Saturday, February 28, 2009


Here are the choices for ways to acquire “Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli. It’s a YA (young adult) about a nonconformist who comes to a super-conservative little “area” high school in Arizona. She dances in the rain -- there’s rain? Must be sci-fi. Anyway, you recognize this creature: the innocent but knowing young girl who wakes everyone up to the possibilities of life.

But who knew there were this many possibilities in acquiring a book? Twenty-two. Four require expensive electronic machines to access. YouTube is not listed, but no doubt if the book is a hit, it’ll get into the act.
Used, Hardcover, $9.00
Used, Hardcover, $6.95
New, Trade Paper, $9.95
New, Mass Market, $9.95
Used, Trade Paper, $6.00
Used, Trade Paper, $5.50
New, Trade Paper, $8.95
Used, Trade Paper, $6.50
Used, Trade Paper, $5.95
Used, Hardcover, $9.95
Used, Book Club Hardcover, $5.95
New, Mass Market, $12.57
New, Mass Market, $12.98
New, Compact Disc, $25.00
Used, Trade Paper, $5.00
New, Mass Market, $6.99
Microsoft Reader Ebooks, Electronic, $7.94
Adobe Digital Editions, Electronic, $7.94
Palm Reader Ebooks, Electronic, $7.94
Used, Book Club Paperback, $2.50
New, Library Bound, $21.50
New, Library, $20.50

What does this imply, not in terms of the sales of books though it clearly will mean a whole lot more bookkeeping and monitoring of agencies plus mastering more technology, but in terms of impact on the actual writing?

First, authors will need to be aware of how their words sound. Good writers already read their own work to themselves. The more the writing is shaped by listener accessibility, moving back towards ballads and poetry, the less the use of the long, intricate, subtle sentence a la Faulkner or Proust. BUT the fact that it is more restricted and maybe more rare will make it more a sign of sophistication to read what cannot really be appreciated out loud. Maybe some of that is already in place.

Stories read out out by their authors are good, but not all authors are good readers and, anyway, a trained actor can mean a major jump in effectiveness, as listeners to “Selected Shorts” know. Whether such a strategy adds enough value to a story to allow for paying the actor is a different question.

They say that Young Adult is the hot category and Sci-fi/fantasy is as well, so I’m sure there will be many coming of age in the galaxy or “zits in space” stories. I predict they’ll want sound effects. Maybe you remember reading comics out loud and adding all the “pow blam” stuff with mouth noises. But now even little kids can run a sound board. Why stop there? Why not go to video? Maybe not with actors, but with suggestive images. Will this mean a new emphasis on description and metaphor in writing? Or will there be more interest in a radio-type approach like Prairie Home Companion where the dialogue leads in and out of fantasy, enabled by sound effects?

Okay, turn the page. Most of good writing hinges on experience by the author, either real or imagined. Maybe it is the access to imagery and travel and class mobility that has made people so moralistic about what is memoir-as-remembered versus memoir-as-proven-fact, without ever questioning the value of proven fact. But it seems clear to me that the more people have had access to intense and surprising experience, the more many have avoided and denied it. It scares them. BUT they like to read about it, so it’s shaped, buffered, and ends well -- if you consider a book a good end.

One of the bits I ran across long ago and have never been able to find again was an Ed Hoagland review of Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” in which he took Peter to task for going off to Tibet, leaving his children behind when his wife had just died. Yet the stunning value of the book is that it confronts the death of Deborah Love, the Buddhist poet who was Peter’s wife, which is something I suspect she would have valued. Read the book, see what I mean. But maybe it wasn’t even Hoagland. As I say, I’ve never found it again.

I’m reading “Proust and the Squid” (Maryanne Wolf) which is about reading, how the brain does it, and makes the suggestion that writing things down (like keeping a decent set of notes) makes it possible to think things impossible to think in spoken words. It’s like math, which requires blackboards of symbolism. I certainly know it’s hard to keep track of a novel or even a memoir. Holes. Repetition loops. Chronology is the least of the problems and it IS a problem if you are pursuing a developmental sequence that depends on it.

Not that there might not be a another way to go. I clustered the memoir about Bob Scriver by topics, three organized chronologically (the steps of casting a bronze, several hunting episodes in calendar order, and the sequence of wives), and the rest governed by an image suggesting incidents: miserable black molding material stood for all the things that went wrong. This was not so much like the outlining they used to teach us in school as like the “mapping” or “webbing” they teach kids now. Older readers complain they are confused.

Proust and the Squid” suggests that what we do and learn shapes our brains, which seems unarguable at this point. Brains are spontaneously responsive, wiring and rewiring themselves, more like linked blogs or continually edited videos than the stable page.

I’ve been thinking about the industrial revolution and the remark in something I read that high schools are an invention of the industrial revolution: assembly lines, uniformity, staged development, imposed quality control, assigned departments. It seems clear to me that high schools have about reached their limits. But books have not.

No longer does the idea of “books in print” apply because much “writing” is no longer in ink-on-paper print and, anyway, maybe some of these phenomena aren’t books at all. But they don’t REPLACE books. Maybe schools will transform in a similar way, multiplying out into many forms. Maybe it’s already happened. If half the school-aged population leaves high school before graduation but still goes on learning and working, what is that? Self-teaching? Rock n’ Roll education? On the fly? What about “magnet schools” for pre-med or the arts?

Friday, February 27, 2009


When I first began to blog, I found another blog ( called “Querencia” after Bodio’s novel by that name. This blog touched on many of my interests (high east slope prairie, archeology, ranch culture, Bozeman literati, and dogs). The phenomenon of blogs touching blogs touching blogs (called “linking”) is what makes a technological phenomenon into an organic human network coming from real-life knowledge and pursuits. This is parallel to, uncontrolled by, and often far more honest than the usual media outlet networks.

One of the great dog blogs is which is written by Patrick Burns, one of the most literally grounded dog people on the planet. As a former animal control officer and constant dog companion, I find him a joy and a source of insight. His special interest is in “digging on the dogs” which consists of taking working terriers into the fields, chasing varmints (groundhogs, possoms, foxes, raccoons -- those smallish pesky mammals) down their holes, and then digging them back out. (The opposite of using hounds to tree a big cat.) What happens to them then varies, depending on the local population, the health state of the critter, and so on: some are set free. There are often photos. It’s got to be one of the most aerobic sports possible.

Terrierman links to a whole circle of dog people full of common sense. Lately this circle has begun to form and toughen into a counter-movement responding to HSUS and other publicity machines intent on raising money by monopolizing the subject. I’ve known the latter since my animal control days in the Seventies when HSUS was trying to discredit other humane organizations, esp. the American Humane Association. Their tactic is to portray something as an atrocity (in those days a high-altitude machine as a method of euthanasia), tie it to their enemy, and thereby demonize the enemy into extinction. In this case they didn’t manage to eliminate AHA, but they did make that method of killing impossible to use anymore.

When the public gets it into their heads that something is demonic, there’s no arguing with them. Also, if they get hold of the idea that something is linked to high status and possibly big money, they hang on just as hard. An example is the American Kennel Club. Based on British class system assumptions plus early domestic animal breeding, for a century or more dog “breeds” have been defined and enforced by the AKC, convincing people that having “papers” means a dog is worthy in both senses. But, also like the Brit landed gentry, the control of pedigree by inbreeding has created dogs with deep genetic flaws and validated the assumptions that make puppy mills possible: forget the dog itself -- consider the piece of paper that comes with it.

The AKC makes money by issuing these “birth certificates” that claim a particular provenance (parentage) without any information about the actual genetic inheritance of the pup, which can be badly compromised by various forces, but esp. the practice of canine incest. Incest, as defined by law, is not meant to be a moral law handed down by God and the Bible, so much as a practical prohibition to prevent damaged babies. But a dog that is prone to joint trouble, deafness, heart trouble and so on is still considered valuable if it has papers. In the early days the faulty pups were destroyed. Because of their “papers” they are now commodified for the gullible as pets.

But that’s not all. Having co-opted the idea of certain classes being “better” than others, based on appearance, the practice of “dog shows” arose. In fact, back in the days before Hitler showed where this would lead with his strange notions of an “Aryan” breed, for which he himself didn’t qualify, county fairs used to hold the equivalent of dog shows for humans, which were generally won by big blonde people. Appearance-based dog shows, added to the idea of provenance or inheritance, have created dog “breeds” with cruel, life-shortening defects. Ask any veterinarian.

The circle of dog people who write blogs I read are also fond of forming loose organizations based on dog breeds but their “breeds” or types of dogs are not grouped according to appearance. Rather they are based on performance. So terriers (terra=earth) are suited by size and temperament to pursue critters more or less their size and chase them down holes -- then dive into the holes after them. This is only helpful if the person with the dog has a shovel and spud bar, plus the energy to dig.

So what’s a “good” dog in this way or in the many other ways that dogs work with people -- specialization that formed the breeds in the first place, esp. since the specialties tend to be local -- is an effective dog, a dog that can be shaped by circumstances, evolved. Patrick is constantly reminding us that a dog with a large chest can’t go down a groundhog hole, no matter how motivated it is. And a high energy terrier kept as a pet in an apartment where no one is home all day, is going to raise hob, quite aside from the fact that as Temple Grandin remarks, a dog that lives in solitary confinement is suffering more than a hog in a factory farm, where it at least has companions. Dogs need things to do and friends who are present to do them with.

Though dogs can “speak” and defend themselves, in the face of intractable and predatory humans they are -- um -- out-manned. Therefore Patrick and his friends have made themselves into publicity terriers and are providing polemic artwork, often based on the idea of evolution. At Patrick’s website you can find examples, in case you want to go walk around the Crufts Kennel Club show, “barking” visually.

Around here people are not sentimental about animals. They love their companions and take good care of them, but they also deal with livestock as their living and know that fancy credentials don’t guarantee conformance or performance. The result of reproduction might simply be the usual hamburger. They want to see the genome, since often they buy only the sperm of the bull, not the bull.

Neither will they tolerate cruelty. Right now the Montana legislature is wrestling with the problem of how to write a bill to close down “animal hoarding” and puppy mill operations. Not easy, since hoarders are often certifiable dementia sufferers who think they are being kind to confine animals they cannot feed or care for and puppy mills who think they will get rich. They are protected by those sentimental enough to approve of outfits like HSUS who show up, offer sound bites to the media, accept checks, and leave.

As we struggle to dis-commodify so many things by restoring them to their rightful value, dogs should take a high priority.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


If you’re a publisher or agent, here is a sort of formula for producing a book. First, watch magazines for an article that is “different” and has a lot of punch. Look for a gimmick: they’re immigrants or minorities, they’re victims of something, they have two heads. Find the author and see if they can expand it into a book. If it turns out they can and it remains as punchy as that first article, sign them up for three books. The main money comes from the first book. If the first book is promoted hard and actually takes hold, the second book should come out fairly soon so it can ride the coattails of the first one. The third book is kind of a loss, but it can clean up the last of the interest -- unless it’s too different.

They know a book would sell much better if it were produced by an “unknown,” a “discovery,” a “diamond in the rough.” So a writer is caught between what the publisher needs: proving reliability, productivity, value-certified by academia, and -- on the other hand -- being “authentic,” which readers seem to want, though to many people it means naive, a rube, unsophisticated. It’s a hat trick to project both qualities.

Writers know that everything rides on that first article or “the first ten pages” of the actual manuscript one is shopping around, so that’s where writers go for broke -- maybe push the envelope. Almost always the first ten pages of a long piece is throat-clearing, ramping up, achieving velocity. Many writers go back -- after completing the book -- and amputate the first ten pages. Or maybe look through the whole manuscript for a part that’s “hot” and put that at the front. I do both.

Two female authors were tripped up by this practice. The first was Montana author Judy Blunt, whose first chapter developed from a “memoir” assignment in a university writing class. She had been a ranch wife who badly wanted to write. One day she got so absorbed in her writing that she failed to produce lunch on time. Her father-in-law took offense at this and she claimed that he smashed her typewriter with a sledge hammer.

When the book came out, the father-in-law -- seeking to save his local image -- objected and then sued Judy to make her take that account out of the book. By this time the book was much celebrated and winning prizes, with the incident of typewriter-smashing sort of summing up the whole problem of alpha males on ranches who don’t value literacy or women, either one, and think that if they use violence they can control both. Incidentally, I happened to run into some of Blunt’s neighbors from that time and they said they knew this father-in-law and found it easy to picture him doing such a thing.

But he succeeded in forcing Blunt to say she made the whole thing up and to apologize. By then she was gone, the marriage was gone, and there was never any money from that source in the first place, so the only thing she had to sacrifice was family harmony. She was not willing to give that up, mostly for the sake of her kids and partly because she is an essentially honorable and peacable person who was used to taking damage herself rather than inflicting it on others. (The book is "Breaking Clean.")

The second example is Annie Dillard in her wonderfully written “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” The first chapter tells about an old tomcat she had that went hunting every night and leapt back in her open bedroom window to print her bare chest with rosettes of bloody paw prints. The image is so strong that few questioned it, but someone did, and Dillard confessed that she had “borrowed” the cat story from a student who was male. A bare male chest with cat footprints is different from Annie’s nude bosom blossoming in that way. Anyhow, every cat I ever had would sit down and wash its feet before it went very far. And yes, I DID sleep with the window open and my cat went hunting in the night. I never found blood on my nightgown, but I found voles on my carpet.

Dillard claimed her student cheerfully gave permission for her to tell the tale as though it happened to her. A common rhetorical device is the “was-you-there-Charlie” factor of witnessing in first person. One of the sophistications teachers try to convey to readers is how to distinguish reliable reporters from unreliable narrators by looking for internal evidence or using critical thinking.

A noted essay took Dillard to task for “stealing” this tale and even yet the discussion list-servs will seethe with rage and indignation every time it comes up. (Try googling it.) The small crack in Annie’s facade was soon expanded into an assault on her writing in general, at least in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Suddenly the book that had won prizes and was so well-loved by so many, was thrown out of the curricula, an embarrassment. By then Dillard had gone on to quite different contexts and genres while her imitators were left trying to defend themselves

The whole misguided witchhunt aspect of criticizing narratives has been especially vexed when it has gotten confused with identity politics. The assumption is that a person with some or all of the genes of the ethnic group in question will reliably “know” what is authentic to that group. First, they are assuming that ethnic groups are a uniform blob without variations and uniqueness that comes from being an individual and, second, they assume that the genes expressed by those people -- whether or not they were ever exposed to the environment that controlled the expression of those genes, to say nothing of the thought patterns shaped by the environment -- either gives them unique access to some kind of supernatural knowledge or ethically entitles them to a monopoly on all such knowledge. This is particularly prone to happen to persons with a few Native American genes (a large part of which are identical with Asian) who define “Indians” in a 19th century way, usually shaped by the Jewish Southern California culture of Hollywood.

Here’s a shocking little story. The first year I taught in Browning High School (1962-63), the attention of the class and myself was attracted to a commotion across the street in what was called “Moccasin Flats.” It was an area of cabins and shacks where many people, mostly enrolled in the tribe and of either low or nonexistent income, barely managed to survive. A drunk woman was in an old car trying to run over a drunk man, who was so floppy that he just rolled around in the dirt under the rather high undercarriage. She was determined to get a wheel to go over him and though he wasn’t exactly evading her, it didn’t happen. In a while they gave it up, went off with arms around each other, and left the car sitting in the road.

I’m convinced I saw that. It was fifty years ago. I didn’t know the people, but could see they were Indian of some sort. Students who must have been there variously report they did or did not see the happening. It was certainly not typical of all Indians or all the people in that town. Some would like to suppress the story as an embarrassment and would say that repeating it does harm. Others would say it’s absolutely true and tells readers something important to understand: what alcohol can do. A few will think to themselves, “that’s what Indians are like.”

I am not Indian. Not many would say this was anthropological information important to record or sale-able in the way po-mo critics would say white people have profited by accounts of Indian life, though picaresques of wildly colorful characters is one rather lucrative way to write about Indians.

Should I have told you this story? I was there, Charlie. Should it be my first chapter?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Across the street from me in the “good gray” city of Portland, Oregon, lived an atypical household with a daughter a little older than me. Glamorous, graceful, and carefully guided, this dark-haired, dark-skinned beauty was a role model for me. If I were lucky, I sometimes acquired her hand-me-down clothes in colors no one in my white bread, rurally-raised family would buy. In the last few months she has found me via the Internet and reads my blogs as well as sending emails about a life quite different from mine and yet very similar. That is, she has two daughters, a limited income, and an education much like mine, but she enjoys a night of Texas Hold’em Poker, fortified with Scotch in milk, though she lives back in Portland, not far from the high school we attended. These days it’s black. On the whole, she’d rather be in San Francisco visiting the very fine zoo.

Recently she sent me a rave review of “Hobart Shakespeareans,” a documentary about a school in Los Angeles that follows through the year a class of fifth graders who are studying Hamlet in order to perform it. Aside from their youth, the most salient aspect of these kids is that they are from a neighborhood of immigrants: Asian, Hispanic (If I’m using this term improperly, I apologize), maybe American Indian, “India-Indian,” South Pacifican (?), Phillipino. The faces are all brown and framed with straight black hair. Most speak a language other than English at home, but not the same “other.” These are the people I’m calling “tomorrow’s children.” Not because they are privileged. Their parents struggle economically and in the course of the movie someone was killed in front of the school so that it had to go into “lock-down.”

These kids didn’t choose to study Shakespeare: it is their teacher’s preoccupation. But also I think it would not be a stretch to identify these kids with Obama and Jindal, both brown and both with strong Pacific connections, both eloquent speakers in English. (Did I say that one of my Blackfeet friends voted for Obama because “he looks like me”?) Nor do I think “Slumdog Millionaire” is an accidental Oscar winner. The Pacific Era, long predicted, has arrived.

The first thing that means might surprise some people: a high value on education, including European-based education. Rafe Esquith has been teaching the fifth grade class at Hobart Elementary for 17 years. Each year, as an add-on, the class enacts a Shakespeare play with indelible performances by these small (some of the girls are truly tiny) people who clearly understand what they are doing. Part of the secret is children that age -- just after their nerves are fully myelinated (I’m reading about this in “Proust and the Squid.”) and just before the pubertal hormones and culture kick in -- hunger and thirst for learning. They are smart, and they are deeply impressionable if given a consistent and full-contact teacher. Rafe certainly is that. He is a believer and he is completely in sync with historical education traditions in the US.

Ironically, this puts him out of step with contemporary public schools and many of his fellow teachers who practice highly structured, prescribed, force-based but theoretically “fun,” grade-skewed methods. His principal, a Latina who gets the big picture, protects him from bad evaluations but cannot prevent his ostracism by jealous fellow teachers. Rafe himself says that his students sort into three groups: those who will learn no matter what the circumstances, those who are group-guided and will follow those leaders, and those who don’t care to learn or just can’t, but who will not be discipline problems if they see the group would scorn them.

The content of what he teaches is entirely traditional with one exception: guitars everywhere all the time, including rock n’ roll “sound tracks” for Shakespeare. It is striking to me that this is also true of the Blackfeet Immersion School in Browning and Barrus’ Cinematheque in Amsterdam. It means something about brain development. Since music is related to math, it seems a good omen. Also, rock n’ roll appears to be a global given: most young people and many older people respond to it viscerally.

Rafe Esquith
knows his Shakespeare down to his very core, and because he is in LA, he can bring in acting luminaries like Ian McKellan and Michael York to give the class a sense of significance and belonging. The youngsters deliver their memorized speeches with eloquence and precision a Hollywood actor can only admire. They understand deeply what they are saying. In fact, when Rafe -- looking them in the eye in a way only trust-based teaching will bear -- explains Hamlet’s choices, several of the children weep, welling up with emotional intensity. They recognize the dilemmas.

So now I’ll double back. On one level Obama and Jindal were sort of set up to be equivalent race cards: brown golliwog wonks that the beefy red-faced politicians and CEO’s behind the scenes hope will become a puppet show that entertains American voters while the power-brokers continue their raids and hoarding. They would treat Rafe’s class as a one-off phenomenon, a curiosity, the way they’d like to treat Obama/Jindal. They have not paid attention to Shakespeare or they would understand the plate tectonic shift of the conversation. They had better start reading Confucius.

One of the ways East and West have separated in the past centuries is that the East values the community and the West has lionized the individual. Surely the best reality is a balance between the two. China went far to the community, treating nonconformers with a bullet to the back of the head and billing the bullet to the family on grounds that they should have controlled that person. America went far to the individual, romanticizing murderers. In the West that lies so far west it’s East, we see suicide bombers, a betrayal of both self and community.

Rafe Esquith’s fifth graders are learning a citizenship created around great ideas, yet by calling out their own human-ness. They go to Washington, D.C., they go to South Dakota, they see the monuments. They do NOT go to Disneyland, which is in their backyard anyway. I have said before that these are “tomorrow’s people,” a mixture of Asian, Hispanic, Native American on both coasts and in the southern part of the US. They feel their affinity for each other, based on appearance underlaid by a genome that has long been the foundation of human settlement on these American continents, which makes them different from any subsequent Euro-immigration. They can break the black/white deadlock that holds us hostage and, hopefully, also the deadlocked two-party political system. Radical means going to the roots. It can be done with thought rather than violence.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


It’s always a shock these days (well, it always was) to face a photo of myself. My niece’s mother took these photos last summer and just now sent me copies. The above photo reveals what I always deny in spite of my doctor: my belly. It’s much too big to be called a “tummy.” After losing fifty pounds, I still weigh about two hundred, almost all of it in the “apple” shape they say will kill you. I don’t normally see it, since I look at my hands, my ankles and my neck, which is mostly where the weight sloughed off.

In fact, my arms are not so fat as they look: they just have the old skin bagging over much reduced flesh. That’s partly the reason my belly is still so round. I’ve read estimates that the extra skin and connective/capillary tissue necessary to support fat on that spot can weigh fifteen pounds, which some people choose to have surgically removed, since it won't leave with the fat. I don’t think Medicare will pay for that. Anyway, I don’t much care what I look like. I care about my mind, and going under any kind of general anesthetic is not good for minds.

Looking like this doesn’t matter on the Internet -- if I would just restrain myself from posting photos! One spam con announces “we have nude photos of you!” and such is the magical “feel” of the Internet that people are concerned enough to look, thus acquiring yettanother unwanted cookie on their hard drive. There are only two nude photos of me as an adult, I have firm control of them, and since they were taken when I weighed one-hundred-thirty-five pounds, had lots red curly hair (yes, everywhere), and was virtually wrinkle-free, I wouldn’t be much compromised by their publication.

Having rationalized all that, this is a photo of how some people age. I won’t be one of those crumpled thin old women with a sharp tongue. I will be (am) a round and rosy old woman with a sharp tongue and a shortened lifespan (maybe -- it’s all percentages, after all). Lots of them around here, so it’s an advantage if you want to be relatively camouflaged. The sharp tongue is necessary because everyone thinks women who look like this are motherly, nurturing and good bakers. NOT. Not any of it. Even my nurturing is a little hard-edged.

If you have access to images from “The Dark Crystal,” the Jim Henson un-muppet movie (try, take a look at Aughre, the ornery old one-eyed woman seer in her jumble of equipment, including an orrerory. (A word I can’t spell well enough to find in the dictionary -- it means a model of the cosmic entities capable of showing their orbits around each other by moving.). In his account of how the puppet character was developed, Henson shows how she was relatively conventional at first, but became more and more outrageous and Celtic as the creators thought more about the hormone changes of old age (women masculinize, men feminize) and stress (esp. cortisol). She ends up with that belly, thinning hair, wild eyebrows, jumbled teeth. I feel sure she was once red-headed. In this photo you see behind me my orrerory, my planets, which are ideas.

Over my shoulder are two of the earliest bronzes Bob sold: “Lone Cowboy” and “Prairie Buck,” which I bought with my first teaching money in 1962. The big books behind and above are about Western art and French Beaux Arts bronzes. The next section to the right is Native American literature, esp. Blackfeet. The next section to the left is Montana literature and the section after that is natural history. These are small wheels inside the large wheels of liberal progressive humanist thought, meshing deep ecology, autochthonous peoples, art and writing theory, religious systems, third force psychology and anthropology, transcendentalism, and so on. There’s a small wheel about interior decoration, another about acting, and a couple of shelves of poetry. Smaller wheels about time and history of thought. It would be interesting on some boring summer afternoon to make a mobile of my thought orrerory.

(Now I’ve gone to a better dictionary and see that it’s a simpler word than I thought: “orrery” named for Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery (1676-1731), which appears to be near Cork, but he’s buried in Westminster Abbey. His orrery was clockwork and about the solar system. One of those landed gentry naturalists.)

In the meantime, here I am with my niece, properly dressed up. She’s isn’t, but she doesn’t need to. She wears the glorious raiment of youth!

Monday, February 23, 2009


Ebook cynics, those who scoff, “Oh, it will never really take off,” are making several vital mistakes. One comes from lack of imagination and one comes from inattention.

Consider that when buggies became “horseless,” most people were unable to see said vehicle as anything but a “minus,” the way e-readers are called “paperless.” Of course, one of the big advantages of horselessness at the time was the lack of “cowboy biscuits,” the horse manure that layered the streets. It wasn’t until later that the waste products of engines began to be a problem, rather like the disposal problems of electronic equipment, to say nothing of the continuing problem of obsolescence. Horse design has stayed fairly constant.

So far ebooks have been promoted as allowing a person to carry many otherwise too heavy books with them in such environments as airplanes and buses, where readers are passively sitting. IPods, of course, allow the same books to be carried in a auditory mode, as is music, so one can listen while driving, ironing (talk about obsolete!) or walking. But generations of “reading” in the future may be much more inventive.

Suppose while reading you realize the light is a little dim or you’ve forgotten your reading glasses: simply make the font bigger. If you come to a word you don’t know, tap it and it will pronounce itself; tap it twice and it will define itself. (It’s already being used in a sentence.) Or suppose a person is named: tap it once to see a photo of their face, tap it twice to see a thumbnail resumé. If there’s something you’d like to highlight, simply change the color of the print, and the ebook, at the end of the article or story, will have a list of what you marked. Tap any of those entries and the book will open where the text was marked.

But more than that. Suppose you’re reading fiction and you come to “she danced with delight.” Up comes a little square in which a video shows a woman dancing. Or maybe you’re reading about a thunderstorm and the sound of the storm comes crashing out between your hands. Possibly the text would say, “On a hot June morning she was walking in Philadelphia, looking for the Rodin museum, when a familiar fragrance washed over her -- it was mimosa. She used to wear a perfume called Mimosa, so she recognized it, though she’d never seen a mimosa tree in bloom.” The little square shows those mimosa trees and the ereader emits the very fragrance. Tap "Rodin" and you get an image of a sculpture.

Suppose you’re reading Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the ereader begins to throb in your hands, at first subtly and then more and more intensely, until the person in the next seat looks over with raised eyebrows. Like everything else, the ereader should probably have an off-button. The point is that an ereader is not confined to one sense: vision.

Book lovers will argue that making imagined senses too concrete is a mistake and robs the reader of the pleasure of trying to think what a mimosa smells like or a heroine’s face looks like. That’s true, but it only displaces the imagination to a different level of synthesis -- it supplies additional experience to be woven into new imaginings. Book illustrations have done that. Movies do that. It’s the skill of the writer and the synthesizer of text that either open or close doors to the reader.

The lack of attention that I spoke of in the first paragraph refers to the failure to notice that these technologies are not meant to replace books or all other forms of writing. Certainly it’s a lot more comfortable for an affluent commuter to carry a small instrument like an ipod or ereader in a cell phone because of lack of elbow room and a need for as-it-happens information. A paper newspaper can’t supply those in the same way. But there will always be people who stay home and, like me, enjoy the ceremony of fetching the paper from the front porch (they call it “pajama service”) and reading it with my first cup of coffee, scissors handy to cut out interesting articles. (This suggests a change in content.)

Technologies are additive: consider the car with a bicycle on its rack. In my lifetime my father’s 78’s, replaced by my generation’s 33 1/3’s, then by reel-to-reel tape, then 8-track, then cassettes, then by CD’s, then by mp3’s, have circled around and come back to machines that will translate 78’s into mp3’s in a computer, while kindly removing all the hiss and scratch. Some publishers are presenting e-versions of books; if the book takes hold, maybe a paperback edition; and if the book begins to feel like a classic, a hardback edition, maybe with new illustrations; and for the people who like the prestige of books, custom-bound leather versions. The same person might have both a presentation copy and an mp3 version so as to listen to favorite parts now and then. Maybe even several different sound versions with different readers, the way people buy recordings of operas from different performances.

In terms of writers, the necessary skills will vary widely, from old-timers telling stories to the careful and intricate written sentences of a highbrow novel. There will be a new category of something like “wordsmith techie,” supplying things like the throb of a heart or a ship engine. Authors might have their keyboard setup on one wall and a sound-mixing board on another. Some, of course, will make the leap into pure video and not use words at all -- just concepts expressed in images and sound.

Infrastructure, both in the sense of inventing and manufacturing such means and in terms of delivery systems to the goal, the consumer, will have to grow and adapt. Again, it’s like automobiles: you can’t have electric cars without plug-ins.

But the ultimate technology is always the person. The success of the other stuff depends on how cleverly and appropriately the electronic devices interface with the human brain, a device we are only just beginning to understand. The evidence is that it evolves and mutates just as quickly and perhaps more radically than anything on the market.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A ROOM WITH A VIEW: A Meditation

Last night, relieved to have finished my struggle with “The Dying Gaul” -- rewarding though it was -- I got all arranged in my mother’s old “lady chair” with the heating pad on my back, a down puffy over my legs (up on an ottoman so Squibbie could stretch out on them), Crackers nestled in my left arm, and the “clicker” handy alongside a big mug of green tea. The evening’s movie was the new version of “A Room with a View.” I so loved the 1985 Ivory/Merchant movie with its goofy but lovable characters and romantic world view.

What I saw was a small, brown, pinched and mocking story that I hardly recognized. It’s not worth commenting further. Check out the MANY similar cries of outrage on Some blamed Masterpiece Theatre with its worship of minor classics (classic being questioned as a category anyway). Others thought the problem was the writer and director team trying to overtop something beyond their capacity. I’m going to move those ideas to a closely related topic: the middle-class yearning to seem "intellectual" because it seems to them “respectable,” and then the opportunists who suggest cynicism as the alternative.

The Respectables don’t know why the classics are considered good and they don’t know the actual content of the books, operas, symphonies, plays, and so on -- but they know the names of them, they can afford to buy the popular versions of them, and thus they generate money for those who create and promote them. The proof of their value ends up being the incomes of the “best-selling” authors, musicians, etc. which lifts THEM into the middle-class. The promoters who control these folks are invisible and therefore can slip up into the high income brackets without any personal obligation to be respectable. They have the power to control the careers of the creative, forcing them to be “product,” to infinitely replicate “success.”

It seems there are two ways to be seriously creative, NOT in the terms of managers, publishers or impresarios. One is to dive down to the roots of the culture and see it anew, to shift the paradigm, to peel our eyes, to make us all gasp in a renaissance, coming out of the woolly womb of the admired into a cold world of insight that changes our lives. The other is to go out to the edge of society where the lost, the drugged, the nearly-dead, the impoverished, the ejected, the “other,” is expressing the last little core flicker of what it is to be human, whether it be despair, fury, or abandonment in passion. (Yes, I’m invoking my “theology” of the circle-edge and the center/axis mundi.)

Both of these sources are feared, hated and -- Respectables hope -- contained by mercantilism, which is now failing so that the edge and the center have much louder voices. Who you think those innovating people are, what you think they are saying, depends upon your courage and the acuity of your senses: not so much raw mechanical sounds, colors, and movements as the ability to integrate them into meaning. But you can count on two demographics: the very young and the very old. The young are already open, some of the old have struggled a long time to open up.

Artists are exploring extremes. The following is a quote from an efriend: “Anna Linderstam, the Swedish visiting artist . . . is very "edgy". She has her models pose for 10 - 20 hours so she can catch them at the moment they collapse from fatigue. She also does video and her masterpiece is a 20 minute video of herself hyperventilating until she passes out. She said that girls in Sweden squeeze each other until they faint on the playground . . . Anna did 12 takes and chose the best 3. The audience was rapt . . . It was strangely compelling.” This is just inside the line. A boy at Cinematheque set himself on fire for the camera -- that’s OUTSIDE the line. Over the edge. Self-destruction is cynical.

It exasperates me that when I say, “I’m a writer,” all the well-dressed, beautifully coiffed middle-class people (meaning that they dwell in the middle between the edge-adventure and the center-meditation) are sooo impressed. Last week it was a bank cashier who cashed my quarterly Lulu royalty check for $23.45. Sometimes it is a local mother who wants me to teach her child how to become famous. Only one man in town, when he said, “Oh, are you a writer?” and I fired back, “Must you say it as though being a writer was being a gerenuk or something?” was abashed and understood. (A gerenuk is a long-necked African gazelle, a trophy head for the wall.) He thinks this town is “culturally in-grown.” No kidding. But the way to sophistication is not paved with defiance of the authorities, which appears to be his hobby.

Not that the authorities don’t need defying as they blunder along. The churches are asleep, the school is routine, the councilmen are obsessed with lawns, the bank is predatory, and the car wash change machine is always running out of quarters. Afflictions large and small. Not that the town is so virtuous: two convicted sex predators on the state list when I looked, neglect of many kinds, marriages of convenience, drug dealers (the estimate is six of them in a town of 350) and arrogant newcomers with trivia on their minds.

The problem is that they are sooooo sure they are right, that their categories are in order and that their goals are worthy. Their hero was George W. Bush so his fall bewildered them. They believe in the valor of soldiers so the publicized murders and tortures wound them. They thought the stock market was something real, so now they can hardly bear to read the newspapers. They thought they were feeding the nation and now find that their grandmothers are dying from eating sweet baked goods.

This is what harrows the ground for new growth. Now the writers and artists and musicians begin -- not with a new opera, but with a new art form altogether. Maybe electronic. For all we know, maybe telepathic. So deep as to be defined as religious. Tillich said that valid religious symbols are not “thought up” as by an ad agency, but rather come upon us in a flash. Ideas will pop up everywhere, good bad whatever. One or two of them will change the world.

Merchant/Ivory (and their key partner, Ruth) had a vision that blossomed on the trellis of Forster’s novel, “A Room with a View.” It WAS middle-class though their partnership was based on their unconventional personal relationship and therefore celebrated the glamour of true love in a foreign country. This new version sneers at that but offers no replacement, simply vandalizes both Forster and Merchant/Ivory.

Push it over the edge. Stuff it out of sight. Sit down to watch “The Dying Gaul” with a clipboard at hand.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


If “Angels in America” is an epic Manhattan AIDS novel, then “The Dying Gaul” is a poem from Los Angeles via Craig Lewis to the playwright Tony Kushner. The comments are fascinating and so are the more-numerous-than-usual reviews. This was one of the better ones:

It’s a little mysterious how “The Dying Gaul” got on my Netflix list except that the title refers to a famous ancient sculpture of a wounded Gaul. (A Gaul in those days was a Celt was an Irishman.) He has a small wound but is dying from it. He is nude because Gauls famously fought naked, unprotected, which freaked out the armored opponents and made their wounds into red banners. The title of the movie is also the title of a script being sold by a writer but we never see the script. We just know that it’s about his male lover (also his brother-in-law) who died in a horrendous way, saying “Promise me you’ll write about this -- make something lovely out of it.”

This movie is several generations along since “Angels in America” introduced the public to gay culture. In fact, it’s also generations along from “You’ve Got Mail.” I would call it a philosophical love story: what exists and doesn’t, what can you believe, how should you guide your behavior, what is death? The turn-on here is “mind-fucking.” It’s remarkable that so many episodes of sex show only the heads, gripped or even face-masked by the hands of the lover. The head is the key to human identity, not the tail.

I watched this film three times, the last time with a clipboard in my lap, taking notes. (Crackers was affronted. SHE wanted that place, but she went off to sleep under the lamp with her paws over her own face.) This is serious business because doing it is one of the ways I learn about writing: scene management, character clues, timing, and so on. I don’t watch plot in the way that many people do. This particular movie has little plot until the first half sets up the movement board -- then the flips and twists begin. Some people liked it better at that point and others liked it less.

Here are some things that set it up. The “set,” to begin. All reviews that I read took the house to be an indicator of money and glamour. “The End of Violence” and “The Limey” are two of my fav movies with houses like this. They are “see-through” houses with huge glass walls, only possible because of the climate and armies of maintainers. Aside from that, this house is so abstract that it nearly disappears. We barely see any living areas, except the tops of beds and the patio with it’s “infinity pool” merges with the vast horizon of sea against sky. It is an infinity view, an eternal view, a vision of what we think is Heaven.

In one inspired pan the house structure merges continuously with the screen of the wife’s computer. An early researcher on what happens in people’s minds when they work on a computer suggested that we go “into” a virtual space with no characteristics except what we project into it and then “see” as a virtual reality. (I’ve wrestled with definitions of “virtual” since seminary with very little luck. It seems to be a construct of the mind that is even “realer” than real. I sometimes use “liminal” -- over the threshold -- as a synonym.) It’s very powerful. Even religious.

I should know -- my entire relationship with Cinematheque and Tim Barrus is “over the threshold” via email and blogging. Sometimes they seem realer than Valier. Cats are my guardians. They are real.

The excellence of the actors in this movie is crucial because everything happens in their minds: their power plays, their manipulations, their desires and separations. This is almost the definition of Hollywood, always defined by power-over, rarely by creative power. Into this kabuki world walks Robert the Innocent, who clings only to his truth while around him people try to pry secrets and force lies, or at least illusions.

I gather that thought about male gays started way out there with Oscar Wilde, came forward through a lot of silliness, went to LA bedecked with tinsel, traveled north into a spectrum of thought soon invaded by the feminists and lesbians of San Franciso, and suddenly the archetype (not “arkeangel1966” -- what happened in ‘66?) was a muscle man smeared with baby oil -- a gladiator fit for a game of “Mortal Combat.” Now we’re past that into a time of searching for the essential humanity of each individual and the mutability of desire.

The children in this film are larval, always cocooned. Their nanny is naturally Hispanic, but the housekeeper is Egyptian, sexually ambiguous. Her? father has told her that if she dares to set foot back in Egypt, he will cut off her head. (There’s that head again, but no one in this film “gives head” in the sexual sense.) The only time the wife seems comfortable and in her body is sitting alongside the Egyptian while they try to figure out the battery-operated shutters on the windows.

The power shifts are subtle. Allusions abound. I don’t know specific sculptures well enough to say for sure, but some of the sexual encounters end in still poses that echo Roman wrestlers, naked bodies clenched together. The woman, who has been playing God but -- dare I say? -- doesn’t have the cojones for it, nevertheless becomes increasingly powerful because of the knowledge she is accumulating. She moves to the other side of the bed, the side by the phone and the bathroom, the husband’s side.

Bob Scriver used to say to me, “I can’t keep you from finding out things or even from searching for them, but if you DO find something, I won’t help you handle it.” And he didn’t. He also used to say, “Your head is way up in the clouds. Get your feet on the ground!” While “Elaine” swims in her infinity pool and the clouds scud by her house, “Robert” is in his small earth-colored basement apartment. He is innocent, grounded by his earnestness. He eats vegetables, even poisons with a plant. (Monkshood is a member of the buttercup family and is really poisonous, but isn’t bright red. It looks more like the delphinium or larkspur planted next to the “monkshood” in the movie.)

Notice that Robert, after chewing the root (it was a parsnip), takes the pose of the Dying Gaul at the swimming pool edge -- then drinks from it “doggie style.” He rejects death. Very little in this film is not significant. Repeatedly the Buddhist “Middle Way” is invoked. “The Middle Way refers to the concept of direct knowledge that transcends seemingly antithetical claims about existence.” In short, stick to the reality -- don’t play whatif or maybe or couldabeen. This married couple becomes lost in their minds, not believing in their lives. The desire for glamour, for immersion in power, has dissolved what is human in them. This is a more serious affliction than AIDS. And more contagious.

Friday, February 20, 2009


The “Cowboy Art” auction season is beginning with the posting of the CM Russell Auction in Great Falls. The auction itself is on the weekend nearest Russell’s birthday, this year March 20, 21 and 22. The website is I’ll be participating in the Autograph Party on Saturday from 10:30 AM to 11:30 AM.

The main auction is at the Heritage Inn and occupies many of the rooms that are normally rented overnight. For this event the usual furniture is removed and artists bring set-ups to make the rooms into mini-galleries.

There is a second auction at a different motel, plus a half-dozen additional spin-offs. These smaller events are less predictable and not confined to art. They may include books, Indian artifacts, or cowboy gear. Sometimes they are the work of an artist who is present and sometimes they are of dubious provenance. The actual CMR auction is a collection of art juried by experts and there are reliable protocols, but the smaller entrepreneurs may be floaters from out-of-state. Montana art law is nearly nonexistent.
sent me a tip-link to the Scriver bronzes in the upcoming Ad Club official CMR Auction:

At the Scriver location on that website are many requests to know “how much this piece is worth,” as though one were able to determine such a thing, esp. in the art world. A piece of art is worth what someone will pay for it at the moment it is for sale. Much depends on the times, the event, the attendance, and who went to the bathroom at just the wrong moment. Putting those variables aside, here are some thoughts to consider when deciding whether to buy a Scriver bronze.

1. What year was it actually created (rather than cast)? Bob’s career falls roughly into three parts:

A. The Fifties when he was making tourist trinkets from hydrocal (very hard plaster) and painting them with lacquer. Hundreds of these were hand-produced in Browning and mostly sold for less than ten dollars. Some of them have been posthumously cast in bronze, since they have the Scriver name on them, but they are not Great Art and their value is mostly as a novelty.

B. From the mid-Fifties to the mid-Seventies is the period when Bob’s work was at its peak. The sculptures themselves ARE fine work, heart-felt, and often cast in the Bighorn Foundry by Bob, myself, and the Blackfeet crew. Bob liked to work in series, so these works include the Blackfeet series and the rodeo series plus many, many animals. These are the pieces of most value, but they rarely show up at auctions. The people who bought them are reluctant to let them go, and if they do, they usually move quietly through prestige galleries. As Bob’s reputation slowly grows back after damage at the end of his life, these are the bronzes of investment quality.

C. Later in Bob’s life his health prevented him from bronze casting. He began to use small ceramic-shell foundries and cast larger editions. Sometimes he would create a piece at someone’s suggestion and sell them the right to cast (the copyright). Quality control on these castings was much lower, the pieces themselves were smaller, and many copies were made in each edition. They were done quickly in order to pay the bills. Though they are popular favorites, usually story-based, they are generally what travels the auction circuit, around and around, in search of profit.

In addition there are an increasing number of posthumous and black market castings, some with stories about how Bob “gave me the wax.” The ones I have seen have bad patinas, esp. one that Arrowhead used that makes the bronze look like plastic or the ones that are multi-colored: red shirts, blue jeans, and so on. (Arrowhead is no longer in business.)

I’ve seen figures of Ace, Charlie Russell, and a nude of Bob’s second wife, Jeanette, which have probably been recast from the early hydrocal versions that Bob sold at the beginning of the Sixties. The people who are selling them may be assuming that they are out of copyright, which they would have been by old rules, but a new law has been passed that makes them still illegal. However there is no responsible party able or willing to prosecute. Bob’s lawyer was ignorant on the subject (and others).

The advantage of casting a bronze from a hydrocal is that the main way to discover a recasting is by comparing an original with the knock-off, which will be slightly smaller because metal shrinks when it cools. Also, detail may be blurred. A mold from a hydrocal will be indistinguishable unless it is badly done. For a while there was an artist attached to a major institution who would sit and copy with his eyeball the major sculptures of the collection. He usually made the size markedly different, hoping that this would put the copy out of copyright. He’s had to stop.

Since that time, technology is so incredibly resourceful that machinery exists to make a perfect copy of a living human model by using lasers and computers. This factor has been around for a while, but not so technological. Rodin’s Age of Bronze was so beautifully accurate that the sculptor was accused of simply making a mold of his model. Also, SE Asian craftsmen have become very adept at eyeball copies, esp. garden sculptures which may be offered in fiberglas. The only REAL way to detect copies is through provenance, tracing the bronze from casting through all subsequent owners.

Much Western art around Montana has been subsidized by people who make enough money to have an excess to invest. Unfortunately, they rarely have the time and interest to develop their aesthetic or historical faculties, so their interest is not always a good indicator of long-term value. Most of them judge art by how much it reminds them of Charlie Russell’s work. If you are of that inclination, the auction in Great Falls will give you the opportunity to look at a major museum collection, well-presented in that the viewer can see the work arranged to show Charlie’s development as an artist.

If you are planning to bid for art, do your homework, don’t risk more than you can lose, and buy what you really love. Those have always been the rules for a prudent person. Aside from that, the festival atmosphere of the show is often its own reward!

Thursday, February 19, 2009


They call me the “Dump Ground Lady” but not to my face. Actually, I’m the second one. My job is to stay at the roll-off site all day and record what people dump. It’s not even a dump ground because in this day and age we’ve finally realized that you can’t just throw stuff away in a huge toxic heap that catches on fire. It has to be processed, recycled as much as possible, and then buried in a huge pit without burning. So now we have “roll-off sites” where there’s a ramp so people can drive up level with the tops of huge containers that fit on the back of a semi-truck. The truck drives them off to the landfill, which is not really where you can see it, even though a lot of trees have been planted there to make it nice. It’s miles from town and serves the whole county.

On a good day the roll-off site is pretty nice except for the smell. It’s not that the garbage smells, but the town sewage lagoon is not far away. And a rancher on the edge of town runs a little feedlot operation where he fattens steers. They eat in a pen and then when green-up comes they roam in a field until they’re ready for slaughter. In summer that field grows alfalfa, which does pretty well because of the steer manure. Seagulls and canada geese love picking around in that field and even in the pen.

The hauling containers have a big fence built around and over them, like the backstop on a baseball field. When the wind blows hard, the wire sings an eerie chord that has no words. We’re a three-container roll-off -- used to be only two at first. I can never figure out why there the trash keeps increasing when the town is always shrinking. Part of my job is to manage the big wire covers attached to them and the gates that bar access so that people will fill one container before using the next. I pick up what they spill and get them to put their cans in a barrel and their cardboard in a big wire cage the high school shop class made. We need some way to collect grass clippings, which we have a lot of in summer because this is a lawn-proud town like most droughty little places with a lot of Scandinavians. The tricky part about saving grass clippings is that some people like them for compost. Others, of course, worry about what toxic weed-killers their neighbors have been using.

I don’t have to stay in the open all day, thank goodness. I have a little shed with an electric heater and a table, even a window so I can watch for arrivals and get my gloves on soon enough to be out there to meet them. Last year they even provided me with a biffy, but it’s not heated so no lingering. I have a radio but the real advantage of this job is that I can write. Actually, I get quite a bit done in the quiet times.

At home writing is a little problematic because I live with my mother, who’s a little bit demented and wants to see everything I write, and my sister, who thinks I never do my share of the housework. Isn’t it enough that I bring in a paycheck? It’s not a big one. Before they turned to hiring women the commissioners tended to hire alcoholic old men too frail to herd sheep, but the fatal flow with that type, of course, is that they drink. Out here it’s easy to sneak a bottle.

The woman before me started a lot of fights. She was a college-educated divorcee from back east and thought she was actually supposed to enforce the rules. Another dummy with a degree. In every situation there are two sets of rules: the one that’s official and written down somewhere and the other one that people expect and enforce with their behavior. She only lasted a few months before she took off. One of the guys brought out a big load of stuff from a house he was gutting and she tried to charge him $5 for dumping the water heater. That’s the rule, but this guy was the mayor’s cousin.

Sometimes there’s a lot of traffic and some days hardly anyone shows up. There’s a kind of pattern to the days, depending on what people are doing and what the weather is like. In spring women come out in cars, getting rid of their spring cleaning debris. On weekends it’s the men bringing brush they’ve cut. The Hutterite colony has a big truck they store garbage in, all sacked up, and they keep a sort of schedule, three old guys and one young one crammed into the cab. The young one is to actually do the work while the old guys tell him stuff. I don’t know what, because they speak German.

This town is next to a lake where they stock fish, but there’s a fish-cleaning station the Wall-Eye Club provided, so we don’t get that stuff, thank goodness. On days the meat processor in town has been butchering, the containers look like the scene of a crime. The seagulls hang around hoping to grab fat scraps. Nowadays all the fat gets trimmed off carcasses. I keep thinking maybe it ought to be rendered and recycled, but there’s not enough of it from one small operation. It’s not efficient in that way. But it’s good to buy local meat from a guy you know.

I’m writing a story about the guys who come out here more for something to do than because they have much to dump. Some of them are on disability; most are retired. There’s not much going on now that the bars have mostly closed. Their doctors don’t want them to drink, but the bars had pool tables. They like to pretend they pick up women, but I don’t know who those women would be. Dina was the barkeep -- picking her up would be ridiculous and anyway they were already around her all day.

The secret to these guys is that they don’t want girl friends or even wives. I always wonder where their wives went -- some got cancer and some just left, I think -- but there isn’t a lot of girl friend material around here once you get past high school age. This is no town for a lady. It’s mannerly enough, but no education, no money, no scope for improvement. As my dad used to say, “them as have get up and go, got up and went.” What these guys really want is a mother: someone to cook and wash and clean. Only the ex-military seem able to keep house by themselves.

We have our little dramas. Once I watched two brothers meet on the spur road out here. They stopped with their windows even and probably talked for a half hour. Their wives hate each other and they never got a chance to see each other any other way. Everyone had to drive out into the alfalfa field to get around them, but we all understood and we didn’t mind. Once there was a fistfight, which was a problem because the commissioners won’t put in a phone line and that’s before I sold a story for enough to buy a cell phone. Once there was shooting, but it was only the town maintenance guy picking off the muskrat that kept digging holes in the dike around the lagoon.

What I wait for is the rich rancher’s wife who brings out her little weekly bag of trash in her big old white Caddie. She’s old but very elegant and drives about five miles an hour. Her three little poodles bounce around in the car like yapping popcorn while she gracefully gets out, takes that bag out of her trunk, tosses it, and waves before she leaves. She always comes on Saturday. When her door is open, I can hear over the yammer of the dogs that she, same as me, is listening to the opera. Not too far away a meadowlark sings its aria.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Lawmakers: Throw sex experts off college faculty
(Published February 06, 2009)

ATLANTA — Upset House Republicans are mounting a campaign to purge Georgia's higher education system of professors with an expertise in racy sexuality topics as the state grapples with a $2.2 billion shortfall.

State Rep. Charlice Byrd of Woodstock took the House well on Friday to announce a "grass-roots" effort to oust professors with expertise in subjects like male prostitution, oral sex and "queer theory."

"This is not considered higher education," she said. . . .

"Our job is to educate our people in sciences, business, math," said Hill, a vice chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee. He said professors aren't going to meet those needs "by teaching a class in queer theory."

The Board of Regents, which oversees the state's colleges and universities, has bristled at attempts by legislators to dictate who it should hire. A regents spokesman said the system's mission - teaching, research and service - is a broad field.

He said the state's schools hire faculty with expertise in a range of subjects as part of "a tradition of investigating the human experience." And he noted that they aren't teaching "how to" courses, but rather they are experts on the sociological trends and risks.

Hill and Byrd were incensed to learn a University of Georgia professor teaches a graduate course on "queer theory." They also took aim at Georgia State University, where an annual guide to its faculty experts lists a sociology lecturer as an expert in oral sex and faculty member Kirk Elifson as an expert in male prostitution.

Unlike those who wish to preserve theories about the earth being flat or evolution not existing, both of which cannot be easily researched by individuals, every person’s body, including their sexuality, is “at hand” so to speak. Research on the matter cannot be stopped by eliminating professors. Unreliable individual conclusions might at least be minimized by proper research -- but not just scientific statistics, because sex is in large part humanistic, emotional, and poetic, not to say musical.

What are the consequences of unreliable information? I include here a group for junior high girls to which one can only belong after providing oral gratification for the entire football team. They believe this has no consequences. Or commodifying one’s own young self was recently discovered when a study of online transactions that expected middle-aged men to be preying on kids, revealed upper-class kids who were cold-bloodedly negotiating prices for their bodily acts. No consequences except money for iPods and perhaps terminal disease. I caught part of a radio report of a study on divorce. It found that often-divorced educated upscale women were not suffering from love mismatches, but simply trading up to even more prosperous husbands. Nothing to do with sex. Or love. Tell Jane Austen.

Or, speaking of middle-age, hordes of married people know no better than “wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” On the other hand people who see too many movies, again commodifying if not fetishizing, are on the feverish hunt for satin sheets, champagne flutes and black lace nightgowns. Other ignoramuses need the advice of “Dear Abby” who advises men they ought to take a shower if they expect to be welcomed in bed.

In general I’m against secrecy, but on the other hand I’m in favor of privacy. The puzzle is how to get knowledge and even to participate in a bit of sharing without being trapped by what other people know or think they know. The stigma, the shunning, the economic slamming of doors, certainly encourage people to NOT study such controversies as oral sex. But probably the most stifling force is simply the fear of not measuring up to other people, the imagined “norm.” What if one discovers everyone else is “in the know?”

A university is a specialized environment, a kind of operating theatre for knowledge, where childish and ignorant strategies are theoretically excluded. The incisive mind, like the surgeon’s knife, must be autoclaved, cleaned of old cultural taboos that keep us treading around in circles of frustration. The worst infection lately has been the insidious commodification of the universities themselves, not different from the commodification of surgery. A university now is supposed to provide the means for earning a lot of money. Forget service to humanity: go into science and math because that’s where the money is. Study economics and business because that will teach you money management. Right. And the purpose of surgery is to make you beautiful.

An interesting (to advertisers) but unfortunate thing (to consumers) about sex is that it has become so over-defined and slice-and-diced into saleable uniformity, that if persons could get completely away from cultural taboos and prescriptions, they would probably be much better at the actual act, hopefully preserving a child’s interest in experiment in the here and now.

The tragic thing about sex (to all of us) is that it’s not what most people are looking for anyway. What they really crave is honest intimacy: relationships they can trust. Sex might either help or hinder that search. But commodification is a surefire destroyer of intimacy.

Remember the three monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil? These three monkeys are not suitable for college matriculation because they define evil as ignorance. And they are no good in bed. Neither are the three ostriches. However, politics in Atlanta might work out for them.

The two humans -- one of whom says anything goes and one of whom says “ignore anything about scary stuff”-- are being monkeys and ostriches. The one who goes to college, reads books, makes many kinds of friends, and has the confidence to explore while protecting him or her self, is truly human, capable of extending intimacy to others in a way that makes “good sex” possible.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


The Blackfeet Reservation is a roughly fifty-mile square (fifty miles on a side, not fifty square miles) on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, defined on the north by the Canadian border. There are five major streams of water which (I nearly said “who” because in my mind they are so much like five moving persons.) cross this space from left (up in the mountains where they form from snowbanks) to right (out on the flats where they water grass and crops). Along the way they carve the coulees and valleys that making living here possible and even pleasant.

I’ve collected so many news articles about this water-on-the-move, that now and then I need to stop and re-consolidate my thinking, as do many others. The reservation is bounded on the north by Milk River and on the south by Birch Creek -- more or less. Milk River has had by far the most human intervention, its course changed by canals and pipelines so that what begins on the rez curves up into Canada and then east, down into Montana where it supplies many small towns.

Among my clippings somewhere is an account of a small break in the pipeline that went unrepaired for years. Like a natural spring, the steady supply of water became the basis for a small ecology of plants and animals that depended upon it. Growing naturally, not like human crops, it was organic and beautiful, a complex of intermeshed entities, deer standing in tall flower-studded grass. Then the break was repaired and the little ecology died.

The Rocky Mountains normally accumulate snowpack, on which we have become so dependent for our water -- some of it traveling in streams and some of it replenishing the underground aquifers for wells. Nowadays there is less snowpack because more of the moisture that comes to the mountains is in the form of rain, which runs off right away rather than accumulating. Snowpack becomes glaciers and the glaciers are shrinking. Some take this as proof of global warming, but one cranky conservative geologist said to me, “Get a clue! We’ve been in warming times all along! This is the natural trend that started ten thousand years ago, prompting the beginning of agriculture.”

Whatever the cause, the trend is clear. The consequences to water supply is near-catastrophic and global. In Tibet and Bhutan cities will be impossible because their only water source is mountain run-off. This is not different from the hole in the pipeline being sealed -- just on a vastly larger scale.

In the early days of settlement the pre-inhabiting indigenous people were used to certain kinds of plenty -- clean air, water, supplies on the hoof in the form of bison. If there was drought, smoke, unfortunate migration patterns, they just adapted by going to a different place because there was plenty of space. Today’s small ag towns can’t do that. The government of the state must support these ranchers and farmers or be voted out of office, so they are invested in finding new ways for them to have water.

The legal underpinnings of water access on reservations are European, based on the premise of “first come, first serve” and “use it or lose it.” Blackfeet had had no reason to form either principle so chiefs assumed there would always be enough. The newcomers looked away from “first come, first serve,” assuming that pre-existence didn’t count. Anyway, they didn’t think that Indians would last much longer, naturally wanting to become white and modern. So much for assumptions.

Now the water problem is like an emptying bathtub, a drained duck pond, revealing all sorts of dilemmas on the bottom. The Blackfeet tribe had been included in the agreement for who got what water from Milk River, but didn’t take their part of the bounty. At the south side of the rez, Birch Creek had been “developed” by the Conrad Brothers, ham-fisted moguls with politicians in their pockets, without much consideration of anything except their determination to wrap an irrigation project around the little town of Valier, growing alongside Lake Francis which is really an artificial irrigation impoundment that feeds a web of canals that feed the fields that feed the nation. On their side of Birch Creek the Blackfeet and its BIA agents couldn’t seem to get their irrigation ditches to work. (Often dug by hand by tribal members -- men and women -- who worked hard in return for commodities to which they were already entitled.) One administration would declare they had the perfect engineering plan -- the next would declare it hopeless and let it sit, deteriorating. Plenty of injustice to go around.

Ecologies are always changing -- this is the basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution: that the constant changes require constant adaptation, which creates new beings, just as the water from that pipeline created a new ecology. Left long enough and isolated from the original plant and animal stocks, eventually there would be new species. Because the secret of survival is NOT being the fittest in the sense of the biggest, most powerful being. (My UU minister used to have a poster in his “secret” working office. It said, “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, I shall fear no Evil, for I am the meanest sunnavabitch in the Valley!” It was meant ironically.) The true secret is being the “fittingest”, the most molded to the ecology.

I often say “a lot of little things is a big thing,” which also shows up on posters. What are the little things that will help us all survive? Here’s a prototype: beavers. If one cause of the problem is lack of snowpack moisture impoundment, rather than building (at great cost) huge reservoirs behind dams where a breach is catastrophic (like Swift Dam in 1964), why don’t we encourage beavers? They could refill the mountains with a zillion small ponds -- if one went out, the beavers would immediately start repairs. For those who would miss ripping across a big reservoir in a speedboat, I suggest the gentler skill-based pleasure of fishing for trout in a beaver pond.

That’s just one small idea. Larry Mires, executive director of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, is a human beaver, working year-after-year to accumulate knowledge and ideas about this specific stream. If the humanly engineered diversion is not repaired soon, it will fail, turning the pipeline into an erosive firehose, much like the gold-mining dredges that ended up leaving mountains of gravel just outside Helena. The fail-save spillway has been unusable for years. Those living along northernmost Montana, town or ranch, will be trucking water -- long distances. At least those who stay. Most will do as the old-time Blackfeet did: move away.

Monday, February 16, 2009

MY BOY JACK: A Reflection

Though it is technically “President’s Day,” this is not about presidents, except in a slantwise way. But sometimes “slantwise” is good strategy. This is thoughts about “My Boy Jack,” the story of Rudyard Kipling’s son who was killed the day after his eighteenth birthday in the Battle of Loos at the beginning of WWI. The script was written by David Haig, who gestated it over many years -- even decades -- because of his striking resemblance to Kipling. People urged him to take advantage of it, but the question was how? A life story of Kipling would be a large undertaking requiring huge amounts of money. Anyway, people frown on Kipling these days. Jingoism, you know. Instead Haig chose a tragic moment -- TRUE tragedy in which an immovable object meets an irresistible force so there is simply no escape. It is Greek in its intensity because it is the essential nature of the people that caught in this impossible situation. Abraham Lincoln would have understood.

Briefly, Kipling was an early recognizer and promoter of the need to go to war to contain German ambitions. He spoke to huge crowds, urging them to see the danger, how over-matched England was in sleepy confidence of its worthiness, and how young able-bodied men would have to take the brunt of war. When all of this came to bear on his own son, he stood by his principles even in the face of his own and his family’s anguish. The women, of course, had no choice, their beautiful Edwardian faces running with tears. The king, who understands both war and Kipling, loses his own son in the same period, not in “glorious” battle but as an ignominious victim of royal inbreeding, dying on his own bedroom floor. Nevertheless, alone.

The point that no reviewer struck upon was that Kipling’s worldview was the engine of his art. In good times and bad, he asked, “Do you want a story?” If they did -- and he didn’t force the issue -- he could produce a purified and rhyming account that braided emotion into high drama, packed with small details from reality. This is not possible if one is preoccupied with political correctness, nor is it possible if life is a matter of therapeutic dynamics. No amount of talk about how young men try to please their fathers or how fathers forget to protect their sons in their zeal for honor can be as vivid as seeing a determined young officer help his terrified soldier fix his bayonet as ordered before going “over the top,” and that same competent young man groping for his spectacles in the mud of a killing field that took thousands of lives per battle. The actual death is not accompanied by gouts of blood, but the simple pfft, pffft, of bullets striking.

Lincoln knew about losing sons. His response was also stories, though often in the form of jokes. His wife was not so reliable, perhaps, as Kipling’s American bride. But one can only do one’s best. Kipling’s wife’s obsessive determination to find their boy does not succeed, unlike the modern American dogma that if you want something bad enough, you’ll get it. At least in the end, they hear the story of the boy’s end. Kipling’s response was not in prose, but rather a balladic poem which is the heart of the film.

'My Boy Jack' (1916)

'Have you news of my boy Jack?'
Not this tide.
'When d'you think that he'll come back?'
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Has any one else had word of him?'
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

'Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?'
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind -
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Two forces contend in cultures: one is for the preservation of the whole, the system or the community; the other for the preciousness of the individual. Every war sacrifices individuals for the larger society. If that society is unworthy in its goals, if it is captured by self-serving leaders, if it has no respect for the individuals, then that society may not persist even if it wins all its wars. If the individuals have no care for anything but their own interests, they may survive but those around them might wish they hadn’t and their memorials might be reviling accounts of them.

This opposition comes out in war, but it also appears in economic hard times when individuals sometimes are capable of enormous generosity and social systems can set about reforms of structure to protect those individuals. But it also can be the occasion for predation and callousness, all in the name of preserving an outworn hierarchy and outright corruption. We’re seeing it now. We’ve elected a president who promised change and yet everywhere people are complaining about the changes, resisting as hard as they can. They’re terrified.

And they’re greedy.

What’s more, the whole concept of “nation,” on which rests the role of the president, is very much in question. Parts of the world that were once functioning nations have now been abandoned to chaos. International corporations are bigger than countries and hire private armies, so that their CEO’s are like unelected presidents. Internal wars tear countries apart so hordes of fleeing people cross every border and ocean in search of safety, though they bring bits of the violence with them.

I keep thinking about my elementary and high school teachers, who felt no ambiguity about whether Kipling should be admired nor any about whether Hungary should be celebrated and supported in 1956. I fear they’ve all been replaced by small-hearted people willing to kill sons, so long as they aren’t their own.

Here are two cautionary and contrasting translated scraps from Kipling:


Simonides(480 BC)


Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


When the publicity for “Bronze Inside and Out” reviews was sent out, the person in charge used her “usual list”, which means a lot of obscure Canadian journals, since normally the U of Calgary Press is of interest only to Canadian academics. She had no consciousness at all of the Western art scene. When I tried to argue, I was over-ruled as irrelevant and a beginner. So. . .

In spite of that, one review offer did go out to George Cole, who has an interview program on Yellowstone Public Radio, the public radio station in Bozeman/Billings. He’s about my age and has been bumping around the region for a long time, venturing as far west as Seattle. He did call to set up an interview time, but I let him know I was not financially or vehicularly prepared to drive to Bozeman. Nothing happened for a long time. Then suddenly I got an email: George would be in Great Falls on Valentine’s Day because he was attending a Merle Haggard concert the night before. Could I drive down to GF? Of course.

So all last week I watched the weather report and obsessed. As Saturday drew nearer, it got colder and snowier. He set the time from ten over to ten-thirty, which pleased me because the extra half-hour meant I could drive in daylight. Saturday morning I woke up at 2:30 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I’d open one eye to check the time and Crackers would be looking back at me, since she sleeps with her head on my arm. I swear she can hear my eyelids go up. They certainly felt as though they were creaking.

When I hit the road, it was warmer than forecasted (twenties f) and the driving lane had been well-plowed. Snow snakes were dancing, but the fluffy snow was not rising into the air. The only tricky parts were the transitions: on and off ramps, long swoops down into coulees. I was nearly the only one on the road except for snowmobilers heading in the opposite direction. I left at 8AM and pulled into the motel parking lot at 10:15 AM, just in time to make a quick gallop to the restroom due to coffee ingestion. (It’s eighty miles, usually takes an hour and a half.) When I came out, George was in the hallway extending his hand. “Mary?” I put out my hand, rather damp. “George?”

Rose was a little concerned that meeting in a motel implied rather a greater commitment than just an interview, but I never left the lobby. George and his brother-in-law, whose name I immediately forgot, packed while I watched CNN and then we went over to the Great Falls Public Radio to tape. We had a little time to gossip and I picked up fascinating indiscretions from George, who was once on the staff of Tom Judge, a former governor of Montana.

The actual interview went smoothly. George is very good at this. He had met Bob in 1976 and liked him. He was putting as much emphasis on the person of “me” as on Bob, worrying about whether I had any friends in Valier and whether there were trouble with Indians and WHY live in Valier??? The brother-in-law liked the interview, the tech guy liked the interview, and all was copacetic, except that George worried that there might be a little echo in the “cans.” (Those are the earphones: a “term of art.”) George doesn’t really grasp blogs and websites and all that jazz and was surprised that I have no television and no radio in the pickiup, though he said that when I pulled in, he recognized it at once as what I would drive. (Small, dirty, old and beat-up!) He doesn’t know that keeping in touch with friends on the computer has the advantage of not having to comb one’s hair or worry about housekeeping or having to provide refreshments. When it is time for them to go home, one hits a button.

When we said goodbye in the parking lot, George asked politely for a hug and I did. Then the brother-in-law wanted a hug and I did. They patted my back and I patted their back, which is a very interesting social reflex that means “no sex.” (If the patting hand begins to stroke or slide lower down the back -- well. . .) I explained that to them and they got into a friendly argument about which got patted more.

By this time it was noon and had warmed enough in Great Falls for the streets to be merely wet. I picked up some basics at the store (Oregon Hazelnut Bread and Ken’s Honey Mustard Steak Sauce plus the latest “Vanity Fair”) and hit the road, which was dry and bare in the driving lane. The latest installment of “House of Eliot” was waiting for me at the post office.

I was so elated and smug to have finally pulled off this rather important interview and also to have connected with George. For one thing the Bozeman UU group has always been a favorite, and for another the east end of the state is where the better growth and more reliable Important People are. The Flathead Valley on the west side is already choked with Californians, crooks, and pretentious women. I don’t want to circuit-ride anymore, but I like knowing what’s going on.

This morning there was frost on everything. Even the clothespins were furry as a row of white bunnies. Now the sun is out and the bunnies are throwing their coats on the ground. There’s little wind but now and then bits of white fur from the poplars drift by the window, glittering in the sun.

Tim asks, “What the interview fun?” Yes, it was. The show will air in two or three weeks. I’ll let you know. George Cole’s “Realtime” on Monday nights at 6:30 PM mountain time. More instructions later about how to stream Yellowstone Public Radio.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Sometimes the one you Love is the one you Hate

Cheating lovers, neglectful mothers, abusing fathers, ungrateful children -- they’re out there. Sometimes it seems like the big Hallmark Special Day campaigns are just ways of taunting people who are trying to cope with their feelings about people they are supposed to love but can’t help hating -- with good reason.

And yet, some writers and psychologists will suggest that it’s possible to love your torturer, admire your oppressor, forgive those who crucified you. Pretty unreal.

For one thing, it’s not just an act of will. Hatred, REAL hatred, is embedded in the cells and neurons, coded to trigger reflexive jumps in adrenaline: rage, fear, despair, opposition. REAL hatred is trauma-based, not arguable, not accessible to therapy in the ordinary sense of talking it out. It takes up the entire foreground and leaves no room for anything else. It is obsessive, teaching that only one reaction is enough: total warfare.

And yet love is not the opposite. Love is the same thing: obsession, total arousal, except that this time the move is towards inclusion -- maybe control. Constant contact.

The opposite is stillness. Not indifference, but rest, patience, quiet. It can feel like death.

Well, those are the beliefs I work with. I don’t think they’re true for everyone. I think some people just don’t have any strong emotions; they haven’t got the energy or focus. And others have such strong emotions that they are torn apart with violence, drugs, and accidents they didn’t see coming.

My own solution has been in large part to withdraw from other people. I’m criticized for this as though it were a disability, a failure, but I see it as a choice. I’m not withdrawing from society, I’m coming to a place where I can see it more clearly, where I focus on one small piece and address it as truly as I can, stepping aside from ideas of obscenity or success or charity. Sure, you can call it cloistered if you want to.

Some cloister! No protection. Pretty exposed here. On the other hand you have to want to come here.

The most difficult love/hate knots are the ones from infancy, maybe from implantation in the womb wall. That first umbilical lifeline is the first ambivalence, the child sucking what it needs from the mother and the mother -- what does the mother do? It could end there. I’m pro-choice.

But if the choice is made to continue, either because of social pressure or simple passivity or real desire and love, then the next commitment has to be to the living child and that’s where the problem has been in our affluent society. Once that baby is born, it is the possession of an individual and too often no longer defended by the community. It is at the mercy of caregivers except for being able to squall which may not be a helpful strategy. You mother may strike you, throw you, bash your head. And if you die? She may double bag you in garbage plastic and stuff you in the trunk of the car. (Notorious case in progress at the moment.)

When both love AND hate are present in the same bond, it is twice as strong as one or the other. The emotions draw strength off each other and pretty soon the person carrying them is blinded and bound by the sheer power, never able to leave that cathexis without missing it, feeling empty. And yet the ambivalence can become unbearable, demanding relief even if the only escape is suicide.

The good news is that not all or even most people get into this extreme a fix and then mostly in youth so they can “grow out of it” -- although it’s more like “fade out of it.” I mean, one’s juices do eventually become diluted. Or dry up. Something.

But Heathcliffe/Kathy relationships fascinate us all, draw us in, warm us with their unreasonable heat. So there’s another good thing -- if you think powerful art and writing can come from irresolvable love/hate. Some people can do it and others can’t. One wonders what was so intense in the Bronte household. (The movie in which Michael Kitchen plays the brother who died young suggests some answers. Alcoholism. Calvinism. Too much emphasis on success.) I don’t think one can really write about it from the outside all that successfully. But maybe.

Maybe that’s the only real way it can be written about because anyone who is in it is often rendered mute or babbling or so full of cursing that the message can’t be tolerated. They attack helpers. They can’t think of options and can’t accept help from outside the deadlocked emotions. Especially in a child there’s a sense that the child is to blame and therefore -- connected in weird logic -- they ought to be able to undo the problem if they could only hit upon the right approach. It seems to be their task. Therefore, they don’t want an outsider who couldn’t possibly understand to mix things up.

Oh, hell. What do I know about it? I’m talking nonsense. Not Freud, not Jung, not Perls, nor anyone else really knows what works. They have some theories, try them, adjust them, and sometimes they work. Now we’re into brain function and running people through the scanner to see what that can tell us. Not much.

All you can do in life is to present yourself, be as open as possible, and see where it goes. No guarantees, no red hearts or boxes of chocolates. If you find you are locked into a true love/hate relationship -- take notes. Try to stay alive -- worry about staying sane some other time.