Wednesday, December 31, 2008



So let’s see what the practical intellectual can do with the problem of Tristan who is the Caliban of the Tempest known as Cinematheque. Prospero, er, Barrus, in desperation, turned the company blog over to Tristan. The boy who calls himself “Tristan the Great,” and who gets in more self-destructive pickles than seems possible, might shape up if given real responsibility. That was the theory. Who knows where it will go, since it hasn’t ended yet, but he certainly has everyone’s attention. That’s GLOBAL attention since the Cinematheque boys are scattered around the planet.

The first thing Tristan did was to change the banner to the most “lascivious” he could find: three young boys with no shirts, their hair on end, and two of them sticking their tongues out. I’m sure the idea was to look like that guy with the black and white makeup who has a tongue so prehensile that he probably wouldn’t have to stop at snatching a fly out of mid-air -- he could probably nail a bullfrog. I’m sure that to Tristan these boys are the very epitome of allure, so sexy that people would immediately get out their wallets. That’s his life experience.

There are two things he doesn’t know. One is that boys like this are not sexy to everyone -- probably not to most people. To me they just look like kids joking around. Their tongues look about as sexy as my cats yawning. It takes a certain kind of wiring to desire one’s own sex and another, more problematic, kind of wiring to desire children in that way. I feel confident that the larger part of the world would simply advise them to put on their shirts to avoid sunburn and offer to comb their hair. I’m saying they trigger protective parental impulses. Tristan moves in a very small circle that doesn’t offer him this knowledge.

The other thing is that boys grow up. These snub noses and frail collarbones soon begin to thicken so that by the time their voices change, they will no longer look like free-range cherubs and begin to be tall and strong with stubbly jaws. And they will change inside as well, gaining dignity and insight, and losing their defenselessness, which may be what makes them as irresistible to predators as fawns. We’re told that human minds make two huge developmental jumps, one at entering adolescence and another at about twenty-one or voting age, leaving adolescence. That second burst of intracranial growth is not always recognized, especially in this drug-crazed time when substances from alcohol to anti-depressants interfere with the growth of the bits and pieces so crucial to human identity as well as preventing the processing of experience.

When I was teaching and kids asked me about sex -- one always came quietly to ask something and when others discovered I would give them a (straight) answer, they slid in the door before class -- I’d tell them there were only two things needed for excellent sex. Skin and brain.

I wasn’t giving them a smart-alec answer. In the hospital where I did my chaplaincy there was a program no one talked about much, but we had it explained to us. It was the re-creation of a sex life between married couples when one or both of them had been badly hurt. One man had been so burned that he only had feeling on the backs of his upper arms. His wife learned to caress him there so creatively and teasingly, while talking with him about their feelings for each other, that she could bring them both to climax. But part of this success came from the trust between them. Not protestations of “oh, I trust you,” but the deeply rooted fact of the long-term relationship that had been tested and found true.

So there are three things Tristan doesn’t know: 1. Not everyone thinks boys are sexy. 2. Boys don’t stay boys for very long. 3. What he thinks is sex is only friction and voguing. REAL sex is about intimacy.

Why address Tristan the Great’s convictions? I’m told that le-too is not an in-house communication system anymore -- there are others listening and probably some of them are also Great and need to do some thinking. I’ve learned more in groups than as an individual, often when the problem in discussion wasn’t mine. I wouldn’t eveR have considered it mine.

In Shakespeare’s play, the Tempest, Caliban is one of two sprites on Prospero’s island. (The other one is called Ariel.) Some say Caliban is a little monster, half-fish, with a witch for a mother, a bit like the Golom in “Lord of the Rings.” Some say he represents the animal side, the earthy sensation-bound body. Others say he represents the indigenous people that Europeans always come along and displace.

Caliban himself says:
This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
And show'd thee all the qualities o' the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' the island.

He thinks that what he wants are freedom and power, the rest of the island. He wants control so that he will feel safe.

My bit of synchronicity for the day was watching Robert Redford being interviewed on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” (A lot of people think he’s sexy -- most of them female.) The relevant bit was that Lipton quoted Sydney Pollock, a director and close friend of Redford’s, as saying that the actor had a dark and twisted side that few ever saw. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Redford readily admitted this was true. (Honesty is one of the hallmarks of the kind of acting training this school does.) His father was rarely home because he worked long hours, Redford was balky and miserable at school, and his mother was the only one who believed in him, but she died young. Redford was only a bit older than Tristan when he left home. There was no reason to stay. He was talented enough as a baseball player to get into college, but got so deep into alcoholism that he was “asked to leave.” He decided to be an artist and went to Europe but that didn’t work out.

When he was getting his big break, which was Barefoot in the Park, directed by Mike Nichols, he got bored and tried to get himself thrown out by being difficult. Nichols wouldn’t let him go -- told him he could just lie down on the stage and do nothing if he wanted to. Redford came on the stage one night and said NOTHING. He just walked around the set doing stuff with a little smile on his face while the desperate actress tried to get him to say his lines. That did it. At some point in those awful minutes he found whatever he was looking for -- he said it was feeling dangerous and that THAT empowered him to start making the play work.

There’s a kind of fatalism among people who have a serious disease. Maybe a willingness to risk, play games with fate. But what about a boy who lives? Who licks HIV/AIDS, kicks heroin, grows up to be a man? It’s not impossible. Why not protect oneself, one’s skin, one’s brain? Why bet against one’s own survival? Why not put those tongues to work on ice cream cones?

Some of you should probably stop reading now. This next part is tough.

When Tristan managed to get himself to Paris to be with Barrus’ main group, it seemed at first he was just trying to grow up too fast. Then it became apparent that the damage to his scrotum from crashing his trail-bike was infected and would require surgery. This was done and seemed successful. Somehow in the night his surgical wound, which is in the abdomen rather than the scrotum, came open. He would have bled to death right then if he hadn’t been rooming with Joroen, one of the bigger and more mature boys who was checking on him regularly. We still don’t know what will happen. The following was written by Eavan, another of the older mature boys, really young men the age of soldiers.

Cinematheque New Year's Eve Party Canceled -- Eavan O'Callaghan

Set-backs are only set-backs. They're not necessarily defeat. You have to realize they happen if you want to deal with them in any effective way at all. It's a set-back of a few yards. It's not the game. The football is still in play. A couple of players always get sidelined. It happens. Our strategy is to just deal with it.

Those of us at Cinematheque will be having a small in-house gathering of music and those of us who are into our guitars will be playing them.

Then, we will be doing something we have never done before. It is not because we believe necessarily in a god (some of us do). We are doing this because it affirms our connections to alliances and brotherhoods we have never had in our lives before.

We will be attending Mass at Notre Dame de Paris. Unusual for us. But Gothic suits our mood. We are constantly reminded that life is a tenuous, mysterious, driving force upon this planet, and what we really know about why it exists at all is elementary. We know a lot about how it exists. How it came to be. But there are so many questions, and today we feel like monks in robes of badly woven wool that has fitfully slept on straw and our dreams are haunted by sheets soaked in seas of blood. It is one thing to imagine the image of it in your head. That is what the human brain does. It is another thing to see it, touch it, clean up after it, pick some limp body up that you have loved, made love to and with, and carry all of this into another night of exhausted uncertainty.

So we reach, not out, but inward, to what we can find of what certainty we know. What certainty we can hear in the ritual of a Gregorian echo bouncing and being absorbed by those ancient walls. We seek some comfort.

As for me, I find it all over Paris every time I turn a corner. Great art is everywhere.

Tim Barrus is more apt to find it in Florence. It is there, too.

To stand there in the dark with my mouth open and see someone who can barely move his bones lift a naked body covered in blood is a sight burned for as long as I live in my swirling dervish head.

Tristan is receiving blood. I am told (I honestly do not know much about Mass) that it can be symbolic, too.

We are told that Tristan, Tristan who is the rebel in us all, Tristan who always stands on his own two feet firmly planted in his steadfast confrontation with life, Tristan who moves a football around like a tenacious cat, manipulating that ball to bend its path to his will, Tristan who has pulled so many of us to his bed so many times, Tristan who manages to leave all his anger behind in that bed, Tristan who embraces you with a tenderness in that moment you did not know he had anywhere in his repertoire as a human being, Tristan whose bed was always his temple, will fight, is fighting to stay alive. Tristan is a fighter. Tristan who has gone off cliffs and exasperated everyone he knows. Tristan who has been kicked out of families, schools, detention (yes, you can be kicked out of detention), programs for troubled children, medical clinics, and moving cars (one trick kicked him out of the trick's moving vehicle), and entire countries that have listed him on lists, is not going, and never could go gently into any good or quiet night. Is going to live. I have to believe that even as I sit here with Tim in this hospital room with the shadows and the smells and the beeping of machines.

It would be all wrong to have some wild event that would not affirm too much of anything I can think of in this moment.

It feels right to all of us to simply put it off until another time.

This is a time of contemplation. Not drinking or drugging or cuming or sucking up champagne. For the first time (we are so protected from this or insulated from it and I am glad) we have looked at this new year arriving and we have seen a darkness that has not as yet told its story but it will. For us, we think we can rock and roll with the economics of it, but we do not think it will be a world anything like the one we have known.

I look over at Tristan and I see a body that was made from a certain perfection even if the life that body was given did not turn out to have a shred of anything perfect in it. I look over at Tristan and what I see isn't blood, it's an enormous, dissonant, undeviating, almost unparalleled amputation where Tristan has cut off the gravity that would hold him to anything whatsoever even slightly unoriginal. It's Tristan who defeats Tristan even as he denies it and dances through the mine fields he himself has made. Why we value him is not at all clear to us. But what is transparent is that we do.

My whirling dervish is simply a bunch of words I put on a computer screen and none of it is overtly dangerous. Everything Tristan does is dangerous. I just pretend what I do is either vital or important. I need to think that. We hold our breath around Tristan's chaos, his wreckage, and close our eyes and pray for hope. He represents the parts of us that have not yet settled so we might survive. Tristan is the fist. What that fist is really saying -- and its languages are easily misconstrued -- I am here doing the best I can and if you cannot recognize that, or see anything of me that has any value, I will defy you to the bitter end.

Tristan is a lucky guy. Joroen checked him in the middle of the night and raised the alarm. It is what we do.

We say things like, "Did you take your medication?"

There is a checklist. We are not in this boat alone. I have Kilian. Kilian has me. We both have the rest of us. We do not need a production as a celebration. What we need is one another and we need that now. It's about right now. Here. In this moment of struggle and survival. That is why Cinematheque gives hardly any notice when we have an art show. We just do it. Whether or not you can find us, whether or not you attend any art gig or poetry night we might do, whether or not you believe we are real, whether or not you like what you see or hear. It's not important. You are not in our boat being tossed about. You are only the spectators at the edges who watch the football game. You stand on the shore and watch what's out at sea on the hosrizon. It's going to get played out whether you are there or not. It's not about you or what you like, or what you think art is, or what you need to believe is real. It's about what's in this moment. Like the light through the colored windows of the Notre Dame de Paris.

This is why Tim Barrus loves this boy so hard. This is why a bunch of fractured bones will pick up a heavy sack of flesh and unconscious limpness and do what must be done. Tim is not alone. Tim does not feel alone. He feels all of our support. Our football team gathers in a huddle around Tim. Not to tell him we are there. He knows that we are there. He can see us. Feel us. He smells our breath in the crush of the huddle around the ball. Our football team gathers in a huddle around him to design, to agree upon, to plot, to plan, to say this is what we will be doing next, a strategy created from the shared assumption we want to win.

There is a window in Notre Dame de Paris that seems to defy both design and time. It speaks to me as a great work of art. It is almost impossible to believe it was installed in the year 1136. It speaks to me of life, death, genocide, barriers, the fencing of a concentration camp, barbarism, and yet the light shines in.

I don't think that window is even remotely gothic. But it came from the mind of a man. A person who must have lived (or endured) the Renaissance. Rebirth is everywhere. The Renaissance is all around me. It speaks to me that it is not confined to a particular time or era. It is now in this hospital room that is so dark and filled with the machines of shadow. This is our time. This is our era. This is our struggle and our plague. This is our holocaust. This is our music. This is our creativity. This is our dance. This is our writing. This is our poetry. This is our whirling dervish. This is our painting. This is our light pouring through a window.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008


One of the aspects of blogging that really gets me happy is the dimension of participation, so no sooner did I wonder about being an old lady intellectual in Valier, than Art (author of the wonderful blog “Dragoncave” at sent me the suggestion of being an “independent scholar” or “public intellectual” and Dave Lull (what a guy!) sent along this article link about the year’s best public intellectuals:
(“An intellectual surge” by James Crabtree, Prospect's senior editor: “Thinking up the surge, ‘winning’ the war in Iraq, and rethinking America’s military strategy. David Petraeus is a worthy pick for Prospect’s public intellectual of 2008.”)

The list is a little intimidating, but I’m absolutely delighted with most of the people mentioned, including the final choice. Since I’m looking at this concept quite seriously, I’m happy to have role models, who sometimes give a person more information than just, well, information. But here are some ideas from that wicked Wikipedia, which is pretty good on this kind of stuff (but not at all on Native American lit which was kidnapped by vizJim, AKA James Mackey for his own purposes.)

Here’s the lead-off: “An intellectual is a person who tries to use his or her intelligence and analytical thinking, either in their profession or for the benefit of personal pursuits.”

Second paragraph: “Intellectuals have been viewed as a distinct social class, often significantly contributing to the formation and phrasing of ideas as both creators and critics of ideology. Intellectuals as a whole may be thought of as upholding the existing order and broad culture, but some undoubted intellectuals specialize in dissent against the establishment, such as U.S. linguist and writer Noam Chomsky.” Chomsky is mentioned by Prospect magazine as a person who did NOT make their list this year -- not because he began to agree with everyone, but because he just didn’t have a relevant contribution. Maybe it’s because the world is beginning a new cycle on the upswing. But this statement introduces two problematic aspects: the troublesome issue of status, as in class, and the “privilege” of setting the terms of the argument, which are both powerful forces when occupying the status quo.

I would suggest the above questions are hardened in the third paragraph: “It is often questioned how those described as intellectuals actually responded, in the face of repression and crimes committed by the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, and by other regimes of authoritarian-totalitarian ideology. The question invited is: How and why can intellectuals be vulnerable to indoctrination despite their intelligence?”

“The public intellectual is assumed to be a communicator and participant in public debates, accessible in mass media. Such a person communicates information and perspectives on a variety of societal issues, not just a specialist area. . . . Public intellectuals are primarily concerned with ideas and knowledge.”

Edward Said says the “... ‘real or “true’ intellectual is therefore always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile and on the margins of society.” This opinion is evaded in respect to academic thinkers, who stick pretty much to their own fields and don’t get into controversy -- at least until they have tenure. Some consider academic settings a serious drawback for a public intellectual because of politics (meaning funding) both within the institution and in the larger government structure. But others suggest that the role of the public intellectual is to shuttle between research or scholarly ideas and the larger public context so as to revitalize political discourse. Richard Posner suggests that most public intellectuals “are only interested in public policy, not with public philosophy, public ethics or public theology, and not with matters of moral and spiritual outrage.” With weak churches, those questions go begging. But right wing critics say that public intellectuals are all theory and no real life. They’re nothing but eggheads who neglect the facts.

The problem of class recurs when thinking of Marxist intellectuals because one faces the fact that only 6% of intellectuals come from working class backgrounds! One has to struggle with problems like whether thinking and leadership are really intellectual “products” equivalent to “making something.” Harold Pinter is the example the article suggests: a play “wright,” in the sense of wrought iron. When it comes to female public intellectuals, I’m going to cover my face with my hands and go to a subject shift that I hope is not an oxymoron.

Here in Montana, and esp. in small high-line towns and around the reservation, anti-intellectualism is strong, sometimes approaching the Red Cultural Revolution of China. Their motto is “nobody likes a smart ass.” But often the call will go out for new ideas about how to promote, expand, structure and generally sort things. Smart public intellectuals often sit on their hands in order to stay out of trouble. But what about being a “PRACTICAL intellectual?”

What would a practical intellectual do, in my case? First of all, I would not pretend to the level of Cass Sunstein and his friend Thayer, though I think their book “Nudge” has some pretty practical stuff in it. What comes to my mind is something more like UU Leadership School, organizational design, reframing, searching for values -- that kind of stuff. The sort of thing I HOPE the committee working on the new Blackfeet Constitution is thinking about. I think it would be about idea infrastructure. The more successful people around here already think about this stuff. They just are careful about whom they tell or use it for their own ends..

Another function of a practical intellectual might be as a reservoir of history. What was done in the past that worked or didn’t? People here do that, too. We have a lot of older folks, an advantage. Oddly, on the reservation the whole twentieth century has been repressed in order to intensify the nineteenth century.

The most troublesome questions about being a practical intellectual would be those about class, politics, and opposing the status quo. In smaller contexts, class and politics are interwoven in a sometimes brutal way to suppress dissent. Prosperity rules and slides into equating with respectability. This is where a practical intellectual has to either be a person of great charm and gravitas (Darrell Kipp comes to mind.) or has to have an independent income and own their home. Also, one has to accept a certain happy loneliness to keep from being socially captured and hamstrung. And yet, one must participate, which is why I attend the Valier town meetings every month.

My conduct in 2009 will relate to this concept.

Monday, December 29, 2008


In a country where the government has lied to us about issues so major as to draw us into war and recession, where the pharmaceutical industry is almost proud of its ability to deceive and bribe us into taking drugs that may kill us, and where investment firms invent imaginary ways of making obscene profits, it seems strange or ironic -- how else to look at it? -- that the media gets so excited about books that claim to be “true” but evidently are not. The previous recent “deceptions” that have provoked indignation were baffling because the writers had claimed to be much more wicked, poor and suffering than they really were. But this most recent kafuffle is over “Angel at the Fence” by Herman Rosenblat, an innocent-seeming love story about hope and romance that begins in a WWII concentration camp. The publisher, Berkley, is so indignant that they were “deceived” about the reality of this story that they have demanded their advance back: $50,000, which is not much by way of advances but five times my annual income.

Once again, it was thought that Oprah had some magical ability to tell which writers were “authentic” and the thought was proven wrong. What Oprah has is the power to make a writer rich overnight by endorsing him/her on her program. Why would anyone think that a nice lady -- who barely has enough spare time to read because she is so subsumed by the one-woman industry she has become -- has an inside track on who is telling the truth? Do we think that her crew looks everything up in a directory somewhere? Or that she has some sense like the notorious “gaydar” that gives her signals the rest of us fail to pick up?

What’s so evil about telling a mythical love story anyway? In this case the main revealers explain that if all the false holocaust stories are not tracked down and stamped out, the truth of the event will be diminished. They are not the only ones to have this opinion. My uncle, Seth Strachan, was the pilot who flew a planeload of correspondents and editors into Germany right after WWII at the command of General Eisenhower, who said that the world would NOT believe that something so ghastly and inhuman had happened without eye witness acccounts. (Did anyone order the same for the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima?) I read that small groups sprout up to deny the holocaust all the time. But still, doesn’t “unmasking” Mr. Rosenblatt’s love story sort of seem like killing a fly with a sledgehammer? The relentlessness of Dr. Kenneth Waltzer, who is writing his own holocaust book, and the obvious terror of the publisher don’t quite seem justified.

What else is at stake besides “truth,” whatever that is? I mean, having been interviewed by many people for many decades, I have a high degree of skepticism about ANYTHING that gets into print. Everyone sees through a filter, and the filter that seems most unreliable is the “rose-colored glasses” of the spiritually uplifting genre. Haven’t we noticed how many exemplars of the morally upstanding have turned out to be sitting in toilet stalls at airports?

I’ll tell you something unlikely: the friendship that has developed between Tim Barrus and I. For once the NYTimes didn’t drag him out by the scruff of the neck to be Exhibit A, maybe in part because he barks and bites with such energy that it’s just not worth it. As Nasdijj he was excoriated by two watchdog groups almost as powerful as holocaust definers. One is the Native American literature crowd, who were shocked SHOCKED that Tim was NOT Navajo. They evidently thought it was perfectly likely that a man who says he grew up doing migrant labor rather than going to school could write energetic, vivid prose. The other is a part of the Gay community that doesn’t like defectors and is equally horrified that Tim was not “pure” homosexual, having failed to notice his two marriages, daughter and granddaughter.

In short, the real critics are enforcers of a point of view, powerful people who can affect profits. In fact, the chief judge of the NA Lit qualifications of Tim Barrus is James Mackay who is not American and has spent little or no time on the Navajo reservation. He uses political theory to attack certain NA writing, a practice that has its own unreal dimension. And the attacker from the “Gay” side is a porn writer famous for an essay about dumpster-diving.

What could be more American than small identity enclaves resisting the great media wave of uniformity, which produces movies and books so repetitious that unique little groups become bait for screen writers or novelists looking for something new and (hopefully) shocking. No wonder such groups resist being strip-mined. But why are the unmaskers so often self-interested?

Which is worse, going to the polls to elect our leaders without ever really knowing what the truth is? Or reading books about things that never happened? If you look at it in terms of the stakes, there’s just no question. So why are both phenomena treated with such high seriousness by journalists who are equally as vulnerable to deception, wishful thinking, and the blinding power of money, though their vocation is specifically charged with fact finding?

Back in the Sixties my mother-in-law used to scold me for reading novels because they were about things that never happened. “You should read TRUE things,” she said, though she was never known to be a newspaper reader. So I asked her for examples. “Movie magazines,” she said with perfect confidence. I was drilled in high school how to perceive propaganda, lies and exaggerations particularly used by the Red Russians to baffle and deceive us all. I think Korea was in there, too, but now we exempt South Korea. Still, it was useful training.

But one can step away from the whole problem -- at least with books -- by looking for the integrity of the human message that’s in the story. You’ll have to judge for yourself. Does this piece of writing ring true in terms of life as you’ve known it? Or is this an unreliable narrator whose point of view is controlling what we see and know? Like, for instance, say, Ed Abbey. Or Thoreau. Or Annie Dillard and her notorious night-hunting cat. Or Judy Blunt and her sledgehammer-wielding father-in-law. Are we getting to the point where every book must be accompanied by a dissenting point of view that points out omissions and misunderstandings? Why do we expect more regulation of our writers than we do of our political leaders, doctors, and corporations?

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Can an “intellectual” old lady find happiness in a tiny Montana village? It seems worth considering since I’m older than the last time I really thought about it. Getting older begins to mean a few chronic complaints, though careful attention to diet has put me “on game” for diabetes, as my young male pharmacist puts it. (My last a1c was 5 point something. Fasting blood glucose is in the eighties. Two hours after eating I’m almost always under 140 which is the point where cell damage is supposed to begin.)

One of the sources of moral guidance says that since God is the creator of all, then a creation’s obligation is to fulfill its nature. So what is my nature? Clearly I’m fulfilling and extending my writing by producing a thousand words every morning and distributing them via a blog. Is there more than that?

What about my education, or should I say “educations,” since there were different efforts for different ends. But a lot of people and the institutions themselves put out a lot of resources to teach me what I know and can do. I have not stayed within those institutions. Their appeals for money go unmet because their assumption was that I would make money, but I haven’t.

My obligation to Bob Scriver is mostly ended. The book is out there. What happens to it now is mostly out of my hands, though I will continue to accumulate, sort and provide information about Bob’s bronzes. I’ve been stunned by the hostility of the very people whom both Bob and I believed had good will. He might have been better served by his enemies.

You already know about my little manifesto that dates back to high school: “if there is a choice between adventure and security, take adventure; if there is a choice between money and education, take education.” But I have some other rules and principles. One is to try to avoid the irreversible, and the other is never to endanger the physical support of my mind. (No drugs, no trauma.) Moving to Valier came close to violating both principles, since it’s unlikely I could sell this house now that the very short Valier housing boom is probably over. This village is risky when it comes to medical care as I age.

But it’s clear that Nineties Portland was killing me: the food, the job, the people, the general picture was high stress to the point of destruction. Portland is a city that pretends to be idyllic and liberal, but working backstage and living there for decades taught me quite a different story. I guess I’ll skip the sordid details -- might need ‘em for a book later. I’ve already used the Seventies dog-catching stories in a book, “Dog Catching in America.”

For a decade I’d been scouting for a good location near the Blackfeet and, because the money for moving back came from my mother’s estate, I have an obligation to fulfill there, too. If you go to, you’ll find the Blackfeet books for Blackfeet that are available there -- more compiled resources than written books. Other than that, I’ve played interlocutor a few times and am trying to to be the best friend I can for a few individuals, mostly former students. But the Blackfeet hardly need me now -- they’re on their way.

So what an “intellectual”? Certainly I’m not a University of Chicago thinker as Richard Stern, truth teller, pointed out to me. Many of the print options for intellectuals have disappeared, at the same time that blogs have opened up. So I ought to keep on taking advantage of the internet while it lasts: while there is still an electrical infrastructure and before censorship begins. But in what way?

Many realms open as minority empowerments, but then those groups -- as they become more organized -- become oppressors and the new minority is those who oppose them. Tim Barrus has reached out to me, simply because I wasn’t afraid of him, and now we have a kind of ministry to each other, while he is engaged in a ministry of his own: Cinematheque, teaching boys to help each other through art. This will put me -- already has -- in opposition to the oppressors of Native American lit which surprisingly are often European. They try to press the People back to the nineteenth century so they can exploit the images.

Three entwined forces have dominated our culture for too many years: sex, violence, and profit. All three have become markers of status and privilege: Big Dogs have whatever or whomever they want, no matter whom it hurts, and at CEO compensation levels. They do not stay within the law. Opposing them is dangerous. Could I have any impact at all? Not alone. But I could if I were part of a network that is international and always thinking. The change has begun.

Valier knows that I sit at my computer most of the time: when they drive down the alley they can see through the window past my snoring cats to me at my keyboard. If they drive down the street in front, they can see my floor-to-ceiling bookcases. I have no idea what they think I’m doing, but several have threatened me with violence (playfully) if I blog about them. Maybe they think I’m on Facebook or YouTube, but I don’t sign up for those “friendship” networks. I don't want chatter or twitter.

I’m “doing” ideas, because if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that an idea is not a passive object (the way they used to teach us in the public schools) but a live thing that can be conceived quietly and privately as in a womb, and then take on a life of its own. This is a religious principle, worthy of my fancy Div School education and my improvised ordination in the Grand Street Theatre (built as the Unitarian Church of Helena, Montana) on the set of “Death of a Salesman,” temporarily decorated with candles and banners.

Someone local challenged me as “trying to move mercury with a pitchfork” and that might be true, but I’m betting against it. Anyway, it’s my nature and it’s good for my blood glucose to keep moving. What I have not expected is to sit here writing a book with Barrus in Paris. What he writes sometimes makes me weep. Not alone. He weeps, too. Not for ourselves but for the world, slowly rising over the moon's horizon, hopefully tipping back towards the light.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


When I said that in preparation to respond to our “chapter” on San Francisco, I intended to read some of Jack Fritscher’s books, Tim Barrus remarked, “You’re about the same age.” (Certainly not the same gender, somewhat similar in education, nothing alike in life experience -- well, maybe.) Clearly part of what Tim meant was that this book does something that writing classes will discourage one from doing, which is to make references to pop culture. I said once that my boss at animal control was a cross between Burt Reynolds and Kojack -- meaning he was big, boisterous and bald. The teacher suggested I take it out on grounds that in a few decades no one would know who these men were, so the reference would be gone.

One of the “gimmicks” of this book is a game called, “What movie am I now?” They are all movies that I recognize and have seen, usually at the time they came out. They date from a period of history when movies were a big deal: there were only a few at a time, portentously presented on the big screen with a mainstream audience, larger than life stars, and an iron-hand studio -- then discussed and re-lived by everyone until the next big film. What surprises me on reflection is the realization that probably today’s youngsters know these same movies: they’ve been watching them on DVD or late night old-movie channels. The impact is a little more distant, but they get those references a lot better than I can pick up the references of Ezra Pound or James Joyce. The effect is a wry (Ry) self-aware commentary.

This novel is presenting a history of a time and place that changed the whole country. About when the Sixties imploded with race riots and assassinations, Gay Liberation took over part of San Francisco. This magnet pulled in people of both genders (if you assume there are only two) from the whole continent, threw them together into feverish personal and political (the same thing, different aspects) interaction, and then -- like a sneak bomber waiting for enemies to be in one place at one time -- detonated AIDS. The novel traces some of the splinter groups from the original innocent impulse to gather as they struggle to get control. Angry feminists, thuggish straights, and recognizable politicians (still in office today) are part of this story.

It’s relevant to Barrus because he was there, a participant, and because he was instrumental in getting the book published. When someone says to the media that “Nasdijj” was a prize-winning S/M gay writer and editor, this is what they’re talking about. He was in his twenties, the single parent of a little girl who found the environment surprisingly unsurprising and even protective. Because -- though so many were declaring themselves gay and liberated -- it’s not so easy to shake off small-town and family values from back home. We’re talking porn, not pedophile.

Fritscher, in fact, is bringing his priest’s religious concern to the table: how does one become committed, faithful, and transformed by love in the context of gayness? Without letting sex turn incarnation into simply meat? Hollywood will not give you any answers. Catholicism will tell you to deny the flesh. How can anyone do that when we are made of flesh while inside the flesh of our mothers? It’s a denial of our animalness, unscientific as we think of it now.

So the main plot line here is about body builders, the super-developed muscles of Arnold and his friends, and the drug culture of that which crossed with the drug culture of enhanced sex to make everyone even more vulnerable when AIDS arrived. It’s hard to tell which characters are Fritscher’s alter ego because obviously they all are. But I myself identified with Sol who always gets back to reality, acting as a Greek chorus to the high-flown pretensions of “Orion/Ryan”. (If you don’t know THAT mythology, look it up. Very useful stuff.)

This novel ends, then goes on, then ends. The writing and photography of the time, some of it classic and beautiful enough to become highly valued even by the mainstream (Mapplethorpe crops up again and again), is created, destroyed, and created again. This is the way life is.

After the plot ending that is a shooting, the book continues with the real reflections that have propelled it all along. “Dirty Harry” provides one: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” (This book is packed with familiar one-liners that might not have been so familiar twenty years ago. They’re still relevant.) The problem is finding out where those limitations are without either going over the edge or stopping way inside the borders.

Another of the issues is transparency, which Barrus has been thinking about and is experimenting with on a blog. (The whole country is thinking about transparency.) Gays have historically depended upon total secrecy for three reasons that I can see. One is the real threat of being thrown out of their jobs, something like being stigmatized as “Red” in the earlier Fifties. (No doubt Sean Penn wanted to address the Harvey Milk story because Penn’s father was blacklisted as a “commie.”) Another is that forbidden and secret activities are soon invaded by criminals who need the cover.

The third is the constant danger in a larger society that legitimizes violence against nonconformity, either on a free-lance basis or through law enforcement. In this novel law enforcement is not blamed, maybe because at this time period many of the officers there WERE gay. Part of Fritscher’s idea of homomasculinity -- which borders on hypermasculinity -- is that gays needn’t be sissies, victims. Barely submerged in this book is the contempt for women as “dirt, filth, depraved, low, powerless” that the Catholic church has always supported. Little boys pick up on it early from their own fathers. So homomasculine men are powerful but also “clean, brave, and exalted” in the way that WWII soldiers on the screen were portrayed in the earliest images of men that both Jack and I learned when coming to consciousness.

Fritscher himself is quite open about trying to write “Gone with the Wind” for gays. I think he’s succeeded. Barrus suggests “Recherche du Temps Perdue” but I can’t judge because I never managed to read even “Swan’s Way.” Another comparison is Gore Vidal’s sweeps of history. You could throw in “Peyton Place” and “Thornbirds.” Or even "The Story of O." By now everything has changed again -- that’s the essence of history. The real end comes down to Candide: withdrawing to cultivate one’s garden with a fortunate companion. The garden includes writing, the companion is capable of dialogue, one is allowed to age quietly.

When I said in the beginning that maybe Fritscher and I shared a bit of life experience, I would remind you that reservation life (1960 - 1982) was just as contained, violent, secret, riven, and deadly as the gay district of San Francisco. In my own search for transcendence I didn’t fall in-love with a body builder, but with a middle-aged sculptor. Some of the dynamics were the same: that terrifying attempt to find the transcendent in flesh.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Probably the major contribution the U of Chicago Div School made to my thinking was to make me always look to the “meta” level, the “what is your method?” level. In terms of congregations I had already learned to look at organizational design, the infrastructure and context that often guides different people into the same problematic roles: troublemaker, balker, tattler, etc. Changing the organizational design can shift the whole situation without attacking individuals in a way proscribed by compassionate religion. The denomination in those days had also hit upon the idea of “process,” that following a kind of algorhythm of investigation and decision could yield something sound and admirable. Also, because I’ve moved between very different demographic groups, up and down scale, back and forth geographically, I’ve found it interesting to interpret one from the point of view of the other. Often enlightening.

So what I’m leading up to is why “Looking for Richard” REALLY pleases me! Here’s a product of the Actor’s Studio in New York, Al Pacino, who is also a major Hollywood star, making a movie ABOUT making a movie of crucial scenes from an old English stage play, namely “Richard the Third.” Yes, Shakespeare, and one of the more difficult of the historical plays. What’s more, he’s sharing the creation and direction with a close friend, Fred Kimball; in fact, working cooperatively with a whole group of actors while carefully interviewing giants among the English Shakespearean actors and major scholars. The two producers are often baffled, balky and beleaguered, but it’s Al’s money, so what can they say? They become a little Shakespearean comic-relief duo, commiserating with each other right up to the end, which they welcome.

Not every actor could handle the ambiguity and the arguing, the case in point being Frank Langella, a fine actor who simply needed a script in his hand and some dependable direction -- and knew himself well enough to depart. But the actors who stuck it out were absolutely reveling in the participation, the experiment, the reflexivity of watching themselves working at preparing to work. They talk while they sit around a table in what I assume is Al’s office. They talk while they walk down the streets of their ‘hood, greeting people they know as they go. They argue over piles of huge research books while someone’s dog snoozes on the sofa. They get closed down at one point, for filming without a permit as they would have gotten for a “real” movie, and have to leave their lunches behind. When they go to Shakespeare’s birthplace, a tiny place with a narrow bed (In England the furniture seems to stay with the house while the people move on -- a sensible practice.), their lights set off the fire alarm. The police are terribly polite but very definite. This informal taking-of-cameras-along method does not fit a world used to something else.

Vanessa Redgrave
is lyrical. Branagh, Jacobi, Gielgud, et al, as one would expect, are patient, courtly and clear. (It was 1996 so both Jacobi and Gielgud are pink and healthy.) The real scholars are honest, engrossed in the questions, and delighted to have someone ask them. Some people must have mostly hit the cutting room floor -- there are only glimpses of them.

The imdb review comments (there are 65) split into two schools of thought. One says, “How dare you! You didn’t even get it right!” and the other says, “How great to take on Shakespeare in this new and exciting way!” In other words, some were conventional- wisdom/smug-status folks who don’t want their old gods disturbed, and some had perfect confidence that actors can maul Shakespeare six ways to Sunday and the bard will survive. (Though he sit out in the audience alone and shake his head, as we see him doing at beginning and end.) The guy who REALLY got it was a street dude with gray hair and missing teeth, a black man busy panhandling the crowd around the cameras. He said, loosely, “You got to have WORDS, man, because if you don’t have really powerful words, you can’t talk about your FEELINGS and these kids today don’t have no FEELINGS which is why they go into places and shoot everyone. If they had the WORDS, they could FEEL!” At that point I would have been happy to abandon the movie and follow that guy home!

Not really. The talk around the table and at the computer desk with the stack of mighty tomes shifts to impromptu walk-throughs in unlikely architectural spots -- public arches and stairs mostly. Then they hit on the idea of the Cloisters, a medieval garden and museum in Manhattan, and that -- combined with interiors of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine -- provides most of the sets. Costumes are off-the-rack, with some quite stunning examples of medieval houpelandes and cone headdresses. Death in the tower happens in a church bell-tower with a shaft of light pouring in. Much is lit like Rembrandt, that dark rimmed with gold and ivory faces. The doomed blonde princes cheerfully wave at us from a high window.

As it happens, many of Pacino’s friends are a kind of American repertory company formed off-hand by making the Godfather movies where many were recurring characters. They are faces familiar to us, friends among each other, possessors of major skills that we rarely see more than glancing bits of. A person could speculate that without this dimension, none of the movie, whether extra-script or intra-script, could exist at all, because that’s what REALLY holds it together, even though Pacino himself is the obvious continuing thread. It is the warmth and willingness to work together among the actors that makes the bald opportunism of the play so very dark indeed. And yet it is the actors’ willingness to embody that evil stuff that makes it easier for us to see that in the years since 1996 (twelve?) we’ve seen the same and worse in real life. Convenient murders, dubious successions, strange bedfellows and all.

So Pacino’s method is organic, a vine extending a tendril here and a leaf there. Black flowers, poison fruit, twisted branches, emerge from his hunching stunted body which we forget as he manipulates Winona Ryder into marriage even as she stands next to the body of her husband that he has killed. He does it exceedingly well.

Not everyone will appreciate the fast, smart, poetic, metaphor-making editing -- starting a sentence in costume, continuing it in plainsclothes closeup, and ending it with a pay-off tableau. Special effects mostly come at the end, for the battle. And there’s that damned horse, peacefully cropping the grass on the hill, just out of reach. By that time there’s no kingdom anyway. Not one for him to give.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

"BABEL": A Review

Watching “Babel” on Christmas Eve was not my plan. It just happened that way. Two DVD’s came at the same time and I watched the other one first. My queue was composed long ago. I had thought the movie was probably some kind of Biblical take-off, another dystopia movie. It was, but nothing like what I had imagined.

Three plots entwine, each centered on the divide, the “failure to communicate” of a juxtaposed set of people both closely linked and deeply divided. They are not unique but certainly contemporary: illegal Mexican immigrants who supply cheap labor for wealthy white people; third-world tourism; and the generational divide, in this case accentuated by following a deaf-mute teenaged girl who tries to use sex, drugs and defiance to escape a family estrangement, a mother’s suicide.

The wealthy white people, unhappy and argumentative, are the main strand -- not so much in terms of story but in terms of pure acting charisma since they are Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. We want them, we worry about them, we identify with them. It is their children who have been caught in border-crossing danger. It is Cate who is shot by children in Morocco, which is quickly defined as terrorism which blocks the use of air-space that could save her. The rifle that makes the trouble has been brought to Morocco on a hunting trip by the Japanese businessman whose wife shot herself. But in the beginning all these connections are unknown, the consequences are unknown, the people charged with maintaining order (Moroccan police, border patrol, Japanese police) cannot figure out what’s going on, so they confuse the issue.

One of the criticisms of this movie is that its polemic makes the authority figures more rigid, bullying, and destructive than they really are. They say also that the bus load of tourists acts much worse than any true tourist group would. But I disagree. I think in both cases the writer/director is within reality. People try to save themselves and the potential heart attacks, heat prostration, fear of being stranded in a hostile place, would make anyone want to protect their own partners, even if it has to be at the expense of others. Sometimes I think that everyone ought to be compelled to act as law enforcers for a while, so that they can understand that paranoia (often justified) can only be held at bay by very strong protocols and tight group morale. Having weapons and being sanctioned by society only goes a short way when dealing with people who are outside the law and the mainstream.

The original question of the movie is “why are we here?” Why is a rich white couple from San Diego sitting in a bus in Morocco, a country that they know nothing about and seem to have little interest in. The vehicle (these tall window buses roll through Montana all the time -- we are a Third World country to many people) roars up the winding barren mountains with only one local guide who knows what things are where. The indigenous families are as invisible to them as the tourists are to the boys who are only target shooting when they hit an innocent woman. They have no idea how swift and fatal the consequences can be.

Everything turns out all right (except for a dead boy) and maybe that’s a spoiler, but most Americans I know won’t go to a movie where things end badly. I think they will say that boy was stupid and deserved punishment (maybe not death). The real reason the script ends “okay” is that the end of the story is not the point -- the point is the dynamics between people struggling to understand what’s going on and get other people to understand them. So Brad Pitt tries to comfort his wife while she lies on a mat in a stone hut and he screams America’s favorite curse word (the “f” one) over and over, while the doctor quietly arrives on a bicycle, sterilizes his needle in a lighter flame, and sews up the bullet wound to stop the bleeding. Then an ancient granny crouched in a corner gives Cate opium instead of a pill. Help is there, they just have trouble recognizing it.

Meanwhile, the very lovingness and family feeling of the Mexican woman that the couple has counted on to protect their children has caused her to miscalculate badly. Those two little pale fronds of humanity will need expensive therapy later, but maybe their parents -- also traumatized -- will go along and the whole outfit will come to reality. Rich white people are not entirely without resources and sometimes end up coping very well, not just by writing checks.

The Japanese failure to communicate between generations would be dramatic and engrossing enough to cop an Oscar if it were a stand-alone story, but it benefits from being mysterious, hard to grasp. The deaf/mute girls have formed their own tiny culture -- as we all try to do -- defying even the slightly larger context of their school. No less than speaking hearers, they want to be part of the action. Being articulate would not necessarily have saved them from risk, because at that age everyone is deafened by hormones and the media and the loud music, blinded by the flashing lights, hypnotized by the cyber-signals everywhere. Then there are drugs, guaranteed to shut down eloquence while intensifying need. In this case the policeman must step outside his protocol and peer group. Why is it that these Japanese faces (as well as the Moroccan faces) no longer look inscrutable and alien? Is it just me, or have we all grown more able to interpret faces that aren’t just like our own?

In my multi-tasking way, as I watched this movie I tried to digest a paper on drug addiction which reasserted something I’ve just started to hear. The premise is that people who are susceptible to drugs are people who refuse to feel anything unpleasant and who feel entitled to use pharmaceutical means, as though unpleasant emotions were a disease. Feeling good is an entitlement. I suppose they mean depression mostly, plus anxiety, anger, loneliness, and the like. Instead of searching for either the cause or the solution (which surely is what such emotions evolved to force us to do) people take a pill, get drunk, get laid, or just run. Naturally, it doesn’t work and leaves a serotonin deficit that renews the depression.

Some would say that therapy is also a drug, making it possible to go on with a basically miserable life. But “Babel” is suggesting there are larger solutions, human communication and solidarity that can change the terms of many lives. So maybe this was not a bad movie to watch on Christmas Eve, just past the Solstice and a little earlier than the Inauguration.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


This is late getting posted because I’ve been scrounging through my many three-ring notebooks of slides and photos in search of one particular image. But my provider seems to have run into problems or else blogspot’s new scheme for posting photos has problems or maybe my computer is over-stuffed or maybe it’s the inevitable “operator error), so I haven’t been able to post images for a while anyhow.

So imagine this: the entrance to the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife the way it used to be in the early Sixties, antlers attached to the front, “closed” sign on the door, a huge drift of snow out front, a wandering little path cut through the snow, and at the top of the path ME! Imagine me thin in a black turtleneck sweater, jeans, and red Willie Nelson braids, looking smug and exhilarated because I think I’ve managed Total Success. After all, from now on I’ll be protected and encouraged by a powerful, successful, older man.

It didn’t work out that way, but it sure was fun while it lasted. One of the things that had seemed to have disappeared was those heavy snowfalls of the Sixties, but here we are -- come back around again. This time my neighbors from across the street helped me shovel a path to my door. What else might the cycles of Time and Irony bring back around? I had a welcome phone call last evening from an old friend and customer of Bob’s, a guy I’ve never met, and we had fun remembering things that used to be. He is sixty and surely one of the younger members of a generation that loved Charlie Russell and James Willard Schultz and understood their deep nostalgia for that exquisitely balanced time between the coming of the horse and the going of the buffalo.

He didn’t know the books of Jim Welch or Adolph Hungry Wolf. Somehow there’s a break in the heritage that needs to be mended. Blackfeet didn’t end when industrialization began. The railroad was the first big machine and maybe it was their clever advertising through Winold Reiss’s images of people on the cusp of the modern but wearing their grandparent’s garb, that made the old times so vivid. Now the machine is the computer and the Blackfeet kids take to it like ducks, the way all kids do. They’ve leapt the breach, they’re hot for the future, no one is going to hold them back. They’re ready for challenges out there that we can’t even guess.

For the first time in many years it feels as though ALL of us are at the lip of something new, that the turning point is behind us, and yet there is enormous danger ahead. I’m impatient that I’m aging. This latest cold weather has wrinkled my face. I actually skipped going to the post office one day. I go down in the crawl space and barely have the strength and ingenuity to do what needs to be done, while seeing just how improvised the whole infrastructure of pipes and wires is anyway.

Infrastructure is the watchword. We were just beginning to realize that our bridges and electrical networks and waterworks were maxing out when suddenly the financial infrastructure -- which most of us didn’t understand anyway -- evaporated worldwide. Like breaking ice around someone who has fallen through and is trying to get out, the edge breaks off farther and farther away. Who can throw us a rope?

And yet we knew this housecleaning was overdue. Things can’t go on being higher and higher and fancier and fancier forever. Even I could see that things were topping out and began to consolidate. What has hurt me personally the most, of course, is the somersaulting of the publishing industry. At first I thought it was my fault that things weren’t like the storybooks, but soon it was clear that a whole culture has disappeared: the rather English gentleman editor with pipe and insight has gone to join that battle-scarred but erect old Blackfeet man with spear and patience. The things I could write about, the way I write, were suddenly valueless. I began to consider plans for a one-room apartment, selling off most of my things. How many years are left?

Then along came this new thing, Tim Barrus and his posse of boy artists, hip but European, over-experienced, homeless, wrestling with drugs and HIV, but sponges for ideas, methods, points of view. All that old stuff that I know. And Barrus himself gives me a “kickstart” by asking me to write a kind of infrastructure around a book about who he REALLY is, which is totally unlike the media-produced demonization that was propelled by enemies and supported by publishers who wanted to get themselves off the hook by claiming they didn’t know Nasdijj was Tim.

So what do I find when I begin to research and reflect on Tim’s life? Myself. A working class family with a violent secret, a father deeply flawed. The “third psychology” techniques that pulled me through after Bob Scriver divorced me. Diggers, communes, high art, and the UN Year of the Child -- the sort of ideals that made me think the Unitarian ministry was a solution. A small, self-contained world of gay liberationists that I’ve only seen dimly through the lives of friends from college, students on this reservation and Unitarian parishioners. Yearning for impossible childhood and rather successful replacement with a new circle of people attached and loving.

It’s ideas, ideas, ideas! New ways of looking at things I’ve always known. Sure, it’s scary. But because of the very inventions that have destroyed publishing as we knew it, I’m able to look into a future that takes me to Paris without ever having to leave my house. The cat can purr on my lap while I hear about a hurricane that left Barrus’ house in Key West demolished and strewn with dead lizards, as vividly as if I were there. (“What?” The cat’s ears perk up. “Tell me more about those dead lizards. What did they taste like?”) I can watch the boys in one of those swimming pools with a window on the side, like the bar in Great Falls that features mermaids, but the boys are NOT mermaids! NOT mythological at all -- real, rowdy, rude boys. So vulnerable. What can I say to them? What did I used to say to the Blackfeet boys? They’re grandpas now. I’ll ask them.

Is Tim Barrus like Bob Scriver? Nope. He’s like me. Strangely. Unexpectedly. And sometimes NOT.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Jack Brink is a nearly unbelievable name for a guy who writes about buffalo jumps! I mean, BRINK!!!?? A buffalo jump is a place where pre-horse people of the northern plains caused groups of buffalo to run over a cliff which hopefully killed them but perhaps only maimed them enough to be killed with spears and arrows. The practice persisted until probably 1830 to 1850. Brink’s book, “Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains” has been published by the Athabasca University Press, whose directing editor, Walter Hildebrandt, was previously at the University of Calgary Press when my book about Bob Scriver was accepted for publication there.

Athabasca University has no campus. It is a child of the oil boom that made the Athabasca oil sands suddenly valuable and caused a stampede of people to northern Alberta. The University exists as an electronic being, almost a “cloud” entity in computer parlance. I don’t know what will happen when this boom begins to recede. The changes in the economy and in publishing are coming as fast as the coming of the horse that completely changed the culture of the northern Plains.

One of the main astonishments of the Athabasca University Press is that you can download any of their books for FREE. Also, you can buy either hard-copy or soft-cover versions, all printed out and with a pretty photo front: a bison skull prepared for a Sun Lodge ceremony (painted with red dots on one side, black dots on the other, eyes stuffed with grass) and superimposed Georgia O’Keefe style against a prairie horizon at the “magic hour”-- which is when the sun is low, either at dawn or dusk, or in winter which lasts a long time in Edmonton. Athabasca is even farther north.

As I write this, I’m downloading the book, so this blog is in reaction to an interview with Jack Brink on “Quirks and Quarks,” a program that comes over the Yellowstone Public Radio station (when it hasn’t been knocked out by the weather). Brink is Archeology Curator at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, which institution also has custody of Bob Scriver’s Blackfeet bronzes, one of which portrays a man hazing buffalo with a robe. Brink’s BA is from University of Minnesota and his MA is from the University of Alberta.

Brink was eloquent in describing the way the tribespeople managed to get the bison near the jump, the piskun, and then running fast enough to go over the edge. He emphasized the planning and the cooperation that was necessary, involving at least a hundred people, both to run the beasts over the edge and then to process them once they were piled in a huge quivering avalanche of flesh, blood and brown hide. It would be necessary to cut them up (which took a whole day for two or three inexperienced young women with modern knives to cut up one animal when the feat was attempted recently at Blackfeet Community College) and then to slice the meat into thin pieces to dry on racks over smoky fires in the sun. Once thoroughly dried, the meat could be stashed in bags made of hides and buried or otherwise hidden or carried along until needed in winter when there was no game.

is a new generation museum that depends less on “look what we found and now own” and more on “this is what you’re looking at” (the whole cliffside is there in cross-section) and "this is what we can see by studying it." Tech imagination lets near-magic phenomena guide you, like stories that mysteriously appear on rocks (projected from overhead), then fade again. These exhibits were preceded by many years of walking along, combing the grass for small clues, and sifting the tailings of the bottom of the cliff. Among the objects found was the smashed-in head of a youth who didn’t run fast enough or was in the wrong place.

The grass yielded long lines of small cairns. Most of us around here know that runners hid behind cairns (rock piles) and stood up at the strategic moment to wave a hide that would help scare the buffs, but Brink told about very small rock piles that might have been more markers than hiding places. They might have been the anchors for a pile of brush or dung piles, which make a lot more sense when you think about the actuality of hand-lugging big piles of rocks over the prairie. The trouble with studying stone culture is that it is enmeshed in materials of wood and sinew which degrade back into the environment, so the technologies of glue and fiber are lost. Brink said these lines went back onto the prairie many kilometers and made vectors in V-shapes, or long curves, or maybe just straight lines. The necessary learning for working a buffalo jump would include “reading” these lines and what they meant.

Beyond that, this technology was based on cooperation and was the source, the NECESSITY, of putting the tribal welfare ahead of the individual. The political shattering of most tribes that makes progress so difficult today is NOT essentially the culture of the northern Plains. Not that individuals didn’t act creatively to invent new things and ways, but that when it came to the crunch, people followed their leaders. This was destroyed two ways: the horse, which made it possible for a skillful hunter (esp. with a gun) to go out and kill a couple of bison without enlisting the help of anyone else; and utter poverty which made the people dependent on oppressors. They are still afraid to give up that dependence entirely, though it’s happening little by little. They still suck up to powerful people and movie stars (who are NOT powerful) and they still hunt for their own families instead of collaborating as a group. This is how environmental forces shape culture.

Now Brink’s book is downloaded to my hard drive. I’ll look for the part where hunters who had closely examined their prey were able to get close by disguising themselves as calves and imitating the sounds they made in distress while other hunters disguised themselves as wolves and pretended to be attacking the faux calves, so as to bring the bison running to defend their child. White observers who wrote about it said they were so convincing that if they hadn’t seen the men disguise themselves, they might have shot them.

My UPS man is enrolled Blackfeet. On these snowy days he comes to my door exhilarated at the stories he remembers as he drives that brown truck across the prairie. We exclaim over Willow Rounds, not far from here, stone tipi rings. We imagine being rolled up in bison robes, chewing on dry meat or maybe slurping up soup boiled by dropping hot stones into rawhide-lined pits.

Monday, December 22, 2008


At the above url is an article entitled “Self-publishing a Book: 25 Things You Need to Know” written by David Carnoy. He’s a “tech writer” but this article is not ground-breaking. It’s limited to the technology of producing a book that looks like a business-published book. Between Print-on-Demand (which in the extreme is Espresso, the machine that makes you a book while you have coffee), and the tech inventory management softwares of Google and Amazon which will distribute and -- to some degree -- advertise, an author can become his or her own publishing company.

The first loss, which diminishes daily, is the prestige and Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that is connoted in our culture by being “published.” Getting a book published is one of our “saving the ranch” strategies like winning a rodeo, striking gold, or painting a high dollar picture. Despite all sorts of evidence to the contrary (you’d be better off with a lottery ticket), we persist stubbornly in believing that publishing a book is like getting a Ph.D. (Also greatly devalued in our present culture, though most don’t realize.) It’s more of a prerequisite than a goal. Books are rapidly becoming just books again, the bubble bursting as surely as in the housing market.

BUT, if you really want to be your own publisher, you will need to look closely at what a publisher does. This is where the Carnoy article is helpful, at least for those with thousands of dollars to invest. Even by using “friends of friends”, Carnoy found that cover design, interior typology, content editing and then line proofing, are SKILLS and they are expensive because professionals spend years learning them. What folks around here do in terms of getting the local newspaper printer to compile and print a booklet has no relationship at all. To the practiced eye, things like whether there is one space or two between sentences, how the kerning is managed, whether In Design or Pagemaker can really cut the mustard, the quality and placement of photos and graphs are very important. They matter greatly. The font matters. The margin sizes matter. The kind of paper and the exact shade of cream/white/ivory all matter. And then there’s the fellow who wants an ellipsis to look like this . . . rather than this...

Say you want a well-made, high-end book that will look like the product of a prestige publisher. Say you have the money and desire for a proper graphic designer to create your cover. How do you find such a person? Surely there must be variations of skill and style which a publisher has learned about over the years by hiring them for this and that or looking at their portfolios. But maybe you don’t live in Manhattan where you can just consult the yellow pages. Better head for the library -- maybe your own -- to teach your eye how to choose. And remember, the “thumbnail” that will pop up on Amazon needs to look good.

A publishing business puts out a list of books, some appealing to this person and some to that, so if one book bombs, theoretically at least, the profits from the others can make up for it. But if you have only ONE book to publish and only your own opinion and your mom’s that it will sell like hotcakes, the gamble is quite different.

Never again will I sign a contract with a publisher without knowing the budget and plan for marketing. Some publishers are now asking authors to WRITE the marketing plan and one of the advantages of self-publishing is that you will HAVE to do that. Publishers, esp. academic publishers, have routine in-house check lists they do for every book they publish and, since they are scattershot and limited at the same time, they might entirely miss the real audience for the book. Even if you really know who will snap up the book, it will cost money to get the word out to the number of people that will carry the book into profit.

If you’re not doing the book for profit, then self-publishing might be just the ticket because one is eliminating all the overhead cost of a staff, storage, supplies and communication that go with any business. Print on Demand in particular can put the book in your hands if you can supply all the skills of design and typography, either because you already know or because you study. But there is one feature of being your own publishing house that you’ll need to buy: an ISBN, which is the way inventory is managed. Here’s where you can be a little wee but important-sounding publisher.

For self-publishers, bookstores -- especially chains -- are a pain in the butt. They are trying hard to stamp out unique, local, self-published books because they get so much payola from the professional publishers in the form of fees for good placement in the store, maybe featured advertising or sponsored events. Most of all, the symbiosis between publishers and bookstores has been dependent on the custom of bookstores being able to return all books that don’t sell. When this custom is eliminated and when Print on Demand eliminates storage warehouses, the professional publishers will again have a fighting chance.

But this is only one way to look at publishing, a noble but old-fashioned way that will always persist (in my opinion) but will be joined -- maybe not on shelves -- by high tech (video, interactive, ebooks) and low tech (pop-up books, artist’s books) and every possible variation. The invention that is knocking everyone out this season is a book about birds with pages that actually sing out loud the birds’ songs while you look at their pictures and read about them. They’re only a step up from birthday cards that sing, but the radio reviewers in particular are really loving them.

Consider what you’re looking at: a page in a long book called “Prairie Mary” that is read by about 1500 people a week. It will not become a vlog (video blog) because I don’t want to have to comb my hair. No amount of technology can change human nature THAT much. But it’s interesting that I have one if the crucial missing links: reviewing. Many of the hits I get are on review titles. But I have the freedom to review any darn thing -- whatever I’m reading. Maybe I should rethink that -- payola?

Sunday, December 21, 2008


The brave Cinematheque boys enrolled in a drug trial for HIV drugs. One had an allergic reaction and went into shock, stopped breathing. They used the paddles to "resurrect" him. Then they rounded up ALL the boys and slapped them into bed with tubes everywhere to monitor their breathing (some were breathing raggedly), heart beats (ditto), pee, poop, spit, and semen. They know some of these boys are gay hustlers but gave them heterosexual porn for jerking off. When the boyz began to make trouble, the medicos drugged them into oblivion. The boys are outraged and claim they won't stand for any more of it. Some wept. They were all terrified. Barrus is going room to room. When it gets to him, he writes poems.

Sometimes Sitting in This Death Room -- Tim Barrus

sometimes i think they're dead
so soundly asleep their stomachs
rippled at home in the darkness
as delicate as hearts are stabbed
with spring as the plastic tubes
are pushed into the urethras
i watch their eyes go wild knuckles
go white whose hinges have come
undone and i am impotent
to change the way it goes
balancing sleep for
the dead and the rest of us
whores poured down the dark
wheat not yet harvested and
probably never will be more than
merely poised terribly ruined
just above the shimmering depth
swans glide across even as they
wear it like badge.


There are people out there who claim that the Cinematheque boyz are invented by Barrus. Every time there is a terrifying crisis: a suicide attempt, anaphylactic shock from meds, a runaway, I swear to myself that if he’s torturing me with made up stuff like this I’ll go over to Paris and personally strangle him, because a thousand miles away with a life that is totally irrelevant and unrelated to these boyz, I’m suffering, too. I can’t sleep and my blood pressure goes up and I eat too much and I hold the cats so tightly that they squeak in protest. Then when the boyz make it through -- and they usually do -- I feel GREAT! I’m released, restored, so grateful!

Then I think Barrus has invented a new art form: real-life. It’s like the stage except that it comes through blogs or maybe videos if you’re rich enough to have broadband. (I’m not.) Clearly it has to be shaped, edited, given details and themes -- and all that happens, but is it happening through one old hippie gay guy from San Francisco or through a couple dozen discards from a society that doesn’t know what riches they have put aside? I would submit that I know quite a bit about adolescent boys and this stuff is coming through the boys, a mixture of manure and moonbeams, boys so self-conscious that they will not pee in a cup in front of a woman and yet not self-aware enough to notice that they have headlice. (Which Barrus treated with a buzz cut in a paisley pattern even after the medical folks had killed the bugs.) Anyway, part of the reason for the buzz and part of the explanation for the unawareness has become obvious: drugs. Withdrawal is now imposed and vomiting is not good with long hair in the way. It was only one boy who had “broken protocol” this way.

Some of these boys will not survive. Neither will some of the young soldiers the countries send out to fight. These boys are also fighting, not just for their own lives but also for each other and for other future lives as the struggle goes on to cure their HIV, to comfort their inconsolably raging behavior, to capture their ideas in art. The art sells. It’s a new kind of hustling, one society pretends to like better than sex. Getting to know them, their art, their defiance and impatience with any restraits, can break your heart. So be it.

The boyz themselves are doing this voluntarily. Maybe someone is writing checks, maybe some social services have assigned them, but the truth is that they don’t have to be there unless they want to. They all occasionally rise up and jump a bus or an airplane to where they shouldn’t be; they all know how to finance themselves in underworld ways. They could disappear into the shadows of Paris instead of being shut up with so many tubes going into them that, as Kilian put it, he feels as though he’s being readied for execution. Sure, they know this might save their lives, but maybe after a while it’s a temptation to just surrender to death. Get into the boat, cross the black river. Among the swans.

What holds them is Barrus, full of tricks and calculation, determined to MAKE them survive, giving them tenderness and discipline as needed, the way fathers are supposed to. Sure, he feeds them and buys them new shoes when their feet grow by an inch every night as they sleep, but that’s not what keeps them there. They become enraged, they try to seduce him, they NEVER threaten or hurt his dog. They are bonded, attached, in a more than biological way -- deeper than psychology, deeper than DNA, as deep as -- well, I hate to say spiritual, but that’s about the only word that works.

The way they hurt him is that they die. They can’t help it. It’s the reason he took them on in the first place. He knew they might die. But some of them won’t. Some don’t have HIV anyway. They just have attitudes. Not all of them are gay, just nonconforming. Black swans, unexpected, going somewhere new.

The thing about living people as art forms is that they are so very unpredictable, so very rewarding, so likely to wrench your guts out with empathy for their predicaments. I suppose it’s about love. I suppose it might even be Christian, but don’t tell them for God’s sake. Don’t make them self-conscious unless you HAVE to make them pee in a cup. For their own good.

And if all these people are invented, fictional, a “hoax,” don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


A friend from many years ago always sends out a seasonal greeting that is remarkable enough that I post them for a long time or even put frames on them and keep them up. This year he sent a verse from the I Ching that celebrates Change. fu/ “The Turning Point” is how he attributes it.

If I’ve got the right hexagram, it reads thus:
The time of darkness is past.
The winter solstice
brings the victory of light.
After a time of decay
comes the turning point.
The powerful light
that has been banished returns.

Scanning my bookshelves turned up five translations of the I Ching: One by Thomas Cleary issued by Shambala in 1992; one a “new” translation by R.B. Blakney, issued in 1955; a Brit version by D.C. Lau first published in 1963; a self-published, undated, calligraphed translation by Jacob Trapp, the UU mystic, which I bought at Ghost Ranch in 1985; and the translation by Ursula LeGuin, published by Shambala in 1997.

None of the translations I own are like my friend’s version quoted above. Most of them are variations like this from LeGuin:
The wise have no mind of their own,
finding it in the minds
of ordinary people.

They’re good to good people
and they’re good to bad people.
Power is goodness.

They trust people of good faith
and they trust people of bad faith.
Power is trust.

They mingle their life with the world,
they mix their mind up with the world.
Ordinary people look after them.
Wise souls are children.

Forty-nine seems to have more to do with Obama and inauguration than with the Solstice. Maybe my friend knows that. The Cleary version has the most intriguing secondary comments. He says: “Change is symbolized by water and fire extinguishing and evaporationg each other. Two women living together but at cross-purposes represent change. [!!!] It proves true on the day it is finished, when the change has happened, when it is believed. If it is civilized and pleasing, very successful because it is right, and the change is appropriate, then the regret disappears. As heaven and earth change, the four seasons take place.”

Maybe two “women” really means two political powers or the bi-cameral nature of the House and Senate.

Later Cleary says as commentary, “Great people change like tigers. . . their patterns are clearly evident.” But “cultured people change like leopards, ordinary people change their outward appearances . . . That cultured people change like leopards means their patterns are intricate. That ordinary people change their outward appearances means they conform to the leaders they follow.”

In 1991 when the superintendent at Heart Butte had forced me out and I was literally “low” with my Lisa computer plugged into the basement of my mother’s house because the outlet for her washing machine was the only three-prong socket in the house, I had a little software program that would “forecast” the future -- or at least give me good advice -- by randomly offering me I Ching translations. It took me through some dark times. One can use pennies or sticks or other means to make the I Ching hexagrams into fortune telling, but that’s not a true use. It’s about like opening the Bible at random and putting your finger down with your eyes closed, then trying to figure out the verse your finger is touching.

The “true” use of compendiums of wisdom is reflection. My mother always had two: a formal Bible-based “thought for the day” and her dream book, which was highly dubious and nearly destroyed by reading, but which she absolutely refused to replace. After many decades, it had become true because she dreamed on its terms. My own inclination -- supported by a Div School education -- is to read a bit of wisdom and then turn it on its head to see if that might also be true. Many times it is. So I record my dreams, but argue with them. That’s more like the classical approach to the I Ching.

And I suspect it’s closer to the way Obama thinks. He doesn’t seem to be working from the same immutable “laws” of the “sheik in the desert” sort of philosophy that’s thrown this country into shadows while it spent our treasure (both money and ideals) on battles with what were perceived to be rival sheiks.

Cass Sunstein, whom I used to pass in the hallway at the U of Chicago Law School and who is now an advisor to Obama, talks about the “infrastructure of decisions.” What are ALL the alternatives, consequences, defaults of what is to be decided? Clearly he’s a leopard.

The only accrued manuscript of wisdom that I value more than the I Ching is the incomplete record of Heraclitus, who says EVERYTHING is change. If you want to change the world, change yourself. Since you are connected to everything, everything will change. I live on a cultural ecotone between a culture of change (the Blackfeet way) and a culture of resistance to change (the Valier way, which is not just about being white and Christian, but also about being grain farmers). Because this is also a weather ecotone where a few weeks ago we were setting records for mild temperatures and today we’re looking at a record for bitter cold, it pays to be a leopard, sometimes pays literally though the complexity of economic decision infrastructure here can drive anyone to fortune-tellers.

But sometimes change is forced upon us. We are all like little children who cling to the familiar, feeling that survival is at stake and maybe it is. Not all little children survive and not all can be saved. But if the time of darkness has passed, maybe more of them can be brought into the light, maybe there are parts of the decision infrastructure that we can see anew.

My “problem” with the I Ching is that I’m always getting distracted to a different hexagram. Here’s leGuin’s version of Eighty: Freedom.

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating, take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses, devoted to their customs.
The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

Might this be Valier? Or is it Browning?

Friday, December 19, 2008


The first widely known American statue of an American Indian shows him alongside his hunting dog. The bronze is called “The Indian Hunter” and was created about 1860 by John Quincy Adams Ward. It shows a young man holding his bow and arrow in one hand while restraining his dog with the other. The man doesn’t have what we think of as an Indian face, though Ward traveled to the Sioux reservation to make studies and was praised for the “ethnic authenticity of the physiognomy.” A life-sized casting of it is in Central Park and also on Ward’s grave, paid for by his wife.

The Indian and his dog were a symbiotic pair long before the horse showed up in North America. In fact, most of them thought of a horse as a sort of super-dog. I cannot think of a single American Indian tribe that didn’t include dogs. In fact, dogs are a major characteristic of Indian communities and reservations today, though they are not dogs in terms that the Humane Society of the United States can grasp or approve. They are dogs as “people” with goals and ideas of their own.

In fact, I cannot think of any cultures until modern times that didn’t include dogs. (Iceland bans dogs.) But it is true that in some cultures the dog is a pariah, a “pye dog” that cleans up carrion and garbage and lives enmeshed but separate from humans. Then it is despised and feared as a carrier of disease, esp. rabies. American military are not above using the fear of dogs. Cops use dogs as enforcers. Meaner than a junkyard dog is a forceful expression. Dogs can be legally defined as weapons.

When dogs are reduced to pets and surrogate children, they are suppressed, regulated and shut up alone in houses. They are an expense rather than the contribution they once where when life depended on finding prey, being alert to enemies, herding animals, and even keeping rats and other busy little mammals out of human habitations, keeping woodchucks and rabbits out of the fields and gardens.

The popular conception of dogs is that they derive from wolves, which then reflexively causes some people to think of wolves as untamed dogs -- which they are not. But they are close enough to interbreed, as are coyotes. The kinds of canids seem more separated by social and ecological forces than by actual genetics.

Genetic research has suggested some new ways to see where dogs came from, but so far the suggestions have not been reconciled among themselves. A November 22, 2002, article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade describes three lines of inquiry. One idea is that dogs domesticated about 15,000 years ago some place in the Old World, maybe east Asia. An earlier study of mitochondrial DNA proposed the derivation as happening 135,00 years ago. But so far no one has found dog bones earlier than 14,000.

One thing is for sure, dogs and humans have been entwined for millennia. The most likely story so far is that the early tribal dogs on this continent came from Asia, the same as the people, WITH the people, but not necessarily walking across the Bering Straits. In boats, maybe. Coming across the Arctic ice cap maybe, maybe as sled dogs. But all those early American dog breeds or kinds seem to have disappeared. One rather ethno-centric idea is that European dogs were more desired by Indians and displaced the older kinds. I think it’s more likely that the dogs, like the people, had no immunity to the diseases of the Euro dogs.

When I was doing education for Portland, Oregon, animal control, I found that the earliest descriptions of dogs in the Pacific Northwest were about two kinds of dogs. One was the standard sort of coyotish camp and hunting dog. The other was a woolly dog like a Samoyed. When these dogs were in heat, the Indians took them out to islands and kept them isolated there so they would stay distinct, because their fur was made into yarn and knitted into sweaters. They were a version of “sheep.” This is close as I can find to the modern rather crazed dog-breeding that creates tiny pools of deliberately deformed animals described as “breeds.” Even in Europe in older times species evolved in response to their use: herding dogs, hunting dogs, guarding dogs, rescuing dogs, harness dogs, and so on. And the deficient versions were not sold for pets -- they were simply killed. Weeding -- not breeding.

The mutation that probably created dogs as we know them was pretty likely to have been one that no one could see. It was some kind of mutation in their brains that made them super-attentive to humans and able to interpret what those people want their dogs to do. (I’m sure this doesn’t apply to black labs whom I have observed totally ignoring any humans, but esp. ignoring those that are giving commands.) The doggest of the dogs study your face, feel what you feel, and respond accordingly. This is what makes them excellent guides, helpers and therapists. Not that it doesn’t take some training to teach them the right way to respond. But it wasn’t that people set out to create an attentive animal -- it was something in the dog that decided to attend to us. Those who did that the best were the ones who survived.

Many modern people get their first dog as children. Since their growing up takes just about as long as a dog’s lifespan, handling the dog’s death is often one of the first tasks of their early maturity. In old age, esp. in places where dogs are a part of life, the aging of pets presents the problem of whether the human has enough lifespan left to start a new puppy, esp. when nursing homes and so on might be involved. It is hard to get old with no dog, at least for people like me, though cats help.

In subtle ways dogs become symbolic of our sense of our own lives: places, times, occupations. The death of a dog involves far more than just the relationship with the animal, but is tied to the whole course of shared life and its circumstances: the place, the loves, the strength and health or lack thereof. People get mad and turn away or just get more interested in someone else. But dogs, in the best of cases, stay right there, always the same.

Art and literature about dogs range the whole span from botched to exquisite, from debased to transcendent. Just like people. Constancy in a world of change is hard to overestimate.