Wednesday, April 30, 2008


When my parents were first married, my mother loved traveling across Eastern Oregon with my dad as he bought wool. Things are always tougher on the dry side of the mountains (in this case, the Cascades) and sometimes she was a bit shocked. Like the time they were visiting with a farm couple and their urchin, unused to company but determined to put the best foot forward, came in lugging a huge cat. The child had wrapped her arms around the cat’s middle under its front legs so it hung -- belly out -- clear down to where its toes brushed the worn linoleum.

This is our old cat!” the kid announced. “He had kittens, he did, he did!” And indeed the cat’s tummy was whorled around each swollen red nipple with wet fur recently removed from the attentions of a kitten. Many years later my mother was still shocked that a farm child couldn’t tell female from male and didn’t have a sense of privacy about intimate acts like nursing. But she didn’t mind repeating the story many times.

When she became pregnant and my father took a lively and anachronistic interest in the whole process, she was a bit offput. In fact, he was so determined to attend my birth that my mother complained to her stern old Swedish ob-gyn, Dr. Nelson, whom she dearly loved and trusted absolutely. “I’ll have enough to do giving birth for the first time without taking care of him, too!” she protested, never questioning the idea that SHE would have to take care of HIM while all the time HE thought he was taking care of HER.

He said, “Don’t worry. We’ll keep him out.” Then came the bad news. For the last few months she should not go off on bumpy trips across rugged terrain. So she stayed in the little Portland house alone with a .45 in the bedside table drawer and at night pushed the bureau drawers in front of the locked bedroom door. She was a country girl in a big city. Daytimes were all right -- except that she finished all the housework by 10AM and didn’t really know people nearby except her in-laws, all of whom were working. Elsie was expecting her second child but kept clerking in the store.

My mother complained that I would occasionally lurch and kick in her womb, sometimes painfully. I suspect that I was reacting to her own emotional chemistry: fear, loneliness, always a little extra adrenaline which is known to have an effect on a fetus. Whether it was because of that or because of genetics, I have a little higher androgen level than most women. My mother and her next sister down were like that, too: a little more passionate and confrontive.

When the labor became too painful, they gave my mother “gas” and she always claimed that it came like mountain air, such a pure relief. But once I arrived, it turned out I had red hair. Neither my mother nor my father had red hair, but my father’s girl friend before my mother had had red hair. She lived on Orcas Island up by Puget Sound and my father had taken his bride to meet the family, since he was really a kind of family friend. The night they stayed over, there was a great crashing thunderstorm and my mother claimed I was conceived in all that rush and crescendo. Now she wondered whether I had somehow been witched with red hair! But it was finally decided that both grandfathers had red eyebrows, so it must just be recessive genes cropping out.

When my mother woke up from delivery, the nurse ALSO HAD RED HAIR! She was big and bossy and insisted that my mother had to nurse me, but I wouldn’t. I screamed protest. (“You rejected me from the first moment!” cried my mother in a quarrel when I was thirty.) No nice lady from La Leche came to explain about “latching on,” and to give reassuring hints. The red-headed nurse and the red-headed baby found my mother totally inadequate, or so she felt. And it didn’t heal, either. Once I asked her about nursing me -- how old was I when weaned? “After months and months and months!” she declared. And then changing to a sort of vengeful voice, “I rubbed my nipples with cocoa butter and that’s why you love chocolate so much!” (Subtext: that’s why you’re too fat as well as red-headed.)

Quick! What’s the acronym for Too Much Information. Had to ask, didn’t I?

When she was feeling kinder, she said that my red hair was like a little copper washboard in ripples on my soft pink head. She put me in the big black baby buggy and parked it in front of the dining room window where the sun came in. She said that even as a tiny baby I played by holding my tiny pointed fingers up in the sun. She could watch me from the kitchen while she worked.

My father wrote out the announcements. This actual object is very small -- maybe three inches by five, opened. The motif of the “family album” is a significant one, because my father did indeed keep a family album and to him a baby was a family event, not a private possession in the modern notion.

He had high expectations -- maybe a bit unrealistic.

My mother’s mother could not come because of the quarrel between my mother and her father. He was hot-tempered, stubborn, bitter and Irish. She was only half that way. The rest was like her mother and could have used a bit of reassurance, which came along in the form of her sister, who was training to be a nurse up on “Pill Hill.”

And then there was Grandma Strachan, so kind and just up the street.

I suspect that when I was old enough to travel, we went down to Roseburg so Grandma Pinkerton (whom I called Mom because my mother did) had a chance to see me. I was her first grandchild. I wonder whether to her I looked like her own first child, my mother.

This is my mother as a baby with her own Grandma Pinkerton, the mother of that fierce Irish father and also the mother of that young man who died of fever as a young man and whose ghost finally came down the church aisle one Sunday morning to reassure her. When my mother was in high school, this grandmother was dying of breast cancer which she had not disclosed to anyone until the lesion stank, too late for surgery. My mother’s job was to sit up with her grandmother, who slept in a rocking chair so she could breathe, and keep her from falling out. She never saw her great-granddaughter, me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


The key element of these mystery serieses is the hero, next is location, the third is the exploration of a hidden world. Over all, it’s best if there is a kind of moral point of view, though it doesn’t have to be overt. “Da Vinci’s Inquest” features Nicholas Campbell, who is not so big and overpowering as the Irish “Cracker” but not so tricky and seductive as English “Chancer,” who doesn’t deal with crime so much as business intrigue anyway. The secret world in Da Vinci is a morgue. Vancouver, B.C., a sister city to Edinburgh, is an excellent location: picturesque, not that well known, and Canadian. (I want to tip my hat to one of my all-time favorite serieses, “Mount Royal,” which was a Quebec version of “Dallas” jointly produced by Canada and France -- shot in Montreal -- but it ran into serious plot problems over the difference in sexual mores. The French were perfectly happy with the patriarch having a mistress, but the Canucks were not. I hope it shows up on DVD some day.)

So this Da Vinci sounds like he’s from Brooklyn, but he has gray hair and reading classes, a rapidly maturing daughter (few to none of these guys have sons, except Foyle) and an ex-wife he must work with, notwithstanding that she’s having an affair with his boss. He only gets upset if things get seriously bent. Otherwise he has a key to the ex-wife’s house, his daughter has a key to his apartment, and everyone is very Swedish. I don’t know how typical this is of Vancouver. I do know that the art in the backgrounds of the sets is seriously better than in most cop shows.

Da Vinci’s Inquest is often compared to NYPD Blue because the plots are managed as long strands that wind in and out for the whole season, but the characters are not as wacky as Bochco’s. There are many Asians and what we’d call Indians in the US -- when not carefully saying “Native American” -- but what up there are called “aboriginals.” Not that stereotypes don’t apply, but the women are both officers and prostitutes. When one killer of street walkers is probably going to escape, the huge big brother of one of the victims is tipped off, knowing that he will snuff the killer efficiently and then disappear.

This bit of curb-side justice is managed by the tough old cop, who’s often a hindrance as much as a help. Finding a pretty blonde woman dead in a parking lot, he gives a lot of racist pontificating about how some like ‘em blonde and some prefer dark... (The script writer doesn’t quite let him say “meat.”) The younger cop dislikes this talk. Then the old cop is totally befuddled and scandalized when the girl turns out to be transsexual with a surgically created vagina, a word he can’t bear to use.

These plots get into social issues, so the surgically improved girl (identified by the serial number on her breast implants) turns out to earn “her” living at an S/M club and the inquiry is hampered by several big shot clients who pay to come beat her with a riding crop, among other things. One bad set of bruises threw a clot that lodged in her lung, killing her. Misadventure, not murder.

Another plot line concerns irresponsible nursing homes where an accidental fire (old frayed wiring to a heater) kills nearly all the patients because the doors were locked and some were tied to their beds. The Canadians are as good as the English at making facsimilie “crispy critters.” One wonders what the prop room looks like. One thinks this sort of thought to protect oneself a little from the horror of a reality. The home lives of the characters wind in and out of the crimes, so that Da Vinci’s father’s confinement to a nursing home because of a stroke becomes sharply relevant. The opportunists wringing profit out of warehousing people and the lone caregiver who only did what he was told are given some stinging lines from their point of view. Society is always the ultimate destroyer of the weak, vulnerable, addicted, “other.”

Da Vinci is loosely based on a real guy. In the series of serieses he goes from being a narc, to a coroner, to a mayor and I’m sure he handles these developments smoothly. Sometimes his lines are a little crammed and unreal, but once in a while someone on this show manages a real zinger. Often it’s one of the female pathologists. Nicholas in real life writes and produces films. This year he’s in “The Englishman’s Boy,” which is a book many of my readers will recognize. Born in Montreal, he’s had training in both Canada and England and has worked in LA, so he’s an international figure but hasn’t hit a movie that most US folks would recognize.

Some of us would instantly recognize the name of the director of the first season: Anne Wheeler. She directed “Loyalties,” one of my all-time favorite “aboriginal movies” -- not least because it’s a big role for Tantoo Cardinal -- but she’s best known for “Cowboys Don’t Cry.”

So each of these mystery series has a kind of formula which it varies to suit the place and the times, as well as practical considerations like how much money there is, what the public wants to see, what actors are available. Fooling around with the casting helps sometimes (like “Rebus”) and fails sometimes. “Cracker” was translated to American by replacing Robbie Coltrane with Robert Pastorelli -- it failed. Pastorelli, who was evidently into drugs but possibly suicidal, died shortly after the series ended. He never quite achieved the Irish bitterness (also the clinging to guns and to God) but only a sort of Italian extravagance and outrageousness.

When I was a kid in the Fifties, I had a magazine that was a directory to actors, grouped like the Academy Award categories. Each entry was a photo, a name, and some basic facts. It functioned very much like so you could find out the name of some obscure supporting actor and to some degree you could follow their career. The Internet sort of works the same way -- like a murder mystery, it lets the ordinary viewer into the “secret” world where they cook this stuff up. Some hate losing the illusion of reality, but I think it creates a richer, deeper enjoyment. CSI for movies.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Recently somewhere that I can’t recall or relocate -- so I’ll rule that issue irrelevant -- I read an account of the first mystery story, as opposed to a horror/thriller a la Edgar Alan Poe. In real life a baby was found murdered (stabbed) and thrown into a privy behind a large estate of titled people. The crime was so atrocious that one man dared to breach the protections erected around the privileged dwellers, their servants and assorted hangers-on. He persisted until he had uncovered a whole webwork of rottenness and perversity that was so fascinating to everyone else -- who didn’t love the high and mighty anyway but had sort of assumed they were normal -- that it awoke a hunger to know more about people in hidden places, especially if there was a certain resentment involved, a stereotyping. Much of this yellow journalism and scandal-mongering continues today and needs no illustration.

But the element that persisted in mystery series was the eccentric inquirer -- a half-bubble or so off “plumb” -- necessarily because people who are “ordinary” didn’t ask, didn’t tell. One needs to be driven, or unusually intelligent and curious, or bolder than most. In the television versions of mystery, best illustrated in the BBC series of serieses that are aired on public television and now available on DVD (which is how I watch them) we have the herbalist Father Caedfael (formerly a warrior); “Cracker” who is nearly out-of-control much of the time; Robson Green’s characters in “Wire in the Blood” or “Touching Evil”, so charismatic but slightly brain-damaged; and Helen Mirren’s character in “Prime Suspect,” the most atypical of all since she’s female. “Foyle’s War” features Michael Kitchen as the most moral, out of step merely because it’s wartime. “Inspector Alleyn” is upper class himself, and therefore has special access to those naughty folks.

Last week I watched “Rebus” which is interesting because two series seasons, both based on Ian Rankin’s mystery novels, keep the same characters but cast different actors, which deeply affects the feel of the stories. In the first version the main character is played by John Hannah, who wears ugly pale suits and rather chews the scenery. His sidekick is a woman: extremely short bright red hair (probably dyed), the kind of size 12 who looks size 16 on television, generally dressed in pants and a solid-colored cowl-necked sweater, and chained to the computer to do all the scut work. Nevertheless, she is the moral weight, like a Greek chorus except that she says very little, just stands and looks gravely as Rebus exceeds the protocol. In a previous mystery, I can’t remember which, a gentleman with a furled umbrella appears on the scene of unwarranted violence and simply stands there, staring. These characters are representing us: normal, decent citizens who are not involved but who see what’s happening. They’re an excellent element, wisely included, and something often neglected in a wild American show like “The Shield” which tends to lose its moral balance. In the second Rebus series, this character is a pretty blonde and she goes to bed with Rebus' rival, losing much of her moral force. (But then, WE’VE changed, too, right?)

If the writer of the Wikipedia entry on Rebus is correct (I haven’t read the books), he is meant to be a Scots “hard man,” paternalistic and protective of the small and weak, but at the same time he is supposed to be based on the Scots member of “The Rolling Stones.” Yeah, those guys. In the first version of Rebus, possibly distracted by this idea, the hero tends to come off as petulant, and the story wanders around without much snap to it. The sets are “color-block” -- primary squares in the background. In the second version Rebus wears a black suit and polo shirt. Now he’s ugly and world-weary. The sets are pale -- it’s a few years later -- but there’s still quite a lot of bright blue which is supposed to be good for color television.

Both versions of Rebus are shot in Edinburgh, and this was the real revelation for me. Though I have family roots there, I’d only seen postcard photos of the city, never aerial moving shots, which are necessary in Rebus because it appears that all bodies in Edinburgh are found on the “clay banks” where the slag from crushed oil shale is piled incredibly high in five slanting mounds called “The Five Sisters,” or on high picturesque crags. The rocky crags are there because the city is nestled in the center of the caldera (crater) of an ancient volcano, which made it easy to defend in the very early days, a natural fort. But the other effect has been that buildings are crowded together around a cathedral church on a high point in the middle, and the town was forced to add living space by going up rather than out. This means that there are many early high stone buildings built in a period of craftsmanship and embellishment. In the first Rebus series, the hero has an apartment with a bay window on a high floor that looks out over the city to the Church. In front of it is a big leather armchair where he sits to brood and drink -- sometimes to spend the night if a female unsuitable for sex (like his daughter) is occupying his bed.

Take a look at or “South Central MediaScene serves to promote the south-central region's media profile. It's an independent site, and not a business.” The site links literature and other media to place, showing you where scenes were shot and giving you plenty of background about why. It’s really quite absorbing. Jane Austen fans will be especially pleased.

Crime noir” is supposed to be dark, happening at night in the sewers and underground (Edinburgh has a major old abandoned underground). Jokers have called Rebus “Tartan Noir.” Because of the scenes on the crags surrounding the city, I tend to think of the keynote as being wind. (Risky if anyone is tempted to wear a kilt.) Everyone’s hair and clothing is whipped around them, but that may be partly because of the wash from the helicopters.

The second version of Rebus is far more pastel in spite of the “noir” clothing and much tougher demeanor of the actor. He’s not political -- this series is centered on crime and small corruption. My problem was that I liked the criminals better than Rebus, even in the second series. McCafferty reminds me so much of big, burly, red-headed Jess Meinecke here on the reservation that I can’t help liking him. Though Rebus technically wins, he never really overcomes the hold McCafferty has on him. Besides, McCafferty has a marvelous big red mustache. I think I might be related to this man!

I have a feeling that the behind-the-scenes story of why there are two sets of actors might be a lot more interesting than the series. I’m reluctant to pick up Ian Rankin’s book. When I read the novels on which “Wire in the Blood” are based, I finally ended up slipping them into the garbage. They were getting way too far over on the perversion/horror/thriller side. This time I think I’ll just settle for Edinburgh scenery and let it go at that. But it’s no small thing.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Every year the School of Journalism at the University of Montana in Missoula does a newspaper insert containing stories about Montana Indian reservations. In previous years I’ve responded with letters -- this is the first time I’ve been asked for ideas beforehand. My reporter is someone named Vicki.

Where to start? First, Bob Scriver never did "Indian art" and was not part of that world. His museum was about animals though he often made sculpture about Blackfeet as well as animals, family members, and commissioned portrait busts. He employed maybe four or five Blackfeet families over decades, but they didn't do "Indian art." They helped with the taxidermy and the sculpture, both, as well as building and maintaining the ranch over towards the Rockies. Another group was paid to pose for sculpture. Bob always meant his museum to complement the Museum of the Plains Indian, not to challenge it.

It may surprise some that the categories of "Indian art" and "Cowboy art" are quite distinct with customer bases that are often quite different. “Indian art” is often abstract and always based in the Southwest, maybe in Santa Fe where there is a school that gathers young people. “Cowboy art” as it exists in Montana is dominated by the example of Charlie Russell, who was always realistic and mostly self-daught.

BUT Bob was raised among the Blackfeet (born in the house where Leland Ground now runs EagleCalf Medical Supplies, next to Cuts Wood School.) Most of the people he knew were Blackfeet and he was always friends with Claude Schaffer, Tom and Alice Kehoe, John Ewers, and Raymon Gonyea, the anthropologists at the Museum of the Plains Indian. (Gonyea is Indian, but not Blackfeet. He's now at the Eiteljorg.)

In Browning the Museum of the Plains Indian was ALWAYS the main museum from the time it was formed in the 1940's. It was seriously damaged in the Big Flood of 1965 and so were many of the materials stored in the basement which was flooded. The damage has never really been addressed and this information is suppressed. The displays were never changed and were not originally meant to be: they were supposed to be a “library” for craft workers and one wing held the work room. That room was run for many years by Jackie Parsons, now the head of the Montana Arts Council. She is Blackfeet. It’s a bit of a mystery why that system came apart.

At the height of the “Red Power” movement when anthropologists were no longer directing operations, all the files in the archives that had to do with white people were taken to the dump. That included white artists like Russell. Not long ago a Ph.D. candidate went with her professor to visit the library but was prevented from entering because she was Blackfeet. The white professor was admitted. It was another of those Simple Simon reversals that reservations are prone to perform, doing the opposite of something that got them in trouble but without understanding why. The Museum is owned by the Craft Board, which is a subsidiary of the BIA. They are much less powerful now and largely unfunded. They would like to give the museum to the Tribe, which cannot afford to maintain it.

Another blunder was an “upgrading” of some of the exhibited materials, mainly the clothing. In doing cleaning, repair, and replacement, the value of antiquity was lost. But this sort of issue is not a matter for tourists to think about. They probably didn’t know the difference. The local people who did the work thought they looked better and, of course, they made a little money.

The feeling is that tourists might not be stopping in Browning because Bob is gone and his museum has been obliterated, now existing as the Blackfeet Heritage Center. I’m not sure how many of Bob’s art customers even came to Browning. Certainly, they were not tourists if they already knew about Bob’s work. “Tourists” were people who happened by and came in out of curiosity. Once they walked through the front door, we worked very hard to get them to buy an admission to the museum. Many turned on their heel and left. Few could have afforded a bronze if they had wanted to.

The suggestion was made that Bob’s bronze customers were famous people who came from Europe because they loved Indians, but I don’t think so. Scriver customers mostly belonged to the people served by the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, a network of auctions, institutions, and galleries -- people who swarm the CM Russell Auction every March. Very few Indians attend or participate in that Auction. Many of Bob’s customers were Montana folks and almost all were white and American. America patriotism, especially for Republicans, links far more strongly to “cowboy art” than to Indians, unless the subject is the Prairie Clearances and the resulting genocide by cavalry, where some white people weirdly identify with the victims AND the soldiers.

Indians have made it a point to preserve their own identities and to protest against governmental domination. It is said that many Europeans, particularly Germans, come to Browning for the culture and art. The Germans and French are very aware of the NA American genocide and still insist on the idea of the Vanishing Indian, though they’ve stopped vanishing! Euros want relics, they want 19th century sights (tipi villages), and so on. Darrell Norman’s operation capitalizes on that. His wife is German. Adolph Hungry Wolf actually LIVES that.

Vicki says that a survey in 1995 on behalf of the Montana Arts Council verified over 300 traditional artists practicing beautiful work on the Blackfeet reservation. She asks, “Why isn't it a draw for economic development?” It’s very hard to interface between producers and consumers because the producers tend to be free-lance individuals working out of their homes, when they have time, an idea and the right materials. The consumers come through during a ten week period in summer and there is no real “marketplace.” Producers tend to need money as they go, so they don’t stockpile for the summer.

But it’s possible to follow the Pow-wow circuit, which is a bigger market and one that grows constantly as more NA people themselves become prosperous enough to be good customers. Artists who are good enough to go to the annual Santa Fe annual fair can really clean up.

Also, people really don’t know how to evaluate Indian work and tend to buy “trinkets,” that is, beaded barrettes and the like. If people do major, sophisticated, expensive artifacts, they get a lot more money, but have to find some other way to pay the bills in between. Those who appreciate high-end authentic artifact reproductions are not usually tourists but are more likely to work through brokers. Responding to the need for small popular items, a class of pan-tribal objects has developed, like dream-catchers or rearview mirror fetishes that include feathers and crystals. The big seller at this spring’s Indian Art Show, a separate and very nice art show at the Civic Center during the Russell Auction, was dream catchers with a wee basketball at the center!

Vicki bravely asks a painful question: “Are people afraid to stop on a reservation?” The answer is also painful: people are always afraid to stop. This was especially true when there was polio on the reservation in the Fifties (before I came) and after Wounded Knee II when the image of Indians changed drastically. I’m not afraid of street “winoes” because I know most of them (might’ve been their English teacher!) but tourists can’t tell. Anyway, they can see Glacier Park in the distance. The highway looks a little tough these days. No white money comes in from outside because there are no particular advantages for white merchants-- sometimes penalties. There is a LOT of risky traffic on the main streets, esp. in summer, because local people spend so much time cruising. Gas prices may fix that.

Indians want two mutually exclusive things at once: they want everyone to come around and love them and celebrate them, but they also want to appear potent and connected to the 19th century warrior culture. If you look at Robert Hall’s “Rez Dogs” video (created in Missoula as part of a project), you’ll see the full spectrum from the spitting contempt of the first wino to the expansive hospitality of the one at the end. (It might still be on YouTube.)

The focus gets lost. First it’s artifacts, then it’s modern art, then it’s dinosaurs, then it’s a casino, then it’s environmental studies. As leadership shifts around and the media change the subject, everyone hares off to the next idea instead of concentrating on one thing until it works. Successes like the Scriver Studio or Darrell Norman’s camp and gallery, or the Blackfeet Trading Post happen because of a near monomania over a period of years, maybe decades. Too many people want instant results. They have a deep conviction that there is a magic answer and a terrible vulnerability to the possibility that they just aren’t good enough. What wins is a lot of preparation, steady work at the project, and the ability to congratulate oneself over small but real successes.

Friday, April 25, 2008


In the old writing paradigm a struggling young writer (usually male) almost secretly completes a novel that is staggering in its grasp of life and transcendent in its capacity to inspire the nation. This is the pattern followed by Ross Lockridge Jr, author of “Raintree County.” What happens after the archetypal book is published tends to be either eternal happiness (heaven) or a kind of crucifixion, since the pattern is rather Christian.

Writing is not gender-assigned, exactly. My friend Karl’s mother packed three filing cabinets with notes and attempts but never produced a publishable manuscript. Karl, wary of this, nevertheless was the first reader of my “Bronze I&O” manuscript. He is also an aspiring and natural writer, but hedged his bets by becoming a journalist and editor in Bellevue, Washington, one of the most affluent communities in the US. Now he’s retired early and reminds me that I’m not that much older than he is. In fact, he’s not the only one of the little virtual (but not necessarily virtuous except that they are all good writers) circle of men I mentioned in an earlier blog who protests that he is as old or older than me. Somehow we’ve picked up on a pattern that’s supposed to be for youngsters: creativity underwritten by poverty and optimism. But there’s more to it than that. Maybe our motto ought to be “better late than never.”

For one thing we have plenty to write about and plenty of skill. The stuff just overflows out of us. And no need to go to Paris: the Left Bank is in our keyboards. I happen to know all these folks who don’t know each other and I suspect that each of them has their own circle of people I don’t know. We don’t sit around a table spending money on drinks and throwing away our wit in conversation. We write because we just really love it, love the feeling of it, the joy of getting it down right. Then we share. Sometimes we have a political cause in mind. This is quite different from anything Hemingway or Tom Wolfe knew.

Karl and I met when I became interim minister of the Northlake UU Congregation in Kirkland,WA, now inundated by affluence but then an outpost of the humanities. In fact, this congregation formed partly around a nucleus of people supporting a liberal progressive school for their kids, so there was always a Montessori/Waldorf vibe about the church, an old mortuary with a wide porch that looked out over the lake towards Seattle. There was a pre-school in the basement, the kind of place where adults sat down to have long serious discussions about life with three year olds. The “sanctuary” was lined with fine paintings, often done by members.

What makes Karl’s writing unique is the therapeutic, exploring, humorous and yet constantly editing feel of his work. It’s very much in tune with the post-modern fascination with examination of one’s own thought in search of unconscious assumptions -- though he doesn’t consort with the big French/Algerian theory systems. Recently he sent me a set of essays he calls, “The Last of the Ice Ages: A Life Filtered Through the Marsh at Juanita Bay.” The wisdom and propriety of this title is discussed at length. There’s almost a footnote per page, most of them wry and funny.

One might say the key to the series of reflective visits is that he always sees, admires and values the regal blue herons, even after facing their true nature -- which is that of an assassin -- and without even noticing the smaller green heron -- which is brown anyway -- until it is pointed out. The turtle is his true nature, he proposes, but the sixty-pound burden on his back is the beaver. (I suspect it may be “Mom,” beavering away at her typewriter. But maybe it’s more like social obligation.) He likes muskrats (good) but can’t always tell them from nutria (bad).

At a deeper level, this set of essays is about Karl’s father sinking into Alzheimers. Archetypal dominating patriarch, he triggers the usual reaction in his son (resistance and a flight to anti-authoritarian Unitarianism) but this is complicated in several ways. Karl has mild birth damage (cerebral palsy is the diagnostic handle), barely noticeable, seeming rather like one of those handsome senators with war-damage: an awkward arm, a bit of limp. NO mental damage. To compensate for imbalance, he has been a Tai Chi adept for many years (he often suggests the herons are doing Tai Chi moves) which means that he’s given a good deal of thought to Buddhism and esp. the Tao. (After all, this IS the Pacific NW with its close ties to the Orient.)

Part of the reason for retiring early was to take on the care of both parents, demented and becoming more so. They are institutionalized, but Karl brings his father to the marsh. (He never brought his fragile living mother, but fantasizes bringing her urn of ashes.) Leaning on the railing of the viewing platform, the two men find what they share in their love of nature, panoramas and horizons. The cranky old man settles and opens when he is confronted with the marsh that Karl also loves.

In the “Chardonnay culture” where Karl lives, he is adept at Tarot, IChing, dream analysis, and various other systems of symbolism, but -- unlike his hallucinating father -- remains embedded in reality thanks to some very good friends (he has an actual writing group, though they’re half his age) and his very much grounded and practical wife. Many of his friends are female. (If his wife thinks it’s a good idea, he occasionally visits a female therapist to do some sorting.) At some point someone remarks that Karl approaches a specific woman as though he were her lover -- Mrs. Karl notes that Karl approaches ALL women as though he were their lover! But he never acts on it except to pay close attention, the true measure of love. His reward is their warm unfolding.

The Internet, especially blogging, has become like a virtual city or a university that can support an intellectual community. This particular kind of loose and overlapping circles (a little like the Olympic symbol, I suppose) is not organized or structured, like “MORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games such as "World of Warcraft", "Everquest" and "Second Life") but it has some of the advantages: little risk, freedom from physical appearance. This is an organic response to happenstance networking. So far as I can tell, no one is an avatar, a made-up person. We’re all real.

And that seems to be a value we all share, though an author puts on many faces while writing. In the end what we’re after is reality, a truth of a kind that a person can trust. Which was the original goal of the Great American Novel as written by Ross Lockridge Jr.! We wouldn’t mind being published. Some of us sincerely hope to make a lot of money. But the experience of really writing is its own joy.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Despite the tiny internal fascinations of genetics, we know that environment also has a major influence on how we turn out. These four women, for instance, are linear descendants with similar genetic inheritance, but their lives turned out quite differently because of the times they lived in, their relationships with birth families, their educational opportunities, and economics. As nearly as I can tell, the temperament potential of each of them was quite similar, but the unfolding path varied quite a bit.

Lucy Jane Philpott
(Photo taken in 1880 at Fern Ridge in Holly, Oregon) was a high-spirited young woman. The story goes that she rode side-saddle to town with her fiance, William Cochran, a red-headed member of a family who crossed the plains by walking the Oregon Trail. She was prosperous, proud and impatient. Therefore, when she was left waiting in town while Cochran talked with friends, she simply rode home alone, which a lady was not supposed to do -- partly because of the propriety issue and partly because of the danger, not least caused by having to ride side-saddle. And it WAS early days after the Civil War. She must have been born about the time of that war.

She died of infection after the birth of her last child. One of the few memories her daughter had was of her baby brother falling out of his crib, which was the kind on the floor, and her mother crawling across the floor to comfort him but without the strength to put him back in.

Ethel Grace Cochran (Aged 40 in this 1925 photo, so born in 1885) was that daughter. Her birth mother was replaced by a stepmother who dominated and mocked her, particularly for her teeth. They were “long” teeth and “Sarey” (Sarah) called them “horse teeth.” They were also rotten and when Ethel was a young woman she spent months in Portland having them seen to. She and her daughters all had bad teeth, so that their mouths and faces were changed by false teeth. Ethel found great comfort in Portland where she stayed with sympathetic friends and attended the First Baptist Church downtown which had a strongly pastoral minister.

Ethel was insecure and I know nothing about her education. She chose a fiery but underachieving husband, John Pinkerton, whose family had come on the train from Illinois after their sons were grown. Originally the family was prosperous, but the first wave of building boom passed. Then they never quite had enough money but they were truly in love. John’s projects fell through (notably a prune orchard in a narrow valley without a good well) except for his building skills, so he was often fulfilling contracts away from home, leaving Ethel in that remote orchard farm with her four girls and a lot of chickens. He was a force in the Presbyterian congregation, but Ethel sometimes managed to slip next door to the Roseburg Baptists, who were more forgiving. When the girls grew up, she was on the farm alone until she developed abdominal cancer at a relatively young age and after many years of struggle, she died.

But one story about her is that the women of the neighborhood and her family were gathering in Deer Creek Valley, over a set of steep hills from Roberts Creek, where the family farm was. For some reason, her ride didn't come, so she walked -- a distance of some miles. At first anger propelled her, but then as she realized she was really doing it, she developed high spirits! At the gathering she was much admired, partly out of guilt, no doubt.

Lucy May Pinkerton
(in 1925) at age 16 in Roseburg, OR.

Lucy was her father’s “right-hand man” and seemed to be destined to be a career girl who brought money home and made her own way in the world. She yearned for the city and the big surge of things. She attended Albany College, which eventually became the upscale Lewis & Clark in Portland, and that suited her very well! Forced to stop college because of the Depression, she managed to return in 1953 and graduate in 1957 from Portland State college with a lot of Korean War veterans. She had married at 29 and had her children during WWII. That’s when her teeth were fixed. Her dentist was better than that of the others.

Her husband, Bruce Strachan, was a traveling man like her father though far more educated. He was a “prairie humanist” and admired such folks as Margaret Sanger or Bertrand Russell. His family considered him an “intellectual” -- had an MA in ag econ. In the early years of the marriage he was exuberant, fun-loving and affectionate. In 1948 he suffered a concussion in a car accident which I believe caused his personality to change. After that, things seemed stuck so far as his fortunes were concerned, which is why Lucy, even then a force in the PTA and the League of Women Voters, went back to school for a teaching degree and taught for seventeen years. Then she was retired for longer than that and took many trips around the world.

Lucy also had cancer: breast cancer about the time she went back to college, and then a blood cancer that shadowed her last five years between 1993 and 1998. More about that in another entry. She definitely felt the lost relationship with Lucy Jane, for whom she was named, and named me Mary Helen for her sister who was killed in a car accident as a teenager.

Mary Helen Strachan (in Browning, MT, about 1968, aged 29) This was as thin as I ever was as an adult. I was married to Bob Scriver by this time, but divorced in a couple of years. No children, on purpose. The early loss of my great-grandmother and oppression by the "wicked" stepmother meant that my grandmother was insecure at mothering. My own mother "mothered" as though she were her father, which meant she was pretty harsh. I decided not to continue the inheritance.

My face is very like the line of “moms” but my teeth (square but less troublesome and the beneficiary of a LOT of dental work) and hair (red and bushy, but now white and thinning to bald) were my father’s. I made my way through a series of exciting jobs and a colorful marriage until I retired early to write in the village of Valier, MT. I never made a lot of money, and greatly disappointed my mother who wanted above all for me to be secure and prosperous. I earned my BS in Speech Education with her help and my MA and MDiv for the Unitarian ministry with her disapproval.

I write. She said if I wrote about her and her family, she would come back and haunt me. If I'd married in the normal course of things, there would be two generations after me, but their thin phantoms stand alongside my mother. They don't quite haunt me, but I think about them once in a long while.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

SHADE OF THE RAINTREE by Larry Lockridge

My postmasters (I have two, one male and one female.) are my co-conspirators in managing my writing. The man is a big-time reader, though not the kind of books that I read or write. The woman bought my book about Bob Scriver and is my "political consultant." So I share a lot with them. Today I got a book in the mail from New York University and tore it open at the counter, because any day a book comes it’s CHRISTMAS. (It's cold and snowing today, too.)

This was the male postmaster, barely old enough to remember “Raintree County,” the massive saga that many consider to be the Great American Novel (though most folks remember the movie). The book was “Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr.” The postmaster was respectful. The book was sent to me by the author’s son because I asked for it. I didn’t see the inscription until I got home: “For Mary Scriver -- Fellow family biographer and to the Raintree. Larry Lockridge.

Through all my travels and downsizings, my copy of “Raintree County” has come along with me, I suppose because of its archetypal model of “success” but also as a reminder of the price one might pay (and that one’s family might pay) for that success. The publishing paradigm that made Lockridge’s book a triumph -- quite apart from its quality -- is gone now, wiped away by digitization and commodification. But the dream and the warning live on. Anyway, wasn’t Bob Scriver’s life an illustration of the same dynamics though he was a sculptor instead of a writer?

“Fellow family biographer...” The back copy discusses -- as I gather the book does also -- the problem of following a stunner of a book like “Raintree County” with something as good, which is what everyone demands. Lockridge chose suicide, maybe for this reason, maybe for some other reason, maybe for some reason we don’t know about. His cousin, Mary Jane Ward, was the author of “The Snake Pit,” another famous book immortalized in a movie. It was about the treatment of the mentally ill. I don’t know how much of it was autobiographical. Maybe the book will reveal something. We all seem to have the assumption that genius is next to madness -- that it “helps” to be brilliantly crazy. But how much of that is just being slightly out of step or noncompliant? How much is used as entitlement for ordinary bad behavior?

Something entirely unexpected has happened to me in my retreat, maybe because of the Internet. I seem to have become the hub of a small circle of men -- maybe half-a-dozen -- slightly younger than myself -- who are writing almost daily to ask me questions or share bits of their life and writing. They know I’m writing and are simply taking it on trust that they won’t star in a blog -- or maybe they’re secretly hoping they will. One or two are infamous. In fact, a few of these men are nearby and stop by the house to talk. It’s a bit of a pattern in this community that men visit aunties or grannies for coffee, pie and a bit of listening. I don’t actually say much, even on email. Still feeling a kind of pioneer community obligation, they often just check to see if a single older woman needs help. The pattern seems natural to me because artists used to stop by Scriver Studio to check in, maybe get advice, from Bob rather than me. Networking.

I’ve always had a weakness for men in their fifties, so maybe it’s a good thing that now I’m old enough to be sort of a mom or auntie. But there’s more to it than that, more individual. We seem to have the same level of intensity about writing and we are all thoroughly anti-authoritarian. In fact, the focus of much of this writing is the problem of coming to terms with fathers who are absent, oppressive, unjust, violent, ineffective, depressed, or overwhelming. It would not be unfair to say these are my issues, too, maybe more than for most women. In many ways, my relationship to Bob was that of a son to a father but in a healing way, since I ended so violently rejecting my own father -- none of us realizing how much of his behavior was driven by brain damage. (In spite of Bob’s brain damage, he never rejected me nor I him.) Now I’m in Bob’s shadow, as though he were a successful father. I walked into this voluntarily by writing a biography just as Larry Lockridge did. Our present society tries to push these father/son issues underground, which is probably how we ended up with George W. Bush for a president.

This circle of male writers doesn’t know each other and doesn’t come from the same parts of my life. I’m not sure they would willingly sit down in the same room together. Some I’ve known since they were kids, others I’ve never laid eyes on. Some are from ministry, some from animal control, none from teaching English -- that says something. As one principal bellowed at me, “English teachers are supposed to teach punctuation and grammar. Nothing else.” We’ve created a lot of English teachers who do not read or write. But it doesn’t really matter. REAL writing is about heart. Heart lessons are everywhere.

And, as I’ve been discussing with one (who quit teaching after considerable success) it is often about the management of one’s consciousness. Authority figures hate consciousness. They just want obedience. Anyway, there’s another danger point: to really teach -- I mean REALLY teach -- one must make intimate contact and our society considers intimacy to equate with sex, to invite and legitimize sex. This was a problem I ran into with the ministry as well -- if you preach from the heart, people want to come live with you. Some of these men who are most successful with redemptive teaching are gay or bi, which the present establishment (despite protestations to the contrary) hates and will destroy. (Even though one of my undergrad roommates is still proud of being bonked by her male prof on the floor of his office throughout her academic career. It was “het,” therefore romantic. Also, she thought if she was consorting with a purported genius, that must mean she was one as well.)

Not many people have learned to be intimate and even erotic without “spending” it all on sex. Alvina Krause, the famous NU acting coach, was one who knew how to step in very close without ever crossing the line. I’m about the age she was when she retired, not that she ever quit teaching. I think about her. Like a good therapist, she could accept a transference without acting on it.

While I do my own writing -- which some of these folks have helped with over the years -- I’m delighted to have company, fellow travelers, in a way I never expected. I guess there are a few women in this circle as well, but women tend to be competitive which cuts off real sharing. These women are far more successful, which means they are too busy for much dialogue and don’t need it anyway.

This is a dangerous occupation, this writing: not just because my way of fending off depression is often through self-dosing with adrenaline, but also because I might hurt someone else, which is what always scared me about teaching. Larry Lockbridge, an English professor at New York University, may have some clues about this. I’ll report when I get the book read.

First I have to read a self-printed, limited edition, rather private, set of essays about a marshy little bay across the lake from Seattle. I’ll ask him if I can blog about them. I was up at 2AM trying to explain what it feels like to ride a really good horse who wants to please you. My dreams mixed the two.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Okay now, pucker up for some biology/chemistry/genetics. That means a lot of acronyms. Might want to get a 3X5 card to make a little fudge list.

First, you know about cells. I assume you know that most cells have a nucleus, which is the double-helix computer, the brains, the game-plan, the building instructions that in the aggregate create a human being out of an ovum and a sperm. The biggest single cell you’re likely to see is a hen’s egg. The sperm you’re likely to see right now is pollen. (My cottonwood is going to put out little tassels of red sexy stuff before it gets around to leaves.) Here’s the main thing you need to remember: the ovum (female) comes with the “house” and that includes the nucleus, except only half the game plan is there. That’s why an ovum is big and the sperm, which must go into “inner space” like an astronaut, is basically half-a-nucleus with a propelling tail. So teeny are they, that they are sprayed like birdshot at the ovum in hopes that one will hit and penetrate. Thus, when the two halves of double-helix nucleus wind together, the plan begins to unfold in growth.

Among the structures in the “house-ovum” is a furnace, which will make energy throughout the life of the cell. This is the mitochondria and it has its own nucleus with its own genetic instructions. Some people believe that aeons ago it was once a separate little one-celled animal that was captured by this new organization of cells constituting a creature, not so fancy as a mammal. (Hey, what about the mitochondria of, say, oysters? I googled. Oyster mitochondria is being vigorously studied!)

One’s genome, as we are used to thinking of it, is a meiotic mix of code from both parents. But the genome of one’s mitochondria comes through mitosis and is ALWAYS from the mother, the house. Powerful as the main inheritance may be, the underlying power has to come from your mother’s inherited furnace. Since my father died at 65 and my mother died at 89, I like this happenstance.

The scientists who study longevity have not settled on a consensus about what causes it, but one powerful theory focuses on the mitochondria. It seems that when a mito makes energy, it “leaks” atoms, those “free radicals” that cosmetic ads caution against. The main cell, when it is threatened by disease, produces inflammation which might be unpleasant but turns away infection. Late in life, when the mito gets leakier, the free radicals may also cause inflammation that turns against the body, causing diabetes, congestive heart failure, cancer and dementia: in short, aging.

There are certain populations, one in Japan that tends to live to a hundred and one in Nigeria that appears to be immune to Alzheimers, that either have something in their main genetic game plan that is protective or they have less leaky mitos. Birds’ mitos leak one-tenth as much as human mitos because they make and use so much energy that they’d be overwhelmed by free radicals otherwise. Fascinating, eh?

(This comes from “A unifying view on ageing and disease: the double-agent theory” authored by Nick Lane and published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology,” available through It’s English so leaves “e” in “ageing.”)

Okay, now back to the oysters which are being stressed by the changes in the ocean. I just looked at the titles, so I’ll go back later but biggest worries seem to be temperature and heavy metals, esp. cadmium. Not unlike us.

In a second article at: the case is made that damage to children’s mitochondria can cause autism, by overwhelming the body’s ability to supply energy to the developing brain during a specific window of development -- and also that mild and symptom-less damage to mitos exists in some percentage of everyone (one in 4,000 is suggested), time-bombs waiting for unwarranted stress to take us out. (In the case of diabetes, for instance, the stress of over-processed foods which produce a LOT of free radicals.)

But strangely, this mito damage seems to show an “inheritance pattern” that comes through the father, affecting cousins who don’t have the same mitos. So it might have something to do with the way the larger cell-house manages its mitos. (Check out those Japanese and Nigerians. The scientists can even tell you which “alleles” -- sections of the main genome code -- have mutated in this helpful way and how one molecule can be changed to another by adding or subtracting atoms.) We’re so close! We can see the moon, but we don’t quite know how to get there yet.

BUT mild mito dysfunction “reportedly has been associated with intelligence, because it can increase activity of the brain’s NMDA receptors -- but it can also increase risk of brain disease.” (Quick, Myrtle, a definition!: Wikipedia: “The NMDA receptor (NMDAR) is an ionotropic receptor for glutamate (NMDA (N-methyl D-aspartate) is a name of its selective specific agonist). Activation of NMDA receptors results in the opening of an ion channel that is nonselective to cations. This allows flow of Na+ and small amounts of Ca2+ ions into the cell and K+ out of the cell.

“Calcium flux through NMDARs is thought to play a critical role in synaptic plasticity, a cellular mechanism for learning and memory. The NMDA receptor is distinct in that it is both ligand-gated and voltage-dependent.

Don’t we recognize “aspartate” and “glutamate” -- don’t those have something to do with sweeteners or Chinese food?

Okay. So with my NMDA receptors I’m no wiser but just as paranoid. The focus of the article is not mitos but the rising number of cases of autism in children, with special concern over the Scylla and Charybdis between the stress of vaccination versus the stress of infection. But also there is again reason to blame the modern American diet and in particular, corn, esp. processed corn oil, which is inflammatory as opposed to fish oil which is anti-inflammatory and a way of addressing free-radicals.

Should all children be tested for mito function before they are vaccinated? Should the number of vaccinations at one time be limited? We just don’t know yet.

The metaphor of house and furnace that I’ve been using leads me to reflect on the house I grew up in. At first it had a wood and coal furnace, a monster that had to be fed and klinkers removed. But the house was toasty from the bottom up and not dependent on anything but air for convection. My mother converted it to electricity for the sake of the ease and safety as she grew older. Now she didn’t have to go to the basement to chop kindling or shovel coal -- just nudge a thermostat up. That furnace became more expensive as electricity cost more. It didn’t heat the house from the bottom up the way the wood/coal had. It began to be damp. The basement was chilly. There was mold. A lesson in there somewhere -- maybe modern diets equals easy furnaces.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I’ve been corresponding with a type of male who seems to be created by the teaching practices of Jesuits: smart, lively, and totally defiant. (Having an engineer father also has something to do with it.) He says (and please forgive the self-serving elements of this quote which expose his thinking -- he’s inclined to flattery as behavior control): “but you are far too articulate and eccentric and knowledgeable to be sitting in a little house in Valier. I have no idea how accurate you are, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that you are perfectly capable of making people think about what has become dogma to so many.

“Perhaps dogma once ruled your life, and that's why you are now so adept at pointing out and destroying the cherished illusions of so many??”

The context of the discussion is that he’s trying to understand Blackfeet “theology” for the purposes of a book he’s writing. This is a conscientious pursuit, though he’s using me as a source for reasons of his own. He’s not really thinking about my Div School credentials or my fifty years on and off the rez or my participation in Blackfeet ceremonies. He’s talking “theology” in the Jesuit understanding and I’m talking “worldview” in an experiential understanding, which no U of Chicago Div School prof liked much when I was there.

The assumptions I see are these:
1. That good thinking means you have to go to some big center where “things are happening,” like a campus or a city.
2. That thinking for oneself is the result of reaction to dogma.
3. That it means “pointing out and destroying the cherished illusions of others.”
4. That I do this as a reaction to an early dependence on and devotion to dogma.

I don’t see any of these assumptions as justified. The message of mine that triggered them was a comparison of his disillusion with Indians at tribal colleges with my own disillusion with seminary and, to some extent, U of Chicago Divinity School. It wasn’t their fault, I was trying to say. If one has exaggeratedly high expectations of transcendence, exaltation, and certified worthiness, the whole enterprise is doomed anyway. They are what they are and cannot be different for our sake. Anyway, I think both institutions were victims of bad organizational design. But then, the sources of those bad designs WERE dogmatic (i.e. “big powerful males are the best leaders”).

What broke our hearts was not weak theology. It was bad behavior: professors and experts who slept with students, maybe took advantage of them in other ways like claiming their work, drank, smoked, used drugs, broke their word, never showed up for appointments, did a lousy job of teaching, and were just all-around mediocre. I found some major exceptions at the U of Chicago, but my correspondent found few to none. And the students: needy, addicted, soft, narcissistic, and, again, mediocre. WE weren’t like that. We came to this place NOT to be like that!

I say a good religion is one that promotes good behavior. I don’t care if the Pope is lime green and wears roller skates instead of those fancy red loafers, so long as he does the right thing. (He seems to grasp this a little more firmly all the time.) I think John-Paul showed the wisdom of good behavior even as his close friend Ratzinger defended the dogma, which was his job at the time. Dogma is meant for the clarification of the institution and not as a guide to good behavior. Dogma about behavior is almost always bound to provoke rebellion, esp. in “young elk” who want their own space and turf.

But my standards about behavior may not be the same as the standards of others, esp. the tendency to measure behavior in terms of prosperous consequences. At least if you define “prosperous” as accumulation of goods or being important in a major population center. I would define good consequences of behavior as what creates healthy individuals and societies -- healthy meaning surviving, but also meaning a kind of life that supports joy.

An example: I’m beginning to feel strongly (and I’m not alone) that religion (or lack of it or the evasion of religion) has badly let us down in terms of family and children. What sort of religion allows priests to prey on children? A religion that exalts celibacy, maybe? A religion that exalts male dominance, maybe? Exclusion of the female? Worldviews creep into dogma.

What sort of religion so distorts marriage (cult polygamy) that no one knows which children are whose and children are wives before they are ready? Clearly the function of sex is twisted into the privilege and goal of something called “spiritual marriage” which is not marriage at all, but the production of dominated women for the advantage of men. (See above about priests.) Boys in this cult society, opposite to China, are discarded. (Any Chinese willing to adopt them the way we adopt discarded Chinese girls?) But isn’t the larger society just a diluted version of this?

There’s no use saying one is NOT religious when you’re talking about worldview. Everyone has a world-view, and the media-supported secular pop culture is probably the most dominant one in America. This “non-religion” supports uncommitted relationships based on ephemeral “love” so that people split before they’ve ever gotten to know each other, over small matters as are daily noted in Dear Abby, leaving children as detritis -- inconvenient, neglected, hungering for food as well as nurturing, unsure of their place in the world, impossible to educate. They aren’t even very good cannon fodder for our “religion-based” wars. Dogma is institutionalized world view.

Rule number one for a “good” religion: it supports adult bonding that creates functioning new adults. Not necessarily two-by-two marriage, because even polygamous societies (like pre-contact Blackfeet) took responsibility for children: partly because everyone looked out for all children, partly because of uncleship (since fathers weren’t necessarily identified), partly through adoptions, and partly because of a pretty harsh insistence on faithfulness -- but only for women -- the practice of nose-amputation as punishment. (Sometimes punishment-based religions go so far that they are worse than the behavior they are supposed to abate. Hear that, Taliban?)

Then there is a society-as-a-whole dimension that brings up a behavior issue not directly related to children, but indirectly even more vital: the protection of the environment. The evidence is mounting that our carelessness with waste, with pollution, with harmful substances freely sprayed everywhere and put in food, means that those whose genetics make them vulnerable are already suffering from chronic disease, that traditionally inhabited parts of the world are now uninhabitable, and that human beings may soon submit to the same die-offs as frogs, bees and bats. A new religion, as many see environmentalism or Green Politics, has arisen to address this.

I expect us to be saved by the kind of people who defy the Jesuits (and some would say the Jesuits were themselves this kind of people) “smart, lively, and totally defiant.” And I don’t see why old ladies in small towns can’t be “articulate and eccentric and knowledgeable” as a kind of community ministry. “What matters is that you are perfectly capable of making people think about what has become dogma to so many.” Right. And you, too, my friend!

Here are Peter and I in 1978, sitting on the steps at Fleck House where we lived. He was everything a seminarian was supposed to be: young, male, well-behaved, scholarly. Now he's the minister in a large, prosperous church, successful and well-loved.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


This was my original high school cohort. Every morning we walked down Alberta Street to Jefferson High School, because we all lived just a half-block or so off Alberta. It was 1953. The distance was about two miles.

We’d all been born just before WWII except for Pearl Lee who was a little older. I think you can tell which one she is. Her family had been refugees when the Japanese invaded China and the Baptists helped them get out. We were a generation that grew up with war as the norm, Pearl more than the rest of us. She would never go to a war movie.

Years later Pearl and her husband, Ron, went back to help the people of Hong Kong leave when the government changed. They’ve stayed faithful and serving Baptists all through. Pearl, Ron, Pearl’s sister, and the sister’s husband came to visit me in a big RV a few summers ago. She was unchanged. So was Ron. But I was GREATLY changed. This puzzled her.

Bob Richardson was Joan McGowan’s boyfriend. Leaning on a girl was how boyfriends showed relationship in those days: ownership, domination -- even when they were kidding. I don’t know what happened to him. Joan has married, maybe more than once, and for a while I heard she was running a kennel. No kids, I think. That’s all I know. She doesn’t come to reunions in Portland and since I moved back here, I don’t either.

I’m on the far right end. This is the front porch of my house. Joyce Thomas actually lived in the next block towards school, but she’d walk up to our house to wait even though the others were almost never late. Joyce was my best friend/biggest enemy for our primary years when we walked to Vernon Grade School together. I remember us clobbering each other with our galoshes once and wearing the same coat at the same time once. Then she transferred to St. Andrews, the school attached to St. Andrews Cathedral on Alberta, not far away. When it was time for high school, she went public school again. Her father died and I think they didn’t have money for the all-girl Catholic St. Mary’s High School downtown.

We were in the same algebra class and very competitive. We’d talk back and forth to compare answers and at first the teacher, Mr. Knutson, tried to stop us, but then I think he understood that we were really learning that way. The second year I was in a different algebra class and came as close as I ever did to flunking.

The dog is Duncan McTavish, half-Scottie and half-Sealyham. Death on rats and snakes.

One year three of us decided we’d make dresses just alike and so we did, except that Joan and I bought green stripes and Pearl bought pink. Also, she used the collar option in the pattern. We thought we were really snazzy in our big crinolines. Not satisfied with starch, we dipped them in sugar syrup so we shed sticky sparkly little flakes when we walked.

The three of us had the same birthday, even though not the same year, so we celebrated together. Now we’d gone to wearing high heels! And I was big on gloves -- these were pea green. I had this suit on layaway all summer at Penny’s while I picked berries and beans to pay for it. I often wore a hat with it, a little green one with a white cuff that I borrowed from my mother. I think we went out for lunch together to someplace fancy.

This is probably the first, last and only time I tried to play tennis. As a friend used to say, I might as well use a racquet with no strings since I never hit the ball anyway. This was the high school uniform at the time, but you can see why Joyce always looked so pretty and stylish and I always looked -- well, serviceable. I wore white bucks, she went with saddle oxfords. My pants were always baggy, hers are fitted and cuffed. I weighed a little more.

In those days girls, women and many men all wore Pendleton jackets: wool, big buttons, cuffs, patch pockets. They were practical in the thin Oregon rain, just the right weight to be warm enough but not too warm. Those of us who couldn’t afford readymade went out to the mill in Washougal on the Washington side of the Columbia and bought the yardage and a pattern. I have four buttons, Joyce has three. Little differences like that make a LOT of difference when you’re tuned to that sort of thing. I think hers was bright red. Mostly people wore plaid.

If one tries to think the unthinkable like “The Girl in Saskatoon” (about the unsolved murder of a young woman) the one of us most likely to have been murdered was Joan, but she wasn’t. The likelihood and the preventative were both the Bob Richardsons of the world, because we understood them to be our owners and protectors. Our safety depended on their good will, so one always picked a boyfriend who was possessive, but sheltering of his possessions, so he didn’t beat up his girl. Bob would never have really hurt Joan, we thought. Part of the unthinkableness and protection was that none of us drank. Joan’s father had an occasional beer. He was working class and maybe that was part of the reason we didn’t drink: it wasn’t classy. There were no drugs we knew about and we didn’t smoke either.

The cohort came apart in the course of the four years and ended when I went to college at Northwestern University in Chicago. College was so mysterious to most that when I said I was going to Northwestern, many of my classmates thought I meant the business college downtown. They’d look puzzled and say, “I never figured you for an office worker.” Joyce and I were both in “enriched” English classes but I don’t know where she went after graduation. I think she had two boys and was widowed, like her mother.

By the sophomore year I’d become so active in dramatics that I hardly saw the others. Pearl and I were both in National Honor Society. I was Pearl’s bridesmaid when she married Ron and never could think of any occasion for wearing my pink bridesmaid dress after that.

I think Joanie was also a bridesmaid, but she disappears from the yearbooks after our sophomore year. I can’t remember why. Did they move? Did she drop out? Transfer? When we all graduated, her dad bought her a Ford Thunderbird “instead of college.” That’s the summer we were likely to get killed one way or another. We could barely cram three riders in: she and I and Diane Milburn, another walker who isn’t in the photo because she lived much farther along Alberta. Joan and Diane’s mothers would say it was all right to go out cruising “if Mary goes along” because “she won’t do anything dangerous.” Ha. We went drag racing.

One night we got into the car of the stock car champion racer of the state of Oregon with three unknown boys and raced another car along a twisty road beside the Columbia River -- cliff on one side, drop-off on the other. Then we said we had to go home because it was almost midnight. The boys pretended they were going to take us to a remote cabin they knew of and hold us prisoner. (They didn’t say rape.) Just when we were feeling most desperate, it turned out that one of the boys also had a midnight curfew and they took us back to the T-bird.

For a few minutes we were going 110 mph on a dark narrow wet road side by side, with both cars vibrating -- only a foot apart. The crash simply didn’t happen. There were other close calls before and after, but I was never again so aware of how thin the separation was between living and not.

But also what I learned that night was fatalism and the power of choice. Say “no way” back in the beginning, or face death as real. As I type, we’re right in the middle of a major blizzard, no visibility, high winds, icy roads, seven degrees, a foot of snow. People traveling are in the cold hands of fate tonight. I'm staying home.

(This post responds to the earlier post about “The Girl in Saskatoon,” a newly published book by Sharon Butala that is presently #7 on the Canadian best seller list kept by the Globe and Mail.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008


The abiding dilemma of Indian education is how to function in the formal academic world without giving up “Indianness.” Is it a matter of method (Euro-linear-hierachy vs. free-form-associative-poetry) or a matter of content (records of artifacts, legends, ceremonies, physical culture vs one’s own family and tribe)?

"Tribes urged to control research," Missoulian. April 18, 2008.
Copyright 2008 Missoulian. All Rights Reserved.

"A key difference between an American Indian tradition and an Amish religious practice is simple: One has a sovereign government to legally defend it. Tribal communities must use that legal power to regulate who gets to define their identity, or risk losing control of their cultural heritage, speakers warned at the "Intersecting Interests" conference at the University of Montana this week. And they face mountains of scientific research and legislation that have already painted their picture without their consent or participation. 'It's a waste of a Ph.D. if you're going to spend your life whining about your powerlessness instead of doing something about your powerlessness,' American Indian Graduate Center director Philip 'Sam' Deloria said Thursday. 'We need to learn how to bust somebody's chops in this business. Keep lists of people who aren't allowed to do research in tribal communities and enforce them.'..."

In early Christianity this practice of keeping the outsiders “out” is called “fencing the Communion.” That railing where the people kneel on the outside was originally meant to keep out those who had not declared their identity as Christians. Since Sam comes from an Episcopalian family, he will know what I mean. But I’ll come back to this “fencing” in a later blog. Today I want to go in a different direction.

Sometimes reviews are as interesting or even MORE interesting than the books they’re supposed to be reviewing. My most recent example is Scott McLemee’s review of Richard Sennett’s book, “The Craftsman,” which turns out to be a kind of response to “Sam” Deloria. (Haven’t gotten hold of Sennett’s book yet -- it might be as good as the review!)

McLemee says that Claude Levi-Strauss, in his book “The Savage Mind” defined a bricoleur as “a kind of handyman. Unlike the carpenter or the electrician, he has no particular tools or domain of expertise. He can perform any number of tasks, but his knack is for improvising. ‘The rules of his game,’ as Levi-Strauss put it, ‘are always to make do with whatever is at hand.’” “'The Savage Mind’ argued that the traditions and narratives encountered by anthropologists were a sort of bricolage.” Heck -- I decided “The Savage Mind” was politically incorrect and threw it out -- now it’s back! This idea is subversive to Ph.D. level anthropology, though not to the Ph.D. level journalism that Sam Deloria has achieved.

Then McLemee sets up a contrast. “For many years the whole thrust of academic life has been to cultivate the ethos of professionalization.” That is, training, credentialing, defining limits and standards that are presumably enforced by the professionals themselves, like doctors and lawyers. “Status-minded.” This is what Sam is describing when he says “busting the chops” of anyone trespassing on the defined turf. That is, an educated Indian is a professional Indian, which is why the enormous outcry over “fake” Indians always begins with academics, a resentment picked up at pow-wows by less loftily educated Indians, sometimes renegades already fueled by a sense of exclusion against THEM, though they have been the ones who dropped out of school. (One suspects they dropped out BECAUSE they felt excluded. They never seem to realize that the professional Indians themselves are using them only as subjects, not equals.)

This book by Sennett is supposed to “be the latest in a series of reflections on the damage to the social fabric caused by the reigning economic system.” I would propose that excluding uncertified white (professionalized) Indians on grounds that they are insufficiently Indian (“Keep lists of people who aren't allowed to do research in tribal communities and enforce them.") is less a matter of making sure scholars have skills than assuming that tribal knowledge is a sort of geological deposit that will be exhausted by too much mining. Knowledge becomes a source of wealth rather than a sense of identity. This is a Euro-linear-hierarchical-power-based way of looking at it. But Deloria’s denomination (Episcopalian) IS a mini-Anglo version of the Roman Catholic Church which takes its assumptions from the Holy Roman Empire, the root of hierarchy.

McLemee says Sennett “has focused on the everyday level of world formation and shared ways of making sense of things through the experience of making a living. ... Our options for understanding life fluctuate when the conditions of life and work themselves are in flux.” This is not just the situation of Indians now -- we are all in this “flux” together. McLemee paraphrases Sennett as questioning the “autonomy and progress-mindedness formerly embodied in the aspiration to ‘have a career’... The risks and rewards of the marketplace disrupt the routines of even its more powerful members.” If is risky to plan a career as an anthropologist when the very discipline of anthropology is reconfiguring, how can anyone have a career as an Indian?

Then here comes the good stuff: “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking. This dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” McLemee says, “The ability to enter this dialogue, to find the rhythm of involvement with the materials, is slow to develop. It requires both long practice and regular communication with others who have mastered the craft. And while techniques do evolve, the pace of change within a craft tends to be slow. This is not a defect.” Back to Sennett: “The slowness of craft time serves as a source of satisfaction; practice beds in, making the skill one’s own. Slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination -- which the push for quick results cannot.”

That’s the way to be Indian: to do what Indians do, over a long period of time, without hurrying, until it seeps into your blood. This is like the New Testament example of the “tent-makers,” who went into communities as missionaries but made their livings by sewing tents in those communities, side-by-side with the people. Lodge-makers, one might say.

Friday, April 18, 2008


As you know, I’ve managed to back off Diabetes 2 since January, 2006, when my blood glucose was 11.2. By January, 2007, I was at 6.7 (6 is the goal -- under 7 is okay to the more generous experts). July, 2007, was 6.2. November, 2007, was 6.1 and this doctor said the goal was 6.5. (I'd lost fifty pounds.) As folks with experience know, the problem with Diabetes 2 is that no two doctors agree, neither about goals nor about causes, and they will give you all sorts of advice that doesn’t fit and doesn’t work. And get mad if you say so. Yet this is a condition that requires the person (as opposed to the patient, since most of the time I’m pretty IMpatient!) to feel as though they are in control -- NOT helpless.

The April issue of Vogue is quite interesting. First of all, the cover was controversial since it “embodied” (nearly literally) a story pairing athletes with models. A HUGE LeBron James is roaring and dribbling while Giselle Bundchen (nearly as tall but maybe a fourth the circumference) in a fab green gown is swept along under his arm. The objection was that LeBron looks like King Kong and encourages the racist/sexist notion of a gorilla attacking a white victim. But Giselle doesn’t look like a victim to me. What do critics want? Clarence Thomas looking respectful? The contrasting interior photo was Daria Werbowy towering over the little squirt Shaun White who happens to be an Olympic Gold Medal snowboarder. They both have lots of hair.

Is Vogue trying to make a point about physical identity or what? Are you kidding? I typed Vogue-April-controversy and got 152,000 hits! I just watched “The Devil Wore Prada” and I can ASSURE you that the Wintour/Streep character knew EXACTLY what she was doing. Then Jeffrey Steingarten says, “Frankly, my dear, it’s your genes.” But, honey, when it comes to diabetes 2, it might not be that at all.

In fact, the theory I believe is this one from : (Tuesday, January 29, 2008)
“Environmental Pollutants May Up Risk For Diabetes
“The buzz at work this week is that pesticides could increase the risk for diabetes, and insulin resistance - big time. This week's Lancet came out with a commentary highlighting the work of Dr. Duk-Hee Lee, et al. Dr. Lee's group found the odds of having diabetes were 38 times higher! for people with high blood levels of toxic persistent organic pollutants (POPs, such as dioxin and PCBs) than for people with low levels. And the association was dose dependant - the higher your levels, the higher your risk.

“And this - He found no link with obesity. If you were overweight or obese but had low levels of POPS, you had a lower risk of diabetes than if you were lean but had high levels.”

The trouble is that it takes hundreds of dollars to have the tests for “toxic persistent organic pollutants.” Medicare won’t pay, I think. So I jumped into another controversial camp: “fat is okay, but dump all white sugar, white flour, corn syrup, and processing.” Part of the reason I went this way is that John Kyle, who was the dietician for the Browning Public Schools in the 1970’s, used to say they were like lead in paint -- poison with the invidious effect of making you crave more. He was pretty persuasive. Not that he persuaded many Indians.

I did keep my Oregon hazelnut bread but I vary it with muffins I make from the All-Bran package and augment with chopped walnuts and some kind of fruit. NO sugar but a bit of Splenda. Other than that, my breakfast is either the hazelnut toasted (ONE slice) with cream cheese or avocado or sugarless jam; or old-fashioned oatmeal with a handful of unsweetened raspberries, or cottage cheese or ricotta sprinkled with lemon or orange zest. Maybe two poached eggs on toast.

Lunch is a melange (I’d say a “mess” but it sounds better in French!) starting with a can of beans (NOT the kind with sugar -- check the label) often black beans, then corn niblets, chopped green pepper, olives, green beans, peas, any other veggies lying around loose or in cans, maybe chopped tomatoes, carrots cooked or not, chopped mild green chilies, and then a can of something like guacamole or enchilada sauce. Sometimes I throw in cheese buttons (cut off string cheese) or half-inch lunch meat squares. NO pasta, NO bread cubes, NO potato. But seriously, folks, experiment. Find the combos you like, eat ‘em and see if your glucose meter reads under 140 two hours later -- if it does, GREAT! If not, bzzzzt. NOT. I can get away with corn beef hash, one of my all-time winter favs IF I only eat a half can and mix it with a fried-up chop of green peppers and onions. Is this eating like a gorilla in the jungle? YES. Except they don’t do much cooking.

For supper I keep remembering a great meal I had at Papa Hayden’s in Portland, a very elegant place. It was fresh tender lettuce with a beautifully broiled thick steak cut into strips and piled on top. Never woulda thought of it, but it was wonderful. Supper is my big “lettuce” (by which I just mean leafy mostly) and protein meal. Maybe eggs or shrimp or just tuna fish. My thinking is that the roughage keeps my stomach full and the protein is there for repairs while-you-sleep. (Gorillas make a new bed every night, too. One of the Harvard Indian’s rules is to always sleep in a clean bed. But the cats and I like a bed that smells like us. We have no intention of remaking the bed every day.)

By now maybe you’ve noticed an artifact: I once had a book about a “one bowl diet,” which suggested that you could eat whatever you could get into that bowl, but no more. (They didn’t say what SIZE bowl! Presumably, about the same size as your stomach.) For one person, who tends to wander around while eating, one bowl is good. Sometimes I cut up a strip or two of bacon, fry it to make liquid fat, then fry chunks of meat in it, then dump in a whole package of fresh spinach. (You need a big pot to start with, but it ends up fitting in the bowl.) I like a bit of honey-mustard dressing.

String and strip cheese are great snacks and I eat peanuts -- a few TOO MANY peanuts. My latest idea is that I will snack on peanuts roasted (no salt) in the shells and save the shells for garden mulch, a two-fer. This means I eat far fewer nuts. But they don’t make my blood glucose go up much anyway. That’s the key. It’s fun to think up strategy. This is not a trivial pursuit. As Vogue knows.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


In the excitement over the visit from the Pope, something rather minor caught my attention: he is to be presented with a series of platters holding various versions of “the staff of life,” one for each continent. White breads for the US, brown breads for Europe, cornbreads for South America, and versions of rice for Asia. I forget what was stipulated for Australia or Africa. In the Arctic, everyone forgets, there IS no staff of life but meat. No carbs, no plant food, no vegetarians.

This is a quick summary of why the traditional Middle Eastern Communion (unleavened flatbread and weak wine) doesn’t work every place and must be translated. Also, I was interested in the strange collision (so usual to religion) between what is expensive, exclusive and high status (each platter was commissioned from a fancy specialty baker) and what is daily, ordinary, the people’s food. The Pope on the one hand is a figure of splendor and costliness, but on the other hand is expected to be humble, kissing and earth and embracing children.

My anchor point for the book on ritual I’m working on is the same as that for Judy Chicago, the ferocious feminist: a dinner party. People sitting down together in trust (unless you’ve had to bring along a “court taster”), sustenance, and a shared understanding -- if only about which fork to use for which food. And there is a little frisson of eroticism, mostly from the human intimacy of eating.

After I became a Unitarian Universalist in 1985, I was asked to attend the Pacific Northwest District Leadership School. This was a brilliant idea about a kind of “camp” where structured experience (think organizational design) could both illuminate and deepen the understanding of the denominational position, while also creating the kind of bonds among the attenders that can provide crucial networks among congregations. In short, a sort of mini-seminary.

A small group of Seattle women were asked to design an “in-gathering” ceremony to begin the experience. When we arrived, we were fed an evening meal, but not everyone was there on time and it was a rather ragged affair. The “in-gathering” used the pattern of a formal dinner party.

The space was the gymnasium at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. The lights were off, so that thirty people who didn’t know each other were guided in by ushers with flashlights. We sang as we crossed the dark lawn to the gym building. In the middle of the dark space was an island of paper taped to the floor.

As we'd arrived, we’d been handed 3 X 5 cards with the request that we write on them a short account of a transcendent moment in our lives. (UU’s are used to this sort of thing and most of them could have filled a sheet of typing paper.) These card accounts had been transcribed onto the paper, large enough for a person to sit on each account. Lit pillar candles were set around on the paper.

There was music, then we were simply asked to read the entry we sat on -- not our own -- handing around the candles if necessary. There was a short message, a blessing, and we left while music played. That was all. But it was surprisingly powerful. A simple act of sharing, but a lot to think about: food for thought. We didn’t talk much until we actually got to our rooms and pajamas.

The central Christian act is the sharing of Communion which was born out of the Jewish Passover, that symbolic and history-preserving meal. A crucial step of Blackfeet Bundle Opening Ceremonies is the eating of sarvisberry soup -- each person saves out one big fat berry to hand up to the altar, Greek-style, as an offering to insure a good berry crop. The central crucial act of New Guinean ritual is the boiling of taro starch from the inside of a certain kind of palm. And one could easily defend the idea that the indicator ceremony of Capitalism is an expensive meal in a very fine restaurant.

A key version is the woman attending Union Theological Seminary who was expected to take her turn serving Communion at the Friday vespers. She was Episcopalian at a time when women were not allowed to serve Communion. So she used the conventional service, but substituted water for the wine -- making the point that she was being punished: bread and water, not bread and wine. Accepting that communion meant standing with her in her struggle.

It’s also possible to do a “sarcastic” communion. (A friend was accused of being sarcastic. I tried to defend her, but she was genuinely hurt and asked me to look it up. “Sarcasm” comes from an old Greek word meaning “the rending of flesh.” She was right to be hurt.) I once participated in a communion of Twinkies and Cola. Sarcastic! But Communion DOES involve the “rending” of Christ’s flesh, doesn’t it? So was it indeed a “twinkie” act?

Beginning with the WWII Flower Communion -- everyone brings a flower to put up in the front, then takes away another flower in a procession at the end -- and strengthened by the Water Communion invented by feminists at an international conference who emptied their containers of cosmetics and perfumes in order to carry home water they mingled -- ceremonies that bring together seeds to be mixed and sent home for planting, ceremonies that bring earth from various places to be mixed and taken home to yards -- these rituals of putting-in and taking-out are often re-invented with new symbolism.

The Reverend Alan Deale and intern minister Harlan Limpert at a flower communion in First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR, in the mid-70's.

This sort of reflection makes a person think hard about what rituals actually mean and whether their routine performance might not be diluting or twisting them. They are acts meant to raise consciousness, not smother it into banality. The person who leaves a service to avoid Communion because of real objections might be more faithful than the person who trots up for bread and wine because everyone else is doing it. Of course, it is always possible to go up to the Communion Rail and to cross one’s wrists across one’s breast, signaling the priest that one wishes merely a blessing and not to partake. This makes the point that the best rituals allow for exemptions. Still, one doesn’t go to a supper party not planning to eat.