Sunday, July 31, 2016

EXTREME WRITING

This is from a time when several of us were writing hard and high.  There was a lot of hate flying around the world -- just like now.

7/31/10 

Extreme writing is like cage-fighting on roller-skates.  (Someone in the newspaper used that for a description of hockey and I like it as a metaphor.)

What I’m thinking about is yesterday when we were all impressed by the image of the giant invisible boy, which was legitimate and I hope released HIM from his cage.  But then I was in the bone cage of my head rolling around on second thoughts.  I was saying that it’s okay to hate.  Is it?  Every liberal would rise up to say,  “Oh NO!”   But why do we stigmatize emotional categories as though “hate” were all one thing.  I said it was okay to hate me, okay for me to hate others, but what KIND of hate?  I would argue hate demonstrates connection, maybe even love.  Apathy kills.

Extreme writing is facing such questions.  Some wiggle out of the cage by saying they are “hating” an act or a phenomenon but never a person.  Uh-huh.  Others label what they hate as “evil” and justify hating that way.



There’s got to be a “hate continuum.”  Hating washing the dishes is not the same as hating a murdering tyrant.  It’s different to “ cold hate” for dynamics unclaimed by anyone that nevertheless destroy.  Numbers.  Theories.  Hating is different when it’s frustration than it is from pure contempt.  I have NO contempt for anyone at Cinematheque.

Hatred can be a deal with the Devil, but sometimes the Devil is a better friend than God.  Since both are cage-fighting on rollerskates in your head. 

What makes writing extreme?  Brutal honesty.  Cutting accuracy.  Devastating exposure.  Can it be survived?  Dunno.  No limits on subject matter, even if it’s taboo.  Push the limits of the little abacus of a brain, make it do what a computer does even if you don’t really KNOW what a computer does.  Accept the loss of former friends (one left this week) and the acquisition of new friends (??)  Profanity and incoherence are OUT.  They just add bars. 

The hardest part might be not the body blows of loss, but the ringing in one’s ears of ambiguity, the eye-cuts of doubt, the broken nose of I-myself-might-be-absolutely-wrong.  Down for the count out of sheer unbearability.  There is always the possibility of death, I mean the actual death of the writer in a hail of reciprocated severity.  The only people who think writing is harmless are those who never read.

Beyond that there are the years of training, building muscle, trying to understand theory and methods, vocabulary beyond my experience or anyone else’s either because of being abstract, virtual, platonic -- irrelevant?   Eleven thousand dollars a year, four years, roughly fifty thousand dollars worth of equipment, about thirty years ago, mostly paid for by other people through scholarships and subsidies.  It amounted to an elegant can opener.  What’s in the can?  You gotta open it to find out.


A can of hate.  Sort the worms:  fear, grief, jealousy, thwarted love, helplessness.  Kids scream,  “I hate you!  I’ll never speak to you again!”  They DO mean it.  The worst is being caged with someone you love and don’t want to hurt, but it’s the only way to stay alive, even as you realize they can kill you.

Waitaminute.  You’re stuck on a metaphor.  We’re supposed to be discussing hate -- that was the subject.  

But hate IS about the cage.  You want what you hate to be outside and yourself to be inside where it’s safe.  

Waitaminute.  There’s something wrong with this idea.  What if I want to go somewhere.  Let’s get hate into the cage and I’ll be outside.

Can’t be done.  The hate is in you, not them.  It’s easy to hate an “out-group”, esp. if they’re “way out,” (add contempt) but hate is in your gut, your gut IS the worm.  The physiology of hate is that it eats on the lining of your tubing and bleeds your life right out of you.  “Shit for brains” is just code for “brains shit out.”  The vagus nerve goes straight from brain to stomach.  The intestine is netted with nerves and juiced with brain chemicals.  Hate is a physical phenomenon.  So are fear and grief.  They are braided in your gut.  Extreme writing is about blood and guts.  Not theirs -- your own.

I read a story the other day about people who are paid to sit and look at EVERY image posted to the Internet.  If a photo is outside certain boundaries, it is zapped.  They look at everything -- no filters.  They throw up: there is a sink in the room.  They develop post-traumatic stress syndrome.  You cannot imagine what they see.  That’s why they zap it.  For them it’s no longer imagined.  Of course, the same protocol can be used to zap things you WANT to see.  I used to think I wanted to see everything.  Now I’m not so sure.  But extreme writing requires that.  Anyway, who decides what is truly awful?  What if one person throws up at what makes another lick his lips?  How many days did the cream n’ sugar party last?  Three, four?  There’s a huge backlog from Afghanistan.

First you gotta name it
Then you will define it.
Never try to shame it.
Give us some examples,
Ones we recognize.
How much hate is really grief,
How much hate is fear.
All this shifter-shapin’ is kinda hard to bear.

Take the C away from Cage and it is Age.
Add a Place and there’s your Ace.
Mine is here.
Yours is there.
We are such a funny pair!
Where you goin’?
What you sowin’?
Wait for me!
Can’t you see
I’m in a cage?

For every bar there is a space.  
Turn sideways.
Break up in tiny pieces
Then reassemble on the other side.
You could write on paper if you were old-fashioned.
Pass a note.  Use a code.
Or XOXOXOXO  your way out with pixels of your face.
I’ll give it more thought later.
I’m not going anyplace.
I’m too old for skateboards.
You go on ahead.

Then double back, if you see a hater.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

YOUNGER MEN



Mary Scriver  (now 77)

It gets harder to maintain my cloistered status in summer.  Despite all my protests about how I’m not the same as I was in the Sixties and about how I get up to write at dawn, go back to bed until the Baptists’ bonger threatens sleep at 9AM, then write and research the rest of the day until late afternoon, when I watch an old cop show to change the rhythm and try to read or keep house until bedtime.  Recently it has been impossible.  Two slightly younger men than me (retired and on vacation) got through my defenses yesterday.

Earlier, Kathy Shinn, stopped by with her husband, Craig.  Kathy was an East Glacier friend in the Seventies after Bob divorced me and I moved into a decrepit house up there, and later in Portland.  Next was Paul Wheeler who survived cancer this winter.  He lives on the Idaho Panhandle and has family here in Valier, but knew me when I was the receptionist at the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.  As a child he came regularly to operate the rattlesnake with a noisy tail — constantly showing up at the front desk for more change to feed into it.  Now he’s one of my most faithful blog readers and in early years when I posted more Montana tales, he sent stories that I included.  

Yesterday Paul managed to get past my defenses and take me to lunch.  But then in the afternoon Robey Clark and his wife Beverly showed up to take me to dinner.  Robey is on the rez for a Connelly family reunion.  The Connelly’s, who are not all named Connelly at this point, through the years have been one of the most colorful and achieving families.  I didn’t let my friends talk much.  After a long time with no audience, I tend to get a little manic.  But they remembered much as well.
JR and JoAnn  1963

Today JoAnn Johnson Clark, a vital member of those times, will be buried in Browning.  Robey was in the play, “Molly Morgan”, in which JoAnn and her eventual husband, J.R. Clark, were stars.  There was a platform “thrust” stage at the front and JoAnn was supposed to walk onto it to deliver a soliloquy.  She walked a little too far, fell over the four-foot drop, which broke the heel off her shoe, gritted her teeth while she climbed back up, and delivered her soliloquy.  In later years she accused me of trying to murder her, with some justice.  I should have at least put reflective tape or a small light at the edge.  She became the kind of efficient, glamorous and admirable English teacher I failed to be.  Robey was in that play but his best role was as “Petruchio’s” sidekick in a Western version of “Taming of the Shrew” I paraphrased.

Paul was a forestry major at Missoula and a timber worker most of his life.  He can devise some kind of business out of almost anything.  In recent years he has sold and maintained fire extinguishers and managed properties.  His “thing” is escaping the routine, the mundane, the traps of society by living up a wild valley. 

Robey Clark

Robey has been a lifelong devoted Native American educator and a writer, though there are gaps in the writing.  He plays the guitar and poker, hobnobbing with some of the most vital people in Portland.  He took me to lunch in my Portland days and he’s the culprit who got me onto the Internet, starting with RezNet, which was Indians only.  I didn’t lie.  I just said I was from Browning, as Robey instructed.

So I’m mulling over why it is that I get the same vibe from these two men?  Why do they want to take me to a meal?  I think what it comes down to is that they were raised by strong single mothers and grandmothers. Times were tough when they were little.  They have a strong drive to help younger people, but also older single women.  In fact, I have to fight Paul off to keep him from helping too much, and he reports that others complain about that, too, all ages and genders, which is interesting.  

They are kitchen table people rather than like some men — guys who speak from their Barcalounger thrones over the noise of an immense TV screen.  These two males enjoy their beer, but along with quiet domestic talk about realities.  Lots of jokes and stories.  Paul translates the kitchen to beer in bars with friends.  Both men love colorful characters but fade away if things get violent.

That’s about as wicked as they get.  They are SQUARE and usually in a good way -- practical, grounded and generous.  And not fussy eaters — their theme song might be “Huggin’ and Chalkin’” about having to hug sections at a time, working one’s way around the beltline.

They do not share my interest in the deranged, dispossessed and desperate.  Not the sort of stuff on cop shows, nor the banal wickedness on the rez nor the international atrocities of dead babies washed up on beaches.  Robey began to ask me about some of the political accusations against Bob Scriver and I retaliated by deflating some of the romantic claims of the accusers.  

Scriver Thunder Pipe Bundle on the Scriver hearth

For instance, Bob is accused of buying the Medicine Pipe Bundle in order to open it and display the contents, as though “splaying our grandmother naked for all to see.”   (This Bundle disappeared at his death.)  But the “shamans” these accusers respected were not-very-secret molesters of their daughters (the daughters told me so), beaters of helpless drunks, and probably even themselves unconvicted murderers, putting aside what is or isn’t theft.  Shamans are not sweet cheerful old Methodist pastors. They are mandrakes and wizards.

Both of these “square” guys coped with the anarchy of the rez by shutting much of it out.  They are among the few who do NOT want to talk about Trump.  Neither one colors outside the box.  I’ve always sort of innocently sat on the box and watched the great freeform swamp.  Sometimes I got bit by a gator or a skeeter. 

The older I get, the more I realize that what’s going on can be defined as wicked, but that shields it from change by scaring off the nice people who might interfere except that their mothers told them to stay away, stay out of Ick's.  

Wickedness is mostly cultural, which is a series of boxes that vary a LOT.  People here and now think it is very wicked to use a child for physical gratification, but they pretend not to notice the ones who are starving or the neighbor’s kid who is regularly beaten.  They don't worry about children dressed like Las Vegas show girls.

I suppose I’m kind of a conscience goad, but also a source of information, now that they wonder about things that happened long ago.  They stashed knowledge at the time that was too hard to figure out for a kid.  Now safely in retirement memories creep into consciousness again.  Robey runs with a liberal Portland crowd that is impatient with the people’s retreat from responsibility but he — and he’s not alone — finds so much injustice and stupidity so intractable (remember he’s been working in Native American education all his life) that he despairs.  I told him to think of Napi and have a good laugh.  It's a survival strategy.

The rebuilt Swift Dam

These guys are not suits.  If Paul absolutely has to put clothes on, it’s going to be bib overalls. Last night, if his plan worked out, he took Sid Gustafson's book about Swift Dam to the actual Swift Dam and slept there just like the book.

Robey told me about a young male historian in his family who has become fascinated by WWII.  I sent him these notes I took from the Glacier Reporter.  Eddie Big Beaver posed for the Scriver bronze called "No More Buffalo."  Jackie Heavyrunner was "Tiny Man's" grandfather.
"No More Buffalo"


Browning Newspaper Notes 1945 - 1947

August 31, 1945

When July 4th comes around in the future, Edward Big Beaver, Jr. will go through them with mixed emotions since his war wound was suffered last July 4 when he was shot through the hip by a “die hard” Jap in the Philippines. “Hell!” shouted Big Beaver the other day, “Getting shot on July 4th in a battle is more sensible than having it happen in peacetime!” Big Beaver put in approximately four years in the service of his country, most of which was in the hot spots of the Pacific. He received a medical discharge. 

September 24

Harold Douglas, expert electric welder, worked at Hanford and welded the atomic bomb -- blindfolded! [Don’t ask me how he did it. The article didn’t explain -- just that it was the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.]

October 3, 1945

“It was good. It was the biggest thing to hit this valley since the Japs,” said Pfc. Jackie Heavyrunner Jr. of Browning, MT. in an attempt to describe the Carabao Rodeo staged by the 126th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion near Arctao in the Cagayan Valley, northern Luzon. Heavyrunner, who ended the war on his 538th day of conflict with the 3rd (Red Arrow) Division was one of more than a thousand Red Arrowmen, guerrillas and girls who cheered Carabao #9, “Demobilization,” as he sped across the finish line leading a field of 8, to establish an all-time 500 yards record of 5:25:3. Horse-races, relay races, and other events were climaxed by a battle between the lovely ladies of Deupex and Aritao for the Cayagan Valley Softball Crown while a guerilla band furnished music and ice-cold Coke flowed like water. “The rodeos back in Montana were tame compared to this riot,” said Heavyrunner. “It was the first one I’ve seen since I shipped over here in September, 1943.” He saw action at Sardor and Aitape, New Guinea; Morotai, in the Dutch Indies; and Leyte, Philippine Islands, before going to Luzon. There the Red Arrowmen hammered General Yamashita’s forces for six months, killing 12,000 Japs before the Tiger of Malaya surrendered to the 32nd at Baguio.

Friday, July 29, 2016

WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF LEADERS?


One of my feeds is Steven Pressfield Online (stevenpressfield.com) who wrote a much praised book called “The War of Art.”  It’s meant to echo a first century Chinese treatise about actual military theory.  I didn’t catch on for a while.  The blog is encouragement and guidance for writers, like those struggling with Medium.com.

His first book, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was published in 1995, and made into a film of the same name, starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Matt Damon, and directed by Robert Redford.  His second novel, Gates of Fire, is about the Spartans and the battle at Thermopylae. It is taught at the U.S. Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy, and the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico.  In 2012, he launched the publishing house Black Irish Books with his agent Shawn Coyne.

So he’s out of the Hemingway context, tough guy, focused on success.  he says “I am a writer. I write about war—external wars and internal wars, wars ancient and modern, real wars out of history and imagined wars that exist only in speculation. Why? I don’t even know myself.”  

He fits very well in a specific American culture, which is not so much about war as it is about money.  That is, he does write, he knows how and does it well, but he also is selling to wannabe writers, which is far more a “certainty” than selling another book about war.  He’s our idea of being a leader, right down to a best buddy who has his back.  Recently he recommended a movie, though he had only watched the first half.  It’s called “I Am Not Your Guru.”  Actually, that’s the title after the colon, the more primary one is the name of the not-guru, Tony Robbins.

Tony Robbins

Pressfield was impressed.  I was, too, but I didn’t even make watching it to half.  This guy is like Burt Lancaster on steroids.  (Actually, they say Robbins had a pituitary tumor during adolescence.)  Maybe you don’t remember Lancaster — Pressfield is only four years younger than I am, so he remembers.  Most of the people in his movie are maybe thirty — just about old enough to hit their first real crash in life.  They come eagerly, easily swept away by the profanity, overwhelming confrontation, and a mosh pit of a crowd.  The course costs thousands.  Where do they get that money?  You could get about the same “hit” from a skillfully done church retreat.  Maybe not quite that level of adrenaline since they would be constrained by taboos.  

It’s New Age stuff.  He presses all the pretty well-dressed girls until they exude every Oprah cliché they know, and indeed he has cohosted programs with Oprah.  He’s like a toy superhero who folds into being a bulldozer.  Realistically, he got into trouble over “fire walkers” who evidently had too little faith and were badly burned by the hot coals they crossed.  He was from a Croatian immigrant family and as a child took a lot of abuse, plus responsibility for his sibs.  I find that relevant.


So then I watched a very different movie — also a documentary streaming on Netflix — called “Even the Rain.”  It was dedicated to Howard Zinn.  The extraordinary figure here is Juan Carlos Aduviri, who has multiple roles:  indigenous amateur actor, a John the Baptist figure in an historical film about the early Spaniards oppressing the indigenous people, and himself.  Or is his movie contemporary role, as a leader of demonstrations and a father, not actually himself?  He studied cinematography in the Municipal School of Arts of El Alto, where he became a professor.  He’s a little guy (has alway lived at a high altitude with a limited diet) with an incredible face.

Juan Carlos Aduviri

This is the trailer for the film.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JKs8aSb7eo

I didn’t realize for a while that I knew some people who watched this revolution from an upstairs hotel window but also filmed some of it.  What was it about?  The diversion of water from the people by privatizing the government water sources.  Someone should force Missoula citizens to watch this over and over — they sold their water system and no one even noticed.  Now they're in court and lucky to be there.

The idea of this movie is simple: that people stay pretty much the same over the centuries; but the film is complexly layered as the actors and crew struggle to get their own project done on time and under budget while portraying the early Spanish taking cruel measures to get their gold. 

"Pocahontas" figure on the right.

There is a Pocahontas figure, a young girl who appeals to the producer.  A recent paper on H-Amerindian, the Humanities people, reflected on the enduring popularity of Pocahontas.  So the enlightened sophisticated people from the privileged world are there to “help”  the oppressed masses, who end up saving them instead.  

One of the most interesting passages is the attempt to recreate an historical event in which the mothers of the indigenous babies drowned them to keep them from the more cruel death of being torn apart by Spanish dogs.  The contemporary indigenous actors simply refuse.  No matter how much the director explains that they won’t really drown their babies, just wade into the water holding them, at which point the babies will be taken to safety, replaced by dolls.  The mothers explain that they won’t even depict such an atrocity.  And they make it stick. 


Later, in a scene where those opposing the Spanish invaders are crucified atop bonfires, it is so convincing that we are paralyzed in spite of knowing it’s a simulation — until the director calls “cut” and the victims step down.  But then, when we see rioting in the streets and soldiers shooting demonstrators, it’s hard not to half-expect someone to call “cut” so everyone can go home.  If reality, actual experience rather than theory, is a keystone of ethics, then no wonder we have a problem these days.  All is assumed to be trickery.

The privileged folks — who do have a conscience represented by a sympathetic woman with a videocam on her shoulder — operate on credentials, connections and bribery.  They work.  But the indigenous people are working for the survival of their children, a far more powerful motive.



It would be easy to displace this film onto our current Trump/Clinton fiasco.  Good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.  But the strength of the film is that it is packed with ironies, empathy that has no place to go.


Thursday, July 28, 2016

ABUSE AND CULTURE


Abuse is about bodies, even emotional abuse since emotions are bodily states.  One of the great values of embodiment cognition theory is that is explains starkly what abuse does to children: it shuts down their intake of sensory information that is the basis of thought and understanding.  It makes them numb and dumb.  This is quite apart from invasive violence  bad enough that it causes the brain to skip to another “reality” which is called “dissociation.”

I could say that abuse makes children less human, makes them robotic zombies.  But that just adds more abuse, more blaming the victims.  It neither explains the causes and mechanisms of self-protection-by-shutting-out-feeling, nor gives any guidance for how to remedy the problem, so as to begin to feel again.  Nor does it help us recognize which behaviors are insulation, self-protection:  uproar, overeating, fighting, drugs, secrecy, denial, bullying, staying asleep, hoarding.  Not more wicked things to be stamped out, but things that were meant as protection.  Once we focus on what’s happening in bodies, we can see how adult predators use and encourage these emergency defensive behaviors for their own ends, maybe because they’ve been using them personally all their own lives.

If one is pretty successful at not-feeling, pretty soon the body itself begins to crave some kind of stimulation and what actually gets through the insulation must be more and more intense, surprising, forbidden, in order to get in there.  Until stimulation gets to the point of being scary, which means wanting more protection.  Until the protection itself becomes a source of death. 


Most body functions waver back and forth between extremes that could cause death, but sometimes the flow of variation in something like body temperature or blood sugar or sleep is wide and other times it is narrow, depending on the environment and the specific variable.  Managing oneself means constant monitoring.  The good news is that the brain itself seems pretty good at adding back neurons, connectome workarounds, and new tricks.

The first step in remediating the effects of abuse is safety.  Though the safety will have to be present and felt for quite a while before a traumatized person can trust it.  It may come in the form of attachment to another person they take to be protective.

The next step is recognizing and changing the behavior imprint, the games one has learned to play without knowing it — but change by replacement rather than erasure.  This means generating options, alternatives.  The more physical and sensory the better.  Skill-generating, success-providing.  And often one-on-one close contact and communication with someone skillful, but maybe over a game board like Parcheesi or a small task like washing the dishes.  Think speech therapist.


Someone somewhere is probably figuring out how to use emotional judo to block, disarm and re-interpret the domination games people play.  I wish they had more publicity.  Eric Berne’s book, “Games People Play,” is terrific and so is Steiner’s “Games Alcoholics Play.”  “Triangle theory” that shows how the offender/persecutor/rescuer/ structure of relationships is rigid and yet passes the roles around the triangle without ever revealing an exit.  As a theory this works as well for the whole culture as for families or other groups, esp. marriage.

In fact, kids raised by abusive adults become supersensitive to mood and devise a lot of techniques like distraction, abasement, disappearance, until they are big enough to blast back, maybe with fists or a baseball bat.  With all the thought going into training horses and pit bulls, there must be some of those techniques that will work with the mammals called human.

What I’m working from here is not some counselling handbook, but the study of thinking based on feeling which is rooted in cell systems — not some famous guy’s theories, but just ordinary experience in the world, that old Piaget and Montessori stuff about putting clothespins in milk bottles and stringing beads by tens.  But not excluding what we find out by watching closely people’s faces, sometimes in videos.

We learn how to be ourselves by confronting our environments and having reciprocal impact on it while it strikes us.  The most important part of our environments is always people.  From the beginning to the end they are the difference between life and death.

All this makes Mark Johnson’s “The Meaning of the Body” absolutely crucial in terms of helping youngsters traumatized and distorted by abuse.  There is always something in the “class” of helpers at the master’s level and above that prevents them from grasping that getting a kid clean, dressed properly, and at a higher reading level is not all there is to it, that there is something intractable, maybe ungraspable, about those “hard to reach” kids even when they are in plain sight at the same table.  Johnson explains that their different world-view is deep in the atoms of their cells, not just metaphorically but actually.  They are residual Romans, dazzled by the Enlightment and unable to look farther.

Then Johnson comes to what he considers both a remedy and a social solution:  art (pictures) and music, both of which can create meaning.  He spends some time vividly describing how Western thought, particularly philosophy of a certain kind, beginning with Plato and most emphatically and effectively through the Enlightenment, has scorned the arts and insisted that only logic, syllogism, words and propositions have qualified as thought.  That’s where all that theology comes from.  It is in the assumption that math-based science is “better” than the “soft” sciences.  It is gender-assigned: men are objective, women are subjective.  Anything “corticolimbic” is primitive, animal, and decadent.  One must be linear.
Plato

As it happens, my “ponder room” (the one with the throne) is always equipped with a big fat book worth pondering sentence by sentence.  Currently I’m beginning “The Silk Roads: a New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan.  His premise right away is that when trade opened between Pacific Asia and Atlantic Europe, Rome and Greece were stunned by the luxury of silk, spices, and slow-paced elegant living.  They had sought survival in Spartan endurance of hardship and focus on results beyond all else.  Now, in self-preservation, they stigmatized all luxury and specifically luxurious sex.  Art got caught in that contempt and near-criminalizing.  It was the Devil’s work.  And so seductive if you had enough money to buy admission.  Fleshly pleasures.


The social workers, formerly straight-A English majors who knew their grammar and even a bit of semiotics, are Spartans without thinking about it, earning virtue by confronting the sly camel traders from far away exotic realms where life is known to be a gamble.  Which one would you bet on?  Embodiment Cognition Theory addresses both.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"YOU FEEL ME?"

Michael K. Williams as Omar Little

“YOU FEEL ME?” was the query by everyone’s favorite assassin on “The Wire,” Omar Little. (Michael K. Williams)  It’s a very apt phrase for those working out embodiment meaning in terms of the brain.  

When we say the word “grasp,” there is a faint sensory echo in the brain of actually grasping something.  That’s embodiment — that little ghost in there, in the body.  You FEEL grasping, actually and electrochemically.  This is NOT about the pre-frontal orbital abstracting abilities behind the forehead.  In fact, on brain monitors it might not even show up in one spot in the rest of the brain but be distributed around the connectome according to how the act of grasping was first recorded — maybe your baby bottle.


The first surface, the first muscle pattern, the first stress on the wrist bones, all processed into electrochemical traces in brain cells.  After that, the concept is there.  The word doesn’t come until much later.  Using it to denote an abstraction (grasping the truth) comes even later.

We’ve thought that words were the pinnacle and container of thoughts.  That was wrong.  The experience is recorded from the sensory qualities of the act, then it is somehow associated with others that are similar but indexed by the sensory qualities of each instance.  Finally a word might be assigned.  Then there is a cloud of associations around each word, where it was rhymed, when used in a poem, who often used the word, and so on.  None of this is in the famous pre-frontal cortex, but in an image of a page, an echo of a conversation, seen on some billboard passed during a long drive.

“Grasp” of vocabulary and abstract concepts depends on being exposed to them — words and categories — but more than that -- and earlier -- it depends on the original experience.  A person who has never grasped something (no hands?) will have to rely on watching and empathizing with the person who grasps, from his first crayon to the concept of “the end.”  It’s subconscious, not intentional, not a product of education — particularly the Germanic factory fodder kind of education many people get.
Or did you use fibertips to color?

Sometimes I talk to a Blackfeet kid who’s never left town and as I talk, I see his brain behind his eyes shutteringfluttering as he tries to “grasp” what I say about things he's never experienced.  Elevator?  Bookstore?  I said to a young woman in uniform back on her first leave, “But 9/11 was not planned by Iraq — most of the terrorists were Saudi.”  She was paralyzed for a moment while her brain went in and out of hearing what I said.  She couldn’t “feel” me.  She walked away.  

The same thing happened with the small town white kids.  Their life schema did not include what I said, it included only black and white and I was gray.  Their faces said, “Does not compute.”  They tried to feel as little as possible.  “Grasping” means your fingers get pinched and burned.  New ideas are dangerous.

Insisting that words are the same as “knowing” and that knowing lots of words means you are "smart" is a common delusion, esp in a 19th century rural culture that was largely immigrant and illiterate until world wars made reading important.  That was a short time ago.

The pre-existing culture where I am, the indigenous peoples, were an oral culture, who did everything face-to-face and — because of that — “felt” each other.  They had time, they grasped what they did even if it hurt, and when the Napi Yahki’s didn’t have time to listen to explanations, they just withdrew to wait it out.  There were lots of old tribal words and they were famously punished for using them, as though they were unpatriotic, the way the Euro-immigrants were punished for speaking Ukraine or Celtic or Spanish. It wasn't just the indigenous who were being pounded into a mold.


But the old feelings weren’t in the sounds — they were in the grasp of things, the tipi poles, the arrow shafts, the buffalo hide, the horse’s jaw, and the grasp of each other’s hands, “feeling” each other. Not just the things, but the motions of throwing or scraping or skinning.  There’s no use in learning words for things one has never experienced.  Unless it causes one to go looking for the experience, to recognize it when it appears.  The loss isn’t the words so much as the experiences, because those are contacts that access sensory memory.  To get back the vocabulary, one must live the lost life.  But it is gone.  Now we have new lives and words.  But it still feels the same to have a horse under you.

There’s a Blackfeet gesture meaning “everything you say, I take to my heart” which has come to be a sort of “amen” when attending an event with speaking.  The gesture is holding out one’s hands to the speaker, then pulling them back to one’s heart.  The neotraditionalists use it a lot.  So I taught it to UU congregations but then one day a man said, “I want to add to that.”  He gestured the opposite direction, from his hands on his heart to stretching them out.  “All that is in my heart I give back to you.”  We grasped it.  We always used both after that.  By now there need be no words so long as one can feel the message and respond to it.

Because I was curious about where “Saving Grace” came from, I googled the person, Nancy Miller, who was behind this series before Holly Hunter made it hers.  This is Nancy:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgumdWJmmNY  She’s talking about not just grasping something, but feeling that it is so important that it must be conveyed to others — so they can “feel” it.  Then arranging a forceful enough plot that the actors can form it into a kind of piston that pushes meaning into actions.  That’s what I mean by “designing ceremonies” — building that force into feeling that can be shared.  No noodling around in the soft familiar, no empty repetitions, no blurry dispersals of images. 

Nancy Miller

It’s a tall order and not something that be thrown together on a Saturday night, but it can be done by a group.  (Just don’t call them a committee, which is by now a crippling idea.)  Figuring out some exercises that will bond a small group together would be good.  Easy stuff like the trick of finding something in the environment, a rock or a flower or a scrap, studying it closely and then explaining it to someone.  More powerful for bonding than you might expect.  

Most of the theory of embodiment is still unfolding.  There are two kinds of structure involved: the brain cells and connections that come from sensory experience and the metaphorical abstract concepts that interact with each other.  Probably there are more confusions like those two.  Long ago when I said I was going to wait until computers were a little more easy to understand before I got into them, some wise person said,  “No, start now and grow with the computers.”  I didn’t do it quite soon enough.  But you've already got a headstart with feeling.  We all do.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

“LAST YEAR’S RIVER” by Allen Morris Jones


I intend to be mercilessly personal, so allow for that. My center in Montana is NOT academic, NOT urban, NOT in Butte, NOT on some scratchgravel ranch. It’s not really even on the Blackfeet rez, though that’s a big part of it. Browning, MT, is a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me it’s the beginning in 1961 and becoming a Scriver, which landed me right on top of one of the persisting tropes of Montana novels, which is the collision between Edwardian standards and money in the upscale East (in this case Quebec where my in-laws grew up) and the presumably primitive and brutal West.
It’s culture versus passion. Or that’s the story. And it’s shaped by the Industrial Revolution: railroads, dams, and people with a lot of resource money looking for some way to keep from being bored to death. Dude ranches, pack strings, stately lodges — but the swimming pools were not quite ready yet according to this book.
Exciting events in the West included forest fires and being lost in blizzards, but just keeping warm and getting dinner on the table are always a challenge. Early automobiles were an adventure. This is Charlie Russell country — he called ’em skunkwagons. Remington is a dude Easterner, fat enough to make a horse groan, and really more interested in military men than cowboys. People from back east think Remington.

McClintock photo
The first Montana writers I knew about in Browning were James Willard Schultz and Walter McClintock. They were quite different from each other, Schultz going for the romance of it all and McClintock a photographer who liked domestic camp scenes. The Scrivers knew them since they traded at the Browning Merc, the Scriver family store. Schultz was disreputable and McClintock had back-east money and connections, which makes him a target for the more political historians. Walter does not appear on lists of Montana authors, but Schultz has whole societies devoted to his work.
The Montana writers I actually met, but didn’t know well, include A.B. Guthrie, Jr, Norman McClean, Russell Chatham, William Kittredge. But once past Richard Hugo, one is into a new stage, which includes my age cohort: Ivan Doig, James Welch, Mary Clearman Blew, Rick Bass, Judy Blunt, Peter Bowen. Then there are the “wicked” writers who preyed on local tribal families: Richard Lancaster and Ruth Beebe Hill. The writer who confounds everyone by writing more published Western genre books than any six other Montana writers is Richard Wheeler. He is consistently left off every list, even the wildly erratic Wikipedia entry which starts off with Governor Babcock and his wife, Betty.
If you’re looking at writing as being like art, one division is between those whose personalities are the point, like Ace Powell, and those whose works are never going to be in fancy galleries, but are woven into the community, like Al Racine’s church wood carvings and his Napi cartoons. John Tatsey’s newspaper column is rough and jokey, but for some that IS the essence of being Blackfeet. These are people’s works, nothing like the sophisticated abstracts we see now, guided by the AIAI in the Southwest.
All this fussing around is preamble for comments on a novel by Allen Morris Jones, who not only writes, but also edits the Big Sky Journal (http://bigskyjournal.com)  and runs the Bangtail Press. Literary Montana divides, if you are looking at it through media eyes, between east (Missoula) and west (Bozeman). There are a lot of ways to contrast them but since many of the ways are pejorative, I’ll refrain. Jones has moved around, but is now in Bozeman.

by Burl Jones
Burl Jones, the novelist’s father, came to bronze sculpture via dentistry and two years in St. Ignatius. He built a gallery/wildlife museum in 1984 to ‘87. If you think these imply any parallel with Bob Scriver, who came to sculpture through taxidermy and a lifetime in Browning and built a gallery/wildlife museum in 1953, you’d be dead wrong. Bob never had a son who wrote, but he had an ex-wife who writes — me, the last living Scriver wife. I’m not on any list of Montana writers. My book about Bob was published in Calgary, so that knocks me off the list. Maybe I’m an Alberta writer, since my book of prairie theology sermons was published in Edmonton, but my blog goes out over a Blackfeet rez url tower on the US side.
So this novel, “Last Year’s River” has a puzzling cover: a woman in a blue robe on the back of a white horse, lying down with her head at the tail end. The reins she holds have tassels on the ends. Jones likes tassels. I don’t know why.
I’m going to look at this book as an artifact. Published in 2001, almost twenty years since it was written. Events happen in 1924. Rather than chapters, 116 “beats”, each one an event, some very short. Vignettes. Framed as memories of an old woman but not in her voice. It’s a love story and everyone but the two lovers are merely shadows and plot devices. Nothing at all about indians. The support credentials of the author are top drawer: an ICM agent and one of the last “Development Editors,” Anton Mueller.  Houghton Mifflin publisher in 2001 means just before the big eTsunami hit the industry. Whoever did the line editing only flubbed badly once but it was funny: “roughed grouse.”

Ruffed Grouse
Today’s novel readers are mostly women and will love that pastel cover, love the writing, love the great conflagration that kindles sex in a beaver dam, and the sub-zero blizzard that ends the other man’s child on a cabin hearth. The “sneaking around,” compromises, and ecstatic stolen moments that fill the rest of the book are immersive, semi-poetic, and informed by the book “A History of the North Fork of the Shoshone” by Ester Johannson Murray, a Cody “local” historian. The southeast corner of Montana bears the same relationship to Cody as the northwest eastslope of Montana bears to Calgary.
So this is a Montana romance novel written by a man who dedicates it to his mother and her sisters, braided through with research and experience, easy to read on a Kindle in episodes. Right on top of one of the forces behind Western literature: culture v. nature.
I love high culture almost as much as the landscape. Today Burl Jones’ bronzes sell for three times the price of Bob Scriver’s. The moment Bob died, his museum was dismantled. People get bored — they want new things. But they can’t quite give up the old things either, so they hang on to their fantasies. It’s a little awkward. This book is for sale on Amazon for a penny. I paid full-price for a hard back. No regrets.
Dan Flores
“Big Sky Journal” is a luxury magazine. I ended up with a stack of them when Dan Flores’ series on Western art was developing before it became a book. I can’t bear to throw them out, but I have a nasty Puritan streak in me that says, “All this fancy stuff is not real, it’s just indulgence.” When do they slide the knife in? When do they get to the guts?