Saturday, January 31, 2009


Remember that guy a few years ago who figured out to hack into ATM codes so that every time someone made a deposit, the software rounded it up to the nearest dime and deposited the difference -- never more than a few pennies -- to his own account? He made millions, because there were so many deposits -- until he was detected by penny-chasing software. The discrepancies were so small that they went unnoticed.

Something like that seems to be going on all the time, not just at the level of toxic loans, insecure securities, and underwater mortgages, but also at the gas pump, the grocery store, and the county clerk’s office, little bits of chiseling, add-ons and sleight-of-hand. I’m foaming over the latter today because I went down to the county court house to register a “beneficiary deed” which on my death will automatically transfer the ownership of this house to my niece without probate. I thought I was escaping lawyers. What I discovered was that I could not register this document without a “Realty Transfer Certificate,” a “confidential tax document” that makes her liable for any county taxes on the property. At this point she would not have to pay the taxes until my death, which makes it seem all harmless, but who knows what circumstances will be when I DO die? She might not be in a position to pay any taxes and there may not be potential to sell this house. It might be a liability instead of a bequest. What the State wants is to know ahead of time whom to go after for money. There are lots and houses sitting empty in this town because they are a liability, for instance, the lot where a former gas station’s leaky gas tanks caused contamination VERY expensive to clean up. All inheritors are claiming NOT to have inherited -- in expensive lawsuits, of course.

I keep seeing stories in the newspaper that make me deeply dubious about the practice of levying fines or punishments in the form of imposing a debt. Today there was a story about a woman who embezzled over a hundred thousand dollars. The judge’s sentence was a year in jail and the requirement that she pay back all the money, but how realistic is that? Who will hire an embezzler who’s been sitting around talking about swindles with felons for a year? Assuming she finds a job, at the level of salary she might draw -- which won’t be the top of the market -- how long will it take her to make a hundred thousand dollars? What does she live on? Does the court say how much she can pay for rent, how much for groceries? Won’t she be pretty well trapped unless she embezzles again, this time more cleverly? Or leaves the country?

I just paid off my Exxon bill. Two months ago I paid off the gas I had bought. Since then I’ve been paying off the late fees that were levied because I didn’t have enough money to pay for the gas at what they considered on time. When I first got the charge card, I strictly paid off the total monthly. There was no definition of “late.” Then we went to five dollar gas. Then the bill began to show a “minimum payment” that was acceptable and I used that option. Pretty soon there was a $10 late fee -- which was really unavoidable because the bill always came a couple of weeks later than the others so it was paid in the next Social Security cycle. Then the late fee began to increase. Notification was in those eye-straining tiny print pamphlets that come with the bill. (Unreadable by some elderly.)

Sometimes I sent the money on time, but blizzards and holidays intervened so that it didn’t get there on time. Also, I began to suspect that it DID arrive on time but sat in a pile until someone had time to post it. When I called to protest, the woman on the phone coolly informed me that the solution was to give them access to automatic debit, the ability to take money out of my checking account without my permission or even my knowledge. At the same time my bank began to impose a fee for overdrafts (I’d been exempt as a courtesy for senior citizens) and then raised that fee. I think it’s up to fifty dollars now.

I only have one automatic debit, which is Netflix, $20 a month. Twice I incurred an overdraft fee from the bank because Netflix always debited on the day just BEFORE my SSI deposit showed up in the bank, when funds were lowest. An amount as small as fifty cents can throw one into overdraft. The debit date is the automatic result of the time interval from signup. That is, if you sign up on the tenth, that’s when the debit comes. At least the Netflix telephone staff was willing to explain it all. I had to cancel Netflix, wait until the debit date safely interacted with the deposit date, and then re-enroll. Who knew all this stuff? It was a fifty dollar tutorial. That’s five per cent of my income.

How much sense does it make to impose fees because people don’t have enough money? But if we confine people, which is our only alternative punishment, it costs the PUBLIC money to feed, house and clothe the wicked. Jails are expensive and when we crowd the cells to extreme levels with our severe sentence decisions -- as California has done -- then the courts step in and some felons will go free. Public service sentences quickly becomes a substitute for paying people to do jobs as regular work. Some use credit-rating services as threats, but as we get deeper into the bowels of finance, they turn out to be no indicator of ability to pay.

Will we get so frustrated that we go to Taliban-type whipping? When people used to talk about what would keep drunk drivers from driving, Bob used to remark dryly that if their hands were chopped off, they would drive with their elbows. Will we go to such extremes in our determination to make laws work?

Hopefully, with a new government beginning to take up regulation, inspection and “nudging,” things can be channeled constructively.

Friday, January 30, 2009

MY BROTHER, MY LOVER by Tim Barrus: A Review

My Brother, My Lover” (1985) is a loss of innocence tale with strong echoes of “The Wizard of Oz.” Two brothers, nearly twins, fall in love physically in the “Barrus/pair o’us” pattern but instead of Paris, the magic city is San Francisco. “Kansas” is a little community called “Pioneer” in the High Sierras not far from Tahoe. The town is on my road atlas and might be where Barrus’ paternal grandparents ranched. Barrus has a sister rather than a brother, to the dismay of journalists who don’t know about fiction, but he has doppelgangers.

Instead of a cyclone lifting Dorothy’s house away from the Kansas farm, it is a lightning strike that incinerates house and grandparents. I hope this is invented and not true. The brothers begin a new house, but the older brother leaves. Soon the first person narrator goes looking for him. As the boys have grown up, they have always known that San Francisco was where “sex” was so that’s where they both go.

The following episodes could be worked into equivalence with the Tin Man (heartless sadist), the Cowardly Lion (Miss Mary Vicious is not the same as Prairie Mary who hadn’t been invented yet), and the Scarecrow (the rich guy) but that would be trying too hard. The real elements I’d bet on are the yellow house and the long, long rides on the bus as the narrator searches and scans, slowly beginning to flirt. Historically “leather” has been invented as the definer of “manly” power-gay, but there is no mention of AIDS. The equivalent of Toto (and Navajo) is an Irish setter pup.

There is a strong “take-down” of the porn movie industry that rings true. I think I glimpsed Jack Fritscher and his partner. Mostly things move right along, going downhill, until it seems briefly as though all is lost in Manhattan at the Mineshaft and then at St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the elusive brother is getting married to a high society belle (female) and the narrator realizes that he has been on a hopeless search, destroying himself. Miss Mary Vicious (née Glinda, the good witch) hands him the ruby slippers and he goes home. It turns out well, though some people may not be happy with that ending, preferring to be fashionably cynical.

“Anywhere, Anywhere” (1969) is an earlier novel and only gently sexual. “My Brother, My Lover” (1985) has more squirmy-spermy sequences to please those who are reading for porn.

What I was seeing as I read was quite different, a tension between the natural man of nature (the Barrus men’s hunting/fishing/ranching in the wilderness) and the arts man, possibly a denizen of the world admired by a mother who may have subscribed to those magazines, like the Saturday Review of Literature, about the major writers, expressing admiration of them. Culture in those days was defined and guarded by the graduates of fancy universities that could only be entered through certain gates, mostly money and status. But there are always parallel worlds and the one forming in San Francisco in those days was both rich and open in quite different ways. So in went the real Barrus, by this time the father of a small but tough daughter. He was actually working for the United Nations and hobnobbing with photographers. Then, soon, editing and writing for Drummer, MACH, Genesis, Advocate, Hustler and Mineshaft.

“My Brother, My Lover” is not an Armisted Maupin story, full of charm and friendship, though this book describes roughly the same time and place. My female boss in Portland (where the openly gay mayor has just stumbled in a major scandal over his same-sex adventures) in the Nineties loaned me the full set of Maupin’s tales, evidently under the impression that I was gay -- which I am not. I think she would have liked it better if I were. Just as some people would like this story better if it were written by a “real” homosexual instead of someone who married a woman. As it was, being mistaken for gay raised a lot of questions in my mind that have expanded as our culture staggers along with some of the same wondering, ever more complicated by research.

When Barrus married and left San Francisco, he went to Indian country under a death cloud of friends wiped out by AIDS. The experience shows up in “Genocide” (1988) where the dystopia is very much like the one in Spielberg’s “Artificial Intelligence” and the theme of brothers continues. (AIDS was first recognized and defined in the early Eighties, between the two Barrus books. He married and left San Francisco in 1989.) “Selective Service” and “To Indigo Dust” were written in the next couple of years. I haven’t read them. The first “Nasdijj” book, drawing on the reservation experience, came out in 2000.

A writer must spin from his or her inner world of memories and lessons a virtual world with enough detail and narrative drive to carry a reader along. “My Brother, My Lover” does this, though some people will be reading only to get off on the steamy parts, which is always the case with a book that talks about sex. This is not a long book, but it is an earnest one. The tension between a somehow innocent young man in the midst of corruption and the older protective one who tries to advise and save him is the key to Barrus’ double-men, sometimes real brothers and others just kindred spirits or lovers.

Barrus always describes one male as older, stronger, more skillful, without ever letting the more child-like one trigger a semblance of pedophilia. Some of this material has to come out of his own relationship with his abusive father, but more of it seems to come out of a salvific friendship with a peer, a schoolmate, which he has also written about. This is the trustworthy key relationship in a world of hurt.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Today, January 29, 2009, is the tenth anniversary of the death of Robert MacFie Scriver. I jogged the Great Falls Tribune to see if they might note that fact, but they didn’t. They are absorbed in their struggle to prevent their own death as a newspaper. The actual paper has been shrinking in measurement, the ad revenue is down as it is in all media, “headquarters” is busy trying to decide what to axe next (they aren’t in Montana), reporters are over-loaded, and no one knows exactly what counts as news or whom to believe anyway. The Lee-owned newspapers are consolidating services, turning back towards the good old Anaconda-coiled world. Why gone those times? Maybe they’re circling back, just temporarily out of sight.

The positive notch about Bob Scriver is that his biography is written and was published in Canada by the University of Calgary Press. “Bronze Inside and Out.” I’ve been asked to sign copies at the CM Russell Museum benefit auction in mid-January. The Ad Club-organized soiree is also a plus, constantly re-energized and consistently growing in spite of being nearly a half-century old.

However, the Montana Historical Society refuses to speak to me, even as they unsuccessfully try to raise money for a new building. They told me bluntly that everything belongs to THEM now and they will do what they please with it. Montana Humanities has struck me from their list of authors invited to the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula, evidently because I’m uncontrollable.

The only entity that appears to appreciate Bob’s actual estate is the Royal Alberta Museum, the institution that Bob wanted to have everything. However, the artifact collection that caused so much contention (including the curse put on Phil Stepney, their director, that may or may not have resulted in his death from a rare cancer) has been at least partially dispersed, the Sacred Materials going back to the elders of the tribe, who sold at least some of them to tribal individuals on the Montana side of the line. I’m not sure I object to that. The Royal Alberta Museum did mount an exhibit of the Blackfeet bronzes and did invite Bob’s sister-in-law, Helene DeVicq, an integral part of his work who lives in Edmonton, to attend their opening.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which was given custody of all the full-mounts from the Scriver museum, and who for a while provided employment for Arnold Olsen, the dismissed MHS director who made the transaction for the Scriver estate, will not respond to my visits, phone calls or emails.

Bob divorced me forty years ago and as his “third wife of four,” I have no legal claims. In Montana, which lags a bit in social assumptions, people believe that all former wives are predators who hate their former spouses and crave money. In this case the description better fits the fourth wife. But as the only surviving wife, a year younger than Bob’s daughter, I have rather slipped over into a daughter-like role. This is recognized by Bob’s Quebec cousin, Margaret Meeks, gracefully aging in a retirement home.

Bob’s children, produced by his first marriage, died in his lifetime. The five grandchildren are in their forties now, solidly middle-aged. One is a contractor, one is a beverage distributor, one is a testing lab administrator, one is a CPA, and one has had a warrant issued for her arrest because of a forgery charge. The great-grandchildren are college-aged. None is married yet as far as I know: they don’t keep in touch. One is an international fencing athlete (Ariel DeSmet). None are artists. None carry the Scriver name.

Siyeh, the wholly-owned business subsidiary of the Blackfeet Tribe, is running the Blackfeet Heritage Center in the former Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. Siyeh also accepted custody of the two major fiberglass monumental rodeo sculptures. David Cree Medicine, Bob’s foundry foreman, is doing well, working for Siyeh. His father, Carl, continues to create art and shows at the Indian Art show that runs parallel to the CM Russell Museum benefit auction. Flatiron Ranch is in the joint-custody of Nature Conservancy and the Blackfeet Land Trust. I know nothing about it except that Googling is complicated by a housing development near Hamilton also called “Flatiron Ranch.”

These observations are only about the local and smallest circle of Bob’s world. I figure there are three circles where Scriver’s work have significance. The local is based in large part on people who actually knew Bob and visited the museum or dealt with him in some way. This is the least significant in terms of his work, though it includes a few people who have tried to get rich from what they could siphon off, including Flathead entrepreneurs producing illegal copies.

The second “circle” is the world of Western art, kind of a double-yolked egg that is half “cowboy” artists and half historical recorders of the West as a place. Cowboy Artists of America, which began explicitly as a friendship group, was so successful that as soon as the founders had been removed by Father Time, the second generation has worked hard to make it a profit-aimed group. The controversies and power-struggles among them have interfered with that goal.

The other “yolk,” the Morans, Bierstadts, Catlins, and Russells, are a bridge to a larger art world, currently beset with some of the same problems as the other humanities spheres, such as dance, music, and publishing. Over the years institutions have been gifted or have acquired works of art as “investments” worth tax credits as well as prestige and scholarly value. Now the dark side of the equation has come to the fore as the institutions, much diminished by investment collapse, try to get the money back out of the art. The most recent, perhaps wishing to avoid the struggles over trying to market a beloved piece of art, is Brandeis University, which proposes to simply close down their Rose Museum and auction ALL the art. Which goes to show that the executors of Bob’s will were ahead of their times when they closed down his museum and auctioned his collections: his Russells, his Remingtons, his Rungiuses, and so on while trucking his own works down to Helena to be locked up, not even unpacked. As the former director said to me, “I don’t much care about art. I like the saddles and wagons, the paraphenalia.”

The wheel continues to turn. The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Yesterday there was a good deal of messaging that was prompted by an article in The New York Review of Books, “Google and the Future of Books” by Robert Darnton. Vol 56, #2, February 12, 2009, in case anyone is looking for this on paper. The article is about the resolution of the lawsuit against Google’s plan to digitize all books, which was resolved in Google’s favor, kicking up fears of monopoly. The article takes a long historical view, tracing the impact of technology and the birth of the whole concept of copyright. Google is digitizing books without copyrights, books with expired copyrights that are out of print, books with copyrights that are “orphaned” (the publishing company has dispersed, the author can’t be located), and everything else they can get hold of. The question is how to manage all that stuff. (I do worry a bit about sunflares or the reversing of the planet’s polarity wiping out all the virtual books. But those catastrophes wouldn’t do ordinary books much good either.)

A respondent suggests that the real news is that ebooks are now profitable enough for anyone to care. And that other entities besides Google are puttin’ out the books on the Internet.

Athabasca University Press, is a “virtual” university far to the north in the province of Alberta where developing oil sands means there are a lot of vigorous people who have liberal gaps in their arduous work lives which they choose to fill indoors taking online courses. The director, Walter Hildebrandt, was the director of the University of Calgary Press when they accepted my book, “Bronze Inside and Out.” (It is partly available online through Google Books. I didn’t give permission nor did the press.)

Athabasca U Press is scouting a new trail by making their books available online for free, as well as the journals they publish. One CAN get the books bound conventionally, Print On Demand. I tested this service by downloading “Imagining ‘Head-Smashed-In’” by Jack W. Brink, one of the intrepid archeologists and paleontologists who have made Alberta one of the most exciting places to regard the deep past.

“Head-Smashed-In” is the name of a buffalo jump, a place where for millennia native peoples have chased the animals over a cliff in order to kill them for meat. One of the first things I learned was that it was the buffs who were supposed to get their heads smashed in, rather than the people, though some unfortunates did get caught up in the melee. Also, I had not known this had been the name of the place for a very, very long time -- in Blackfeet, of course.

A rather fabulous museum exists next to the site -- not ON it, since that would destroy what remains of the site. If you are going to southern Alberta this summer, mark on your map both Head-Smashed-In near Fort Macleod and the Tyrrell Museum near Drumheller, which addresses the much, much earlier dinosaur era and the slightly overlapping megamammal period of the mastodons. I know people who consider these “religious” institutions because one comes away infused with wonder at the clear evidence of nearly inconceivable events.

I just read “Imagining Head-Smashed-In” online. It is full of gorgeous photos of the land plus illuminating paintings of how things must have been -- FAR more complex and skillful than the usual conceptions of bison pouring lemming-like over a cliff. It turns out that this specific piskun (Blackfeet for buffalo jump) is archetypal, an example of how the actual cliff is only part of the operating terrain which includes a wide grassy basin above the cliff that stretches for kilometres, the abrupt sandstone break which leaks high quality spring water at the bottom, and then another smaller area suitable for the work of cutting up the carcasses, rendering fat, roasting meat in pit-ovens, cutting and drying muscle meat, cracking open leg bones for marrow. The final elegance is not far away: the river valley of the Old Man River, excellent for winter camping and stashing the preserved airtight packets of meat in rawhide while working on the hides of the animals.

This efficient and arduous work demanded cooperation among a hundred or more people until the arrival of horses made it unnecessary and then the elimination of the buffalo herds made it impossible. (See a parallel with printing?) To properly understand the remnants that they found, Brink and his crew replicated as much as they could. Buffalo chips (dung) DOES burn as well as wood, but only if there is a stiff breeze. Buffalo bones burn rather well, so long as they are greasy. Since the grease is nutritionally valuable, the bones were smashed and boiled in rawhide-lined pits heated with hot rocks, then the fat skimmed off. (One of the most outstanding tribal families today is named “Grease-Melters.”)

The crew figured out why the boiling pits contained one kind of stone and the roasting pits contained another: quartzite holds heat better for boiling while flat plates of sandstone are better for roasting pits. This is the sort of detail that can make historical novels come alive. They also discovered that smashing bones is a lot harder than one might think, not least because one’s face and clothes become spattered with marrow and grease.

The Head-Smashed-In museum is built as steps down a cliff face. Brink chuckles over today’s visitors to the museum assuming that inside they are looking at the actual rock of the piskun, because the reality is that it’s a huge casting created by spraying latex onto a real cliff to create a giganto mold. At the bottom of the cliff is another giga-casting of a partly excavated dig with real equipment scattered around it. To me this is MORE amazing than including an actual rock outcropping in a building.

Even more remarkable is Brink’s gradual realization that the local tribal population should be included, that much information remained among them (the last “jump” was about one hundred and fifty years ago), that there were political issues to resolve between and within the tribes, and that much could be resolved by good humor and participation.

Everyone with access to a computer can read this book. It is this last quality of being inclusive and generous that makes such a specialized subject valuable for everyone as an example, even if they don’t care whether they ever walk the line markers that show where the bison hazers should be or ever boil a bison bone. The story combines the determined strength of early nomads with the careful sifting and reflection of modern scientists in a fabulous tale. Don’t stop before the last lyrical “imaginings” of archeologist and arrow-user.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains
by Jack W. Brink who “is Archaeology Curator at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, Canada. He received his B.A. from the University of Minnesota and his M.A. from the University of Alberta.”

Hardcover: 978-1-897425-00-8 (HC) $85.00
Paperback: 978-1-897425-04-6 (SC) $35.95
E-Book: 978-1-897425-09-1 (e-book) No cost.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Despite accusations, my claim is that I’m NOT an “enabler” of Tim Barrus in the sense from alcoholics counseling. The term is meant to suggest that he’s up to no good (like raising money for illegimate purposes or pretending to be someone he’s not). I have no knowledge that he’s up to no good. The great “crime” of pretending to have a Navajo mother doesn’t impress me much. The paradoxical charge that he is inventing boys whom he then exploits doesn’t register with me. Imaginary boys don’t suffer.

I am not an apologist for Tim Barrus, though I can see why he claimed to be Nasdijj. It looks to me as though he had a lot of co-conspirators, namely publishers and agent, and a strong motive: the money to replace both hips so he could get out of his wheelchair. The reason Sherman Alexie attacked him seems to me as commercial as the reason to pretend to be Nasdijj. (Controversy sells books; memoirs sell better than essays. Alexie was promoting “Smoke Signals.”) In fact, when Barrus was Nasdijj he used the role to campaign for good causes. I’m not sure Alexie did that and neither are some Indians. The real culprit in the case is society’s totally unreasonable and over-romantic preoccupation with what we think Indians are and what constitutes privileged knowledge of them.

I AM an analyst of Tim Barrus. That is, I seek to understand him, his life story, and what might help him write. Whether or not the boys are invented in whole or in part, I choose to consider them real, partly because of the consequences -- which are far worse for considering a real boy to be a fake than for considering a fake boy to be real -- and partly because there are evidently real boys in other places who read the blog and use the information in the way that people in a therapy group use the insights meant for others. The same rationale applies to Barrus: I would much rather give him more credit than he may deserve than to give him less credit than he deserves. At the very least the blog called “le-too” is an on-going narrative full of ideas, adventures, tragedy and comedy, images and poetry, more inventive than anything Dickens created, and often as archetypal as Shakespeare. Why must it be “fact?”

Busybodies have warned that Barrus might take advantage of me. How? I have little to lose, no money to send -- he’s never asked anyway. He has no access to my blog, but I have access to his and often post there. Some days I write two blogs, posting one on “prairiemary” and one on “le-too,” and sometimes I write one to post in both places. I’m a print overachiever, but a tech underachiever, so I don’t often manage photos and, since I can’t afford broadband, I’m not able to watch the vlogs (videos) posted by the boys unless I tie up my machine to download for an hour.

Barrus and I are collaborating on a book combining what I know from my training as a teacher and minister with what he knows from his long experience with troubled boys. Our ideas mesh, inform each other, question each other, with surprising force. Is this taking advantage of me? He’s the one with the reputation. I’m the one who has the time and refuge for thinking. It’s a synergy. Maybe I’m the one who’s taking advantage of him.

This is not about publishing so much as it’s about writing. Publishing has commodified itself into a state of disintegration. For now we can work on our book on our own terms and not try to shove it into those pigeonholes demanded by promoters and shelvers. Start a new shelf for the categories of the twenty-first century: it will have to be done anyway. We are not the only writers inventing new rules of form and genre.

But what about those real boys? Tim is aging. Some of the boys are nineteen. Some are much younger. Many have health issues that are slowly destroying them. All have artistic talent. The boys cling to Tim, try to make him a father, a protector so they won’t have to grow up. He resists.

Tim’s operating context is the Seventies in the United States -- not just the Act Up/Digger/Leather communities of San Francisco, but also the experimental communes that sprouted all over the country, esp. in the southwest. They didn’t all disappear, you know. And in America their history goes back to the time of the Transcendentalists. Some people have gotten pretty good at communes, but they have learned to keep a low profile -- which Barrus does not. Barrus’ main critics are Boomers who sneer at the whole Sixties/Seventies experiment. I say they’re jealous.

Another valence from the Seventies is Third Force psychology, often as defined by Esalen (Perls) and hippies (O’Leary), a serious and effective way to address addictive and existential problems. Barrus is not certified, defined, controlled in the way government keeps trying to control social workers. He just flies by the seat of his pants, using his accumulated experence. Shocking. Like early Freud. Early anybody.

The wave that overwhelms even Barrus is still the AIDS pandemic which plunges him into paranoia even as he fights hard for new drugs and proper protocols. The most effective part of this has been activating artists who are dying of AIDS. Often disowned by their families, they have needed repositories for their estates. I suppose that saying so is enabling in some way. Doing so is definitely enabling.

The “secret” to Barrus is his obsessional relationship with his abusive father which he tried to redeem by adopting a damaged foster son. That attempt failed painfully. Everything he writes revisits the problem: always two males, one trying to save the other. The boys of Cinematheque are another expression of the attempt to save sons, even if they are imaginary boys, or even if they are real and dying. Is there something wrong with this? It seems like a thing worthy of enabling, a good enabling.

Here’s the next step. At least some of these boys (I’m hoping a big majority) will mature into manhood and careers of their own. It won't take many years. THAT may be the real reward and payoff. What will they be able to tell us or show us with their art? Neither Barrus nor I may be here to find out. But if we could get a little lightning into a bottle for later, I think that would be worth enabling.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Prosperity-based organizations like PETA and HSUS exploit the emotions of our relationships with pets, especially dogs, and probably wonder what they are going to do in the coming period of frugality and resetting of priorities. Many people are releasing pets rather than pampering them. There has been a quiet behind-the-scenes but quickly growing and deepening body of research into just what our relationship to animals really is.

Let’s look at dogs. Terrierman and his widening circle of co-thinkers have always based their relationship to their animals on work. In this case the “work” wasn’t anything that would support a family, but rather a sport he calls “digging on the dogs.” The idea is to take terriers to the field (REAL fields where crops are grown), encourage them to find “varmints” (groundhogs, foxes), chase them down their burrows and keep them pinned in there while the Terrierman digs them up. What happens then is situational: some varmints are released and others are killed, depending on the wishes of the farmer, the season, the population density, and so on.

The point I’m after is that terriers developed from dogs who did this with relish and were preserved as breeds by keeping pups who were good at it while eliminating pups who weren’t. In Victorian times dog breeds became the objects of the constant struggle for class, prestige and status among middle class people and the AKC formed. This organization “certified” provenance, meaning parenthood, rather than performance. To an amateur it was appearance that counted, rather than performance.

As early as the Seventies, when I was an animal control officer, a Portland dog show judge complained that the “standard” for Staffordshire terriers was being changed by the increased breeding of “pit bulls.” This is the opposite of what was supposed to happen, which was inbreeding to keep color, coat-type, size, and so on, like the royalty of Europe. Pit bulls, regardless of whether they had papers or provenance, were bred for performance in the most grisly way: winning dog fights. They have ended up being vital, potent, strong dogs: dominant.

Dog breeds who compete on the basis of appearance have degenerated to the point of there being a huge scandal over their many basic structural and metabolic defects. Their lifespans are shortened, their maintenance is expensive, and many of them have more or less lost their minds. Seriously. One of the most dangerous dogs we ever impounded -- actually a deputy sheriff shot it in the field so we simply removed the body -- was a golden retriever with “spaniel fever,” which is a kind of rage that spaniel breeds can slip into. Very little is known about it.

Research into the dog genome is moving quickly, esp. the search for genes that code for behavior. Dog shows based on appearance are losing their sponsors, while dog shows based on performance -- even invented obedience courses in which the dog hustles up an inclined plane or squiggles through a culvert -- are expanding. Since the owner runs the course alongside, this is good exercise as well as a good hobby. (Not quite as arduous as “digging on the dogs.”) Scientists are interested by how pliable dog genes are: large or small, rough-coated or hairless, born-to-run or purse-pooch -- they can all interbreed.

The origin of dogs is also a busy sector of paleolithic research. Some think dogs evolved from wolves -- others think not. A good deal of energy has to go to figuring out HOW to figure out the answer. But there is general agreement that dogs voluntarily joined people at some point in history, probably because they were after scraps and carrion (just as humans were in very early times), and were tolerated because they were useful until they became enmeshed. This is in contrast to cats whose mutual usefulness is always guarded. One writer points out that horses must be “tamed” one by one and if they are left to run without human contact, even over a winter, a reconciliation will have to be negotiated. And cows or pigs are always dangerous unless they were hand-raised.

These distinctions are pretty much unknown to our urban populations and humane societies pay little attention to these animals, except maybe horses, which were the original motivation for the American Humane Association in the days when horsepower meant an animal with four legs. (The Humane Society of the United States tries to give people the idea they are the ONLY humane society.)

Temple Grandin
, who has released a new book, pays a great deal of attention to food animals. She doesn’t deplore the eating of meat, but she does feel food animals should be treated humanely, with as little fear, pain and confinement as possible. What’s more, since her brain is uniquely wired (labeled “autism”) she uses that advantage to help redesign the handling of animals when they are killed and butchered. Because she has a lively awareness that humans are also confined and killed (though not usually eaten), she also puts energy into thinking about prisoners or medical patients or even shoppers or travelers in confusing spaces. This willingness to see humans as also animals, rather than an obsession with animals being like humans, is probably what separates the two major divisions of thought about pets.

In the last decades we -- in particular the younger ones among us -- have chanted the mantra that “you can do anything, have anything, if you really, really want it.” The plain fact that some things are mutually exclusive has been rejected outright. Want a high status dog even though it will cost you a lot of money and will suffer because of genetic deformities (pushed-in noses, eye problems, skeletal mis-development) and will have to live all alone in your house or apartment except at night when you’re asleep? Well, if you reeeeaaaaaaly want it. . . And if it gets to be a problem, well, you can just take it to a shelter or turn it loose. (Oh, here’s a plot for a movie! What if that dog were a boy? Well, you know, not a REAL boy.)

One of the most interesting books just released is called “Milk Teeth: A Memoir of a Woman and her Dog,” by Robbie Pfeufer Kahn from Rutgers University Press, December, 2008. According to the review (I haven’t read the book), this is about a high-spirited black lab puppy, evidently bred to have the characteristics useful for a hunting dog, traits that must be shaped by training, bought by a young woman who had a problematic childhood. The relationship between them became family therapy as she acted out behavior she didn’t know she had learned and struggled to change the dog’s rough behavior. The good news is that with a little help they both succeeded. The reviewer says the story is "poignant, raw and at times humorous." Sounds authentic to me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


The movie called “A.I.” or “Artificial Intelligence” -- a necessary translation around here where AI means Artificial Insemination -- is not for children. In fact, there are probably some adults who should not see it. The most obviously upsetting parts are in the war between Organos (humans made the old-fashioned way) and Mecchos (near-humans constructed as machines). In a “Flesh Fair” (meant only for organic persons) Mecchos are destroyed in a kind of gladiator spectacle, except that the victims are bound, restrained and destroyed in ways that cause our “mirror cell” empathies to writhe and suffer. The organic people are repulsive, depraved, drunken and clearly enjoying the suffering. Is this what it means to be really human? It’s a Stanley Kubrick question.

This movie began in a sci-fi short story about a future couple who have a robot child which they casually discard when they become able to have a genetic child. This short fable morphed into a version of Pinocchio, not a child’s story except in the ambiguous hands of Walt Disney who wasn’t always aware of his own subconscious. He also muddied the waters with Bambi, which originally raised a lot of adult subjects we still have not resolved a hundred years later. Both 19th century stories ask unsettling questions about what humans are: what makes us human? Are we more than animals? More than puppets in the hands of an angry god? Who among us is entitled to moral protection from suffering and death and on what grounds? VERY relevant right now, maybe more than when this movie was made or, indeed, throughout the several decades while it was in development.

The slippery aspect of “Artificial Intelligence” is that it slides back and forth between asking about the line between human and robot even as it slips back and forth over the line between child and adolescent. As soon as the “adult” meccho was changed to being a gigolo, sex was in the story. Neither an inflatable doll nor one of Dr. Masters’ mechanical penile cameras nor a robot like the charming “Angel Lips” of Lopez’ radio fantasy called “Ruby, the Galactic Gumshoe,” this robot is a supposedly pre-calculated unemotional being who is pressed into being protective of a child. The little bear, who has no power, is mostly confined to Jiminy-Cricket-type comment, though thankfully he speaks in a gruff male voice instead of a piping superego rebuke.

I think our culture somehow combines the question of moral maturity (I’m told fourteen in some European countries) with the nature of sexual maturity, with the legitimacy of killing, and with just plain “otherness.” We are shocked by child soldiers in Africa but willing to treat young black boys in this country as adults in murder cases. The movie artificial boy is white, necessarily purchased by a prosperous family, also white. Does this make a difference? What if the puppet had been a little Chinese girl? Or would the story have been different if the gigolo had been black? (I suspect it wouldn’t to Kubrick but maybe it would to Spielberg, who draws on a white suburban childhood.) I was a little worried by the denim-indigo, androgenous, racially inclusive IBM clones at the beginning of the movie. I’ve come to associate the actor William Hurt with characters who are morally unreliable and unconsciously cruel.

I’ve been thinking about starting an illustrated memoir of my child years -- mostly because of a trove of photos my father took. Still, I was startled to Google “pre-adolescent child” and see that most of the early list are photo sources. First entries on Google lists are there because of high frequency, popularity. Why are photos of that age group so much in demand? Can child photos be considered pornographic even when the child is not nude? Would my photographic memoir be put to perverse uses? The other striking thing about the lists is that so many of the pre-adolescent scholarly papers are not about “child” at all, but rather all in terms of preparation for “adolescent” with a lot of emphasis on sex. Surely it is only since WWII that figures like Christopher Robin or Alice in Wonderland have been seen as sexual objects. Did “Lolita” do that? (That was a Stanley Kubrick film. I’ve never seen it. Maybe it’s time.) Or were we all in denial?

In the articles “childhood” is variously described as years 3 to 12, or 8 to 14, or sometimes divided into early and late childhood, along the lines of primary and elementary school. There are also quite a lot of articles about suicidal or depressed children, but they are hard to access. One needs subscriptions to medical libraries.

“David,” the little robot child, is a CHILD -- not a pre-teen -- and his love is clearly meant by Spielberg (the final developer) to be innocent child-to-parent love. In the final scene he is under the covers with his sleeping mother, but not in a clinch. The nuance of the endings (they are additive) is debated but Spielberg seems to come to conclusion that the meaning of life is happiness and that it is an entitlement. I’m not so sure, regardless of the Constitution of the United States. Anyway, a robot child cannot commit suicide or become depressed.

For quite a while I’ve thought about why it is that “outsiders” are always so interested in Native American children until they hit adolescence. Everyone thinks the little kids are “darling” and “adorable,” but they pretend the teens don’t exist. The obvious answer is that at that point they begin to be trouble: they can get sexual, they can get drunk, they can get violent. They can begin to worry about what it means to be an Indian and whether they smell bad or are dirty in some other way. Teaching junior high school is totally unlike teaching primary and elementary grades, and yet one can’t impose high school standards on children. I found that one seventh grade class can be way out there working on the issues of sixteen-year-olds, while the next set of seventh graders can be preoccupied with crayons and stuffed animals.

The confusion and seeking of childhood is not over when one gets to adolescence, but once there at least the budding person can rely on a body of experience. We probably haven’t given enough importance and attention to the early school years, the primary years when one’s identity is forming. For instance, it is appalling to contemplate the number of high schoolers who still can’t read or figure and who have no study skills or ability to manage their own consciousness. Too many children have parents who are immature, under so much economic pressure (some of it self-imposed) that they are out of the home most of the time. It is fantasy to think that most parents are monitoring television and computers, much less friends or even neighbors.

We have not yet evolved effective social compensations for the break-up of old family patterns. It is past time than we did.

Friday, January 23, 2009


When I was little (b.1939), most parents had come of age during the Depression. Their major life-lesson was never to waste anything. (Did you know that in 1945 the cost of living in the United States jumped by one-third? Also in that year, a B-25 bomber hit the Empire State Building at the 78-79th floors without collapsing it. Things were built sturdier in those days.) Fruit came in wooden rather than cardboard boxes. An orange crate, which was really two compartments because it had a extra division across the middle, made a pretty good child’s chair if one end were removed. However, my father used them to improvise bookshelves. I did the same until a decade ago, with the very same orange crates, because you can’t get new ones. In fact, I sold them for a nice sum.

It is only lately that I understood the term “box goods.” I ran across it in a novel somewhere. The phrase, synonymous with “case goods,” means furniture created by first making a box. If the large box has places to insert smaller boxes which can be pushed in and drawn out, it becomes a chest of drawers. if the large box has built in small boxes along one top edge, possibly about the right size for pigeons (i.e. pigeon holes), then it is a desk. (Directions at:

If the box has doors at the front, it becomes an armoire, or with shelves across the inside, maybe a cupboard (boards to put cups on or a sideboard (boards to make shelves for containers used for “side dishes” or beverages). This is a commercial site that shows many examples:

If the box is on its back and empty in the middle, big enough to contain a mattress, it becomes a bedstead. In some cultures it is enclosed for privacy and warmth, where a person could closet themselves for the night. A closet, of course, is a closed-off or boxed part of a room. A cabinet is a little “cabin” (cabin-ette) which is a box, often fitted with other little boxes as storage compartments, shelves or drawers. A trunk, especially one meant for shipboard like a steamer trunk, is a sort of cabinet that can be transported around. A “cabinet of curiosities” is meant to secure and protect interesting and possibly valuable objects. Chairs and tables are also usually derived from boxes except maybe for beanbag chairs.

I tried the imaginary exercise of removing all the free-standing “box goods” from my house. The armoire for linens, the bathroom cabinets (a tall one for towels, TP and a small library, and a small one for toiletries), the bedroom linens armoire, another smaller one for out-of-season blankets and quilts, a big bureau for underwear, a small one for socks and bedside supplies, an armoire for the television set, a kitchen pantry cabinet, and two old fruit boxes fitted with drawers in which I keep small tools. My most elaborate piece is a barrister’s stack of drawers, separable, with a desk section in the middle. The cheapest are plastic roll-around drawers, good end-tables. The rest are all shelves, which means backless boxes with shelves. A few tables, a few wicker chairs, and my mother’s upholstered “lady chair” which I use for reading if I get there ahead of the cats. I’m not counting the file cabinets that crowd my little “office.” Most of this furniture was purchased when I knew I was coming to this house or after I got here, with the exception of the bookshelves, which have followed me -- as boards -- through decades.

Part of the point of this exercise in inventory is because soon the time will come (by soon I mean within the decade unless illness or economic collapse intervene) when I must “reverse acquire” -- that is, begin to reduce this stuff so I fit into what might be a senior citizen's subsidized apartment. I’ve watched so many people fail to do so, with the result that everything was hurriedly consigned to a dumpster.

The hard part is not getting rid of these case goods, but getting rid of what is in them. Not so much the books, which can be sold to a dealer, but the papers, which need sorting. There are two problems there: separating out what needs to be preserved as an historical record for family, for Bob Scriver’s papers, or for my UU circuit-riding adventure -- in other words, papers of significance to others -- from what I just want to keep. Maybe I might want to develop writing from them. Maybe I just like to sit and look at them and think about what they might mean. When I say “papers” I include a lot of photographs. I already gave a double handful of them to my Oregon niece and her mother, because they are part of that agricultural world and my father took them in the Thirties when he was a wool buyer. Others can be converted to “virtual” form and sent as email or put on blogs or archived in a photo archive.

I look at all this stuff and ask, “why is furniture square and crockery round?” I guess because ceramic things are made on wheels the same as “turned” furniture legs are made on lathes. I speculated in “Bronze Inside and Out” on the difference between Euro and Asian -- maybe African? -- box-type storage as compared with the wrapped soft bundles of nomadic Native Americans and came to the conclusion that we don’t always respect things that are not in boxes. Boxes connote protection and permanence. Boxes require metal tools (drills and saws) and measurement, possibly standardized. Anyway, on the prairie there is never enough wood and certainly not much hardwood suitable for furniture.

Case goods or box goods come in many styles of construction and embellishment. I’ve always been interested in tent furniture: trunks and footlockers with brass corners and recessed handles, tables and chairs, often made of slats, that fold. Military furniture, like that of the cavalry that pursued the Indians, or safari furnishings like camp cots and folding canvas bathtubs. This is the opposite of built-in furniture. What would happen if I gradually converted to camp furniture and nomadic bundles? The first things sacrificed would be paintings with glassed frames, which are really flat little boxes. Hmmm.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dunno about you, but I really liked the Inauguration poem by Elizabeth Alexander, so I was pleased when Garrison Keillor put a second poem by her on his daily NPR radio snippet, A Writer’s Almanac. Here it is:

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said
"Every 'I' is a dramatic 'I'")
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love
and I'm sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?

One of the reasons I like Alexander is that she is so unlike what so many people think of as poetry -- as she puts it, “love, love, love and I’m sorry the dog died.” There’s another poetry program, “The Poet and the Poem,” which comes on on Thursday night at 9PM my time. (You could stream it.) It’s very “yummy” and precious with a hostess who speaks in hushed tones of beloved topics, tragic though they may be.

Alexander not only writes briskly and about ordinary human things, but she speaks her words with clear crisp consonants and carefully shaped vowels. This raises an interesting topic: the artist’s voice. Compare Alexander with, say, Aretha Franklin, the voice of soul: elided, syncopated, surprising.

When I was working at the City of Portland a decade ago, one of my fellow clerks was a 3X-sized woman, very dark-skinned, who compensated for her bulk by carefully maintaining a $60 acrylic-nail manicure and wearing the tiniest of high-heeled sandals. Thus she was missing in action a lot of the time due to sprained ankles. But I liked her, because she was such a character and had such spirit. Also, she never failed to politically outflank our mean little hen of a boss.

Part of our job was to take phone calls from the general public, most of them from people either complaining about nuisance neglected properties or complaining that they had been cited for not maintaining their property. Most of the complaints came from whites. Most of the citations went to blacks, though their landlords were usually white. One day my colleague and I had an argument about whether we could tell over the phone who was white and who was black. Actually, we could -- at least mostly -- and they could tell about us, too. It was instantly apparent that my colleague, with her rich Southern accent, her querulous voice “melody,” her choice of words and so on, was black. I suppose I was as obvious, though no one is all that conscious of their own “accent.”

Actually, this person was a second generation Oregonian, her parents rather than herself having been imported from the south to work in the Kaiser shipyards during WWII. The much lighter, taller and slimmer black man who had moved to Oregon from the Texas/Mississippi border as an adult had a far softer and more melodious voice, to say nothing of his manner.

On NPR, reacting to Alexander’s poetry reading (you could almost hear her practicing the speech teacher’s mantra: “the tip of the tongue, the lips and the teeth”) and Obama’s speech patterns (which are different again) the hosts were discussing accents and the woman (I forget which one) disclosed that she is black. But she doesn’t at ALL “sound” black! In fact, there are several black hosts on NPR and the only ones I would easily identify are the ones from the Caribbean, who have rich and careful British accents. I love the voice of Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

On the same program there was discussion about whether the tear spotted in Jesse Jackson’s eye was real or not. Consensus was that it was a real tear: Jesse could see the promised land, but he couldn’t get there. His style is now old-fashioned, his strategies are ineffective. Misery no longer evokes help, being different no longer attracts sympathy. The New Black Man is competent, he comes to the rescue of the white folks. And he’s not that black anyway. Just twenty years ago black folks were assumed to be like Clarence Thomas: very dark, short, inarticulate, always indignant and more-or-less “owned” by aristocratic white patrons, Thomas probably could not be elected for anything today.

The same problem exists for Indians and red-necks. The original stereotypes of the categories are grandparents now. Many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are no longer “blanket Indians” or hillbillies because of affirmative action programs that got them educated, socialized, and competent along with the rest of the best. This is the great irony of education for achievement, that the means for getting there transform the “different” into something the same: assimilated. The great test now will not be the racial or social tensions between categories of people, but within the generations of those categories.

If poetry is where we are ourselves, can we still write poetry that isn’t “love, love, love and sorry the dog died” if we have become someone else? I used to ride the bus to work every day and since I lived in NE Portland, where those shipyards employees lived after the Vanport flood destroyed their original housing, I overheard plenty on the bus. What’s most relevant today was a tall, aristocratic-looking black woman who announced to her friend, “Honey, when I have money, I SPEND it! When I don’t, I do without.” I think of her often.

They say the older Kaiser workers have been moving back to the south where the world is still closer to what they know. The younger ones who don’t go off to college? They marry Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and they don’t assimilate to the white culture so much as they create a new one. They are “idiosyncratic, the only way to get from here to there.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I have two schemata for thinking about time. Neither one of them is anything like Einstein’s. In the first one, I imagine that the universe is a huge complexity of interwoven and swirlingly tangled fiber-optics. (This is sort of the way I see “string theory” though I don’t understand the latter at all. I’m after narrative “line.”) The gimmick is that I define an individual consciousness as traveling along those fiberoptic strings which exist both before and after the consciousness. That is, usually we see time as something rushing over us, only existing while we are “in the moment.” My formulation has existence going on without consciousness until someone is there to “light it up.”

Thus, one’s entire life is still back there somewhere -- yourself going to grade school, yourself at your first job, etc. -- and your entire life is pre-existing in that God-knows-everything and pre-ordained-it way, except that there are MANY potential futures and one’s consciousness shuttles among them. This is my idea of free will -- that it doesn’t consist of inventing options but more often is a matter of choosing the path. Once on a path, it’s hard to double back, though there might be emergency cross-overs as on a freeway.

The other schemata is more nineteenth century: an old-fashioned steam-powered locomotive on a train track. In this case one’s identity is the locomotive, rushing along with all its baggage behind it, powered by the resources found along the way. The train tracks -- rails on cross-ties -- are factual. Born here, parents named thus and so, married to so-and-so, living at this address, this many children. All that stuff that newspapers like because they can be pinned down in print and “fact-checked,” though once a “fact” gets into print wrong, it’s pretty hard to get rid of it. One can at least address what has happened already. The future might be around a curve or over a hill or hidden by fog or mirages.

Above and parallel to the train is a stream of smoke and steam that writhes and changes and sometimes is full of sparks. This is one’s emotional and creative life: impossible to pin down but certainly there and produced by the energetic transit along the rails. Below, extending along the train tracks, is a lake with a surface either calm enough to reflect the train and its evanescent smoke trail or ruffled by something else like wind or debris that distorts the picture, making it hard to see or altogether invisible. This is memory.

What I’m trying to get at is the idea that an artist addressing his/her own life has a choice of kinds of sequences: stream-of-consciousness, fact (reliable or unreliable), and reflective. People have experimented with using the lines of sentences, running alongside each other in different colors or fonts, so that one reports what a camera might see and the parallel suggests what is hidden but potently present, affecting events. The techniques are an attempt to capture identity in some of its JoHarri window mystery and honesty.

Writing and reflection on writing play back and forth between each other. One person writes spontaneously in the way that seems natural to them. Another person looks at it and says, “This is a first-person narrative, told as experienced by someone.” Then, there’s that old burlesque shtick that Bob Scriver used to love. (One guy tells about some incredible and vivid event like Custer’s last stand or the sinking of the Titanic or the summiting of Mt. Everest in such detail that one begins to think the person was there, until the other guy asks, “Wuz you THERE, Charlie?” That makes us laugh because obviously the yarner was not. White people from back east were constantly telling us with great authority some historical “fact” they knew from a book and Bob would ask, “Wuz you there, Charlie?”) Technically you call that an unreliable narrator or maybe you say this is the omniscient voice on the premise that God was there always, omnipresent. However, God was not reading a book by an unreliable narrator.

Most early non-print peoples handed over their oral stories to print-educated people, so that the reflection of their train could hardly help but be distorted by the new context -- in the first place a different language, in the second place with a different philosophical schematic of the world in all the unconscious assumptions, in the third place distorted by the need to sell the story either to publishers or department chairs, and then subtly altered for political reasons. Only recently have we been aware that someone like Black Elk was seeing something in his own mind that was probably not a lot like what was recorded in “Black Elk Speaks,” much less perceived accurately by the readers who love the book. Readers of the book when it was new cannot perceive it in the same way as now with all the intervening events throwing kaleidescopic colors on the same words.

Lately literary figures have been wrestling with the categories of fiction versus fact, autobiography versus memoir, psychoanalytic “truth” versus what an outside observer would report. We seem to have trouble accepting the ambiguity of life itself, much less our own identities. Back when we lived in villages, people told us who we were or maybe our families told us who we were or if you lived in India maybe they told you of whom you were the reincarnation. Then value judgments crept in. Was it good to be “just like Aunt Helen who died as a teenager?” Was it damning to “have a temper just like your great-grandfather who died in a shootout?” God knows. (Predestination -- or at least omniscience -- can be a comfort.)

Critics cannot agree, but today’s public seems to have an insatiable need for the TRUTH, for things to be resolved and to stay put, even as science opens the floodgates to more and more ambiguity. “We’ve resolved the nature of the genomic helix and now we know who you really are! It’s just a matter of checking out the molecules,” they proclaim. And then two days later the newspaper has a story about the myriad ways that the molecules of the double helix interact and how outside influences can change what was meant to be one gender or one eye color to something quite different.

We must give up our old nineteenth-century ideas and vocabulary, even when they are elaborated with additions and qualifications, and learn to dance with Rashomon in a world of swirling stars, trusting our own molecules to maintain our identities no matter what we say. That’s the way to be there, Charlie.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Imagine you’re Obama this morning, standing in front of a crowd so big that it can’t be counted and so cold that individuals keep passing out from hypothermia. My fantasy was that Cheney would rise, rip off the arm of his wheelchair (a cleverly disguised machine gun) and wipe out every Democrat in sight, quite a feat since at that moment probably almost everyone there except Bush and his mother was a Democrat to some degree. That didn’t happen. The worst that has happened so far is that Kennedy had another seizure at the luncheon and Senator Byrd also had to have medical attention.

The hardest sort of speech to give is the one spoken to people who are mostly in agreement with you. What new is there to say? Forget new. The way to go is “true.” The speech -- the ceremony -- that is mostly accurately aligned to the experience and knowledge of the audience is the one that is memorable and meaningful. This is why Obama did the right thing when he sat down with small groups of people during the campaign and gave them the time to describe their deepest fears and dearest wishes. I know he did this because DRK was in one of those groups and reported that Obama really listened, so he knew what to say. The most damning remark I hear about funerals is that the celebrant could have been talking about anyone. We don’t want an inaugural speech that could have been about any country. Today we heard one that was closely, almost painfully, American. No one could claim they didn’t know what Obama was talking about.

The rhetorical strategy of the transcendent drawn from the specific fits with the general context of south side Chicago, which mixes the man-on-the-street sociology of Studs Terkel with the high abstractions of Paul Ricoeur. Every major city has a kind of style but Chicago’s style doesn’t reach far into the northside except along Rush Street where the jazz joints are. Northwestern University belongs to a different world: money, status, and a strong Jewish connection. Technology rather than science, musicals rather than either Shakespeare or Second City. I have no idea where the Native American ghetto is in Chicago, but I expect there is one. I once saw one of the Red Horn boys sprinting across traffic on Lakeshore Drive, maybe on his way to the D’Arcy McNickle library.

Not just Obama but also the invocation, the benediction, the official poem, and -- most eloquently -- the music all used this same rhetorical approach of the ordinary (or as university folks might say, “the quotidian”), mentioning sewing up a hem, waiting for a bus, taking up pencils to begin, and beating tanks into tractors. Obama, as well as the Reverend Lowery, quoted words from pop songs. (“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again” and “Black won't be asked to give back; Brown can stick around; Yellow will be mellow; The Red man can get ahead man; And White will embrace right.”) There were objections to these phrases by those who think they are above all that “low” stuff. They want the leaders to be like Hollywood heroes, irreproachable and rich, worthy of the Daughters of the American Revolution and your local historical society.

But Chicago’s aesthetic likes to mix the finest (and incidentally most popular of their kind) in a classical quartet playing Aaron Copeland as arranged by John Williams, famous for movie scores. Same with an Aretha Franklin version of “My Country Tis of Thee” which is really “God save the King.” I appreciated the Lincoln scholar on NPR who was able to pick out the several subtle echoes of famous Lincoln speeches woven in by Obama. They had a ring to them, but I couldn’t have told you where they came from. The George Washington quote was explicit.

But I think the black emphasis misses one thing that I see: Obama is not just black. He is what I call “the people of tomorrow,” who are more common in California and Hawaii than Chicago. I’m thinking of Tiger Woods, Will Smith, more Harry Belafonte than Sidney Poitier: thin, sharp, humorous, and hard to shake. Not all the mix is physical: some of it is cultural, mostly the Asian part. Native Americans easily identify with him. In Portland I saw Native Americans mix with Hispanics and SE Asians and Somalis enough to form a recognizable type, which is very much like Obama and easy for whites to relate to. Think Jennifer Lopez, Colin Powell. Not all blacks are comfortable with this.

As it happens, sort of accidentally, I recently watched three political movies. The one about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings was the most problematic, but had that same emphasis on the quietly homely detail. The story ends with Jefferson, who was wildly improvident, reduced to real poverty, digging in his kitchen garden next to Sally, his slave/wife. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a tragic compromiser who knows that his decisions will destroy him, but feels the price must be paid for the greater good. I hope this part of Lincoln’s legacy doesn’t touch Obama.

The third movie was “Ran,” the gorgeously expensive Kurosawa version of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It begins in peace, the “lords” sitting together on the high windy grass in a circle like Plains Indian chiefs. Then over-idealistic decisions on the part of the leader stir up unrest and greed that destroys everyone. Rarely has a movie been so sodden with the blood of so many while all the time the most triumphant of banners fly above the horses of the warriors. Only the humble and innocent survive, and not all of them. It is a cynical movie.

Towards the end one of the characters asks, “Why do the gods send this war and evil upon us?” And another answers, “The gods regard us and wring their hands. It is we who do this and they are simply powerless to stop us.” I’m opposed to the personification of the forces of the cosmos, but I think this puts the proper culprits on the spot: us. Obama doesn’t turn away from this.

But it has become a truism that everything in existence is connected and that even small changes will ripple around the planet. The European leaders of nations are saying as much. Today is the real New Year’s Day. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Monday, January 19, 2009


It was a short Muppet sequence, a take-off on cooking shows. An excitable Italian cook was waving his wooden spoon over a pile of spaghetti on a plate. Carried away, he pounded the spaghetti with his spoon. The spaghetti, not liking this, began to sneak off. The cook noticed, grabbed the spaghetti and threw it back onto the plate. But he forgot and whacked it with the spoon again. The spaghetti tried to leave again. This sequence happened several times. Finally the spaghetti “lost it” and, enraged, grabbed the chef by the throat.

Why was it so easy for us to know how the spaghetti felt? Why could we think, “Well, that spaghetti’s reaction was entirely understandable.” Spaghetti is just noodles, right? But somehow humans “throw” emotions and motives into inanimate objects. Why else would a hot-tempered person trip on a chair, blame it, and smash it to bits?

I could imagine a puppet sequence between two rocks, maybe one a sassy little bit of edgy quartz and the other a big grim smooth hunk of granite. Some YouTuber could create that scene this afternoon. I could imagine a pretty funny routine between a yam and a sweet potato, one declaring “I yam what I yam,” and the other saying, “Well, you’re certainly no sweet potato!” Then what happens? A fight or a love affair?

The Blackfeet organized their language into three categories, marked by subtle prefixes, suffixes and changes in the word itself. One category was for the highly significant and portentous things that would impress most cultures, like sundogs when the sun shone through high ice. One category was stuff that was just stuff -- stayed there and did nothing. But the great majority of objects and phenomomena were “living” in some sense and could even speak. Not every culture divvied up the territory in just this way, but every culture allows for significance and meaning and metaphors and suggestiveness -- however you want to describe it. Human-ities.

So far as I know, no scientist has yet put a puppeteer in an fMRI to see what’s happening in the brain that makes creating imaginary beings different from what’s measurable in the “actual” world. But I read something the other day that asked what happened in the anthro brain (including those of neanderthals) that suddenly they began to bury their dead with a blanket of flowers and to paint animals on the walls of caves. Which little bit of brain connected where and how? Where did “art” come from and what’s the difference between evocative but abstract shapes, colors, or sounds and representatives of real things? Why is it that we all loved abstract expressionism so much? How is it that we can look at super-real Andrew Wyeth paintings and see far more than what is depicted? Why is it that we can be so pleased by Paul Winter including real wolf howls in his music?

I have no answers, but I like thinking about it, partly because -- aside from spontaneous and uninformed delight -- there’s a therapeutic dimension. “The Piggle” is a book about art therapy with a child too young to talk. (Her father called her “the Piggle.”). The therapist was D.W. Winnicott and the issue was murderous jealousy triggered by the birth of a second child. Using stuffed animals, one of which leaked sawdust, and a cobalt blue glass “eye cup” for washing out eyes, both of which had developed some kind of symbolism for Piggle, deciphered and manipulated by Winnicott, the Piggle became reconciled to her sibling and the possibility of more.

Why does almost everyone react to the “special” quality of cobalt blue glass? I have a collection of cobalt blue medicine bottles on a windowsill and there is an amazing tree on the Pacific coast where some woman has attached her collection as thickly as leaves. I watch for movies that use that color on set walls. It says something to us.

I’m off-topic again. My first puppet was a papier mache hand puppet I made in the fourth grade: an orange cat with a striped body, not cat stripes but a remnant from a striped blouse. At about the same time someone gave me a rubbery hand-puppet of a gnome or Punch who had a pointy felt hat. Much later I bought myself a cleverly carved wooden fox with tufts of real white fur. In the early years with Bob I got into his taxidermy papier mache, which was FAR nicer to work with, and stole some of his taxidermy eyes to make a whole series of characters, one of which was Sik-et-soo-aki, “Dark and Pretty,” a Blackfeet maiden with a white flannel “buckskin” dress -- very lumpily beaded by yours truly. The most remarkable puppet was “Reddy Kilowatt,” who was an echo of that first rubbery gnome, except that he had a pointy head and was covered with fluttering bits of bright red satin, velvet and sequins. The trouble was that these papier mache heads were so heavy that neither I nor my students could make them move. Today I’d give them styrofoam cores, like Muppets.

Another early experiment (high school) was a marionette, meant to be controlled from above by strings. Using a library book as a resource, I sewed a stuffed puppet with lead weights in its feet so they would stay down. There was only one figure, a “Petrouchka” figure in a turquoise clown suit. He had yellow yarn hair and a face drawn on with liquid embroidery fluid -- very sad. So many of my little figures were sad and lonely. Romantically, like Anne of Green Gables. I never did put control strings on this little figure, but I kept him around a long time. He keyed into my interest in Commedia dell Arte, which I fed with trips to the Reed College library. Tying melancholy to literature and history was a good way to manage it. The Japanese have always done so.

In the freedom years that I keep calling the Aquarian Revolution, Bread and Roses made huge political puppets to use in pageants and processions. I only saw them -- or their relatives -- "live" once, when Jimmy Carter came to Portland as part of campaigning, and the anti-nuclear people showed up with ten-foot puppets of death, skulls in cloaks and mushroom clouds. In many ways those people and their ideals live on in such organizations as Portland’s Tears of Joy puppet troupe. There’s another puppet company in Missoula as well as “children’s” acting troupes that use masks and simple dances as they tour the state. Cinematheque is in this tradition, though video images are far more fluid and suggestive than physical puppets.

So much of the last eight years has been about the death or suppression of imagination. I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama’s tolerance, even though he’s not an excitable man, allowed our puppet-loving brains to bloom again. I can’t imagine Obama beating up the spaghetti, provoking retaliation.

Sunday, January 18, 2009



She saved my life. I do not know if she sees herself as a dancer or not but she is one.

I was drowning then. In a lot of things. In the fragments one piece at a time. Way, way, way over my head. Lost in this morass of a thing I did not know how to escape from.

Did it have to do with another guy. It usually did back then. I don't give them that power anymore. I am content with how things are. My marriage is different. My relationships are different.

Because I have constructed the choreography of it to be different because it fits.

At sixteen, all I knew was this: the only way to get out of the situation was to get the hell out of Dodge. But I was sixteen. Most of you guys in Cinematheque left home before you were sixteen. More than a few of you were thrown out on your ear into the street. Leaving home at sixteen was a daunting idea to me back then. I didn't see any way out. So I blew my guts out with a shot gun.

Now, there was a way out. Most suicide attempts are exactly that. Out. Out. Out.

The first night in that hospital room, I vaguely felt her presence. Through the Demerol I knew she was in the room or her spirit was. You see, she has a very strong presence and she's very tall. She moved like a gazelle back then. I’ll call her AKS.

. . .

The recovery from the wounds took a while. She was there for me.

She would visit me in the hospital. She wanted to talk. I wanted to dance. It hurt to dance but all dancers know pain is nothing.

Survival took on many forms, wore many masks. I became a dancer. I danced on stage.

My family did not know I was doing this. I had to hide it.

My dad was a violent man. A man of fists and guns. Our family hid it like so many families do. But he would beat me to within an inch of my life. I cannot even begin to count the number of times he almost killed me. You measured up to his standards as a man or you didn't. I would be a dancer. We all know what that means, right. No dancer was going to live in my father's house. That ability to move to the music allowed me to leave the shell Tim Barrus lived in where he was afraid of Maynard [Barrus].

To survive, I danced. To work the pain out. Just out. Out. Out.

. . .

No one knew I had this Other Life.

The menial job I was supposed to have did not exist. Most of my time was spent in choreography and practice. People at Michigan State University thought I was a dance student. Often, I was the one teaching them.

We choreographed Macbeth once for the drama department which staged the play outside. All of this took me away from the guy who haunted me.

We also set Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to dance. All male cast, no less. Every now and then, my path and AKS' path would cross. Antiwar was thick as blood.

The draft board didn't want me. They said my wounds were too extensive. I didn't exactly tell them about the dancing.

What surprises me about dance (still) is how you're really not connecting to the other dancers, even when paired.

I tried that but there was really no one who wanted to be connected to. So you tended to simply connect to your own physical self. You could lose yourself in all that movement.

You know. Two of you are professional dancers now. Yes, even with HIV.

The one time I connected with the Other Dancer was when AKS came over to my house. I was married now and we lived in our own place.

I was alone that day. AKS drives up. Comes into the house. We didn't articulate anything. We just danced, we connected, and she left.

We went and lived our lives.

I continued to dance. I wrote. I published. I had a kid.

I am a grandfather now and good at it.

She adopted. I caused scandals (everywhere I went, usually). I still feel fervently about demanding change. I do demand it. Lately, from publishing. I was deeply involved in gay politics in California. Then the UN. Then photography. I still cause trouble. Sometimes a lot of it.

I taught in special education. I worked in psychiatric hospitals on intensive care units with adolescents. Often, I would get a lot of information from them in terms of how they moved. I taught dance to deaf children.

Dancers know.

I traveled around the world. A lot. I started working with boys with HIV/AIDS. We dance. Cinematheque is scattered now: Paris, Italy, the UK, LA, NYC.

The work is a challenge and a struggle. You know that.

It comes with a lot of pain. Pain is nothing to a dancer.

My wife and I love to dance. Late at night on a beach is good.

. . .

Having had both hips replaced, the dancing is different now. With Avascular Necrosis and my shoulders riddled with hairlines fractures, it's harder to lift my arms up, and forget about lifting a ballerina because it isn't going to happen, and I'm too old to be on a traditional stage anymore anyway.

. . .

I was living in San Francisco the last time we connected. This time drowning but drowning in a sea of death and AIDS. Everyone I know from that time is dead and I knew a lot of people.

About every twenty years, I try to connect with AKS again. I find her. She responds. It is not unlike this dance we do. Touch. Respond. Connect.


The figure of AKS -- not so much the actuality but the idealized memory of her -- is a recurring figure in just about every culture: the compassionate woman, often portrayed as a mother with a nursing baby. In Catholic cultures she is Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Buddhist countries she is Kuan Yin, almost as familiar a figurine as Buddha. “The root meaning of karuna (Kuan Yin) is said to be the anguished cry of deep sorrow and understanding that can only come from an unblemished sense of oneness with others.”

In the Plains tribes she is “White Buffalo Woman” and in the SW tribes she is “Yellow Corn Pollen Woman.” In Peter Pan she is Wendy maybe. In “Pinocchio” she is the Blue Fairy (in some versions she has turquoise hair), the figure who -- young mother-like -- gently urges the little puppet to behave in a way that will make him become a “real boy.” In “The Wizard of Oz” she is Glinda, the Good Witch, who knows how to get Dorothy home (and her little dog, too).

Tim, of course, didn’t look all this up on the Internet -- he just slipped his dancing friend into this universal role of a woman who holds out her arms, not sexually but to connect as a human being, especially in a situation deserving of compassion. I went looking through my mythology, psychology, archetypal, and feminist books for more, but found that most were focused on female figures of force, justice, and change -- pretty militant stuff. From the Seventies. Or else they confronted and encouraged sex as the only intimacy, the other big part of that cultural revolution. We seem to have lost the dimension of compassion that used to be the specialty of saintly actresses like Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, and Deborah Kerr. They didn’t have to DO anything, just be there and SEE it all.

A writer in an encyclopedia suggests: “It may be worthwhile to bear in mind that, although Carlo Collodi wrote Pinocchio at a time and within a culture wherein the routine beating of children was often carried out in the widespread Eurocultural belief that early and frequent exposure to such brutality would improve their prospects for eventual moral goodness, Collodi's Blue Fairy affords her wayward beneficiary every opportunity to do the "Right Thing" on his own with no particular coercion or threat applied on her part. She allows him to wander by his own free will back into his own world of error again and again, relying on his own memory of her goodness toward him even while suffering in the throes of his own self-induced difficulties. This "meta-parental" treatment on her part gives Pinocchio's final transformation and entrance into full humanity to be the genuine result of his /own/ correct decisions - and therefore his own to keep forever.”

This opens up some very interesting things for Barrus to think about. His mother, faced with a brutal husband, did not oppose him or protect her son. This denial still wounds, but it has been at least partly healed by “good fairies” -- some of them in the sense of homosexual. (The original compassionate god from which Kuan Yin developed was male. The AIDS plague called out mothering/nursing skills in many men, something like what the plight of the wounded Civil War soldiers called out in both Florence Nightingale and Walt Whitman.)

Which brings me to a whole online course on the meaning and transformations of Pinocchio!

“The Persistent Puppet: Pinocchio's Heirs in Contemporary Fiction and Film”
is a whole lecture series (complete with discussion questions) by Rebecca West!

“The story a rich fund of themes, motifs and images for exploring such still highly pertinent issues as the limits between the human and the non- (or post-) human, the toll of reaching responsible maturity and the place of education in that process, the function of transgression both for individuals and for society, and the ways in which dominant attitudes toward paternal and maternal roles have come historically and currently to have an essential impact on our collective concept of humanness.” Doesn’t that sound like Cinematheque?

“The contemporary Italian actor and director Roberto Benigni, whose humor emerges in great part out of the Tuscan tradition of the novella, especially out of the beffa, or trickster story, as well as out of a very personal sort of bricolage of popular and high cultural references, has recently filmed his version of Pinocchio, starring himself as the puppet.”

West discusses at length the Spielberg re-take on the story, which is called “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” in which the puppet is a robot child.

Is there a dance version of Pinocchio with a role in it for Barrus’ tall friend, a compassionate Blue Fairy who is there, understanding, but not intervening or controlling? Puppets dance, but not as well as people. The difference is in the heart. And sometimes it's not mythic -- it's real.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I’ve slacked way off on reviewing the Western Art magazines, partly because of being busy with other things, but also because “Bronze Inside and Out” is finished, published and as far as I personally can go with it for now. Certain political forces have blocked me, most notably the Montana Historical Society officials who acquired Bob’s estate but do nothing with it and refuse to discuss the matter. Also, Western art has been uncomfortably associated with Bush/Cheney, at least from my point of view. (Cheney was on the board of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.) I thought I’d give it a rest.

But now that I’m invited to sign “Bronze Inside and Out” at the big Russell Auction in Great Falls in March, the beginning of the real auction season, I thought I’d swing back into some old tracks. The issue of “Western Art Collector” shown above is October, 2008, but some of the things I want to talk about will continue through the spring of 2009. This magazine is frankly for aficionadoes, supplies likely prices, and mixes auctions with galleries with museums. Given the dark streak of opportunism that always runs through everything Western, this means the mag is not so ladylike as the others and, indeed, the editor is male and the headquarters are in rough and tumble Scottsdale, the heart of the fever. There are fewer arias about how “American” cowboys are and more serious curatorial writing.

There’s a website: “Searching” for Bob Scriver will get you nothing at this magazine. He was not a figure in the Southwest pantheon and his best work is not circulating anyway. There are small “collectibles” at auctions and illegal castings of early work, but the bronzes that anchored his reputation do not circulate publicly. Aside from that, the website should keep those interested supplied with lots of information and ideas as we trace out what the current economic straits might mean to Western art.

Naturally, most of the work included in this context is the same old 19th century Plains Indian images or working cowboys, with a certain attention to landscape. There are few wildlife portraits and a little architecture. The level of expertise and the willingness to experiment with style continue to bloom, but the classic names and styles always persist: Russell, Cowboy Artists of America, the quickly established Chinese painters of the West, and the Taos Seven. One of the strongest names has always been Maynard Dixon.

Asthmatic and slender, Dixon went to the dry Southwest in part for his lungs but once there, like so many others, he was seized by what can only be called a spiritual attachment, purification/redemption/inspiration. One of the articles in this issue is an “event preview” about a show at the Tucson Museum of Art focusing on Dixon’s Arizona work. It continues to February 15, 2009. The article by Thomas Smith (the curator of the museum) includes a number of excellent quotes.

“A vast and lovely land saturated with the inexhaustible sunlight and astounding color, visible and unbelievable distinctiveness, and overspread with intense and infinite blue.” “My objective has always been to get close to the real nature of my subject as possible -- people, animals and contry. The melodramatic Wild West idea is not for me the big possibility. The nobler and more lasting qualities are in the quiet and most broadly human aspects of Western life. I am to interpret for the most part, the poetry and pathos of the life of Western people seen amid a grandeur, sternness and loneliness of their country.”
He painted sandstone, Hopi, adobe, and saguaro: all realistic but somehow a little“realer than real,” composed, and delineated.

In this same issue, separated from the museum section, is an article about a gallery show. This is the url, which I’ll try to link:
Take a look at THESE paintings! They are quite shocking, partly because they are so unexpectedly different from Dixon’s style and partly because they are abstract, erotic and haunted by an almost-Russian hirsute face, vivid as a parrot. It turns out that Dixon was painting these all along, using Nvorczk (an even crazier name than Nasdijj) to keep them separated from his more conventional work. The secret was kept until recently. It’s not impossible to see the relationship between the two styles -- the public one so very controlled and the private other in a sort of cosmic dream -- esp. if one watches the skies, the clouds, the rising moons, the shapes and colors of the nudes against the warm geological monuments of Navajo country. This show will stay until March.

It’s hard to know whether to blame consumers who aren’t sophisticated enough to accept different styles in the work of the same artist or to blame the purveyors who insist on creating “brands” of work and more or less force the artists to stay within those bounds. That’s been happening since Nancy Russell saw what sold and nagged Charlie to paint what was virtually the same painting over and over. (He still managed to sneak in a few nudes here and there, but never abstract expressionism that I know of.)

Rex Rieke, a very low-key and excellent artist (and musician) has always been a fan of Maynard Dixon, but at the Russell Auction a couple of years ago he said he’d moved to trying abstract work. I don’t know whether he knew about “Nvorcsk” but I wouldn’t be surprised. Marshall Noice, the fine photographer who took the photos for Bob Scriver’s book about his Blackfeet artifact collection, has also been doing abstract sort of “fauvist” landscapes these past few years. The Blackfeet themselves, of course, have been doing abstract easel art, often iconic, for decades -- not counting the millennia of color patterning on every surface from lodge to horse.

Or maybe there’s something in the temperament of the whole country that sometimes gets obsessed with what is “right” and wants to be true believers of “one big thing.” Hopefully we’re coming out of that period and can honestly celebrate plurality in many ways. I’ll be fascinated to see what happens at the CMR Auction in mid-March.