Saturday, May 31, 2008

BOTH SIDES NOW: "First Encounter"

It was fifty or sixty years ago that she’d swung down off the train in East Glacier with the other tourists, carrying her paint box because she didn’t want to let it out of her sight. She had a bit of money, enough to live for the summer in this vast east slope place which she only barely realized was a reservation, and she had assumed she would paint landscapes, the mountains -- so glorious. But then she had met the anthropologist, much older than she was, confident and knowledgeable. When he discovered that she could draw, he asked her to come along while he interviewed Blackfeet, usually elders. They charged money for photos and took poses in front of a camera, because they thought that’s what was wanted. He paid them to talk, not pose, but wanted a visual record as well. One more natural and unguarded.

In the end she hardly painted anything that summer but filled tablet after tablet with sketches of faces and figures: dark, complex, expressive. Indians were supposedly stoic, but these old Blackfeet were full of emotion and as soon as they got used to her they paid no attention to her. At least the men paid no attention. The women paid close attention and kept the babies from crawling on her while she drew. They kept up a steady chatter in Blackfeet among themselves, with occasional directives to the men, who ignored them.

“Tell me about the way horses were managed,” the anthropologist would ask. The old men didn’t always agree and if more than one was present, they would interrupt to argue, which the anthro coped with by simply putting down both accounts and noting who said what. Clearly he knew he wasn’t getting some kind of revealed knowledge, an ultimate truth.

A small storefront had been rented for the summer, so the light flooded through what was normally a display window, at least on the bright days, but the overcast days were also good with evenly subtle light that revealed detail instead of drowning it in light or shadow. There was a big work table and some straight chairs. The anthro slept on a daybed behind a screen at one corner and hung his clothes on pegs on the wall. On a little wood stove he cooked his meals and made tea through the day.

Clare remembered this always as one of the best times of her life, partly because of the sensory experience -- wood smoke, the smell of sweetgrass which the anthro invited the old men to smudge on the stove, and the smell of the people themselves, rich and funky, at the same time exotic and familiar. She often caught a whiff of Ben Gay or Vicks. Then sometimes pine pitch or earth. The slightly hooded eyes, the thin gray braids, the men’s bits of innocent decoration (shell earrings, a woman’s brooch, a rosette of ribbons, bright neck scarves), the restlessly competent hands that needed to do something all the time, copper bracelets to ward off rheumatism, and sometimes a little gathered-up bag of something mysterious hung around a neck. They wore "citizen's dress," meaning not buckskins but mostly second-hand suits, mismatched.

“Them old timers loved to throw a cougar-skin over their saddles. Best ones had a red border on. That was really showin’ off.”

“What kind of saddle was that?”

“Oh, we made good saddles our own way. Sometimes a prairie chicken saddle, not with high front and back like a woman’s saddle, but with a frame. Not just a pad.”

“Did you ever use a regular white man’s saddle?”

“When I was a boy, not many of ‘em around. But you needed ‘em for cows. For ropin’, you know.”

They say that people always want newly met cultures to stay the way they were at first contact and this was true for her. All the rest of her life she thought of “Indians” as necessarily being like these old men and their families -- even though she knew logically that even after they’d begun to go to grad school and come back to the rez as M.D.’s and Ph.D’s, they were still just as Indian. Late in life, listening to them, she wondered what Blackfeet had been like before any white contact, maybe even before horses -- nearly impossible to imagine. Dog days. A hard time, but they thrived until they met the white man’s germs, long before they met any white men. The horse, the gun, and the germ. Deceptive advantages followed by disaster and deep changes in the ways of the People.

When she had grown old herself, she reflected about this all the time. Some argued that if one traced the history of the Blackfeet back far enough that they weren’t Blackfeet anymore, but what was that supposed to mean? That they weren’t like the First Contact people? That they weren’t like the horse-and-gun warriors that everyone admired so much in the movies, which was most peoples’ first contact? Would they have been genetically different? Surely the land was the same clear back to the time of the glaciers and mammoths -- but if an asteroid killed all the woolly mammoths, what did it do to the people? The anthro had said that people came to North American from Asia in three waves: was one of them necessary to repopulate the prairies after the Clovis people disappeared?

That first anthro in her life -- she continued with him as his wife until his death, trying to help him save what he said was a vanishing people. But to her it seemed that they had not vanished, while he had. Everything was changed over time: identity individual or communal.

She knew the evidence of Indian origin was genetic and sometimes it seemed to her that the Blackfeet were almost some kind of northern Chinese, in some deep patterning of temperament and ritual that people took for granted. But what exactly? Respect for elders and love of formality? A kind of Taoist understanding and fatalism? She had seen photos of people around Lake Baikal who looked very much like Blackfeet.

What did it mean to be defined as “Blackfeet?” Where was the center and where was the edge? Was “tribe” just a made up concept? A cookie cutter coming down on a continuous sheet of prairie people? She knew she was not the only one to wonder about these matters. When she got to know the young folks, esp. in the Sixties and Seventies, they wondered a lot -- but then they took the militant stand that THEY were the definition. By then the old people she had sketched so many times -- their worn faces and hands -- were gone. The young folks, whose hands were idle and who stayed indoors most of the time, didn’t look the same. Their hands and faces were smooth and pale. It bothered them sometimes. They seemed to swell up.

And the anthro’s work, which they both had thought was eternal and would guarantee his importance down through all the ages to come, did it mean anything? Or had the theories and the discipline of anthropology itself changed so much that the work they had done that summer was essentially meaningless, transient? Just a personal experience that was mildly interesting, no more.

Friday, May 30, 2008


A rabbi wrote a famous book called “Why do Bad Things happen to Good People?” Here’s a harder question: “Why do Good People do Bad Things?” Even to the people they know and love? Even Saint Paul puzzled over why he did things he didn’t want to do.


1. They aren’t in their right minds: drunk, high, asleep, brain-damaged, in an emotional storm.

2. They don’t understand the situation, the person or persons they hurt, the nature of what they are doing.

3. They were hurt badly by other people and pass it on in that strange way that traumatized people do, a kind of repetition compulsion.

4. Greed: doing bad things is the only way they know to get what they want, which they think they must have.

5. Everyone else is doing it. (“Everyone whips children.”)

6. A moral judgment, a punishment, maybe meant to distance the punisher, maybe because they sincerely believe doing bad things to others will change behavior they don’t like, that it’s deserved.

7. The culture enforces it, even a vicious torture like clitirodectomy or the often traumatic custom of English upper classes sending children off to boarding school.

8. Iphigenia syndrome: sacrificing one to save the rest or maybe a cause.

9. Concern for appearances overwhelming authenticity: violent and oppressive means taking control for the sake of the end, particularly when there is overinvestment in “fitting in,” as in immigration or in matters of class or when dealing with signs that are censored and demonized by the larger culture. (Drugs, sex)

10. Special unrecognized vulnerability. Parents might behave towards a child in a way that could be effective and reasonable for some kids, but totally backfires on one who is different. For instance, my father on trips had a bribe/reward system worked out, which he pretentiously defended as “operant conditioning.” He marked an index card clipped to the sun visor for each of we kids: a tally if we did something he considered “wrong” and a tally for every thing we did “right.” As the oldest, all the good stuff I did was ruled “expected and not exceptional -- therefore no tally” and all the bad stuff I did was mostly just annoying. At the end of the day he gave out coins. I got the nickel. My middle brother got the quarter. The other brother got the dime. Over and over and over. I STILL resent that more than I did the unnecessary spankings. It taught me to resist operant conditioning, both awards and punishments. But it didn’t affect my brothers.

11. I’ve wondered about those cases where someone superior ORDERED a good person to do a bad thing and they did it. How often does that happen? MUST good people buckle to bad authority figures? Some folks seem to think so. Where is the fault then? This happened to me most clearly when I was teaching and principals insisted that I do bad things, or at least things that were not good for the students. Unreal restrictions, order at any cost.

A good person is deceived by a bad person into doing something bad to a good person -- an Iago sort of dynamic. It’s not enough to be good -- one must be perceptive and recognize deception.

The good person is only good through effort and occasionally badness breaks through.

The good person is confused and does something bad by mistake. It’s not really anyone’s fault, or at least intention.

15. The victim somehow invites the good person to do something bad to him or her, maybe out of confusing the acceptance of damage with some kind of martyrdom or to gain control (you owe me because of what you did to me).

16. The good person signals vulnerability which the opportunistic person uses to entice them into bad behavior, maybe even frivolously for the “fun of it”.

Of course, this whole thing falls apart when one tries to define “good” or “bad.” Who are all these “good” people? Isn’t everyone mixed, with their behavior moving towards what is effective? If something is effective and vital (stealing bread when you’re starving) isn’t that good no matter what the rules? Isn’t that why the New Testament is wise in moving us away from commandments towards principles? But what ought to be the principles of “good” people? Doesn’t it depend on the circumstances? Is there any way out of situation ethics? The Golden Rule?

Mostly “goodness” appears to be a matter of setting the welfare of others above one’s own welfare, up to a point. How can we require people to destroy themselves for the greater good? But we do it all the time. Take a look at Iraq, at BOTH sides. Aren’t our soldiers killing children for good reasons? And aren’t those suicide bombers destroying themselves to serve the greater cause of militant Islam? (They might do better to imitate the Buddhist monks whose protest takes the form of self-immolation since that doesn’t kill other people. But isn’t it still a bad thing?)

Trying to be good by withdrawing, staying out of trouble, being an isolationist, seems in the long run to be ineffective if not bad. A good person who was trying not to be bad might try to find another culture or a circumscribed group where the “bad” things to which he was prone were NOT considered bad -- say nudity. If you don’t wear clothes in the middle of an African tribe that never wears clothes, is that bad? (Take sun screen.) But being able to evade “badness” by changing cultures implies that “badness” is a cultural question and not universal at all, thus undercutting religion which represented as absolute.

There is a large component of our society that tries to eliminate all killing, all death, all pain -- not just human but for all living beings -- and thinks this will make them and the society “good.” They NEED to be good in this way, though it is a fool’s pursuit since all living things die or the cycle stops. They despise aggression of all sorts. Today (now yesterday) a story in the paper suggests that aggression “bad” enough to cause a person to be put in prison is linked to high childhood levels of lead paint in those persons. If they never ingested lead, if they never were aggressive, if they never went to prison, would that mean they would be immortal?

Is the willing pursuit of these difficult questions what makes us good?

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Racial Shift in Portland Spurs Talks
Portland, Ore., is encouraging black and white residents to
talk about gentrification and race, but even this
progressive city is having a hard time at it.


Tonight the Vernon Grade School Class of 1953 will have its monthly gathering in Portland, Oregon. This class was in third grade on May 30, 1948, and classes were dismissed a bit early so that the school could shelter the refugees from the Vanport Flood. All night long the sirens howled up and down Union Avenue, -- renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. later, when partly as a consequence of the flood, it became the center of a black part of town. Our class was the first I know of to have a black student and she only attended part of the year we graduated. Now the school is pretty solidly black.

Vanport flooding, which is now rightly compared to a little New Orleans Katrina event, destroyed housing occupied by veterans and shipyard workers from the south who were moved there during WWII and who kept their identity as Southern blacks, their culture and their style. This, in my opinion, had as much to do with developments as their skin color, which is really code. In much of the US north, “southern” codes as poor and uneducated.,_Oregon

When my parents bought their house at NE 15th and Alberta, there were no black kids in the neighborhood because there were no kids at all. Mostly the houses held older folks, many of them born in Europe. The houses were modest but meticulously maintained, unlike the houses later destroyed to make way for “renewal” in North Portland and NE, close to the river where the early houses had been rather grand and elaborate, but wooden and not maintained.

Jefferson High School, when my class was there, entered with a small black portion, and graduated with many more blacks, though I’m sure many dropped out. Some of them were quite brilliant and friends of friends, certainly classmates, but no faculty was black. Our student body president was a charming and (to use NA tropes) assimilated black man, with a style rather like Barack Obama.

By the time I left Portland in 1999, I did have black friends -- not “come over tonight” friends but people I would sit with on the bus and about whose lives I knew a bit. They were quite different from each other though all were City of Portland employees. Two characters used to stop by my desk to visit, one who was dark, wore that little crocheted beanie, and attended our rival high school at the same time that I did. The other was light, married to a white woman, raised in Washington, D.C., and constantly complained that life in Portland just didn’t meet his standards. They were both smart and funny and I liked them, considered them sort of like my reservation friends. But the conversations freaked out another man, a white man.

Commissioner Jordan was in office then. The Blazers were riding high. Chief of Police Moose was black and our former county sheriff was black -- both became nationally prominent. I write about all this.

Portland has made the most of its reputation and people who only visit see what they’re supposed to, but people on the “inside” worry a lot. About the infrastructure, for one thing. The bridges ALL need major work. Engineers will not willingly drive across one. When I left, the levees along the Columbia River were still not secure and people were finding a lot of little ways to evade the flood plain restrictions. I didn’t read this in the paper: it comes of working in the Bureau of Buildings. There’s the social infrastructure that comes of cultural difference -- now complicated by Asian communities, Hispanics, and people from Russian satellites that African Americans are not particularly pleased to see. Beyond that, the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies has left a lingering paranoia and willingness to demand equity that makes politics veer and yaw in all directions.

The natural response of humans is to gather into enclaves of like with like. Even at universities that try to integrate their students, the kids themselves have soon migrated back into groups. It’s politically satisfying when they base those groups on common culture that is intellectually based, but worrisome when ethnic roots are obvious because of clothing or skin or language. It suggests pretexts for violence or at least dissention.

In a city the real reason people cluster is likely to be economic, because that’s what determines where and how people live. When I was a little kid, Alberta was a street of shops with the owners living above. When they prospered enough to buy houses separately, the upstairs apartments became rentals, not high end ones. I knew few kids who lived in those apartments and they were ashamed to invite me home. (None were black. Some were Southern or Appalachian.)

Later the property, which by now had changed hands many times, needed repairs the owners weren’t prepared to make. Fewer people were willing to live in such places over bars and cleaners, and those apartments began to stand empty, the very definition of urban decay. Also, the littler houses along the side streets began to become poorer, with the European pride in yards sinking until the city had to constantly pressure to enforce some minimum standards. The slum landlords moved in. The young new minister of the neighborhood church I had attended as a child found his ministry in war on those landlords who exploited the vulnerable by renting to them cheaply but never doing repairs. Crime follows poverty.

Then comes a tide-turning class of people who oppose such trends but don’t get much credit: artists. Often Class X, which is highly educated but not making money. Often from big cities back east. Sometimes immigrants or at least appreciative of ethnic difference, esp. if it involves food. Then the area becomes trendy and the poor and the criminal go elsewhere, probably the flood plain around Johnson Creek where original construction was outside the city limits and largely unregulated: Errol Heights -- “Squirrel Heights,” we used to call it. The police used to joke that the largest number of convicted felons were in north Portland (the black part of town) but the largest number of UNconvicted felons were in Errol Heights, because they were white and therefore more likely to get off.

A place is always kaleidoscopic, overlays of memory, hope, theory, politics, economics and always the underlying crust of the planet earth, which -- as the Chinese know well -- can transform a place over minutes. My theory of Portland is always informed by an evening I went for a walk in the Nineties, knowing it was dangerous, stood on the sidewalk by Vernon Grade School, and (possible because the school is on a high ridge) looked across the miles to and across the Columbia River at the lights of old Fort Vancouver where Doctor John McLoughlin, the White-Headed Eagle, used to trade for beaver skins. I could easily imagine an Indian standing on the same spot and looking across at bonfires of some celebration at the fort. Maybe that kinda puts it all in perspective. The Class of ‘53 is nearly seventy years of age now. What’s that: about half the age of Portland itself? One of the things we do best now is to tell the stories. I send mine via email.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


A person sitting alone at a small table in the window of a cafĂ©. It’s a recurring image, showing up in literature and paintings again and again. It’s a modern trope, amenable to interpretation as loneliness, independence, nostalgia, anticipation, even change or surprise. I’ll try some examples.

The man sat hunched into his coat, cupping his coffee in his hands as though he were cold. Usually people in this place threw their coats over the backs of their chairs -- it was steam-heated by hissing old radiators. He looked uncomfortable in the window seat and he was, but it was the last seat in the place and he’d thought he’d better eat something. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday and it was beginning to muddle his thinking. A man of his sort had to stay alert. The window meant he was exposed to passersby and though they mostly hurried by without even glancing in, he had turned up his coat collar and his hat was pulled low over his face. It was awkward to look around at the other people inside, though he knew that that to them he was against the light and therefore only a silhouette, which was an advantage. After all, the danger might come from the inside as well as from the larger world outside where a person could throw a brick from a passing car or ... shoot from an upstairs window. Just because it had never happened so far, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t.

Tarantina liked to sit alone. She had long hair which she artfully tangled and wore long earrings -- so it was lucky she had a swan’s neck that rose out of her collar so slender and curved. Her face was oval as a Modigliani and she was careful to dress in clothing slightly antique. In fact, she looked so intriguing that people -- even women -- really WANTED to sit down with her and find out what she thought. So she didn’t go into cafes unless there were plenty of tables so there would be no excuse for anyone to ask to sit with her. Then a few nights ago some people she didn't know very well had been at her house, they all got a bit drunk on red wine, and when everyone went home she discovered that in the confusion someone had left his hat on her bust of Beethoven -- a very nice brown fedora. She liked it a lot. In fact, she had worn it into the cafe and put it on the cane-backed chair opposite her to indicate the seat was saved for someone -- a man. It was working well. Then a man came in who made her wonder whether it would look too much like an invitation if she took the hat off the chair. He started to pass by, then stopped and stared. “Hey, that’s my hat!”

She was old and cranky but tried to look wise and eccentric. She wore galoshes all the time because her feet were cold and wound on her neck a muffler that she had knitted herself out of scraps of yarn. This was her favorite cafe because such straight, square, neatnik people came here for their trendy lattes and she liked to sit with her espresso and sneer at them. They were so pretentious, so predictably dressed, so phonily cheerful. All her life she had gone out of her way to avoid such folks, but now she carried a small notebook and took notes on them. “Why do they wear shoes that are so obviously uncomfortable?” “Where did ultrasuede go? For a while all the women wore ultrasuede jackets in candy colors and now they don’t.” They paid no attention to her at all. If she were lying in the street unconscious, they would step over her without comment.

It was one of those Starbucks that was really only a pretend version in the end of the Barnes & Noble at the big box store cluster. Still, it was better than a greasy spoon with a bunch of truck drivers and a waitress that called her "honey" or a fancy schmantsy little place where everyone knew each other and they talked back and forth between the tables. Better than coffee at Macdonalds. So she got her double skinny latte, with a lid that had a little sipping hole but too hot to drink without taking the lid off so it would cool a bit, and looked around for a little table. In the window sat a cowboy, an authentic tall cowboy with his cowboy hat tipped back from a white forehead and a plaid snap-button fancy-yoke cowboy shirt. He looked up and grinned at her. “Are you writing a book?” she asked. “Why, yes! This is the third volume of my memoirs!” Then she recognized Scotty Zion. [This is a REAl incident!]

His feathery white hair caught the sunlight and seemed lit from within. It was summer and he had not bothered with a hat. What did it matter if his face developed another skin cancer now? He was too old and the diagnosis he’d just gotten made it clear he didn’t have much time left -- though it was likely to painful. In fact, he was seriously considering suicide. He smiled as he tried to remember what he knew about quick and not-too-messy ways of killing oneself. Hanging was so melodramatic. Pills and alcohol, maybe. Champagne or brandy? Have to fake insomnia to get the pills, but doctors were generous about prescribing for the old, esp. if they had good insurance. His smile grew broader as he thought of joining his wife in the afterlife. He wasn’t sure he believed in such a thing, but it was a pleasant fantasy and what was the harm? She was a round, warm, pink person -- not just as an old lady but all her life. Almost all his life, too, come to that. They’d met as youngsters and had so much pleasure and fun over the years -- nothing fancy or expensive, just jokes shared and hands held. When the kids came, they just made the circle a little bigger to include them and they had grown up safe and content. So what was a way to commit suicide without making them feel bad, as though it were their fault somehow.

Just then the farm wife who was annoyed at having to come to town to get parts for the combine -- they wouldn’t be the right things somehow, as usual -- lost control of the big truck she wasn’t used to driving and it crashed through the window. When the wrecker lifted the truck off the old man, he looked surprised -- but he was smiling. The farm wife said she had swerved because there had seemed to be someone in front of her. Everyone said she was making it up.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


(forwarded by Jim Stebbings from the Minnesota Historical Society Proceedings, St. Paul, 1976. Bray, M.C. ed)

Under the date October 12, 1836, but probably transcribed from some other occasion:

Today we found the edge of the prairie spreading as far as the river at a height of twenty-five feet above water level. Our bearing was NW. The weather was very warm. The country presented a plain, spreading as far as the eye could see, without any substantial change of level and for the most part without woods or even the slightest cluster of shrubs. It is an endless expanse without a single rise, a sea of greenness without islands of woods. The country we had left behind us had dissolved into the horizon, and all the eye could see was sky and prairie.

At 4 o’clock we noticed an island of woods to the left. At 5:00, we saw another. At first this immense, uninterrupted horizon seemed both astonishing and admirable. But when the eye has probed the depths in every direction and discovers that this immensity does not stretch as does the sky above beyond the eye’s reach, when the admirer sees the biggest of animals fleeing with all their might only as black specks that seem to move no more than flowers or grass swayed by the wind, when he realizes that with each season this stirring greatness brings disastrous perils -- that in spring he may well perish there in the spongy mires of the sunken hollows, that in summer he may well die of thirst or of a fever carried by swarms of insects, that in the fall, fires backed by winds may in a matter of hours transform this magnificent green, flowered and living, into a shroud of mourning strewn with the skeletons of all the creatures that breathed there, that winter may yet cast another shroud, a white mantle two to four feet thick capable of blinding him should the sun shine bright or of burying him under a mountain of snow should the wind blow strong -- then, gloom dissolves the magnificence of this scene and proves once more that in a desert man’s glimpse of delight comes shadowed with the forebodings of fear and sorrow.

We had not been going long when the land betrayed the first signs of an increasing barrenness, so typical of plains. The woods dwindled in number and size, and we were forced to camp a little earlier than usual as as to be able to find enough wood to cook supper and keep us warm for the night. We reached another narrowing of the river. There the current, forced between high banks, acquired such speed that counter currents were formed. Some islands rose in this portion of the river, dividing it into sections through which the water sped as quickly as through the straits.

When one is able to reach the top of some elevation or other in this vast region, he always gets the impression of being in the center of immense, perfectly level plains, and the horizon invariably seems to be limited in all directions by chains of hills, which, taking into account the distance at which one supposed them to be, appear like mountain ranges. if some forests or clusters of trees happen to be there also, the illusion is greater and more misleading yet. However, it is only by comparison that this country deserves to be called a plain, for its surface is greatly diversified by long bands of primitive deposits, by depressions, gullies, small mounds, accumulations of sand and gravel, spaces crisscrossed by lakes, ponds, and swamps. The latter are invariably bordered by trees that fires cannot approach. Although the general outlook and the apparent surface are not spoiled by these irregularities, they do make the country broken and varied for the traveler.

The first flower we pick [in the spring] is coltsfoot. a few days later other species are in full bloom, esp. white anemones which are the most abundant.

Vegetation consists mainly of a few herbaceous plants, moss, and some flowering dwarf-sized shrubs. The fox was the only animal we saw. Hawks, gulls, plover, and phalaropes make up the list of birds encountered in these cold and barren plains. But as we passed along the edge of the island, we disturbed some deer, elk, geese, cranes, gulls, and some swans which were all peacefully near the shore.

This is “tall grass prairie” which ends far east of here. It’s the grass that Conrad Richter wrote about, that was as tall as the back of a horse and that one walked through blindly. Where I am is “short grass prairie” and really not even that: an ecotone where the short grass becomes “prairie parkland” interspersed with aspen stands and cut by deep run-off coulees so big they have become valleys.

It is the tall grass prairie where the tornados sweep across, where the fires “backed by wind” would also sweep across if they could, and where hail and blizzards excoriate the land and all creatures not able to find shelter. The weather created the grass -- the grass was not destroyed by the weather. The land wants to go back to that time before people settled there. And some day it will.

Someday the grass will come back and all else that will be left will be rubbled roads and town squares, the wood burned or rotted away, shards of bright plastic here and there, and glittering piles of glass with the exceptional part of a pane somehow intact.

In other places it will be different -- in the northwest all will be covered by moss and blackberry vines. Back east it will be alder thickets. The SW will let the concrete stand bare.

Might take many thousands of years, but the land wants to go back. All it would take would be an ingenious virus. All that virus needs is a population packed thick, too thick to guard all the sanitation, the vectors, the wind carrying particles, and the geese bringing infection to the hog farms. The grass whispers about it optimistically: ssssssssoooon, sssssssoooon. No sssshhhhhrouds. Cccccccelebration.

Monday, May 26, 2008


You’ll remember that my two rules for my life (resolved at the high school level) were 1) if it comes to a choice between adventure and security, choose adventure, and 2) if it comes to a choice between money and education, choose education. I’ve been true to these rules, even if I made them up in retrospect.

More than that, my closest relatives and the majority of my friends and colleagues are also poor. I’ve been poor all along, except that when I was in the ministry or with Bob Scriver, the clientele (as you might put it) was often very rich. Generally those rich folks have been generous about extending a few luxuries.

My brothers are far from rich. My closest cousin was doing well until misadventure wiped out everything. She says it’s rather a relief not to have to dress up, entertain, provide a front. Some of the less compatible cousins are prosperous (not really rich) but that’s part of the incompatibility: they remain convinced wealth is important.

Rather than yearning for new cars, a big house, or new clothes, I tend to get attached to the old familiar things. I far prefer getting my little pickup fixed to buying a new one. Though I’ve discovered that some of my guests are appalled at my little house and scruffy yard, I really enjoy them. (What? Only one bathroom? No dishwasher?) Now that my clothes are baggy from weight loss, I almost like ‘em better! They’re for comfort, not glamour.

I never wanted to have children for fear of neglecting or abusing them. I find intimate relationships, like a man I might live with, are just too much trouble and distraction.

Whenever I had money, I bought books whether or not I had time to read them and I spent whatever was necessary to take them along. I don’t even need electricity to use these books! They are not novels to read and discard: these are working books to continue studying and possibly to use as reference. I find that some of them are out-of-date now: for instance, feminist theory and theology have changed drastically. (Some are more vital now than they ever were earlier.) But this is an advantage in a way, since I can sell them and there are still people who want them. Also, I have time to review books, which is a way to acquire them free, and the local library -- though its stock is limited -- is happy to order through Interlibrary Loan.

My television antenna fell down and I find it is small loss due to the advent of Netflix, where I roam the far shores of art house movies I’ve always wanted to watch and, again, have time to review them with the excellent resources of at hand. Anyway, you think I’ve aged badly? Consider the networks!

One of my major nonessential expenses is the two cats. I could have gotten by with one, I suppose, and they didn’t turn out to be the friends and supporters of each other that I thought they might though they’re littermates. I’m too generous with cat food but thanks to the invention of cat flaps for doors, I don’t have to maintain a cat box. They are a HUGE comfort.

Along the way I’ve developed Diabetes 2, but as soon as I cut out all sugar, all white flour, all corn syrup, and as much processed food as possible, my food bill dropped, my weight dropped fifty pounds, and my need for meds was almost eliminated. (I take one metformin and one benazipril a day. My “numbers” are excellent.) Of course, now Medicare pays for some things -- not all. I never eat out, not even fast food. When I go shopping in GF, I buy a tuna fish sandwich at a truckers’ service station and that’s my lunch. This is a return to high school years when that’s what I had for lunch every day.

I think these changes came soon enough to narrowly avoid my death or serious damage from a heart attack, which is what killed one of my brothers. (The other brother eats very much as I do, just because he does. He’s a notorious penny-pincher who hasn’t had to work for years because of investments.)

Since commercial and academic publishing are ravaged, I’ve turned to the other side of the digital coin, the advantages, and am building up a stock of self-printed books to promote and distribute via the Internet. This gives me freedom to write material and ways I never could if I were controlled by publishers.

The INTERNET and my MAC!! Ah, there lies my biggest source of salvation, though I COULD write with pencil and paper if I had to. But as Donna Livingstone, the new director of the U of Calgary Press and I hope a new “friend for life,” points out, I can write what I do in part because of the ease of researching things like cassowaries in a few minutes, though I’m far from any research library. I value highly reading the steady stream of up-to-date articles and parts of books that are online, but rarely follow political “news.” I’ve acquired friends -- people I never see but “speak to” regularly, lives that form networks around the globe, 24/7, as they say, people who would never show up on my doorstep in Valier, Montana, and who might rather intimidate me if they did. Distant relatives and the children of beloved friends have found me.

National Public Radio has been a receding friend ever since opera left Saturday and went to Sunday evening. Even the news and talk shows are more trivial, less useful all the time. The ones I used to admire, the counter-culture and ecology people, seem to go in circles, afraid to offend or experiment. Maybe just afraid. There are still moments that are gripping. I still sometimes sit with eyes closed, listening to music, but this is an instance where I’d love to have my own CD’s and a BOSE system. It would be too bad not to have yearnings!

The Blackfeet are nearby, a reservoir of memory and story, and now we don’t shake hands when we meet. Now we embrace. How can I feel deprived? I made the right decision to retire early and write, even knowing it would mean poverty.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


The starting point for this reflection (and that’s what it is rather than a cry of anguish or appeal for help, though I suppose those elements are lurking around in there someplace) is today’s Powell’s book review, which is from MS. magazine and concerns the statistical fact that women in the US are mostly poorer than men, from several points of view and because of several factors.

My first problem, of course, as Garrison Keillor would point out, was that I was more or less an English major, though my BS was in Speech Education and I did qualify for a teaching certificate.

This led to the next factor: I started out in 1961 as a teacher at $3450 a year. I taught on an Indian reservation in the West out of choice (romantic and challenging) with approximately $5,000 being what some call “the scenery tax,” which means there isn’t enough population density to support well-paid school teachers. Teachers are paid according to the number and kind of students they have. Poverty-stricken students mean poverty-stricken teachers.

After five years of teaching I married a sculptor who wasn’t into the big money yet. In fact, the first big money came just AFTER he divorced me (hmmm) but some would say at least partially in response to my efforts. We figured out once that we were making seventeen cents an hour. In summer I worked for Bob for a dollar an hour or sometimes five dollars a day. So did all the locals, who were Indian and REALLY impoverished.

During the four years I was married to Bob, I got an allowance: $100 a month. I had a choice between an allowance and a salary and chose an allowance because I didn’t want to quarrel over whether each hour was working for the shop or working for myself. The idea was that I would write on my own time, but there never was my "own" time.

When Bob divorced me, my settlement was $1200. It sounds like less than it was because I went on living with him as though we were still married, though I stayed out at the ranch. During this time he paid for nearly everything, though I didn’t do any work for the shop. The divorce was in November and I went back to work at the school in March. He also gave me the van though it wasn’t in the agreement and he took me on a trip to Vegas at no cost to me.

I returned to teaching for two years, then moved back to Portland in 1973 which was bad timing, a recession. Giving up on teaching, I went to civil service employment as an animal control officer. Up until this time I had always been an obedient, reliable employee who didn’t make waves -- well, very much. Now I had union protection which guaranteed equal wages and my right to speak out. Also, I had insurance and a pension plan.

I was “rising through the ranks” but felt it was a low prestige field and wanted graduate education. In five years I’d accumulated a bit of cushion and even some furniture, but I had the idea that the Unitarian ministry was more in line with the life I wanted. I gave away everything, partly because I couldn’t afford to store it. I did keep most of my books. Four years of seminary wiped out all my assets, including pension fund, and put me deep in debt. But I got a first class education -- a hunting license for truly intellectual pursuits.

During two periods, marriage and seminary, no contributions were going into my Social Security account. If you count undergrad years, I was not making Social Security payments for about a dozen years. The consequences now are lower payments. I took no thought at all about retirement. When the denominational ministry advisers began to talk about it, I asked the man in charge of advising us what to do. “Marry a rich person,” he said. “That’s what I did.”

Idealistic and intent on getting back out west, I took a first ministry that was almost self-destructive: a circuit-riding arrangement in Montana among four tiny fellowships. My pay, $1,000 a month, was so low that many people didn’t think I COULD live on it. I traveled in an unheated van and slept in it at night, which I enjoyed and which preserved my sanity, but wasn’t good for my health -- I had turned forty in seminary. I had no health insurance. At one point my district exec sent a check for $500 so I could get my teeth fixed because toothache was nearly disabling me. Again, I was making minimal Social Security payments. No pension plan. I had not understood that taking low-pay ministries would equate to low-status and that would mean I was disqualified by most high-pay, high-status churches.

After three years I went to an interim in Kirkland, WA, which was a comparatively wealthy congregation but small. Instead of living in a tiny furnished apartment and keeping my belongings in storage, I rented a nice apartment, which was reckless for a one-year assignment. I had bennies but didn’t save anything.

The next two years were in Saskatoon, another small poor congregation that was farther from Browning than I had expected. I did not thrive there. I was idealistic, again, and pledged beyond what I ought to have. When I left, they were very upset that I took half my pledge with me. It has turned out that the reciprocity of Social Security with Canada was misrepresented. Universal health care turned out to be much exaggerated.

There were months after that when I lived in the van and had no income but I was back in Browning where I was happy. I took a low-pay job supervising study hall at the junior high as well as occupying the Methodist parsonage in exchange for preaching. This barter meant no payments into Social Security for the preaching part. But I had health insurance from the school.

Then I taught in Heart Butte for two years and was beginning to accumulate a little bit when the superintendent forced me to resign, saying that if I didn’t he would smear me so badly that I’d never teach again. (Every year he did this to three teachers, the ones who gave him the most trouble. I was preceded by the wife of the Lutheran minister.) Insurance was top of the line and fixed both holes in my retinas and for menopause issues. Instead of going right back to Portland at the end of the school year or looking for another teaching job, I hung on in Browning all summer, hoping to find something local. This used up all my savings again plus my school pension fund.

When I was forced to go back to Portland, I hit another recession. The good part was that it was so bad that unemployment was extended. The bad part was that I lived on my mother’s sofa for eight months before I got a City of Portland civil service job. That’s where I was when my mother died, leaving me enough money to buy this house in Valier where I found a job as well as paying off the final amount of my seminary debt.

The job, as my employer knew would happen, disappeared after five months when the newspaper ownership changed. In Montana one can be fired for no reason after five months but at six months, there has to be a reason. I had several of these five month jobs. There are no jobs in Valier, so even $8 an hour jobs mean driving sixty miles a day, which wore out my pickup and was risky in bad weather. I was on unemployment off and on until I took a teaching job in a small white town which was so bad that I quit after three months, thus losing unemployment benefits. I had also discovered that my health insurance through the school was worthless: it didn’t cover any pre-existing condition for a year, rather than the usual six months, and the rates -- which faculty paid in part -- were incredibly high because of several desperate medical cases among the faculty. For the next year I lived on the half of my City of Portland pension fund that a person is allowed to withdraw. Then I was 62, qualified for Social Security payments coming OUT instead of being paid In. But I still accumulated debt, mostly credit card debt and mostly for a bit of upgrading to kitchen and bath (new sinks and replacement of tub with shower).

Through all this time I was buoyed by the belief that as soon as I finished my book about Bob, I would make money. Instead I discovered that there are many costs to being an author: not just photocopying and postage, but also $20 fees per photo from the Historical Society, unreimbursed mileage for trips to said Historical Society (they had all of Bob’s archives), and the maintenance of my computer -- replacement when the first one died. I still have made no money at all from this book, though the community believes all authors get rich. This has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the prestige of the publisher, but everything to do with the economic tumbling and reconfiguring from digital technology.

(Tomorrow: Why it really hasn’t hampered me much to be poor.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008


What I’m calling liturgy is a time art. That is, a period of time is set aside in which there is a sequence or process. Therefore, there must be a beginning and an end. It’s my premise that these two ends of the process are about the management of consciousness. I suspect that if it were possible to scan brains without pushing the person’s head into a pounding magnetic doughnut of claustrophobic proportions, the beginning and ending of a liturgical sequence would be obvious because one could see the change in which parts of the brain function. Later I will try to search for what parts those might be and why they might trade off, but for now please accept the idea that subjectively one’s mind and emotions change.

What sort of change might depend upon the kind of liturgy and the expectations of the participant (the committed believer versus the observing scientist or writer, for instance). The participant might enter a quiet state proper for meditation or at the other end of a spectrum, become energized for an ecstatic display of movement and speech. But there will need to be SOME kind of trigger to start things off, some signal to the brain. This needn’t be exotic nor need it depend upon mind-altering substances or practices (whirling, for instance).

Consider formal theatre productions. Even entering the theatre and finding one’s seat is part of the preparation, but clearly when the lights go down, the orchestra tunes up and then begins the overture, and the curtains sweep aside, one can feel the focusing, the expectation, and the mild excitement. Likewise, walking up a stepped hill to a cathedral and entering that space can shift one’s mind. (Recently someone said this experience for him triggered resistance, oppression, so we cannot assume it will be uplifting.)

Or here’s an even more mundane little ceremony: going to bed. Putting off day clothes and putting on whatever one wears to bed (even nothing), cleaning teeth, brushing out hair and all the small acts peculiar to one’s circumstances and preferences: laying out tomorrow’s clothes, sorting the contents of one’s pockets on top of the bureau, winding the clock (not usual these days), taking pills, rubbing on lotions, and so on. It’s a ritual and it OUGHT to make your brain shift over to sleep mode. In an interview Lyndon Johnson was asked how he managed to take a nap every afternoon in the middle of the turmoil and worry of the presidency. He said, “I put on my jammies [sic] and I say to myself, Lyndon, it’s nappy-nap time. Then I climb into bed and sleep.” In other words, he knew how to put himself into an habitual state that evoked trusting childhood, which is not a bad mood for some kinds of worship. Like sleepers, people in a liminal state need protection like parents or Dog Soldiers or hidden seclusion.

Some people will resist that threshold, remaining insomniac, and I think some people are that way about worship: what one might call “worship insomniacs.” Sometimes that might be psychological -- needing to keep up one’s guard in order to resist outside pressure or to keep from dissolving identity -- and sometimes it might be physiological, something in the brain cell-structure or molecules. Forced insomnia, of course, is a form of torture. Perhaps this is true of forced worship deprivation.

Victor Turner
, an anthropologist, has been most eloquent about ritual time. He thinks of it as “going over a threshold” or limen into a different space, a sort of metaphorical room. Then at the end one must return to ordinary life by crossing the limen again. This is very important and often neglected when designing liturgy. When I went to Leadership School, the last worship service was scheduled for the moment after everyone was packed and ready to drive off. It was deliberately meant to reconcile people to going home and taking up their lives and work there. Designing something that would DO that when people had just spent a week together in a vulnerable state, exploring parts of themselves they normally ignored, making unexpected shifts of attitude and so on, turned out to be pretty difficult but also quite crucial. We had some bad experiences when people unready for re-entry crashed into their families or resisted their ordinary lives. Women were particularly likely to try to hang on to the special “space” when they got home and not to trust the idea that they could return to it or replicate it in their lives when they needed to. Men often seemed relieved: “Well, that’s over and I survived.”

Some worship experiences are meant to clear the decks, to dispose of one week’s insults and frustrations on Sunday so as to create new hopes for Monday. One theory of dreams is that they are the molecular sorting and discharge of unfinished or useless images and sensations, so that the mind is unburdened for conscious thought. Turner explored this on a cultural level, something like a New Year’s celebration at which people write regrets and apologies and failures on slips of paper and then burn them to symbolize their destruction to prepare for a clean start. He proposed that while “over the limen” people were in a state open to forgiveness and renewal, like successful psychotherapy, a child’s cathartic play, or an artist’s creative flow.

My mundane comparison is that while in that “place,” it is as though the gear shift pedal is pushed to the floor so that one can change gears, not in a trivial way, but so as to forgive, to change one’s world view, to loosen repression, or to let thoughts and feelings from others enter one’s own mind. Normally we don’t do this and never realize that we don’t. But it is crucial to “transition ceremonies” (“rites of passage”), like marriage or coming of age. Many argue that the reason so many people seem to fail to bond or to grow up is that they have no effective ritual of change and therefore go right on with single preoccupations or acting like a child. The control of these states is only legal, the proverbial “piece of paper,” instead of new human consciousness. Conversely the ceremonies themselves have become a matter of materialism: “spending and getting.” No one is changed.

I’ll deal with content and some “orders” proposed by other thinkers at a later blog.

Friday, May 23, 2008


In 1961, over the summer before starting to teach in Browning, Montana, I read and reread “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen, sometimes reading it out loud to a tape recorder with selected music in the background. That was before the movie, so I wasn’t playing the clarinet solo from the sound track of the movie. To me, Africa equaled Montana, an Africa I could reach without a passport, with Blackfeet instead of Masai. That idea persists. The Blackfeet reservation is about the same size as the Serengeti.

So I’m delighted to acquire a new movie for my complex of Africa stories. This one is “Nowhere in Africa,” a German film made in 2001 with a young woman, Caroline Link, directing. The plot is not a lot different from the Anglo-centered “Flame Trees of Thika,” but the “vibe” is quite different. Added to the frontier theme is the complex of relationships among different races and religions and the constant shadow of the Jews in Germany. This little father/mother/daughter set has HAD to emigrate to save their lives: it’s not a matter of getting rich or seeking adventure. In particular, the mother is opposed to Africa (unlike Hayley Mills’ character) because she is a “clinger” who puts down roots where she is. By the end of the movie, she is uprooted again, unwilling to go back to Germany, but attached to her husband who wants to go. The father is not heroic but there is a grizzled old-timer who knows the big picture (one of my favorite types!), and the little girl soon finds a champion in the cook, Owuor played by Sidede Onyulo. It is THIS man who gives the key to this particular film. Tall, slender, strong -- I don’t know what tribe Onyulo is -- with an exuberant grin and good English -- says that the Americans make spectacular films that are not particularly deep, but the Germans are able to recognize and show the spiritual depth that in truth characterizes African life. For once, he says, he was not asked to give a paper-thin portrait of a Masai with a spear.

The disc of explanation, which includes an interview with Stephanie Zweig, who is the real-life writer whose memoir is the story, equivalent to Elspeth Huxley, is invaluable in extending one’s understanding of the movie. I would recommend watching the movie, then the extra information, then the movie again. Evidently the memoir was harder on the mother, who remained spoiled and rather childish even after several years of running the farm by herself while her husband was interned and then in the British army. In the movie she is capable of growth. I loved the scene in which she wears a couture evening gown -- which she stupidly bought with money meant for a refrigerator -- to a dusty and bloody indigenous ceremony, showing that she has recognized the importance of -- shall we say “liturgy.”

The relationship between the two parents is complex, erotic, and beautifully enacted by the two stage-trained actors. The two actresses who play the daughter are also wonderful in that straightforward and adaptable way that healthy children can be. Caroline Link is known for her ability to work with children, which is especially clear with the black children. All of them are unique, colorful and intriguing, but esp. the boy who is Regina’s best friend. Owuor, though, is her stay and her comfort in that wonderfully accepting way that has been nearly destroyed in our own culture, contaminated by obsession with sexual perversion. When Regina needs comforting, she folds herself into bed alongside Owuor with the same innocence as when she nestles between her two parents at an age contemporary Americans would find shocking.

Perhaps this same straightforwardness is what makes the ceremonials so convincing, though Sidede Onyulo suggests that much is attributable to shooting in actual remote Kenya rather than South Africa. Everyone speaks their own language with subtitles as necessary. (Another beauty of the DVD is that one can choose one’s nationality.) Onyulo says this is particularly helpful for Kenyans who tire of bad Swahili. The producer, surprisingly, mentions “Dances with Wolves” as a model.

Zweig says that one of the two books they had on the frontier was “Out of Africa” which she read and reread. Dinesen was Danish in an Anglo community. Huxley was Anglo in the same Nairobi community, though a different part of it. “White Mischief” is the same community again, and the same people as Dinesen knew but from QUITE a different point of view. (This is the one the guys like! Very wicked.) I’ve ordered “I Dreamed of Africa” and I suppose I’ll have to watch “Blood Diamonds.” Forget “Shaft in Africa.” Forget the Pointer Sisters, Ernest, Bulldog Drummond (!!), Queen Latifa or Obama (!!!) in Africa. But I’m curious about Peter Beard’s scrapbooks (nonfiction). He’s the photographer, character and (I gather) bounder who posed with his legs seemingly swallowed by a ‘gator. I ordered “Faraw! Mother of the Dunes” and “Sia, le reve du python” -- both indigenous -- as well as the new version of “King Solomon’s Mines.” (Oh, how I loved that moment in the old one when Deborah Kerr -- so much fun to pull the hairpins out of her old-maid hairdos! -- has changed into khaki safari clothes and Stewart Granger has to knock a huge tarantula off her skirt! Maybe I’ll order “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” but Hemingway’s Africa is not mine. No one seems to have filmed H. Rider Haggard's “She,” which surprises me. Netflix is as useful as an index as it is as a source, something like Amazon.

But I think what I’m really after is a kind of movie that is also made about Australia or Western China, a grasslands story on the frontier told through the eyes of a child. “Little House on the Prairie” maybe. (An IMDB commenter suggests “Whale Rider.”) But we still don’t have a really excellent version of this archetype on the northern prairie in the rainshadow of the Rockies -- still a bit of a frontier. Something to think about. The small daughter of a fossil hunter trying to survive a summer on Egg Mountain? A girl reunited with her estranged father who is clumsily running a ranch on the High Line? Or is that a grandfather with a black foreman? I’d better order “An Unfinished Life.” Been meaning to anyway because I like Mark Spragg as a person and as a writer. Never met the wife and collaborator.

I wonder what such a story would be like if it were told through the eyes of a Blackfeet version of Owour: patient, spiritual, and protective of little girls as well as all other creatures. Not a warrior, but a cook, a nurturer. I suppose I’d have to fight the publisher so I wouldn’t have to include recipes for Tanka Bars.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


The movie entitled “Bride of the Wind” gets off to a dazzling start with near-replications of Klimpt images plus historic photos of his world and that of Gropius, Mahler, Werfel: a “climax society” to use a anthropological term meaning a peak of richness, “thickness” of detail and skill, and seductive worldview. Oskar Kokoschka, Anna Mahler’s lover, painted the original “Bride of the Wind” as a portrait of her.

I’d love to see a study of these various climax times and places of history. What makes them happen? Is it economics? A strong educational system? Charismatic personalities? The “times,” whatever that is -- maybe politics? To me, it seems as though they often form at the edges of the “normal” mainstream society -- often a kind of societee de refusee: people who make brilliant common cause when they’ve been excluded from the “main show,” who somehow have more energy, edge, and insight, maybe because they don’t have to play by stifling rules. Off-Broadway as opposed to The Great White Way. Indies. Romance and daring.

But this particular version of the story of that time, using Anna Mahler as the point of focus, seems not to have the qualities that made her and her series of lovers and husbands interesting in the first place. Rather, this movie, which is drawn from a book called “Bride of the Wind,” is like an album or checklist. Meets Mahler, check. Meets Gropius, check. The costumes are wonderful, the scenery is gorgeous, but the acting is... Quarrel, check. Making up, check. Death, check. All in sequence.

It’s vaguely interesting to me that this period in Europe is coincident with the Prairie Clearances for the Blackfeet. These pampered people in Vienna are roughly the same age as Bob Scriver’s parents and they shared some of the same values. Life is corseted, structured, predictable, capitalist -- and yet riddled with yearning, betrayal, economic tragedy and triumph, unsolvable medical problems. It is Charlie Russell yearning for freedom and acceptance among the Indians versus Mamie Russell yearning for security and respectable society. Joe DeYong accuses Charlie Beil of pushing him out, while Seltzer paints enough like Charlie to be mistaken for him, and Winold Reiss is up at St. Mary portraying the major people of the Blackfeet in a way no one has done before or since. There were love affairs and great patrons.

If all this were captured in some powerful way and popularized across the country, would it have the same larger significance as Viennese artists, architects, musicians and writers? Perhaps not. Would that spur Montanans on to greater achievement in the Humanities? Perhaps. But probably only Missoula cares. In the Sixties and Seventies Ace Powell definitely believed that the Montana community of artists was on the brink of some great breakthrough, maybe a little bit like the Taos 7. I don’t think he ever conceived that the breakthrough would be to the CM Russell Auction and the Cowboy Artists of America.

When I began to research Anna Mahler, I stumbled into something I had not expected at all: the Anna Problem. It turns out that not only did she and Mahler have a torrid affair, a true love affair at least from his side (which Jonathan Pryce does little to illustrate in the movie) but also she took charge of his history as firmly as Mamie grasped Charlie’s. Enlarging her own role, she edited from his letters anything that detracted from that image and destroyed the larger part of them. She presented herself as trapped and confined, never adequately funded or appreciated, but other sources contradict this.

The Anna Mahler Effect probably applies to Lorraine, Bob’s fourth wife, more than to me, since Bob divorced me in 1970 and I made my own way through several quite separate and unrelated careers after that. But the general public tends to see Lorraine and I entwined and the Anna Mahler effect rises up in a writhing dark shadow behind me. Protesting against it would be challenging strongly held beliefs about former wives. One can probably only take advantage of this Anna effect when widowed, not divorced, and Lorraine was the widow, though a common law wife. She could hardly capitalize on her relationship because she didn’t live long enough -- she only spent part of the inheritance. Instead of trying to be respectable, she went for suppression of her life with Scriver, which was not exactly supportive -- more a child’s dependency. But that was true of my time, too. Maybe it’s kind of inevitable when a fifty-year-old takes on a twenty-year-old. But then, so also when dealing with an alcoholic who is contemporary in age.

Such matters could have made a far more interesting movie than “Bride of the Wind.” In fact, part of the reason I ordered the movie from Netflix was that Jonathan Pryce was playing Mahler and I love his portrayal of Lytton Strachey in “Carrington,” where the Bloomsbury Group is the Climax Society. But the actress playing the title role in “Carrington” is Emma Thompson, who made her insatiability, her devotion, her struggle to accomplish her own work, much more meaningful. A basically unreasonable relationship between Carrington and Strachey became persuasive and finally transcendent. But that movie was made in 1995, before the YouTube generation reduced everything to narcissistic veneer, a style show. In 1995 one was still supposed to have content.

Anna Mahler doesn’t come off well on the basis of the facts: so many extraordinary men, so much concentration on her own importance to them as a muse. She can appear grasping and self-important, her attraction reduced to her qualities as arm-candy, which are admittedly major. What ARE the vital characteristics of a female muse? One wife of an important artist (not a Western artist) told me that she thought any woman who could convince an artist he was great would cause that man to fall in love with her. Of course, if he didn’t live up to her standards, HE dropped HER! I don’t know how it works with the genders reversed. Maybe it just doesn’t.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


As constant readers know, I keep trying to work the most cosmic and eternal of forces and patterns off against the tiny internal worlds of individuals. I use myself as my lab rat, not out of narcissism but because I’m at hand and don’t have to expose anyone else to my blundering. It doesn’t mean the practice eliminates lying, since people are notorious for lying to themselves, but it does give me access to dreams and fantasies. Most tantalizing is that it doesn’t REALLY give me access to my sub-un-pre-conscious -- all those decisions and assumptions that were wired in by my first experiences and my brain still considers to be “reality.”

But I do have a bit of help also at hand: my family’s photo albums. Looking at them is a corrective or sometimes a prompter. The biggest puzzle of my life for me has been a phenomenon that I suppose all children suffer and ought to -- even the children of the Umeda in their theoretically “natural” and therefore idyllic lives. One could call it “dethronement” or maybe “heartbreak” or maybe “facing reality.” It comes from the absolute necessity of leaving childhood, unwilling as one may be. People used to say to me, carelessly, “Oh, you’ll change when you grow up!” To me that meant nothing less than the loss of identity and I was determined not to let it happen. But it did.

Here I am in the backyard, believing that this is the center of the world. My company is Roma&Noma, the fraternal twin granddaughters of Old Lady Otto who lived next door. They were my first inkling that something was “up” in the outside world. One clue was that they had a series of beautiful picture books about Swedish identical tripletts: “Flicka, Ricka and Dicka.” (You can buy them at I looked. Reissued, I suppose.) So I knew people were sometimes linked by rhyming names and something else I didn’t understand. Nationality? The other clue was that these two “older” girls enjoyed teaching me arcane knowledge like how to curtsy in case I met a queen. I was to practice on Old Lady Otto, who accepted curtsies as her due.

But all this didn’t interfere with my world view much. I couldn’t reach the handle of the screen door, so my father nailed on a spool and weakened the spring so I could go in and out. I often went to visit the sprinkler, a jaunty jingling little gizmo. One morning, feeling grandiose, I went out and sat on it while wearing my underpants. Then I went into the house complaining that I was wet and needed dry pants. My mother was probably canning. As soon as I had dry pants, I went out and sat on the sprinkler again. Maybe it was some kind of potty issue, but I do remember it and to me it was about sensations: hot, coldwet, clammy, dry, hot -- new cycle. My mother, exasperated, spanked me. I was shocked, even horrified! What could I possibly have done to deserve such treatment? My mother was also probably pregnant.

After all, I had accepted this new brother and was perfectly willing to teach him to play chess, which was -- after all -- part of the family culture. I had every confidence that I was doing it properly. I didn't feel dethroned until the second brother. (The chair in which Mark is propped is my reading chair now. Hoarding “perfectly good” furniture is also part of the family culture.)

This summer afternoon in the front yard of my Aunt Allie down on the sheep ranch in Roseburg is also perfectly available in my memory, though I have no idea who that little blonde girl might be. What I remember most vividly is that marbles bounced around in the business end of the mower. We carefully mowed the entire yard, which remained unchanged. At some point a local rancher stopped by to ask my aunt something. Aunt Allie said he came in the back door laughing. He’d asked me if the folks were inside and I’d said, with an airy wave of the hand, “See for yourself!” The Queen of the World in her domain, perfectly confident.

I’ve been trying to get back to that ever since -- both the attitude and the place. Somehow, soon after that, I became a sniveling, fearful, clingy little bookworm. Therapists have asked if I were somehow abused or attacked, but I can’t remember anything. My mother couldn’t remember anything. Some research suggests, and Gell observed, a kind of stage just after the Terrible Two’s when children say NO to everything as a kind of declaration of independence: a way of marking a boundary. Then comes something that seems very like the mourning of a loss. It may have something to do with brain development as wiring is switched around, some cells snuffed, new cells added. Leaving babyhood. Gell noted that some Umeda children were exceptionally vulnerable and went through a whiny, angry, sometimes self-destructive phase which everyone simply ignored and tolerated. He remarked it was a good thing they weren’t in a modern household full of expensive breakables. My mother would spank me or when that didn’t work, lock me into the basement where I would sit against the door at the top and scream as loudly as possible.

I suppose now the child is whisked off to the counselor. I don’t suppose nowadays many parents have the time, the energy or the insight to see this as a panic attack, to take the child to hold and rock for a while. It strikes me that a lot of parents need the same holding and reassuring. Some will assault such a child to the point of breaking bones or even death. It must remind them of their own internal life. Parents who are drunk or high might not notice a troublesome child, so that it sinks into depression or just wanders off into the larger neighborhood. Shrinks like Erik Erikson have been trying to tell us for generations that when there is a preponderance of a particular strategy of child-raising, it is one of the forces that creates national character. On the reservation it is quite obvious to me that Headstart has changed the generation about to assume leadership -- for the better, I think. That was certainly the intention.

I came to consciousness during WWII and, since my parents didn’t much censor, sat in newsreels watching a triumphalist and heroic account of the military, but also seeing the devastation and suffering of the people. By then I knew that in Japan and Germany, to say nothing of the rest of the world, things were quite different. (My great-uncle’s son was in New Guinea but not in Umeda.) I think this coincided with my separation anxieties, gave them the aura of a worldwide condition -- which, of course, it is. I wanted to be like those brave soldiers, teaching the little brothers to play chess, so to speak. But I was terrified of loss, which meant death, until I learned to accept checkmates. That came much later.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Umeda Vegetation and Topography

Gell works out the Umeda thought world very carefully but I’ll spare you most of the semiotics, fascinating as it is.

But one must accept the principle that people think in terms of topography as well as objects. For instance, the “left” or “right” in politics, a color “wheel,” a food “pyramid” -- where spatial relationships are moved from the concrete to abstract ideas, becoming ordering principles. Writing teachers demonstrate thought mapping, like “webbing” where one puts the concepts in circles and then makes the proper connections or spin-offs with lines. There’s a whole cartography and topography like Venn Diagrams, the Johari Window, or even the three-level Christian world stacking heaven on top of earth on top of hell. This is the way the brain keeps things sorted -- it seems to be in all cultures and essentially human. It appears to be enhanced by walking on different terrains, through different spaces to develop more ways to deploy ideas.

But what is sorted and how it is laid out in “idea solitaire,” concepts must be experienced, not just in the culture but to the person. To the Umeda, what counts is the house: Men claim the middle and women sit on the verandahs around the periphery. The boy, in his idyllic early years on his father’s shoulders, is occupying an anatomical place with the same name as the rafters of the house.

When a boy is born, his mother plants for him a coconut palm on the edge of the village so the houses are surrounded by a circle of coconut palms, each tree associated with an individual. They are very valuable. When one man, maddened by sexual jealousy, assaulted his own palm tree, it was a kind of suicide and the villagers were prepared to use deadly force to stop him.

Out in the jungle is a different kind of tree which has a flower/fruit structure that hangs down, looking just like a woman’s grass skirt. One set of the little complex of villages is said to be descended from people who came out of the coconut palm -- out of the coconut itself. The others come from this other palm like a woman. They are the source of wives for the palm tree people -- and also sorcery! As it happens, this palm like a woman has leaves that are mildly narcotic and chewing them is habitual, the way smoking used to be for us. Comforting, relaxing. I used to have a minister who referred to a competent woman as “the source of all good things,” but of course -- as the Buddhists know -- desire is the source of rage and resentment.

In our culture when men on the battlefield are in mortal suffering, they call out for their mothers. When a Umeda is in peril and pain, he cries out for his father. Mothers, the unfailing source of sago, are taken for granted. It is fathers whom the boys remember so vividly from their “imprinting” years when they rode on their father’s shoulders and received tidbits and praise, only to be rejected and pushed away when the next child arrives. It is fathers who shape their picture of the world, not the women who are accessible everywhere.

Alongside the coconut palm ring around the village is a secondary set of a slightly smaller and simpler palm, less valuable. To Gell, this tree seemed to have taken on the aura of a “little brother.” Little brothers, the dethroners, are not happily regarded but who can do without them?

Gardens exist out in the bush and that is where both sex and birth take place, but very quietly, almost secretly. That’s where the “married” people dwell, but it is a place of work. It’s also a place where wild pigs are not welcome, though tame ones are tolerated in the village as carrion and excrement eaters. Wild pigs are occasionally hunted by men or trapped by women, who then enjoy them hugely as a source of protein. But they must be fenced “out” of the garden unless they are being penned and then they are fenced “in” -- there are two separate words for the two separate kinds of fences. The two concepts of what is included by a periphery or excluded by a periphery become roots for words about other abstract things or metaphorically related things. And far, far, deep, deep in the jungle is the cassowary -- solitary, wild, terrible, dangerous, huge -- think of the size of the drumsticks! A cassowary is free and independent of community. An ultimate male -- no more of the hard work of sago pounding.

Gell felt these pre-verbal concepts were crucial to understanding what the Umeda were up to in their liturgies. They always thought in pairs, reciprocal dyads, and they always thought in edge versus “included.” Also, they were positively Freudian about “innies” and “outies” so that protuberances or danglers had word-overlaps with penises and holes with vulva words. A constant theme was the ambivalent relationship between brothers.

I have a workbook about English word roots that I started to use in the classroom in Heart Butte. (“Origins” by Sandra R. Robinson with LIndsay McAuliffe, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1989) Each word root is one of those deep concepts. For instance, bhel (to swell) is the origin of balloon, ball, belly, bowl, bulge, boulder, bulky, billow, bold... etc. Using the principles of the Blackfeet Immersion School run by Piegan Institute, we acted out bulging and billowing and rolling around like balls. Then we told the story of Napi pursued by bounder erratics, which abound on the prairie here because of the glaciers.

When the Umeda enact a ceremony, they are sometimes at this level, except they go all the way with masks and dances to fit the concepts. They decorate themselves with paint and try to mystify the children and women to make everything more powerful and sacred. All the while what just seems bizarre to outsiders has visceral, dream-like meaning to the person performing. These are liturgies not meant to be merely watched but meant for participation both to confirm and to challenge the world that is their lot -- a very hard one.

Monday, May 19, 2008


When I was working on my bio of Bob, I would joke that I didn’t know whether I should say I was writing nonfiction, though I was carefully leaving out or even changing a few things to protect the guilty, or whether I should say I was writing fiction and tell the real truth. This has become rather a barbed issue in publishing these days, with some people claiming to be far more wicked than they turn out to be when investigated. I would say that Mary Clearman Blew’s most recent book, “Jackalope Dreams,” is over on the side of fiction that is true.

When I was trying to write in the Sixties, some guy said carelessly, “There are no women writing in Montana except Mary Clearman Blew.” (Actually, Mary Clearman in those days -- up in Havre.) It made me mad, but he really meant “getting published” and it was true. So Mary, writing on the trail I couldn’t get my feet onto. But I loved her books. So over the last half-century I bought ‘em and read ‘em and kept ‘em. She was born the same year I was, 1939, same as Ivan Doig and Jim Welch. The books came steadily:

Lambing Out,” 1977
Runaway: A Collection of Stories,” 1990
All But the Waltz: A Memoir of Five Generations in the Life of a Montana Family” 1991
Balsamroot: A Memoir,” 1994
Bone Deep in Landscape: Writing, Reading, and Place” 1999
Sister Coyote” 2000
Writing Her Own Life: Imogene Welch, Western Rural Schoolteacher.” 2004
Jackalope Dreams” 2008

There are some edited or introduced books and a few other things, but these are Blew’s main books. You can tell whether I had money or not: when I had money I bought hard backs (4 of 8). Here ends the competition.

This particular book, “Jackalope Dreams” is not just a novel but a thriller with a suspenseful plot, more like Hillerman, thick with local truths. This is contemporary, the dilemma of old ways and lives not quite gone yet and up against modern twists like drugs, religious delusion, posse comitatus fantasies, and human perversion that only the kids seem to understand exists. Against those twistings of the Romance of the West shines John Perrine, a Denver lawyer who expresses his love in a re-enactment of a train robbery, like the Charlie Russell Choo-Choo that operates out of Great Falls. (You can live this part of the novel!) What a fine hero he turns out to be, soft-handed and a little fat, but solid and warm -- a refuge in a bewildering time. He just ain’t no Lassiter.

The heroine’s father, however, was rather more like Lassiter, making time stand still even though he bankrolled his ranch with his daughter’s teaching paychecks. Blew has said that this was the life she had been expected to live, but lucky she didn’t because times change. Several other noted women writers of the West made the same choice: Judy Blunt, Linda Hasselstrom... Gretel Erlich come in from outside, as did I. But now we make common cause. Still, those hard-handed, hard-headed men haunt all of us, I think. Mary Blew just goes ahead and writes the ghosts into the story. After all, they are still players.

The most moving and emotionally true moment comes almost at the beginning of the book when Corey’s father, sitting in his pickup in the back of the ranch, shoots himself in the head just as Corey on horseback comes looking for him. It is sunset. She simply opens the passenger door, slides in, and sits beside her dead father until it is dark. No screaming meemies. No futile revivals. Just a last sharing while the world and the body cool. If you’ve read the earlier memoirs, you’ll know that under this fiction is bone fact.

As well, that exasperating Ariel, who is forced into a far different kind of punishment, the kind that little girls face everywhere, is an expression of a real relationship in Blew’s life. Ariel, in attempts to escape so frantic that she is like a doe hung-up on a fence, drives the plot by shaking Corey out of her complacency -- first getting her fired from her teaching job and, finally, becoming the daughter she never gave birth to because of serving the ranch. In the process Corey goes back to her painting, so long ignored, even though all the people in her life are skeptical -- except one, a long-ago artist-lover who understood, but not enough to make a life with her so he only persists as a voice.

The second and third growth trees that thicket the old ranches are webbed with game trails that the kids follow to hidden places the way kids always do. THEY know about the drugs, they know about the cached weapons, they know about the abuses. Some buckle and join the so-called adult men. Some stand against them, trying to do right though their resources are very limited. The law is underground, unrecognized, waiting for something to blow up -- and it does.

Many traces of the 19th century persist in Montana, esp. in the old towns now shrinking and in the old ranch headquarters not yet torn down. More patterns are unseen inside the people, though they still have as much power as the ghost voices in Corey’s head. Outsiders have a hard time catching on, even the ones that mean well and will eventually be part of a new world here.

A book like this has a lot of power under the surface. Many people will read it in a rush to see what happens next, but others will reflect, see metaphors and dynamics that are all around them. Then the book becomes evidence for the ongoing work of living on the high prairie, whether born here or not. Corey’s artwork stands for New Vision, creativity without denying the past, in the midst of second and third-growth culture. The secret to good writing, in part, is this multi-level quality.

If you’re trying to write, as I still am, this url gives you access to some suggestions from Mary Clearman Blew, Mary Clear-Headed Deft-Handed Blew. Bless her.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Book publishing has for a long time been seen as a sort of combination redemption/prestige act: a way of reforming reprobates through confession like St. Augustine or a way of certifying skill, like a college degree. The publisher was the go-between like a university, guiding and funding. No more. Today anyone gets into print and the ways of publishing are so accessible and inventive -- not even printed on paper -- that publishers, authors and consumers are at a loss to know what the new meaning of the act might be.

Yesterday at Barnes & Noble in Great Falls my publisher (U of Calgary Press) and I had scheduled a reading and book signing. In the old paradigm, this would have meant a famous writer, a swarm of admiring fans, and a novel. But the weather was terrific, there was a big air show, it’s graduation season, and no one came except the people I’d invited to do introductions: Dona Stebbins, the mayor of Great Falls; Leland Ground whom I had invited to give a blessing in Blackfeet; and my publisher, Donna Livingstone. A few others like the husbands of the two Donnas; Leland’s family; Norma Ashby; and some other former students who happened in by chance: Stan Juneau and his wife, Carol, who is a state legislator. Amazingly, it turned out that all those empty chairs were an advantage. This mix of people needed to talk to each other, both about Bob Scriver and about books and life and Blackfeet and... well, the new paradigm.

I see that in this version of “publishing” the focus is on the real lives of people, national borders mean little, the land itself is part of the community, and one of the things a publisher does is to network among media and people. It was remarkable that the people with power in this conversation were mostly older, highly experienced women who were used to working with potent men. They had taken the burden of what some men consider to be beneath them and now that has turned out to be the more important part of public life. (Okay, go ahead and invoke Hilary Clinton. Pretend Leland is Obama -- he’d like that!)

So after Leland did his blessing, I did my reading -- forgetting that I was supposed to be introduced by Dona Stebbins, who gracefully slipped herself into the conversation and did it anyway -- and then we did something that I’d call “idea jazz.” Someone would make a statement about Bob Scriver or art or life in general, someone else would pick that up and do a “riff” on the subject, then the next person, until there was a seamless multi-voiced piece of verbal music going on.

This used to happen occasionally in the Unitarian context and it’s one of the phenomena that just absolutely lifts me up by the hair roots when it happens. Forget the pattern we were supposed to follow! It turned out that Donna Livingstone had attended a Blackfeet “Horn” Ceremony (it’s about buffalo), so she and Leland clicked right away; Dona Stebbins and her husband are musicians and really understood those dynamics, Edward Cavell (Donna L’s husband) once dated Charlie Beil’s daughter (!!! Beil was one of the key figures in Bob’s beginnings) and Norma Ashby has been a long-time and passionate Bob Scriver supporter. (Bob loved this sort of idea session!) So we were explaining, asking, dreaming, elaborating together as fast as we could. I kept nudging things towards the idea of a culture tie between Calgary and GF equivalent to the electrical power tie-line between GF and Lethbridge.

Even urban and sophisticated people like Michael Blowhard and Tim have become increasingly disappointed and even enraged by the hegemony of Manhattan publishing where something originally a gentleman’s work, done with dignity and high standards, has been made into a profit machine like everything else. They've drained out the heart’s blood and strangled the authors, which ironically has only helped the little grass roots operations to see that their work was important and could be unique. Small printing “publishers” now abound everywhere, esp. if you count blogs which are a sort of daily publishing that is rapidly replacing newspapers. And if you look to video, as Tim has done, and frankly admit that we’re all learning how to make music/image/word compositions so that young people’s input is just as valuable as that of the old tweedy “club” editors, then suddenly the world doesn’t seem to be contracting after all -- indeed, expanding rather more rapidly that we can assimilate, which makes us underestimate what’s happening.

Even more exciting, national boundaries no longer count (I look for nations to take a Chinese view of this and put some hard pressure on the Internet in the near future), so one culture can be just as meaningful as another because we aren’t bound by a particular language or medium, and -- what’s most important of all, the real “cassowary” event -- is the formation of a new cultural ecology that includes everything that has happened in this galaxy so far. God is dead, hello Cosmos! (And if you want to call the Cosmos “God,” that’s your choice.) There is a future after all!

Well, I could read about all this in the New York Times (ha!) and on Manhattan-focused blogs (double ha), but to have it right here in “River City,” weaving together people I’ve known for half a century with others who say, “Oh, that’s so much like MY life,” even though we’ve just met --- well, the evidence is just too strong to be denied. Something is happening that has nothing to do with conventional politics, though it's affecting them as well. No one can figure out where the money is going to come from or how we’re going to survive until it does. We still don’t know how to educate people for their lives.

But if there’s anything I learned in the ministry and from Bob Scriver, it is the great counseling truth that “focus gives power.” The more a person or a society can get focus -- not a hokey mission statement someone developed with Magic Marker and newsprint taped to the walls -- but a from-the-heart understanding of what it means to be human on the prairie along the Rockies, the more powerful the idea becomes without anyone having to force anything. Whateveritis comes THROUGH us, not from our pushing.

The biggest risk is that the Status Quo might try to stamp out this gathering power, so it’s a good thing to be disguised as merely a little book reading on the first really fine Spring day, such good weather that no one attended except those who were somehow guided to be there. For all I know, one of Leland’s grandsons might catch fire and write a book or make a video that changes everything. Or it might be the Coburn family, who came after the reading and sat quietly talking about Bob Scriver, continuing the conversation even though they hadn’t been there earlier. They are a dance family, composing a celebration of Lewis & Clark in ballet terms. Last year’s Sacajawea/ballerina loved her first year of college in Purchase, N.Y., where two classes were academic and the rest was ballet. I asked to see her toes after that much en pointe and was pleased to see that modern tech materials have gotten to those classic pink satin slippers: silicon padding and restructured support are saving her Blackfeet toes.

While all this was happening, my poplars finally unfurled their leaves. Archibald Macleish, addressing the despair of his own times in J.B., said, “I would not stay here if I could...” meaning that he was tempted by suicide, “except for the little green leaves in the Spring and the wind on the water.” Today is gray and softly warm, good for planting the hollyhocks and nicotiana I bought in Great Falls.