Friday, October 30, 2015


I just ran across this phrase, which struck me hard.  It refers to a situation in which a founding precipitate dies out after beginning to spread concentric circles around that first event.  You can see it vividly on a petri dish where bacteria have landed a first invader.  But it is also about tribes who begin with a small remnant of a circle which re-expands into a far bigger population, standardized in many respects so they can be recognized as belonging to the original circles.  Also, it applies to small towns, founded in a boom of construction or discovery, which then dwindles when the profit fades and yet identifies with that first small now-gone center.  AND nations, AND professions, AND academic “disciplines” -- it is the result of time, which cannot be restrained or stopped, but can be adapted to, used for good.  Think of it as strong wind.  

So the Blackfeet were nearly destroyed by disease.  Transformed by guns and horses. Then utterly changed by the loss of the buffalo.  But they transformed.  They’re still transforming.  What keeps them being Blackfeet?  Stories, relationships, and the land itself which prompts the ceremonies of identity.  But it is the tough outliers (in this case the ones who could endure college in spite of low expectations) who have become the seed of a new version.  The ceremonies are wealth-based, but they require generosity.

36th  SF Gay Pride Parade

Another group:  in the Sixties and Seventies in San Francisco, probably reacting to Fifties postwar conformity and restriction, there was a nucleus of gay men who not only defied society but also celebrated their defining sexual practices with outrageous public bravura.  Just as the circles began to widen, HIV jumped out of African jungle and spread around the world but was first diagnosed among gays in SF.  As the center of the community literally died, it transformed and to some degree scattered.  In the circumference circles formed by caring communities, some were enough a part of it to want to stick with their compatriots and help them in the most direct ways, like nursing and campaigning for meds.  They formed new communities and energized pre-existing ones:  Key West, Fire Island, Morocco.

A separate group, veteran men who had developed a different kind of PTSD from service in combat began to coalesce into support circles.  Some of them were gay and overlapped into intense SM ingroups, joined by bonding and a kind of religious intensity.  Not wings but leather.  Both these groups, HIV and PTSD, were heavily dependent on medical technique and knowledge, but based on compassion instead of profit, generosity rather than hoarding.  Maybe that was the origin of Medicins Sans Frontieres, heroes of our times.   These groups have a growing conversation that may finally beat down some mistaken assumptions about human beings, as for instance the stigmatizing of poverty.  Even the criminality of poverty.  (Have you heard about the state that fines penniless offenders a pint of their blood?) And the entitlement of the rich and high-status, even to destroy other people’s lives.

English upper-class boarding school dorm

Because of my growing circle of contacts with activists, I’ve been following the British scandal of the sexual use of small boys by high status men (reaching up into royalty) as human “party favors.”  But I’m going to swerve here.  I want to point to the society that taught these men that this was something special rather than shit destructive behavior that demonstrates degradation, not privilege.  I’m thinking about class-based boarding schools that gave the children of elite families (far away) more than just an education that supposedly qualified them to lead the empire, but also hooked them on torture, made them “lick the stick that beats them.”  When one gets into the back archives of such folks, the imposed eroticism of spanking and beating begin to turn up everywhere in the form of "discipline".

It's presented in skits as being "funny"

I was interested because I was spanked.  So when I read that the adult Winston Churchill loved to be spanked and so did Paul Tillich and many others who were turned over the knees of nursemaids who kept order that way -- in the process getting attention they craved besides a glimpse of forbidden petticoats and knickers -- I began to query myself.  I was spanked by my father (my brothers were spanked as well) often with no justification.  There was no beating with sticks, except for my mother, who switched our legs and who would slap faces if provoked enough.  I was never physically punished at school, but there was one teacher who punished boys by spanking them with a ruler and sometimes pulled down their pants to do it.   She did take them into a back room first.

This was in the Forties going into Fifties, in NE Portland (Vernon) when it was still a second generation European immigrant artisan, mechanic, and shop neighborhood.  People agreed that physical discipline was necessary.  What I'm saying is that bad behavior is culture-based, "tribal".  The sexual misuse of children starts as a social masquerade for what's good for them.  It rolls them up like armadillos.  Yet my mother and father never fought.  Violence between them was unthinkable.  No one in my family drank, smoked, cursed or played poker.  My father played chess.  We didn't talk things out.  I went into my bedroom, closed the door and locked it.

A family-changing accident

Closed skull concussion -- a different man

What my family didn’t realize then was that in 1948 my father had had one of those brain damage concussions in a car accident.  We just hated him for being unjust.  And I began to fight back.  I’m still fighting back.  But it edges towards the erotic in an unwelcome and sneaky ways.  I fell madly in love with someone from the parent generation because he could reach me.  When that failed, though the element of violence never became real but its ghost did, and partly because I had already turned back on myself -- auto-intimate, you might say -- which is useful for a writer.  In fact, this would be the spine of a pretty good novel about emptiness at the center of family.  

Today I've heard no one -- in a very vocal and vigorous crowd -- ask why so many English nobs love to be spanked or love to spank and punish and invade and torture small boys so much that they’re willing to pay big bucks to do it.  Even to the point of death, teeny private war of unequals.   If the practice is not eliminated from those schools, it will re-infect every generation.  It seems to have died down.   Maybe it helps that often now there are girls enrolled.  Girls are tattletales.  They'll rat out such behavior and they should.  I hope it's before they get hooked on abuse.  (Can you think of anything more arousing than a handsome cop hauling you around in front of everyone?  Especially knowing it's going to be viral on You Tube?  And that that damned cop will probably be fired.  What power!)   The emptying of orderly classrooms.

Just before things went wrong.

For a while we went all huggy.  But no longer can a distraught or lost child be innocently enfolded to give them shelter and comfort.  Not now.  If a strange man knocks on any door in any neighborhood, kids are likely to scatter the way indigenous kids used to disappear into the brush when a white man drove into the yard.  Teachers must stand with arms at their sides, a foot away.    The cheese stands alone in the circle.

The concept I began with is the idea that a nucleus of social change, no matter what causes it in the first place, will spread and spread until the middle is empty, and then re-establish itself, possibly transformed, out on the edges of the circle around that empty middle.   The middle that no longer contains the pattern that defined the group.  The “middle” of the Fifties -- mom, dad, kid, based on reproduction -- still lingers, but is emptying.  Around it are new nodes of mutual caring and -- inevitably -- greed and exploitation.  Those who witness must testify.  We all must transform.  If that's scolding and judging, okay.  That's what it is.  I'm moving away from an empty center, so naturally it's incoherent.  It will cohere in a new place.

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