Friday, January 02, 2015


A roosting elephant

The story gets told over and over about an object that is large enough that each part of it is assumed by some authoritative observer standing alongside that part -- according to his experience, expectations, and desires -- to be just like that all over.  It’s so useful a story because it’s so often true.  And now it comes home to roost with me as people respond to my blogs.  (What ever happened to that kid joke about why elephants never hide in trees?  I can’t remember the answer.)

I had a brief interaction with a hospital administrator -- a tall, cool, blonde, straight-A student (a lot of Swedish genes floating around here) -- a competent achiever who has everything under control.  I remarked that these days few people around here know me, meaning in part that I was produced by a time and place that is gone and in part that they don’t know about me in the decades I was away.  She said, coolly, “Anyone who reads your blog knows you.”  Her English teacher only taught her to look for facts.  She doesn’t know that nothing written is ever “true” in any way that’s not guarded and partial.  And that’s before an editor and publisher get hold of it.

She assumes because this blog is often written in first person that I really AM who I appear to be rather than an interpretation, and yet I suspect that she will think that any fiction -- even labeled as that -- is covertly true.  But then, maybe I’m only seeing one aspect of her and generalizing from it.  It’s tough to separate fantasy from empathy from stereotype from the imprint of past experience.

Blending right in.

1.  Since I’m an old woman writing from a small Montana town, naturally I must be writing little human interest stories about the local people.  Some assume that I’m looking at their life stories, which are precious to them, for material and get me into a corner to advise me that if I ever write about THEIR family, they will murder me!  It’s a THEFT.  On the other hand there is a type who wants me to write their family story, often Native American people who assume that such stories will be romantic and praising.  But wait, AIM will say they’re being ripped off.

2.  Since I was married to Bob Scriver in the Sixties, some remember me as a redhead who willingly did as she was bid -- whether skinning bears or scrubbing the floor.  They think I was Bob’s age.  Or since some already assume he is the age of Charlie Russell (Western artists are trapped in time), they assume that what I write about him is strictly hearsay.  I couldn’t have been there.  Or they think I’m Ginger Renner, dealing in Western art, having squirreled away a little nest egg.

Great view!

3.  Those Blackfeet who had me for an English teacher in the three different stints will think of me in three different ways, but teaching in Cut Bank yielded a different impression yet.  They thought I would oppress the boys and support the girls (those tall blonde competent young women), but it was quite the opposite.  They assumed that since I had taught in Heart Butte, I was a disciplinarian because they assumed that Indian kids were bad kids -- but they weren’t.

4.  Animal control:  my funniest day was three-fold.  A big black man called me a sterile bitch, a young salesman called me a ditsy blonde, and a middle-aged woman called me a bull dyke.  But someone stole my trooper hat.  I never had enough money to buy a new one, and I loved that hat, loved it pulled down straight across above my eyes in hopes of looking menacing.  Image.

5.  As a minister, the four Montana fellowships each had their own reactions, Kirkland and I had a lovely time, and Saskatoon and I never did figure each other out.

6.  In Portland for that last stint, I was mostly a pain in the butt.  My first supervisor was Attilla the Hen.  One of the female (actually rather feminist) city commissioners asked, half-seriously, whether the woman could be forced to take tranquilizers.  The Hen both hated and feared me.  My last supervisor was a quiet reader, a male engineer, who would have liked to live in Valier.  I worked hard for him.

7.  My family has never figured me out and that’s probably a good thing.

Some things seem to surprise younger people or city people.  I never wanted to make a lot of money.  I always wanted to live in Blackfeet territory or, if you prefer, on the East Slope.  I love this little house, because it has a lot of potential and I always like things with a lot of potential, which is why I liked teaching.  I always wanted to write, I have never wanted to go on promotion tours, and I have seen what success does to people -- not good.  I don’t enjoy dressing up except about once a year.  Then I have second thoughts.

Looking for a place to nest.

There are few people who see the core of me.  The rest trip over my flip irony.  There’s a sort of person who cannot detect “unreliable” -- even sarcastic -- reports and therefore resents them, even when there is a good reason for them.  They don’t get jokes, either.   I find that I don’t fit with the earnest, bourgeois, relentlessly optimistic and commercial TED talkers, nor do I fit with the ponderous old grad school hippie professors on Edge videos either, though they constantly declare that they consider alternatives just as they did in the Sixties.  Both are ridden with stereotypes they get from the media instead of their own experience.  Aeon is appealing because it’s so eclectic, but always high-quality.  Bioneers is pretty good but it always feels like joining the Girl Scouts, which I didn't enjoy.

Best nest yet.

The two great sources of identity for me are the NU theatre courses and the U of Chicago Div School courses, now melded together in the thought emerging from neurology research.  That is, “What is a human being?”  The answers are so various that the U of C mantra -- “What is your method?” -- becomes crucial.  What I've basically done is to recreate seminary.
One absorbing method is the study of the genome and correlations of those molecules to the fate of the person with that code in their cells. Carl Zimmer’s blog today discusses how complex that is.  It has turned out to be VERY complex: the original “intron” formula is affected by an “entron” that can turn the formula up or down, silence it, replicate it in some other section of the chromosome,  or can produce quite different results in a different environment or period of history.  The very first comment to Zimmer’s post was one of those frothing, hysterical denials of any interpretation of reality they don’t like. The research in question suggested that people with a certain gene grew fat if they were born after 1942, but not if they were older than that.  (I am!!)  An intriguing puzzle. “Fat is from being a pig!!!” insisted the commenter.  

Some people are the same about writing: either write their way or you’re the devil.  Either tell the absolute factual truth or you’re immoral, evil, and going to hell.  None of these outcomes is even possible.

Can you see me now?

The answer to the joke (I googled it.) is that elephants are so good at hiding in trees that you simply never know that’s where they are -- no one looks for them, so no one recognizes them.  It’s no way to understand elephants.

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