Tuesday, September 30, 2008


When I blog about anything, but esp. about religion, it’s usually because I’m accumulating and developing material for a book, sometimes two at once, which is the case here. On a broad scale I’m developing a general theory of “poetics of liturgy,” which was supposed to have been my thesis topic in 1982 but got stuck, and also I’m working on an analysis of the Blackfeet Medicine Pipe Bundle Opening ceremony in terms of those same “poetics.” Both of these “works” are meant to start from the most basic point of view, which is always hard, because religion is almost by definition what we invisibly take for granted and challenge at our peril -- our world might collapse. It’s our identity, so we defend it fiercely. People have a tough time hearing what I’m trying to say. Or, conversely, I have a tough time saying what can be heard.

I’m undertaking “zero-based reasoning,” (sort of like zero-based budgeting), not meant to convert anyone but rather to look at the familiar in a new way. Like “God.” The concept is so entangled in Personhood that one of the first things I have to do, whether I want to or not, is define God. Otherwise, all along the way in the reasoning process, someone is going to pop up and say, “Yeah, but what about GOD?”

There are several classical arguments for the existence of “God,” whether or not that is defined as having Personhood. One is that God is the source of everything. God was there before creation and possibly started creation in the first place, thus God is the Creator, the First Cause. One is that God is where we are going: not the origin but the goal of creation: eventually all will merge into a perfection. (That means it all stops changing.) One is that God is the ordering principle that makes things work together. (Not so useful when we get to thinking about disorder and its role in destruction and pain. Then you have to invent the Devil.) I’ll have to keep using the noun “God” in the following discussion because otherwise I have to choose a pronoun, which throws us back into “person.”

The classic definition of God I choose to use in this sequence of ideas is “God is that which nothing can be greater.” One of the recurring theological questions is whether if you took God away anything would be left. (Most agree that if you took creation as we know it away, God would be left.) Extremes and infinities are always impossible to REALLY grasp, but they do have implications. If God is everything, then God includes all of time: the past, the future, the present moment in the broadest dimension of all existence, and all the POSSIBLE other times when events zigged instead of zagged. (A quantum mechanics sort of view.) Certainly, anything a human can think of is included in God -- both the human and the thoughts must be part of God. We are not in relationship with God, because we are part of God and every move we make creates more God. (This is where you can argue about free will.) The highest moral principle is to do what will create the God you want: a God of compassion and generosity? Do it. NOT acting well will shunt you into another part of God you might not like. But you cannot be destroyed because even your destruction will be part of God. Everything that has ever happened is still there in God.

So salvation doesn’t depend upon relationship but rather on inclusion and you’re already there. You’re already saved, whether you act like it or not. A jokey version of this idea might be that God is the Ultimate Hard Drive. That Never Crashes. Buddhists will probably feel a lot more comfortable with this approach than the Abramic religionists who worry all the time about obedience, rules, getting into Heaven and so on. They have strong feelings about keeping their identities. (Maybe there’s a paper somewhere comparing Abramic ideas with those of Confucianism or Shinto.)

An “inclusion” religion tends to dissolve the individual person, which may be why some people can’t even consider it as a possibility. The criticism may be made that defining something as “everything” is not a definition at all. You can’t tell what something IS unless you know what it ISN’T! Exactly. You really CAN’T tell what God is. No human brain can do more than create a provisional image, often called “the masks of God” as though God were at a masquerade or onstage. (Islam forbids this attempt and urges obedience.)

Years ago, when I was part of the Humptulips Pacific Northwest UU Ministers’ Study Group, I was assigned to write a paper reconciling male-based theologies with female-based theologies. I proposed that men’s religions emphasized identity and separation, living your own honorable life. But the women’s religions were about fusion: intimacy to the point of sacrificing one’s own identity -- a necessity for growing a new human being inside one’s body and then keeping it alive until it was independent. These ministers had a mischievous way of assigning topics, but I never could discover whether they thought I wasn’t enough of a feminist or whether they thought I’d be a moderating influence on the feminists. I personally don’t prefer a fusion-based relationship with a church nor do I like Mommy Ministers. But neither do I relate to an Abramic-based theology. Unlike many women, who love “spirituality” and want fusion (what I nastily refer to as “hot-tub religion”), I panic at the possibility of submersion, drowning. But I am exalted under a starry sky or on the broad prairie. I trust nature -- I just don’t trust people. Thus, no personhood.

What I get out of this is that it’s possible to be a hybrid and that I’m well situated to look on both sides of the issue. This pleases me. It did NOT please some on my thesis advisory panel, particularly the UU minister who insisted that either I thought like him, or I was WRONG. Very Abramic of him. Very much the Patriarch. This attitude prompts many women to reactively insist on a Matriarch. I vividly recall dozens of women sitting in the pews of First Unitarian after the service, going through all the hymnals to change the genders from male to female. The generous tried to find inclusive language. The timid lightly held pencils. The ferocious gripped blood red ball points! On fire with zeal! Enjoying their terrorism. This is why I want to go to zero-based considerations.

I also wish to escape evil-denying, mushy fusion stuff people call “spirituality.” (Did I say it scares me?) I’m talking PETA here -- the idea that all the dear little animals should be cherished pets. Everyone should be like the faculty on a liberal university campus. (A view that shows no insight into university faculties.) What about the enormity of anguish and ferocity in the world, awareness that this planet can kill thousands of humans in one geological event, for no reason. Perhaps some resist the idea of evolution because they are aware it means that so many creatures die along the way, just as culling puppies creates a breed.

(to be continued)

Monday, September 29, 2008


Maybe you’ve seen a field where cows have grazed, carefully eating around the Canadian thistles so that they stand out like trees in a meadow. Many a rancher and farmer has wished their cow’s priorities were reversed so the thistles went down the bovine gullets first. Of course, women know a lot about this stuff because they themselves have had to convert their own diets for health or weight loss and because they are usually the ones who must get the kids to eat their spinach. So it’s not surprising that Kathy Voth was the one to figure out how to make cows eat weeds.

Appropriately making her home in Loveland, CO, Voth figured out her techniques while studying animal behavior at the Bureau of Land Management at Utah State University. In fact, she began with goats but moved to cows when working with the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, MT. This ranch is a “working” ranch, not a Disneyland. The project targeted thistles, knapweeds and mustards.

Observing the rule ignored by many (“first do no damage”) Voth analyzed the weeds to make sure they weren’t toxic. This is not as easy as it sounds since plants might be toxic in the spring but not when fully grown towards fall or vice versa. Surprisingly, thistles have the same nutritional values as alfalfa! And the cows don’t seem to mind the prickles. From a human point of view, cows-as-herbicides leave no toxic chemical residue as spraying would. We are only beginning to realize the damage done by the tweaked chemicals of herbicides, esp. when spread over the huge acreages of Montana wheat farms.

Turns out, as Voss proved in Madison County, Montana, recently, bison can also be taught to eat weeds. So what can she teach people buffaloed by the diets of their own kids? First, a nutrition feedback loop makes a cow’s body want what it needs. (A universal dynamic in humans that gets suppressed because advertising and lack of experience over-rides our subtle impulses.) They lose interest in empty calories and crave whatever is missing. This is why nutrition blocks, maybe with salt, interest cows so much. Humans with deficits, maybe a pregnant woman missing a specific element, have been known to eat dirt that contains the element.

As studies of the hippocampus show in the brains of all mammals -- and the cow is the absolute max in terms of mammals defined by producing milk -- the hippocampus wants to keep things the same. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” It's safer to eat what we ate last time, since we didn't keel over. But the element of safety is balanced by an interest in new things, a bit of experiment and variety. The old thing might not always be available.

Training begins when Voth sneaks cubed alfalfa, wheat bran and rolled corn into the cow’s usual rations, just like a mom putting bits of broccoli and carrots into the mac and cheese. At first eating new things almost by accident, the cows begin to like it. The calves and younger cows are the first to find the novelty more interesting, but when the other cows see the new food being eaten with a certain amount of relish, they try it, too.

After four days of this, on the fifth day the cows are fed a little late so their appetites are strong and this time there are weeds in the “casserole.” On the third day after this, weeds are the whole meal for the day. Then they go to the field where the weeds are actually growing to tackle the problem of how to eat a tall thistle instead of short grass. Maybe you’ve noticed that cows can wrap their tongues around stuff and yank it out of the ground. Works good on thistles.

What’s interesting is that once one batch of cows has been trained, untrained cows who see what they are eating will imitate them and end up eating weeds just like the trained cows. You can tell your kid to eat raw carrots with no effect but if he sees another kid he likes eating raw carrots, the struggle is over! Peer demonstrations work. (Advertisers know this. But those peers are PAID to pretend that’s what they eat.)

There’s a website for this strategy: www.livestockforlandscapes.com. You can buy a DVD to teach yourself how to teach your cows. It doesn’t work on horses, only on ruminants whose series of stomachs are capable of digesting weeds pretty efficiently.

But goats, clever animals that they are, take right to the project and have been used for a while, especially in places where brush needs to be kept down as a fire preventative. Sometimes on the way to Helena one can see the goat herd on the Sieben Ranch/Baucus Ranch -- once the Malcolm Clarke ranch. There are hundreds of goats, flowing in a carpet over the hillsides. Goats are famous for eating anything, though I doubt any of them ever eat tin cans as they do in cartoons. Too bad.

This strategy of using what is already there by simply doing a bit of introduction and encouragement is increasingly attracting attention and rewarding those who figure it out. This is “organic” (my favorite word since the Fifties when I learned it in high school) as opposed to mechanical, which requires oversight and maintenance, something imposed rather than unfolding. Every time the Bioneers come on Yellowstone Public Radio I have to go do something else for a while because otherwise I get totally distracted away from my own goals. (http://www.bioneers.org/about) It’s all so beautiful and seductive that it’s near-religious. A person can’t do EVERYTHING and the bio-engineers are doing so much that I’ll just stand back and watch from enough of a distance to keep from being sucked in. But I heartily hope they convert the world. Right now the weeds seem to be winning while the people die of cancer. If a cow can turn it around, it wouldn’t surprise a Norseman or a Masai.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


One day in Heart Butte Molly Bullshoe, the teacher of Blackfeet language and ways, had to be gone. The principal asked me to take her class, full of young boys who couldn’t keep their butts in their chairs or their mouths and hands to themselves. Worse, I’m only a wannabe Blackfeet. So what would I do? Then I remembered my pack of “Medicine Cards.”

As you can see from the package above, this is a deck of cards sort of based on Tarot -- one card for each animal and then a book that tells you what the card is supposed to mean. It’s a bit hokey and certainly not Blackfeet! No old-time Blackfeet ever had a dolphin for a totem guide animal! Nevertheless, the cards are beautiful and it was worth a try.

We sat on the floor in a circle. Everyone drew an unseen card at random. THAT was to be their totem animal for the period. I read from the book about what the animal meant and then we tried to figure out whether it really was the right animal for that kid and what that animal might say to him if it showed up in the room right then. It was dynamite! We had a great time.

I think there were several reasons these cards worked. They were something to focus on that was about each of us (a topic of primary concern at their age!) and yet was non-threatening. There was no pass/fail/you’re-a-dummy dimension. There was the “magic” side of it, which is always there no matter how one tries to be simply objective, but also stronger when art validates it. It was new, something they had never seen before, and yet it echoed something familiar: the visionquest system of the Old Blackfeet when males their age fasted in the mountains to acquire an animal connection with the world. They really WERE Blackfeet and felt some level of entitlement. And they knew playing cards.

They did NOT know Tarot, though the postmaster told me she had enjoyed telling fortunes with Tarot cards and thought they were a good way to manipulate people until someone accused her of using pagan devil magic. After the success of Medicine Cards I had made a pack of cards about the Greek gods and for a while I “told fortunes” with them. A student chose a card, I looked to see what it was and then asked questions more than told answers. “Aha! This is Venus! Something is happening in your love life?” Or the Jupiter card would come upside down. “Gee, looks like something is going on with your father that’s contrary. Are you arguing about something?” The postmaster declared this no different than Tarot.

Another commercially sold system has been created using runes: the player reaches into a bag for a chip with a mark on it, then looks up the meaning in a book. The one I know best was written by a man who said he was careful to make sure the meanings were positive, constructive, and never damning. Runes are as old as tarot, another Old World system. A more technie gimmick is a “black ball” that has a window where answers to questions float up out of the dark. When I was a child, it fascinated me. Great for parties!

These games play off two human universals: wanting to understand what’s going on and finding symbolic meanings in small signs, even the entrails of a chicken or a few words from a prophet. Some people close their eyes, open their Bible and stab at random with their finger to see what they touch. I check my horoscope every day and once in a while it has a run of seemingly accurate predictions like, “you’re about to be surprised.” (Actually I’m surprised quite a lot of the time -- it’s a safe prediction!) In a very difficult and confused time I had an I Ching program in my computer that not only threw down the three pennies for me (the meaning is in the heads/tails ratio) but gave me the ancient Chinese “meaning,” which was always cryptic but often focused attention on something in a helpful way.

Just now I looked on Google for something I remember: an idea “slap pack” of cards intended to help people who had gotten stuck in some kind of invention or planning, like a card that said: “What if you turned it upside down?” or “Does this remind you of something in your childhood?” or “What would your uncle say about this?” Sometimes the question made you think of a new answer and you slapped your forehead, crying out, “Of course!” The trouble with a lot of politics is that the interests of the status quo prevents the use of “slap pack” questions that would open up new ways of understanding. Good counselors know a lot of "slap pack" questions.

If one has feelings about the meaning of animal species, maybe because of knowing them well in daily life, as the Native American people did, then the appearance of an animal might seem like a sign. In “Bronze Inside and Out” I included a moment when Bob and I were far to the north to go moose hunting. One sign was not a moose, but the absence of moose. Then two animals appeared on the highway in front of us, so engrossed in their interaction that they hardly paid attention to our oncoming pickup: a raven and a coyote. The raven was diving at the coyote, which leapt up to try to grab it. These two creatures are known as resourceful, playful, and very often the embodiment of tricksters. Being fooled, faked-out, especially on the northern plains where missing a small sign can mean big trouble, is a major issue in life. (It is at the heart of “bone game” or “stick game.”) We knew at once that we were seeing two splendid creatures, but also being given a message about us and our relationship. Only time unraveled that meaning.

If I run across one of the boys who were in that class almost twenty years ago, I’ll ask them if they remember what animal card they drew, what we thought it meant and how it played out in their life.

(Medicine Cards from Bear & Co. are sold in bookstores. ISBN 0-939680-53-X)

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Many times I assign myself a topic (like the limbic system) and other times just let them happen. Today the topic came in the mail in the form of a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I was the officiant. Karen and Jack Hoover (“The Wild Rose and the Prairie Sage” on their invitation) were not kids when they married and they had some bruises. I worried that the marriage might not work because they were people who took care of other people to the point of needy people attaching to them. I was afraid that they’d “nurture” each other to death! It has not worked that way at all -- they’ve been gifts to each other and those around them, including me.

I don’t mean in any material way, but just being there. They were part of the Unitarian “beloved community” in Great Falls but also popped up other places, like at CMR Museum events. When Russ Lockwood, who was my district exec in the Eighties and one of the people who made the Montana circuit-riding pulpit possible, would ask me “which one of these fellowships would you want to serve if we could fund you?” I’d always say “Great Falls,” because it was the one that tied in most directly with my Sixties life on the reservation. He’d always sigh, because he could see that economically the Great Falls fellowship wasn’t going to be viable (and the fellowship DID fall apart), but the one that COULD be viable was Billings and they didn’t love me. Nothing personal: they don’t love any ministers. I never even got to know them because they didn’t sign up for the program.

Not that beloved communities are all wine and roses. The Blackfeet Rez (not just the tribe) remains one of my key beloved communities because it’s where I was young and in love. But everyone fights like cats and dogs. No, that’s not strong enough. People murder each other, cripple each other for life, destroy each other economically. In between they redeem each other, devote themselves to the future, and invent new livelihoods. All is not progress. All is change. Even here in Valier, all is change. Yesterday there were two funerals, one next door to me, plus the homecoming parade and, of course, the big game. Sometimes it’s the loss that’s on top, and other times it’s the gains.

Also in the mail was the newest copy of “The Bloomsbury Review,” one of the few persisting newsprint reviews (bi-monthly) and about the only one that reviews the kind of books I read: NA lit, books by writers in the American West, books about nature and psychology and travel. For instance, in the classifieds is notice of a lecture by Raffaella Ada Columbo MD in Denver about “The Limbic System and Religious Experience.” Of course, she will reveal that Jung knew all about the limbic system all along, etc. etc. but I’m more interested in her strategy than her conclusion. To me, Jung is a lot more help than Freud. More fun, too. But you have to watch out for him. He sometimes took out his payment in fucking and even mind-fucking is risky. That’s off the point. The point is that “The Bloomsbury Review” is coherent and beloved because it was founded by a charismatic and devoted man, plus his family, friends, and patrons. Even when he died, the community and publication went on without him because the flesh-and-blood community had created a “virtual community” of readers and subscribers. ($20 for six issues. The Bloomsbury Review, 1553 Platte Street, Suite 206, Denver, CO 80202-1167. 303-455-3123)

Not in the snail mail but by email I’ve been in contact with Nature Network which is an email community based in England. They are delightful people, but I’m finding their interface, while free, too complicated for an old lady like me. I’m too much of a polymath and too little of a techie: they are meant to serve people prepared to form a subset of scientists around research issues. I would love to live their lives -- I made contact through the similarity of names between Earnest Scribbler and Mary Scribbler. Earnest wears crocs, lives in a house full of animals, and loves verbal whimsy as much as I do, but maybe that’s not enough.

Another virtual community is a small group of boys “at risk” who live together like an old Sixties and Seventies commune, doing their own housework and trying to overcome traumas that most of us never face: torture, loss of family, HIV, addiction. I’m privileged to listen in. Again, there is an adult charismatic male “centerpole.”

My schools follow along behind me, a cloud of witnesses looking for my money. Hopeless pursuit. Their publications also come in the mail. The best are from the University of Chicago Divinity School. The most formal of these is “Criterion” which publishes the texts of speeches. Another, called “Circa,” is news-based. An assistant professor of ministry tells us: “... God-talk’s answerability to God appears incompatible with its answerability to us, such that God-talk is all-too-often called upon both to elevate the status of a particular agenda and to insulate that agenda from criticism. I counter all of this by providing an “ordinary” account of God-talk: by explaining the semantics (meaning, truth, “aboutness” etc.) of ordinary language in terms of the norms implicit in our recognition of certain language-use as correct, and then explaining the sense in which the normative Spirit of God-talk is likewise mediated through an ongoing process of mutual recognition, I argue that we can understand God-talk as a species of ordinary talk...”

Got that? Me, neither. After a bit of reflection, my guess is it means “my God is better than your God” and “smile when you say that.” Or maybe not. This is why I make sure to participate in this community through print: I need time to run for the dictionary. Maybe draw a diagram or make notes.

But here’s why I stick around:

In general, U of Chicago is not a woman-friendly place -- or wasn't then -- but these photos from Circa (which is why they’re screened) are of Wendy Doniger, a formidable and warm person who has made the community her own. She is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. As the years go by, I fancy I look more like her -- maybe it’s just the glasses and hats. I reach for my Eliade book hoard all the time, but own none of Doniger’s books. Maybe I’m waiting for a memoir. Maybe it's that her "Indians" are in Asia. She doesn’t know me and I’ve never spoken to her, but she was part of the beloved community surrounding Eliade. Sometimes he asked her to speak for him.

A beloved community is both a supporter and definer of one’s identity (“me-talk?”) and a challenge to it. One sometimes has to stand against it or other times take an outright loss of face or even income, but many times it is a shelter and a salvation. Learning how it all works is a key part of wisdom.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Paleolithic Brain: the Hippocampus

Hippocampus” is a name inspired by the idea that these twin brain structures look like little seahorses, at least in human beings. In rodents the structure looks like little bananas, so I’m grateful they didn’t name them “bananacampus.” “Campos” means water monster. So... “banana water monster?” Well... I once found a lemon nudibranch on the rocks along the Oregon coast. That’s pretty close. The question is, does a nudibranch (sea cucumber) have a hippocampus? No. It’s kind of a mammal thing. Though it fascinates me that there’s a sort of pre-hippocampus in “teleost” fishes (I think that means bony: “ost”/osteo like osteoarthritis) and birds have a seemingly “everted” or inside-out version of that doodad.

The hippocampus, like the amygdala which is just ahead of it in the brain’s temporal lobe, is well-enough known that people use it as the name of their organizations or publications. Studies seem to show that memory, emotion, and one’s inner space map are managed here. A goldfish uses its fishy version of a hippocampus a lot, which means sense since they live by rooting around in ponds and need to remember where things are. They can also become sort of “pets” which implies a sort of emotion: attachment. But salmon seem to remember the location of their natal brook with its stony cradle by using some other sense, maybe a chemical-interpreting gizmo that lets them “taste” water.

It appears that remembering is a two-step accumulation: one “bag” is filled all day with sense impressions linked to emotions, then at night the bag is filtered and only some of it is saved to a different bag in another brain structure that is “sorted” and more permanent. What actors and therapists know is that when one remembers something, it seems to be “re-lived” complete with muscle memory, smells, music and so on. A famous patient, H.M., had both his hippocampi destroyed as a desperate effort to stop terrible epileptic seizures. The seizures stopped but his memory was destroyed. He continued to be intelligent and to be able to learn new skills but he couldn’t remember anything in the ordinary sense. (Someone ought to write a book about famous patients!)

People working with these concepts use these terms:

“Episodic or autobiographical memory:” new memories of experienced events
“Anterograde amnesia:” Inability to form new memories
“Retrograde amnesia:” Inability to remember things once remembered -- this can be partial or total. Usually earlier memories persist.
“Declarative memory:” Being able to tell what one remembers.
“Procedural memory:” Learning new skills, like a musical instrument
Place cells:” These cells tell where you are topographically.
Context-dependent cells:” Same as above except that they give different results depending on the animal’s past (retrospective) or expected future (prospective).

Fascinatingly and ingeniously, these functions have been studied in two ways. One is in the brains of people using a computer to create and navigate a “virtual” or invented place (like Sim City) and the other is in London cabbies who study “The Knowledge,” which is where everything is in that city. (You might remember the rambunctious and appealing character in the movie series “7-Up” who memorized “The Knowledge” so he could be a cabbie.) Doing this made their right hippocampus get bigger and bigger!

While working on these ideas, I went to Wikipedia because it’s usually the most basic, even though that means it might be the least reliable. Then I went to this PubMed url, which was very interesting and used wonderful logos based on NW Indian image vocabularies, the kind used on totem poles!
But the best illustrations and the most interesting and easy-to-read trail was at this url.

The hippocampus is the first place in the brain that is affected by Alzheimers. The two cases of this that I know best were in the Bozeman UU Fellowship, both in very gifted and well-loved women who had made major contributions to the lives of others. One, an artist, didn’t seem to have a family history of Alzheimers, and the other did. She had always known she was as risk. My sister-in-law had this condition and so her daughter knows she is at risk. (The condition sometimes travels with depression and alcoholism, which at first seemed like causes, but on second thought seem to simply share an underlying cause.) It’s very unclear what a person should do about all this. The research goes on in rather shrouded fashion because people get so desperate for help that they try to use treatments that are not yet checked out for efficacy and safety. As you can imagine, this is a set-up for con artists promising snake-oil cures, while at the other end of the scale is the real and practical need for expensive care and protection.

The hippocampus also seems to have something to do with epilepsy and bipolar disorder. In general it appears that this little seahorse is the carrier of much of our individual identity and personality style. Drugs can affect it positively or negatively. This is the bit of the brain that “date rape drugs” appear to affect, muffling memory.

The good news is that hippocampus seems to be able to regenerate new cells more than other parts of the brain. Also, estrogen encourages new growth in synapse density, which may be why both the sufferers I knew were older women past menopause. (The response of the other women in the fellowship was warm and generous. They came regularly to read, to bring beautiful found objects, to tell about their lives, and to watch for responses. This was about 1984, when the whole picture was just beginning to form.)

Also the hippocampus seems to have something to do with traumatic memory. I’ll come back to this some other time, but briefly the chemicals of trauma appear to make the hippocampus shrink. Here’s at least one url: http://dnl.ucsf.edu/users/dweber/dweber_docs/ptsd_hippocamp.html and a quote: “The cognitive implications of damage to the hippocampus in PTSD are an impairment of episodic memory and novelty detection that gives rise to disruption of executive functions and results in uncertainty, distraction, and anxiety.” I can testify that when I was living in a risky neighborhood in Portland in the '90's and my cortisol tested high, I wasn’t getting much writing done. It was only when I came here, to a relatively safe place where it is far calmer and quieter (in terms of noise), that I could really concentrate and produce. In a sense then, I was right to ride the seahorse home. The banana sea monster was left behind for the rats.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


My BBC mystery and costume serieses are so absorbing that I tend to forget the rest of the video world, so I thought I’d freshen up my head a bit and look at some other things. I moved “Far From Heaven” and “State and Main” to the top of my queue without any real idea of what they were about. I try not to read the www.imdb.com reviews until I’ve formed an opinion of my own. It’s just a little game I play.

Each of these movies were written and directed by the same person so each movie is window into a particular understanding of what a good movie is. I must have put “State and Main” on the list because it is a David Mamet movie. “House of Games” made a major impression on me before I knew who Mamet was, which is kind of dumb of me since he comes very much out of a context like my classmates at Northwestern University School of Speech theatre department. (Everyone was named “David.” Except the women, of course.) His distinct style includes often using his wife in the movie, as Lindsay Crouse was in “House of Games.” His actor friends and literally his neighbors constitute a kind of repertory company, some of them VERY highly trained and skilled like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and some of them just -- well, who knows where they’re coming from? Themselves? Are those Bert and Ernie old men who comment on everything like that in real life? How can the guy who plays the scary cop be so absolutely authentic when he’s not even a cop, much less an actor? Is there an actor hiding in everyone?

The wife/actress in “State and Main” is as different from the wife in “The House of Games” as the two movies are different in subject matter-- is that because Mamet’s whole world view has changed or does the change in women cause the shifting interest in subject matter? Or is it the persistent focus on the “search for purity” (he hides reality in gags) that makes them alike in spite of changes in his life? The facts are that he, a Chicago guy who hung around Second City, first married Lindsay Crouse of the famous Broadway team, Lindsay and Crouse, and then over 1990-91 made the transition to Rebecca Pigeon, a hybrid Scot/American singer/actress. Maybe part of that shift is explicitly explained in an article last March: http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-03-11/news/why-i-am-no-longer-a-brain-dead-liberal/

I know a lot of brain-dead-liberals. They forward me long satirical stuff about the election. They never tell me about their lives, nor do they know or care much about my real life. And they are deadly earnest all the time about high ideals while compromising and scrambling and finagling to get ahead in life.

This is essentially funny in itself, but what makes Mamet palatable even to them, even when he tells the truth, is that his style is like vaudeville: a scene with a point, lots of confusion (irrelevant people going in and out of the scene, intense people whose perception of reality is out of focus, misguided people who have nothing to do with it anyway) which leads to very funny juxtapositions, and -- opposed to that -- a clarity of delivery and rhythm that keeps the viewer from getting discouraged. It's essentially Abbot and Costello. Not that you don’t have to play close attention. In “State and MainRebecca Pigeon is the still point of clarity: she sees things truly and keeps her objective clear, no matter how bad the behavior of those around her and quite in contrast to Philip Seymour whose moral and artistic confusion is in endearing contrast to William H. Macy and David Paymer’s laser-like determination to follow the money and get the movie made, the commercial pursuit of happiness that is the American Way.

The fun is in the utter sincerity of all this -- comedy as taught by Alvina Krause. And the predictability of dilemma, smart aleck comment and double entendre (You’re supposed to say “richly layered”), and then a payoff or at least a “button,” a little throwaway or non sequiter at the end. Mamet wrote “Wag the Dog,” remember.

The other movie, “Far from Heaven” was the brainstorm of Todd Haynes. The actors are very fine. It’s just that I disliked the “American Melodramas” of Douglas Sirk, in the first place, and dislike Todd Haynes in the second place. It’s not because he’s gay (hence the love of glam and the obsession with unmasking) or because he’s a Californian who lives in Portland, Oregon (sigh). It’s because he majored in semiotics at Brown University. This tells me that his world view is based on being “different from everyone in very complicated ways” and therefore superior. Arrogance. German in a bad way.

For instance, he purports to know all about women’s movies and lives and all about the essence of the Fifties, which he sees as a kind of surreal moving version of ladies’ magazines: bright colors, phony lives. Everything deception but with a bleeding compassion trapped inside -- oh, the horror. Underneath there is always a hint of contempt.

When I was in “dramatics” in Portland, Oregon, about the time Sirkin was on the silver screen and before Todd Haynes was born, I was in a play called “Mrs. McThing.” It was a high school throwaway about gangsters and eccentric old ladies. One of the gag lines was from the head of the gang: “Don’t just stand there saying you’re going to do something! DO something!” Todd Haynes’ work strikes me as a lot of standing around talking about the style instead of the content. So wonderful! So insightful! But that’s kind of how semiotics strikes me, too. So-what stuff.

No one forced me to watch “Far from Heaven.” I’m not entirely sorry I watched it -- a person should know what’s out there. But I won’t watch it again. I might watch “State and Main” again sometime. As for “Wag the Dog,” I guess we’re living it now. Maybe I’ll wait. Is there anything crazier than Cheney having a meeting to discuss how to curb corporations who are trying to take over the government? Maybe it’s Bush trying to convince us that he’s not involved? Or the whole Wall Street briefcase drill team turning on their heels in unison as they all disavow regulation?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


When I first started at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1978, I had no categories that were useful in terms of what I was learning, in spite of undergrad religion courses in 1958. In fact, when I decided that what I believed (while acknowledging that the human brain is limited) was pretty much the evidence of my senses -- which I thought was more polite than saying I was one of the “a” words (atheist, agnostic) -- they told me this was phenomenology (NOT phenomenal in the sense of praise) and when I told them I loved stories they said it was “narrative.” But the trendy thing was deconstruction and everything was fabulous, but not in the sense of praise. Fabulized, made up. When I insisted that my method WAS phenomenological, dark clouds gathered around their brows and they frowned. “But where is FAITH?” they demanded. “Where is GOD?” Even at my “home” seminary, Meadville/Lombard which was Unitarian Universalist, they thought I ought to define God.

Then I hit upon the formula: comparative religion. This is a key that many scientists never really find. They’re still back in the 19th century when religion was familiarly true (theist) or untrue (A-theist, which is only another word for pagan). At best they would allow that a “true” religion has a written out book and all the others are “mythic,” fabulized, playing at religion. These are OLD categories. (Has anyone written a pagan religious book? Sure. Lots, because this category is “everythingelse.”)

Many problems disappear when one moves to a different set of categories that are based on analysis rather than in/out:

A. Institutional aspects of religion: organizations with books, priests, buildings, political clout, and hierarchies. Theology matters only to the degree it supports the institution. Buddhists have this stuff as much as Catholics. I’ll say to you that even Native Americans and Rastafarians can have these things and when they do, they try to get and keep both power and property, just the same as white Euros with books and cathedrals. As soon as a religion becomes institutionalized, it sets about trying to build itself into the ruling class, the economy and the national dialogue. Scientists ignore this unless it cuts into their funding. After all, they have their own institutions (turf) to protect.

B. Theological content of religion: When the “experts” get together, they talk over the heads of the believers. Process theologians trying to reconcile particle physics with Christianity are no more arcane than South American Indians explaining the revelations of atahuasca in the contemporary world. The inner task is always to try to convert the emotion (the “felt” content) into reasoned theory, usually involving “Theos,” since the Western world with its roots in the Mediterranean desert religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has always been preoccupied with the powers of the Chief of the tribe. Scientists like this and often want to get to this context. They understand the mode because to them science is a form of theology.

C. Simple confrontation
of the great Whatever. This can be mediated by drugs, nature, love, and brain sets so that it doesn’t seem so simple, but most people will grant that the Sacred is palpable quite aside from the question of whether it’s actually there or not. We feel “something” and it’s stronger in some circumstances than in others. The BEST scientists will acknowledge this, might even be motivated by it.

D. Behavior. Esp. the question of how people ought to behave, how they ought to make moral decisions (by rules, on principle, case-by-case, by following role-models), and all the sub-legal (or maybe they’re supra-legal) issues of fairness, compassion, and protection. Scientists are supposed to have Rules of the Game, though they seem neglected lately.

E. Aesthetics. At what point does art become worship? At what point does beauty become God? Or fusion with the universe? Or is the issue what God makes versus what humans make?

F. Ecological origins.
This is the one that interests me most. Most religions, it seems to me, are an upwelling of the place where they begin: the sensory material, the weather, the economics, sources of food, and social organization that make it possible to survive there. The ones that stay in place have a “rightness” to them, a “fittingness.” On the other hand, some dimensions of religion are pretty universal. The High Theology of the Trinity makes sense in terms of the Father, Mother and Child and can transfer that dynamic anywhere there are humans. In that place we meet the psychologist, who is sometimes considered scientific.

G. Metareligion, which is itself “comparative religion,” not in the way the 19th century anthropologists began to collect strange and wonderful “religions,” but in the later way that we’ve discover each religion really IS systematic, valid and sacred on its own terms, and are now looking for ways that all religions agree enough to be reconciled so that we don’t have to fight bloody wars. But that 19th century anthropology was wonderful fun and some people don’t want to give up the “natural history” aspect of it, the collection of totems, fetishes, icons, which in the past were often made of skulls and skins. Natural history scientists already had collections of skulls and skins.

H. The attempt to control fate. If we are “good” (meaning anything from virtuous to observant to sacrificing), will things turn out better? So far the proposed cause and effect connections haven’t worked out: evil people do well, good people suffer.

If you are looking for a good book for thinking about religion in these ways, I recommend two books by William E. Paden published by Beacon Press. These small, clear books are for his classes and the reason there are two is that one is a later distillation of the first. “Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion,” (1998) is the early one. “Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion” (1992, 2nd edition, 2002) is the later. Beacon Press is a wholly-owned but separate and subsidiary corporation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is not quite a denomination because the congregations are independent entities. It was hoped by some that this idea would keep it from institutionalizing and bureaucratizing. Professor Paden, who is my age, is still actively publishing and teaching at the University of Vermont. Here’s the url for his vita: http://www.uvm.edu/~religion/?Page=faculty.html#paden

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


My three red-headed warrior women heroines through childhood and beyond were Isadora Duncan, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Lucy Maude Montgomery. Isadora, the free-spirited dancer; Gene, the indomitable naturalist; and Lucy whom I knew in her aspect as “Anne of Green Gables.” All three went head-long crashing into the world and all three had their melancholy moments. Isadora never lacked for eroticism and Gene never slowed for traffic. But Lucy/Anne was the prize, a minister’s wife no less. (Fictional Anne settled for a doctor.)

Now Lucy’s granddaughter has spilled the beans: Lucy Maude Montgomery killed herself at age 67. Hey, that’s MY age! (Isadora died at 50. Gene S-P died at 61. Both from automobile-related accidents.) Lucy had a lifelong struggle with depression and so did her husband, who died a year later than she did. (Isadora’s husband, much younger than she, also had mental health struggles which emerged in violence.) The granddaughter of Lucy Maude made her disclosure to try to break down the stigma of mental problems and promote programs that help those fighting for their very lives.

My problems have been more with managing paranoia and temper than depression. But my mother, some members of my father’s family, and my mother’s mother have all had to fight off what Winston Churchill called “the black dog.” When my mother, also named Lucy but “Lucy May,” first realized she was dying, I was sitting in the corner of the hospital room to watch over her. She said, “You’re sitting there like a “big black dog.” And I was. But it was as a guardian. Some say depression is a guardian against realities one cannot face, a relative to denial.

I first realized that my mother, the invulnerable, could suffer was one twilight when I was pretty small. I came in from the yard and found her in the near-dark weeping. I had never seen her cry before. Dumb-founded, I couldn’t think what to do except to pat her. She turned angry, which was her Irish Prot family’s way of handling most everything, and sent me back outside while she started supper. Though she denied that such a thing ever happened, I finally figured out she must have been just realizing that cancer would kill her mother. In those days cancer was hidden deeper than depression. It implied that a person deserved some awful punishment. I suppose mental illness is the same.

Later my mother and we kids went down to Roseburg, OR, so my mother could do her mother’s canning. Her mother was in a nursing home, but the canning had to be done. My grandfather must have tended the garden. Gardening of food was man’s work, but canning was not and my aunts, farm wives, were doing their own canning. We kids bedded down on quilts behind the sofa and my mother and her father raged at each other all evening. We’d left too quickly for me to remember to bring along a doll, so my grandfather got me to draw one on some thin plywood and cut it out with a coping saw. He was a skilled finish carpenter, often away from home so he could go to contracting jobs. His raging was mostly empty, meant to control rather than wound.

Both my mother’s parents were religious. “Pop” was a pillar of the Presbyterian church -- maybe more like a rumbling radiator in the church, always making heat and noise. “Mom” was at heart a Universalist Baptist and, since in Roseburg the two churches were next to each other, she would slip out during the tedious hair-splitting of the Presby sermon in order to hear about forgiveness at the Baptist church. I thought her name was Grace, but it was Ethel Grace. These are gender-assigned religious tastes: a man wanting structure and a patriarch; a woman wanting comforting and something more like a lover.

I don’t think suicide is always a result of depression, though both are theorized to be rage turned inward as self-destruction. I don’t know of any suicides in the family; at least no successes. I guess, like me, they figured if it were that bad they’d make the bastards kill ‘em. And in the meantime, not be held back by good manners! The secret of a suicide must be pretty depressing, a lead weight on a weary swimmer through life. I’m not much one for secrets: disclosure might be a good trait for a writer, but not necessarily for her family. Maybe Lucy Maude’s fictionalizations kept her alive and were far more satisfying to readers than an honest account of her life might have been.

Through some kind of alchemy, she managed to create a kind of Victorian/Japanese, weeping-willow melancholy, a sort of romantic twilight woven of white flowers among the pines along the dunes where memories of lost loves walked alongside and the breakers sighed in the distance. She did have a keen sense of the ridiculous, gently mocking what must have been the tyrants and cranks of any congregation. She lanced the abcesses of pretention and applied the antiseptic of Rachel Lynde’s astringent opinions, showing them for the conformist and class-based assumptions they were. It’s “face,” facade, appearances that form a cage as much as depression. Isadora and Gene might be said to have destroyed themselves by hurling themselves against the bars. Or were they endangered by leaving the constraints of convention? Did they really escape? Do we really have freedom now?

Some commentators have noted that the lives of women in previous generations were enough to depress anyone and there’s some justice in that. But we’re also far more aware of chemical, sometimes hereditary and sometimes industrially-generated, conditions that cause this state, and we have counter-chemicals that are often effective, sparing a lot of psychic pain and supporting functional lives. Still, we have far to go.

Will I throw out my three role models, since from here on I will have lived more years than they have anyway? Certainly not. Do I discredit them for not living in the same decades or the same geography as I do? I’m not repeating someone else’s life, I’m living my own. It’s their ATTITUDES, I’m after, their style.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I’m reading about the limbic system, which is also called by the rather romantic name “the paleolithic brain” though it is traceable back to the tetrapods, which preceded the reptiles and dinosaurs. Basically, it’s a collection of structures under the jello of the cerebrum and the cerebellum and it’s older. But the first thing one finds out about the limbic system is that there’s no agreement that this collection of structures is actually a “system” at all. There are maybe fifteen little gizmos that seem to be the Operating System (to use computer terms) rather than the “thinking” or the “mechanical” parts of the brain.

Working together somehow, they do the processing, or a big part of it, that tells you where you are, what to remember, and how to feel about it. They seem to mediate between the chemical systems, molecules in solution, and the actual structures like the long “wires” of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve system that carry electrical charges to control the machinery of breathing, heartbeat, temperature control, and so on. They connect the brain and the neural network embedded in the tube walls of the guts that one scientist calls “the second brain.”.

But they are so subtle and small that arguments abound about whether they are the edges of larger anatomy or clusters of small centers. Experiments can determine what sends signals into and out of them, and what happens if you destroy one of these little bits, but not why. It’s sort of like chlorophyll -- we know what it does and when it does it but, until recently anyway, no one knew exactly how it changed sunlight into plant stuff.

Take the amygala. (No don’t! I really NEED it!) Two almond-shaped bits sort of behind the eyes. Recent stories about it have sensationalized the phenomenon that toxoplasmos parasites (little worms) will target and infest the amygdala in rats, with the result that they lose their fear of cats. Which means cats can eat the rats easier, so then the parasite eggs leave the cat in cat poop which dries, powders and is inhaled by... rats and us. (I have no fear of cats! Aaauugh!)

You remember all those warnings to pregnant women not to empty the cat’s litter box? That’s because the toxos also like to colonize fetuses. And they like eyes. When I was doing animal control education, my counterpart in Seattle told me that her young daughter remarked that something was crossing her line of vision -- IN her eye! It was one of those little worms. How do you get it out? You don’t, but there are medicines (I think) that will make it die and then be resorbed into the system.

One of the phenomena of a destroyed amygdala is a mother who abuses and neglects her baby. It’s impossible not to think of the young Native American mother, prone to rage attacks, who killed her baby last May and stashed the body in the trunk of her car where it was found only weeks ago. How do we distinguish between people who have holes in their brains from people who are ornery from people who are evil? By definition they may all be insane, not-sane. The difference is in the way we treat them once we know what the problem is. Punishment will not bring back a missing brain part and neither will therapy nor religious exhortation.

In some states one must have certain blood tests before marrying, to assure the health of the ensuing children. No one tests for toxoplasmosis. Anyhow, people don't wait until after marriage to have children. Would we be justified in sterilizing any woman who has a destroyed amygdala? Would we be justified in destroying all the cats? Five young men in Montana have just been arrested for torturing and killing dozens of cats. What is the state of their amygdalas? Two others killed their own babies by shaking, striking and wrenching them. What about them? Surely there are no funds for MRI’s for these people.

When I googled for “amygdala toxoplasmosis,” the top of the list was a website proclaiming the importance of “the majority,” meaning whites, probably male and English-speaking, and the necessity of barring immigration of parasitized people from third world countries. Simple curiosity about the brain can turn pretty nasty in a hurry. There’s a lot of junk science out there, and not just creationism. Is there a parallel to the anatomy of the brain in society -- can a social amygdala be missing?

But we want to know how brains work because it becomes clear that our brain operating systems affect who we are in rather direct ways. Dysfunctional amygdalas seem to have something to do with “borderline personality disorder,” paranoia, and bipolar disorder, as well as depression. I put “borderline personality disorder” in quotes because someone said I had it. So I bought a pile of books and read up on it, but it seems to be a junk category that means “I don’t much like you because you don’t do what I say.” In short, stay away from anyone who says you have it: it’s probably a projection of THEM. In the Great Falls Tribune there is occasionally an advertisement by a man who claims he can cure “oppositional defiance disorder” in children. Judging from his picture, I tend to suspect that electrical cattle prods are involved. He says he can “cure” it because he once had it.

On the other hand, if my amygdala isn’t quite functioning properly, I want to know about it. These two little tissue buds seem quite susceptible to drugs, including those that alleviate depression. The amygdala has mostly been studied through conditioning: shocking rats or giving them pellets to “teach” them. What you look for is what you find, so what the experiments have often revealed is unconscious fears like PTSD or anxious reactions to angry faces. No one has managed to figure out how to test or affect the various named nuclei WITHIN the amygdala to see what THEY do as separate little bits. It’s like particle physics: every time you find a teeny building block, it has even more teeny parts it can be broken into.

Mostly what a person finds out about brains is that no one knows much -- just enough to make us all more curious. But maybe it teaches us something about being sceptical and also compassionate.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

SHINE: A Reflection

Last night I watched a movie I’ve avoided since it came out twelve years ago: “Shine.” I know it’s supposed to be brilliant but so many times in our movie culture “brilliant” means “angst.” I like dark movies, but not the ones about shining people being punished.

Anyway, one of our culture’s deepest story structures is an enormously gifted child, dominated by his father who both lifts him up and entraps him. The child is nearly destroyed. Somehow he endures -- often through the arts -- and though rather crippled, finds happiness. This is close to the normal Oedipal progression of dependency to competition to reconciliation, often with the help of a mother figure. (“David” grabs women by their breasts -- their “mother organs.” He goes innocently naked, like a child. The story COULD be told as a failure of the mother to protect her child from the father.) This pattern is rather close to what I see as the thread of Bob Scriver’s story, his need to “shine” (Is that what the title is about? I never could really figure it out.) versus his need to stay connected with his place and family, how music would have meant moving away, and how he finally made both work together by becoming a sculptor.

In this version, the enormous gift is for classical music, which means that the stakes are very high but also somewhat privileged. I’m much handicapped in describing this by not really understanding the near-mathematical theory of classical music, just responding to it. But I know that very valued gifts in music can be accompanied by a kind of autism, difficulty in connecting with people any other way. The requirement to practice for hours and hours plus the strong personalities of music teachers can mask a musician’s need for more social development.

This movie has been attacked from the point of view that Helfgott’s playing wasn’t all that great anyway, esp. in the days of his comeback. I can’t tell, myself, but I’m familiar with that issue of how great a genius must be before he’s allowed to “break the rules,” as for instance to defy his father. Must one be Mozart? Or can one be Liberace? (Hey, where was Liberace’s father anyway?) When people around here talk to me about Bob Scriver, who didn’t always stay within the rules, they sometimes assume that his achievements were BECAUSE of his father, the silver-spoon theory (those folks tend to be in the academic community), or often they will say (usually the old women who would have liked to have been pretty “close” to him), “he wasn’t that famous after all.” Sour grapes. Anyway, so far, Western art is judged mostly by how much money it will bring at auction. I wait for better measurements.

But seriously, folks, how great does a person have to be for another person to devote themselves to him (or her, rarely)? Who decides? How do you define greatness anyway? In “Shine” value is indicated by winning major musical contests and by the interest from at least three outstanding teachers. Then at the end the shift is to popular appeal -- it’s clear that the people in the little establishment where he began to play again just enjoy his music. But in the media, there was a criticism that said, “Oh, sure. He played pretty well for a recovered nutcase, but not really THAT well!” Sort of like the joke about the dog that played chess. When an admirer told the dog’s master that he admired the dog, the owner said, “Oh, he’s not that great. He hardly ever wins.”

In struggling with my own issues of greatness and freedom and entitlement, I’ve learned to always look back a generation or so. Granted that this father, Peter Helfgott, may have lost the line between sheltering and oppressing. It is suggested that this has something to do with both the loss of his family in the Holocaust and his admiration of Stalin. To achieve his goal of protection, he uses the methods of Stalin. I don’t know what the real years of this true story were, but that might have something to do with it. (Stalin was admired during WWII.) What is admired in one context is decried in another. What if the father had a brain structure or function that limited him, but he saw that the same thing in his son could liberate the son? But then the father couldn’t stand it, when the son did it with the help of others instead of his father?

Violence and abuse keys into this relationship and there are hints at sexual components. Again in our times, sex and violence seem to be connected, one carrying the other along with it. The violence is only symbolized in one episode. The sexual side is never touched. [sic] In fact, the first of David’s marriages is dropped out. There are hints at homosexuality in other people-- not in David.

The real family’s split between flat denial and open collaboration with the authors is not unprecedented. Once fame and fortune enter the picture, family polarizes in order to protect or possibly exploit the situation. More than that, family usually has little awareness of the requirements first imposed by writing about reality -- which means selecting and emphasizing part of the story without outright falsifying them, though it might seem like the latter. And then moving a story from print to movie means other changes in emphasis and sequence that can change it even more. That’s why they say “based on.” By that time the story has escaped reality and is subject to interacting interpretations from the screenwriters, actors, directors, producers and marketers. This can act to purify, but also to distort.

The power of a story, IMHO, doesn’t come from theoretical constructs so much as from a narrative structure that we all recognize and feel to some degree, like the struggle to get out of the chrysalis of one’s family -- which is sometimes then echoed by the struggle to get out of the cage of the culture. This is so strong and so universal that it shows up everywhere. One can find it in Jane Austen or Zane Grey or Chinese movies. It seems to me that “Shine” is a memorable version, beautiful and self-contained, without needing any reference to the “real” David Helfgott’s life to make it “vaid.” I’m glad I finally got up the courage to watch it. And listen to it.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

JACKSTRAWS: Law and Order Part 2

Many of the sticks in the tangle of jackstraws that is opinion about law and order are “hot.” That is, they are so emotional that they can hardly be addressed. A simple short article in the Great Falls Tribune yesterday triggered many comments so angry and intemperate that they didn’t make much sense unless one already knew what they were so angry about. (It also suggested that a lot of school kids have computer access.)

1. Emotional storm has become a strategy for many people: a way of evading law and order. Accused of anything by anyone, the accused immediately bursts into a storm of swearing and threatened violence, creating a scene that make businesses want them out of there at any cost. Threats of lawsuits, possible vandalism, stigmas of various sorts -- it all hits the fan. It works.

2. The biggest denial and blank spot about law and order is that it costs money. Quite apart from writing an ideal code of laws, enforcing them means paying people to acquire skills, risk their lives, expose themselves to abuse and high pressure -- and possibly even worse, like waiting through the long quiet spells when nothing is happening but catastrophe might explode at any moment. That drives many people to donuts. It did me. Very bad for blood pressure.

There is simply no money for training, no money for communication equipment that works over long distances, no money for vehicles that can stand up to gravel roads and even make cross-country chases, no money for gas for long patrols through a reservation fifty miles by fifty miles, partly in the mountains. Even assuming one catches an offender, there is no money for a safe jail where demented or drunk or juvenile or female or ailing inmates can be confined in a proper manner. No money to train jailers. (It doesn’t occur to most people that they NEED training!) Or dispatchers or cleaners or a cook or medical supervision.

3. Since most law enforcement has been brought to bear from the outside, whether through BIA officers or through the FBI, opposition and criticism is built in. Very little trust exists. The matter is not helped when the police are tribal. In that case money is even more short and the political interference can be outrageous. One of the most neglected aspects of law enforcement, as we have discovered in Iraq and evidently have forgotten since the good old hippie days, is that people cannot be governed unless they CONSENT. If people feel the governance is unjust or imposed from outside, even people who are normally law-abiding will be slow to cooperate.

4. In the Fifties, partly because of traumatized veterans who returned to find their families changed and their jobs gone, and partly (some say) because of legalized alcohol -- burglaries and street drunkenness increased beyond bearing. (Now the women began to drink and the FAS babies arrived, though no one knew that’s what they were yet.) The Town of Browning found a legal opinion that they were an “island of juridiction” within the reservation and therefore could go by state law. The businessmen of Browning, mostly but not all white, taxed themselves to create a city police force and appoint a city magistrate so they could control matters. They weren’t willing to pay much, but they did form an alternative. This lasted about ten years and was only partly effective, but it helped. Finally it was ruled unconstitutional and snuffed. The meetings about this were very angry indeed. The whole “islands of jurisdiction” question was inflamed and remains that way.

5. It’s not just a simple matter of what is state and what is federal. I achingly recall one of my students being assaulted one Indian Days by “aboriginals,” as they called in Canada, from a reserve up there. He was seriously damaged, one eye hanging on his cheek. The attackers were never even charged. No one here had any jurisdiction, no one where they lived had any jurisdiction. They would have had to be extradited but no one even knew where they had gone. With so many illegal immigrants around now, the chances of such situations are much increased. New categories arise all the time.

6. Today the tribe has awakened to the issue of sovereignty, which is more than a jurisdictional issue. The model has moved far away from the old client-dependency model, partly because the US wants to shed the burden of supervising and funding, through the “business corporation” model that governs the the Tribal Council today (and Hutterite colonies), towards the idea of an entirely separate and independent nation. This is only really possible if the reservation severs its monetary dependence, which it is not close to doing. The game of “chicken” that’s going on is to see how many people must die and suffer to force the tribe to give over their sovereignty. But the more the FBI and BIA withdraw, neglect, and delay their duty, the more the people crave sovereignty as their only safety. At the same time, the Tribal Council is not about to spend money to make things better for their supervisors at the BIA.

7. Alcoholism counselors are very much aware of “Games Alcoholics Play,” which is a book you might be able to find on the used book websites. The basic idea is that there are only three people involved really, three roles -- and they revolve around among the three people without ever being resolved. The three roles are: the offender, the persecutor, and the savior. Usually this plays out as the drunk, the spouse, and the law. The drunk offends, the law locks him up, the spouse comes to save him. Or the law accuses the spouse of “making” the drunk drink by being so persecutorial -- then the law gets to be the savior. Or maybe the drunk beats up the wife and the law officer suggests she provoked him. Or maybe the law officer responds to a call for help and both the drunk and the spouse turn on the officer. This is “gaming the system,” repeating and repeating in the way that is a technical definition of personal psychosis, but as a social psychosis.

8. In institutional terms, the Tribal Council does something, the BIA won’t allow it, the people take sides, and all action is brought to a halt. Or maybe the BIA makes a move and it’s the Council that blocks it, and then the people take sides. The pay-off that keeps this three-handed game going is that it is familiar, people know their parts, and it looks as though something is happening while successfully preventing change. On the national level, the corporations have succeeded in covertly starting and sustaining this game of triangles with the two political parties and the US people, so that this public triangle on all our front pages hides a deeper and more frightening triangle of international corporations, sold-out politicians of both parties, and the American people.

9. The assumption about reservations is a double one: that the practice of a separate, sequestered social order is made necessary because Indians are a people essentially different culturally. Therefore it is unjust to subject them to the same rules as everyone else. The other edge of the sword is that it was assumed that the passage of time would cause them to evolve to be like everyone else, and then the reservation -- like training wheels -- could be taken off the bike.

But no one wants to give up the status quo. People who find the existing system works to their advantage are not about to close it down. Even those who suffer only want to eliminate the small parts they don’t like -- not the whole system, which is too scary.

10. Deepest and most unacknowledged of all might be something one could call the “OJ factor.” When OJ was found innocent of murder, black people celebrated. But it wasn’t because they thought he was innocent. They just felt that their people, esp. their men, had been wrongly accused and convicted so many times that it was more important to beat the despised system than it was to preserve law and order, even at that level. It was “one for our side.” Nicole had become “the other side.” This level of separatism is unsustainable, as OJ has discovered. But it means that families protect their sons and daughters with secrecy and blaming. It is a wall that holds out the enemy, but traps the People. Now we’re back to the first item on the list: intense emotion.

PS: If you look at the GF Tribune comments on the Law & Order news story, be assured that "lscriver" is not me nor is it "Lorraine Scriver," Bob's fourth wife. Neither is it Bob's niece Laurel, who is outraged that people would think it was. In fact, it is Phil Scriver's daughter, Lynnette, playing "me,too" though she's never lived on the rez and is not at all related to the Browning Scrivers.

Friday, September 19, 2008


In the Sixties if I had some reason to go to the Glacier County Court House in Cut Bank, I’d park and when I got out I’d hear yelling from the upper floors where the jail was: “Hey, Miss Strachan! It’s ME! Look up here!” My students. We laughed and waved at each other.

Because Bob was the justice of the peace and the city magistrate, our lives tracked closely alongside the local drunks, mess-ups, and petty operators of the rez. Few were really bad. Some worked for us -- which means WITH us, since we were at tables side-by-side doing the same work -- and we went by their homes (those who had them) to take them messages. Once in a while there would be a true tragedy, violence that went too far or some misadventure like walking on the train tracks. There’s no doubt little kids suffered. So did women, who continued their ancient role of care-takers. Though we mostly dealt with men, the women would come to ask for money because their babies needed milk. In those days few women drank.

Those days are pretty much gone. Maybe even the days of the semi-legal swindles are dying, the tilted playing fields that leave most Indians always scrambling. Let’s pick up some sticks.

1. From the beginning law and order was military and the military could use deadly force. Cavalrymen were survivors of the Civil War, barely under control themselves, and no respecters of civil rights. The prairie clearances had left them with the conviction that Indians were fair game. I won’t repeat the epithets that still burn in the minds of today’s youth. A moral gradient was created that is still echoed at athletic events: winner takes all, losers can be trampled with impunity. The concept of the protection of the minority is gone. (Actually, it’s very weak across the US these days.)

2. Even when the agents began to get more of a grip and used Indian men themselves as officers (the government finally realizing that there was a warrior class that specialized in keeping order, sometimes acting as a kind of SWAT team when individuals were totally out of control) government rules tended to be arbitrary and inexplicable to law-abiding Indians. For instance, the phobia about “Ghost Dancing,” a ceremony of hope based on Christianity. At one point an agent forbade beading on grounds that it encouraged people to sit together and talk, probably plotting revolution. The first Carlisle students were forbidden to form a “Literary Society” on the same grounds. That this paranoia of white authorities was caused by their own feelings of guilt was never pointed out. There never was much reason to respect policemen.

3. Again after WWII, when the soldiers came back to the rez, they were confronted with restrictions that they now knew would not apply to whites because they had seen it for themselves. For instance, the rez was supposed to be encouraging capitalism rather than socialism but there WAS no capital for Indians. They had no power to borrow money in the adjoining communities. Sometimes they could manage to work through a white front-man, but then they were beholden to and controlled by that man. Many times a white man used an Indian front man for his own purposes, either to slip some funds out of the tribal pockets or maybe to acquire valuable land or even artifacts.

4. White soldiers after WWII came to the rez looking for opportunities and found attractive tribal women enhanced by their entitlement to tribal land. It was a great start for a ranch and soon generated a category (not quite a class, but almost) of kids with assets. These white ranchers COULD borrow, which is a basic necessity for ag business, and they did well. Their wives were used to hard work and they were excellent mothers. They bought into the stigma of being a “blanket ass Indian,” since they had left the category.

5. After the Vietnam War, white veterans also came to the rez but they were often traumatized and used to drugs. Their relationships tended to be outside the law and tumultuous. They were attracted to the romance of outsider life.

6. The most recent influx of outsiders has been Hispanics and the influence has been double. The majority are family people, often good Catholics, but also a reservation is a good place for a South American criminal to hide out. They don’t look different. And some of them are deep into the drug culture, esp. meth. It helps that the rez is up against the US border.

7. For many years there has been more money for outsiders if the disorder, criminal behavior, and personal damage continue. This has continued since the Conrad Brothers left their teenaged careers as Confederate raiders and took up the lucrative businesses of whiskey traders and commodity dealers supplying the reservations with substandard goods. Ordinary business is damaged by the double-dealing and secret webwork that sustains crimiinals. They are mutually exclusive. I believe that it is the steady growth of legitimate business that is now triggering investigation and reform. But these webworks are state wide, white-based.

On this reservation people went through a population winnowing so severe that at one point the tribe was down to 500 members, half of them children. What this does to a people is to teach them to save their family first. The tribe comes second. The county, state, nation are unreal. Other families are competitors. This is also true of the white homesteaders across Montana who barely squeaked by, witnessing many deaths of their beloveds. It hardens the conscience and justifies bad ethics.

Similar dynamics have created a pecking order: powerful (wealthy) first, which often means low blood quantum in the tribe; high status second, maybe due to religious leadership; then ordinary working men; grandmothers; working women; children; and -- at the bottom -- drunks or prostitutes of no consequence except to their families. (Dogs are a separate tribe who live enmeshed but often take the brunt of violence and starvation.) It is considered legitimate in communities across America (and Canada) to prey on and abuse bottom people to the point of death. The attitude is that they deserve what they get.

10. I left the rez at about the point when AIM picked up righteousness and added terrorism, making semi-criminals into Robin Hood. Even the gentlest theorists (and there WERE some) were filled with rage and ready to justify resistance to the US Government. I don’t think it was possible to empower American Indians without this movement, and they HAD to be empowered, but the side effects have been a self-righteousness linked with intimidating rage that has sometimes stifled achievement and encouraged vendettas. Many nice whites are afraid of Indians now -- not because of the Indian “wars” but because of the rage, and yet they don't feel they can defend themselves, so they avoid. This trend, which began in city ghettos where Blacks showed the way, keyed into the post-colonial Marxist theories popular on campuses just as some Indians managed to get there. Many white academics are more bellicose than tribal members on the rez, since it’s all theory to professors.

There are more sticks in this set of jackstraws than will fit in one post. More later.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Thanks to “Regency House Party,” part of the BBC “house” series, I now know quite a bit more about the Regency period, though nothing more about houses. As I watch these DVD’s, I’m going backwards in history to before the Victorian era of the 1900 House. In contrast this is one of the more recent recently filmed “house” shows, aired in 2004. You can tell.

“Regency” refers to the period of “prince regents” first made necessary when George III (the one the US so resented) went quite mad. It was organic -- the condition that makes one’s urine purple -- and poor Mrs. King (portrayed by Helen Mirren in “The Madness of King George”) could not save him with her love. So the next few Georges, who had to face Napoleon, made a muddled struggle of it. (All this has nothing to do with our president, George II, though it is suggestive.)

It’s the period of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” but the main similarity here is the clothes and the huge preoccupation with trying to make a good marriage. The set-up for the show is that certain attractive young folks (the producers consider thirty to be young) are invited to spend three months at a very nice country house built with sugar money made in part by the use of slaves. (The MacFies -- Bob’s ancestors -- had one of those. I think the Strachans -- my ancestors -- did not.) Since this is a BBC show, several black folks were actually in the cast and their presence was defended with history. Money, music and royalty are effective bleaches, even then.

The main focus was the culture of the times, for instance, how they ate: more French customs and much nicer food than the other shows -- though no one in the other shows ate off of a scantily-clothed countess stretched out on the dining table as in this show -- historically accurate of course. No one here minded eating a pig with its head on nor a peacock with a decorative uncooked head reinstated on the roasted body. But as much like foodies as these folks are, they are supposed to be (according to the narrative) even more focused on drink, partly because the water was untrustworthy. That other modern vice, nicotine, is off camera except for snuff, because “smoking” hadn’t been invented yet. (Is this true?) Aside from that, these people are clearly rather modern YUPpies.

Not occupations but preoccupations are the order of the day: phrenology, riding, picnics, scientific “experiments,” ghosts, concerts, playlets and pageants, secret societies, bare-knuckled boxing, balls, clothes, little model ships for a mock battle on a pond (slingshots propelling the “cannon balls”), fireworks, and kites -- are all given episodes of explanation and demonstration. If they weren’t doing these things in the most idyllic of settings (both indoors and out) and if they weren’t very attractive people in their own right, it would be pretty boring. In fact, I suspect that ennui was a major problem in the midst of a confused social and national scene that could have used the talents of such alert people more constructively. What could be more modern?

This series, like the others, appears to have a rather overt agenda about women’s lives in particular. In every era the females rail against the limitations, the confinement and sometimes the pure ickiness of arrangements for hair and menstruation. Also, there is considerable worry about whether the servants are being abused or getting upset. The chief goal often seems to be to convince us that though such times as the Regency seem wildly romantic and easeful if glanced at through the eyes of a resourceful author, it is our own times that are the best of times.

One of the more engaging sub-plots is the idea that one of the men, a charming science teacher with a sort of Alan Bates aura, does not fall in love with one of the eligible young ladies but rather with a charming and intelligent chaperone who is already married. He asserts with some energy that he wants a wife who will give him children and accompany him through life, so the match is made impossible by their own interests. Their parting is sweet and marked by all. What’s a romance without an impossible love match?

Another sub-plot features a young woman who can’t make up her mind between two admirable men. One has a gift for romantic gestures with flowers, making rose petal trails interspersed with sweet sentiments and so on. The other, helped along by the puppeteers offstage, suddenly becomes noble and wealthy. Towards the end there is a highly significant string and tag labyrinth and finally an unchaperoned candlelight masked ball.

The main plot line is war among the chaperones, centering on the technical hostess, hired for the occasion, a previously glamorous heiress who is now raddled and jealous, very preoccupied with respect to herself. Her chief opponent is an erect woman with a rosebud mouth who has been a military officer. Her problem is getting her “charge” married well, which will bring her a major reward of money. The “charge,” who is enough Black to be one of those lush, rosy, golden, overflowing maidens who makes the others look like pale sticks, never does really score. The acting out of all this affront and indignation is not very convincing. The young “host” is not quite up to commanding these battleships. Throughout the scenario, there is a serious lack of mature males except as coaches and instructors.

The frat boy element comes to the front when the men are urged to get into shape with strenous and pointless exercises accompanied by emetics that cause them to puke in the gravel of the courtyard. Also, it was the practice of the time to erect a screen in the dining room so that gentlemen could ease their bladders without leaving the room. In Regency England, we are told the women are excused at the end of the meal, and I expect they were happy to go, both to relieve their own liquid over-supply and to escape the smells.

In short, there was much posing and flirting, many long conversations, a bit of ick factor, but very little eroticism. The science professor (I admit he was my favorite, not least because he preferred older women!) got to kiss some shoulders and necks (not bosoms, though they burst out of bodices everywhere) but only servants kissed on the mouth once in passing. The “countess” is implied to have spent the night with the “host,” but was not shown actually in the bed.

Clearly these were real, identifiable people who would go home at the end and so had a need to preserve some dignity. I’d be curious to know how much they stayed in touch. The point of the English Regency period (does any other country have a period identified this way?) is that it’s an interim, though the wars were desperately real. “Play” for the upper classes appears to be relief for an underlying anxiety. What could be more modern?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


You might know the game of jackstraws as “Pick-Up-Sticks,” which came in a cardboard tube and kept us kids busy for hours back in the days when there was no television. The idea was to open the end of the tube and spill out the slender colored sticks, slightly smaller than chopsticks, all in a tangle like a spring logjam. Then the players took turns gently removing one at a time without letting any other sticks move.

Using this as a model, I’d like to pick through the logjam of reservation politics to see what the individual sticks might be. I won’t elaborate too much, because the real problem is the tangle rather than the one-by-one sticks. But one stick can’t be removed easily without disturbing the whole pile, increasing the difficulties. Another thing to remember is that many of these sticks are present in the surrounding small towns as well, often as a result of the same dynamics since so much of the economy and culture is shared. (People don’t always see it that way! Which might be the label of one stick: the assumption that whites and Indians in rural Montana are essentially different.)

It’s possible to group some of these “sticks.” For instance, many of them are artifacts left over from the historical treatment of the indigenous people. Here’s the beginning of a list of possibles. (Before I start my own list, I will say that one of the main patterns that shows up in this pile o’sticks is that one person’s perceptions and judgments are not the same as the next person’s, so each statement might or might not be true in a verifiable and factual way.)

1. Reservations are a delineated area, which is a Euro-concept dating back to the marking of ag plots in Egypt, the origin of geometry. But in the historic west they are generally determined by riverways, meaning that the boundaries changed organically when the river found a new path, but also when geometric means were used to make new boundary. In Euro terms, boundaries must be “surveyed,” but doing this -- which is necessary for an unmovable edge -- leaves the boundary vulnerable to convenient changes since it’s all a matter of records on paper.

2. Vulnerability to changes is most egregiously demonstrated by the shrinkage of the reservation from the whole top half of Montana ever northward. Also, the eastern edge mysteriously drifted so that oil exploration is on the white side. Two ambiguous inclusions created when Glacier National Park was formed: the “ceded strip” just to the south of the Park and the surveyed boundary which was supposed to go from “peak to peak” (which is probably an impossible idea anyway unless using GPS.) The changes in the southern boundary were driven by cattle ranchers and meant repeated disruptions of settlement patterns and agency headquarters. So far no one has succeeded in moving the 49th parallel, though the river at that latitude has been moved.

3. Because the Blackfeet were assigned this land and because fences and boundary riders were employed (supposedly meant to keep rancher’s cows out -- they were in the habit of grazing on the rez for free), it is ambiguous whether the area is defensibly sovereign land like a “nation,” or whether it is a reserve, like a nature reserve or a wilderness area. Is it a prison or is it a refuge? Is it keeping people OUT or keeping people IN? (Aside from the cows.)

4. Within the area of the Blackfeet reservation (unlike the Canadians who never subdivided their reserves, thinking of them as reserves for the tribe as a whole) the land was divided up into assigned plots which the supposed owners chose to some degree. At least they expressed a preference. They were sometimes assigned two plots, one towards the mountains and one on the prairie, but the total acreage was the same, so the plots were even smaller. The plot sizes were based on homesteading, but homesteading on the prairie had already demonstrated that the plots were too small for crops there. Mountainous foothills were even less ag-friendly.

5. The land assigned to individual Indians was supposed to be “theirs” but it was actually supervised and governed by Bureau of Indian Affairs rules and principles. It was the BIA who controlled much of irrigation plus the allocation of equipment, seeds and cattle and horse stock.

6. The mechanism for changing the status of individual land-owning Indians (who were considered “incompetent” because they didn’t understand English, much less a government imposed from a foreign invader) was vulnerable to corruption. Unscrupulous whites were able to have truly incompetent people (low IQ, very aged, or simply uninformed) declared competent and were motivated to do so because once they were legally “competent,” they could sell their land to whites.

7. Once the issue of “competence” was on the table, and once Blackfeet individuals understood what the word often meant -- not legally but as a judgment on the abilities of a foolish and losing person, possibly stupid -- they were highly insulted and even today one cannot talk to an Indian without a ghost hanging over that person, accusing them of being stupid or at least “ignorant.” Ignorant on the reservation doesn’t mean being uninformed, not having the facts at one’s disposal, but rather “stupid.” Maybe “unthinking.” The school engineer, Jimmy Fisher, once said to me indignantly, “My grandmother had to prove in court she was not incompetent! I never knew anyone smarter or more competent than my grandmother! She sure shouldn’t have had to PROVE it to some white outsider who didn’t even know her!”

8. “Ignorance” is also a big issue in rural Montana and small towns. Phil Ward, superintendent of schools when I first came in 1961, used to say he welcomed television on the reservation because it would be a window on the world. People would become “hip,” “au courant,” up with the times. But the effect is often the opposite: few watch the Sunday morning talk shows that explain events. Instead a sense that sit coms and soap operas accurately show how Americans live has intimidated people trying to get by on the hard economic terms of the high prairie. Even quiz shows move fast through information that people here don’t have, the same as the questions on IQ tests are often based on information not available here. They are composed by people who live on the coasts in major cities. This makes local people vulnerable to emotional appeals, esp. the sort that seems to give THEM privileged information. (Dare I mention Scientology?)

9. Because the reservations were based on military action -- like the Baker Massacre -- they felt like confinement. When the US government (through the BIA) send OTHER tribes here, it was like overcrowding a jail. Though the Cree/Metis newcomers were eventually given their own reservation, the Blackfeet have never stopped bristling about outsiders. (One old lady was outraged that the nature reserve camp that the Scriver/Doane ranch became was used by kids from other Montana tribes.)

10. But there is an opposite force in that Blackfeet stayed in their own lands. Some have tried to weaken this by saying the tribe actually came from the far northeast by the Great Slave Lake in Canada in 1600 or so, but there is a strong assertion by most Blackfeet that THIS is where they always were and that it is a last stand, that there is no place else to go.

This is only the beginning of the jackstraw tangle I hope to compile into a book called “Blackfeet Controversies.” If you want to affect the content with your comments and conflicting evidence, now’s the time!