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Monday, October 31, 2011


Entitlement to distinction in society arrives in various ways, depending on what the society values and how approval is shown. In some societies difference is rewarded (twins are considered special) and in others difference is quickly eliminated (twins are killed at birth). With distinction comes obligation mixed with privilege. In recent Western society, the professions of medicine, law, theology, and university teaching were rewarded with high prestige and allowed privileged and confidential access to vulnerable people -- but they were monitored rigorously.

At first this was the assigned task of colleagues through boards and professional organizations. Slowly that duty has vacated, government bodies have taken over, and the idea of “professional” has shrunk to a matter of how one dresses. Corruption has undercut all professions, major and petite. The professionals are rich, but the vulnerable are unprotected. This was a cycle that has probably lasted several hundred years. Maybe it was an industrial model.

In the earliest societies certain people seemed more effective at hunting or more persuasive at settling quarrels -- they became “chiefs” in Native American parlance. (There was no election, one-person-one-vote.) Some were more skillful or more beautiful and they were also distinguished. Today important people tend to be basketball players (jokes) although Eloise Cobell is clearly among the most distinguished Native Americans in the nation and will never lose her position as one who “fed her people.”

Among the students I taught there were occasional individuals -- the ones I remember were young men -- who carried an aura. They were often alcoholic, though it was hard to know whether the addiction was the affliction or an attempt to deal with it. They were poets, story-tellers, musicians, but didn’t get good grades. Some were gay. None whom I’m thinking of lived past youth. I cherished them, maybe as much because of their outsiderness as in spite of it. Certain families seemed to produce these visionaries, but they were quiet about it. They were not always a force for good, partly because of their effect on the people around them. They did not seek prominence. Quite the opposite.

Remarkable but not particularly respectable people exist in every society, often pushed out to the fringes. A friend in Valier feels that all artists are entitled to a free pass when it comes to conventional life, that they should be supported, even if they cause suffering. The Sixties and Seventies pulled them out into the light -- who knew there were so many? They took a Dionysian approach -- approach, hell! Assault! Break the rules, climb the walls, search and question. They harrowed the status quo, turned it over to get the energy and wealth hidden on the dark side of the world. Then they crashed. In the Middle East the cycle seems to be at the top. Evolution denied becomes revolution. Force cannot suppress it.

Religion in the sense of dogmatic institutions seems to be of two sorts: those who support the status quo (and protect themselves) or those who join the revolution, even lead it. The Pope knows this, so to divert attention from the sexual abuse of children by priests and the blocking of measures to end AIDS, he is now beginning an assault on Big Money. This takes him close to Liberation Theology, which could use a little energy, though one version (non-Christian) is on fire in the Middle East. He is neither a shaman nor an artist. This is political.

Other realms exist. Now rising is science, partly visionary and partly self-searching in a near-moral way. (Not fully moral because it is not anthropocentric but morality is.) The brilliant non-conforming individual exists here but will need to attract and keep a team that is content to work in that context. Because of the reflexivity of the enterprise, this discipline is able to support continuous evolution, though occasionally there is new evidence, unexpected results, that send the whole field tail over teakettle.

A subsidiary enterprise is the “think tank,” the groups that buffer society and science by trying to analyze and integrate what science finds. I’m thinking of and, to a lesser extent, TED videos, plus the magazine racks laden with pop science mags, and the websites that are another aspect of them. The challenge keeps getting more intense.

For the 19th century Transcendentalists and amateur natural history adepts, nature was a great source of reassurance. In the 21st century we have come to a place as disconcerting as our displacement from the center of the solar system. As we look at evolution more closely, we (thinking of Nick Lane now) see that fittingness (NOT fitness) depends upon the ecological niche as much as our ability to adapt and that we are busily damaging (changing) our niche through overpopulation and resource consumption. The resulting anxiety is evidently not effectively addressed by our existing religious institutions. The word “apoptosis” comes to mind. Write it on a dinosaur fossil. Throw it through a stained glass window.

We study ourselves in many ways, but I am most interested in how we study our own thinking, particularly that which is based on experience, the senses, their ordering and meaningfulness. This is rhizomatous in metaphor, abandoning our old preoccupation with hierarchy and received book wisdom. Thus, the dynamics of entitlement endorsed by institutions or tradition are diminished. Entitlement seems to me to split out between personal charisma and persuasiveness or on the other hand rational considerations. The Internet serves both, but very much undercuts the status quo, whatever it is. Control of juried journal publications in slow publication cycles that weight the existing “experts” lose power. Online discussion of ongoing research speeds up the process of re-evaluation and peer review. But also the capacity to use visual sleight-of-hand and global rumor are greatly expanded.

My entitlement to comment on the matters I address, despite my academic degrees and ceremonial participation, rests only on my capacity and desire. Whether they are enough cannot be known. What is “enough?” It is enough to have the freedom to consider these matters, but all that I’m recommending at this point is a little formula for worship. No promises of contact with another world or miraculous healing. Just a way of thinking about a lot of interesting matters. But who knows where it could lead?

Sunday, October 30, 2011


The fox I am chasing is the design of experiences (called liturgies) that will allow people to confirm or challenge deeply held premises about the world. This is a matter of consciousness and so we come to the stinking holes where the shamans live. It is not the shamans themselves who stink -- it is the debris decaying around the mouth of their caves, much of it brought to the shaman in homage as well as bribery for their own purposes.

I’m going to devote this post to a book review: “The Elements of Shamanism,” 1989, by Nevill Drury, an Australian writer and self-publisher. It’s a true “pocket” book, 5” by 7.5”, 102 pages of text, with everything in the “resources” section at American addresses. It’s a quick inventory of the experts, the assumptions, and the names of identified shamans. It’s meant to produce profit. Exploiting shamanism is an old game.

Drury’s first assumption is that there ARE gods and that shamans believe they are relating to them, perhaps with the help of animal spirits. Then, making a quick tour of early cultures that have defined shamans, he collects typical tropes and methods: the tree, the mountain, the blood, the bones, flight, curing of the sick, bringing back the dead, crystals. and drumming. He is much influenced by Michael Harner, who uses drums and gourd rattles. If you’re into the paraphernalia, he’s your man.

Of course, once shamanism got mixed into New Age ideas, mind-altering substances became essential, so there is a discussion mostly based on identifying on some of the substances. He doesn’t spend time on the possible medical action of these enzymes in the brain, etc., because he is concentrating on primary ethnic contexts. He mentions the use of disciplines (starvation, thirst, cold, extreme exertion, pain) but doesn’t elaborate.

In the late Nineties, when I was first on the internet (to let you know how long ago that was, my computer was a LISA), I participated in a Native American “bulletin board” which was often preoccupied with discrediting “plastic shamans.” Some of the most notorious are listed in this little book. Black Elk is generally not attacked, though scholars will note that he seems to have absorbed quite a lot of Christianity. (They say the same thing about Percy Bull Child, who is not mentioned, and probably it is true.) Brooke Medicine Eagle, Sun Bear, and Lynn Andrews were regularly berated as fakes. Carlos Castenada and Luisa Tiesh are in this book but didn’t much enter the online discussion.

Echoing the notorious wars over writers who were or were not Native American, people got locked into jealous rages over the fakery, representing themselves -- the speakers -- as Ones Who Really Know and therefore the more legitimate objects of the adulation and prosperity. The most angry were often the ones of least blood quantum. (Which is a “red herring” anyway, since tribal affiliation is based on parentage, not the genome which was not known when tribes were defined.) Since it never really went anywhere, most of them have left the issue by now. This book is outdated.

The study of shamanism continues and I consider it both worthy and valuable. The ways of people who are still hunter/gatherers have a lot to teach us. In my experience, those who are considered shamans by their own people are rarely contacted by outsiders. Why would the People want a lot of tourists wading around in their sacred waters? Many scurrying little wannabes and outright charlatans end up killing people in plastic-tarped sweat lodges. There are people on this reservation, though death keeps weeding them out, who charge enormous amounts of money for outsiders to participate in half-invented ceremonies for people seeking magic rather than real inner change. That’s simply not what interests me.

What I want to think about is the management of consciousness. Shamans come into it as “technicians of the sacred” who in themselves experience something that belongs to a category called “dissociation” by psychologists. It is a brain state that includes out-of-body experiences, hypnotism, visions and hallucinations, schizophrenia, seizures, moments of high emotion or danger. Some people can control dissociation and others cannot.

A theory is that children who are extremely abused, both in terms of beatings and sexual invasion, can enter this state as a form of self-protection. Though “Sybil,” the girl with multiple personalities, has just now been discredited as making up her experiences, I suspect that there was a kernel of truth. There ARE instances of multiple personalities. Also of interest are people whose brains have been separated down the middle or who have had one half removed, usually in an attempt to stop disabling seizures.

It’s clear that something real happens in the brain that “presents” as a form of dissociation. The people who experience this may report they are in a different place -- truly and actually -- which they may or may not interpret in a religious way. Maybe because it was the first descriptions of shamanism that I knew (Campbell's and Eliade’s) I find the idea of bodily death, replacement of the bones with quartz stones, and a long flight on a horse over an abyss, the most gripping interpretations of the experience.

Much depends on what the shaman does with the experience. He may just hide it. He may try to take others to the same place. He may understand it as being chosen or as being damned. He may use art to explore and express it. Some try to make an institution and a dogma out of it, because they interpret the experience as religious and that’s what they understand religion to be. There might be money in it.

What interests me comes from the Sixties, when Bob Scriver and I sat with the Bundle Keeper circle of the Blackfeet in the Sixties. There was nothing “churchy” about it. It was more like a family reunion where traditions have been established. This is not to say it was trivial. What struck me most was the relationship to the ecology, the land and its inhabitants. This “Bundle Opening” was a ritual that tried to put everything into “right relationship” just as the season of the great thunderstorms began, for the sake of protection from lightning and floods. The materials were animal and bird skins, the songs were about the creatures, and the dances were imitations of them. Each man who danced, took the creature into his hands and rose to the circle with that sensory memory prompting him. In other words, if this were not your family and if you didn’t live out on the grass among the other creatures, you couldn’t really “get” the ritual. How could you feel it? It was an evoked heightened consciousness of each other and the great ecology in which they lived, based on experience. No amount of reading about it in books would really help you understand in the sense of shifting consciousness.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


These are what I understand to be the state of the art premises of consciousness studies, though they change daily and there is no unanimity. I accept them myself -- provisionally, because that’s the way science works.

1. The brain is “on” 24/7 from the first moment a fetal brain appears. There is always something happening: electric waves, chemicals, sorting, recovering, and sensory input/behavior output.

2. The brain is not the only part that is involved in thinking: thinking is a whole-body activity because what the brain really does is manage the sensory inputs and the behavioral responses. Only a small part of these events are conscious.

3. One way of looking at the brain is the accumulation of “brains” piled at the top of the spinal column in order of evolution, each with its own domain and “factory-installed” way of working. This is true right on up to the cerebellum, which is the big wraparound that extends into the forebrain, nose and eyes.

4. Another way of looking at the brain is in terms of the small organs emplaced there, each specializing somehow: thalamus, hypothalamus, pituitary, hippocampus, amygdala, and so on. Now we realize that all these parts operate together to create a synergy that is managed by an area usually on the left side of the brain. This creates both consciousness and identity -- or rather those “personhood” aspects of a human that arise from it.

5. Beyond the “factory installed” functions of these little parts, sensory information reaches the body and brain from the moment of conception, because a human forms inside another human which is already a swarm of feedback loops, genes switching on and off, and whole body thinking. The fetal brain “learns” from all that, but also before birth it learns basic dualities, spectrums like light/dark, motion/stillness, sound/silence. This is the kernel of memory: every memory is wrapped in sensory information, but it is usually unconscious. The right sense information can make it conscious.

7. The habitual practice of nature is to create a plethora of something and then reduce whatever part of it is not needed. This is also true of the brain. The little parts don’t disappear, but the common neurons of the cerebellum that are not used simply disappear. This is called “apoptosis.” It amounts to being parted out. No trauma, no pain: just resorption. This process builds in the assumptions about existence that the baby makes in the first months. As the baby becomes more active in its environment, it adds the results of its actions in new assumptions. This continues life-long. You probably know all this.

What I needed for my thinking about liturgy is embedded in these paragraphs from a talk by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby at I’ve emphasized the relevant phrases.

We thought that there should probably be internal regulatory variables in the same sense for social motivations. And so these would have evolved to track particular properties of the body, the social environment, and the physical environment—whose computation provided inputs needed for evolved decision rules. These internal regulatory variables have magnitudes, and they express value, or else they provide input to mechanisms that compute value.

TOOBY: The very interesting thing is that the role of consciousness suggests it's just necessary for carrying out at least some of the recalibrational computation required by new information. . We think feelings are signals broadcast through consciousness about changes in these regulatory variables,So that . . . our data show that the intensity of conscious feeling, such as anger, predicts the magnitude of the downstream changes in these non-conscious variables. People put a lot of time into, you know, seemingly functionless behavior—just feeling in response to personal news. When something important happens, they go off to be by themselves, and they take time to feel about it—so we think the function is revising their motivational weightings.

People like these thinkers do not use phrases like these in an idle or approximate way. In this case they are the key to a whole new way of thinking about identity, so I’ll try to invent my own definitions, staying as close to what Cosmides is saying as I can. But these are MY interpretations.


Internal regulatory variables: These are essentially rules for getting along in the world, deeply internal to the point of being part of one’s identity, They are a kind of “algorithm”, maybe with an if/then pattern. The capacity to develop these is evidently in the forebrain where it evolved during the hunter-gatherer period of evolution of humans, probably because it enables community and cooperation.

Evolved decision rules: These internal algorithms come from what happens to the individual and are recorded in actual brain cells, associated with the sensory inputs at that moment. If questions never come up, the decisions are never evolved, so entirely new situations are tough to address. We may fall back on rules that evolved somewhere else and don't really fit.

Recalibrational computation: When something previously unknown shows up, the algorithm has to be “recalibrated.” This is not something that happens easily. It’s not only that you have to give up an idea you’ve cherished, but also that you have to give up the idea that you really knew in the first place.

intensity of conscious feeling: Recalibration is accompanied by or possibly caused by or maybe made possible by intense conscious feeling. Like a religious feeling, a transforming experience. Maybe combat.

Revising their motivational weightings. So having brought to consciousness one’s previously unconscious assumptions because they seemed like simply the way the world IS but now there is contradictory evidence, one begins to change. Maybe in a good way and maybe in a bad way.


Spartacus assumes that the world is terrible place where one must survive through violence and skill, suspicion and alliance codes. Gradually, though intense emotion and physical encounters that are meant to instill the brotherhood of gladiators, he subversively changes because of friendship and love until he is open to the gentle pacifism of Christianity. (Elaine Pagels says that there were evidently Buddhist missionaries carrying some of these ideas into the Middle East. Others claim Jesus went to India and developed his thinking there. How and through what experiences would make a fascinating novel.)

My core assumption about liturgy/ritual is that if it is intense and accurate enough, using the sensory context most meaningful to the person, it can be either a life-confirming experience or a safe place in which to revise one’s inner algorithm. This assumption should work in every culture. It is not about morality -- whether being a Christian is better than being a Gladiator is beside the point -- which is how a person gets from one to the other regardless of which direction he or she is traveling. It is not about institutions or dogma -- only human experience. You might need to grow some new brain cells. You might appreciate a community.

Friday, October 28, 2011


As it happens, in my research on brains, I ran across an article about “aggression neurons” and also Netflix suddenly decided to send me “Gladiator: Blood and Sand,” which is a New Zealand Starz film that goes wild with sex and lurid CGI violence, throwing whole gouts and sheets of blood in every direction. I assume this is what the violent simulator computer games are like. This coincides with discussion about a cluster of books, Stephen Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of our Nature,”being the most prominent, that assert that the level of raw violence has greatly decreased over the last century. Everyone exclaims, “Noooooo.” But there are a lot of graphs showing his point. Most of them concentrate on war, genocide, and famine -- not the individuals who show up in the newspaper daily.

As far as I’m concerned, ONE instance is enough violence to think about. This week Terrierman was talking about the pit bull that went crazy and slashed its owner to death but luckily didn’t kill her baby. At animal control we used to talk about “spaniel rage,” and when an example turned up, it was a golden retriever trying to rip everyone. In my last brief stint of teaching, there was a lot of talk about “‘roid rage,” meaning unreasonable violent outbreaks by boys who took steroids. (The same town has a problem with “extreme fighting” in the alleys.) No one has been able to figure the trigger for any of this.

So I ran across this Scientific American article about aggressive mice. The hypothalamus is an ancient region, almond-shaped, that regulates temperature, circadian rhythm (going through the day), sleep, hunger, thirst, sex, anger, aggression and response to stress. The mouse experimenters were trying to compare sex and violence in an “experienced male mouse.” (One can’t resist a mental image -- maybe a mustache to twirl?) They had two ways to measure what happened in the hypothalamus, one picking up electricity and the other measuring certain protein molecules.

First encounter: a welcoming female mouse. Second encounter: a male mouse willing to fight. Results: mostly the specific individual neurons that fired were either the ones for violence or the ones for sex but one fifth of the neurons fired for both. Except that the sex neurons quickly damped down the violence neurons.

When they had identified the aggression neurons, called V M Hvi, they “stimulated” them with a teeny blue light insinuated into the brain with a hair-sized fiberoptic. If the mouse were alone, he didn’t do anything. But he would attack a female, a castrated male, an inert anesthetized mouse, and even a “blown-up latex glove.” Then the experimenters “silenced” the V M Hvi somehow and turned on their Blue Light Special. Things cooled down, though the violence was not entirely extinguished. The writer, Christof Koch, remarked that no one knows what the mouse was thinking.

Other experimenters, working with much milder stimuli and responses, have established firmly that people do things they don’t understand, but that they quickly find reasons for doing. As Nick Lane puts it in his chapter on consciousness in “Life Ascending,” there are two consciousnesses, just as Freud figured out. They just aren’t like he thought. One is the primary or core consciousness where our animal life goes on: we know nothing about it except perhaps to see the backs of the sea creatures just under the water of dreams as Freud did. The other is our “conscious consciousness,” where we try to figure out what all this means, drawing on our experiences and our culture. One of these realms can reach into the other to some degree, but not always on purpose.

Back to the mouse. What if we don’t call the two factors -- “violence” and “sex,” which seem to reciprocate somehow -- but instead call them “territoriality” and “possession.” This experienced mouse had his encounters in “his” house. So here’s the way the scenario might play out in rural Montana. Women take the low-pay donkey-labor jobs like bar-tending and make enough money to rent an old trailer. A guy who can’t keep a job and is having a hard time keeping his ego inflated is hanging around the bar and romances the barmaid so she’ll maybe throw in a drink on the house now and then. So one night he goes home with her, he sticks around, she gets used to it -- in fact, it feels pretty good not to be lonesome. He sort of forgets it’s her trailer.

Then this friendly guy shows up one night and he gets along good with the barmaid’s guy, because guys gotta stick together. So they invite this new alcoholic to come party with them in the trailer. They drink until maybe 2am when they pass out. By then the woman has gone to bed and maybe the wrong guy has gone along with her. The other one wakes up about dawn, befuddled, looks around for the others, finds a gun or baseball bat, takes it into the bedroom and -- enraged -- kills one or both of them.

He never realizes that his V M Hvi cells were irritated by alcohol as surely as if someone shone a blue light into his hypothalamus. Now he spends a very long time sitting in a cage trying to figure out his motives: it was jealousy. It was protecting his woman. It was that he’s an Alpha Male and that other guy should have known better. If the woman survives, she’s likely to fall in line with these theories and write long letters the whole time he’s in prison, and he keeps the idea alive because even an old trailer is better than a jail cell. Now we have the plot line for "Spartacus", except that the men in the movie all have shaven, oiled and pumped bodies and the women all have a LOT of hair and breast implants. This guy will LOVE the movie and never realize it’s over the top.

We aren’t very enthusiastic about the idea of the subconscious, much less being controlled by some kind of cells that mice have, because we know our history and we know we’re supposed to be heroes. Actually, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is MUCH better than the Rome series. No old guys standing around talking politics. If you’re going to go over the top with sex and violence, best to go all the way. The guys that liked this movie the most were the ones who loved the CGI violence -- not the tachistoscopic sex that was obviously suggested by “Lust Caution.” I admired the CGI landscapes. This is “Conan the Barbarian” territory.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


One thing folds out of another, thus all the “post” philosophers: post-structuralism, post-colonial, post-what-have-you-got? that have dominated a lot of thought. Here’s what the wikipedia volunteer authority (unnamed) has to say: “a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problem of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. It involves the belief that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs, as they are subject to change inherent to time and place. It emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations; in particular it attacks the use of sharp classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial. Rather, it holds realities to be plural and relative, and dependent on who the interested parties are and what their interests consist of. It upholds the belief that there is no absolute truth and the way in which different people perceive the world is subjective.”

These guys wear those sweatshirts that say on the front, “Question authority!” Some looked at the back (“Listen carefully to the answers.” Note plural.) Some authorities (!) said that it wasn’t a rebellion against what came before so much as it was an extension of the thinking of some people who came before, and about all you can do is name the people mostly in France (Derrida, Foucault, et al) but also in Italy and even a few elsewhere. In 1982 when I left seminary, they were just beginning to hit their peak.

I wasn’t ready for the shift, unless you count Thomas Kuhn, who defined paradigm shift (the point when the evidence against the standing order has accumulated so convincingly that everyone goes to a new understanding -- like the shift from theism to science, which is not quite finished). I was forty, my reality was challenged, but I loved both structuralism and narrativity. Now, thirty years later, I’ve found Deleuze and Guattari who turn out to be an excellent entry point for me.

For instance, Nick Lane’s understanding of what he calls “Ascending Life.” I’ll go finish the book as soon as I finish this post. I have two chapters left. Notice that he converts the noun in the “Ascent of Man” to “Ascending” and is not anthropocentric. In fact, his account of evolution is largely about the invention of life itself and most of the evolving is done at the single cell level, where things reverse, hop sideways, fuse, gobble each other in an orgy of change that continues on without much attention from us until now. He describes an entity that has 28,000 “sexes” -- meaning they can copulate in various combinations to create entirely new creatures with unique genetic scripts -- at which point he suggests maybe we need a new word for the category. Humans are limited to maybe a double-dozen variations, including people with XY chromosomes, XX chromosomes, YY chromosomes (they die), XXY, YYX, upside-down versions, partial versions, etc. Post-binary but not unlimited because if the plan gets too far away from the norm, it’s erased. That erasure is as important to evolution as is war or competition for resources, but only with instruments can we see it. It’s all based on electrons and we still aren’t sure exactly how to describe them except by their behavior.

Because so many people in my family have had head injuries (you can include Bob Scriver) and because I’m old enough to see the consequences play out, I’m aware that the identity of people is dependent on their frontal lobes. Disease or stroke can do the same kind of damage as a blow or a fall. Yet sometimes only the people closest to the damaged person can really “see” the change unless it’s major. Now I’m reading Michael Gazzaniga and

thinking about Leda Cosmides’s work, trying to understand exactly how it is that identity arises from not just the brain but the whole body. Long ago I converted to the idea that identity is not from a “soul” residing in the brain, which is mostly what we can get to through introspection, and that identity changes all the time, which leads to problems with relationships -- or does it solve them?

My trusty guides are largely at, the same folks I loved in young adulthood. I still protect my worn “Whole Earth Catalogue.” It’s remarkable that people my age and much younger still continue the back-to-the-land communal practices of those times, except that now many of them are on-line. They have gone from being "social fossils" (which they never were anyway) to self-confident networks, rhizomatous, as DeleuzeGuattarian thought would have it. They preserve the boundary between the hunter/gatherers and the ten-thousand-year-old experiment with agriculture and cities that sometimes burdens us. In the beginning much of civilization depended upon the expanding and protecting of population because of granaries and walls: a lot of people with time and safe space for thinking. Now the biggest "cities" are “virtual.” The online “cities” are bigger than any resource-bound city can ever be and more assorted as well, which means richer, deeper, more complex thought explorations. I have better access to more brilliant people now than I had on the campus of the University of Chicago.

So now I can return to the task I set myself there, which is something like “the re-enchantment of the world.” That is, the most basic level of reconciliation and rejoicing between the planet and the human body/brain. I’ll close with this quote from Art Durkee, which he posted as a comment to yesterday’s blog.

Shamanism is the single most rhizomatic spiritual technology, or set of practices for dealing with the spirit world. It's an utterly pragmatic, local system. Yet it turns up in literally every culture, in every era, in some form or another. Often it takes on the local language and cosmology without really changing its essence.

“That's partly because it's rooted in earth, in sky, in the land, in the people. The organized religions are smart when they adopt the local practice and try to subsume it into their own systems. That works better in some places than others. In native North America, the Jesuit presence among the early explorers was a political policy, part of the policy of conquering a new land for Europe. It's interesting to note how some native groups, who nominally converted to Catholicism, still practice their old ways anyway. Rhizomes, growing up and spreading invisibly below-ground.”

I do not want to be a shaman. I do not want to join any organization. I do not want to convert people. I want to read books and write about them. On to Michael Winklelman. But first I’ve got to get tarps on the roofs of the bunkhouse and garage. After I finish reading Lane’s book and copying his bibliography. Busy day. Every day is a birth-day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Count yesterday's post (which was long) as a two-fer. I'm going to Great Falls for provisions.

The long drive will be a chance to think about the paradigm shift that others call "post" this or that, but that I approach through the rhizome theory of DeLeuze-Guattari. Nick Lane's evolution ideas, Michael Winkelman's shamanic theories, Micheal Gazzaniga's research on the brain -- it all fits together, I'm pretty sure.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


(Thanks to Rebecca Clayton who suggested the watch.)

The single man wanted no encumbrances. That’s the way he thought of other people or even pets. He felt he was walking that line on a planet where the light of the sun ends and the dark of the night begins. There was a name for that line, but he had forgotten it. What he knew was that on a planet with air, that line was blurred. On a planet or asteroid with no air, it was a crisp and abrupt line. At one moment one was in the dark, then the light came -- the sun coming up -- and it was bright. Or vice versa. And it was a line that moved all the time. It might be possible to stay on that sharp line, more or less, if one kept things simple, moving along. Not literally moving, but figuratively -- through time. Though it certainly helped to be out where the sky was complete and both sunrise and sunset were abrupt.

This was all fantasy, of course, science-based as it might be. Out here on the open prairie frontier, it was a little too easy to indulge in such fantasies. Still, there was truth in it. He kept moving. He was solitary so he could. He moved from his house to his workshop and from his workshop to the house. Sometimes to the little barn. There’s no sense in trying to figure out which was bright and which was dark because that was a metaphor. His house and workshop were realities. All he really cared about was his hands on wood, working it, persuading it, polishing it into fine furniture.

He did fine work. When the railroad had come through the nearby town of Elgin, the station agent had commissioned him to create the paneled counter wall where transactions were made through a wicket window. The wood gleamed richly and people said it was elegant enough to be a bank. In fact, when the head of the rail line came through on inspection, he was so impressed that he commissioned a roll-top desk for his office back in Minneapolis. Everyone was full of admiration and the solitary man couldn’t help being proud.

As a token of friendship, even before the desk was begun, the railroad bigshot gave him a railroad watch. The solitary man did not know that it was obsolete, not quite up to the new specifications, which were meant to make the trains run more closely to a tighter schedule for a bigger profit. To him, the watch was simply a beautiful time tool. A railroad watch had to be open faced, size 16 or 18, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to at least five positions, keep time accurately to within 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temps of 34 to 100 degrees F. have a double roller, steel escape wheel, lever set, regulator, winding stem at 12 o'clock, and have bold black arabic numerals on a white dial, with black hands.

After that he kept meticulous track of the time, always matching the railroad watch that he kept in a special pocket of his vest against the sun. So far, they always matched, even after days of clouds made sun-time hard to tell. Because of his satisfaction that the little machine was accurate, he never forgot to wind it. He understood that if the trains didn’t stay EXACTLY on schedule, there was always the chance of a collision. Humans were involved, so the face couldn’t be hard to mistake and out here on the prairie weather made problems. The temps were far lower than zero in winter and easily ten degrees above a hundred degrees in summer. Anything metal was affected. In fact, the rails themselves could expand so much in the heat that they became curving snakes derailing trains. Contraction in cold meant gaps in the rails. Even when a train had the right of way, an hour’s “head way” was imposed. If it weren’t enough, there were terrible wrecks. In his watch pocket at body temperature, the watch worked evenly.

The solitary man appreciated good tools and guarded them well. He even his own foot-driven lathes, saws and drills with their belts and gears. His hammers were balanced and his scribers had sharp points. His very fine furniture didn’t make him rich because there wasn’t enough prosperity yet to demand good prices. Everyone assumed the railroad would bring that prosperity. Wasn’t that railroad owner willing to pay top dollar for a roll top desk?

Originally the solitary man had made chuckwagon and sheepwagon grub boxes that had compartments and drawers for specific things: the flour, the bacon, the pots and pans -- though they could just as easily hang from hooks and swing along jangling when the driver moved the wagon. The sheepherders weren’t particular, but cookies were inclined to ask for special caches for the sugar so it could be locked up or maybe a little place for spices. Even a ventilated basket for onions that needed to stay dry with circulating air. A place to hide money. He got a little better at the work all the time, both in terms of designing it and executing it. Then people living in homestead shacks asked for simple chairs. At first he made them out of peeled pine with snowshoe-woven rawhide seats, but rawhide is slippery, slimy, stinking stuff -- not his taste. He liked the dry scent and feel of wood.

Happily working alone on this new roll-top desk, making dovetail corners on one of the desk drawers and pleased that they were fitting together so neat and tight, he heard a lot of giggling and rustling behind him. When he looked, there were three Blackfeet girls, not quite adolescent, wearing mission dresses, worn-out men’s suit jackets for coats, and cowboy hats that appeared to have been sat on as much as worn. They were more than a little rumpled, but when he turned they became very grave and formal. “We’ve come to take care of you.”

He was terrified.

They were serious. They understood that what they were good for was keeping house and what he was supposed to be good for was providing food. That’s all they asked.

Since he couldn’t think of what to do with the girls, he just ignored them. They went into the house and began turning it upside down, scrubbing and rearranging and dragging things out to the clothesline until he dreaded the thought of going into his own house. They were washing things that had never been washed in their entire existence. Since now his dovetails refused to fit properly, he went off on a “game trail” that led into a deeper draw than the others.

His still appeared to be safe. He had to be careful about not drinking while he worked, but at the moment he couldn’t work anyway. He collected enough pure alcohol at the drip from the copper “worm” for a good comforting jolt and sat on a rock to sip while he tried to think of a way to get rid of the girls, whom he considered a kind of cooties. An affliction, even if they were Indian. Now and then he checked the time. In an hour he stood, weaving, and went home.

Though he had drunk enough liquid courage to return, it didn’t look like his house anymore. They had raided his stash of newspapers, lined the shelves with the paper and cut fancy edges to hang down like lace. Others were spread on the table in lieu of a tablecloth. They had blacked the stove, polished the nickel trim on it, and washed the bedding. The floor was swept and things put square against the wall. The place even smelled different. He had no idea where they had found the soap since he hadn’t seen it for several days. Something was steaming on the stove. He hoped it wasn’t his socks, though boiling them was probably the only way to get them clean.

It was a lovely stew. In fact, between food and whiskey, he was in a good enough mood to attempt conversation. There was a fat girl and a thin girl, but the third girl was a puzzle. Her distinguishing feature was not where you could see it unless you were an alert person: it was the little whirligig going in her head. She was a thinking girl, her head ticking like his pocket watch and all the gears turning smoothly. Since he couldn’t understand their language, he entertained himself by naming them. He called the littlest “Rosie” and the roundest with freckles “Lily.” He wasn’t thinking of town garden flowers, but rather of the silky little wild roses and the bright orange prairie tiger lilies. The oldest tallest one stumped him. She just didn’t look like plant life, with her big observant eyes and busy brain. He settled on “Owl.” It was this way of trying to categorize and romanticize females that always got him into trouble with women. They loved it.

But these girls didn’t make trouble. They rolled out their blankets by the stove for the night, and he didn’t trouble them either, crawling into his bed wearing long johns as always, but clean ones which hadn’t happened for a long time. In the morning they had not only carried water, but also heated it. So he shaved. Which was not his habit. Rosie and Lily smiled, holding out a towel. A CLEAN towel.

It didn’t take long for a routine to develop. Rosie and Lily ran the house in the efficient way they had learned at the mission, which was more interested in making them household servants than ladies, but Owl haunted him in the shop when she wasn’t looking after the horse, Mr. Bartleby, who thrived. She didn’t talk, thank goodness, but she watched so closely that soon she began to be helpful, knowing when to hold something still or to fetch what he pointed at.

One day, feeling good, he told her about the time an old chief asked him to make a calumet on his lathe. A calumet was only a pipestem, but as long as your arm, and meant to be decorated for ceremonies. When he got to the part about how he put the turned wood back on the lathe and drilled it carefully down the exact center, like a bore in a rifle barrel, he realized she was understanding him. “Good,” she said. So now he had an interpreter.

But the household didn’t last. A big mixed-blood man with a mustache arrived in a buggy and demanded his daughters back. Lily and Rosie sighed and got in. The father drove off with no talk. He did not claim Owl who simply said, “Time to go home for them. Not me.”

Housekeeping standards deteriorated a little after that, but the roll-top desk was coming together quickly and well. Owl’s smaller hands were good at some tasks, especially installing the little springs and latches he was designing into the secret compartments at the backs of pigeon-holes. She was good at tasks like sanding or rubbing and could do it for hours without complaint. In the evening she began to do beadwork. He thought about teaching her to read, but she wasn’t interested. They didn’t stay on a schedule and sometimes put everything down to hitch up Mr. Bartleby to the spring wagon for a trip to Elgin for groceries, discretely slipping some jars of moonshine to certain people, which generally covered the cost of the supplies.

Very occasionally, they indulged a bit themselves, often sitting alongside the busy little still as it steamed away like a teakettle. On one of those occasions he took his pocket watch out to check it, but before he could replace it, she held out her hand. Precious as it was, he only hesitated a moment. She looked at it very carefully, held it to her ear. He told her about Time Tables and Train Order. The problem of railroad engineers was the inverse of the problem of sea captains who needed dependable chronometers. The latter needed to know the exact time in order to calculate where they were, because they could be anyplace on the open sea. But a railroad engineer always knew where he was because he could not vary from the path of the track. He just had to know where he was in time, on the schedule, so he wouldn’t meet another train.

He told her about the July 17, 1856, Camp Hill accident when two Northern Penn Trains crashed head-on, killing half a hundred people, mostly children on their way to a Sunday School picnic. She looked sympathetic until he got to the part about the Sunday School picnic. “No good,” she said. She wouldn’t explain.

At last the roll-top desk was ready. The railroad big shot was coming through on a certain train on a specific day and the solitary man had to meet that train. The heavy piece of furniture was loaded into the spring wagon and covered with a tarp. Mr. Bartleby, in the small barn, looked at the arrangement skeptically. He could feel a big snowstorm coming. The humans were so delighted with meeting the deadline that they over-indulged in the booze the night before. Usually they settled down to check their load and arrangements. Not this time.

Next morning Owl, in spite of her headache, had real misgivings. She was worried about the weather, the big woolly roll of clouds rising over the mountains. But the solitary man brushed her off. “I can beat it!” he said. “I’ll start a little early.”

She insisted. “Better to go later when the storm is past!”

He argued. “You don’t get it. The whole thing depends on punctuality. It means keeping my word, making on-time delivery.” Then, “You’re thinking Indian-time.”

She declared she wouldn’t go along -- he said fine, he liked it that way. Neither of them remembered to check the harness in spite of the unusually heavy load. Owl went back in and resumed drinking. The solitary man left alone.

For a while the solitary man was fine, enjoying being alone, though it was clear Mr. Bartleby was having to pull hard. He didn’t really notice when the first snowflakes fell. Soon they were too thick to see through and had piled up enough to impede progress. He kept taking out his railroad watch to check the time. He was running late. It was getting very cold, too cold for his watch to run. He didn’t know that the important man’s train was now storm-stayed in a town way up the line.

Much later Owl was restlessly pacing paths in the unfenced yard. They were not straight and she was singing as she went, carrying her Mason jar of moonshine. By the time Mr. Bartleby showed up with no buggy, just the broken harness trailing along, she didn’t notice because she was inside, passed out on top of the bed. She had never quite admitted how much she cared about the solitary man, who treated her like a son, and she had never let him know how much she had become a woman in the short time she’d been with him.

In the morning when it had cleared and warmed and as soon as he sensed movement, Mr. Bartleby kicked the front door hard. Owl, leaning in the door frame, stared until she understood. While the horse ate, she found the other harness. Then she rode him out through the pathless sea of snow, over the swells of buried land, using horizon landmarks and weed shadows for reference. When she came to the becalmed spring wagon, she saw the roll top desk shining tarp-less on the wagon in the sun but no solitary man. Under the wagon and under the tarp was the carpenter, frozen to death.

It took all her strength to push the roll top desk out of the wagon and load the carpenter, wrapped in his tarp. Mr. Bartleby stood quietly to be hooked up to the wagon and found that his load was much lighter. “No need for that roll top desk anymore,” said Owl. She was not one for regrets. Everything in its own time and place. It cast a sharp-edged blue shadow on the bright snow.

She would make the man a good coffin with dovetailed corners and wind his watch, but put it in his pocket, because she had no need for it. The cold may have ruined it anyway. When the coffin was done, she would bring it to the railroad and send it to his family back East. The still would be a good living for her. Later in life, she even learned how to age whisky in barrels she made herself.

Monday, October 24, 2011


I’ve never been “big” on politics but I have to admit that recent events are so large and vivid -- Tea Party to Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street -- and so wildly contradictory while seeming to respond to the same forces, that a person can’t help thinking about it. Why does there seem to be so much skill and accomplishment among kids when you think of computers and yet so many kids will no jobs and no simple GED-type skills? Why are there so many chances to learn and go to school, which is supposed to help get a job, but so many people can’t find work? If experience is such a crucial prerequisite, why are people who have seniority and proven accomplishments getting pitched out on the compost heap? Why does everyone have enough money to buy junk but only a few -- a VERY few -- have “real money” far out of proportion of everyone else?

Talking to someone here in Valier about what goes on in town, I came finally (and again) to the idea of “crony capitalism.” We can name the examples here, but I’ve never approached it as a formal concept. So I googled it. It’s who you know. Tribes, mafias, sororities. In religious denominations, in the field of Cowboy Art, in little villages everywhere, in alumni associations for prestigious universities -- it’s connections that will get you there. Conversely connections can cut you down.

Conrad Burns, our former senator, got himself into hot water again recently by remarking that if the Democrats get their way, the whole state will be like an Indian reservation. He means, of course, the Indian reservation of when he was growing up in Wolf Point. But the old tribal cronies of agents and legislators have died now. The new tribal connections are college-educated oil lease managers and county commissioners. The style and culture have changed, which is why Burns is unelectable now. There are still cronies, but not the same old kind.

Great ironies remain. Everyone wants control -- the only distinction is between controlling for their own good or controlling for the good of the whole. And being able to tell the difference. There is nothing quite so baffling as trying to figure out the motives of someone who is not oneself and doesn’t see the world the same way. Impugning motives takes time and creativity. To make it seem as though Martin Luther King was just in it for himself, to make JFK into a satyr and druggie is not easy. But it can be done. I’m still trying to figure out George W. Bush’s motives. It was easy to discredit Obama. He doesn’t see the world in any ordinary or familiar way. Some see that as an advantage. To others, it’s dangerous.

It’s strange to read about the suppression of bullying on the same page with the vilification of the poor and the success of the US in sending predator drones in through the windows of private houses to destroy enemies. On the one hand we’re politically correct and ever so compassionate about babies born with disabilities, and on the other hand we doom millions by refusing to crack down (forgive the terminology) on pharmaceutical political gaming.

Recently at the end of a list of changes to the laws in Montana I noticed the canceling of a long-standing regulation on hearing aids. Since I once responded to an ad for hearing aids and as a result was hounded for years by salesmen, I thought, “There’ll be a big ad for these aids now.” And there was. Years ago I noticed that certain roads, not particularly well-traveled, were being greatly upgraded and having turnouts added. Government grants at work, they said. They almost exactly match the routes being used for the mega-loads headed up to the Alberta Tar Sands fields.

Of course, I’m paranoid. I see plots everywhere and sometimes I’m just wrong. When I began to have trouble with my computer, I noticed that the stats for my blogs -- which had just become available on Blogger -- looked quite different from what shows on the red-dot sitemeter at the right edge of this page. I was proud that I was being read in so many exotic places, though it was baffling that Russia would be so interested. Argentina and Australia were easier to understand. But the info didn’t jibe with the number of people who were supposed to be reading each entry. It finally dawned on me that someone was using me to bit-torrent big files, probably movies. That is, I’d become a pass-through for info I never saw. No one ever asked me if they could do that.

So now I’m chasing both crony capitalism and bit torrenting through Google to try to understand them. They’re related in a way. Hollywood movies, like Manhattan publishing, have long been gripped by a small circle of socially connected people. Both these crony circles have been hit hard by the eRevolution. Bit torrenting doesn’t affect publishing. (Amazon is a slow, wide river.) It is a way to send movies in chunks to evade size-of-file restrictions. It’s not exactly illegal, though people who are trying to figure out how to protect intellectual property are not much in favor since it’s hard to trace. I mean, no one is asking where to send the royalty money. Music cartels got hit first.

On top of that, the internet is international and the laws in different nations don’t agree. What’s porn here is not porn there. (After watching HBO’s lamentable “Rome,” packed with gory violence, BBC actors in bedsheets, and nude people fake-fucking, I fail to understand how porn differs from mainstream.) Hollywood cronies are more aggressive about arrests. That is, bit torrenting “The Sound of Music” will get you into more trouble than what used to be stag films.

Tonight I was watching a video (not bit torrented) of a talk by Ron Engel who was my professor at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. It was presented in the commons room of the school with maybe two dozen people in attendance, most of them my age, and it was meant to trace the history of the school. Actually “schools” is closer to the facts, since as he explained, seminaries in particular are subject to the shifts in the public mind about God and religion and society in general. One dwindles, another swells, a third must be re-invented. They merge and separate to fit. All are anthropomorphic and anthropocentric in a way most people would accept, even if they are humanists or ethical culture people. Social justice, science, voluntary and democratic associations -- those are the kinds of movements that have come and gone through just this one small polyvalent school in times far more dire than this one and recognizably similar. And they proceeded through crony circles, which are only voluntary associations.

What is different, I think, is two things: one is that as a world we are moving back from intense concentration on the individual to a much greater interest in working together for the common good. We’ve been here before. The other, much newer, and far scarier challenge is realizing how everything is interpenetrating, dynamic, constantly changing into something else, and how possible it would be for some slight inadvertent change -- a virus, a bacterial die-off, a planetary cataclysm -- and ALL humans would be gone. A final "byte torrent." Whatever the Gods are, they are not our cronies. What we do in small ways affects the entire planet in unforeseen and possibly uncontrollable ways. Who do we pray to now?

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Out here on the east slope of the Rockies which is the high end of the prairies, when an old rancher tells you, “Look out for that horse -- he’s a striker,” or “Watch out for that cowpie,” it’s a good idea to pay attention, but a lot of people don’t. They get some hurt and some stink out of it, but they feel they have preserved their pride by taking care of themselves. The old Westerns used to get a lot of mileage from dudes who wouldn’t take advice from old-timers. Some old-timers themselves get bristly and defiant as they age.

Up in Glacier Park there are all sorts of warning signs about not going close to a cliff edge or not going on a particular trail until a grizz changes territories or that you should always carry bear spray or that you should not hike alone. The people who disregard those signs are the tenderfoots and greenhorns from the city where a strong sense of entitlement gives them the courage to go through their days. All that confidence might impress a two-bit mugger, but not a moose on the rampage. Cliffs, of course, are impervious to just about anything but erosion. What makes people think they are immune to the laws of gravity? Maybe romanticism, like Don Quixote.

On the other extreme are the people who are always terrified, always hunting for someone who seems to know what they are doing and who will protect them. This makes them vulnerable to deranged evangelists who assure them of the exact date and hour of the Final Judgement, which for some reason seems to their followers to be comforting. I’ve never understood why.

Of course, unwanted advice can be pesky. People are always saying to me when I’m on my way home, “Now, drive carefully!” Did they think I wouldn’t? It makes me testy and I drive a little too quickly until on the night road the ghost of a mule deer barely misses me. So, um, well -- I drive more carefully. I was being stupid in the first place to not recognize a bit of good will and a kind of conventional “charm” to safeguard the trip. On the other hand, the old time Blackfeet never said goodbye because they thought it implied you weren’t coming back.

It’s true that a lot of advice is, well, ill-advised and just a power trip. These days kids will lecture you about smoking or littering. We’re already programmed to balk from the days when we were kids ourselves and every time we were headed out the door, our mom said, “Put on your jacket!” On the other hand, I rather vividly remember an incident before a fancy holiday dinner when lit candles were on the table. I was just big enough to climb up on a chair and reach over to light scraps of paper from that candle. My mother remarked mildly, “If you keep that up, you’re going to burn your fingers.” Screeeaaaaam. Of course, if I’d been a little older I would have accused her of self-fulfilling prophesy -- “You made me do it!” But older yet and I was chagrined. Then amused.

On the other hand, she was always warning me that whatever it was I was doing that she didn’t like (slumping, reading too much) meant that no one would ever marry me. But she didn’t warn me until too late that getting married was a dangerous thing to do. I’m warning you -- whatever advice you get, there’s always an “other hand.”

Nevertheless, when someone doing major physical things says, “Stand back” or “Watch out,” you’d better do it without stalling or you’re liable to get clobbered by a turning ladder or you might step on a rake. When a rancher says, “Look out for that cow. She has a bad temper,” you’d better believe it. And if Nassim Taleb says, “There is a black swan coming,” you’d better cover your assets.

A certain kind of rule-based religion is packed with if-then warnings. If you curse, you’ll go to hell. If you do “that”, you’ll grow hair on the palms of your hands. Nowadays the health field has taken over the role of religion: if you don’t stop smoking, you’ll die of lung cancer. If you don’t have tests all the time, you’ll be consumed by bad health. If you don’t take all your meds, you’ll die within the hour.

One of my favorite jokes, which is supposed to have been a real happening, is about the little boy whose mother said to him, “If you do that again, I’ll give you a licking!” And he did. Before she gave him his licking, she asked (in the spirit of research), “Why is it that when I tell your sister I’ll give her licking, she stops doing whatever it is. But you just go ahead and do it anyway.” “But, Mom,” explained the boy, “It’s worth it to me!” She learned to try to figure out what he was getting out of his “bad” behavior. (God ought to try that.) If people are consistently doing something that seems to bring them nothing but bad consequences, perhaps we ought to inquire into their motives. Maybe they know something we don’t.

Aside from that, too much warning, too many rules, too many consequences and obsession with them seems to me to belong to the first part of my “Dilation of the Spirit” -- the part about Confession of Sins, despair, misfortune, misery, and helplessness. We get into that too much and neglect the second part, the “Assurance of Pardon.” Where are the warnings about good things? What word is there? Optimism? Hope? Confidence? Not good enough.

What seems to be happening is that people are getting so stuck in the warnings, so resentful of them, so convinced that people in Washington DC have no right to regulate their lives, that they use up all their energy in kicking against the . . . well, you know. And the other side is so angry at them for fighting the efforts to do them good, that they’re using up energy unnecessarily, too.

Laughter. That’s what we need. More laughter. Because the whole thing is getting ridiculous.