Sunday, February 19, 2017


Earl Old Person on his 86th birthday

Every year about this time I and others get inquiries like the one I’m quoting below.  They are 19th century fantasies about being sort of secular missionaries.  I’m blanking out whatever information might embarrass the sender by naming her, though I think she would be close to impossible to embarrass:

Greetings Mrs. Scriver, 

I am a high school English teacher in [big California city] and have recently been given a grant to travel and research about the Black Feet Nation in America. My original interest in doing this project was to learn more about my deceased relative, [I’m calling him Ebenezer.], who worked for several years with a tribe in Canada while living in Kalispell, Montana. I believe he was attempting to film the tribe and had been working with a chief by the name of Earl Old Person for several years. 

While researching online, I came across a blog you posted in 2005 where you briefly mentioned [Eb] and his work, as well as Chief Earl Old Person. I wondered if you had any additional details or information that may be helpful in retracing his steps and finding this footage he may have captured. I am hoping to create a blog about his work and see if there was ever anything done with the footage he was trying to get of the tribe. I will be sharing my research and explorations with my school in an effort to bring more awareness to Native American issues and culture. 

Thank you so much for your assistance and time. 

Actually, “Ebenezer” arrived as a VISTA worker, a program that was a domestic version of the Peace Corps.  It was the Sixties.  He saw the potential of exploiting knowledge of the Blackfeet (NEVER “Black Feet.”) and was so intent on bringing his camera into ceremonials such as Bundle Openings that the elders asked Bob Scriver, City Magistrate and JP, to have him arrested and kept in jail until the ceremony was over.  This is not rumor— I was sitting in the pickup with Bob when he had to shout at Eb to make him give up his idea.  Eb did NOT understand the idea of forbidding cameras and refused to accept the authority of the ceremonialists to set their own rules.

Eb was one of half-a-dozen opportunists hanging around in the Sixties.  Eb wasn’t as bad as the invasive writer who turned out to be a pedophile and a madman (incarcerated in a mental hospital at one point) who nevertheless won prizes for his book about the Blackfeet.  But Eb was nowhere near as honorable, well-read or respectful as Adolf Hungry Wolf, whose marvelous four-volume book -- research and photos accumulated over decades -- is sold by the Browning School District.  Adolf is a Canadian but the Blackfoot Confederacy includes both Canada and US. 

By now there are many authorities and websites about this tribe, written by people who are actually enrolled members.  This ignorant woman has evidently not made contact with them, preferring an ornery old white woman.  Why should I help her when I’m a writer myself with no interest in her projects?  Her assumptions about me demonstrate she knows nothing about me, did no research to find out. 

Eb was a loser.  He moved across the Rockies to Kalispell, the Outlaw town, because he wasn’t wanted in Browning (which is not in Canada).  He was an object of contempt and derision.

This woman’s school is a private posh enterprise in the wealthy part of town where their knowledge of Indians could easily be expanded if they went out to the chainlink fence where the undocumented Mexicans wait in hopes of day labor jobs.  Some of them speak neither English nor Spanish — they are the real thing, only speaking their tribal language from up in the mountain villages.  

I tried to brush off this woman, but she persisted.

I am happy to hear any stories you have to share. My attempt is to do honest research. I was very young when he passed and only remember him fondly, but as a true scholar my efforts are to learn openly about the Blackfeet Nation and any of Jim's work with the group, be it good or bad. Were your experiences with him negative, I would still be interested to learn about them, if you are willing to share. 

And I do actually live in [big city], though I have been teaching in [posh suburb] for a little over a year. Prior to that, I worked as a community college teacher and in various other teaching positions around the world; I am also a writer. My hope is to help bring these stories to students who come from often privileged backgrounds and will likely be in positions of power later in life. As an educator for nearly 20 years, I feel it is my duty to instill morality and compassion into my students' lives, and sadly, Native American issues are often overlooked in our society. 

If you are willing to open a dialogue, please let me know. 

I responded that I was not willing.  Next this scholar wants me to send her Chief Old Person’s phone number.

I took the gloves off:  “You are as lazy and self-centered as Ebenezer.  I won’t do your work for you.”

But she wouldn’t shut up:

“My goal in this project is to effectively help young people learn how to move forward in a peaceful and compassionate manner. Part of this involves opening discussions that are often difficult and painful but which hopefully lead to healing, as well as to learning appropriate ways to help ensure the rights of all people, especially when one is in a "privileged position" to do so. Part of why I contacted you is because your blog implied you too were committed to this endeavor and to critiquing a very flawed social/political system. 

Obviously, you are very hurt by the interactions you had with Eb. I am sorry you had a negative experience. I am not sure, however, why you have chosen to write such rude and hateful comments towards me, a person you have virtually no information about nor knowledge. It is because of humanity's inability to let go of anger and hate that lead to so many of the problems facing our world today, including the ones you claim in your blog posts to be so passionate and concerned for. 

Anyway, I will no longer contact you or ask for assistance with this project. Thank you again for your time. And I am sorry for bothering you or stirring up unpleasant memories. That certainly was not my intent. 

The people who would understand the idiocy of this woman and her fantasies about Eb are mostly dead.  It all happened a half-century ago.  The Blackfeet are much different now.  Earl Old Person is alive, but shadows are gathering.  It wouldn’t be worth blogging about except that she’s a type, a person who stars in her own melodrama, rummaging in the family trunks for some kind of significance.  It’s not easy to teach in a posh school where everyone makes far more money.  But many people here would consider themselves her equal, not her chance to patronize people living in tipis.

I confess:  I’m rude and hateful and know nothing about this woman — I don’t know why she’s surprised by me.  I’m full of anger and hate, with good reason.  At least I got a blog post out of the pest.  Be warned.  I could use names.  I could contact the school to complain.

She’s still not as bad as the French journalist who asked me a lot of questions via email, translated my reply into French, and published it in France as an article she wrote herself.  

Please know that I will help any real indigenous people, esp. those on the high North American prairie.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


After watching Trump’s performance at his “extended” news conference, it is clear that he is a self-resolving problem.  What I mean is that he plainly has — in addition to an intractable character structure — something organic, probably Alzheimers.  Maybe a tumor or stroke.  The point is that these health problems are progressive and lead to death.  Until now he has not had good health care.  That deficit can’t really be made up now by any highly qualified doctors and no one seems to be making any effort anyhow.  

He is not organized enough to be a threat.  But he is good cover for people who ARE a threat and who can pretend that he is the source of things they are actually doing.  It would be worthwhile to find out who his puppeteers are so that we know what to expect when Trump dies.  We do NOT know when he will die or become de-mented enough to be as good as dead, sitting and staring, but he is not going to be a two-term president.

To stop obsessing about this man and give up the pleasures of reviling him, which are fun but really too easy to be proud of, is to have the energy and focus to address two other categories of problems.  One is the organizational design challenge, for one instance to do something about the electoral college that leads us into the swamp.  

I see that Earl Blumenauer, whom I know and respect from Portland, is moving in the direction of improving the 25th Amendment to include “instability” as well as suggesting an alternative to the President's cabinet as the body responsible for the trap door.  Both the cabinet and the Supreme Court are currently incomplete.  Blumenauer suggests a sort of “Presidents Emeritus” panel.  I’d be happier with a panel of former president’s wives, but Hilary is a deal-breaker for a lot of people.

In terms of organizational design, we have just about exhausted the institutions and systems that emerged from WWII.  There was no internet then.  That alone has changed the practice of politics as much as it has changed the other cultural elements, like music or publishing.  Old ways are simply gone.

The other work that badly needs to be done is a hard look at the principles of democracy which once seemed obvious.  Science and suffering have challenged the vision developed by the British Empire about commerce and families, the necessity of trade and the English upper class conscience as  God-given.  Now we see a penetrable membrane of living beings, interwoven, stretching around the planet and defining each other.  This conception makes no sense at all to most people today, but it is true in the most rigorous sense, demonstrated by instruments and confirmed by calculations.  We need people like the Bioneers to explore government options that are not based on adversaries.

The planet is a molten-hearted round rock with a triple cortex of earth, air and water, each moving in circuits and supplying nutrients.  Tectonic plates carry continents that guide the currents of air and ocean.  We create boundaries of governance that are sometimes guided by continental features like mountains and sometimes by the natural (but moving) edges of waterways.  

Then we try to drive straight-line borders across them, straight line delivery systems through them.  Here are two illustrations created from piecing together many Google maps.  The straight, surveyed, 49th parallel along Canada is not at all like the Rio Grande River along Mexico with it’s loops and splits.  How is it possible to build a wall without crossing and re-crossing the river?  The southern boundary of the Blackfeet rez is Birch Creek, a smaller stream, which still occasionally changes its stream bed, causing ownership problems.



On the west side, Montana is a place of mountains where cities cluster in valleys.  On the east side it is a vast flat land interrupted by badlands but few cities.  The people and needs of the two kinds of land create two quite different and conflicting political outlooks.  The same is true of Oregon and Washington.  Would it make sense to separate the two kinds of land into two separate ecological states?  Or do the differences act as checks and balances on each other?  

Why do the coasts of the USA not interact in positive ways with the great prairies in the middle instead of scoffing at them as “flyover country”?  Should the megacities accept a different kind of governance and taxation?  Valier itself has a “doughnut hole” problem: the services are inside the town limits, but the wealth and children are on the ranches outside the town.

Now that through internet connection lands can relate to each other without being contiguous, suppose there were one kind of unified governance for the grasslands of the planet no matter which continent they stretched across, and another kind of governance for the sheets of population along the coasts?  I would argue that this is already in existence to some degree (sister cities) and ought to be a starting point that could address shared crises like global warming or plastic debris contamination of the seas.  But what would be the role of a "nation"?

Enough fantasy.  Let’s be practical.  Term limits seem obviously needed to break up the careers of professional politicians who spend their time raising money.  Rethinking criminalization and a return to our original founding premises, like innocent until proven guilty (no incarceration on mere suspicion) and no civil seizure of wealth outside the law.  We need to address pandemics without creating stigma.  Instead of preventing abortion, we should prevent conception by unsuitable persons.  We need close scrutiny of “religious” institutions, but tolerance for “religious” concepts and greater understanding for what that really means.

Education must be lifelong because information and conceptions are now changing daily.  Energy sources should be as local as possible — ideally household by household — to eliminate the tangles of pipes and wires across the land.  Wind and solar energy need the kind of subsidy as fossil fuel.

It’s not just that Trump will be lucky to live long enough to finish his elected term, but that his entire generation will soon be gone.

Friday, February 17, 2017


Michael Moore says he can’t sleep tonight and neither can I.  

The question is no longer whether Trump has some kind of mental problem.  The most conclusive evidence in this world of video is an old interview with Oprah.

Compare that with his press conference yesterday (2-16-17) and the answer is perfectly clear.  His wheels aren’t all on the ground.  Now there are no complete sentences, the ideas are simply old obsessions, and the emotional level is certainly pretty much raving and ranting.  So now I’m through with asking that question.  He’s simply not sane.

There is another series of questions.  When an ordinary person slips into this twilight, his family normally gets him to medical care because even if the problem is Alzheimer’s, for which there is no cure, it might rather be a brain tumor, a stroke, hardening of the arteries of the brain, and so on.  Such behavior triggers medical evaluation FOR THE SAKE OF THE PATIENT.  No one seems to be thinking about care for this man in those terms.  So a good question is “why this neglect”?  

There are a number of answers.  One is the political consequences of admitting that a head of state is bonkers.  What if this steady stream of foreign heads of state visiting is not to have a conference with a nutcase, but to see for themselves the state of the man’s mind and also to have a few secret conferences with the people who really are running the country in his name, as has quietly happened in the past with other unsane presidents?  There is no way to communicate over distance that can’t be compromised.  There must be personal conferring in a “safe” room that isn’t bugged.  We assume there is a room like that in the White House.

Trump’s “nuclear” family is problematic.  Their fates are so tied to their father and husband that they must be careful not to trigger retribution in terms of inheritance and keeping the money empire running.  There must be various impulses to ransack the cupboards before the world realizes that any will written now will be challenged when Trump becomes mute and bedridden, any divorce the same, and any existing documents and entitlements must be protected — assuming they are wanted.  

Instead of family, Trump has a circle of protectors and guides like none he has ever had before.  People have told me that a luxury hotel is better than a hospital for observation and care.  The White House residence is basically a luxury hotel.  People are always just outside the door, room service is at hand, medical response can be there in minutes.  However, they are not controlled by Trump.  His physical body belongs to the American people now.  He is a living symbol and extension of the nation.  

Those caretakers watching him are not political and they have to know the reality, though they are undoubtedly discreet about letting outsiders know.  The prevention of public knowledge is probably being accomplished mostly by people aware of the consequences of a president known to be barking mad.  It’s all being recorded somewhere and will be public someday, probably after Trump is dead.

Legal triggers like the 25th Amendment or the reassignment of control to the Vice President are mostly based on the idea of unconsciousness, but consciousness is not an on/off switch.  In cases of dementia the craziness can vary over 24 hours or even ebb and flow over days.  Myself at 78 might stumble over names or, more likely, numbers, though there are days when I’m as much a shining blade of insight as ever.  But laws ARE on/off and must be, in order to be useful.  Impeachment is a matter of criminality, motives, but not everyone is willing to label Trump a traitor.

All these things interfere with sleep when reflecting on Trump, but other things are most troublesome.  One is the rage of the world at change and loss, inevitable as it may be and as innocent as Trump might be.  I mean, he didn’t cause globalization or world contamination or overpopulation or North Korea or mass migrations.  Nor can he control them.  He waves his tiny sword but he has no horse that can carry him into battle.  Both the haters (and I’m a little surprised that he actually feels and names that hate, though it doesn’t seem to affect his thinking except to puzzle him) and the supporters know very well that he has no real control.  But, hey, if God is dead, whom else can we rail at?  Bannon?  The Alt-Right is a creature of talk radio — nothing more.

Trump (and Bannon) represent the Third Party of Greed, though some call them fascists and they themselves endorse that, though they think of themselves as simply entitled by merit.  It’s the American Mind Worm, which calls the acquisition of wealth “progress,” and “freedom,” and “get-out-of-my-way.”  Other cultures have other names for it.  Some say wealth is safety but this is a lie.  Ask Kim Il Sung’s boys.  Senators and representatives far past their sell-by dates and all the in-laws and CEO’s who benefit from the status quo would be happy to stuff Trump’s dead body and prop him up behind that empty desk in the Oval Office, so long as they can go on as they have been.

But there’s more.  Trump fooled us all.  We thought his dementia and mania were just bluffs, mere strategies that would be dropped as soon as he won the election.  Few people played enough of a “long game” to realize how powerful gerrymandering and Big Data algorithms could be.  Those who did pay attention have been fussing for a few years — we felt it here on the rez when the voting district was redrawn to cross the Rocky Mountains so that the Democratic skew of tribes could be diluted.  

But the power of Big Data as accumulated by Facebook et al wasn’t even in our consciousness, even after we read the book about porn preferences in which nothing was as we assumed. (“A Billion Wicked Thoughts”)  We didn’t know — but the Russians did — how powerful a rumor could be.  It was a Russian who figured out how to make a dog salivate to a bell.

Now that we realize that elections are only marketing opportunities, we are most angry of all at ourselves, that we can be fooled so easily.  Slowly, sheepishly, we look at all the little Trumps and Trumpettes who dominate our local lives because it’s too much work to fight them and because, as so many claim,  “the system is broken” and the only thing to do is walk away.  Where to?

I finished writing this post at 2AM.  My last thought before finally drifting off to sleep was that someone among Trump’s handlers wanted the world to see what he has become.  Otherwise he would have been coaxed tactfully away from the microphone and back to private rooms.  I think those letting him rave on were the many dedicated bureaucrats who actually run the executive branch and who are opposed to chaos.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Painting by Sarah St. George
"Spring Willows"

We call it “the February Thaw” , a time about now when the weather turns gentle for a few days.  This year this week it’s a near-Spring with temps reaching for sixty.  Jack Woods used to try to time his calf crop to arrive in this little gap, but he complained that he never managed to hit it quite right.  Wiser heads suggested that if he just stuck with the same timing, his chances of birthing in the right time would be more likely.  He just wasn’t that kind of guy and if he had good luck, he could strike it big.

To understand the reality of this break in the cold, one must learn a new word.  (At least it was new to me.)  “Sinesoidal” means that the forces of the weather are always oscillating as they go about their cycles and gyres.  A sine wave or sinusoid is a mathematical curve that describes a smooth repetitive oscillation. It is named after the function sine, of which it is the graph.  Besides the “February Thaw” (or sometimes the January Thaw) there is one in the fall we call “Indian Summer.”  No one can explain the atypical days in either season.  

It means that the long glacially-formed prairie here is streaked with white in places with a north side of any rise less likely to get direct sun.  In summer those places will be thicker with vegetation because the moisture lingered a little longer.  Driving a pickup across the land will make the driver conscious of this, and prompt him or her to stay on the sunny side.

Right now the rancher’s pickup will be dragging a hay-bale unwinder, managing to undo what was done last fall in rolling up the huge round cylinders of grass or alfalfa.  A long carpet of dry green stretches out where cows come to eagerly meet it.  A few gravid cows will stand braced, a little apart, waiting for the moment of labor to be upon them.  Already there are more than a half-dozen small figures as compact as they were in the womb, curled on whatever hay isn’t eaten right away.

I watch one field when I go east along #44.  It’s sloped, so it never turns to mud.  This field was sterilized by the profound cold of a hard winter.  When all the calves have come, the cattle will be moved to another field and this one, now fertilized with manure, will be harrowed and irrigated to grow alfalfa, which will be wound up again in fall as the cycle comes back around.  Thus ranching is a tango with the great ballroom swirls of the northern planet.

Just before the Civil War, the American importation from Iran of alfalfa plants, a kind of pea, saved many a ranch because it produces so much forage and goes so deep for moisture.  It must be re-sown every half-dozen years or so.  The dried leaves make a pleasant tea.

A long time reader remarked that she had expected the weather in Montana would be deep persistent snow and cold, like Laura Ingalls Wilder tales.  But that’s the weather away from the mountains with their warming catabatic winds.  The reader summed up my weather as “variable.”  Lots of jokes about that:  “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will be different.”  

The main thing about snow here is that it’s like a live thing, moving and piling up against doors and windows on the lee side of a building.  One must have at least one door that opens inwards, but even then problems arise.  Corky got up to feed cattle out at the Doane ranch (the Flatiron place that through the estate of Bob Scriver and with the insight of Eloise Cobell, became an ecology study location. he pulled open the door, he found himself facing a perfect mold of the outside of the door, right up to the top.  Luckily he had a shovel indoors, but the problem was what to do with the snow.  There was no place to throw it outside.  In the end he filled the bathtub.

No migrating birds have showed up here yet, though there is news to the south that they’re moving.  Instead, our heralds are swelling buds on the poplars outside my window and bright yellow branches on the willows I can see up the alley.  The melting snow is awakening roots, which means that our underground piping infrastructure is breaking from being pushed around and invaded.  The water line on the corner and even the gas line next door.  The house is subtly changing shape as our gumbo soil swells according to where the water is dumped by gutters.  One never knows how hard to pull on the doorknob, because the door fits differently every time.  “Frost” will rise through asphalt, breaking the highways.

On Groundhog’s Day and Valentine’s Day — approximately during the spring thaw — Mother Nature, like Jack Woods, has programmed the burrowing rodents of the prairie to start their romance engines so there will be babies in a month or so, about the time the real Spring begins.  They’ll need to retreat to the burrow as March and April will always be full of storms, sometimes sweeping through in hours instead of days.

Valier is an irrigation town, one with a bitter story of dam failure in its past, and though many people let that slip out of their awareness, the state of the snowpack in the Rockies is of crucial interest.  It is as surely a resource as a coal mine, except that if all goes well, the treasure replaces itself every winter.    117% of the average today.  (2-16-17)  It’s looking like a good year for grain crop harvest.

But not a good year for grain crop marketing.  Too much of a good thing around the world: too much grain. (It's not a plenitude problem, it's a distribution problem.)  Some farmers will go to pulse crops (peas, like alfalfa).  The secret to nature is not biggest, mostest, but rather fittingest.  Bees that are there when the alfalfa blooms, baby ground squirrels that are there when the hawks have nestlings and the foxes have babies in their own burrows, calves that arrive in fields that have been blanketed in snow and where the rancher has raised enough hay to unwind in swaths even if the spring blizzards scour the land.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Spokesman for the Emperor 

I’m in a state of outrage.  This morning on MSNBC I watched a series of vid clips sequenced to put together pronouncements by Stephen Miller. Even the hosts were gob-smacked.   In a robotic and menacing speech worthy of “Star Wars” (even without latex enhancement of his persona), he insisted that the president was 100% truthful and will not be questioned or there will be consequences.  Possibly nuking the citizens, I guess. Water sources have already been poisoned.  In some countries the air is suffocating citizens by the thousands.  Much more efficient than chambers with piped gas.

I kept thinking about the tone and manner of this talk and what it reminded me of and finally I got it when I read OZY news.  He’s like the Dean of Boys in a high school threatening discipline after his house was toilet-papered in the night.  The idea is intimidation.  It is a response to powerlessness.

When I last taught in 1990, I sometimes remarked that some kids — defiant, unfocused, dependent on parent money except for what they could make in the weed trade, and prone to blowing up or melting down — were our future.  Now they’re here.  But we made them.  We taught them that high school is about winning games, about cliques and bullying, about getting grades any way possible — including making your parents come up to school to make threats.  They were trying to break the system because it didn’t work.

This is the system idealists have been fighting since the Sixties and Seventies.“During the Industrial Revolution, educators adopted a factory-model system that monolithically processed students in batches, funneling them in one door as raw material at age 5 and ejecting them out another as finished educational products 12 years later. Back then, isolated boxlike classrooms were designed for crowd control and stodgy lectures, and learning was thought to occur in only prescribed places.”

The paragraph above is from an article that is part of a series on  (If you actually listened to your English teacher, you would realize that Ozy is not a reference to the Wizard of Oz, though that works, but a reference to “Ozymandias”, the poem.)  The “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” are a pretty good reference to our two-party system, now frozen.

Here’s the link to the whole Ozy series, called “High School Disrupted.”

Here’s a link to one of the articles which proposes that instead of forcing all adolescents to attend high school, attendance should be gated: one would apply for admission.  The center of gravity would be drastically changed.  I doubt there would be more kids on the streets or besieging the labor market for jobs that adults want, which are a couple of conventional goals of universal education systems.

The articles also propose revolutions such as physical labor instead of detention.  Nothing so energetic as breaking up rocks or working on chain gangs, but rather pulling weeds or scrubbing bathrooms.  Since there soon won’t be any uncertified immigrants to do those things.

Those three or four people who paid attention to their English teacher might also know that the title An Immodest Proposal” echoes Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.”  (1729)  It begins , ”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled . . .”  We don’t need kids to grow up to be cannon fodder anymore because our wars are fought so technologically and so remotely that only college grads qualify to enlist and even girls can do the job.

Every now and then someone stumbles across this “proposal” of Swift’s and takes it seriously.  (I don’t think David Bar Jonah ever read this — he was a free-lance cannibal.)  But it gets harder and harder to give people the cheap thrill that will get them reading.  If it’s not on TV.

Until now much of our government has been based on what is local: our town and county boundaries, our law enforcement, our schools and our voting citizens have been organized on the basis of home addresses.  That doesn’t really work anymore since so many people move all the time, have multiple residences, don’t want anyone to know where they are, or live on the couches of friends or on the sidewalk.  The internet erases all boundaries, even the borders of nations.  Why climb the fence to get to America when you can just google them?

It appears that even our elections can be engineered from other continents, our communications hacked, our campaigns reduced to advertising and rumor, our politicians discredited and mocked — make that “self-mocked” since they come from television game shows.  What sort of citizens can confront this world and how should we educate them?

It’s clear that our primary schools should be teaching key-boarding, coding, and interpretation of statistics since algorithms rule the worlds of finance, marketing, and entertainment.  They must continue to teach spelling since search engines depend upon that accuracy. 

But in high school the goals of skills should be quite different from the old-fashioned obedience and lock-step, popularity and athletics that damage students.  Quite aside from sex education, which students are motivated to learn on their own terms, we need to return to teaching about propaganda and how to interpret body language and the “tells” of faces that indicate lies or bluffing.  Semantics, symbolism, and other ways of getting access to the thought UNDER what is being said, which is what I take the Algerian/French philosophers to have been pursuing at college level, are now necessary for every adult.

One of the essays in this set proposes that high school dropouts should lose their citizenship.  That’s a little harsh in a time when some are working to restore the voting rights of convicted felons, but the whole set of proposals IS harsh and that’s the point — to jolt us into change, since we’re already in a state of chaos.  Surely it’s ridiculous that ordinary born-here people can vote regardless of their understanding, while immigrants must pass a test.  But then, this is a country that defends the rights of totally unqualified parents to produce damaged babies too full of meth to safely eat, much less teach anything.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Sister Juana Inez

(1) :  to perceive directly :  have direct cognition of (2) :  to have understanding of knowing
oneself> (3) :  to recognize the nature of :  discern
b (1) :  to recognize as being the same as something previously known (2) :  to be acquainted or familiar with (3) :  to have experience of
:  to be aware of the truth or factuality of :  be convinced or certain of
b :  to have a practical understanding of <knows how to write>
archaic :  to have sexual intercourse with

Oh, yeah!  The Biblical euphemism for sex!  But try working the definition the other direction.  “She looked at him, his head on her pillow, and recognized him for the first time.  But perhaps it was most important that she recognized herself, the truth of herself.  And she slipped out of bed.”  (That’s not a quote— I made it up.)

But I want to take this in a different direction, sort of.  My most recent juxtaposition of movies that told me something was two convent stories about “knowing.”  Of course, the point is supposed to be “knowing God.”  But then things get a little mixed up.  

One film is the classic “In This House of Brede” with Diana Rigg in the main role, which is so indelible that her role as Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones” can’t help but echo it so many years later.  The other is a series about an Argentinian saint, quite real and celebrated:  “Juana Ines.”  

(  This review pairs the BOOK of Rumer Godden’s This House of Brede” with Gail Godwin’s “Unfinished Desires.”  (I haven't read it.)  I haven’t read Rumer Godden’s book for decades, but there once was a time I read right along the Vernon Branch Library’s “G” shelf, all the Godden books including her sister Jon’s novels. There are quite a few.

In spite of all the psych discussion of bonding, attachment, pheromones, limerence and so on, I still like the idea of “knowing” someone to signify “loving” them.  In today's hook-up culture, all is climax and then it’s over.  But if we’re talking “knowing,” there is no limit, the adventure continues so long as the loved person will allow it.  It can mean discovery even after death.

Since this is also a narcissistic culture, it is a convenient valence when one person wants to be known and supplies endless stories, explanations, past influences and present ideas, and all the other complexities of being human.  That’s the narcissist.  The other one, who in the myth is called “Echo” but in present psycho-jargon is called “enabler,” merely has to listen and remember.  

Girls are notorious for falling in love with horses during adolescence because horses are excellent mirrors, giving back the vibes they pick up.  And it is a physical relationship, even a dangerous one, which is always attractive during adolescence.  But at about the same time the same girls often fall in love with the idea of being a nun, of taking God for a lover.  Nevermind that God doesn’t exist.  Enabling a fantasy can be very fulfilling because one controls the plot.

Religious orders know about this, but they are sober institutions, each order with its own focus.  The House of Brede is meant to be an Anglican contemplative order: that is, the nuns spend their lives entirely cloistered and focused on prayer for the world.  Other orders are meant to teach or to heal.  The Catholic ones are always a problem for the Popes and for other male officials, because their good works build up power from the people's gratitude, as the people begin to love them, and cloisters can be hotbeds of dissent on the basis of sympathy rather than logic.

What the movies and novels love is the competition of human lovers with God-the-lover.  And then there is always the possibility of nun-and-nun pair-bonds.  All this was much more complex in the days of Sister Juana Inéz because it was a time of empire-forming when church and monarchy wrestled for control.  Also, Sister Juana Inéz wanted only to be a scholar but there was no convent with scholarship as a central calling, because women were supposed to be too simple and stupid to think properly.  If they clearly excelled, it was a challenge to the men.

Also, Sister Juana Inés was Mexican in part, as well as illegitimate, so she presented multiple challenges to order.  As an adolescent, she learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and wrote some short poems in that language.  She deals with the division between body and soul and uses imagery of sensual nature.  Octavio Paz wrote about her and so did many others, including Diane Ackerman and Alberta, Canada, novelist Paul Anderson.  

This series on Netflix will undoubtedly make Juana Inés far better known.  She survived in part because of the patronage of the Vicereine of Mexico, which in the film becomes a love affair with many lady-kisses exchanged.  Her supervisor, confessor, and possible oppressor becomes a dark knife-faced wolf with his own even darker inquisitor who despises women.  There are hints of SM as the religious people try to keep their bodies under control.  Always in the background, quietly, are the Indio with their shamanic understanding of healing and their own suffering by oppression.  Aztecs were never living in an idyllic world, particularly after Spain stripped their wealth, throwing the entire European balance of power off-orbit.

The only signs of Sister Juana Inéz’ scholarship are her books.  Things.  Nothing about her philosophical premises or worldview.  No scenes of her explaining, just bits of erotic poetry meant to be — like the Song of Solomon — symbols of religious devotion.  She does make rather defiant statements in the little play presented.  The Mother Superior is unsympathetic, worried about disfavor from authorities.

“In This House of Brede” is an ancestor of “Call the Midwife,” so the Mother Superior is a kind and generous woman, a worthy role model for a growing young woman who is trying to escape the consequences of her choice to join a dedicated life instead of a conventional marriage.  “Brede” notes the cruelty of throwing over the young man who loves the postulant, and then the new cruelty of her teasing him with the possibility of turning back to him.

Rumer Godden’s other convent tale is “Black Narcissus” (1947), quite different, with a focus on fabulous mountain scenery which is the numinous location of a teaching order, and a mature, charismatic male to challenge their cloister.  The source of evil is a mad sister, while the erotic woman is Jean Simmons with paint on her face.  Deborah Kerr loves good, becoming so much the nun in several roles, that we were all shocked when she rolled in the surf with Burt Lancaster, getting to “know” him.

It is not knowledge, but the pursuit of understanding that seduces us.