Wednesday, August 31, 2011
The goddess “Cloacina,” an ancient Etruscan and then Roman figure, might be the necessary patron saint for small Montana towns struggling with water and sewer problems. Fishermen and biologists might know that sub-mammal creatures have an organ of evacuation that mixes all that tricky stuff between the legs (urine, feces and sex) into one organ. Our social taboo on such subjects does not help us think about them. Small town infrastructure is not sexy, but it certainly has a lot to with the handling of water and sewer, two functions that are kept separate not only as networks of piping but also as “businesses” -- money in, functions out -- included in the town government. It’s a temptation to shift and mix money.
Monday’s Valier meeting for the purpose of raising rates on sewer and water was held at 5:30pm last Monday. Surely you’ve never heard of a meeting that would LOWER rates and surely you didn’t imagine that in the end the rates wouldn’t have to be raised. Few people appeared at the meeting, NO representatives of local businesses, schools or churches, but a set of big handsome strong Valier men in the prime of life from DeVoe’s construction business. They had never attended before.
The three most crucial economic forces in Valier are sort of invisible, taken for granted. DeVoe Construction, the Canal Company and the CHS grain elevators are so basic that few people think about them. If DeVoe were to leave (parts are already in Kalispell), the population of the town (now 311 or so) would drop, maybe by as many as fifty people or more, which would deeply affect everyone else. These employees are young with families, so the loss would hit the school hard.
If the Canal Company somehow failed, which is unthinkable but not impossible, every irrigation farmer would be out of business. The population of the town might not drop directly, but indirectly the business loss would be devastating. (And yet the first impulse of newcomers is to cut off the supply of potable water to farmers who fill their household tanks from the town’s water supply.) The town thinks of the lake as a source of recreation business, but in fact it is the impoundment for the water for the canal system that sustains ag in the area. If the Canal Company were no longer operating the dams and canals, the lake would revert to being the hay meadow it once was. The retirement population that is here to enjoy fishing would have no reason to stay.
The third primary business is two elevator complexes and related subsidiaries owned by CHS which has headquarters in St. Paul. BNSF owns the railroad spur that serves it, but leases the Valier section to CHS. I don’t know who owns the grain bin “farms” -- there are several -- but grain is the keystone of this whole region. In spite of being everywhere and seeming eternal, it is in fact quite vulnerable to government subsidy policy, world weather, mono-genetic risk, and disease. That's not mentioning fuel and ag chemicals. Some say that the force that really emptied the small towns was simply CRP, the program that put much land into fallow: that is, farmers were paid NOT to grow crops. Many sold their buildings and equipment -- and moved to a gentler climate. In fact, changing weather may at least force change in crop management. For instance, planting in fall if constant late wet springs make spring planting problematic.
A town is a kind of body with people coming in and people going out. Some of us watch the number of “for sale” signs which seem to reflect morale more than economy. In good years vacant lots are for sale. In really bad years the real estate company signs are not local, as people look farther for sales.
One could describe the economy of this small town in terms of tiers, excluding the school and law enforcement or the gas, electricity, and telephone/internet infrastructure people. (The prices of all these systems are going up.) We do have a bank and post office, which so far has not been put on the cut list. I’m told that -- counting ranches -- there are about 85 businesses based in Valier. This is where tourism counts.
Many local businesses are ranches or ranch-related or located on ranches, including many livestock related operations; for instance a veterinarian, a feed lot, grain cleaning and a pelletizing plant. The aerial crop sprayer, So-Lo Air, was recently moved out of town to a ranch. Some of the small businesses in town are run by wives of ranchers and farmers.
A quick list of “second tier” town businesses include: Twilite Cowgirl; Christiaens Meats (and custom butchers -- they go out to the ranches to work on-site); Pony Expressions, Holden Real Estate, Medicine River Trading Company (which is also a website business); Curry’s groceries; the Cenex gas station and One-stop; the old Mike’s Place service station across the street (4-U Collision Center); the Valier clinic which houses three businesses: Marias Health Care, HiLine Chiropractic Center, and Mary Woldstad LCPC; McFarland Counseling; Fitz Repair and Machining (he rebuilds motors); Jessie’s Cut and Curl; Charlene’s Cut ‘n Style; there used to be a tanning bed business; three eating establishments, the Panther Cafe, Froggies, and the quite elegant Lighthouse; Ben Taylor is at three locations, a shop, a pumping station for fuel, and a store; two places to stay, Mountain Front Lodge and the Bed and Breakfast in The Stone Schoolhouse; the Country Haven Greenhouse; Sage Electric; the Valierian. DeVoe hardware store is separate from the construction company; Sullivan’s excavating and car wash. The trash roll-off and cemetery probably don’t count as businesses, but they do employ people. And one of the little internal “businesses” of the town is the campground on the lakeshore. The airport belongs to the county and is used by Homeland Security among others.
As a third tier there are people in homes making jewelry, writing, editing, painting, giving singing lessons, and probably quietly doing a lot of other things online. We’re home for border-related law enforcement (some are single men, others have families) and the sort of temporary crews who work on projects like the watertower or the wind farm.
The folks at the meeting tended to see everything through their own lens, for instance, the DeVoe’s Builders Service employees thought that probably the answer would be more housing development, with the idea that if there were more homeowners to share the cost of the infrastructure, rates would be lower. But that would force expansion of the already overloaded sewage lagoon, just as we’ve had to add a second watertower.
A consultant, Tod Kasten, was present from “Midwest Assistance Program,” a non-profit. I assume that does not mean he is non-salaried. He was supposed to report on his conclusion, after reviewing the books, that our sewage program is non-sustaining, though the water is paying for itself now that the meters have been installed. Much of the problem seems to be debt from rebuilding sewer line and small unpredicted costs of grants and loans.
The three things I could see as problematic is -- first -- our sewage lagoon water sanitizing system which somehow doesn’t work in our climate, though no one pointed that out ahead of time when it was sold to us. (Certainly not by the salesmen!) Second is the constant regulatory pressure of forced testing of effluent water under threat of fines from the state level or maybe the federal level. The requirements go up and up, demanding more time, effort and money all the time. It now takes all day Wednesday for Leo to monitor the water and take samples. There are automatic machines that will do this. ($10,000. Guess who was probably pressing behind the scenes for more rigorous testing?)
The third thing is long-standing failure to do long-term planning years ago. This town is a hundred years past the original laying of infrastructure and has been simply ignoring the idea that towns have life cycles. In this, we are sharing with the rest of the country, so that the original investments of founding must now be done all over again in terms of rebuilding infrastructure. Where is the capital for that, let alone the will to do it? I’ll try to develop some thoughts on this later. In the meantime, lighting a candle to Saint Cloacina couldn’t hurt.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
My Netflix queue often clusters itself into themes, partly because I order from trailers and the trailers obey the theory that “if you liked this movie, you will also like. . .” Two films over the weekend grouped themselves around the theme “love.” They could not have been more different. Not at all what I expected, partly because of their national origins and partly because of their philosophical assumptions about what love is anyway.
The first, with the shorthand title “Amelie,” for “Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain,” is French. This little bagatelle is about the director’s fav gamine Audrey Tautou, a worthy successor to Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, and also about the director’s home neighborhood, Montmarte, though he includes blandly “his sex shop” in the Pigalle. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is known in the US for directing one of the Aliens series -- a fact that could not be more misleading.
These local adventures are gathered loosely around the “parlicoot” idea, that somewhere your mate is waiting to be recognized at first sight. Strangely, Jeunet confides, there are no young male actors in France -- no Brad Pitt or Leonardo diCaprio. (Perhaps he has not noticed that they are no longer young.) So he cast a young director as the love interest. Everyone else is a character if not a caricature. But it is the set that is often the subject: blood red and pea green, it is not quite Christmas, but that kind of feverish furor of tschotskes, accumulations, iconic objects. I didn’t see any salt-and-pepper shaker collections, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Notes, signs, arrows painted on the pavement, birds significantly flying up, ringing telephones. The voice-over by Jeunet deciphers it all and makes it clear that he loved the outtakes as much as the actual movie. There are so many of them that they are on a separate disc. Tautou wears big black shoes like Minnie Mouse -- we are close to cartoon territory.
One key contribution to the amazement (maze) are his personal collection of strange stock film: a sperm penetrating an egg, a woman swelling in time-lapse pregnancy, a baby being born, babies swimming instinctively and nude, a horse that jumps the fence and joins a famous bicycle race, vaudeville acts, Pearl Bailey!! , old newsreels of war, goatherds in Afghanistan.
Another is his love of CGI and special effects, so a released goldfish (he calls it a “golden fish”) turns and gazes up at the bridge from which he has been dropped into a pond. We cannot discern its emotional state. When in despair, our heroine becomes a column of water and spashes to the floor. Jeunet admits that might have been a little much. But this is a Christmas Valentine for the excessively French and sentimental, meant to cheer everyone up.
The second movie is German, “Cloud 9” or “Wolke Neun.” www.metacafe.com/watch/3141122/cloud_9_movie_trailer/ I include a trailer (there are several) because it is guaranteed to gross-out every teenager on the planet. A married woman falls in love with a man but still loves her husband. She makes the mistake (?) of telling her husband and has to go live with the lover, which is pleasant. The husband dies. She grieves. Not remarkable except that the actors are my age! The woman is “only” 67 but the men are in their late seventies, with spindly shanks and little pot bellies. The woman is pillowy, with a nice big round bottom. They strip off their clothes (all) and make love realistically, which is to say in the groping, stuttering way that people do, not the choreographed fantasy of actors eight inches from the camera lens. Not that the camera is backed off here.
The film is garlanded with traditional German songs by a women’s choir that includes the female lover. Nature, family, sweetness are offered in the words and, indeed, reviewers who loved this film called it “lyric” and bought into the sentiments -- were resentful when the plot turned dark, not considering that because the woman had a new lover, her loss of the previous one was bearable, but her choice was not without penalty.
The assumption in both films is that people fall in love at first sight. Or at least have some kind of recognizing reaction that can be developed into a whole life-changing plot turn. In the French film the key is mystery and pursuit, so that Amelie -- who loves little plots -- is forever arranging satisfying vignettes of punishment and reward. In the German film everything is explicit from the beginning. It is the simple but lyrical (it IS that) being-in-the-moment that is authentic pleasure between two people.
The review responses for Cloud 9 are fascinating because they cover a full range. Few saw that Inge is choosing between a familiar, rather controlling, rather stiff and techie man (he will sit listening to the sounds of railroad engines) though protective (he fixes meals, takes care of her when she has flu) and a surprising, engaging, skinny-dipper who likes bicycling and long walks in nature. With the first man she has been a child and also a mother with a child, but she has not really been herself, perhaps. The review judgments depended on with which of the three characters the viewer identified -- the husband? Terrible movie, neglecting the moral issues. The lover? What a delight! Inge, the woman? “Go, Inge, go!” She seems naive, but in fact she chose the man best for a father and then the man best for a lover, painful as it was to have to choose.
What I draw from the juxtaposition of these films is that Love is a concept that depends on the context. Not only the national culture context, but also the individual characters of the persons. But whatever love is, the writer/director’s task is to depict a series of moments that evoke from the viewer something real, possibly memorable. “Amelie” was self-indulgent and infused with the vision of the director. “Cloud 9” made room for the ideas of the actors -- indeed, their realities. The color-pushed novelties and anomalies of “Amelie” are fun. The gentle simplicity of ordinary essentials in “Cloud 9” will stay with me longer. But I'm old.
Monday, August 29, 2011
The watchword now is disintermediation. That is, getting rid of the middle man in just about any context from food to print. That means self-publishing. Which means a lot of pesky stuff about formatting, advertising, distribution and so on. Stuff that authors are often not very good at.
Publishing companies are not going to willingly step down from their position of privileged and autocratic mediation between writer and audience. They still haven’t quite realized they’ve lost their monopoly. And they have lost their mystique. Slowly people are realizing that they are not the Olympians (or maybe Landed Gentry) that they once may have been, but only flunkies for soup companies in Germany. They are quickly being disintermediated in the same way the USSR was, without really knowing.
But they’ve been laying off their editors for a while and many of those have become agents who know how to be TACTFUL and FAITHFUL and HELPFUL intermediates for authors who want to write, not self-publish. So why don’t they? Why aren’t those editors/agents presenting themselves to writers? Why does everyone want to be an author -- write the great American whatsis -- but no one wants to be the new multi-talented author support system?
It’s because there’s no myth, no glamour. There are no praising and dramatic novels about agents who can handle contracts for ebooks, audible books, trophy books, self-published books, and all the other kinds. There are no ennobling guides to agents who have databases for line-editors, rewrite editors, formatters, illustrators, reviewers, reliable providers of content for reading devices, current providers of which bibliography for which device, and so on. In fact, I doubt if there is anyone anywhere who really KNOWS all this stuff. Some of it isn’t even invented yet. We all need search engines and even then you have to consider what search terms to use.
One of the probs for the shift from publisher’s editors and writer’s agents to some kind of hybrid is the huge and very steep learning curve about tech stuff -- not just translating to bytes but also keeping up with the ongoing tsunami of possibilities. (The latest is print books with sound tracks, just like movies, so that as your eyes pass over certain print, the page turns on a surge of violins or maybe a crooning sax. I love it on my audible books. Though none have gone to the lengths of Garrison Keillor’s sound effect stories on the radio.)
So the steady older woman who was able to soothe and guide tempestuous young geniuses is going to have to find a young techie partner. The man who “did lunch” with big shots and profited greatly from it, will have to learn to use his computer-mounted vid camera which means his face will count more than his tailoring. (However, he will be able to smoke his cigar. I’d advise against martinis at the keyboard.) One of the reasons that publishing and agents are concentrated in either Manhattan or LA is that deals have been made in facetime. Face “book” doesn’t cut it. It’s dialogue, body language, the ambiance of a nice restaurant or cozy cafe that has made things happen.
Since “publishing” is now scattered all over every continent, the writing-enabler will have to be everyplace as well. The formatting, illustrating, distributing and so on are easy enough to do on a computer via internet. All the concierge functions are a snap. One can do them at home in pajamas. It’s the money raising that makes the difference. Who will invest? Why should they trust you? What return will they get? This is the one factor that might allow publishing companies, esp. ones with big names, to regroup. What will tend to disperse them is the kind of bait and switch games they’ve been playing with authors in order to pull in readers. They need to be busted in the enforcement sense, but that will probably be what busts them in the monetary sense.
There are websites that monitor agents/editors. One writer runs a blog where he simply posts all replies he gets to his queries. The letters that come back are snotty, disrespectful, arrogant and stupid, but what’s most amazing is that when they were made public on his blog, the responders went ballistic. They expected total confidentiality and obsequious respect. Plainly, they thought of themselves as the dauphins of the industry at their receptionist desks, busy keeping the doors shut.
An agent/editor/intermediary who is not a realist is useless. Probably their hardest job will be evading the talentless who don’t know that’s what they are, but maybe harder than that will be recognizing those who are enormously gifted but unrecognizable because they are in early stages. Of course, that’s what everyone hopes they are. So maybe someone ought to open a separate business that caters to those people. They could call it, um, let’s see -- a school? No, schools are conformity-focused. At the moment “self-publishing” companies are making big money out of the untalented and overoptimistic. At least if they’re ebooks, they won’t be moldering in a garage.
Probably in the end consortiums will form, groups of people working together in some trusting contractual relationship so that each does some part of the project. I suppose they might evolve back into being publishers, but more like today’s mom-and-pop speciality and local operations.
An interesting development will be what happens to the academic presses. They have existed to support the Ph.D. thesis industry, the specialized journals, and textbooks. All of these are far better served by ebook operations. Their dependence upon “peer review” has become corrupt, cumbersome and always tardy. Instead of three supposedly anonymous readers (to preserve honesty) the peers could include everyone affiliated with the professional organization.
The truth is that peer reviews are often seen through as the efforts at control and sabotage they can be. If all hundred specialists in some subject are looking at the article in question, games will be disabled -- at least to some extent. We are in a period where the boundaries and centers of many disciplines are reconfiguring, so probably the biggest danger is simply chaos. But there will be major staff changes. Most employees of academic presses are making modest salaries that far exceed any compensation for the writers.
If publishers as we know them are being dropped out of the game, will the writers or the readers call the tunes? Very hard to know, because both depend on world events from technological events to political reinventions. The nature of information will change. What will not change is “story,” the invention of narrations, for this is how Scheherazade stayed alive and that won’t change. She will never be disintermediated.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
My old theological seminary is shriveling before our very eyes. No, not the U of Chicago Divinity School, rather my little Unitarian and Universalist school that was attached to the hull of the Great Ship Div School. It has sold its property and moved to an office downtown. What has been the problem?
Theories abound. The one I think is most accurate is that the founding idea was to start at the top -- as it turned out, so as to work their way down. Another is that the segment of society it served has had it so easy that it’s sort of gone flabby and didn’t care enough to save it. Or maybe the problem is that there really is no religious core to U and U except resentment against Christians who are bullies. Or maybe it’s part of the general shrinking of the middle class and Unitarianism turns out to be very middle class, though not mainstream. But why should I care?
Oh, let’s be honest. It’s my ego certification! Literally, it hangs on the wall beside me, saying that I’m a certified MDiv. (That’s Master of Divinity.) The other diploma is an MA in Religious Studies from the U of Chicago Div School. I’m not sure where the diploma is for my BS in speech from Northwestern University and it doesn’t matter. Not much prestige in it. I can’t afford a third frame. There’s not room on the wall.
In fact, if you really KNOW degrees (few do) you’ll know that even my best one (the MA) is kind of mushy, a filter for the Ph.D. program. Now that’s the REAL degree. Of course, it won’t get you a job except as a teacher of people who want a Ph.D. like yours. But we were talking about M/L, once the most highbrow degree of the three UU seminaries. Starr King in Berzerkly is the fun degree, and we had fun mocking it. (“Tuna U.”) Harvard is sort of Everyman’s prestige. Much depends on which program and which year and which prof. But M/L, if you could escape being sucked under by the politics, was supposed to be the hard-core source of learned ministers with the high-grade U of Chicago MA tucked into it. Or so I thought.
In short, I wanted to be certified as a scholar, as a Person Who Matters, as one who is legitimated as an authority, but one with a moral spine who does good rather than “well.” The deeper I got into it, the less I found that to be what I was earning. Ministry, like writing and just about everything else that counts, is something that certifies itself. There is no certifying body that gives you your Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in life. There is no God to pat you on the head and say, “You are my child in whom I am well pleased.”
Probably the person I wanted to hear say that was my mother. Eeeuuuugh. Baby stuff.
All the deserving, striving people out there, getting ignored and misunderstood because they want their mom and dad to say, sincerely and with true knowledge, “You’re wonderful.” Even though if mom and dad DID say that, no one would believe them, least of all their child. I wanted M/L and the U of Chicago to say something impressive enough to back off all the curtain-twitchers in the world who make a career out of pulling other people down, making them small, stepping on them. I did get a little protection for a few years. In the end there’s no hope of changing one’s afflictors and I see that clearly.
So I just walked over to the other side of the gym and took a seat next to Tim Barrus and his boys. (I’ve learned not to put the z on there instead of s, because that’s a cute trick of porn titles. Tim says that porn doesn’t sell anymore. The world itself is enough of a pornographic event.) Scandal and all. Have at it, critics. It’s great fun to watch people gulp and then protest that, of course, it doesn’t matter to THEM, while they sidle away. (Did you say AIDS? Did you say Nasdijj?)
It’s a lot more fun than seminary. And what is most amazing is that my fancy education (not from M/L where they pretended they knew all about the underdog) from the U of Chicago Div School was exactly what I needed. Here was where the action was: the discards of the proper world, thrown aside into a writhing compost of tangled ideas and secret raw hope. 'Poète Maudit' (French: "accursed poet"), in literary criticism, the poet as an outcast of modern society, despised by its rulers who fear his penetrating insights into their spiritual emptiness. I’m prepared with a “Theologie Maudit” except there’s no “theo” (god) involved. This is a “theology of immanence” where god is that than which nothing can be greater, that which includes all things -- even you and you and you, no matter how much you hate yourself and try to claim the devil. God includes even the devil, which is a sort of ecology that morphs with the opportunities.
God includes even the dead, who die no matter how honorable they are, no matter how grand the cathedral from which they are buried, no matter how many admired books they have published, no matter how much they have loved or how many. This is the territory staked out by the Big Boys: Tillich, Eliade, Toulmin. I’m even starting to appreciate Derrida and Ricoeur. (Lord have mercy!)
How are human beings to find their certification of value, their right to exist? Can none of us ever have what we want or even know for sure exactly what that is? You’ll never find out from an institution, whether it’s church or university or government or publisher. Tim has the answer, had it all along, and it’s not red shoes. It’s work. Do stuff. Make stuff.
The universe wants us to participate. That’s not any more a fantasy than the idea that God wants you for his sunbeam or that your mother wants you to be a credit to her. Creatures create and that’s creation, the whole shebang.
So should I take down my certificates? Aren’t I allowed at least a little conceit? They see me through low spots sometimes. But what really sees me through is what they stand for, which is true accomplishment. Not passing the exams and all that, but acquiring the tools I need to understand everything. And to seek that than which nothing can be greater. It's not me, but I'm part of it.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
“Publishing” “books” under the guidance of a benign, self-effacing and all-knowing editor and thereby becoming rich and famous -- aside from curing whatever psychosis was imposed on you in childhood -- is a myth that has died. Now what? Like, what vocabulary can we use? I’m going to use my own inventions and you can just gather from context what I mean. But these thoughts are too new to be easy.
The merchandizing of the arts is older than the commodifying of grizzly bears in an effort to “sell” the value of wilderness. But it follows along in the same pattern: if you want people to value something, you have to assure them that it’s scarce, that they are privileged because they have been initiated on the subject, and that you can help them continue their nice prosperous life while providing a little more titillating inside info that will impress the neighbors. Since even your arms and legs, as well as your mind, have been commodified on insurance compensation lists (in case of trauma and mutilation), one can be confident of getting good value in the arts if likewise the price is something definite, not on a sliding scale of some mysterious kind. We expect sticker prices -- but we expect to dicker.
The merchandizing of narrative is one big segment of the print biz, whether on paper or bytes. We’ll have to separate poetry off to the side, because poetry has always had a privileged status, sort of like abstract expressionist paintings or ballet or opera. I mean, no one expects them to make Money. They are high prestige phenomena that a few people like to explain and that have therefore become markers of sophistication even if you can’t grasp them yourself. For those who write poetry, the act is the compensation: the true poet needs no other compensation. Poetry is insuppressible. (Which doesn’t mean poems are not a lot of work.)
Narratives that are “immersive” (to get lost in) have split into two streams, one that purports to be made up and one that represents itself as truth. Some people stand on a bridge between: I’m listening to Diana Gabaldon’s novels which involve time travel (I assume that’s invented.) but also history. (The Scots Jacobite rebellion, which I’m told really happened.) Thus some women don’t mind others knowing that these books are packed with sex and violence in graphic detail, because they are “reading for the history part.” (Since I’m listening to an audible book so I can deny “reading” any part.)
The issue of what REALLY happened to whom is a third-rail issue in today’s world. Lie, exaggerate, disguise, displace, co-opt and the press will be on you, wielding their branding irons. (Of course, they do those things all the time themselves, but they are Journalists and therefore entitled. They are the ones who keep the politicians honest so it’s okay for them to use any means. But wait, isn’t that what the politicians think?)
See: http://www.themayborn.com/WriteHardDieFree.html Here’s a quote from Kevin Fedarko, one of the co-authors of the now notorious Greg Mortenson’s second book: “Stones for Schools.” It’s a glimpse of a reality I’ve experienced myself: editors want sales. The hell with ethics. They don’t sign their names anyway. It’s on the author. But the editor controls it.
A few years ago, for example, I [Fedarko] got upset when an editor at Outside expressed interest in publishing a particular photograph to accompany a story I had written about the Siachen War in the Himalayas. I feared the photograph might provide the Indian Army with some clues about the exact location of a Pakistani military base I had visited—a concern shared by the art director and the photographer. The editor went ahead and published it anyhow. Several months later when the military base in the picture was hit by an Indian artillery shell that killed three men and a string of high-altitude pack ponies, a number of my friends pointed out–correctly–that there was probably no connection between the photo and the explosion, and they advised me not to say or do anything that might upset the magazine. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” they urged. “You cannot afford to piss off Outside.”
In short, even if you were actually there and are telling the absolute truth about what you saw, your editor may insist on something else. And then deny it, hiding behind the fantasy of what an editor is like.
Bob Scriver used to say, “But wuz you THERE, Chollie?”. It occurred to me to Google to find out where this phrase came from. It’s a vaudeville catch-phrase that may have emerged from war stories. (“What did YOU do in the war, Dad?”) One uses it as a satirical query to someone who tells wonderfully far-fetched tales of adventure. The proper ending, modeled on frontier legends of derring-do, is “And then the bear et me.” Maybe that explains the impulse of GI’s all over Europe who scribbled “Kilroy was here!” to leave a record that some farm boy was in Europe though he could hardly believe it himself.
Really sensational stories with political overtones, a history lesson of sorts, might attract investment capital to get a tale actually on paper, advertised and distributed. That’s “publishing.” The author does not control it. The editor and publishers control it. Writers just have marching orders. Is the story a reality if it is controlled by someone in an office who was NOT there? Someone whose ethics are dominated by profit?
Other undertakings that attract capital might come out of idealism, like the stories of wise men who go to live in some strange place where they produce advice about good living for those who can find them, like -- say -- Carlos Castenada. Big Bucks.
Or maybe there’s money for the aggrandizing of ancestors, though the past is a lost land. As Barnaby Conrad III discovered in “Ghost Hunting in Montana,” family history can be a rather checkered undertaking. Maybe the writer and publisher are creating an archive, some kind of inventory or theory or explanation that they feel should be preserved, however quietly. Maybe not.
Maybe composing a catalogue raisonée (using French terms helps) with a list of someone’s work plus a bibliography plus illustrations and analysis is fact-based enough to guide investments in that art. Maybe not. One art can help to sell another art media, as the fast food restaurants know when they put miniature figures of the latest movie fantasy heroes in the children’s Happy Meals. The churches, of course, have always gotten a lot of worldly capital out of hagiographic paintings. True?
Not everything sells and what sold well yesterday may not sell today. Things go out of fashion -- then without warning they come back. Like Westerns. What does it mean that cowboy movies were passé and now are coming back? Does it mean there is money in them? Or is it that very popular male actors who can call their own scripts are remembering the heroes of their youth? Harrison Ford can’t pay “Spidey,” after all. But we love him anyway. Unless “Cowboys and Aliens” doesn’t make money. Same with Charlie Russell, though the latter hasn’t quite failed us yet.
Commodification destroys possibilities as well as writers and even the subjects of their stories. This ethical change is disguised by the furor over ebooks. The accusations of hoax are sniffing something right enough -- but not what they think.
Friday, August 26, 2011
By the time I got to retirement, I had decided that it would be worse to die regretting what I hadn’t done than what I had done. I hadn’t had that much chance to get into trouble anyway. Somehow the kind of thing that sucks other people under spits me out on the shore. Bob thought that after he divorced me, I would end up a barfly. He was startled and (he said) proud when I ended up in divinity school. My mother thought the ministry was nothing but trouble for an uppity woman and she was right. So I went back to Portland where I was protected on my clerical job by a strong union. That didn’t work for teaching in Montana.
Old women with glasses, white curly hair and wide waists don’t get a lot of respect in the world at large unless they’re Betty White, Colette, or Gertrude Stein. Then I found a new area to explore far away from old women like me: desirable young men whom I did not desire. I was the only associate of Cinematheque in Paris who thought Catacombs were a Christian refuge or a persisting metaphorical myth, instead of a notorious bar in San Francisco that was more than just “gay.” I was so unexpected that Cinematheque didn’t spit me out.
Since then, evading taboos, I’ve run into a category of risking women with whom I do not identify except that they are sturdy older women with Big Brains that they use, often to challenge gender categories. Not only are they themselves often a rejected category, but I don’t fit with them comfortably -- which suits me. I mean, I hate conformity-based groups. They start out being “affinities” based on like-mindedness and soon turn into bullies like any political party you want to name.
The affinity of this group is even thinner-on-the-ground than Unitarians. The last I heard, only two out of a thousand people is both theologically independent and interested in an institutional affiliation with the UUA. We often talk about bell-curves, small populations (outliers) on both ends and a pile-up in the middle. Now I’ve learned the name for the opposite: barbell-curves, fat at both ends and thin in the middle. That’s the way we see gender in our culture. One’s imagined location on that continuum dictates the way one is treated and it’s supposed to be against the rules to change locations by, for instance, getting too much education. The main thing about "female" is that it’s seen as weak, bland, and unimportant -- fit only to be under male control and severely punished for being uppity by being excluded from any risk, which is a kind of confinement in a grannie harem or on Pygmalion’s pedestal.
Some people get desperate enough to have surgical reconfiguration, either because they are females no one will take seriously, or because they are males who have been trapped in a persona that doesn’t fit them. I am in sympathy, but I am not them. Because I am in disguise and that works. In an urban setting, doing clerical work, I’m seen as a dyck who can’t get any other job, a “loser.” In Valier I’m seen as a sort of grand-aunt who is too interested in books, a “character.”
I have no idea how I’m seen by Cinematheque except that Tim treats me like an equal. He does not patronize me nor does he flatter me. To use lingo (I didn’t say lingual) he neither tops nor bottoms me. This is rare.
Danger sucks Tim in. Not so much war, but rather the human wilderness on this planet where children barely survive in twisted ways and women are simply disemboweled. Disease is the Horseman of the Apocalypse that tramples the wilderness people and the nation/corporations keep that horseman under control by withholding the cures. They know the jokes about escaping from a charging grizzly bear: it is not necessary to run faster than the bear, only faster than your companions. So the corporations/ nations (it’s hard to tell the difference) throw cheap AIDS drugs and ag subsidy foods out behind the troika. (Yeah, so I’m mixing metaphors -- this is a wilderness.) Then one day they shut off the supply and even the wolves die of starvation.
Tim hardly notices if I talk dirty (I’m bad at it anyway) but he loves it when I talk rage. Outrage is his machete in the jungle wilderness. Of course, a path in the jungle only lasts a little while, but it was there. The idea exists. If you have to bribe the natives to help, at least they know the sensation of “helping.”
I didn’t really risk much. Tim and company are far away and the only contact is by email and blog. But I realize that I’m picking up a bit of aura from them, the sensation of being “dangerous.” Scary Mary. I rather like it. But healthy people who have friendships with infected people are considered so dangerous that they send some folks into a paroxysm of denial. I don’t exist. Neither do my books.
Probably the stout-hearted gender-crossing “women” or “men” who write so powerfully know that there are really two platforms for them: the rarefied heights of French theory in some university grad schools and the street-level masses who zombie-walk with that Peggy Lee song playing in their heads, though they can’t quite remember the words. You can sell them lots of porn. Erotica is for the nice middle-classes who don’t take risks because they have children. (What else are children for but taking risks?) But what these writers are really doing is renewing the culture by planting stories.
What have I got to lose? Wrong question. What do I have to gain? Let me think about it a little bit. So far, what have I gained?
Friendship. Insight into a world I had no idea even existed. Knowledge of powerful writers I hadn’t known about. It turns out that though my religious base is not institutional anymore, it is strong and even helpful to others. Now I know about the Catacombs and why men went there. But I also know more about all the human labyrinths of desire that twist within us, usually unacknowledged except in hallucinations. My besetting sin has been curiosity. The punishment is much more harsh than I expected: grief. Awareness of suffering and death beyond any amelioration.
Tristan, the youngest boy in the original Cinematheque group and best beloved by all, died a year ago. Tim’s post that day said simply, “No more fear.”
Thursday, August 25, 2011
My a1c blood sugar test -- which is a test that gives a number accumulated over time and therefore is more accurate than the daily blood stab at the kitchen table -- was 6.6 which is good because it is inside the 7 number that’s supposed to be the approximate break point between gradual organ damage (eyes) and not. No one knows for sure. It’s just a guess. Diabetes II might not even be diabetes, but a spin-off of a deeper metabolic disorder. Is that good or bad? We know too much and not enough.
My diet is relentless -- I do not vary off it, period. In so many other things I’m a feckless wanderer who just lets things go. “Does it really matter?” I ask and most of the time it doesn’t. Diet matters and so I maintain a lot of little tricks, the way I was taught long ago by a Weight Watchers leader who had two severely allergic children.
To get some foods and some office supplies I need, I drive to Great Falls, eighty miles away, once a month. In winter less often than that. It’s always an adventure and I follow a little route. People say, “Oh, stop by the next time you’re down.” But I never do. It’s enough of an effort to drive down, hit the stores I need, fighting traffic all the way, and then head for home, dehydrated and desperate to escape. Wondering what I forgot.
All the interactions with clerks make me slightly giddy. Sometimes I play it like my father, who clowned in public. So I use my little repertoire of jokes and invent silliness. Other times I play it like my mother and chat up the people in the line. Yesterday it was a man behind me who was buying pink Depends for his mother and imitation briefs (really Depends) for his father. He said they were in their nineties, had Alzheimer's, and lived in protected environments. They won’t know what they’re wearing but it just seemed a gesture. I tried to think of something comforting and said, “At least you can still give them hugs.” That made him smile. Later in the day I tried it on someone else and that person was irritated. You have to know your audience.
I was looking for a certain kind of toothpick, a “brush pick,” and hit three stores before I found them. One of the members of the Browning Methodist church. Debbie, was also there so we had a real conversation. She is one of the forces for good behind the recent and startling organization of people wanting to improve the lives of cats and dogs in Browning. She pointed out that they don’t have the usual small town feral cat problem because there are so many big underfed dogs that they give new meaning to the term catfood. Cooperating veterinarians come to do a sterilize-and-replace clinic every now and then. The people think of dogs as another independent tribe that just happens to live with human beings, not as dependents for whom humans must have responsibility. But taking good care of animals is one of the ways to encourage compassion and patience with human beings, so it is a way of diminishing violence for everyone.
At the office supply store I always have to fight myself to keep from buying gizmos but I lost the fight. The gizmo is a “finger mop” that is microfibers that will pick up dust. It’s shock pink and looks like a handful of soft noodles or maybe a sea anemone. The idea is to keep my mouse pad clean. My old mouse pad is worn too slick to work, so I’ve been using the back of a notebook. Is there a way to renew the surface on mouse pads? I got attached to the photo on the old one. This time I bought a plain mouse pad so I wouldn’t get attached to it. I get attached to everything.
Part of my mission was a lunch meeting with Jerry Goroski who was the curator and administrator of the CM Russell Museum between 1978 and 1988. Except that he didn’t have time to eat lunch. Those were the years I was gone in the ministry, so I’d never met him. He’s working with a printing company now. He had not read “Bronze Inside and Out,” nor did he know it existed. Until the end of Bob’s life he was working with Bob, so we both knew a lot of things and did a lot of sharing. The “cowboy art” scene in Montana has been a fireworks show for the last few decades. Now it is fizzling. Sculpture is particularly vulnerable to money-making schemes because bronzes are a matter of manufacturing and the public does NOT know how to judge quality or what practices are ethical. Bronze casting has become easy and cheap. One bronze caster said to me, “You know, once in a while I have to say to people ‘maybe it would be better to just give that piece to your mom for a keepsake.’”
The barristas at Barnes and Noble, where we met, are always interesting. This time there was a very big woman, all in black including a floor-length skirt and a scarf Russian-style, tied at the back of the neck. The scarf had a skull printed on it so that the teeth hit right between her eyebrows. She was a cheerful young woman with blood red lipstick. Strangely, none of the familiar art magazines were on the rack: no Southwest Art nor Art in the West, etc. Were they shelved somewhere else? Just sold out? I never discovered. Jerry and I mused on the way Bob Scriver has been entirely purged from the CM Russell Museum except for the doorknobs, which are small buffalo skulls Bob made, and the big heroic portrait of Charlie. Sometimes I think art is the most vengeful business a person can enter. I include publishing in that.
The checker at the last store was more than six feet tall, almost as wide, a male Indian with a cleft palate and an attitude. I didn’t ask to borrow his pen but searched my pockets and found one. He said he didn’t care -- it was all electronic anyway.
The alfalfa is being cut so the drive was steeped in the winey smell of fresh-cut windrows drying in the field, waiting for the bailer. The wheat in some places looks ready to cut -- though you can’t really tell without rubbing some in your hands to check moisture content and the forming of the kernels. I saw a pronghorn antelope buck posing on the edge of a bluff while scanning the country. Smoke from the fires in the inner forests of the Rockies obscured the whole southern part of the mountains. I’m still not used to seeing two watertowers when I drive into Valier.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Can a book have a genome? No, but the metaphor is useful, because it suggests a plan of analysis, mostly a matter of breaking things down into component parts and figuring out how they interact. You know that hypothesis that five characteristics of human personality are likely to be inherited? One report described them as below, having to use phrases because the characteristics don’t fit naturally in one word.
- leadership (social potency) vs. social conformity (rule following)
- vulnerability to stress
- need for intimacy (emotionally intense relationships)
- need to achieve
- impulsiveness vs. caution
These are not absolutely determined by heredity, but represent responsiveness to environment, such as family, community or school. They can be shaped by life experience.
The url’s below describe a project that is along the same lines except they are trying to capture the “allele’s” that describe a book’s “personality.” This is not book criticism, but an attempt to capture why people buy books. What is it they are after? What are the variations among different kinds of book reader preferences? You are invited to participate at these websites.
The five “metrics,” as they call them, are sort of surprising -- at least to me. These are not variables I think about when I choose a book. I do know people who don’t like description and others who say they won’t read a book that moves slowly, but I really enjoy variety in what I read and am liable to be all over the map. “Five-star” ratings don’t help me at all, nor do the “people in your demographic liked . . .” (I suppose that movie recommends like Netflix are not that different from book reviews on Amazon.)
Booklamp’s Five Metrics Defined
Motion: “Motion refers to the level of physical motion in a scene or book”.
Description: “Description refers to the level of descriptive language that the author uses in his or her writing.”
Pacing: “Pacing refers to the layout of the text on the page. A scene with high Pacing will have characteristics that quickly move the reader’s eye down the page.”
Density: “Density refers to the complexity of the text. Text with high Density will take longer to read than a text of equal length with low density.”
Dialog: “Dialog refers to the amount of spoken text between two or more characters in a scene.”
I think I’ll try some exercises.
MOTION, DESCRIPTION, FAST, LOW DENSITY, DIALOGUE with a character who is a leader, stressless, low need for intimacy, high need for achievement and impulsive.
The buffalo roundup was a pounding, dust-raising, earth-shaking mass of dark animals, humps heaving as they galloped forward, while the cowboys -- hats jammed on tight -- spurred their horses to keep up. Honchoing the whole operation was Deke, slouched in the saddle as always, hanging back a little so he could see the whole mass, because he did NOT want anything to go wrong.
Then he saw that a young bull was refusing to move and had taken a stand. He was about to bolt over the horizon. If the others followed his example, the herd would scatter.
Yelling as loud as he could, he forced his horse straight at that buff, it’s horns gleaming in the sun.
“Get back in there, you sunnavabitch! Or I’ll make you into a rug!”
Now I’ll flip it over.
SLOW MOVEMENT, LESS DESCRIPTION, SLOW PACING, HIGH DENSITY, NO DIALOGUE with characters who are rule followers, worried, have a need for intimacy, a low need for achievement, and who are not impulsive.
The buffalo herd was lying down on this summer afternoon. All that moved was their tails swatting flies and their jaws grinding away at cud. The tourist family drove cautiously on the observer’s road through the bison refuge, gazing at these huge ungulates but not really understanding that they were once the keystone of the culture of the prairies, supporting the Indians in much the same way as the huge herds of the Serengeti in Africa. The children would have loved to run out among those boulder-sized dark shapes but the family had read aloud the caution signs all along the road and they stayed safely in the car. They did dare to roll down the windows. For once they were quiet. Their parents smiled at each other.
This set of short lists seems pretty useful to writers as a sort of idea generator, but I’m not sure it selects what a specific reader prefers any better than the rough binary of “genre” vs. “literary” or maybe “academic.” I read all sorts of things about buffalo. My personal advisors (I call them my “kitchen cabinet” but I’m not sure they like it.) reads a lot of immersive fiction and murder mysteries, but they also say that they like to learn things while they read.
I was much impressed by the writing of Patricia Nell Warren (who takes on gay themes) for her plot-guided clarity and her ability to integrate information. One novel (“The Front Runner”) focuses on competitive track at a fairly technical level; the next (“Harlan’s Boy”) uses sci-fi and astronomy to excellent effect; and the third that I’ve read (“The Wild Man”) is passionately about bull-fighting and Spanish religious history. I think these characteristics are at least partly because of the years she put in as a Reader’s Digest editor. The whole issue of “why” a boy is gay is simply a given, though they were the reason I read the books.
I also enjoy writing by someone like Lawrence Durrell which is entirely mysteriously suggestive, entwining emotion with very little action and an arguable plot, since he uses the Rashomon principle (every character has a different experience) to rework the same narrative. Sex in these books is almost miasmic, responding to every influence, indefinable.
The folks working on this “booklamp” project are open to comment and revision, which is more that one can say about publishers these day. Stuck in the Simple Simon paradigm (do whatever worked last time which -- if you know that cautionary tale -- is usually a disaster) or they're dominated by surveys that only reflect the assumptions of the surveyors or trapped in the relentless grip of their own salesmen who insist that they know what will sell because they are “out there” with the bookstores, publishers are reduced to paying reviewers to say what they think will sell books. “I couldn’t put it down.” “Time passed quickly.” “My heart was broken.”
What the book memers neglect is the influence of environment, which the genetic investigators keep telling us make all the difference in readers as well as books. What we read in the best of times is not what we read in the worst of times. It’s a process, not a destination.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The little teaser below is from www.ropeandwire.com which is a website community for folks who love the old-fashioned West. Duncklee once cowboyed up in this country where I am. One of the by-blows in his little satirical tale is a snotty suggestion by one character that next someone would write a story about two gay cavalrymen at Custer’s Last Stand. I’m gonna take it on.
THE REAL CONVENTION
The panel sessions during the annual convention of the auspicious Horseshit and Gunsmoke Writers of the West had been going full blast all morning and half the afternoon. It was the third day of the week-long meeting at the Cowpie Palace Hotel in Denver. Not all the writers, editors and agents attended the panel sessions. There was always at least one table in the lounge occupied by those more interested in networking, ( a P.C. Word for ass-kissing), than listening to such topics as “Women of the West Smell Like Horseshit Too”, “Horseshit and Gunsmoke Markets in Belize”, or “What Does a Horseshit Editor Look For?”.
ANOTHER REAL INCIDENT
The soldier was only a kid. It wasn’t an unknown phenomenon since overburdened families could use the enlistment fee. Or maybe he was a runaway -- just a drifter. He didn’t seem to know much. Knife skills. Knots. But not human relations. He was good with horses but not other men. Maybe grew up in country not yet that settled so men worked alone, couldn’t afford to take a kid to town with them. He kinda hung around the edges of the company. The old cavalryman didn’t pry. He was a big man with a thick neck and he, too, kept to himself. Just liked it that way.
So they had a tendency to hunker together out at the edge of the firelight for no particular reason. It just happened that way. As a cavalry old timer, the big man knew the importance of awareness, not just of the enemy but also of supposed allies who could be far more dangerous since they had access and knowledge. In fact, every time he looked at Custer his guts clenched. The unreal arrogance and conceit of a nearly bald man who grew out his side hair to shoulder-length and then kept his hat on to maintain the illusion was dangerous. Irritability in a leader was dangerous enough, but once this old-timer soldier saw Custer’s wife, he knew the two of them were entwined in a folie a deux of fantasy and ambition.
He didn’t have much use for women, not even the worn and essentially sympathetic whores near any army barracks. His preference was more secret, more condemned: the male Indian accommodators who hung around the fort for more than whisky. They were not likely to talk much to anybody about anything, but he did pick up a few tidbits now and then. They didn’t always realize how well he spoke their language. He could see an apocalypse coming.
He didn’t much care. The frontier was ending but everything ends. He felt very tired. Maybe it would have been different if he’d had children, but his kind didn’t marry nor did he suspect any accidental plantings outside the garden. It was hard to think what he could do outside the company of men. Not that he had any taste for ordinary men with their need to acquire both material goods and imagined status.
The kid felt good with the old soldier near him. The man was generous in teaching little techniques and relaying small stories that might come in useful later. Sometimes they laughed together. At night the man was careful to roll out his bedroll at some distance, which hurt the boy’s feelings. Once he dragged his soogan over to the man’s massive prone bulk, but the man -- without a word -- gathered up his bedding and moved to the other side of the camp. A few tears that time, but the boy didn’t think anyone saw them. He hoped not. He knew it was a major mistake to show weakness, which is why the big man interested him so much. No one doubted his skill or potency, in battle or out.
Rumors about the Indians began to fly. The man started to advise the boy to transfer out of Custer’s command, maybe to the supply train. The boy was hurt, thinking that this was because the big man thought he was unfit for combat, so he was defiant and said he would not change anything. Inside, the big man sorrowed. He had an idea what might be coming and he loved the boy, wanted him to escape.
Though he was afraid of what trouble night-walking might get him into, in daylight he liked being near the boy, riding beside him when they were on the move, and sitting near him when they took their breaks. They shared tobacco, each in his own pipe. The boy was trying to grow a mustache, but his eyelashes were both longer and thicker than the hair on his upper lip. Sunlight caught in both, making them into bright feathers. No matter how dusty the riding, the boy’s clear eyes and white teeth flashed bright. Daily the bone around his eyes and along his jaw grew thicker, more defined. He tipped his hat at a jaunty angle, though that was discouraged by the officers who despised individuality. Except for Custer’s flauntings, which might have been the source of their displeasure.
Nevertheless, it was late in June. If they got off the trail. the green grass -- full of flowers -- was up to the bellies of the horses, and the streams still had cold running water. Meadowlarks called and hawks circled the sky. It was easy in all that bliss to forget what their job really was.
When they approached the Greasy Grass, the veteran unbuttoned his jacket, letting it blow around him to make a deceptive target from a distance. He’d heard Indians had picked up some Sharps rifles and were practicing. “Keep a peeled eye,” he advised the kid. “Stick close to me.” He sat high in his saddle, full of tension, trying to remember more scraps of conversation with Indians. This spring’s ceremonies had been intense and well-attended.
When the column rode over a bluff and down a coulee towards the river, a steep descent that threw some horses, the boy thought that’s what his older friend meant, so he was braced and kept his horse under him. Then he smelled the campfires.
The rest was much confused, though the boy did his best until an arrow pierced him and the bright blood sprang out. He fell down to the grass now greasy with his own slipping-away. Then assailants were close around, using hand weapons instead of arrows, and the older man dismounted, letting his horse go. He stood beside the boy’s body for just a moment before he saw a shadow from the corner of his eye and threw himself down over the youngster, even knowing he was nearly gone. The pressure made the boy sigh. Then the shadow, wielding a stone battle hammer, slammed it into the big man’s head.
In the desperate second of death, which he did not regret, he was aware that at last he was holding the warm boy beneath him in his arms, so familiar, though he had never touched him. He could not tell whether the boy knew.
Much later when the Indian women came through the tangle of bodies -- stripping and looting, finishing off and mutilating, ululating and singing -- they came to the two men, one older on the top of the younger. They stood looking. One said, “Father protected son.” They moved on without touching the men.