (let’s say at the school, which is probably the biggest structure next to the grain elevator), the present water tower would be exhausted before the fire went out and all the children would burn. And besides there were all these grants and programs and low-interest loans -- a little diligent paperwork and the whole thing would practically cost nothing at all. What’s not to like?
Another force, an outsider named Tom moved to town. He made his living selling sprinkler systems, but he sounded like a water engineer. He questioned the wells, he questioned whether there were backflow valves to prevent the herbicides from the aerial spraying business at the airport from getting into the school water fountains. (The county, their attention attracted by the commotion, discovered that county property was being used for free. Poison is one thing -- free-loading is another! The aerial spraying business had to move out of town.) Tom crunched numbers constantly -- wringing them out of the town clerk. He gave out lots of free advice. Since we’ve had a new and more indulgent mayor, he has volunteered to approach the county commissioners to see whether they would plow the town roads. (He doesn’t know that the county seat thinks it IS the county.) Then he became the purchasing agent for the town’s new plowing tractor. (No word on the amount of the customary broker’s fee.)
Before her election the mayor had been wandering along the idyllic lake next to the town and discovered that the little nesting island had been invaded by a vicious ATV killer who smashed every ground nest, mostly seagulls. What she didn’t know was that the lake AND the island belong to the Pondera Canal company -- it’s part of their irrigation system. So, full of indignation, she called the Audubon Society. The feds got into it. The Canal company said if that lake was going to be so much trouble, they’d just bulldoze it the next time they lowered the water level. In the meantime people had figured out who the egg-breaker was. In the end everyone sort of backed off.
The next major kafuffle came when the mayor was actually elected (no one else ran) but was faced with a Good Ol’ Boy council. Another outsider had been preaching Union until the three-person work force (including the clerk) had decided they did indeed want to unionize and their spokesman came to defend the water master over the length of his yard grass. Yard grass is very important in Valier and not unrelated to water. Etc.
That had about run its course when the council came to a regular meeting and were expected to approve a five-figure bill for street gravel that they had not known about in advance. One of the council members was the local gravel man and he had NOT been asked to bid. The mayor claimed it would be illegal for a member of the town council to sell the town anything. She brought in an expert from a coalition of towns in Montana who agreed. The council brought in a lawyer. The mayor brought in the town lawyer. The two lawyers were clearly embarrassed. This is one of those matters that is best finessed. Too much scrutiny can make a LOT of trouble and lose a lot of business all around, even for lawyers.
The council resigned except for one guy. It was hard to find replacements. The expert from the town coalition had explained that towns could not afford insurance, so they had formed a fund for self-insurance. The kicker was that to be part of that pool, the towns had to agree to abide by the rules of the coalition. Small, dusty, cash-strapped rural villages often get things done without too much attention to details. For instance, the gravel man has the town’s underground pipe maze in his head, because he’s dug most of them up at one time or another. Same with the water master.
By this time the clerk was finding that all these “free” grants and loans required many hours of work to read, fill out, and deliver by deadlines. And there were little details that had to be provided at the cost of the town.
All this time Tom kept up his barrage of advice and analysis. Finally this week he got everyone’s attention. He had read the state legal specifications for the erection of water towers that were stipulated in the late 1800’s. The foundation of a watertower is pillars that rest deep in the ground on a massive block. Each vertical pillar is about twelve feet long, under the ground, and each should have four specific diameter rebar rods through each of them, bottom to top. He had photos that showed only TWO had been installed. HALF.
This news was presented at a town meeting that had been rescheduled several times. No council quorum was present. Tom, the clerk, and I were the only non-council members. “Don’t you dare blog about this,” they said. I gave them a day or so. It was a public meeting and it will go to our pockets.
The water tower construction was stopped because of weather anyway, but now it will be on hold indefinitely. What went wrong with the inspection system that ought to have caught this? Who certified that the work had been done properly? It appears that the pillars will have to be dug up and done over, which Tom cheerfully informed us might probably cost something like $160,000. Will that coalition insurance pick it up? Do we really NEED a second water tower? Where were the city workers while all this was going on? They were supposed to keep thing monitored.
Stay tuned. Both mayors are female and both have had jobs where they oversaw contracts for construction compliance. I look for a lot of social stress fractures.
What cheers me is that I talked to one of the Good Ol’ Boys (he was insulating the town hall -- paid for by an energy grant) who declared fervently how much he loves this town and his excellent record of service as a descendent of the previous long-term mayor. Months ago when there was a public meeting about something or other (probably water) a man who had moved to Valier rather later asked for time to say how much he loved this town. He had tears in his eyes.
Then he left because he didn’t have time for the meeting.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
At last month’s Town Council meeting I raised everyone’s consciousness by yelling at the Mayor, who is a woman from Seattle used to corporate culture. What happened was that she tried to soothe my ruffled feathers (I only have to look at her to puff up) by offering me a luxury chocolate truffle. I said, “Thanks, no. I have diabetes.”
She said, “Oh, but these are really expensive fine high-grade chocolate.”
I shouted, “Are you deaf??? I have diabetes.”
She hadn’t registered at all. She’s a tiny, um, “slim” person. In her experience the little social routine is one says “I’m on a diet,” The other responds, “Oh, surely just this once, a little wouldn’t hurt you!” Games people play. Luxury is important to her. “Treating,” obligating, people is what works for her. It’s a script.
I’m not on a script. I’m saving my life. And I’m in a town and next to a reservation where lives are being destroyed daily by the way they eat and treat. I expect that processed foods, baked goods, sugar-saturated foods, empty foods, are beginning to rival the damage done by alcohol. It took a long time for people to fight back against booze and I expect it will take even longer to change the context that creates diabetes. In the meantime, I’m sure that people are still offering to buy a drunk a drink.
I begin to see how many levels are involved. Today at Blood Sugar 101, the topic was the phenomenon that people take their insulin, as prescribed, at mealtime in order for the right dose of insulin to be there to deal with glucose. But their blood sugar takes a nosedive, as though they hadn’t eaten, and then at some unpredictable moment an hour or several hours later, suddenly goes up but out of sync. Evidently what’s happening is that the valve at the bottom of the stomach clenches, so the food doesn’t go into the small intestine where it passes through the walls into the blood stream. Then finally it relaxes. There’s a valve at the top of the stomach as well and it is not served well by food sitting in the stomach. A loose valve at the top of the stomach lets acid-soaked contents all the way up into the throat and mouth where it dissolves your back teeth, upsetting your dentist. GERD, they call it.
So that’s a mechanical problem. Being constantly offered candy and baked goods as a matter of hospitality and social good will is another kind of problem. The theories about what actually happens during the interaction of glucose and insulin, how nutrition gets into the cell and whether the cell is resisting the action of insulin is a biochemistry issue. Then there are things to think about in terms of heredity or life-style. Also, the human body was designed to be on the move all day and many of its systems -- even the pumping of blood -- is meant to interact with that. People have saluted this principle to the extreme of putting treadmills under their standup desks and walking while they work. (No word on whether they actually generated enough electricity to operate the computer or keep the light on. At Heart Butte in the high tech classrooms the body temp of active kids was computed as energy. If they were sedentary while watching a movie, the lights came on to compensate for the lack of human radiation. Very inconvenient.)
All the pervasive contextual problems -- like food distribution systems, the ability of people to home-grow their food or find things to eat that are produced locally, federal subsidies for all the wrong foods (do you think anyone in this village that depends on grain crops is going to fight them?), the genetics of grain -- all have to be changed gradually. Poor people are fat because rich people are increasingly health-conscious so the surplus foods that sustain commodities and food banks are the things not eaten by the rich: cake mix, frozen cookie dough, prepared dry cereal, etc., high-salt processed cheese. What IS locally good is the occasional donation of meat. One woman, not an Indian, told me that she occasionally had to eat ONLY meat for a few days to keep her blood sugar down.
While society either slowly reforms or implodes itself, one has to buck the tide a bit for the sake of personal survival. I assume you have a computer or you wouldn’t be reading this, so at the end I’ve listed some of my sources of ideas.
The main thing to remember about diabetes on a personal level is that NO TWO PEOPLE ARE THE SAME. Every individual has to investigate with the help of an accurate blood monitor, some careful record-keeping, and habits you can’t allow to be challenged if they work for you, but no hesitation about experimenting now and then when something sounds promising. Diabetes II in particular seems to be metabolic failure of a whole interacting system, not just insulin which can be erosive as well.
At the most recent town council meeting, the FORMER mayor brought candy from the Parrot in Helena. I love the Parrot. Looking me in the eye, she told about how she went into the back kitchen to get freshly made hard candies. She waved them around but did NOT offer me any. This is an old Montana game people play: testing, just testing. Not QUITE punishing. She IS diabetic, among other things. I smiled. It was a very exciting meeting. I’ll tell you about it later. They demanded silence -- but it was a public meeting and I’m only giving them a little slack.
This is the state of the art, gold-standard, believe-it-if-you-see-it-here, website. Jenny is NOT conventional or mainstream and far more fussy and into detail than you probably need, but this is what I go by and it works for me.
This guy produces a LOT of information and he seems to be pretty reliable, though he sometimes reminds me of the late beloved Jack LaLane in his level of enthusiasm and encouragement.
If you respond to curiosity about food and a very broad interest in it, this is pretty absorbing.
This one is okay but a little slick. Don’t be captured by “products.”
It’s about fat (lipids) and the writer is a veterinarian. Technical stuff. You might need a medical dictionary, but I’m always fascinated.
Fats and glutens. Celiac. A biochemist.
There are a ton of these websites out there. Find your own “sweet spot.” It’s time for me to fix supper: a can of spinach with two eggs poached on top. (Uh, the can is removed, obviously.) A sprinkle of garlic salt. You don’t have to be THIS ascetic! But I do. I did add a little parmesan cheese and butter. I have not had eye damage (which is how I was diagnosed -- diabetic retinopathy) since I began to eat this way.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
One of the hardest things to deal with in life is the difference between what you expect and what actually is there, whether we’re talking about marriage, weather or cooking. If the mismatch is too drastic, the result can be fatal. If it’s too subtle, it subtly disturbs things in a not-quite-perceptible way that can’t be addressed because it’s not known.
I was surprised to find this phenomenon showing up in one of my fav blogs, www.1000fragrances.blogspot.com where Octavian Coifan writes in a fabulously informed and elegant way about the creation of perfumes. He says (edited):
After 5 years, almost 4500 articles on this blog and a number of readers that surprises me every morning, . . . I imagined that my articles would bring not just feedback, but more knowledge to me in an enthusiastic hope to clarify several things about some perfumes or theoretical aspects. Online or not, it proved to be a dream and the only really engaging conversation is that between me and the perfumes / raw materials. Every day, between 8 AM and 8 PM, I "speak" with a forest of blotters on my table (raw materials, accords, new perfumes, vintage creations, experiments) working on 3-4 projects at the same time, things I've never presented here. Last week I noticed the huge amount of formulae I worked and how improperly they are organized in my notebooks. In a similar situation, I hoped that several of my articles would engage a conversation maybe to help me to clarify some aspects of the 8th art or to bring some depth for a further investigation. But, contrary to what I've expected, the answers to my reflections cannot be found by a different person than me. . . . Web 2.0 changed everything adding a touch of "exhibitionism" and sometimes the author became a merchandise. But I considered the things in a different way and, in this unscented web garden, I left the seeds for many things hoping to find them in bloom one day. . . . I hoped that one day somebody knowing more than me about something rare (let's say Mousse de Saxe because I worked on the formula) would find my post and would drop anonymously several words or a mail and the reader coming next year will find something richer in meaning. But this did not happen here and last month I changed my mind when I prepared several posts about this type of curiosities from the past and I did not publish the articles.
One day, when I'll find the perfect place in Paris, I'll hold a fragrance salon, much similar to the artistic salons of the XXth century. It's better to speak about perfumes with blotters under the nose because conceptualization in fragrance is an exercise that very few people are able to do. It is not a work to do between 10 and 12 AM in a company because usually this type of artistic meetings happen when people have a desire to enlarge their horizon and not when they are paid to answer a brief. A blog is like a daily conference on a stadium. True things happen only in small circles unless it is a revolution. A salon in Paris with people I invite because I want to listen and inspire them for new aesthetic horizons is much more exciting and intriguing for me at this moment. We'll see what the future brings.
The idea that perfumers reading online texts would bring some of their knowledge about old creations they know maybe better than I do is simply Utopian now. Virtual space is public space, often too much polluted by the idea of selling something. In the past 5 years I've learnt the most important lesson: if you want to learn the secrets of a great perfume (let's say Pour troubler by Guerlain) there is only one way: smell it for months because there is nobody in the world to help you with an answer, or those with answers are not usually on-line. . . .
Maybe the real truth about perfumers today is that very few of them have the time to breathe. Their job is not housed in a dream building. Perfumers are responsible for the multi billion market today but they work in glass boxes. If you want the next Chanel 5 buy a castle for your team, a huge garden to breathe and a music salon for conversation. Without time, space and air there is no creation and our imagination cannot fly.
He's talking about "slow perfume!" Like slow food. Slow love?
I was moved by the poignancy of the plea. In the comments, some of his readers scolded him as selfish and others expressed great appreciation though they simply could not meet Coifan on his informed and complex level. Myself and Aad (a poet friend in the Netherlands) swap Coifan’s remarks even though Aad has access to fine perfumes and I don’t. In the past in big cities I’ve been the scourge of the perfume counter but I had no idea about many things.
One of the issues is another of those unexpected differences: European restrictions on substances considered irritating or allergenic have forced their omission from classic formulas. Noses also change over time, but often a named perfume is truly not what it was, less . . . something not quite identifiable. Of course, skin also changes its chemistry over time. And ethnic tastes differ.
I’ve learned so much. Machinery can identify the molecular structure of the ingredients of a perfume and their proportion, but that’s like saying geometry can identify the movements of a ballerina. In order to create a perfume that stirs the emotions (which is the point, isn’t it?) there are questions of base, first impact, layering, dry-down, lingering development. It is the choreography of the responses and interactions of the molecules over time that counts. Flowers, woods, leathers, designed molecules, amber and many more substances that might be rather unpleasant alone are all part of the design. Yesterday the subject was a perfume that suggested freshly baked bread. Coifan can recognize the perfume’s creator, analyze the historical background, suggest what the geographical sources of the ingredients might be, and so on, like a great literary critic unfolding a fine and complex novel.
All this has nothing to do with movie stars or fancy bottles. It is quite free for those who read blogs. It’s about awareness in the world. I expect it daily now and will be much disappointed if it ends. It’s been years but I can still remember Guerlain’s “Spanish Geranium” or Estee Lauder’s “Aliage” well enough to figure out what Coifan says about them. They are no longer on the market. Ended. The world is faster and more flat.
Monday, January 24, 2011
Last week I got an email query -- usually it is the writers who query -- from a company that does publicity for authors. They wanted to know if I would like to pay them to promote my books and they provided lots of creds about dealing with big name publicity outlets on TV and in print. I asked them if they were prepared to take on an earlier task in the “business flow,” that of publicizing “Orpheus” to agents who would presumably then “sell” it to publishing houses. In other words, I was asking if they would do what used to be the job of agents, who are now doing (for a percentage of the author’s “take”) what they used to do on salary as editors employed by publishing houses.
Their answer was “good heavens, no!” We never got to the part about what it would cost. They wanted to simply plug into another part of the publishing that used to be done by a publisher. The most recent “old” business model was:
Research the market to see what’s selling -- much of this through “in-house” reports by the regional salesmen who physically traveled to indie, chain, and academic bookstores to see what the clerks and buyers liked. (I.e. the bookstore people, NOT editors, were the arbiters for what to write.)
Sort through the slush pile to see what might fit.
Contact the author to see how much they were prepared to force their manuscript into this pattern or “platform,” and also to see how attractive that person might be to an audience or at least on a website.
Edit the book. (Name of the editor: Procrustes.)
Print and store copies, estimating as closely as possible what sales might be like so that the number would be neither under or over.
Send out the info to the distributors who would transfer copies to their own warehouses, ready to ship to bookstores when the publicity hit.
Provide publicity: tours, stories, interviews on the radio, websites.
If there are too many copies, either pulp them or sell them through used book stores -- possibly online -- who specialize in remainders.
At every step, the ordinary aspiring author these days is intended to participate by contributing money, effort, and contacts. One is asked to provide a marketing plan along with the manuscript, name likely bookstores and local interviewers, accept a percentage of profit (ALL possible costs are deducted) rather than an advance, actively promote the book (one Montana publisher said quite frankly he would not consider any manuscript the author was not prepared to push to his/her limits), and be available for online chats with book club members, maybe invite people into one’s home for tea or whatever.
This works pretty well for the “mommie writers,” who are writing to a demographic like themselves and quite prepared to be social in a regional sort of way, which works better where there is population density -- though the Internet can substitute for that to some degree. The days of dumping out or delegating fan mail are over. The assumption that writers will naturally live in Manhattan where the publishing houses are is no more valid than the assumption that all movie stars will live in Hollywood. BUT the other regional assumptions -- that people will only read about people like themselves -- is alive and dominant.
So now a writer who wants to sell, who is prepared to accept the idea that “books” are a business, must do market research beforehand (the regional salesmen work by phone and internet now and skip small indie bookstores) and pay for or provide promotion afterwards. What a lot of writers do is simply declare themselves a publisher, which means learning to format and edit (or contracting it to someone -- publishers used to have in-house people), set aside some storage for the physical books and a table for wrapping and shipping as orders come in, set up a calendar for likely promotion events (don’t overlook auctions, rodeos, swap meets, etc.), and contact the local celebrity and political mongers for interview time. Maybe buy ads. In short, design and execute a complex business model.
The big flaw in the pitch this promotion company made to me is that they are very likely to know little or less about the subject matter of my published book, “Bronze Inside and Out,” which is the problem the U of Calgary Press itself has. The world of Western art is a bubble that operates mostly through major museums, historical societies, and auctions which have become social events. Even the galleries work through these venues and management people move back and forth through them. There are a small number of magazines and some websites, but they are set up to handle paintings with a few nods to sculpture and possibly paraphernalia, including guns. An academic press is unlikely to have contacts in those places. In addition, this press (at least) operates by securing grants for the cost of publishing. They are nonprofit. There is no reason to promote.
Now consider the change that ePublishing makes. What is the business model? No one knows. No more wrestling with warehouses, UPS, or bookstore returns, but how does one maintain ownership of a manuscript? What’s to keep anyone from downloading all the movie reviews from “prairiemary,” taking the pile (or a disc or a thumb) over to Kinkos to be printed and bound -- maybe fifty copies for friends and neighbors -- and zowie -- they’re “publishing.” There’s no way to “fence the communion” which was an early Christian strategy for keeping unbelievers out. (In the end they just gave up and included everyone. Though the communion rail persists in some churches.)
But that’s the equivalent of a monk writing a copy of a Pauline letter for his monastery. The Gutenberg Bible was made possible by movable type. There’s still no one-format-fits-all software that can be read on every device. Even worse, what must be formatted now includes images, movement, music and links that must be kept in sync. So far one can’t even keep the font and spacing from being changed by devices, which is why some poets have gone to slashes to indicate line endings. Format, as an element of the writing, limits distribution to whatever device will preserve it. The kind of device (Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone) has not settled and doesn’t look as though it will for years yet.
The skill set for managing complex e-literature is formidable, demanding a new vocabulary at least, but -- more than that -- a whole new mental framework. You have to “read” a lot of it before your brain adapts, the same as a print writer must first and foremost read a LOT of print. Hey! That’s a pretty good pitch for Orpheus! And blogs. And vlogs. Rewire your brain!
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Hard to believe that it’s thirty years since I left seminary in Chicago in order to serve four Montana fellowships. That’s a long enough time to have lost my grip on some subjects, if I ever had any. So I need to do a little catch-up on monasticism, a human impulse shaped by circumstances and institutions. In the early Christian tradition, there are three kinds: eremitic (the solitary ascetic hermit), the coenobitic (the dedicated community) and the skete, which is a mid-way form with characteristics of both. In societies ranging from New Guinea tribes, where old men create “booths” in the jungle where they can be alone, to the urban artists and poets who occupy SRO hotels where they can concentrate on solitary work, this is a recurrent way of life, sometimes chosen and sometimes imposed or maybe both.
Christians have worked out a good deal of history and much prescription about how such social phenomena should be run, especially when there is a political element. There have been times when the communities were able to accumulate and protect considerable wealth, which then exposed them to raids and dispersal, sometimes by kings. At other times they have sheltered civilization: writing, writing, writing. Providing medical care. Raising orphans. Sheltering outliers. Providing retreats.
In Asia an old person might simply walk the streets while carrying a begging bowl, at the mercy of the generosity of the people, to demonstrate absolute acceptance of the simple fact that everyone dies. They escape the suspicions directed at European monasticism, which is always being examined for unworthy motives, like escaping prosecution or fomenting heresy. I don’t know of any described monastic communities in the aboriginal tribes of the American continents, though there were no doubt priesthoods and ritual adepts. No one has looked or written. The elements of asceticism, discipline and virtue (hard to describe as it is) might be missing or hard to see. Some hippie communes might qualify and others not. Avoidance of sex is often an element, but not necessary. It’s just that pairs are not usually the basic unit, whether or not they produce children.
Scientology says it has a monastic group called “Sea.org” which seems to me bogus verging on criminal. It is a demonstration of how easy it is to twist something idealistic through power corruption. At the other extreme are monastic groups that are ecumenical, stepping away from control by institutions, because an institution too easily becomes devoted to its own perpetuation regardless of the virtue of its goals.
Going back to the original three categories, my preference is eremetic. (Tim’s is nearly coenobitic.) And yet his nomadism has been connected to the eremetic wanderer while my staying-put is related to community, a double-community of the reservation and Valier. Mine is print-centered; his has been art-centered and -- more than that -- addressing healing and hospice. The imagery in his vooks is often the hooded monk.
We are united in what I take to be a forming new religious understanding (NOT an institution), welling up through science and nature to change the way we see the cosmos. It can be quite terrifying, since it shrinks human beings down to a molecular recipe, rising out of the soup of creation and pre-consciousness into a temporary dance that predicts its own demise. It motivates monasticism because it sees that all hoarding is futile and because the terror of the night demands some kind of shape. Every flame must have a chalice. Monasticism is a chalice.
http://www.stpetersabbey.ca/ is the only Catholic monastery I know very well. Intended to support homesteaders on the Saskatchewan prairie, it is an outreach from the Collegeville, Minnesota, Saint John’s Abbey. http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org/ Those Benedictines came to Minnesota in 1856 from St. Vincent Abbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and, earlier, to Latrobe in 1846 from the Bavarian abbey of Metten in southeastern Germany. http://wn.com/Metten_Abbey
I know Saint John’s Abbey mostly through their journal, “Worship,” which addresses theories of liturgy in a way I find useful. They are a highly sophisticated and arts-friendly group, to say nothing of their bread and spirits tradition.
St. Peter’s also has publications: http://www.prairiemessenger.ca/Andrewbook.html A quote: “As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer expectations we have, the more good things of life become unexpected gifts that we accept with gratitude.” Etty Hillesum. (Accompanied by a snow photo taken by David Strachan -- my maiden name -- who is not related to me.) Andrew Murray Britz, OSB writes from the protection and support of his monastery in the same way that Tim and I try to do, though our content probably only overlaps a bit with his. I’d bet that an objective reader would find quite a bit.
The internet has made possible a new kind of community in which people are present with their minds and hearts, their on-going conversation, but never with their physical selves, which might be anywhere on the planet, any age, size, shape, gender, level of prosperity. Far from scratching out copies with a quill, we are at keyboards and smart phones, flashing and linking images alongside our print. Many are not religious, simply passing the time, having fun, turning a profit. That’s okay. They should go on their way.
When the Unitarians and I visited St. Peters’ in Muenster, Saskatchewan, we were aware that at least one woman lived in solitude in a small cabin. We were instructed to leave her alone. Also, it was impressed upon us that it is a great earned honor to live in religious solitude and that no one in the movement is allowed to live that way when they are young. It is not to be a retreat, but a privileged devotion. Not an evasion, but a dedication. As a great sacrifice, this woman occasionally taught, which interrupted her prayers in a solitude that was not a confinement.
I find that my eremetic tendencies chose me rather than the other way around. I’ve drifted into the ancient Christian worship pattern, even spontaneously rising at 3AM and 6AM. The Baptist bells next door keep me reminded of 9AM-noon-3PM- 6PM, but they don’t ring at 9PM or midnight. I am out-of-step with most of the culture, but I am not just religion-centered, constantly praying. I’m not able to say to whom I would pray or to what end.
Rather I am spinning books into blogs. Or winnowing. No longer do I think of grand schemes of success. It is enough to use my library (which will be dispersed on my death) and create my blogs (which will be orphaned on my death or disability). How is that different from writing a best-seller that is forgotten in a decade?