Friday, March 02, 2012


This is a movie (about an hour long) that shows where I live and some people that I know. To watch it for free, you’ll have to sit through some advertising, but you can buy the movie as well. I thought I would post it in contrast to yesterday’s review of “Heights.” This is not about “depths” but about ground level and a little history that happened just north of here.

Many of these people speaking, especially early in the vid, are people I’ve known for fifty years: Curly Bear Wagner, Terry Whitwright, Darrell Robes Kipp, Cyn Kipp, and others. I’ve taught them and their children, taught WITH them, taken classes FROM them, attended their funerals, quarreled with some, worked with others, laughed with most. We’re all about the same age. I don’t agree with everything they say here, but for the most part, I do. When I met them, them were about the age of the kids speaking at the end of the film. They are the people who made those kids the way they are. (I know nothing about the white people in this film, though I’m white. They are not from here.)

Nassim Taleb talks about achieving “robustness” and “antifragility” by being resilient, persistent, and capable of recovery after grievous harm. He speaks of a barbell model for life in which one end is strategies so basic that they just won’t change -- they are dependable and “robust.” On the other end of the barbell is risky stuff that might yield a big gain, but also might also mean a major vulnerability -- real harm. He developed this idea in terms of money, so at one end is savings and investment in solid classic strategies. (Like land?) At the other end is dubious stuff like derivatives, derivatives of derivatives, and bundles of unexamined and undocumented debt.

This barbell idea could also be applied to culture, the way we live our lives. Blackfeet have endured and persisted for thousands of years, partly because their strategies developed in the face of headwinds both literal and social. Even as the fragile people -- like drunks or diabetics or the reckless -- are pruned away, the core group persists. To be practical, when the infrastructure of progress fails, which it often does here (I’m talking about electricity, gas, telephone, paved roads. Oh -- and internet.), life goes on because we keep alive the skills and adaptations that pre-existed all this modern stuff. It’s only about a century old, after all. I refuse to replace my gas floor furnace with a modern forced-air ducted furnace because when the electricity is off, the modern one won’t operate. Besides, a modern furnace takes a lot of maintenance. When it breaks down a trained person has to fix it at considerable cost. (Good for the economy!) I also have a wood stove in the garage in case the gas fails, though it never has. Not that I don’t use an electric foot-warmer under the computer and a portable electric heater in the bathroom -- when there IS electricity which is, to be fair, most of the time.

In the beginning the Blackfeet were braced against education because they understood that it meant assimilation: giving up the old assumptions and accepting the new ways that are good for the economy. Ranching and farming and selling your land. (Oil, coal, trees, grass.) More recently they have thrown their energy to rekindling the old knowledge because why not learn BOTH? Those who try to enforce a policy of “only one way: MY way” are creating fragility in Taleb’s terms. A double or braided culture is robust so long as it doesn’t go to war with itself. And that’s the danger of the middle of the barbell, the bar part. That it will turn out to be neither/nor. Muddled. Stranded. Paralyzed.

Valier had a town meeting last night meant to set priorities for future strategies. It was moderated by the person who had contracted to design a questionnaire, hold a series of meetings, and derive from that some basic principles. The first problem was that the handout AND the overhead projection were unreadable: the print was impossibly tiny. Objections about that were brushed aside. The second problem was that the moderator was using Powerpoint projected onto a screen instead of good old tried-and-true fibertip on newsprint easel. She wasted time and attention struggling with the machine though she remained bouncy and upbeat. Only what would fit on the screen could be seen. With newsprint, you can line the walls with everything as it accumulates.

A strange thing happened. The two dozen or so people present, mostly older, talked themselves into discouragement. In previous meetings they had gotten euphoric over the prospect of an influx of workers because of the new oil well drilling. (Though it’s bound to be temporary -- a decade of men looking for work rather than families.) Now they had heard of the problems “over east” where the “man-camps” of trucked-in dormitories (we see them on the highway) are served by above-ground cesspool tanks that occasionally must be pumped out. My whole table boasted that since that jogging school teacher was grabbed and killed by two floaters looking for work, they made sure their guns were loaded and ready. That incident was a day’s drive away.

One man grieved that the baseball complex he had proposed previously was thoroughly rejected on the questionnaire. He was convinced this was because the town was so age-ist that they would do nothing for kids. (No one dared say it was because his partner in the project is thoroughly disliked and distrusted.) Somehow this slipped over to blaming the kids themselves for not being dynamic and not wanting to individually excel, and how they were ruining their chances for scholarships by not being of service to the community. And then, of course, it all came back to the schools.

At no point was the group provided with even the basic information about the town that a person can pull off the Internet. How many houses do we have? How many are rentals? How many are substandard? (The eight that are still on septic tanks WERE mentioned.) How many have been built recently? Only one of the key town merchants was present. Where were the missing others, family men? The opinionated real estate brokers were not present. There are supposed to be 85 small enterprises in town -- no list, no analysis of whether they were ag-related, family-based, artists, county/state/federal employees (like fed/co/state law enforcement who live here). People said there was too much work to do, not enough energy or people to maintain the volunteer fire department or EMT’s. No one wanted to talk about the booming churches or the dynamic library. They don’t do that stuff. One person criticized the architecture of the library. (!!??)

The moderator kept trying to steer the discussion into how problems could be converted into opportunities, but it didn’t work. People looked stubborn and defeated. Some left. The meeting broke up. Fragile. Gotta think about this. I think they believe their only route to power is negative. And they learned it from the politicians. There’s an education problem here, but it’s not the schools.

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