Tuesday, April 23, 2019

WHAT'S THE RELIGIOUS NAME FOR THIS?

It was the early Eighties and I was serving the fellowship of a major city in Saskatchewan.  As is typical of groups in that province at that time, everyone was white, educated, and insular.  They drew a little circle and stayed in it where it was safe.  Not that they agreed about anything because arguments kept them safely separated from each other.

AIDS had just hit the world and though they thought they would surely not have to deal with it, we had done a conference on "landscape" where we discovered that one of the clergy -- a handsome PK with a doctor for a partner -- was on the rigid and harsh regimen that might keep him from dying.  In those days there were few people who only carried the virus and didn't die.  We would have done a better job of pretending nothing was wrong if his pill carrier hadn't been electronic and beeped to remind him.  In a while he died anyway.

I tried to understand how to get people to understand. (Did I understand, myself?)  Then one starless night with a temp of forty-below (farenheit --though it would have been celsius up there) I was driving my old van back home from Calgary.  I was passing through a bleak area of sands that the Blackfeet identified with death, a place where their spirits wandered eternally.  

Just as a blood-red sunset crept under the dark, my van died.  I waited a while and restarted.  It ran a few miles and quit again.  I could see a town in the distance, but if I tried to walk there, I would die in spite of my big down "rancher's coat."  I got out and tried to stop the last of the traffic, people going home after work.  Once they had passed, there wasn't likely to be more traffic.  If the engine wouldn't run, the van would soon be as cold as everything else.  It was a struggle between despair and terror.  I tried stopping cars with no luck.  Finally I got so desperate that I jumped right in front of a driver and he had to stop or explain how my blood got all over the front of his car.

That's what AIDS was like: a struggle between the emotional impact and the urgent need for help.  After the sermon people left early and didn't say goodbye, but they did come back the next week.

It was almost harder to think of a way to convey what it was like a bit earlier when the culture shifted enough to allow a community of gays in all their splendid assortment and zany displacement of stigma, just long enough to set them up for death, which shifted them again to a new culture for men.  The limitless love of each other's bodies impelled them to nurse their lovers while they died.  Small Saskatchewan groups can understand this.  They still remember the Spanish Flu, a true decimation of ordinary folks.

It's much harder to explain the joy of release from punishing limits.  Those conscientious but nervous people had rarely, if ever, been part of a carnival (carne - flesh) so how could they understand its loss?  I'm the wrong person to ask.  My extravagance has been of the mind rather than the body.  It's evidently scarier to a lot of people.  I don't hide it much because most people only see disobedience, refusal to conform, anyway.

I watched "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1950) for Easter, but YouTube's algorithm always urges what they think is similar.  They came up with "Tommy"  (1975) which is an extravagant and over-the-top Hollywood big screen version of what they thought that SF gay scene was about.  I haven't seen it.  It must be still popular since they still pay to watch it even on TV.  I watched the preview and read a little bit about it.  It's based on Big Hollywood names.  The anonymous Wikipedia expert says:  "Tommy is a 1975 British independent rock musical fantasy drama film based upon The Who's 1969 rock opera album Tommy about a "seemingly disabled" boy who becomes a pinball champion and religious leader. Directed by Ken Russell, the film featured a star-studded ensemble cast, including the band members themselves (most notably, lead singer Roger Daltrey, who plays the title role), Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson."  

Music, dance, flamboyance, and culture-mocking are the markers of Russell.  I'm not a participant on a physical level, but thought and emotion give me access to at least thinking about the two extremes and the imputed relationship between orgasmic recklessness and torturing disaster.  HIV/AIDS is just one example.  There are so many.  I am fascinated.  

This is a "religious" issue about the foundation of what humans "are" just as much as the notion of Christianity that there is a humanoid God who raises the question of why good people are terribly punished.  This is such a clinging question that it has a name:  theodicy.  How can a good and compassionate God be so vicious and betraying?

Now that we see the heavens as not a throne room but an immeasurable vast receding space of revolving round worlds and blazing suns, theodicy is a silly question.  What is the pressing question now?  We can't even blame God, though we killed Him for His shortcomings.  We didn't crucify God -- just Jesus.  But why did we do that?


At least some people got busy to find a cure for HIV -- we've gotten as far as amelioration, but when we get to the essential elements of flesh we find that we are the obstacle.  We don't want to know. We don't want to do hard things.  We want to make a little cluster of connected people and not find out about scary stuff.  Is there a name for being intimidated by the cosmos?

Monday, April 22, 2019

IF YOU WANT A CODEX, PRINT OUT THIS BLOG.

The convergence of a number of things: house maintenance, governmental corruption, an arduous winter, blogging daily, some deaths among friends and students, and herds of cats have all been made almost unbearable since my fall on Groundhog's Day, the one that dislocated my shoulder and put the whole top left quadrant of this pudding of a body into a state of nonfunctional pain.  Then the painkillers fuzzed up my head.

Short example:  I didn't act fast enough when one of the three female cats gave birth to five "sparrows", scroungy little gray specimens with various decorations of white.  I'd say they were street cats if we had real streets in this tiny village.  Pretty scraggly inbred lot.  One has fallen in love with me and follows for a chance to snuggle.  They all have the idea that my double chin is a lot like a mamacat's belly and determined that there must be a source of milk somewhere.  Maybe claws . . .

Then it's Easter and I watched "Jesus Christ Superstar" on YouTube twice.  This has led to an attack of not-quite-conscience.  Because having a conscience is knowing what is Right.  I don't know what is Right since I don't even have Trump's conviction that wealth is the criterion.  (Too bad he's not really rich -- just faking it.)  But there's never enough money to cure stupid, weak bullies, or the other insecurities of a bald old fat man.  Now I'm just going to talk about myself, who never valued money and so passed up every opportunity to get money in order to preserve my freedom.  

As a barely post-toddler, I was entirely secure and protected.  Even when the second baby, a boy, appeared, I was confident that I was the Axis Mundi, the spindle on which the planet turned.  But the planet tilts and it's doing that now.  Still, I coped pretty well until school.  The adults all thought I was just what a little girl should be and gave me good grades and praise, though one noted on my report card that I cried all the time.  My classmates despised me.  Still do.  They'll deny it.  Nearly eighty years old, red-faced, relatively prosperous, they meet for lunch once a month.

That's the grade school bunch.  In high school no one mattered but my teachers and the dramatics program so college was where my dramatics teacher graduated.  (She disliked and feared AK -- I think it was the lesbian thing.)  But now I am shamed by my classmates, so hooked by success and achieving a respectable version.  Northwestern University now sells out to international corporations, letting the School of Speech become so esoteric that it will be easy to snuff in time.  And yet I could use the services of a good otolaryngologist (ear, nose, throat doc) because I have issues, surprisingly related to Dr. Porges' ideas about the vagal nerve system.  (I guess that's pretty esoteric, too, but at least no earth-eating international corporation is involved.)

What's at issue here is the concept of success. I didn't have some burning issue about going to teach "Indians" as is assumed.  It was just an accident that after graduation we drove through Browning and a job was open. But once there I did have conscious issues about what person would be best for me to link up with.  It was Bob Scriver.  So then we concentrated on HIS success.  He was 47 and in the next ten years I put him first in my life.  I made myself as closely like him as I could, but also cheerleader, cheap labor, and publicist.  I pushed him into the New York scene because I still read the NYTimes.  Locals will say I made him a success and even ask me to do it for them, but they have no idea what I did, because they have no concept of the New York art scene.  When Bob divorced me, he said that he should charge me tuition because I learned so much, and there was truth in that.

So -- over thirty and out on the street with no money. (Alimony was $1,200 and a free winter-over on the little Two Med ranch he bought without consulting me.  I loved it.)  Was this success?  Two years of penance teaching again and I discovered Third Force psych.  Reframing has been key ever since.  Success is how you look at it.  But I wouldn't mess with marriage again.  I did keep watching the Western Art world and, once I convinced Bob that I wouldn't attack him, saw what a racket it became.  

The arts became enchained by those who capitalized on it: the publishers, the dealers, the galleries and bookstores, the customers who believed they were doing something smart and privileged when they were only sheep.  The best-seller lists of books are not based on quality of reading, but rather on sales.  The sales of certain bookstores were added up, and the ones with the most money were the number ones.  Art auctions were similar: sales were through auctions: public, hyped, a little drunk, reputation by word-of-mouth, and secret deals.  When there are lectures to explain why certain paintings are worth millions, they fall flat.  When one sees that they are linked to virtue -- paired-with secret-sin, it's even harder to understand.  No need to reveal which artist is the son of a whore or even a whore himself.  Charlie Russell loved to hang out with whores and that's a known fact.  Would Jackson Pollock sell so well if he weren't a suicidal, unfaithful, self-destroyer?  Writers, the same -- the worse, the better.

I didn't get hooked into that.  I don't drink, smoke, gamble, overspend, chew gum or dance.  I eat too much and I have too many cats and I don't dress well, which is what convinces people I'm disreputable.  I'm full of The Big Ideas.  So it seemed like seminary would be a natural place.  That's where I saw the real coverups and pretences.  Until I went out in a circuit-riding van to be more martyred and virtuous than anyone else -- mostly based on self-deprivation, which I thought of as asceticism.

When I came home that time, it was to a Portland full of crime and drugs, but I wasn't out on the street anymore except to and from work on the bus.  That was enough: a drug king was pushed up at gunpoint by a cop just outside the window by my seat.  It took a minute to realize that a bullet would travel through that wall, so I should move.  I had been hypnotized by the three carat diamond stud earring in the drug boss's ear.  Then there was the young man on drugs who slept in the bus stop shelter until his lungs hemorrhaged, creating a twenty foot pool of blood on the sidewalk. It was days before the contracted bus shelter maintainers cleaned it up.  The shelter itself was architect-designed, a beautiful glass and bronze structure.  I saw that the celebration of a wonderful pocket garden in the ghetto had a dark side: the bushes made a perfect place for rape, just like Central Park.

By this time, I had a Lisa computer and impressed my mother by sending an internet message to my high school's principal, a black woman, and receiving an answer from her by return email.  I figured out how to contact a professor in Dillon who maintained a circle of Montana people, and started to send him an email, but ended up crying so much that I couldn't.


It was 1993.  It will take whole blog posts to explore the rest.  Reframing -- this is a "book."

Sunday, April 21, 2019

RESURRECTING THE STORY

This YouTube.com is the earliest and many say best version of the original "Jesus Christ, Super Star."  There are no images -- just sound -- and it lasts an hour and a half.  It might be pretty good background music if you are baking or dying eggs.  



No words today.

_______

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTct5PkNE2A

Sorry --  this version is better.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

HARROWING OF HELL

Christianity in its Medieval form, like Notre Dame and the other cathedrals built about that time, is a colorful mix of daily human experience and vivid imagery imagined according to doctrine.  I'd forgotten about the story for Holy Saturday until Stuart Somerville on Twitter posted a vivid rendition of naked people emerging from the gaping mouth of Hades, the entrance to Hell.  Jesus is there to extend a hand to all who went to hell through no fault of their own --including Adam.  This is a depiction of what is presumed to have happened on the Saturday between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  


Of course it is about what any compassionate and thoughtful Son would do.  Maybe you have a child with awakening moral sense who is asking (a lot of people have) "But if only people who know about and believe in Jesus can have eternal life, what about the people who lived before him, even LONG before him?"  I asked my snobbish old Presbyterian minister my question:  "What about people on other planets?  Do they get their own version of Jesus or do they get a Martian who is the Son of God?"  The minister walked off, looking grim.

This story is remembered by a website called "Churchpop" (great name!) which is Catholic, that tradition so big and baggy that it's possible to find all sorts of niches in it.  The thread of forgiveness is also in the idea of limbo and in Universalism, which became a whole denomination based on the forgiveness of God through Jesus.  These folk stories are sometimes ridiculous and sometimes fun.  The Islamic tradition has one about the birth of Jesus.  Mary is struggling with labor and Jesus speaks to her even as he is being born, saying, "Don't worry!  I'm a Son of God and He'll take care of us!"

The folk theology of the Medieval times was perfect for enacting by traveling troupes who used their wagons for stages in villages across Europe and Britain.  You might remember them from Ingmar Bergman's film, "The Seventh Seal", which mixes historical accounts with personal struggles and totally convincing images of Death playing chess with the Knight who struggles for our salvation in the abstract, while his squire more practically slips narcotics to a teenaged girl about to be burned alive as a witch.  I've always loved the final depiction of the ordinary/holy family which is the secret core of Christianity.  Deny the family trinity and the theology takes off into wild forays into particle physics or something.  The family survives culture variations.

The title of this particular folk/family story is "The Harrowing of Hell," and it's an agricultural image since that was what most people did in those days.  A harrow is a drawn-along piece of machinery with terrible sharp tines that rake the earth.  A harrowing experience is one of pain, sorting, and destruction, and should leave the victim with a new understanding of life.  In drama the human thirst for violence, sex, suffering and final redemption is given a kind of virtual reality.

This website is a nice discussion of the genre before theatre became some other kind of interpretation, maybe Shakespeare or Bergman.
https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/medieval-drama-and-the-mystery-plays  Even now "television" provides many examples of folk drama that address suffering and retribution.  The difference is that today in our stories we tend to celebrate violence and criminality.  Hell has a swinging door.


But then, Christianity has lost its punch for many of us.  The family is no longer fertility-based, occupations are no longer agricultural, and God is dead.  Some will say this is a proper harrowing of religion.  Others will say it's a "Saturday story," neither here nor there.

Friday, April 19, 2019

ENDARKENMENT

In Portland, OR, on every Good Friday in the Seventies the downtown big church ministers sponsored an "Endarkenment" service to prepare for Easter dawn.  One of the church sanctuaries had no windows, so as the story of crucifixion was acted out -- with Jesus speaking through a PA system -- the lights were turned off, one after the other.  When we were sitting in total darkness, we pondered in silence for long minutes before the lights came on and we went about our business.

The UU ministers were always a little nervous about the strand of religious dogma exploring "endarkenment," a word meant to counter "enlightenment" which is often used religiously to mean seeing the final truth.  Others use the trope of light/seeing/understanding to mark science as a higher form of understanding.  The science-honoring ministers joked about endarkenment, esp. the ones who suffered from it in their private lives, not knowing what to do about things like their own family wars.  Sometimes endarkenment is used to refer to the "dark arts" like witchcraft, magic, sorcery.  The Dark Web carried the meaning to secrecy, even the illegal.

Science as it stands does not replace the benign anthropomorphic old white king-on-a-throne with any idea as reassuring.  But if honest believers in "God" are real, they admit that the Old Testament's jealous punisher is more than a little bit Satanic.  

Someone recently said, when the news about the Notre Dame Cathedral fire was relieved by billionaires pledging enormous sums of money, "It makes one believe there is a God after all."  Someone less sentimental suggested that if there were a God who valued cathedrals, "he" would not have let the fire start.  Divine intervention has yet to be proven.  Others cried out, "So that's where all the money for the poor and suffering has been!  Billionaire's pockets!"

We want to reform, be reborn.  But it's difficult to envision what the future might be when it's not like us and we're not in it.  This vid linked below is a version of the vision according to one rather dark branch of scientific speculation.  It is not about salvation or humans.  But it is about participation by each of us in an abstract and strange way, too overwhelmingly dark to understand.


Before Jesus, a body of expectation was based on the idea of "The Christ" in a world of oppression by the mighty.  It pictured the Christ as a savior coming down out of the sky at the head of a legion of angel warriors who would end the Roman hegemony.  A lot of people still appreciate that idea.  But when Jesus, the humble kid in what appears to be a nightgown, finally showed up on foot with only twelve disciples, some insisted he was nevertheless the Christ.  His weapons were love and generosity: he didn't live by the prevailing rules.  He had more of an Asian idea, as in Buddhism, and some suggest that Jesus had followed the Silk Roads out to India where he learned these ideas.  They still haven't prevailed, but we are hopeful.


Others have made a home in the dark, accepting secrecy and anonymity as a way of finding peaceful safety, avoiding the glitter, the dazzle, the wealth.  Hopefully also escaping the Stigma Cross that crucifies those who aren't part of the wealth-pursuing world that makes the cross into crosshairs marking violence compelling obedience to some new oppression.  The key idea is that we are flesh, as was Jesus, but our ideas are invincible.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

THE NINTH GENERATION

In the years between 1492 and 1776, populations grew and crossed over in many ways, most commonly in liasons between European men and indigenous women.  Few mechanisms for recording them existed yet, except as the Catholic church kept records and devout individuals listed their family in their Bibles.  Thomas Conselor (1784-1853) who died as the Old Northwest of southern Michigan was filling up, dividing into thrifty farms along the streams.  

Because genealogists have ferreted out the records of wills, censuses, land assignments and sales, for nine generations -- begat by begat -- we know that Elisha Counselor (which might be spelled Counsellers or Councilors or a dozen other variations) had moved his branch of the family to Michigan.  Mitsawokett is a website that has accumulated and organized as much information as they could about that community and have named the individuals in each generation until the present.  Eventually, a descendant of Thomas Counselor married a descendent of Cyrus McCormick in Michigan, but as marriages and children continued, some in the present have lost both patristic names.  Perhaps some genes persisted.  If the causes of schizophrenia are genomic, this is not a happy possibility.

The Michigan Conselors are descended from Elisha, who could be a son of Benjamin, one of the first to be born in America.  Genealogists are like bird-watchers, obsessed with detail, exerting many efforts, keeping lists and theories,  always provisional, and not really affecting anything.  By the ninth generation the Conselors had met the industrial revolution.  The hard-working farmers were expanding their incomes and know-how by working in the Detroit and Lansing automobile factories capitalizing on Post-WWII hunger for cars, meeting the remnants of the war effort.  One of the ninth generation cleared a field to make a runway and bought a small airplane.  Inevitably, when he had the resources, he moved to California, rather than the New Northwest of Oregon and Washington.   In the nine generations the line of progenitors had reached from one coast to the other.  They had a provenance proving descent. 

The story goes that the first, or at least a very early Conselor was a French pirate. Besides being part of the Lenape complex of indigenous people, at least part of the family was more properly Metis.  Others say that the first Conselor was Spanish.  Mitsewokett was under "Indian control" when that first single man -- however one spells the name and whether or not he was a pirate -- first settled there.  He married an "Indian".  The next generation all married "Indians."  What lures the researchers on through successions is the usual assortment of scandals, murders, small fortunes, and occasional flares of genius and madness, not counting a small number of religious leaders.  But that small tendril of the family line didn't release their hold on the small farm along the pleasant stream until very recently, abiding through the generations.

My Twitter feed includes many tribal people from the North and West in Canada.  At this moment at least a few of them are very intense about blood quantum and their status with the Canadian government as well as the Provinces, which have much more control than States.  International corporations, of course, dominate nations.  In spite of the RCMP's story, things get lawless when distances are immense, and powerful international corporations will do almost anything to prevent interference with their hunger for resources.   Values that are present in the laws are deeply based on British assumptions.  For centuries the whole West half of Canada, though called "Rupert's Land," was essentially the fiefdom of the Hudson's Bay Company which had a mercantile goal.

The identities of the indigenous people on the entire continent were heavily influenced by concepts convenient to slavery, which carried over to the native people as though there were some definitive and universal law about the nature of genetics separating everyone into races.  The idea of culture as also being a trajectory that controls both identity and law was  near-religious in the sense of being a matter of faith in something untrue, rejecting challenge.

Species are separated (until recently) as a matter of definition, meaning inability to cross-breed.  All humans as races can easily (sometimes a little too easily) mix with other races.  This is evident but denied by the cultures.  It is also the key to evolutionary fitness as the environment varies from pleasant to challenging, often unexpectedly.  Only some can cope.

The identities of individuals are created by the pushing of the genome against the resistance and forming of the environment.  Often hard times are the origin of hard people, or at least those resourceful enough to find new ways to live.  It's not a matter of magic, neither things nor stories and songs.  But we rejoice in these familiar things.  Wanting to keep them alive is a near sacred trust.  Even pirates have their uses.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

ALONG A PLEASANT STREAM IN MICHIGAN

In the mid 19th century, the general population's fancy was caught by what was called the Old Northwest in Southern Michigan.  My paternal grandmother's family was part of that.  Beulah Swan Finney Strachan.  I'm told Swan is a common Metis name. 


My grandmother as a teenager

In a country largely based on agriculture, the land was valuably fertile because of the many streams that ran through the hardwood forests.  In those early days the homeland still belonged to the Odawa Indians.  In 1833 a well-connected man named Samuel Dexter, Jr. arrived from the East with associates and the tribe sold their crops to them, then moved to the Flat River.  In 1850 they were relocated to Oceana County to be part of the larger Ojibwa domain there.

The white people thought of themselves as the only race present, but my grandmother spoke of walking with her mother from one farm to another on a woods trail and meeting a small group of indigenous men.  They were respectful and moved to the side.  One was heard to say, "Woman heap brave."  That story is probably apocryphal to some degree.  But "Indians" soon learned to be invisible and to find quiet corners that were safe.

The rich soil was contributed by rivers overflowing their banks.  Remnant feral "Indian" corn persisted years afterwards and plowing turned up pink quartz artifacts.  Game thrived but most people only kept domestic livestock for their own use.  The stability and prosperity of the area supported education and real achievement in the next generation.

"The Treaty of Detroit was a treaty between the United States and the Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandot and Potawatomi Native American nations. The treaty was signed at Detroit, Michigan on November 17, 1807, with William Hull, governor of the Michigan Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs, the sole representative of the U.S." (Wikipedia)

The most prominent tribal leader through these times was  Cobmoosa (1768 -1866) AKA Weebmossa.  It means "Great Walker".  He seems to have been Metis, the son of Antoine Campau and the usual "Indian princess." (But there were half-a-dozen additional wives.)  Cobmoosa said of his half-French father, he "espoused the cause of liberty with the Americans and remained firm to the end."  Cobmoosa was considered "majestic and eloquent."  For a while he ran a trading post and then later a grocery store, much respected, and died at age 98.  After his death a fancy Victorian declamation called "Cobmoosa's Lament " was published in the Grand Rapids Eagle in 1854.  It is the familiar sad and sentimental essay, written by Alden Jewell.  I know nothing about descendants.  The citizens named a town for him (Cobmoosa, MI) and erected a modest monument.

Returning to the man who displaced Cobmoosa's original camp, remember Dexter?  Descended from him was a totally different kind of person.  Among Dexter's descendants was Katherine Dexter McCormick, an MIT graduate with a BS in biology, the second female graduate.  She married a son of Cyrus McCormick, who had invented the McCormick reaper.  The son was not so famous but because of his father he was wealthy.  It turned out to be Katherine Dexter McCormick who became justifiably famous.  She was a distinguished researcher in biochemistry and schizophrenia. She had no children, which may have been deliberate or merely fortunate, since her husband and his sister were diagnosed and hospitalized schizophrenics.  Maybe this is why she almost single-handedly paid for the development of the contraceptive pill and pushed for the 19th amendment that allowed women to vote.  She co-founded the League of Women Voters.  In a society that puts a woman in the hands of her husband, no matter his circumstances, these are vital safeguards.

Dr. McCormick had no descendants but remained close to the collateral family.  As she grew older, she lived in California near the clinic where her husband and his sister were patients.   But back in Michigan she bought Dexter Hall where Samuel Dexter had lived.  The house was believed to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.  "Millisent Dexter employed a string of Black servants, all of whom were recent arrivals and none of whom stayed long."  The house had many secret rooms in the basement.  The house went through several owners, including the University of Michigan and then the Methodists.

Though such things as mental illness and liberal politics don't always persist through generations of descendants, sometimes they do.  Besides biological inheritance, there is a kind of cultural heritage.  When combined with the hard work and caution of a local prosperous farming people, culture can become a powerful force.  Ag people are impressed by the name McCormick because of the combination reaper/hauler he invented, but he was only Dr. Katharine McCormick's father-in-law.  Those who really "know" are more impressed by Katherine Dexter McCormick herself whose work almost caused a cultural runaway in the Sixties and Seventies.  Her financing of the Pill and her work to liberate women, combined with her biochemical knowledge in general and pressing interest in schizophrenia, would have put her in the middle of things.  She didn't die until 1967.

So -- a lady doctor and an "Indian Chief" are legitimate examples of American rootstock and achievement.  They don't overlap in time, but they occupied the same rich soil along the pleasant leafy streams of Michigan when it was the Old Northwest.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

PARIS IS BURNING

First smoke and then fire bloomed in the middle of Paris.  It was a terrifying, fast-moving spectacle with the mystic overtones of a Turner painting as the whole top of the Cathedral filled the sky with brightness, engulfing the spire.

The three young men -- little more than boys -- stood together apart from the rest of the crowd gaping and exclaiming at the burning Cathedral of Notre Dame.  Most people were watching through the peepholes of their phone cameras, but the boys were confronting the flames without devices.  Normally photographers, they wanted this to be raw, direct.  The blonde one had hair to his waist, the red-headed Irishman had a braid down his back, and the American Indian had a -- well -- a Mohawk.  All three were jingling and creaking in full leathers, as iconic and universal as jeans.  The ruddy light reflected in the metal details of their jackets.

People carefully moved a little distance from the three, except one small boy who stood his ground, wide-eyed, as much entranced by the striking men as he was by the burning cathedral -- though to be fair, he was too short to really see the fire past the other buildings and the people and no one thought to hold him up.

All three boys were remembering a dawn mass they had attended some time ago.  They were not religious, except for the Irishman, and maybe he didn't really count because his devotion was really for the building, a stone mass so impressive that itself was worth near-worship.  It was almost too much mass to be called architecture, almost geology. The two friends -- but not compatriots -- came along out of support for their traditionally faithful friend, whom they subjected to a lot of teasing about his attachment and investment in a Catholic monumentality housing relics.  (Crown of thorns!  Imagine that!)

Normally they appreciated the cavern of the cathedral interior.  They made no trouble.  A pair of workmen were up ladders to one side but they didn't stop work when the Mass began, because in the manner of cathedrals the space was so big that no one interfered with anyone else.  But for the men this had been an insulting visit.  They had heaved open the great doors as usual, their boots struck stone as they walked to a back pew in the dim light, and then the little gaggle of old ladies in black up in the front painfully revolved their necks to scowl at them.  They muttered among themselves.  The priest who had been monitoring, a young man, went to see what it was about.  Then he came to the trio.

"Of course, everyone is welcome here," he said in a conciliatory voice.  "But I must ask you to leave and come back to a later mass.  The grandmothers are afraid of you and think you disturb the atmosphere.  They cannot properly worship with you here."  They hadn't argued, but it only added to their contempt for religion, propriety, and the stubborn privileging of the old.  The incident had destroyed one of their few places of safety.  Didn't they call it sanctuary?


Standing where they could see, they watched the fire consuming the cathedral with mixed feelings.  The redhead's large Celtic cross earring slid across his shoulder as he said to the others, "The fall of the spire -- think it was a phallic symbol?"

The blonde lifted his fall of hair away from his neck, revealing an ear cuff and a necklace.  "Not. Buildings are female."

"Be serious," admonished the native American.  "This is a holocaust, a terrible conflagration."  He paused for a moment.  "On the other hand, the Catholic missionaries and the French armies destroyed the indigenous culture's world just as cruelly.  People as well."

"This is not the first time this Cathedral has been attacked.  It has burned before.  It will rebuild." The Irishman looked around at the crowd.  "They'll all donate."


"STOP!   STOP WRITING THIS!"

Writer: Wha . . .!   Who's talking?'

Trio:  We are!  You're just using us.  You made us up so you can say what YOU think without admitting that it's you.  You weren't there.  You aren't us. We are NOT chess pieces to be pushed around.

Writer:  Sorry.  But you're fiction.  

Trio:  Just make sure your readers know that.  You're a hoax, a fraud, a person who just makes things up!  A fabulist.

Writer:  I know.  I admit it.  What's wrong with it?  It's what writers do! Even as I write, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is being consumed by fire, probably an accident.  Is there anything more preposterous, more extreme, more lamentable than that?  How can I convey it without exaggeration, a little narrative. 

"MAYBE.  WE'RE READING. BE CAREFUL."

There was a tug on the hand of one of the young men.  "Mister?"

"Shouldn't you be speaking French?" the handsome young man asked the boy.

"Oui.  Monsieur, voulez-vous me lever? Je ne peux pas voir. Je veux voir le feu."

"Do it.  He will tell his grandchildren."

"Oui."  He lifted the boy to his shoulder.

"C'est magnifique!"  He made his hands into binoculars.

The boys began to laugh.  It was better than crying.

Monday, April 15, 2019

FRYBREAD ON A STICK

Recently there was a frybread debate on Twitter, though at first the only distinction made about frybread was that some people treated it as a sweet with honey or maple syrup and others treated it as a savory.  Having thought about all this before (an advantage of being old) I pointed out that frybread, rather than being unique to North American indigenous people, was widespread under many names.  There are ethnic names in many languages all over Europe and even in Asia, and in the Americas folk names like squaw bread or elephant ears.  

All frybread is wheat dough made to rise from baking powder or yeast like traditional baked breads, but fried instead.  But bannock is said to be unleavened, a "flat" bread, like Scots scones.  Instead of being fried in deep fat or oil, the dough might be stuck to a frying pan that can be hung next to an open fire to bake.  The most ingenious way to bake "frybread" is wound around a branch and held over an open fire bed of coals, the way skewered meat can be cooked.

Going to continental origin basics, in the beginning North America had neither wheat for flour nor cast iron frying pans for frying dough.  The North American foods were corn (ground into flour or meal), squash and beans -- the Three Sisters of the Mandan group at the head of the Mississippi -- plus tomatoes, potatoes and fruits of various kinds, mostly berries.  There was rice.  Preservation was mostly done by drying.  I could live happily on this diet!  And how could I survive without chocolate and coffee, both American.  (Nicotine is not a food.  Do NOT eat it!)

Wheat was developed from wild grass in Europe.  Making flour was first mechanized by tethered donkeys or oxen walking in a circle to make two big stones grind the grain heads into powder.  Cows produced butter and pigs produced lard, both good for flour products.  Modern "healthy" oils didn't exist.

But the main food impact missing from the Americas was the use of fermentation to be leavening.  Nor even baking powder.  Their breads, even after the importation of wheat, were flat breads like tortillas, so they tended to treat even risen flour dough as though it were a flat bread, merely fried what the yeast puffed up.  I don't know anyone who fries flat bread but there are recipes online.

Europe was very interested in fermentation, not least because it was the means of creating drinking alcohol.  Beer, wine, whiskey, risen bread, cheese, olives, pickles, yogurt, are all foods still popular.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki Fermentation_in_food_processing  
 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-cheese-wheat-and-alcohol-shaped-human-evolution-180968455/

Salting food to preserve it was also popular.  It would have been popular among game-eaters, since wild meat is short on saltiness and fat.  The animals themselves love both.  

In the age of long-distance sailing where people had nothing to eat but salted meat and moldy hardtack, long trips were literally deadly, though in later years there was investigation into other foods that could be carried for weeks.  Maybe fermented cabbage: sauerkraut.  Scurvy meant special importance to anything that had Vitamin C.  I don't think anyone ever hit on the Vitamin C in candy for sailing ships, but a study of the Blackfeet found that children had high levels of Vitamin C from candy.  Neither did the sailors know about pemmican: pounded together berries, fat and meat that is a complete food.  It could have saved lives.

Africa is the origin of sweet potato, cooking banana (plantain), cassava, peanut, common bean, peppers, eggplant, and cucumber.  Some basic commodities are so specialized in origin and appeal -- like sago palm pulp -- that they can support small populations but are never exported.  New Guinea is where sago palm was developed.  It is a desperation borderline food in a very inhospitable place where people live in jungle clearings on the ridges between valleys.  By contrast, the prairie herds of bison were a nutritious source of both food and shelter.  The People were big and vigorous.

Food production and consumption is a huge topic full of politics, distribution economics, and war -- since famine is the ultimate weapon.  Since eating is the first thing a newborn does, its very source of life is deep within us.  Attachment to the experience of eating is passionate.  The first foods are never forgotten and become part of religious and social life.  Only after the ability to experiment and travel to new settings do most people willingly eat strange foods.

At the folk level, which is what most people think of, the family's food is considered the best and the community supplies all the variety a child wants.  As adults, food is a matter of patriotic identity.  At a sophisticated level, even an organic chemistry level, food is still vitally interesting, but maybe unfamiliar and order-breaking.  The people indigenous to North America who could not have eaten risen bread fried or baked will claim that frybread is their traditional food and try to keep it privileged over other people's versions of what to eat.  They give frybread pet names and even crave it.


No one offers frybread as Christian Communion nor should they, since it is celebrated as a flat bread.  Those who bake risen bread for Communion are anachronistic, but also European.  Passover and Lent avoid the luxury of fermented dough, however cooked.  Food is rarely logical, but often historic.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS

Over time I've been obsessed by how different the world looks to different groups, how they got that way, and why I'm myself.  Some of this comes from WWII when we were facing adversaries just like ourselves (the US is still as much German as English, if not more) and as different as possible (Japan).  Most of this came out in fiction writing.  In the seventh grade I wrote a little playlet for my class to perform.  Melva Edwards was supposed to be a daughter of a Japanese family who danced to entertain visitors.  I didn't really know how or whether that was done and neither did Melva, but I told her, "Just pretend."

That's the actor's way of understanding other people: get inside them and pretend.  Or maybe it's more accurate to say get them inside you and feel.  Anyway, it will drive you nuts to do that with everyone and some will make you sick.  (Imagine Gannon inhabiting you!)  So I've followed a few groups designated by society, at first thinking of them as grist for the fiction mill, but gradually becoming more and more absorbed by what makes them a group, how individuals solve the relationship with the group as well as the larger society, and what they can say to the larger society.

The groups, as I've said before, include Blackfeet, Unitarian Universalists, animal control, the cusp of agriculture becoming industrial revolution and then globalizing.  Groups I watch are my cohorts in the theatre at NU as the Fifties became Sixties, homesteaders on the prairies, in the Willamette Valley, and in 19th century Michigan esp along rivers and at the Dunes.  The choices just happened.  I didn't plan them.  One of them that I don't talk about much is boys who do sexwork for survival.

One of the first things I learned was that the groups were sometimes organically formed, like my own family enchained by genes and searching for economic safety.  One of the second things I learned was not to believe what the larger society assigned them, sometimes by scholarship from academic anthropologists.  Third, it is not necessarily the reality (whatever that is -- mostly ecology and politics) that controls lives as much as fantasy does.  

One of the most powerful dynamics is the notion that those anthros who showed up in fair weather went back home to write books made a lot of money -- because they captured precious hidden material from the local indigenous people.  In fact, the anthros were often blind to how much had been imposed by overriding culture.  They never made much money from books.  Books only sell because they fulfill expectations, so "The Education of Little Tree" written by a man full of Nazi sentiments, is still in print.  Many more authentic works are gone.  It isn't the writing -- it's the business of publishing which responds to readers rather than writers, and then imposes the expectations of readers on the writers.  But the webworks of system connections, chits to be called in, powerful relatives, and access to venture capital is also effective.  We don't know what the internet will do to all this.

Another mercilessly romanticized group -- at the same time as being stigmatized -- is boys who do sexwork.  The best way to understand them is to discount the sex part of it altogether.  No matter the appetite for backdoor sex -- far more widespread than we thought -- larger forces like the disintegration of families, the phobias about homosexuality, economic shifts that remove jobs for young people, and the disintegration of cities leaving an ecology of ruined warehouses, rail lines, and manufacturing plants standing open over ruined machines.  Empty houses, barely habitable, make niches for interstitial humans as well as raccoons, opossums, and dog packs.  Our culture generates enough garbage to feed the sidewalk people.

The SW's form a gamut from bony starving little boys on the street to near rock-stars, sought out and demanding big fees so they live well and stay attractive.  The intrusion of violence is a reflection of the larger culture which values the ability to inflict violence and likes to think about it in a double-toxic porn that the larger culture enjoys in fiction and non-reader's videos.

Boys grow up.  Older boys are more able to cope and may move into less arduous ways to make money or they might be hooked on drugs used to numb sex and violence or without medical care they might just die.  But they will be different from mainstream people.  Even cleaned up, taught manners and speaking nicely, dressing well, and the rest of the facade we count on to evaluate people, their inner structure will be different.

Culture and communal identity are taught during menarche, an understudied time when the human body is affected by the adrenal glands beginning to add sexual impulses.  Usually the age is 9 to 12.  This is the age span favored by many predators because the boy is responsive but controllable.  But there is something else happening, which is the growing brain.  The system loops that experience teaches the brain, the gut, and the heart are forming.  One key connection, the myelinated third vagus nerve, forms a kind of presentation screen of the face and upper chest (heart and lungs) that makes the person's thought visible. Until the child learns a poker face, an observant person can see their emotional life as it happens.  This can be key to attracting sex customers and pleasing them.  We call it empathy.

Alongside being apparent to others, the child learns to read another person's emotions.  Some were raised in families with violent alcoholic parents so that they became supersensitive to the approach of attack and skillful at turning them aside with distractions or placating.  This makes them challenging candidates for "therapy" in which some supposedly healthy person tries to form a bond and use it to change behavior in people who have learned to be covert and suspicious.  But it also suits them for their work.

Often these young people hate themselves, internalizing stigma, and have no awareness that their own growth might make everything different.  But they crave intimacy as an endorsement and if they are attached, they are obsessively intense about it.  Yet, they've been rejected and betrayed so much that they move on because "that's the way the world is."  This is not so different from the main culture.


What surprised me and justified my interest was their persistent questions about religion and morality.  The old tropes didn't work -- what other forms are there?  I tried to answer that question.  It's not sugar-coated.  It is powered by the fabulous discoveries by science.  Sometimes I'm awed by what I can only call the boys' noble courage.  But they need to stay secret to avoid status quo stigma meant to control them, maybe eliminate them.