Sunday, December 31, 2006


It’s taking me a long time to look back over the year to recall events, much less decide whether they were good or bad and whether I ought to change my strategies. As far as writing goes, I’ve made steady progress -- or so it seems. But there were surprises, some of them close to derailments.

The hardest is the most recent, my brother surfacing in major distress, only to disappear again, and my other brother reacting as though this were all my fault. I had occasion to call several cousins, reminding me how different we all are, how opposite our goals can be.

My diabetes 2 diagnosis was shortly after Christmas last year -- in fact, I joked that it was “Christmas diabetes” caused by over-ingestion of chocolate, which was the bulk of the gifts to me. This year there was no chocolate, but two very long-time friends got so angry at me -- partly because they misunderstood or wouldn’t tolerate my near-belligerent defense of myself -- that we may have broken the links between us. They are still stuck in the idea that diabetes is simply a matter of being a little pig for sugar and that there’s no such thing as a diet that can’t be abused or ignored now and then. In fact, even my friend here in Valier who has the same diagnosis and restrictions that I do, still doesn’t realize that this is different. This is not something small and personal -- it’s not even reservation-wide or national. Diabetes is a worldwide pandemic that has hit us while we were all fussing around about bird flu. Personally, I don’t even think it can be explained by transfats and lack of exercise. I think something quite sinister is going on, perhaps a virus and perhaps a reaction to a change in our environment that we may have put there ourselves. Were you as surprised as I by the number of ordinary household objects that contain the same radioactive element that poisoned the Russian spy? Polonium?

Both the pharmaceutical and insurance industries have seized hard on diabetes and no doubt will escalate their interference. They are not interested in finding the causes, only selling us drugs, prosthetic feet and “diabetes counselors,” as well as creating many rules disqualifying diabetics and fat people from jobs. There are dire predictions about the impact on Medicare.

Clearly it was time for me to -- not diet! -- change the way I eat. Luckily, I had been moving towards it for years and, in fact, was raised on basic local foods and (truly!) walked two miles twice a day to high school -- sometimes four times a day. It wasn’t until I left Browning that I really gained weight. Now again I can wear all the clothes I wore as a minister in the Eighties. I expect to lose forty pounds more. I’m pleased that my skin is mostly elastic enough that I’m not entirely swags and bags. (I joke that my "double chin" has become a "pleated throat.") But my sense of myself is quite different. I’m on guard all the time. Sometimes I feel more withered and hollow than simply reduced. I’ve always thought I was tough, a survivor. No more.

The new awareness is that my chemistry (blood sugar, blood pressure) is constantly fluctuating through the day and that it reacts strongly to sadness, anger, grief, disappointment, and happiness. It appears that there is a strong tie-in between the autonomic nervous system (the one that sort of corresponds to a subconscious) and the endocrine system. Well, we knew that. But we didn’t know that in diabetics the ends of stressed pain nerves wrap around the Isles of Langerhans, the insulin-makers, and throttle them.

Who am I, this sack of flesh that doesn’t ask me what to do -- just does its own thing? I’m not the only one asking. Everywhere I see articles asking, “What is consciousness?” And how does one relate to community that is almost entirely food-focussed? Christmas feast, New Year’s party, come over for lunch, let’s bake cookies, can we take you to dinner... I keep saying I’m afraid I’ll find that, without knowing it, I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t. Everyone thinks that’s pretty funny. Would they think that if I were talking about alcohol or cigarettes?

This is the year my bio of Bob was actually accepted by a respected academic press. Clyde, who upgraded all my old photos to usable quality, says he has much confidence in the production values of the team now working on the manuscript. All summer there was a major exhibit of Bob’s bronzes at the Royal Alberta Museum, which kindly invited Helene DeVicq to the opening. Doug MacFie, the Clan Master for the MacFies in Canada, says that Bob’s great-uncles scattered across the prairie provinces and I will begin trying to locate the descendants. I’m thinking that Alberta may be a better destination for my small archives than the Montana Historical Society, which stonewalls me.

This is also the year I finished writing “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” and put it on the market through, print-on-demand. It can be bought through any bookstore, including Amazon and Powells, and is on listed Google in German and Japanese! I have confidence that as I do more publicity, as people write reviews, the book will begin to take hold and snowball. I’ll put more books on, many of them of only limited interest, as I work through digesting my father’s photo albums. It lifts the cost off my shoulders and is available even to people I don’t know. Clan Strachan has reconvened and accepted for their archives my manuscript of “Homestead Strachans on the Prairie.” I will still be looking for publishers.

This was a big year for blogging. gets about a thousand hits a week. (For comparison, many books are published in a printing of a thousand copies.) When I was posting stories about being an animal control officer in Portland in the Seventies, I acquired quite a few new readers. The blog community, at least my part of it, is just my speed -- of course, it’s self-selected! Librarians, constant readers, naturalists, archeologists, geneticists, eclectic essayists and grumpy old guys in England. Not at all the shock gossips that the media portrays.

Soon I’ll begin to address my religious materials: the Blackfeet ceremonial bundle, my pastoral care experience, and a manuscript I call “Circuit-Riding,” which is about the nature of congregations and ministers, essentially groping for a theory of community “grounded in place.” There seems to be a high interest in what might be called “the anthropology of religion,” which was my focus at the U of Chicago. I’ve gathered material for a Guide to the Blackfeet Reservation and am sending queries. So my writing agenda is full-to-bursting and going well.

My house is aging faster than I am, though we were both created in the Thirties. The pickiup had to be resurrected -- luckily we have a gifted mechanic in town -- and my teeth are next in line. More money had better come in soon. The yard is still offensive to the neighbors, but I begin to see a bit of understanding developing in my own mind about just what I’m doing with it anyway. These last few weeks I’ve actually been sorting and filing boxes of materials I’ve carried with me for many years.

Maybe the hardest New Year’s Resolution to make is simply “carry on as before.” A new idea might be energizing -- the confirmation of an old one reassuring. But I simply don’t know where all this is going. I love the house, the cats, the computer, the way the light moves across the yard and through the trees. I guess that’s enough.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Not everyone has held a polar bear head in their lap. I have. Luckily for me, the actual bear was not present. I was holding a polar bear rug.

One of my jobs in the early days with Bob Scriver in the Sixties was to put the backings and edgings on bear rugs. In fact, with local bears that we mounted, I also had the task of cutting a gusset in the tanned bearhide armpits so the hide would lie flat and then dyeing the remaining relatively hairless area (in that respect bears are the opposite of humans) with alcohol tinted with shoe polish to blend with the fur.

Bob mounted the heads -- one does not say “stuffed,” and anyway the skin is mounted on an empty papier mache form -- and then tacked the hide out flat on the “bear table” (two pieces of plywood side-by-side, so 8’X8’) to dry. When they were ready for edges, I cut felt (green and gold) strips and scalloped the edges with a little tool that clamped to the edge of the table and worked by turning a handle. Then I climbed up on the table alongside the tidily folded bears and rolls of felt and spent long hours pleasantly while I sewed the edges onto the hides, turned them over to cut out their silhouettes in the gray backing, and then went back around the edge to sew the backing to the felt. Most bears, even grizzlies, fit on that bear table.

The polar bear, mounted by someone else, had been a rug for enough years to need new backing and felt edging, in its case, blue and white. It was way too big for the bear table. I took it out to the studio-residence and spread it out on the carpeted floor where it covered the entire twenty foot square area. We looked at it a long time, petted the rather yellow fur, looked at the molded face and glass eyes, rubber tongue, plastic teeth -- tried to imagine meeting this monster out in the dark snow of the Arctic.

A grizzly can’t help echoing a teddy bear a bit, but a polar bear -- though it is believed to have evolved from grizzlies -- has a sly, ravenous, flattened look about it. The most sympathetic photos show cubs, all fluffy and button-eyed. I used to know a polar bear in the Portland Zoo back in the Forties and Fifties when barred cages kept the animals in and a simple pipe railing kept the humans just a bit more than an arm’s length away. One day I found the lion sleeping with one long leg thrust through the bars and stroked the top of his paw. He woke with a start and stared at me in amazement. I often shook hands with the monkeys. But the polar bear cage was wrapped in extra heavy mesh wire. An admiring little boy had approached too closely and been swept against the bars by the bear, whose paws were so strong and jaws were so clever that even through the bars the boy was killed and partly eaten.

That bear had only one pipe dripping into a shallow cement pond. Now the polar bears are behind heavy glass that also sides a proper pool where they can plunge and cruise to an imitation ice floe, like the ones they depend upon as rafts and decoys for hunting -- done so cleverly that they hide their black noses with their paws. We’re told that their fur is not actually white but rather clear like fiber-optical filaments that carry messages. The fur conducts light to their skin so that they can make enough Vitamin D to store it through the six month winter. If you ever hunt a polar bear, remember not to eat its liver, which has enough Vitamin D to kill you.

Polar bears probably evolved from grizzlies because of climate change when the planet glaciated -- not so long ago that they can’t still crossbreed with grizzlies. Already good salmon catchers and not at all afraid of water, the animals gradually learned to catch seals and to swim longer distances. The darker ones died out and the bodies streamlined until the bear looked quite different. There is not enough time for them to make more adaptations before climate change catches up with them. The grizzlies are not yet affected by the thaw and will resent intruders.

I once talked about global warming with a professional geologist, a crusty old fellow who said in no uncertain terms that we are in the NORMAL last stages of a retreat of polar glaciers that began ten thousand years ago, stimulating humans to develop agriculture, cities, and all the resulting consequences -- including industrialization and the production of greenhouse gases. If the political right has refused to even admit that global warming happens, the left has refused to admit that even if we subdue our own contributions, the planet will still keep warming -- no one knows how long. Until it begins to glaciate again. The only safe prediction is change. We are not in control, though we may have a little influence and ought to use it for our own sake.

The human population of the Arctic, as dependent on ice and permafrost as any polar bear, has already begun changes that will slowly erode and then eliminate their culture as it is today. Culture and climate go hand-in-hand to form the substrate of life that sustains all humans, varying from one place to another, from one time to another. Easy to say “change,” if you don’t have to give up the place where you’ve always lived, the foods and songs and clothing you’ve considered part of yourself. Will we be more gracious than grizzly bears when the Inuit move south?

The polar bears are already resorting to cannibalism and drowning at sea because of having no ice floe resting places. The effect on humans may become just as destructive unless we become both more resilient and more generous with each other, weaving a meta-culture to sustain nations. Perhaps this is the logical next step in the human changes that caused the first farmer to pick up a hoe. Still, I grieve for that polar bear whose massive head overwhelmed my lap, while I am grateful that I knew even a bear who wasn’t really there.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


About this time of year, decades ago, my brothers and I -- little kids -- were in southern Oregon, where my cousins lived on family ranches. The highlight of the entire visit was going up through the uncut forest to see one of Steve Solovich’s caches. Solovich was a WWII captive who refused to believe that the war was over, so he lived as a fugitive in the dripping forest, making himself little shelters under half-downed logs or in tangles of debris. They were very hard to find and usually contained little more than metal drums of deer meat, salted or dried, his reserves in case hunting went bad. Ukrainian or Polish, he had had enough experience in “wilderness” to take care of himself.

Two quirks made people uneasy. One was a taste for milk. He would sometimes slip into a cow barn to help himself direct from the cow. The other was that he was fascinated by television. Sometimes at night one would get an eerie feeling and realize that Steve was outside watching over your shoulder through the window. No one worried about his rifle, but when he decided it was too hard to clear his summer bean patches with tools alone and began to steal sticks of dynamite, the authorities determined to go bring him in. In that country there are lots of hounds and varmint-hunters, so it wasn’t too hard.

Sorting through papers, I came across the packet of newspaper clips my aunt sent me in the Fifties with the thought that I would write them into a story, which I never did. But the tale has a sharper edge for me now. In the eighties, as an adult teaching college classes, my brother took a bad fall and landed on his forehead. When he regained consciousness, he did not seek medical help but went to my mother’s where he remained until 1998 when she died. He said he couldn’t work, though he seemed unhurt. His mind was different. He could not grasp that he couldn’t go on living in the house because we sold it in order to split the estate three ways.

His third paid rent for a few years. Then he tried living in his truck. In the town where he was, he said a community of Vietnam-era veterans parked together at night in a gravel pit -- for community and protection. The law left them alone unless they drank and/or fought. Finally he went to my aunt’s ranch where one slightly younger cousin was taking care of his aging parents. When the parents died, the cousin who was the main inheritor ordered my brother off. He went back to living in his truck but didn’t keep in touch, had no mailing address. By this time he was in his late fifties and I had moved to Montana again. My small house and tiny budget could not accommodate a second person and, anyway, he hates cold.

Now it comes out that he’d begun to think like Steve Solovich: we are at war, we cannot trust the government, one must stay hidden at all times. He surfaced just before Christmas in an emergency ward ICU with a major heart attack. Transferred to a VA hospital (he was a Marine for three years but was not in combat), he discharged himself. He did not complete the recommended testing, took only a small amount of meds with him, and left a bogus forwarding address. He’s old enough for Social Security, qualifies for both disability and VA help, but never completes any interview. If pressed, he spins a tale about being a sort of American James Bond undercover and is so convincing that he leaves the interviewer -- usually a young woman -- gape-jawed. When I make contact and try to supply facts, my other brother objects -- what if his stories are true? Can I prove they’re not?

The VA is used to this -- they have hundreds of people on the street, unwilling to say where they’re from, who should be contacted in the event of a crisis, or where they can be reached. The Iraq/Iran conflicts mean many of them are quite a lot younger. They don’t take their meds, so mental confusion is common, and the relatives who try to find them are now stymied by the recent medical privacy laws. They mix with illegal immigrants, whose ethic is secrecy and avoidance but protection of the hurt and elderly. And they are accepted by the counterculture, who live under the IRS radar. Many Vietnam vets found refuge on Indian reservations where people don’t ask, “Where do you live?” but rather “where do you stay?” All these groups and more are united by distrust of government bureaucracy.

I myself am refusing help with my gas bill because in order to qualify for help I would have to surrender to some mysterious body my bank statements for a year, my medical records, all evidence of investments or other income, etc. This information would be useful to certain people in this county, either politically or from a financially predatory point of view. There is no wall between county officials and private businesses.

Someone remarked to me, probably a rancher struggling with government regulations and restrictions, “It’s a helluva note when you can’t trust your own government.” A ninety-year-old Basque rancher from eastern Montana said on the radio last night that he sure wished we could go back to the old days when a man’s word was his bond. He knew it was a lost world and worked mostly because people stayed in one place, survived by being trustworthy within the community, and agreed on goals anyway. Family was still strong.

All this about my brother wouldn’t bite so hard if my own strategy hadn’t been to keep a low profile, maintain a modest lifestyle, and retire early to write. I was beginning to worry that I’d put off writing until I wouldn’t have enough mental grip, but now I find that the problem is not me -- it is that the publishing industry is in major trouble, reconfiguring and simply evaporating on all sides in ways no one expected. It would be nearly impossible to get writing published the old-fashioned way. (But it is an absolute snap for me to publish on this blog or even to create Print-on-Demand books.)

These days Steve Solovich couldn’t live in the forest because it is cut. The parts that are far enough away from ranches are full of drug dealers, marijuana growers and meth labs. One must be careful of illegal immigrant mushroom gatherers. “Wilderness” is globalized and the bears are replaced by human predators.

Solovich ended his days confined in a VA hospital. It did not please him, in spite of all the milk and television. I have no idea whether any family was ever located -- they may have been dead. I have no idea where my brother is. But at least I know he was alive this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006



Diabetes breakthrough
Toronto scientists cure disease in mice

Tom Blackwell
National Post
Friday, December 15, 2006

In a discovery that has stunned even those behind it, scientists at a Toronto hospital say they have proof the body's nervous system helps trigger diabetes, opening the door to a potential near-cure of the disease that affects millions of Canadians. Diabetic mice became healthy virtually overnight after researchers injected a substance to counteract the effect of malfunctioning pain neurons in the pancreas...

They also conclude that there are far more similarities than previously thought between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, and that nerves likely play a role in other chronic inflammatory conditions, such as asthma and Crohn's disease. ... The problems stem partly from inflammation -- and eventual death -- of insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas.

Dr. Dosch had concluded in a 1999 paper that there were surprising similarities between diabetes and multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease. His interest was also piqued by the presence around the insulin-producing islets of an "enormous" number of nerves, pain neurons primarily used to signal the brain that tissue has been damaged. Suspecting a link between the nerves and diabetes, he and Dr. Salter used an old experimental trick -- injecting capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot chili peppers, to kill the pancreatic sensory nerves in mice that had an equivalent of Type 1 diabetes.

"Then we had the biggest shock of our lives," Dr. Dosch said. Almost immediately, the islets began producing insulin normally ... It turns out the nerves secrete neuropeptides that are instrumental in the proper functioning of the islets. Further study by the team, which also involved the University of Calgary and the Jackson Laboratory in Maine, found that the nerves in diabetic mice were releasing too little of the neuropeptides, resulting in a "vicious cycle" of stress on the islets.

So next they injected the neuropeptide "substance P" in the pancreases of diabetic mice, a demanding task given the tiny size of the rodent organs. The results were dramatic. The islet inflammation cleared up and the diabetes was gone. Some have remained in that state for as long as four months, with just one injection....

While pain scientists have been receptive to the research, immunologists have voiced skepticism at the idea of the nervous system playing such a major role in the disease.

This was one of those announcements that makes a person say, “Oh, that just makes SO much sense!” And then, “Capsaicin? The ingredient in bear repellant spray?” But then, “Well, what about the people who say they can quiet stomach ulcers with capsaicin?” Or “how does that hot rub-on stuff work anyway?”

Ever since my diagnosis with Diabetes 2, I’ve been reading and talking to people who say that there has to be more to it than just bad eating. A virus, a mutation -- what? Something this elusive is likely to be due to an interface: how two things fit together, key-in-lock. It appears that discovering the molecule called “leptin” has a lot to do with this. I need to Google leptin, geriatrics, pain neurons, autonomic nervous system, the Isles of Langerhans and metabolic disorder -- I expect a lot of others are doing the same.

We have a hard time seeing two dissimilar things as being parts of one whole: we see a heart and a lung -- rather than the complex outgrowths of each other that they are: the oxygenating synergy. So no wonder no one saw these little dots, “the Isles of Langerhans,” as anything but secreting bodies, nothing to do with pain neurons. What the heck are pain neurons doing in the pancreas anyway? But it seems as though there are a lot of cases of pancreatic cancer and what’s THAT about? It IS supposed to be very painful. Probably related to the environment.

I think of my classmate at Meadville who had the “flu” and afterwards had diabetes 1. I think of the years while working at the City of Portland with the best insurance in town and the cream of the doctors -- all the while showing symptoms of diabetes but never being diagnosed. Never being tested. In fact, never realizing my own self. Just beginning to have the overwhelming feeling that I’d better get out of there, better get back to Montana or I wouldn’t have many years left.

Now that I take blood sugar readings all the time, I realize that every emotion, every stress, even benign changes like getting off schedule, every small excess of any food but especially some foods, makes my blood sugar change. I’m not measuring insulin: they say it’s as bad to have a lot of extra insulin in your system as it is to have excess blood sugar. This is so touchy that if I notice my eyesight is a bit blurry -- usually while at the computer -- it’s most likely due to high blood sugar in my retinas, which makes them hold water and therefore thicken, changing the focus slightly. My blood sugar moves up and down as much as my blood pressure and responds to much the same things. Since both are controlled by the autonomic nervous system -- messengers of the brain that are not conscious -- it’s only natural that they would vary together. In fact, the eye doctor said he couldn’t tell whether my original alarming eye hemorhhages were due to one or the other.

A mouse cure does not constitute a miracle, but this appears to be a breakthrough on the scale of the discovery of the retrovirus or the prion. If it IS a cure for diabetes, it may very well be the key to chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia -- all those mysterious things that many doctors don’t believe exist. At my check-up next week I’ll be interested to discuss this with my doctor, a woman who thinks I exist. In fact, my niece -- who goes to the same doctor -- and I agree that this doctor thinks her patients should be treated with as much patience and dignity as her horses -- and around here that’s saying something.

Oh, and around here we know quite a bit about the usefulness of capsaicin bear spray, too. But to heal mice??!!!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Renoir's THE RIVER

In 1951, when the movie called “The River” was released, I was twelve. I had no idea who Rumer Godden was (the author of the book on which the movie was based) or who Jean Renoir was (the son of the famous artist -- I might have known who the father was, thanks to the fascination Life magazine had for great artists). I was at that obnoxious, smarmy stage that girls reach at puberty where they try to be irreproachable, seductive, cloistered and abandoned all at the same time. You know, devoted to both sex and religion -- all intertwined and unsorted. “The River” was the perfect movie for me at that point.

What’s remarkable is that the magic holds. Here I am at 67, cloistered in Montana. On Christmas Eve I watch this subtle, many-layered movie. (The truth is that when I was twelve I hadn’t the least idea what was going on some of the time because there are stories within stories and people turn into other people or maybe gods.) It begins with Divali, the Festival of Lights when a lot of tiny oil lamps are set burning, many floating on the water. This festival comes earlier on the calendar than Christmas, but it has much of the same significance: birth coming out of darkness, family going on, numinous mystery that shines through the ordinary.

The archetypal mother and father of the story are classical English actors, married offstage. The Indian nurse, Nan, is also classic, as is the Irishman next door -- a man we’ve seen many times in movies, most often as a priest but this time as the Un-theist philosopher. There are three adolescent daughters from different families. Two are redheads: Harriet who writes poetry and is no swan (that was me) and Victoria who is smashingly beautiful with a great shawl of stunning red hair. The third girl is the Irishman’s daughter, a half-Indian girl (who seems completely Indian to us) who illustrates the part of the story that is about India. It is she who is transformed through the movie again and again in art and fancy. In my childhood, the girl across the street looked very much like her, though she was Philippina, and had that kind of mysterious aura. In fact, that was her name: Aura May. I still think of her as the girl in this movie, adding my own layer.

Then there is the one-legged man. Are we aware that, aside from being a classically wounded man who can’t really run away from these girls and a subject for many jokes (check Google), the “one legged man” like “the three legged man” and the “one eyed man” are euphemisms for sex? (Referring to the male member. The father is also one-eyed.) Well, nevermind. The girls hardly know what is going on themselves. Nor did I when I first saw the movie.

There’s a whole brood of children. One dies, one is born. The one-legged man asks, “What can we do?” The half-Indian girl, educated in a Western-style convent, says, “Consent.” Yes. Well, she IS half-Irish, too. She could say, “Yes,” like Mollie Bloom. All three girls want to say yes, but they quarrel with Fate. As the gorgeous rich girl protests, “I don’t want to be real! I want to stay in the garden!” Fat chance. Harriet, who considers a kiss on the forehead to be fulfillment, tries to bypass the guilts and trials of family by going straight to death, but the river won’t let her die. It's not time yet.

This movie somehow overwhelmed all the careful Presbyterianism in my mother’s church. This movie is my true religion, which is why I watch it now instead of “Miracle on 34th Street” or some such. I haven’t got the fancy Criterion DVD, which I WILL get someday. Rather I have the old videotape. Even that took a while to find, partly because there are so many movies called “The River.” So many small things date to that movie. I began to go barefoot, which my mother thought was the result of a trip to California. I looked for a little cubbyhole to write in, like Harriet’s, but didn’t find one.

Late in life, my mother refused to see any movies she had really loved earlier, for fear they would have gone cheesy and tinny -- spoiled by time. She wanted them to be remembered gardens she didn’t have to leave. I couldn’t even persuade her to see the most recent version of “Little Women,” though it’s the one I love the best and I feel confident she would have loved it as well. She and her sisters came close to living it. We went to see the Alcott house which WAS in the movie!

I’ve taken the opposite attitude. In college I took World Religions so I could learn more about Divali. I’m sure I ended up here with Blackfeet Indians because there wasn’t much hope of getting to India. (Sorta like Columbus.) I went to Divinity School as a way of consent. I see that the acting in this film is a little amateur and that several of the actors never had another part in a movie. They were being themselves more than they were acting. But I don’t CARE. At the time I read as many Rumer Godden books as I could lay hands on, and then read both of Jon’s books. (That’s her sister.) None of the discussions or speculations or competitions could ever disturb that first glamour. And now I find that they examine British cultural assumptions in a useful way. Ideas -- so much of my own reality is ideas.

My parents had hinted that there was something special about the movie, so in 1951 -- it HAD to be at the Guild Theatre, the little Portland art-house theatre -- when the movie came onto the screen with hands painting white designs onto a floor and a voice-over explaining, I thought I was watching a documentary. We went to lots of them. I sometimes say my father’s true religion was geography.

At first when the real story started, I was aware of my parents watching me. They sentimentalized the whole thing about little girls who write poetry and are dreamy about boys and are growing up, yah-da, yah-da, yah-da. Victorian ideas they used to relieve anxiety in a non-threatening way. I think they were scared spitless by it all. (Quite rightly. Consider what we know happens to girls these days! Probably did then, too, but we didn't know about it.) Adolescence had been a bad time for my mother. Then the whole movie just came into me (dare I say “penetrated?”) and was part of me from then on. I didn’t mind that sometimes Harriet seemed almost crazy or that the one-legged man wasn’t particularly special.

That’s the power of truth in story, of a sensuous culture that accepts suffering, of ancient philosophies that might or might not be called “religion.” The Festival of Lights. Seems like there are more lights around Valier than usual this year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


All right. Concentrate now. Sam Harris is NOT an “atheist.” He just says he is. He’s an “Anti-Theist,” always fighting against the theists if not the Theos. If he were an A-theist, he would be addressing other matters and not pretending to be a theos himself by handing down Ten Anti-Commandments about what the theists have got wrong about A-theists. He’s acting exactly like the most obnoxious theists but without even the supposed justification of belief in a theos. His missionary zeal is very trendy, however, and making him lots of money. The Billy Graham of the finger-pointers.

If he were an A-theist, meaning a NON-theist, he might be out on a walking meditation, or doing good for the poor, or contemplating the beauty of the planet without arguing about whether it is a “creation” that requires a “creator.” He would be out of the Theo-box.

One of the giveaways is that he is not Anti- the New Testament God, Jesus. Is anyone Anti-Jesus? Anti-Savior? Against the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes, saying, “No, do NOT bless the downtrodden and deprived and suffering -- there’s no virtue in it for them in this life nor reward for them in any other life!” or “We admit there’s no virtue or reward, they shouldn’t be blessed. They already ARE cursed! God made them that way and they can just stay like that.” Or -- very trendy lately -- “It was their CHOICE.” This is a much harder problem than defying a bossy Old Testament God with a lot of rules, which a lot of Old Guys on this planet claim to have the God-Given right to enforce. Cursing the little guys is no way to make yourself popular, as that dowager hotel-owner discovered to her chagrin. What the heck was her name anyway?

So here comes Sam Harris, claiming to finally reveal to the world that God/Theos -- the OLD Testament God -- is a big phony. So? We already noticed. Don’t start a cult over it.

Here are the ten accusations that Sam thinks that religious people (right-wing evangelical Christians?) make against Atheists.
1) They believe that life is meaningless.
2) They are responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.
3) They are dogmatic.
4) They think everything in the universe arose by chance.
5) They have no connection to science.
6) They are arrogant.
7) They are closed to spiritual experience.
8) They believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.
9) They ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.
10) They provide no basis for morality.

A very strange assortment. I’d have to plead guilty to some of them.
1. Sometimes I do feel that life seems meaningless, unless you count the pure experience of it -- does everything have to “mean” something?
2. The greatest crimes in history have always been religious, directly or indirectly, actually or purportedly.
3. Dogma can be handy if you don’t believe it literally or if it’s not too entirely inscrutable, like the Trinity or something. (Did you read about the Virgin Births to the Komodo dragon?)
4. It’s clear that everything in the universe is connected, but the nature of the connection is totally unclear.
5. Anyway science says that other lizards than Komodos also achieve virgin birth, rather more routinely, and that the results are always male, YY. (Wouldn’t you know?) In other words, if Jesus had been a lizard, he could not have given birth to children. As it is, he was presumably operating as an X/?. (X from Mary, ? from God.)
6. One person’s arrogance is another person’s “thinking for oneself.”
7. Spiritual experience. What is that? Does it cost money? Can it be doled out on holidays?
8. Anyone who thinks there is only human stuff in the universe needs to go outside on a starry night (outside the city, please) and just stare.
9. The idea that religion is beneficial to society comes mostly from those who profit from religion reinforcing their power. I don’t know where that “extremely” came from, aside from Sam. And it sure has been hard on the rest of the environment.
10. As for morality, my position is that it’s a human construct and based mostly on what “works.” Kindness, generosity, friendship, fairness, honesty, all WORK. The Golden Rule. It rocks.

GNXP is a serious blog addressing genetics. They worry a lot about what makes people beautiful and sexy (they’re young) and they worry a lot about defining religion. I love them for their minds and the way they patiently unravel the patterns -- if not of the universe -- of the mystery of human life in more than molecular dimensions. They rediscover the obvious and historical all over again and completely miss other stuff, but it’s authentic and earnest and who knows what they might eventually come to find.

In the meantime, one of the recent stories was about the mutation that causes extra fingers and toes. That would be timely for Sam Harris who needs another finger, an eleventh point: These ten points Sam thinks are accusations against atheists are mostly about Sam Harris.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Recently I sent my brother a copy of a memoir that our uncle had written late in life. It’s a cheerful account of a well-lived life with lots of photos. My brother said, “You’re just wallowing in the family history.” I said, “Can you re-word that so it’s less pejorative?” He said, “You’re trying to build your own identity out of the past.

Busted. But so what? Is that bad? Unnatural? Especially since my life (most of which he knows little or nothing about) has been so intense that I have to push it back a little with family genealogy in order to preserve myself. I have crossed sociological barriers imposed by education, income and location, to the point of needing a little family continuity. I don’t think that’s unique.

Anyway, since I ended up with the family albums and have at hand the ability to electronically scan, compose and narrate, it’s a natural task that other members of the family enjoy -- even treasure. Indeed, it is with the understanding that I’ll make use of the family albums and my grandmother’s journals -- not let them just go to dust.

Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination” by Annette Kuhn is a small work in which this feminist author looks at photos, especially family photos, to see what she can draw out of them. Years ago I offended my mother (what a prickly family!) by giving her a book about the Jungian meanings in seemingly random snapshots. There was a lot about double-exposures wherein a lake is somehow imposed across a female abdomen or she is pictured with a tree growing out of her head. Amazing how many photos are like that!

This is different. Six chapters analyze the author’s life, beginning with a charming photo of herself as a child holding a budgie in her hand. She tells us what we see, she tells us what her mother wrote on the back, and then she goes through the whole complex of family: older brothers, married and gone; a step-father who takes photos of children in their homes; a mother who sees her as a possession; and wartime in England. The second chapter “moves” to a film about a deaf girl learning to talk, thus breaking the isolation that is a mystery to her. The third explores the beginning of unhappiness as the stepfather drifts out of the family and she is costumed by her mother for competitions, once winning in a get-up covered in floor detritis from a picture show house.

Four is a little more abstract and examines the interplay between the Coronation of Elizabeth II, a beautiful and highly controlled young mother, and her prominent guest: Salote, Queen of the Tonga. Much as England loved Lilibet, they almost loved the six-foot-three-inch Salote more because of her warmth, directness, and genuine pleasure. Five has no photos: it is about a girl who escapes her class -- and therefore her family -- by passing the “eleven-plus” exam so that in spite of giving off the wrong social cues and wearing a uniform too big when new and too worn when fitting, she receives the kind of education that equips one to analyze photos in a rarified and admired way. Six goes to the national level, examining public images to discover their deeper meanings.

How does this relate to me? I had two educations, really. One was my undergrad training at Northwestern University, which I betrayed by coming West to teach high school English on an Indian reservation. I mean, the education was useful to me in a way no one on the rez wanted it to be -- nor did it make me a prosperous and compliant contributor to culture as defined by NU. It was of great benefit to Bob Scriver.

My second education was at the University of Chicago at the height of the post-modern wave, though I was in the little tide-pool of preparation for ministry. Nevertheless, it took me into realms of thought where few of my family or old friends could follow. My mother said, “Couldn’t you just marry a nice minister and settle down?” Only a few weeks ago I lost a friend when I tried to explain to her that she couldn’t understand the things I learned there. She saw no reason why a good Catholic girl like her wouldn’t be able to answer any question or think every thought about religion. (In short, she had no concept of the inconceivable.) She thought I was saying she was dumb. Male ancestors, including my father, began to explore some of this territory long ago, but aged out and died long before po-mo. Even my older minister friends don’t follow. My own grasp is weak. Thank goodness now we’re turning back to post-po-mo and narrativity, which makes sense to me.

What also has changed recently and much less benignly is the insistence that education must equal economic success. I run across more and more essays affirming that people who go to fancy colleges make more money because if their “people” didn’t make more money in the first place, they never would have been admitted, and that they take highly placed jobs because of connections -- not because of expertise, experience, or other qualifications. Call it the Bush Phenomenon. “Fabulous job, Brownie!”

Probably it would be hard to find a place -- even Washington, D.C. -- where that Phenomenon is more active than in small town Montana. Always has been (vigilantes were Masonic-based, remember?) and always will be. It’s just as strong with the present Democratic governor as it was with the previous Republican Nancy. Except that now the balance is changed by an influx of bi-coastals with money, complex shifts in the economy, and ... something else. I’m not sure quite what. Maybe it’s that people like me are networking our reflections and analyses.

Don’t tell my brother.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Since I discovered that Netflix had DVD’s of all the television serieses I’d missed, I’ve been working my way through the WGBH Mysteries, beginning with “Cracker.” That got so intense that I had to look up the episode summaries to take a little of the tension out so I wouldn’t obsess between episodes. (There are three or four days between movies arriving and I’m only signed up for one movie at a time.) Curiously, by the time we got to the last episode of that series, my identification had moved from “Cracker” himself, who reminded me of a Portland drama professor I knew long ago, over to “Panhandle,” the skinny red-headed colleague who fell in love with him but was able to put up defenses against him much earlier than his wife had. I guess I put up defenses as well.

Touching Evil” was a different animal altogether, though there were some overlaps in origin -- writers and all. That same vision of the world as a tortured and mystery-ridden place. Instead of the primary character being full of faults but basically huge and strong, Robson Green is a handsome, vulnerable man -- irreverent, even goofy. But he is a shaman. He was shot in the head, was dead for a moment, and then revived. This is said to have given him special powers.

Classically, a shaman is a person who has been to death and returned to tell us about it. In autochthonous societies, often someone who had seizures (for instance, Mountain Chief among the Blackfeet or Crazy Horse among the Sioux or even Louis Riel among the Red River metis) or survived a terrible disease or injury. I’ll come back to that.

But also, the question that is asked again and again is “what does dealing with the worst human acts do to the people who must face them?” We know for instance, that when there are inquiries into something like recent Serbo-Croatian atrocities, the perpetrators often had been the victims or aligned with the victims in previous atrocities. We see it again in Iraq. Those who go in to remove an oppressor and torturer become the new oppressors and torturers. They weren’t that way when they began. It’s as though they became infected. It is a familiar problem among police. The question is what the defense against that might be.

For a more academic version of what a shaman is, go to Wikipedia. Mircea Eliade and Joe Campbell describe a pattern in which the person “dies,” maybe because of a seizure or powerful drugs, “flies,” goes to the Other World to find an afflicted person, maybe to accompany them back. Not necessarily a person you would want to have living on your block, but useful in some circumstances. Alice Kehoe opposes this view, mostly because of her respect and affection for Native American Indians whom she has seen abused by many opportunists who want power or maybe just cheap titillation via mash-up religion. I knew Eliade and know Kehoe personally and do not have a problem with asserting the Bibfeltian “both/and.” That is, I think they are each right in their own context, but it’s important to keep the context straight.

The context of “Touching Evil” is as mysterious as any Tibetan temple. Filmed in a Masonic hospital, the cast descends stairs, enters tunnels, stands before tall windows, and summons visions via slide projections. There is always a smoky, milky quality to the air as though incense were being burned somewhere. Light is often tinted blue, as though cold, and the main characters keep their coats on, wear heavy shoes, but don’t wear hats. The offices are strict and orderly -- tables rather than desks -- and the boss, an impressive and deliberate fellow, keeps a bronze sphinx on his desk.

This is a grownups’ version of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Harry Potter and very much draws on the same material but all through the trope of atrocious and serial murder. (Indeed, the first villain is left over from Star Wars.) We don’t see much gore, which I take to be not so much a squeamishness on the part of the British as their Shakespearean awareness that what is imagined offstage is usually more powerful than what is acted out onstage. The exception is the last episode where the writers and so on went all out to make the story memorable. The theme is “fire” and the camera lingers on the horror of charred bodies. (The sheriff’s department in Cut Bank, Montana, once had a bulletin board of accident victims, including an immolation of an Indian boy whose mother finally forced them to take down. Until then, people stopped to look again and again.)

What made “Touching Evil” so interesting to me is that they went to such sources as Gaston Bachelard (I told you I read French multisyllabic stuff -- though translated to English!) for his theories on what fire “means.” In this show, everything “means” something and the trick is finding out what that is. A French immolator of women -- technically he seduced them into burning themselves, he says -- tells us that they died in “ecstaseee” rather than “agoneee.” The murderers here are often highly educated, one might say to the point of madness, and are “other,” at least to a working class straightfoward English guy like Creighan: they are long-haired Irish or high-flown French or maybe a rather peculiar scientist or a smarmy therapist.

But the central idea, perhaps originating with Paul Abbott, is that to catch the criminal, one must become a bit like them, but remain always in control, always making an accurate estimation of what is going on. (Sort of like being a writer.) In an early episode Creighan fails in this -- thinking he can talk a killer out of cutting the throat of an innocent girl. He couldn’t, so he was forced to watch the life die out of her accusing eyes. And such is the consciousness of the show that in the last episode, Creighan is redeemed -- he is “cleansed” as the French immolator described. Creighan goes to answer his door with Gaston Bachelard’s book in his hand. But he is unable to interrupt the forces that cause people to become evil. Thus the series is brought full circle without closing down the issues.

This show is notorious for suddenly killing people to whom we’ve become attached. There are few sex scenes, discretely done and meaningful. One of the real rewards is seeing Creighan slowly come to a close relationship with “Susan,” the tough and earnest team leader, who has a good heart. It’s very subtle, but in the last episode he begins to put his head alongside hers, to bridge their chairs with his arm. There has been so much space between them, off and on, that there is a great deal of power in what those simple camera shots convey.

Homicide” is the only US crime show that approaches this depth and complexity -- at least that I’ve seen.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


If anyone else had asked me to fool around with this “meme” thing, wouldn’t a’ done it because I’m a SERIOUS multi-syllabic writer who has read important French stuff. Okay, there’s one.

Two, right this moment I’m allergic (no snow to keep dust, fungus and other invaders from floating around). The muscles at the base of my skull are a big fisted knot and my ears sing like two teakettles. This morning I quickly drove to Cut Bank (the closest pharmacy, which is thirty miles away) to pick up a prescription. I’m dismayed to see that it says “may take several days to be effective.” You might surmise from this that I’m not a good housekeeper and I’m really a bad patient, and you would be right. I’ll count those as freebies

Three, when I was little I had naturally curly bright-red hair. I assumed this meant I was privileged. My brother had the same hair but wore a knitted sailor’s cap pulled down over his ears to protect himself from fond old ladies. It ain’t whut happens to ya but how ya take it.

Four, my biography of Bob Scriver, to whom I was married in the Sixties, has as much stuff in it about me as about him, but I’ve discovered that one way to reveal other people is through one’s own reaction to them, so I think it’s legitimate. (“Bronze Inside and Out, a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver,” due out in Spring from the University of Calgary Press.)

Five, I have a special fondness for Tennessee Williams’ plays and used “Alma” from “Summer and Smoke” for acting exercises long, long ago. The fellow who played "John" for me is now a famous actor and director in the Ashland Shakespearean Festival. I just got a Christmas card from him. (Maybe that's not a meme but a brag.)

Monday, December 18, 2006


A person can pick a pretty good quarrel with some anthropologists about the proper definition of a “shaman,” popularly understood to be a magician or “medicine man.” (Technically, a shaman is supposed in some cultures to be a person who has died, visited another world, and returned. It’s very serious and drastic, not to be taken lightly. “Medicine man” is a misnomer for someone with spiritual devotion and power.) In this case, the shaman is an impresario: “One who organizes or manages an opera or ballet company, concerts, etc. (from the Italian: Impresa or undertaking.)” Also, of course, Dugan dances the role of the Shaman in the production. As such he summons the Eagle who brings the “peace pipe” to the Cavalry and Indians.

Some Indians are touchy about this stuff, too, and might jump on Dugan for his approach except that Dugan IS Indian -- enrolled Blackfeet, Klamath, and another tribe that I can’t remember. You must remember that there is a long tradition of Native American ballerinas (I saw Maria Tallchief dance “The Firebird” in Portland in the Fifties.) though I don’t know of any other NA impresarios who are specifically focused on ballet. You have to know that NA men have never shrunk from any kind of dance, have recognized dance as the potent masculine force and athletic feat it can be.

The Coburns spent some years in Browning where Joe Coburn, Dugan's father, was a school administrator. I’m coming to realize that several educators, the Smalls, the Coburns and the Jamrusckas, all produced daughters with major talent. Liz, Dugan’s sister, was one of my most outstanding students in Browning in the early Seventies.

Dugan told me a Bob Scriver story. Dugan had caught a gopher (actually a Richardson’s ground squirrel) that was a melanistic mutation -- not albino like the White Buffalo, though one runs across them sometimes -- but a black one. Already the entrepreneur, he decided he’d sell it to Bob Scriver. Bob offered him a few dollars for it, but Dugan (thinking along lines just like Bob Scriver did) said he wanted ten cents for every time it was viewed. (He hadn’t thought about the practicalities of how that would be arranged.) Since he couldn’t get his asking price, Dugan took his gopher home, hoping that on second thought he could do better. But the dog ate the gopher. (Later Bob bought another black gopher from a different kid and kept “Inky” for a long time.) Dugan took this philosophically as a lesson in business practice. We also shared some memories of idyllic days exploring around Boarding School, one of the most beautiful places on the reservation.

The more I hear about Dugan and his wife, Vicki Chapman, and how they involve a horde of parents who make costumes and ferry kids around and keep them fed, the more I think about the accounts of Bob Scriver’s early band leader days, which were the foundation of his art career. There were no school buses in those days, so the kids went off to competitions and concerts in a kind of wagon train of private cars. There was no money for fancy uniforms, so they all wore black pants and white shirts with red capes that their mother’s made. They were supposed to wear black shoes and if they didn’t, Bob carried a bottle of black shoe polish and painted them. He’d have painted their bare feet if he’d had to. And they came back with ratings of "Superior" and "Plus plus plus!!"

Dugan is not so relentless as Bob was. He’s no heartless Diaghileff who sends people away in tears and despair. Somehow he is able to inspire and energize everyone without fits of temper. (If that’s not true, don’t tell me!) Anyway, his vision is based on peace and aspiration/inspiration -- “soul,” if you like. The “feel” of this production is very much like the movie series “Into the West” as opposed to that other series, “Deadwood.” It is a good-will bringing-together of the various parts of the Montana experience. I say that Bob Scriver’s spirit is with Dugan Coburn more than it is with any contemporary artist.

Both on the stage in his role as Shaman and off the stage, in his role as Impresario, Dugan holds out his arms to friends and to life. This is even more remarkable given that his base is Great Falls, home of the Malmstrom warriors. (I sometimes complain when I drive down there that half the drivers think they’re jet pilots and the other half ARE jet pilots!) These are the people who maintain nuclear missile siloes capable of destroying cities, civilizations.

But Great Falls was founded by Paris Gibson, a Universalist who believed in universal salvation. He’s the man who planted the first arching elm trees on all the streets. Great Falls was the home of Charlie Russell, peaceful nostalgist. And there are still people who came because of the railroad or the smelter, hard-working family folks. Great Falls is one corner of the Golden Triangle that produces wheat to feed the world and also fine beef. Those early ranchers and engineers and bankers who built Montana were often highly educated men from New England.

In the old days, when I came in the Sixties, the ranchers would do their best to make sure their sons went to Ivy League colleges, where they found wives to bring home. Often it was these women who were the sparkplugs behind local “culture” -- art, string quartets, public radio, churches, libraries and so on. Do you remember the fine bookstore and magazine stand that used to be in Times Square? That was one of those women. (Before her was Val’s Cigar Store.)

It tickles me that Dugan Coburn from Browning (and other places) should be a Great Falls impresario, summoning talent and support from the city that sometimes puts itself down, that sometimes resists Indians. The New Testament, relevant this time of year, would say salvation often comes from unlikely sources.

I would just purely love to be able to convey a busload of the really old-time Indians, the ones who were eighty years old in 1961 when I first came, to this Montana Dream Nutcracker. I think that they would recognize exactly what was going on and that they would love to have been onstage, REALLY dancing the fox dance or the deer dance!

I wonder if anyone has told Dugan that in the early Sixties at Browning High School we did a Christmas assembly that featured the White Buffalo story. Mike McKay was the warrior chief wearing someone’s precious white parade buckskins. Our White Buffalo was female, danced by Alvina Kennedy. I don’t think there’s as much as a still photo. I’m hoping that this production will be available on DVD. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it’s blessed.


The Missouri River Dance Company has defined itself very carefully in terms of being pre-professional, community-based, and dedicated to high quality artistic achievement -- not just in dance but also in relationship to art and music. “A Montana Dream,” a version of the classic Nutcracker, has demonstrated how powerful that focus can be.

The Great Falls Symphony supported a cast that ranged from national dance instructors to the littlest beginners from their classes, with walk-ons by local personalities, and sets by high-end local artists. So far as polish and sophistication, they were as good as anyone -- as good as road companies you’re likely to see, with the extra dimension that everyone on that stage (plus many in the audience) were there out of raw passion for the enterprise.

The germ of this production, guided by Sallyann Mulcahy, is re-inventing the story of Clara and her Christmas dream in terms of Montana rather than a European Victorian family. Beyond that, it is full of invention and surprises. When the fancy little female guests at the party pose prettily, the boys come behind to hold up rabbit ears over their heads. A rivalry develops between the “local boy” and the young officer who comes to visit and this carries through into the battle between the cavalry and Indians on stick horses, replacing the Nutcrackers and mice. Shots are exchanged, but no one is hurt. The same pertains to a hunting scene, wherein the hunter is carried off by wolves! The Arabian dance is saved by importing an Arabian horse, inhabited by a “spirit.” The sugarplums are replaced by animals ranging from a line of stylish dancing deer down to a couple of magpies. A cunning stuffed bear and a wind-up Indian maiden doll are supporting players. Chinese railroad workers and Spanish dancers take their turn, plus a multitude of girls in gingham and flower-girls.

The continuity is supplied by an Indian shaman with a clever little fox for an assistant, a cowboy uncle in red boots and a giant Stetson, and a white buffalo, exceptionally fluffy and light on his feet, but also by an eagle -- one of the most skilled dancers. The story starts quietly and ends in a great explosion of tour d’force dancing with plenty of jumps, turns, lifts, and extreme poses -- inspiring the audience to much applause and cries of bravo.

I got to the theatre early which meant that I had time to visit with a dancer from Missoula who was waiting for Jared Mesa, the White Buffalo, to bring out her comp ticket. We explored shared acquaintances and I began to realize what a network of these people has grown up around the state from local dance schools and university communities.

When I got to my seat, I visited with Travis Johnson, who is an Air Force veteran, a College of Great Falls student, and a sometimes worker at the CM Russell Museum, though now he's into motorcycles. (He says Anne Morand is “so cool she just rocks!”). The CMR Museum has been quick to support one of the major fund-raising programs of the Dance Company, which is mini art auctions. The art displayed upstairs, available for purchase, was focused on dance and absolutely stunning -- as high in quality as the famous annual CMR Auction. Especially remarkable were the fine works by Tom Gilleon and his wife, Laurie Stevens, who did the sets and posters as well. Also striking were a series of underwater dance paintings -- Undines freed from gravity and dancing pas de deux. Everyone’s favorite was of a gallery with a painting on the wall, a familiar Degas dancer in all her Frenchie finery. Below the painting stands a very stubborn looking little girl in a tutu who intends to do all this stuff her OWN way!

Next to me during the performance was a red-headed little girl named Molly who had brought a tiny monster with a light inside it to keep her occupied beforehand. I asked her if it were a “one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater” and she asked in astonishment, “Do YOU know that song??” Indeed. I remember the “Pea Green Boat” on the public radio station from Missoula and how the hostess played the song so many times she finally put it on a forbidden list in order to recover.

Some of us feel rather that way about the Nutcracker. Just about every major city in Montana staged a performance this Christmas but none of the others made it as all new and yet familiar as home. The last time I saw this ballet was about a decade ago in Los Angeles where everything was the very best in the world. There was fog and “snow” in such abundance that I feared for the dancers’ ankles. There was fog and snow in the Montana production, too, but somewhat more moderately provided. And there was one thing LA didn’t have: a sunset like the aurora borealis that crept across the sky towards the end of the final act.

While I drove home, there was a sunset exactly like it on the great cyclorama of the Montana sky.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


In a huge effort, I’m sorting clips and scraps and notes that have accumulated in boxes for many years. As I go, I find “lost” things that I knew were in there somewhere. One of the categories of material I save is “prairie vegetable architecture,” which includes woodlots, hedgerows, snow fences and windbreaks -- mostly deliberately planted and maintained with some care but now, in the case of the trees and bushes planted in the Thirties, sometimes dead in a skeletal Halloween tableau. As mega-industrial ranches buy up the family farms, the houses the hedges used to surround have been burned, demolished, or trucked off somewhere else, leaving lonesome squares of grass with the footprint of a foundation in the middle. Along the road to the county seat one mare likes to keep her colts inside one of these squares because it makes a private, calm spot. The trees have aged out or died of drought.

There is a fellow who will come and remove them. His ad assures the consumer that he is fully insured which always summons up a mental image of him lying under a fallen tree, still clutching his chain saw. Of course, that not the way they do it now. They come in a cherry-picker, lean over and cut the top, then work down, limbing and making eighteen-inch sections as they go. An old farmer down the street has an electric splitter that reduces tree-sections to manageable piles of stove-length wood in no time. His heat is wood all winter.

One of the items I found was in the Valier Public Schools’ publication for the three or four hundred citizens in town. This promotes the school motto: “Positive, Prompt, Productive, Polite, Proud!” and includes the athletic and music schedules. Mr. Middleton was more literary than some of the previous superintendents and I cherish this particular essay.


By Josh Middleton (reprinted with permission)

By mid-afternoon, I was satisfied with the jobs I was able to complete, but wanted to get one more done, which was cleaning and vacuuming the inside of our vehicles. After months of pebbles and dirt, it was time. Throughout the day my 2 year old and 5 year old were content to play around the area I was working, but as I was cleaning the car mats, I was aware that Mary, my pre-school daughter was not around. Not overly concerned, I continued to scrub the floor mats when just minutes later here came Mary holding a walking stick, wearing hiking boots, and carrying on her back her “see through” backpack which held one of her favorite stuffed toys.

Now if you know Mary, you realize that she is very serious in her playing, so I casually asked where she was going. Looking me straight in the eye, she replied, “Oh, nowhere.” I could see she was thinking about something so I pressed her for an answer. This time she said, “Dad, I really don’t want to tell you.”

This is where I wish I could turn off the “School Principal” in me and just let it be, but I continued my inquiry. I said, “Now, come on, Mary, you can tell me. It looks like you are going exploring or having a get-together with your stuffed animals. Tell your buddy where you are going.”

Exasperated with me for wanting to know, Mary turned to me and said with 100% seriousness, “I’m going to face my fears by going into the woods.”

Most of you know that I live about five miles out-of-town on a parcel of land that has a great wind break of trees, but it is not ‘woods’ as you would imagine. But to this five year old with such a vivid imagination, these are woods and with woods come scary images that are conjured up. Since moving here last Judy, Mary has loved walking among the trees but never by herself until this day. She left me to finish cleaning the car and walked the perimeter of our property that day, proudly returning to me fifteen minutes later to declare that she had conquered her fear, “Never looking back even once.”


I confess that all this sorting and filing means looking back at the past but that’s the nature of the job. Can I be less courageous than little Mary Middleton, who sets such a great example?

I see I have a big handful of instructions on how to plant the perfect windbreak -- the species of trees, the spacing, what cultivation they should receive. Down by Sun River there are century-old ranches with rows of cottonwoods on each side of their entry roads, in the French manner. The trees form a huge arch that sheds limbs in a treacherous manner and some have been cut down, but a few persist, suggesting a grander time.

My favorite vegetable architecture is an S-curve of irrigation ditch just a little out of Valier to the east. A row of willows grows alongside it, obviously planted, perhaps to provide a rooted reinforcement in the diked sidewall. It changes constantly and I wish I were Monet to capture the subtle variations of foliage and light and branches, which arch and bend like ballerinas, as romantic as wilderness.

I’m not afraid of wilderness. I’m just afraid of throwing out something I might need later.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


I hope you’ll indulge my little experiment in trying to dodge the web-crawlers who are looking for entries on interspecies intimacy. Last time I just flat used the word, I got a lot of really repulsive and quite vivid spam. It takes a long time to get that stuff out of one’s head and I needed the space for other things.

This is a book review: “Dearest Pet: On B*st**l*ty” by Midas Dekkers, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. (Yes, it was a remaindered book.) Do not expect the warm and humorous approach of a nice Jewish mother like Dr. Ruth. This is blunt, sometimes block-headed, and not very sympathetic. The idea is to be intellectual and analytical in the old fashioned way that requires a person to smoke a pipe, so as to have pauses to think, during which one knocks out dottle and looks for more matches.

But it’s very useful to take this hyper-dignified tone of voice if you are an animal control officer who has a complaint about the practice and must go knock on the doors of both complainant and perpetrator to see what to do about it. “Excuse me, madam, but I’m here to ask some questions about the relationship between your son and the neighbor’s dog.”

It’s also useful for the person who must answer the phone, never knowing or being able to imagine what complaint might come next. I admired the shelter attendant who took the call when a woman phoned in despair because her husband would only relate in the marital way to the family cat and not to her. The shelter attendant kindly and gently moved the woman over to the idea that counseling would do more good that having us come to pick up the cat.

Many times the tone of these matters is much like the indignant Australian about to be court-martialed for molesting an ostrich. “If I’d known everyone would be so upset, I’d have married the Xing bird!” That is, people are inclined to mix issues. At least he picked a big bird. Chickens and ducks are likely to be killed by such invasions, but then they can be eaten afterwards. In such cases, cruelty laws apply until the bird is dead -- then USDA laws pertain. The trouble is that people who do such things are normally smart enough to do it privately so there is no complainant.

Kinsey reported that up to half of rural men have tried the charms of domestic animals large enough to be accommodating, but a much lower percentage of urban men have done so, as Dekkers says, “because in the city women are more available than cows.” In other words, sex acts in general are likely to be crimes of opportunity, if in fact they are crimes. It is probably wise to resist defining most such events as crimes per se, and treat them as mental disorders instead. For instance, the man caught having sex with a dead deer alongside a road was defended as innocent because the law referred only to live animals: there was no law against bestial necrophilia. It’s impossible to define the parameters of perversion.

One cannot predict the ingenuity of the human sex drive. It has evolved to continue the species in spite of many obstacles. I did my hospital chaplaincy where one program (from which I was excluded) was the invention of sex lives for married persons with disabled partners. One man had no sensation except for the backs of his upper arms, but using just that area, his wife learned to bring him to climax. As Dekkers says, and as I used to tell junior high kids a little too advanced for their age, “The most important human sex organs are your skin and your brain -- so take good care of both.” Of course, if you want brainy sex, you’ll need another human being. (Certain congressmen, using email, don’t need skin at all.)

Dekkers is quite broad in addressing cross-species relationships, speaking of the penetration of the fragrant tube of the flower by the buzzing energetic bee. He also spends a good deal of time on the eroticism of the mother/child relationship, which is naturally enough the model for much of women’s attachment to their pets and why they tend to see pet “abuse” as equal to the abuse of children. More amorous men should pay attention to the charms of protective cuddling. If they treated their girl friends the way their girl friends treat their cats, all parties might be pleased at the results.

Nursing is also an exchange of fluids and in some cultures women are expected to nurse piglets as well as children, because the survival of the piglets is so important. At the other extreme, women are probably more likely to be vegetarian than men, because of considering animals to be like children. Dekkers likes to remind us what we’re doing when we eat eggs and sperm of various species and what part of the mother the chicken eggs drop out of. Last night on the radio someone was relating that his cousin visited the farm and finally realized where milk came from -- the news shocked him as much as when someone told him what his mother and father had done to create him.

If you look at blogs labeled with the word I decline to spell, you’ll find that the issue is much entwined with religious commandments and the doctrines that protect the privileged status of humans. Also, there are many libertarians intent on claiming that such shenanigans are victimless crimes, which shows that they’ve never read Linda Lovelace’s autobiography. She’s the actress who became famous in the movie that celebrated her lack of a gag reflex but who was forced to do some things with dogs literally at gunpoint -- even WITH the gunpoint. Then there’s the set of people who have extra-terrestial cross-cosmic relationships, beamed up for ecstacy.

I repeat, the animal that animal control is constantly required to address is the human one. In Portland, we used to get two or three complaints about inappropriate relations every year. We got none about humans killed in pursuit of the ultimate (generally the receivers of horses), but probably the police would have sense enough to deal with that themselves. Although when a local porn palace featured an act with a woman and a Great Dane, the police asked for our opinion about whether or not it was cruelty. We deadpanned back, “What was the expression on the face of the dog at time.” He said he’d have to go watch the act again. He was distracted the first couple of times.

Don’t read this book unless you need to have your consciousness raised. There are illustrations I would not leave lying around, especially the Japanese ones that tend to take genitals-as-sea-creatures to extremes. Now I have to go find some more matches and check the elbow patches on my tweeds.

PS: All sheep jokes in the comments will be deleted as soon as I see them. I already know too many.


I'm reprinting this column that comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School because otherwise I don't think you'd run across it and I think it's important to know that not everything shows up on the "pop" screen. I'm not as accepting of "apologetics" as these folks are -- I'd rather start from human experience as informed by science, which doesn't take me personally to God.

Sightings 12/14/06

Going Beyond Belief
-- Philip Hefner

Both the New Scientist and the New York Times reported on the symposium entitled "Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival," hosted by the Science Network, a coalition of scientists and media professionals convening November 5-7 at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. They were there to address three questions: Should science do away with religion? What would science put in religion's place? Can we be good without God?

A number of the most articulate anti-religious self-proclaimed atheists were among the stellar group of scientists assembled there. Physics Nobelist Steven Weinberg spoke of religion as a "crazy old aunt, who tells lies and stirs up mischief," but whom he will nevertheless miss when she is gone. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins confessed that he is "fed up" with the tendency to respect religion, especially by secularists. A number of their peers took strong exception to the anti-religion message, including biologists Joan Roughgarden and Francisco Ayala. Anthropologist Melvin Konner asked sarcastically, "Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

The New Scientist report spoke of the "fervour of a revivalist meeting ... [with] no hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but plenty of preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right there at the forefront of everyone's thoughts was God."

How ought people of religious faith respond to such a trend as that which surfaced at the Salk Institute? Here are a few suggestions:

First, believers should not let appreciation of science be diminished by what must be called the hysteria of militant anti-religious scientists. They must recognize that science can contain God's revelation and that it has brought enormous benefits, along with its dark side. The "Beyond Belief" message is no excuse for anti-science or pro-Intelligent Design responses by religious communities.

Second, there is legitimate critique in the anti-God message. Probably all believers are ashamed by some forms that faith takes. And they know that going "beyond belief" to the "God beyond God" has been a religious theme, beginning for Christians with Jesus. The history of Christianity is one of struggle against the seductions of the inferior gods that too often have earned worship: nation, race, pleasure, and wealth.

Third, the faithful should recognize that the scientists at La Jolla were not of one mind. Roughgarden, an Episcopalian, took issue sharply with Weinberg. Konner, who professes no religious faith, characterized the animus of the meetings as a "den of vipers." It is especially important for religious communities to speak out with balance and mature understanding -- if for no other reason than for the sake of the more balanced and mature views of the scientists who do not fall in line behind Dawkins and Weinberg. Millions of those scientists, of course, are in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples every Holy Day. The classical virtue of hospitality, even to the hostile ones, must be evident among believers.

Fourth, particularly for the sake of the scientists in our communities, the faithful must make clear that they recognize the challenge of science to traditional religion, and that they will engage that challenge as a whole community -- scientists and non-scientists shoulder-to-shoulder -- without responding in kind to the cultured despisers.

Finally, believers tend to be concerned with the wholeness of the body politic. There was a kind of "devil may care" tone among those in La Jolla who wielded the baseball bat against religion. Religion and science are both so fully embedded in American life that any warfare between them, let alone the attempt to eradicate one or both of them, will deeply rupture the fabric of our society. Whatever challenges religious communities face, the aim is to heal society, not fracture it.

In an ironic turn, Neil Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, spoke passionately about his calling to become an astronomer. It was not God who called him, but "the universe," when he was a boy visiting a planetarium. He and most of his hearers considered this to be an anti-God affirmation; introducing God into his vocation would stifle his quest for knowledge, he said.

Is such a testimony really that far removed from authentic religious expression? After all, the "call of the universe" is a very big -- even metaphysical - idea; it is not more believable than the idea of a call from God. For a rigorously trained scientific mind to speak of a calling from the universe is no less a confession of faith than to invoke a calling from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The streams of religion and science run deep; both are driven by a strong sense of calling, and both are fundamental to American life. This being the case, might we not do better to drop the baseball bats and start talking?

Streaming videos of the proceedings of the "Beyond Belief" conference are accessible at:
The New Scientist article on "Beyond Belief" may be accessed here:
The New York Times article "A Free-for-All on Science and Religion" by George Johnson is available to "Times Select" subscribers here:

Questions concerning the relations between science and religion will be further addressed at an upcoming conference sponsored by the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School. "Physics, Philosophy, Physiology: Three Paths, One Spirited Product" will take place on Friday, January 26, 2007, in Swift Hall at the University of Chicago. For further information, please visit:

Philip Hefner is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and editor-in-chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.


The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "War as Worship, Worship as War" by Michael Sells. To read this article, please visit:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Before there were blogs, there were academic listservs for students and professors. One of the more heroic, still persisting in spite of a formidable workload, is H-Amindian, which attempts to sift daily news about autochthonous Americans of South and North America and post significant events. Also, people often ask for advice about books to use in courses.

Recently an innocent young professor asked for suggestions for novels that would enlighten his students about Indian spiritual matters, a book like for instance “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko, a recognized classic about a young veteran healing from trauma. A hornet immediately lit on him, a female professor whose doctoral thesis was an attack on all persons (esp. whites) claiming to have any spiritual knowledge about Indians. She is part of a cloud of avenging furies intent on punishing those who “abuse” NA spirituality. What maddens them most is the notion of such persons making big bucks from ersatz ceremonies and experiences. They themselves are only looking for prestige and the right to condemn. They do not explain how their knowledge is far superior to that of the offenders, except that sometimes they claim genetic entitlement.

These ferocious wasps may be on the side of the angels. But it’s not the whole story. Certainly I would try to discourage psychoanalytically hip and liberal persons from coming around established ceremonies practiced by old-timers in their traditional ways. Fake Indians who transform those practices into New Age jargon and privilege so as to wring profit from their relationships with Indians should be deplored. No one was more eloquent on this point than Ward Churchill before he got busted for doing that very thing.

But still more is going on. Authentic, bedrock, pre-contact Indian religion was local, the same as authentic, bedrock, pre-institutional religion in every other country, including Christianity when it thought it was still a sub-category of Judaism. The practitioners were unshaken by alternatives, unself-consciously and simply accepting their own ways as normal, harmonious and good for them. It’s not until those motifs and practices become entangled in politics that they began to struggle for power -- even domination.

I never knew any of the old Blackfeet practitioners to do more than withdraw to protect themselves. They did this so well that few even knew they were continuing the old ways until they were invaded by amateur anthros. The ironic modern history is that New Age persons (both red and white) have invented a pan-Indian religion that had never existed -- taking a dream-catcher here and a geological icon there -- invested it with Jungian gravitas, claimed to know all about it (maybe with academic credentials), and then appointed themselves the gate-keepers controlling who had access, thus politicizing the movement.

Sitting right here now I can name three self-identified “shamans” in the area. All are at least Indian enough to be enrolled in the tribe. One does indeed charge big bucks for outsiders to “be initiated.” Another, after some exciting times in France, has withdrawn to ceremonies within his own family. A third is adept at getting white outsiders to present his ideas to the public, with the profits going to himself. None of them is making as good a living as the angry professor attacking plastic shamans, but then they live on the rez with low overhead and the professor seems to live in Bellevue, WA, one of the richest communities in the nation.

I remember dozens of old-timers from the Sixties who are now gone but who were authentic practitioners of “Blackfeet religion and spirituality.” They were humble people who lived pretty much the way recommended by Jesus, Confucius, Mohammed, et al. Whether they burned sweetgrass, incense or bear fat didn’t really matter much. The exact words to their songs and prayers didn’t matter much. What really mattered was to be in harmony, to treat others well, so they would be treated well -- in short, to have good hearts. One doesn’t need a shaman for that, nor a therapist either.

It’s certainly true, as the hornet claimed, that Native “religions” have been “bastardized, claimed, stolen, imitated” and ferociously suppressed by the government in an effort to “make them be like us -- i.e. white.” What’s missing is consciousness that political bodies, including the Catholic church, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and so on, have always tried to suppress the “other,” the oppositional, the strange or powerful. Think of all the witches burned, the Baptists and Quakers persecuted, the Unitarians attacked. Think of the Jews! Think of Arabs on your block today! This fall I met a Lebanese man who had been teaching on the reservation but felt he’d better get out of the USA before “they” came for him. Think of the treatment of slave religion or modern Santeria, quite apart from Voodoo. Did you know about the ruckus over a recent US. soldier casualty in Iraq who wanted a Wiccan pentacle on his gravestone?

These avenging furies have invented a pan-Indian, bi-continental (North and South America) “religion” that never existed. Or maybe it invented itself as a kind of cultural projection of the old European Roman Empire. It doesn’t exist before the Euro invasion. The great irony is that these intense self-appointed door-keepers are guarding entry to the Emperor’s New Tent. The tragedy is that it is the same sort of shimmering mirage that through fear of its power justified the destruction of the lives of two continents of people, who were only minding their own business and defending themselves. Euros were so afraid Indians might have access to the supernatural (“God”) that they never figured out that indigenous American power still came from the natural world.

Today many Indians themselves like to think they have supernatural powers and are willing to promote that point of view to tourists. Local folks are less impressed. I notice most of the doorkeepers are in academic settings where they claim post-modern alternative-culture credentials, qualifications that seem to be leaking energy these days. If you follow the entries on H-Amindian, it will be clear that the issues tend more to water rights, casino profits, and preventing suicide among young Indians. I lament that writing novels seems also to have been pushed aside.

The great and saving fact is that Nature is still there and still a source of power.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Though remaindered books are one of my chief resources, lately remaindered videos have also been showing up on the same lists, as though movies were a kind of book -- which I have always thought was true. I suppose videos are “remaindered” for the same reasons as books -- more copies made than sold for unknown reasons. Maybe high expectations, low performance -- at least in the short term. Yet these are often high quality works. Sometimes hardbacks are remaindered because a paperback is being issued. The two that came this week had the common denominator of strong women as the central character. Otherwise, one was shot in France by Americans and the other was shot in England by the BBC. Both came from books. Is that why not enough copies sold? Are they “chick flix”? Oh, how I hate that category. Certainly these women are not chicks. The two movies are pretty well known and were remaindered for less than the price of a movie ticket, shipped for less than the price of popcorn.

Charlotte Gray” is a World War II romantic tale with Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup. (Are these “chick flix” because of the romances? Can’t be because it’s written by a woman -- this author is a man who had won much praise for a previous war book.) It’s accurate to my fuzzy eye, grounded by the Michael Gambon role as Crudup’s crabby old father, and in period with proper clothes, locomotives and the completely charming French village, largely untouched by the last century except for the people, who were remarkably generous about living through the Nazi occupation again for the movies. (Of course, they were paid.) Can it be called a romance when the progress of Cate’s character is largely from fantasy to reality, away from the dramatic gesture to the virtue of simple endurance? Even the reviews of the book think the Cate character is “up in the clouds” (as I am often accused of being). Maybe the male author thinks that’s what all women are like. Or maybe he was TRYING to write chick lit, since chicks buy books.

IMDB comments suggest that tough reviews brought this movie to its knees, maybe unjustly. Only one person suggested that the movie was about the “femaleness of obsession versus compulsion” (Obsession means being preoccupied, having one’s mind troubled by something. Compulsion means having an irresistible urge to do something. Is “versus” the right word to express their relationship? They seem more like partners.) I take the phrase to mean that women respond to expectations far too seriously and at their own expense. (I think I’ve learned this lesson well-enough, with the result that now I often make everyone mad at me by not fulfilling their expectations.) The nitpickers on IMDB (almost all male) showed a stubborn unwillingness to suspend disbelief, sometimes making very good points. (Why does Charlotte type a fake letter from French parents to small French sons in ENGLISH?) Other times they’re just trivial. (The sounds of the train on the tracks is “American”: the roadbeds in Europe are built differently -- who knew? Do we really care when we’re at the movie to gaze at Cate?). One suspects such critics are just showing off. On the other hand, there are some plot holes, but no more than usual. Since this movie is adapted from a book, I’m very curious to read the original. It’s available through Amazon for a penny.

The second movie that came this week, “The Railway Station Man,” was also a book, which I’ve ordered. It was ten cents for the book. Three dollars for postage. Is this a great country or what? Clearly one ought to buy stock in the Post Office or UPS rather than a publishing company.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland only need the flimsiest of plots to justify their relationship. The tape is marked “extremely mature” for “extreme nakedness” and I’d heard rumors that the actors made real love for the cameras (not in this version), which isn’t hard to believe except that the Sutherland character has had one whole side blown away and replaced by protheses, so it seemed unlikely that he would be the one engaging in “extreme nakedness.” That turned out to be true: Christie ran into the surf naked but with her back turned to us. A secondary character (John Lynch) is inspired by observing her to plunge in separately, providing Christie with a human center for her paintings. Normally they are empty, storm-swept, and bleak north sea headlands, created by applying the pigment, then rubbing it off. Now she adds a thin boy, ecstatic for the moment.

The repeated theme is from Ecclesiastes, building up and tearing down, creating and wiping out. The tale ends in holocaust as much as “Charlotte Gray” but with a bleaker after-story, if you’re looking for romance. If you’re looking for obsession/compulsion, Christie’s character emerges with her identity as an artist made strong and whole: now, like her paintings, she is centered by love for a blown-away man. I assume this movie did all right at the box office and the video is remaindered because tape is being replaced by DVD. “Don’t Look Now” with its famous love scene between Christie and Sutherland hovers in the background.

If the heroine hadn’t been played by Julie Christie, the movie would have been stolen by Donald Sutherland. His swing-dancing style -- wooden leg, hook and all -- is powerfully sexy -- not handicapped in the least, though he has to reach down to unlock his knee now and then. I’ve never considered him particularly appealing in other movies, but I sure did this time. These two bristling, sometimes frozen, people turn away from each other even as they turn each other on. The author, Jennifer Johnston, writes about the Irish troubles quite a lot, but the movie simply lets all that slip around the edge, only providing the tracks for the collision.

Sometimes when I watch such movies I worry that they are so powerful that they will sneak into my writing. So far, since I’ve been sticking to nonfiction except for short stories, the problem hasn’t been major. Perhaps it’s a good idea to write these little blog bits about them, partly to analyze them enough to make them separate into elements and partly so that when I’m rich and famous some day, my biographer can read these entries and extrapolate something brilliant to say. Otherwise, how can he or she ever guess that one of the major influences on my literary interior has been Piper Laurie in “The Prince Who Was a Thief?” Now THERE was a chic-flic!