Sunday, May 28, 2017

WAITING ON THE CATHEDRAL STEPS

The entrance staircase

A few days ago the wind was blowing with hurricane force, even more than the usual windstorms.  The new foliage was whipping around in bright sun so that indoors their dark shadows swirled around the rooms like bats trying to find their way out.  To reassure myself, I invented a story.  It’s sort of a Sunday story.

Travis is a sock puppet.  I’ve invented him for my own purposes.  His name really ought to begin with a J, like the cloud of characters who finally coalesced into John the Baptist and then Jesus the Christ.  That is, he represents a force or cause more than a person.  But persons can be the embodiment of a force or cause.  I intend this one to be subversively progressive.  Sometimes you have to improve life without giving them notice.  For one thing, they are likely to oppose and destroy anything that looks like change.

Once Travis aspired to be a priest, either Roman Catholic or Anglican, he didn’t care very much.  He avoided theory and air castles in favor of the Cathedral.  But the Cathedral wouldn’t let him in.  It was partly a matter of family prestige, but also money and education.  Of course, those can be bought with family prestige.  

So he shunned all three things: family prestige, money and education.  His family, however, still clung to those, so he was in trouble with them.  Since the Cathedral excluded him, he took up residence outside on the grand marble staircase of the mighty soaring structure.  This was the part that was accessible by definition, by a process (climbing) associated with redemption but leaving the responsibility in the feet of the stair-mounter.  Travis’ strategy was to draw young people higher out of curiosity and sensuality.

These qualities he provided via a small repertory theatre group, a traditional mode since the cathedral was related in history to the Greek dramas presented in front of doorways, while the audience sat on wide stairs in the bowl of a small valley.  The troupe was small enough to have fitted into the medieval mystery play wagons that carried their message on the road between towns, but it was also small in another way.  All the actors were children.

This was strategic in a number of ways.  It meant the children had food and shelter of a sort, provided by the audience, and beyond that each other, which was the real necessity.  Children are a burden that require energy and expenditures, so the authorities were pleased to be rid of them or at least to keep them on the stairs.  Mostly they were between six and twelve, remarkably capable of learning lines, even the ones they didn’t understand, and they were tough, resilient, and natural gymnasts.  Other than that, they were of all-sorts, sizes, colors and natures.  They were the yarns and threads from which Travis wove the fabric of his plays.

You couldn’t really understand Travis from studying his plays, partly because of the practical reason that he never wrote them down, so it would have meant assembling the troupe — both the present and past ones — and getting them to recite their lines, but as they grew older, they forgot.  Nevertheless, just talking to the children was revealing since Travis tended to include those whose lives were most like his.

Not that any two had reacted to the mystery and tragedy of their rather predictable way with any similarity to each other’s strategies.  Some fought hard, some became poets, and some turned to accommodating adult sexual tendencies.  From this, one could deduce that Travis was a fighter, a poet, and a whore.  All three roles require staying low, in shadows, cloaked.  These qualities do not lend themselves to the explication of a life, but mystery was on his side.  At least it provokes curiosity.

Some like to pursue “absolute truth” and will spend a lifetime hunting through the brush after diversionary spoor, always announcing they were just about to find out everything and this would make them very wise and valuable.  But most of the time they just rushed in circles, flushing out a lot of small animals and big birds.

Perhaps it is a better strategy to accept ambiguity, alternative scenarios, and transformations.  In fact, this was the main secret of the little mimes on the staircase of the cathedral.  They were more like homilies, metaphorical rather than sermonic.  The children, esp. the boys but not always, wanted to have more sword fights and monsters.  It was useless to try to satisfy them because there would never be enough.

Regardless of gender or experience, the little actors paired off, each in their own way of bonding.  Sometimes they liked to perform obscenities, bad language and the pretence (they SAID it was pretence) of forbidden acts, usually sexual but sometimes excremental.  Some could fart at will and other enjoyed exposure of parts normally concealed.  The language was wicked.  If it were funny and unexpected, it went down better than when it turned vicious and destructive.  But the source was always idealistic, the unreasonable belief that there WAS a better life, a better way, better people.  Or at least the possibility.  But as I say, each had their own way of bonding.  Some were more subtle and attractive, like holding hands.  Some swatted hands away.

A human being is an emergent creature, arriving out of the guts of another creature (“Call the Midwife!”) and then, if it survives a couple of years, pushing along against the oppositions and opportunities of where ever it came to life among whatever people and whatever hills and valleys, beaches and fields.  Things go by accommodations and happy happenstances, a mosaic of broken parts and wholeness.

But Travis didn’t like that.  He wanted drama, grand gestures, and loyalty — a better story than what people created just by living as the opportunity struck.  There was too much waste and cruelty.  Maybe he wanted something like a new religion.  

A religion is an emergent phenomenon, below awareness for a while, knitting together economics and aesthetics, trust and dance, until people wondered why they hadn’t realized it before and began to actually act on it.  Before that happens, we are terrified.  We fall in heaps on the cathedral steps and wail when the bells ring.  Then someday the great cathedral doors swing open so we can go in.  And we do.

But not Travis.  He pulls up his hood and walks off with his staff in his hand.    Alone.  He wears thick warm socks and has another pair on a string around his neck.  Maybe we could change his name to Jarvis.


Today the wind is gone and cumulus sheep graze across a blue sky from horizon to horizon.  This story sounds a bit silly and I don’t really know what it means.  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

"THE KEEPERS": Review and Reflection"

Gemma, Sister Kathy, and Jane Doe

Nearly a hundred movies have been made in Baltimore.  There’s a list in Wikipedia but it’s incomplete.  It doesn’t include The Keepers”.  The films and TV series listed on Wikipedia include “House of Cards”, “Sleepless in Seattle, and “Tuck Everlasting.  Many titles are just trash.  

Only a few are not studio films, but actually about Baltimore.  I started watching films that were consciously and deliberately made in Baltimore about the city with “Homicide,” the TV series and then “The Wire.”  They were often profound meditations on society and culture.

I want to lift up “The Keepers,” which is of equal high value though it didn’t have the stars and budgets.  It’s easy to pass over or put down because it is so unique.  There are other “revelation” stories about bad guys in cold cases being tracked down and caught.  This story is about the true monsters among us — yes, hiding as priests — and how grandmothers tracked down this particularly sly satan.  The point is not the perverted destroyer, but the linked chain of grandmothers, often school girl victims, their families and how they survived.

The film starts quietly with a journalist looking for papers and then becomes quiet conversations, mostly with mature family women in their homes.  Doesn’t sound like much.  In England they call policemen “plods” and this is really how much detective work is done, plodding through the evidence.  Maybe to keep themselves going by emphasizing the exciting stuff, police are as covert as the culprits and the victims are entirely excluded from any kind of power or oversight, esp. if they are female and older.  Religiously privileged men and cops have guarded respect for each other that sometimes amounts to collusion.

Nevertheless, in the days when the events happened — which was as banal as a middle-aged man using his bureaucratic and clerical power as well as his friendship with cops, since he was the police chaplain for several jurisdictions — families were strong and nuns were still revered.  They never admitted what was going on, much less intervened.

Much of what I learned about the world was in Browning, Mt, in the Sixties.  Bob Scriver was the City Magistrate and the Justice of the Peace.  Also in play were the officers of the Tribal court system, the highway patrol, the border patrol, and the FBI.  When Bob was asked to become a Justice of the Peace, there was already one in town, Wilbur Renshaw, the husband of Blanche Renshaw, who was the principal of the primary school.  Wilbur, who wrote very bad Westerns, fancied law officers and hung out with the white ones over coffee and donuts.  “White” meant highway patrol and border patrol.  Every decision he made was controlled by his white cop buddies.  But in the tribal context everything was controlled by family, favors, reputation, power — if the jailor was your cousin, he let you out.  This was an old oral culture pattern that worked for small nomadic groups, but was a very bad fit for a “modern” bureaucracy. Bob was seen as a person on the border between white and tribe, therefore more just. 

In some ways Baltimore had the same confusions.  Church bureaucracy is meant to be dominant, based on millennia of complications descended from the Roman Empire, abstract, never under the control of local communities.  Families, at the other end of the spectrum, were large (because of the Catholic prohibition on birth control) and their wealth was each other, because they were second and third generation immigrants whose success was based on mutual support.  Cops were in the middle.

This is a real story.  A teaching nun was found dead and violated in the woods, twenty years earlier.  The murder was never solved.  Two women who had been her students partnered up and began to accumulate evidence.  A third classmate was rumored to have seen the nun’s body before it was found by authorities.  She was found by the two and because they were the same sorts — competent, educated, quite sane, computer literate, easy with people — the third woman’s abuse was accepted as true.  In fact, her story of how she overcame near-psychosis becomes a key thread of the film.

Bob Scriver used to say two things that came from his experience as a judge.  One was that people will do anything they can, regardless of limits, until someone pushes back against them.  Presumably, that’s the work of the law.  The other was that if you do things that are totally outrageous, far beyond what people think, you probably can get away with it.  (Think John Wayne Gacy or David Bar Jonah.

I would add another rule of thumb.  People who look upscale, who seem to be high society and are well-dressed, donors to charity, smiling and cheerful, are just as likely to be criminals and traitors as anyone else.  But prosperity is considered an indicator in “prosperity Christian” terms because the idea is that God rewards “His” people.  Poor people are thought to fail because they are weak and possibly bad.  This is our dominant national belief at the moment.

So it’s an enormous comfort to watch this seven-episode series in which people are good in an old-fashioned way, privileging intimacy and trust over sex, searching for truth, no matter how nasty.  Aghast at what the perverts think is sex — the manipulation of bodies of children who dare not resist — the victims were going to unmask the perps, but were too innocent to protect themselves.  It soon becomes clear that the nun who was murdered, and another young woman who was also murdered about the same time, in the same way, and undoubtedly by the same people, were killed because they intended to expose this wickedness.  There is no satisfying confrontation and conviction, because the offenders had just aged and died, protected by the church which always wants to preserve the illusion of virtue.

The second murdered girl’s family did a bit of parallel sleuthing.  Calling a family meeting, they used a directory of alumni to send out a thousand postcards asking if anyone had information.  They were shocked by the number of responding women who had also been victimized.  Forty have names.  (Not in the film.)  Most of them thought it was their fault and never went to authorities.  “Don’t tell or I’ll kill your family.”  “You’re an evil dirty girl and you seduced me.”  “God hates you.”

The two original partners stuck together, accumulating the kind of ordinary information that the government lists, that data websites will sell you, the kind of thing that debt collectors use, the sorts of minutia that cops don’t have the time or money to pursue — much less the determination.  The women do not wear shoes with four-inch heels, do not wear makeup, do not wear silk clothes straight from the cleaners.  Nor do they display the kind of erotic need to pursue evil that is often a feature of cop shows with female protagonists, a sort of eversion of the flawed detective tradition.  


They suffer with their knowing, need to reassure each other, look back over their lives and wonder what could have happened if they had not had to deal with this pervasive shadow.  How can we not see ourselves?  Our collapsing culture?  But also, how to go about rebuilding.

Friday, May 26, 2017

BODY SLAMMING AS A POLITICAL STRATEGY

The Gianfortes

This Gianforte incident in which he put the moves on a reporter tempts me to do a lot of reflecting and investigating.  Is this the first time a reporter, particularly a youngish, liberal, bespectacled, unbulked young man has been thrown to the ground?  NOT.

“Last year, perhaps most infamously, a TIME photographer got choke-slammed by the Secret Service at a Donald Trump campaign event. A few weeks ago, a reporter in West Virginia was arrested inside the State Capitol for trying to ask Health Secretary Tom Price about the healthcare bill he supports. And Democrats in the US Senate just last week raised questions about why a reporter was "manhandled" for asking about a recent FCC vote on net neutrality, a.k.a. a free and open internet.”

What the heck is a “body slam” anyway?  It turns out to be a formal “move” used in exhibition wrestling.  It works for a big guy to take down a little guy.  The term and strategy are well enough known to be a movie title.

(Wikipedia quotes follow):

“A chokeslam is a type of body slam in professional wrestling, in which a wrestler grasps an opponent's neck, lifts them up, and slams them to the mat.” 

“Two-handed chokeslam
This move sees a wrestler first grasp an opponent's neck with both hands, then lifting them up and choking them before then throwing the opponent back down to the mat usually after choking out his opponent.“

What’s a “Body Slam” ?  Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, who is a former mixed martial arts fighter was interviewed by Tom LoBianco.  He said it’s a range of phenomena from being pushed down to being picked up and thrown down.  He didn’t want to get specific because he didn’t see what happened and because he’s a Republican (he didn’t SAY that) but one witness just outside the door to the room saw the reporter’s feet fly up in the air which suggests more than just a push.

In fact, there were three elements to this assault: choking, throwing down, and “pummelling” — that is, striking with fists.  There’s no discussion of what made Gianforte stop, nor is there any evident trigger, since being questioned by reporters is too common to be surprising.  Gianforte was evidently "spring-loaded" and just snapped after only a question or two.

So that raises a string of questions.  What would make a politician snap when he was almost sure to win the election?  Why do it at that point in time, an event meant to thank volunteers and reward them with a barbecue?  Why do it in front of a reporter and camera crew who were obviously trained observers?  Why just leave quickly instead of making sure the victim was okay?  If the point was to grab the reporter’s recorder, why didn’t he do it while the man was prone on the floor, stunned?  What just happened earlier in the day?  How much was it linked to the fortunes of Trump?  A pending subpoena?  

As a former animal control officer, I know that the most dangerous dogs are “fear-biters” — animals that try to defend themselves disproportionally early and hard because they see everything as a threat.  Gianforte evidently sees reporters as a threat.  He fears them.  But where did he learn a formal wrestling move and why did he use it?  (We could ask Jesse Ventura.  But why are we electing professional wrestlers to what is supposed to be a dignified and deliberate status?)  Why not just shove the reporter back out the door, the way Trump shoved his fellow statesman out of the way, shaking his “plumage” afterwards like any rooster?

There’s an interesting omission in some repeated on air playings of the tape the reporter had.  Gianforte’s repeated bellowing of “Get the hell out of here!” is left in.  The reporter’s half-prayers exclaiming “Jesus!” and “Jesus Christ!” are edited out in some versions.  Luckily the Fox camera crew and reporter confirm everything on the tape, though they were “gob-smacked” with astonishment themselves.  But why leave in "hell" and remove "Jesus"?

CNN says we know two things for sure:

1. Gianforte will appear in court sometime between now and June 7 to find out whether he will be convicted on a misdemeanor assault charge.
2. Republicans, even if they wanted to, couldn't refuse to seat him. This was litigated in the late 1960s in a case involving Rep. Adam Clayton Powell.

So now we’re once more faced with getting what we asked for.  I can’t believe Rob Quist is heart-broken.  At least he’ll put the publicity to good use and maybe he even made a little money.  At this point he looks better as a candidate than he ever did before the election.

Tidbits about Gianforte, mostly from Wikipedia:

Gianforte and his wife founded RightNow Technologies, a customer relationship management software company.  He obtained a B.E. in electrical engineering and an M.S. degree in computer science from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1983.

“Gianforte co-founded Brightwork Development Inc., a software company, in 1986; he and his partners sold the company to McAfee Associates for $10 million in 1994.  He then moved to Bozeman, Montana.

"Gianforte founded RightNow Technologies in 1997. The company went public in 2004 and was sold to Oracle Corporation for $1.5 billion in 2011. Before the sale, RightNow Technologies employed about 500 people at its headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, and over 1000 people in total.

"Gianforte is a board member of FICOand chair of the board at Petra Academy, a Bozeman, Montana, Christian school."

On January 20, 2016, Gianforte announced his candidacy for the Republican Party's nomination for governor of Montana in the 2016 election.  He had a political practices complaint filed alleging he started campaigning before registering.   The complaint was dismissed.

In a campaign speech that year, Gianforte stated that he had been involved in discussions with Facebook about bringing a new call center to Montana, but that Facebook had declined because of that state's business equipment tax.  A Facebook spokesman disputed Gianforte's claims, saying that no discussions with Gianforte took place and that the tax was not the reason the company decided not to locate a call center in Montana. Gianforte stood by his statement saying that he had spoken with a Facebook executive the previous fall.

Publicly subsidized call centers in Great Falls left as soon as their advantage expired.

The following story, which first surfaced in April, was picked up by Quist.

Greg Gianforte, who is the GOP standard bearer in the upcoming special election in Montana, owns just under $250,000 in shares in two index funds that are invested in the Russian economy to match its overall performance.
Russia 'targeted Trump adviser in bid to infiltrate campaign'

“According to a financial disclosure filed with the clerk of the House of Representatives, the Montana tech mogul owns almost $150,000 worth of shares in VanEck Vectors Russia ETF and $92,400 in the IShares MSCF Russia ETF fund. Both are indexed to the Russian equities market and have significant holdings in companies such as Gazprom and Rosneft that came under US sanctions in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of the Crimea.”  

Gianforte has pledged to put all his assets in a blind trust if elected.  It remains to be seen whether he’ll actually do this, as he is closely associated with Trump who has creative interpretations of ethics practices. To put this in perspective, the Independent Record reports:

“The Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration includes Russian investments in a Developing Markets Fund managed by Oppenheimer Funds. Among the listed companies targeted by the 2014 international sanctions are Sperbank of Russia and Magnit PJSC, which has a supermarket chain. Magnit PJSC is also part of the Dodge & Cox International Stock Fund, another funding source for state employee retirement funds.

“The Montana University System Retirement Program includes the TIAA-CREF Emerging Markets Equity Fund, which lists Sberbank Russia among it's top 10 holdings.”


Whoooeeeeee!  These folks want to go back to the Cold War, but this time they are on the side of Russia!  And it remains to be seen whether Gianforte will be an asset for the Republicans.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

MONTANA TROUBADOURS

Rob Quist

Montana country/bluegrass singers tend to be folks from the Sixties and Seventies, from the hippie/protest side of that movement rather that the full-out raging rebellion.  Think Joan Baez rather than Marilyn Manson.  But they are very much rooted in the much earlier guitar-wielding singing cowboys.  Story songs, patriotism, and sometimes a bit of political protest.

The street in front of my house is the southern tail end of the Cut Bank Highway, originally the 3-path wagon road (the one in the middle would have been from the feet of horses) north to that town where Rob Quist grew up.  I don’t know much about him, but he’s a familiar “type.”  I know more about his close friend, Jack Gladstone, who is Blackfeet.  Cut Bank is the white corner of Glacier County, otherwise occupied by the Blackfeet reservation which is roughly the size of the African Serengeti but flattened on top by the surveyor’s line of the 49th parallel.  Cut Bank is also close to the Canadian line but is primarily sustained by being the county seat and therefore the necessary location of state-related government and what were once exclusively white professionals, like lawyers.  If you want to scare Cut Bank, propose that the reservation be extended to exactly match Glacier County.  In fact, the county commissioners are now mostly tribal members.

Cut Bank is an oil town.  It can be very violent, but Jack doesn’t relate to all the tuff and guff stuff.  He’s an educator, a peace-maker, an includer.  Rob Quist is evidently pretty much like that as well.  His original reputation comes from sports, but it hasn’t made him a brawler.

Two more vigorous and noisy guys are both the sons of Rib Gustafson, a recently deceased colorful personality who is transfigured in a third son’s recent novel called “Swift Dam.” Sid Gustafson and Barr Gustafson are veterinarians, and the female sib is a lawyer.  The families live along the East Slope of the Rockies from the rez to Conrad.  In the Sixties Rib was our veterinarian.

Erik “Fingers” Ray Gustafson said he usually calls his music“ honky-tonk blues, but it really encompasses many more genres. I love Delta blues, Chicago blues, jump and swing, old country from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, 1960s rock, zydeco, a smattering of jazz and folk, polkas and anything else that moves me at the time.

“Both Gustafsons were born and raised in Conrad and comes from a musical family. His father, Rib, entertained Erik and his four siblings by sitting in the living room and playing an Epiphone guitar, singing cowboy and folk songs, inspiring Erik and his younger brother, Wylie, whose band Wylie & the Wild West, is nationally known for its blend of cowboy, traditional country, folk and yodeling.”  (Quotes from helenaire.com.}

The most riotous and political outfit has no single star but also includes singers who were classmates, close friends and brothers.  That’s  The Montana Logging Ballet Company "Love is the Journey." //www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyagES6IEbE   They’re a little too old and busy to perform these days.  They derived to some extent (three literally as sons) from a couple of Helena Methodist clergymen, George Harper and Bob Holmes, both gone on ahead now.  Rev. Harper was a good friend and support when I began the UU Montana Ministry in 1982.  We met in the chapel of the Methodist Church. 

The song linked above has no ballet dancing — alas!  Tim Holmes, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Rusty Harper and Bob FitzGerald.  This clip includes a bit of story-telling and preaching.  They tell about their relationship to Bishop Tutu.  If you’ve been rattled by recent political events (I have) this is a comforting presentation to watch, unless you’ve been put off the Xian tropes by bad institutional behavior.  Think Pete Seeger.  

Tim Holmes is a remarkable artist as well as a singer. www.timholmesstudio.com/   To give you an idea, one of his projects is writing psalms on the nude body of a woman.  Very tasteful, but certainly erotic and spiritual at once.

A lot of vids of all these people are on You Tube and so are vids of the local singers I know best and who are closest to my core:  Kenny Scabby Robe’s “Black Lodge Singers” (which actually lives over on the Columbia River in White Swan) is mostly composed of descendants of Kenny.  He was briefly in the 8th grade class I taught in 1961 in Browning, but he was always on the move and soon on his way to dance in Paris.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqaA7bvE1MY for their vids.  Or here’s something you may be able to relate to:  “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxm4Euz_Auc   Actually, this one is my fav: "Mighty Mouse."  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBcu6Gc5sCU   It’s both an animal and a warrior song.

I don’t know whether Rob Quist can “sing Indian” but I think he will defend all peoples regardless of race or status without having to grab any reporters by the throat.

This is a shorter post than my thousand-word goal, but there are lots of links.  It’s time for me to go vote.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

SO WHO'S ENDANGERED?

Not in Valier, not recommended.

A malfunctioning PA system and the echoes from the vast gymnasium made most of what was said at the Valier Grizzly meeting last night almost totally unintelligible.  Anyway it was clear that the audience and the speakers were not exactly on the same page.  Such events are always overloaded with speakers and this one did not have as many attendees as the previous meeting.  The audience was mostly older and their desire, understandably, was to go back to the past when bears stayed in the mountains.  As nearly as I could tell, no “bear-huggers” were present and that was probably a good thing.

Four remedies were suggested from the floor and speakers.

1.  Drop the Endangered Species Act and allow bears to be shot.
2.  Use gizmos:  this time not bear spray but an electric fence.
3.  Vigilante hazers of bears
4.  Call the bear managers or at least the sheriff IMMEDIATELY when a bear is spotted.

No one said anything about the automated phone tree for notifying people of bear sightings.  I’ve only had one call.  When grizzes came within a couple of blocks, the phone never rang.  

Bureaucracies and bears are not a good match and never will be.  Governmental bodies are rule-based, often managed from behind a desk, and locked into generalities and definitions.  Bears are each unique, live only in the moment though they learn from experience, and don’t have to show a profit so long as they get enough to eat.  What to do when faced by a grizzly cannot be generalized beyond a few basic principles.  One must “wing it,” which is formally called “situation ethics.”  Many of our most intractable social problems require situation ethics: personal, timely, alert ability to see what options there are and choose the right one.  It all comes down to “you’re the one there, Charlie.”  

Some bears are mellow; some are in a rage.  Some can be hazed off with a broom and others can be pumped full of bullets and still kill you.  Consider the deadly situation on the West side of the Rockies when a man on a bike came plummeting down a steep path cut into heavy brush, traveling with a friend, headed home after a relaxing good time.  Suddenly there’s a griz in the path.  WHAM!  The outraged bushwhacked bear kills the man and plunges back into the brush.  It was never located, evidently not hurt.  Simply witnessed.  No options for any creature present.

The Endangered Species Act is one of the well-meant and — admit it — effective bureaucratic law-enforcement strategies that is meant to preserve species that are dying out.  Since such writing on paper is usually done by academics, politicians, and other urban types, it tends to over-reach.  But the pressure where the bears are is to survive the reality of the creatures on the front porch trying to eat your dog, or sneaking up on you while you’re hanging clothes on the line.  That’s one level.

Maybe the more aggravating level is restrictions on crops, compelled but pricey measures meant for prevention, and an onerous procedure to put in a claim for lost livestock or defend oneself against a heavy court fine after already defending oneself from a bear attack by killing it.

Most white citizens are not inclined to see a bear as a kind of human being, which was one way that the indigenous people interpreted incidents.  Indeed, a grizz can be like a human on meth with the same high level of treacherous danger.  “Empathy” with either is pretty useless, but what the scientists call “Theory of Mind” can be very helpful.  It means predicting what the other animal is going to do, being able to see whether this bear (or drunk) is just making fake threats to run you off or whether it intends to tear you apart.  Is it scared or angry or confused?  Only past experience and present alertness can supply likely answers.

But a lot of people lose their minds, their cool, and maybe their sphincter control when they see a bear as an overwhelming, inescapable, monster on a sci-fi horror film scale.  Maybe it would be a good thing to watch a lot of National Geographic nature films about bears.  Avoid Walt Disney, “fights to the death” staged by violence-mongers, and Bart the Bear, who was an unreal big old softie who acted in movies.

When the Manhattan subway system became infested with incorrigibles, too many in groups for the underfunded police to handle, a spontaneous response was “The Guardian Angels” vigilantes.  Considering Montana’s history of vigilantes (all the best people), it was inevitable that the idea in regard to bears in town would show up.  They want to patrol the streets (few as they are and hard on tires as they are) in the middle of the night and then haze ursine intruders back up towards the mountains.  There’s talk of “harmless rubber bullets” (which aren’t as harmless as advertised).  I’m not sure loud noises and bright lights would be all that welcome at 3AM.  But the vision of heroic and protective retired ranchers responding to a challenge is seductive, even without real bullets or a little liquid fortification.

In Montana a bear enjoying a crop in a remote place might very well end up as compost under the wheat.  But the suggestion of bringing back “range riders” might discourage the practice of planting and ignoring fields to the point of not knowing what’s going on out there, maybe neglecting livestock carcasses not created by bears.  All-terrain vehicles might help, though a good horse is like radar, smelling and hearing beyond the ability of a human.  Gizmo-lovers might find the new small drones useful, even for hazing bears out of the alfalfa.

The situation now drives even more of a wedge between citizen and government, encouraging secrecy and deception to the point of crippling the very people who are supposed to help and who WANT to help.  People say,  “Oh, there was a bear in my field but I’m not going to tell Fish and Game.  They won’t do anything anyway.”  That’s a self-fulfilling prediction.


The mantra now gaining strength is “the plan for after the Endangered Species Act is rescinded.”  This appears to be real, but incomplete and will probably need work once it’s on the ground.  The pattern is supposed to be Wolf Recovery, but that is only similar, not the same.  Wolf minds, habitats, and ability to cooperate with each other are not like bear character.  But the most intractable creatures of all are still human beings.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

BRAIN BASICS


By now I've read a lot of articles — some pop and some tech and some speculative — about how the brain works.  There are some basic premises.

1  Everything is an accumulation that builds on and emerges from what was already there.  Very few parts are discarded, though they may be modified or even transformed into doing something quite different.  The brain works as a whole, interacting rather than isolating.

2.  The brain is the operating system for the intake and output of the body.  Without a body, there is no brain.  Believing that a brain floating in a jar or a computer intelligence program is the equivalent to a brain is a rookie mistake, in literary terms, substituting a part for the whole.

3.  A brain is basically an organization of single cells that communicate with each other two ways:  through filaments (axons and dendrites) that “wire” cells together and solutions that alter the whole environment, which is fluid (excretions and secretions).  

4.  Over time, some neurons have become specialized one-by-one, so that they have extreme sensitivities necessary for operating.  Examples are knowing which way is “north” (probably a magnetic detection); sensing where walls and precipices are; “feeling with” other humans (empathy); and probably more (some estimate hundreds).

5.  Specialized neurons may form into concentrations, small organs anatomically separable, that intercept and process neuron transactions.  They may become specialized between one end and the other.  We think sensation-records may go in one end of the hippocampus, be sorted by significance and attached to pre-existing records which means they are more permanent, and then be discarded if unimportant.

6.  The brain does as much suppressing and discarding as using and preserving.  It tends to save what resembles previous records.  There is an idea that at night during sleep, the neurons contract so that there are wider spaces among them and the brain fluid washes through the interstices, removing debris (stray molecules or bits?) which is why we can think better in the early morning.

7.  The filaments that hook up systems of impulse code respond to how often they are traveled and get stronger if they are used a lot.  In time, they form “hubs” (there are hubs associated with each major sense intake organ like ears and eyes) and eventually there is so much traffic to keep organized that a “platform” is needed to sort them and decide which ones demand action.  There are some intakes that are so dangerous (the sight of snakes or tigers) that they bypass the platform and go straight to action.

8.  The “cortex” of the brain is a thin sheet, or rather several thin sheets on top of each other that wrap the whole brain.  One of them is imprinted by neural action with a distorted map of the whole body: distorted because there are many neurons devoted to some parts and few that record others.

9.  The brain is constrained by the bone box, the cranium, in which it develops, but in some circumstances and over millennia even that bone can be pushed out to make more room, and this is how humans got foreheads.  Behind that bulge is the pre-frontal cortex, a part of the cortex that contains what makes humans different from all the other animals.  It houses the humanities, including the sciences and other pattern-developing.  This is the part that used to be separated by cutting, inserting a scalpel through the eye-hole of the skull.  It made the person much more manageable because now they were domestic animals, pre-humans.

10.  Much of what we know about the brain comes from such actions.  We send electrical impulses through the brain as a whole; or cut away the skull to test individual locations, even to burn them away; we send magnetic impulses across from one temple to the other; we use MRI and other machines to record the impulses rushing around through the neuron filaments and also the volume of the blood flow; we x-ray;  we take samples of brain fluid by removing it from the spinal column, which is continuous.

11.  A major surgical intervention is separating the two halves of the brain.  In some circumstances, one-half can operate as a whole brain.  In other cases, the two sides — which normally exchange info through the corpus callosum, which is a major bundle of neuron filaments — will specialize.  When specializing the sides will create new hubs for new skills which may seem like one thing, but are often combinations of sub-skills, like the ability to recognize shapes + the ability to associate shapes with spoken sounds +  the ability to organize sounds into words with meaning + the ability to use words in abstract ways to follow patterns of thought.  These are cumulative, so that a person who cannot form words cannot discuss abstract ideas in words.  But they CAN still use the metaphorical sensory images to form abstract ideas.  People who can do this, which is likely to co-exist with word skills, are called “artists.” 

12.  The activities of the sensory neurons and their filaments (called the “connectome”) interact with the molecular messages floating in the blood, the lymph, and engulfing any organs with receptors.  They may cause organs to do something, just as they affect muscles, though the latter are usually controlled by the filament nerves.  Organs responding to the molecules of the blood are often felt as emotions. (Heart beat, stomach contractions)  And moods.

13.  Because the floating messages and the sensory equipment of the body can with their coding summon up images and memories of emotions, humans react to words, movements, light, skin perceptions, sounds, tastes, and so on.  These can be so strong that it is as though they were actually happening.  People vary greatly in their ability to receive and their ability to produce all this.  Cultures affect which will be valued and trained in their children and this will determine much of what their world is like, because individual understanding of the world “outside” the human is always much more limited and interpreted than what is kept inside.

14.  Molecules that enter the human body through eating or breathing or penetrating the skin can alter these functions in subtle ways, possibly detectable by the individual (getting drunk) or possibly not (developing diabetes).  Part of evolution is that some people will handle this better than others.  We’d better hope that we have outlier people who can survive our plastics and solvents, let alone radiations.


BRAIN FUNCTION IS A WHOLE BODY AND WHOLE CULTURE ENTERPRISE.  IT IS THE PROCESS THAT CONNECTS US TO THE COSMOS.