Sunday, June 19, 2016


The enormous need on the rez when I was teaching English there was the ability to read. By “read” I mean the ability to look at a row of little marks on paper and “hear” in your head a voice saying the words they stood for. This is an “emergent” ability, not really a taught skill. Aphasic people can’t get it to emerge. Probably there are ten or twenty ways to let meaning emerge through writing. The way I remember it was that it was intermittent at first — some words were like a “see and say” toy. Toddlers learn to read stop signs. Then my mother pointed out the connection between marks and sounds that I was already recognizing and I saw that some words were like pop-it beads: they had syllables. Then sentences and I was off to the races.
I learned to read mostly by sitting alongside someone reading me a book. I’m good at patterns and the sentences were like rows of knitting: patterns. But my brother had a lot of trouble with reading. Mrs. Eagle (and I only recently realized that she was Native American, probably Sioux) was his second grade teacher and she coaxed him into phonics, the art of sounding out words. He’s a reader now, but his personality is not like mine. I was puzzling out adult books and enjoying the sensation of making the meanings slowly drift up through the murk like one of those party-balls that answers questions. He doesn’t like puzzling or risk. In fact, he doesn’t like me. I’m dangerous.

My brothers
When I was crazy for ballet, I spent a couple of months trying to read French, expecting that the meaning would drift up to recognition. It didn’t until  decades later the beginnings of Cinematheque when the boys wrote in French and so did Tim, though his French was vernacular (spoken) and the boys teased him. I really wanted to know what they were saying. And by then translation programs were in the computer. I had to pass a French test for my MA, but I found I was political because of the gender assignments of the nouns. Everything domestic and childish is “female,” and the opposite was “male.” The prof came to dislike me.
These shadow meanings and attachments are not about reading: they are about what reading is about, the subterranean assumptions we form as we learn to speak, draw from our surroundings, ask ourselves about the mysteries. I’m not much good at teaching how to read, though lately there are more of the kind of ideas that help, more like games to improve speaking where a speech therapist sits across the table and watches the mouth of the speaker to understand where they are putting their tongue, whether their throat is relaxed, whether they are using their soft or hard palate, how they are breathing. These are physical knowledges,  normally self-exploration based on observation and empathetic trust.
Darrell Kipp and Jesse DesRosier

When Darrell Kipp and others were (and are) teaching Blackfeet — not just counting or a few nouns, but concepts and sentences — they were using a formal method that required us to act out what we said: “Come in. Sit down. Let’s go eat.” I can remember some of it, but what I actually use in daily life is little phrases and nouns that Bob Scriver used all the time the way Englishmen throw in French words now and then. Or the way kids (Millennials) throw in street slang.
It took me a while to recognize “gay” vocabulary because it is often reversals like using “she” for male people and using “Mary” as a name for gays, like “pansy” or “Nancy,” nineteenth century pejoratives defiantly claimed. But I got into trouble for talking about “faggots” familiarly as I had heard friends do. I got in BIG trouble once for saying T. “copied” me with some writing and one of the boys thought that I was accusing him of stealing my writing. I think of that boy every time someone on a cop show says, “Copy that,” which is old radio talk for “I got it.” Not because I think the boy was dumb not to understand what I meant, but because of his ferocious willingness to defend his friend.

Cuts Wood Blackfeet Immersion School 

So now I’m talking about context, which has nothing much to do with sounding out words in your head, but everything to do with pulling it together into meaning. This is what I think about now. My Heart Butte kids had a context, a web of connectome nodes based on their physical world of experience, that I only knew a little bit. Their culture was English but still oral and anchored in signs, vivid gestures that sometimes didn’t even need words. They almost danced their worlds. They only read at school so all the reading meanings were about school things: other kids, mean teachers, desks, bathrooms, lunch, recess. No Blackfeet words for any of that stuff. Their real world was covert, not entirely conscious.
Now, meant to be a writer’s platform, a kind of pre-publication try-out context, has revealed a culture gap between techies dealing with code — “if-then” connections mostly on the writing side of the brain but not so personal as handwriting since it’s on a keyboard — and writers creating sentences drawn from a vocabulary of experience and their sensorium, often full of irony and inner sub-meanings that are invisible to techies. It’s the diff between keyboarding and playing the piano.
This is in part what so obsesses T. If the connectomes in the brain could be illustrated by art and music, even abstractly, then maybe the techies could perceive it in a way they are blocked from now. Imagine beginning to read a sentence when a shape rises up out of the words, an evocation of child’s terror or maybe the sensation of riding a horse, complete with the creaks and jingle of the equipage.
Rhett Michael (8) on Suzy Q

It helps to have a video interpretation alongside a post, but once there was a suggestion that print could have a sound track triggered by eye movement. What happened to that? One of my most powerful assignments when I was teaching was to get a kid to read something strong while playing a CD that fit. Why isn’t Medium more sound friendly? YouTube has got it. Sometimes.
The people who are chasing virtual reality are often far too literal. If we wanted to see what was really there, we wouldn’t need the same thing in pixels-for-goggles. But for youngsters the problem is often that they haven’t experienced reality in enough depth, detail and intensity to have material to work with. I think this is why the constant reiterations of sex, status, friendship, safety, identity. It’s certainly the reason that techie-written algorithm-suggested tags for a post of mine are ALWAYS out of sync. Indians are travel and history. Religion is church and authority figures. Education is college. Sex is — too much like the movies.
Early feminism had a concept called “listening to understanding,” which mean that when women sat together and told their stories, it was the carefully attentive faces around them that pulled the words out into the light. Until that happened they themselves didn’t really know what they thought. It was the transition from felt concepts into spoken words that could be shared. It was what eventually led to what they called “the click,” when the pattern came clear in daily experience.
One of my gay friends from undergrad years (1957–1961), an experienced and competent man even then, said that the circle I sat just outside of was aware they were different and talked about it, but came to no conclusion and told no one.  The terms weren't there yet.  There was no body of writing they shared, no political platform. I could feel that in them. Not in myself, not in my writing . . .yet.

Meanings rise out of the murky fern-fringed pools in the forest, sometimes a curious frog-child and sometimes a hand brandishing a sword just then named.  It may write something in flaming letters.

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