Tuesday, March 31, 2009



(I’ve tried making contact through your agent and your lawyer. Now let’s try six degrees of separation. Somebody out there must know somebody who knows Ed Harris.)

Though there’s some danger of you becoming the male version of Merrill Streep, an actor who can be anybody, this project is worth your time because it combines so many of your interests: art, music, Westerns, religion, and maybe Native Americans, though I don’t know of you doing any movies about them. No one has picked up on the concept of the “cowboy artist” so far. Tommy Lee Jones might be moving towards a painter/cowboy, but I haven’t heard about any Western sculptor stories, which are a lot more physical, even more than painting like Pollock.

Here’s the way I’d go with this. There is no script -- just a “biographical memoir” (covered both bases there) -- called “Bronze Inside and Out.” I tried to mail you the book. I have no ambition to write the script, but I do have some recommends.

I might prove useful. My undergrad work was at Northwestern University with Alvina Krause. I was a lousy actor but I understand “spine,” “through line,” “beats” and all that stuff. In short, I know the concepts but don’t have the acting talent. It was a long time ago. (Class of 1961) I write.

1. Use Amy Madigan (if she’s interested and willing) to be a voice-over as “me.” This is to give intimacy, privileged insight, philosophical argument about what Bob was doing, and to frame the action. She should be rueful but not regretful: one of Bob’s mantras was “no regrets.” His advice: “if you’re going to regret it, don’t do it. If you do it, take it for what it is.” The tone should be full of love, sometimes indignation, and occasionally rage. (It was a one-sided relationship.) The grief is not just for Bob but also for what James Willard Schultz wrote about in “Why Gone Those Times?” The free West.

2. Confine the action to the Sixties when I was with Bob, not because I was there, but because this was when Western art began to catch fire commercially. Make the focus the nature of success and what that does to an artist. Don’t make Bob a wonderful hero, show how everyone tried (STILL tries) to mash him into the template of Charlie Russell when he WASN’T Charlie Russell. Charlie Russell wasn’t even Charlie Russell. This is an echo of what has happened to the American West. Stylized, packaged, made into a lifestyle. Marketed.

3. Then against that put the reality of what a sculptor does, the reality of casting bronze with a Blackfeet crew, of living on a reservation (leave out the AIM stuff -- that came later), of getting up at dawn to ride across unfenced prairie for the sheer glory of it. And bring in Rodin, French Beaux Arts equestrian monuments, Barye and the Animaliers. Bring in as many animals as is practical: bobcats, foxes, badgers, gophers, horses, the eagle. (Right into the bed -- except the last two.) Don’t forget the bison roundup and hunting on the East Slope of the Rockies.

4. When the pain, the confusion, the pressure, the conflict in the relationships, the aging, become unbearable, show what a gift it was for Bob (and me) to participate as Bundle Keepers in the ancient Blackfeet ceremonies, quietly and privately. (It moved me on to divinity school eventually.) Don’t argue with the political part of it -- just show the reality of the event. Light through the smoke, light through the tipi canvas. Grace.

5. Show the quarrels over what we thought art should be: I was fighting for masterpieces and exaltation. Bob wanted to be a success for his family’s sake. He wanted his “Pop” to say, “Well done.” End when his pop dies (without ever saying it), I stop to pick up the road-killed badger, Bob invents his Badger Lodge, and we put it up. We spent the day ceremonially with the Kicking Woman family and old-time Canadian Indians. End the action with us (and grandkids and animals) -- faces painted with the badger stripes -- sprawled on a bison robe at the little Two Med ranch by a fire with the lodge in the background and a sunset behind that. Reconciled. For the moment. This was our Beethoven's Ninth.

5. End the voice-over with “me” walking the same area, wondering, thinking about time, waving at an Indian kid on a horse up on the ridge. Then the camera pans to “No More Buffalo” against the sky. Then “I” get into my filthy, rackety little pickup and drive off in a cloud of dust, elbow out the window. Time goes on. The prairie... the prairie... the sky...

You could even make the movie without ever saying it was Bob Scriver, but a character in reality gives it an anchor. He’s been dead ten years. He was 84, so his contemporaries are pretty much gone. (All the old circle of Bundle Keepers are gone except Joe Old Chief.) In his beginning Bob taught high school music and some of his students are still living. His two children are dead. The grandchildren are in their forties and not involved. The great-grandchildren hardly knew Bob. I was the third of four wives, one year younger than his daughter by his first wife. Demographically and genetically, I was more like him than any of the others. The other wives are dead.

There’s no money in this, but there’s no money anywhere anyhow. Do it digitally. Do it for fun. And love. I'll help.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Yesterday we got another wild calf-strangling blizzard with intense winds stacking up feet and feet of snow. I’m only exaggerating a little bit. I almost had to resort to my roll-up garage door get out, but managed by pushing the storm door hard and reaching around to scoop away enough snow to squeeze out and stand on a cleared spot while I shoveled properly. Then I punched my way over to Rose’s place, crossing four foot drifts, then clear ground, then a drift, and so on. I saw that the Crawfords in their mighty pickup had crashed up the alley with no trouble --powerful engines (F350’s), four-wheel drive, high suspensions. It’s what they need to feed cows in this country. And those nickel plated bull-balls, of course.

I was up in the night as usual. At 3AM the Internet is good for cruising. The sky was clear velvet black with star prickles all over it. If I’d been more dynamic, I’d have done some shoveling then. The temp was relatively mild. Instead, I wrote for an hour or so, then a round of catfood and back to bed. Crackers and I had some negotiating to do over who got to sleep on which side and where the covers ought to be and other minor problems. She is not a smart cat but she is a very determined one. She likes to head under the covers towards my feet, then turn and hurl herself into my armpit, but if she doesn’t get the angle or force quite right, she ends up with her head too far north for it to be on my arm. Then she has to go through the whole routine again. Squibbie sleeps out in the front room in my “company chair,” the wicker one I bought out from under a guy in a service station in Alberta and painted gloss white.

But she only sleeps out there until it gets cold, which is part of the reason we all get up at 3AM or so. This morning she declined to go outside on walkabout. My screen door, slipcovered in plastic sheeting, has a hole cut in both screen and plastic for the convenience of cats. There was a long low drift from hole to the middle of the garage. I turned on the cat incubator lamp next to my computer, but Crackers went back to the electric bed. When I finished my stuff, I went, too. About eight AM Squibbie arrived to occupy my other armpit. We snoozed on for a while. The church carillon next door doesn’t start until nine.

Fortified with more cat food and some hot coffee (not TOO hot, since the latest health news says it will give you cancer of the esophagus, or at least it does in Afghanistan where they did the study), I went to check my email. Modem showed red again. Off. What? MORE maintenance??

Reached a cautious arm out the front door to snag the newspaper, which is Squibbie’s cue to rush for the Great Outdoors, but this time she was confronted with the Great White Barrier Drift. The newspaper, smaller and smaller every day, was quickly read, the best comics and articles torn out which is why I need paper. Back to the computer.


Where did I put that sticker with the Techie number? Much rummaging. I suppose I should stick the sticker up someplace. The cats watched critically but declined to help. Sticker showed up in a safe place. I forget where.

So I talked to Brian in Great Falls and we spent a half-hour walking through a protocol made necessary by a mysterious change they made at the provider (eighty mile drive) at 8AM. “Um. Yeah. Oh, I see. Um. Uh-huh.” This was all Brian. Pretty soon, “go to your *(&^(*$# and type in *&$$#^.” Oh, sure. Glasses slipping, hair in my eyes, fingers stiff, mind not quite in contact with reality, which wouldn’t be all that helpful anyway.

It works. I’m in like Flynn. (Yes, I’m aware of the derivation of the expression from the love life of Errol Flynn, who is lucky he didn’t have to struggle with condoms in the shower.)

I check my email and there’s hardly anything in it. Not much in junk. The nifty new SPAM quarantine doesn’t have much in it. What’s the deal? Has everyone given up on blogging as a civilized enterprise and gone to twittering -- “twitter-pated” as it were? The Great Falls Tribune confirms than they have. Well, I’m not gonna do it.

Whiskey Prajer
(pseudonym) has sent me a fascinating little book about “Fakers.” It begins with the fact that “Robinson Crusoe” was not written by Robinson Crusoe, who was fictional even though he appears as the author. Gasp. Then launches into a description of Paul Maliszewski’s own adventures in fakery, beginning in the fifth grade when he produced a phony letter, complete with felt-tip drawn stationary head, drafting him into the professional sports world. Then goes on to an account of his boring job writing business news, which he decided to liven up by sending satirical “free-lance” articles to his own paper. The trouble was that the manager, who seems to have had the same pointy-headed hairdo as the manager in Dilbert, thinks they are real. Worse, they attract fans who take them seriously. Later, when he confesses to his deception, some sophisticates say they knew it all the time. Uh, huh.

Paul M. then goes after a few Internet hoaxes, like a story about a giant grizzly in Alaska so big it can look over the top of a two-story house. Right. His first mistake is right there: the big brown bears in Alaska are Kodiak bears, not grizzlies though closely related. Which makes one of his main points, though he didn’t realize it: hoaxes are all in a context which what gives them their believability. If you live in a part or stratum of the world where the phenomenon is unlikely, you might be more willing to believe that bears can look over two story buildings. If you live in Alaska, you might say, “No way, Baby. The biggest can only look over one story buildings.”

And that’s the next tip about hoaxes: start with the truth. Then add dimension: “Yesterday hurricane force winds piled snow in Valier to the height of a two-story building!” Here’s the truth: we finally have the normal amount of moisture. About those bull-balls... Oh, sorry. Gotta go. The cat wants in -- er, out. (Another rule, throw in a lot of irrelevant detail.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I recently went to broadband Internet, DSL, at about the same time my provider installed some new SPAM filters. For whatever reason, the massive torrent of email that used to come through my computer has abruptly stopped! Maybe it's the economy. The effect is something like a strong wind not blowing all of a sudden.

I have several catch-basins. One is the "junk" pocket where posts accumulate if the computer thinks they look suspicious. I do review these posts one-by-one but quickly and sometimes find things that are NOT junk. For instance, someone sending me a message for the first time, so they aren't in my address book.

The other is the "quarantined" messages in the provider's filter, which I also check. So far they've all really been SPAM.

Nevertheless, I'm haunted by the idea that someone might try to reach me -- former student, contact for a story, peripheral relative, or the like -- and not be able to get through. All I can say is "keep trying."

One of the side effects of being on broadband is that now my phone works while I'm online.

What happens in Montana when the wind suddenly stops blowing is that all the cows fall over. Maybe I'll get a message that blows me over.

Prairie Mary


The copy of “Two Little Savages” (by Ernest Thompson Seton, as he was styling himself in 1911 when the book was copyrighted) that I grew up reading and rereading was bought by my father in 1940, used. I was one year old that year, new. Twenty years later, when I met Bob Scriver, the book-- indeed, the whole attitude -- was a tie between us. (You’ll remember that the story begins with a taxidermy shop.) We were two boys together, which I fancy was probably much like Seton’s arrangement with his wife. Penrod and Sam came along. Then Tom Sawyer and Huck.

The first year I taught, 1961-62, was in Browning where, in those days, students were tracked. The first class in the morning was the “bottom” of the eighth grade, grouped by performance rather than potential. They were quite an assortment, all boys. I fell for them hook, line and sinker, though I don’t think I really taught them very much. Jesse came for the food, and we finally tossed him out for playing a card game in class with a deck that had naked women on the back. (I’m sure it counted that the women were all white -- or actually quite pink.) He used to come back into the building and open my classroom door to hiss, “I’m gonna KILL you!” “Oh, right,” I’d defy him. “Go home!” I’m not sure he had a home but at that point I didn’t worry about such stuff.

My favorite student was Alfred, an artist and the youngest, who would come to lean his elbows on my desk when there was a spring blizzard like the one raging against my window this very minute. “Do you remember the smell of the dirt when it’s first dug up in the spring?” he would ask. “My grandpa raised raspberries,” he told me. And he worried about his horse. He became a grandpa but he’s gone now.

Alfred’s older brother, Lloyd, was much tougher and able to fight hard. His ambition, he said, was to go to jail because that’s where his older brothers and uncles were. His best friend was Stanley, who was half-black, very dark, and about the same smart. Their IQ’s tested out at about a hundred, which is normal, so I figured that given their background (no TV in those days and no magazines for sale on the reservation) and the cultural divide, their actual IQ’s were probably more like 120 or higher. Two boys already had children with under-age girls who were not allowed to come to school because of the pregnancies. One boy was only there because he was cross-eyed. He’s done pretty well in life, so he could probably get his eyes uncrossed now, but he says he’s used to them that way. Actually, his brain would need months and months of retraining, depending on how it has compensated. Several of those boys are dead. Our star became a tribal judge. Everybody was Blackfeet except me.

I’ve been thinking about this class because one of the boys, a big poker-faced guy who never let down his guard, had a son who is one of my all-time most memorable students. He just died a week or so ago -- the son, I mean -- 37 years old and with a passel of children. I need to find his mother and talk to her, as much to comfort myself as her. The cause of death was not given which might mean suicide or even AIDS. I won’t tell her my most cherished moment with this kid, though she was there. We were having a parent-administration conference and he told the officious Navy-sergeant, marcelled and fullofit, to “Fuck off.” My sentiments exactly. The principal was so stunned, he didn’t say anything for minutes. We just sat there and looked at him, trying not to laugh.

But that original 1961-62 class of boys was mild compared to the set of white bad boys in a nearby town forty years later. They had been told they were stars and that meant that they could act like ghetto hires on a bigtime basketball team: that is, push everyone around, break all the rules, crush girls under their feet, abuse any substance they came across. The admin -- again -- had good American values: win at any cost, maintain the image of the town, and eat the young. I was very fond of these boys, who were grouped into one speech and drama class late in the day. My diabetes II was still undiagnosed so by that time I couldn’t remember names, but I had a firm grasp on everything else. They felt that knowing their names -- important FAMILY names of HOMESTEADERS -- was a serious sign of disrespect. It took a while to win them over.

One big guy, totally atypical and nonathletic, had a wildly wonderful sense of humor and the jocks never picked on him. I asked why. “Are you kidding?” they said. “His family is a motorcycle gang!” As it happened, I figured out that I knew the boy’s father except that he’d only been on horseback when I taught him.

Another boy, an Irish citizen who had inherited property back in the Auld country (I’m not making this up) wore his flannel collarless shirts and after a few weeks went to the principal to demand to be put in a proper class. “I haven’t time for this nonsense,” he said. The actual star of the basketball team was also transferred out, this time by his mother and grandmother who had a tight grip on the future of their young man. Dunno what happened to dad.

I tried and tried to get a grip on these young men. The best assignment I came up with was to read a piece of poetry while playing fitting music in the background. One young man did an absolutely stunning job -- he read Keats! And well! I gave him an A plus for the assignment, which meant that he thought he should get that for the course.

They never could understand that when the punishment came down, it would not fall on them but on me. And it did. Just before the ax fell the first week in November, I resigned. That next day was the best we ever had. We leveled with each other. They hated the place, got no support from parents, only from the coach and only if they won. Girls just tried to reform them but wouldn’t allow the sex that might comfort them. I understood. I hoped that helped.

They asked whether they could come visit me in the years to come and “sit on the porch and drink beer together.” I promised them coffee. I don’t drink beer and don’t have a porch, but we could sit in the driveway on lawn chairs. One pair of boys did come to visit. Another sent a wedding invitation.

My Browning students keep in touch. I attend their funerals and watch the local paper for their successes. One of them -- not from that class -- is the chair of the Tribal Council now. And every morning I get up before dawn to check on the progress of those boys in Amsterdam, “Cinematheque.” I try to understand. They need it and I need it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


This is one of my earnest and probably uninformed little attempts to figure out stuff I know little or nothing about but have formed theories about, mostly through reading. One thing I’ve figured out is that most people know even less than I do.

I’m trying to find a little piece about male/female that I wrote at Seabeck one summer, maybe the one (1987) when I was the Great Guru presenting a lecture series called “Unfolding the Ordinary” which has been my mantra for a long time. I’m rereading the whole set -- might type it into this blog. (Maybe you’ll notice that the main thing I use my blog for is what the fellow who had no sex life called “taking things into my own hands.” That is, if no one will publish this stuff, I’ll do it.) At one point I was addressing sex differences, trying to make the point that we are human beings first and the rest is negotiable. I said, “I can’t believe that a little dangly tag of flesh makes much difference.”

Suddenly, an irrepressible man sprang up from my audience and yelled, “I object!”


“In the first place,” he objected, “It’s not LITTLE! In the second place, it’s not always dangly! Sometimes it is a spear, a cannon, a weapon of mass destruction!”

“Exactly,” a woman yelled back. “What can it do that’s constructive? All it can do is rape, start babies it refuses to protect, and displace the brain in your head!”

“Hey,” the man shot back. “You’re using synecdoche in a bad way! I’m the whole, not the part! I’m proud of my parts, but PLEASE I try to use them responsibly! What about YOU?”

“If you could keep the Pope out of it, I might be able to manage quite nicely. Or you could pay me the same as you for doing the same work!”

Actually, this dialogue never happened (it’s a hoax) except for that first one-liner demanding respect for penises. We all knew the rest without anyone bringing it up. After all, we were sophisticated Unitarians who had college degrees. We all met at the flagpole (!) at least once every Seabeck session so that a professional expert on sexual equipment could answer questions (submitted secretly on paper) for FUN! We already knew all that stuff.

What we were still experimenting with, and would all our lives, was where our personal boundaries were, how we could comfort ourselves when things went wrong, and -- oddly -- how to celebrate when things went very well indeed, esp. when there was no expectation of it. We were disconcerted by being out of control. We had been taught to always stay in control. No wonder that when we climbed into a chalice represented by a retreat and lecture series, some people’s wine never caught on fire and others exploded. How to maintain a nice even flame? We search through the books and films and theories.

The event itself was educational for me. I believe in reflexivity, watching myself, analyzing myself. It seems more fair than always watching and analyzing other people, which is a boundary violation and usually useless anyway. I learned that being tired and taking risks is part of falling in love. But when the situation closes, and everyone drives home, the love part might be only a memory. Is that any reason not to fall in love?

One might fall in love with an entirely inappropriate and unavailable person. That’s been my life plan. I don’t want someone just like me rummaging around in me, do I? So I’m careful to be in situations where people just like me are scarce. Luckily, that’s not very hard. I’m a parlicoot, a chimera, an accident of the times. More than that, I’m counter-phobic. Not many people are counter-phobic, which means that if something is really scary, a counter-phobe is attracted, goes towards it, maybe goes too close. The reason not many are around is that it’s an approach to life that’s likely to kill you.

That’s part of the reason that when you tell what you’ve learned, people say you’re just making it up. I tell about things that happened on the rez and even the young ‘uns there now just don’t believe it. They’re more willing to believe bad stuff, because that justifies caution, prudence, safe-guards. Their strategy is to stick together, do what the others do.

I love the little natural history blurbs on NPR. Yesterday they talked about trying out a new instrument, a kind of sonar that can see for a great distance under the water. They fired it up and saw herring coming from the depths and faraway until they were grouped into a huge school -- incredibly twenty-five miles across. That’s almost from here to the nearest shopping town. The herrings came together, got in synch the way schools of fish do (each fish watching the wiggler on the right or the left), then took off en masse for warmer waters to the south where they could reproduce. Just like college kids are spring break, except the fish didn’t get drunk. They just came back and dispersed to whereever the food was. A counter-phobic fish -- a counter-phobic college kid -- might do something quite different. And be weeded out of the gene pool.

So the lesson is that a counter-phobe should be very cautious and probably has a high level of stress hormones. I had mine tested -- I do. So a counter-phobe can’t afford to listen to that constant barrage of health news about 2% more likelihood of bad stuff and six months taken off your life if you do this or that. (Anyway they change their minds all the time.) But a counter-phobe needs a good strong chalice. Not the kind that money can buy, but the kind that you hammer out for yourself. They won’t be the same anyway.

But I prefer to take Flaubert’s approach (I used to have the exact quote taped to my computer, but I took it off and can’t find it today.) which is to be conventional, regular, modest in all one’s daily ways so as to be totally outrageous and unexpected in one’s thinking -- and thus writing. And maybe loving. Though the boundary is crossed if I don’t write. That’s the scariest thing, writing. Therefore, I go towards it. My own hands are on the keyboard.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Because of the way Netflix is set up, I tend to order films in groups based on specific actors. So it’s not entirely incidental that I watched two Gena Rowlands films in the last two days. One was “Woman Under the Influence” directed by her husband, John Cassavetes, and the other was “Another Woman” directed by Woody Allen. They could not be more different, the characters could not be more different, the wardrobes, the premises, the goals, the whole style could not be more different. This is very useful indeed. These are Actor’s Studio films -- not just type-casting and rambling.

“Woman Under the Influence” is in a blue-collar world of men served by women and Gena’s character is not entirely suited for her role as wife and mother. These big ethnic physical guys in fact have strong sensibilities and a good deal of compassion. I LOVE the scene where the husband, Peter Falk, stupidly brings his whole crew home for breakfast and they sit at the table (extended by adding a card table) singing opera -- gorgeously. It’s not the Italian who does it, but a black man. Gena loves it so much that she comes to him and peers into his mouth to watch that glorious sound come out. The men are a little disconcerted, but not so much as when she begins to investigate and admire all the men. Then the Falk character loses his cool and bellows at her, jealous and embarrassed.

Cassavetes, who wrote his script and claims the actors stuck to it, says his conception is that the woman is not crazy -- though she is removed to a mental hospital for six months -- but simply unique, close to the surface, unprotected except by family. Her husband loves her child-like responsiveness, but still expects her to be “normal,” partly goaded by his mother. Gena wears mini-skirts innocently, her long legs and pink anklets suggesting a little short-skirted girl.

In “Another Woman” Woody Allen is on another track entirely, a kind of interpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” from a woman’s point of view, an investigation of how people get cold and hard in service to social expectations and then are punished for it. How they lose themselves but still have the possibility of recovery. Now Gena wears those “expensive putty-colored clothes” that I talk about. Mismatched but subtly coordinated and tailored expensive shirts and jackets.

This movie is anchored in a reality that is pretty unreal to me: the world of the privileged that revolves through cocktail parties and elite restaurants, in a dance of supposed friendship that enables adultery and professional achievement at the same time. I’ve seen it from the outside, esp. in big-church ministers. People don’t trust their guts because they can’t feel them anymore unless they are ill. Allen, of course, believes in psychotherapy as explanation and so this woman, instead of being on the couch herself, overhears the therapy of another woman, not unlike her young self and unafraid to feel her unhappiness. (It’s Mia Farrow, very pregnant, maybe really. And very weepy, maybe really.)

The rest is stylized: high paternal expectations, a brother sacrificed in her interest, a mother who doesn’t seem to exist, friends who alternate between jealousy and admiration, all acted out in the labyrinth of Manhattan. Rowlands is as brilliantly controlled and rational in the face of irrationality as she was, in the earlier film, entirely physical and inventive. These two movies would be excellent to compare and contrast in a formal film class or just as a private investigation.

It’s been a while since the great freeing of women that had us (I’m female, of course) taking men’s jobs and investigating female anatomy in the frank and frontal ways of Judy Chicago and her labial dinner plates. Where did it go? Is it because there was no where TO go? Or was it just a sensational moment where people had speculum parties and gaped at their own mother’s cervixes? Is society any different than it used to be, or have the gender roles merely been moved around a bit, so that now women take the roles of oppressive school principals and stone-faced highway patrolmen? And men fade off into neurotic self-absorption, living off of others.

What we seem to miss is that relationships exist only in the context of a much larger cultural order. If you take part of one culture (say the 19th century American Indian traditions of the individual child existing in the extended familial web of aunts and uncles, all considered to have the obligations of parents) and insert it in another (say, modern suburbia or condos where people don’t know each other and their shared environment is a function of their incomes, sometimes precarious, so that their safety depends upon not extending their obligations to “other” people) it just won’t work. (Tell Hilary.) And the abandoning of other people’s children is justified by accusations of sexual perversion.

Another movie, without Gena Rowlands, I watched in the last few days was “Gone, Baby, Gone” by what I’ll call the Affleck brothers, one acting and one directing. The plot is a kidnapped child -- actually two, one who survives and one who does not -- in the Boston neighborhood where the boys grew up. The premise is that being locally rooted gives privileged knowledge and therefore privileged power, even though the Affleck character is only a private investigator. (The policeman in charge is that moral hero, Morgan Freeman, who is black. The saved child is white, so Freeman has a white wife. At some level in this society we are always playing checkers.) Insisting on knowing means running headlong into moral dilemmas that cannot be solved. What to do about childish women who have babies they are not capable of protecting? What to do when what “feels” right goes against the rules of blood relationship? When the goal of the law can only be achieved by corruption and lying? This movie is not at the level of either Gena Rowlands movie, partly because it is held hostage by the larger culture that demands gunfights and gruesomeness. But it’s serious.

The core religious question, some say, is “what should I do to be saved?” Might be in terms of going to heaven or might be in terms of just getting through this life right here, like this economic maelstrom we just fell into. This is Woody Allen’s perennial question and probably Bergman’s, too, though Bergman begins to approach something larger and so does Cassavetes. They are willing to look at the question of “what should I do to save others?” Particularly those who are well-loved, like our children. Everyone was someone’s child once.

One parental and cultural set of givens produces the wonderfully but weirdly whacko “woman under the influence” and the other makes a “different woman” who uses her head so cleverly that her heart is left behind. Must we choose? Is there a reconciliation?

Thursday, March 26, 2009


This explanation/map of the brain is the best I’ve found so far. It’s from “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.” (p. 21 in the pb).

“Our four brain areas are organized in a hierachical fashion: bottom to top, inside to outside. A good way to picture it is with a little stack of dollar bills -- say five. Fold them in half, place them on your palm and make a hitchhiker’s fist with your thumb pointing out. Now, turn your fist in a “thumbs down” orientation. Your thumb represents the brain-stem, the tip of your thumb being where the spinal cord merges into the brainstem; the fatty part of your thumb would be the diencephalon; the folded dollars inside your fist, covered by your fingers and hand, would be the limbic system; and your fingers and hand, which surround the bills, represent the cortex. When you look at the human brain, the limbic system is completely internal; you cannot see it from the ouside, just like those dollar bills. Your little finger, which is now oriented to be the top and front, represents the frontal cortex.

“While interconnected, each of thee four main areas controls a separate set of functions. The brainstem, for example, mediates our core regulatory functions such as body temperature, heart rate, respiration and blood pressure. The diencephalon and the limbic system handle emotional responses that guide our behavior, like fear, hatred, love and joy. The very top part of the brain, the cortex, regulates the most complex and highly human functions such as speech and language, abstract thinking, planning and deliberate decision making. All of them work in concert, like a symphony orchestra, so while there are individualized capacities, no one system is wholly responsible for the sound of the ‘music’ you actually hear.”

What is striking and revelatory about Perry’s work is that he saw that deficits in functioning could be due to a flaw in any one of those levels, that the glitches in the most basic levels would be underlying the more obvious “higher” functional problems, and that (since, as he repeats often, the brain is an historical record) the organic and very real deep problems would have been laid down at the time that part of the brain developed. (Development never really ends, but the main unfolding program is complete in the early twenties.) It was often thinking through the relationship between the history of the person and their present difficulties that made it possible to find a solution.

There is no solution to some of the problems. For instance, a deficit resulting from the sensory starvation imposed at birth by isolation and confinement will cause the brain to simply be too small and limited to become fully human. One of those starvation is “skin hunger” which was demonically imposed at the time when pediatricians believed in a sterilized set of rules about not getting emotionally involved with infants. (At that time they also believed newborns and pre-borns could not feel pain and so they were provided no anesthesia if surgery became necessary.) Isolation is also imposed on children by crazy people who need social intervention -- if you can find out about the kids they keep in closets and cages. Or maybe the most notorious tragedy was the huge number of babies in orphanages in the Eastern European countries who were kept like pigs in industrial hog operations -- each in its own small crib -- staying alive by reaching to each other between cribs and inventing their own language. In some ways this neglect damaged them as much as infecting them with HIV contaminated blood meant to make them stronger, since they weren’t thriving.

Dr. Perry is eloquent about the need for rhythm in brain development: first the mother’s heart-beat, then the rocking in her arms, the rhythm of walking, then music. He has good success when children with this deficit are put into rhythm classes, Orph be praised! And then there’s Mama P who thinks no one is too old for a lap and a rocking chair. (In the early colonial days, very old folks were sometimes kept in giant cradles that could be gently rocked on the hearth. Of course, in rural places there was the rhythm of milking and churning butter.)

To develop social intelligence, brains must be in a community. Perry feels we have tragically created a society where community is broken, isolated people struggle with depression all alone, sucking what ought to be their own memories off of the television screen. We make our memories, he says, and our memories make us. So is it any wonder that so many people are flat and glassy?

Oddballs are shut out in our society. Kids with brain deficits, like autistic kids, can become victims or isolates in kid society, learning to be withdrawn for self-protection or aggressive to create some space for themselves. Perry had good results in a primary class when he asked the kids to help his patient as a new student. He explained the brain problem that had left the boy’s reaction askew so that the little kids wouldn’t be alarmed at his slightly off-center behavior, and suggested ways to guide him back to the norm. The kids turned out to be brilliant therapists.

Among the most interesting ideas are Perry’s understanding of our internal drug systems and how behavior is often a way of triggering those internal opiates and adrenalines. One girl, faced with the possibility of the return of an abuser, went into something like catatonia. The doctors couldn’t figure it out. Perry felt it was very much like a heroin overdose, flooding the system into a state called “dissociation.” He gave her the heroin antidote (which is safe enough that he feels confident letting private individuals carry it, just in case) and immediately she “woke up.” (This was a literary gimmick in the movie called “Orlando,” the protagonist faced with impossible conflicts slept through every effort to wake him/her up for a while. Sleeping Beauty Syndrome. Snow White had it, too.)

So, to review, the human brain is an accumulative organ; early deficits will cause later “higher” systems to malfunction; a rich environment with supportive people in it, lots of music and movement, will create a large dense brain with lots of connecting neurons; such a brain needs ideas, community, stimulation, and rewarding things to do; the culture and such a brain interact in the ways that make us human. And such people can much improve the lives of those not quite so lucky, healing trauma and making niches for oddballs. But a brain is made, not bought.

I’m so pleased by this book!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


"THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A DOG, And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook" is quite plainly meant to remind you of Oliver Sack’s beloved collection, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” You know how those crazy people do crazy things and boys are sorta like puppies anyway. Bruce D. Perry, perhaps because of the help of his co-author, Maia Szalavitz, is up to the task. There’s a second sub-title, in case you didn’t pay attention to the first one: “What Traumatized Children Can Teach us about Loss, Love and Healing.” The boy in the title really was raised in a dog cage, but had the advantage of being in there with real dogs. One case is a true sociopath, a cold killer. And the Branch Davidian children, those spared from the confrontation holocaust by early removal, were cared for by Dr. Perry.

My favorite anecdote is about Dr. Perry arriving to see those Waco children for the first time, but being stopped at the door by a classic Texas Ranger, tall and armed. He did not believe that Dr. Perry, who had long hair and wears sandals, should be allowed inside. Dr. Perry explained that he was a child psychiatrist. The Ranger countered that all these good children needed was love and time. Dr. Perry saw a girl sleeping on a couch in the room behind the ranger. “Go check that girl’s pulse,” he asked. “Then tell me whether she needs help.”

The girl’s pulse was 160. The Ranger knew that was twice what it should have been. “This girl is in trouble!” he said. “Call a doctor immediately!”

“I AM a doctor.” One of his useful discoveries was that heart speed is an excellent indicator of emotional stress and that the kind of monitor runners wear to pace themselves can be an accurate “lie detector” even when the child doesn’t know whether he or she is lying.

The Ranger turned out to be one of the best adults in the lives of those children. Steady, practical, protective, and warm. In fact, years afterwards when the children were traced and visited as a follow-up, it turned out that the ones who were put in homes with those qualities, regardless of whether the families were surviving Branch Davidians or entirely secular, were the children who had found their balance and went on with their lives.

Perry’s book stories are not so dramatic as Barrus’ “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” (who couldn’t save his boy) or any of Vachss’ mysteries. But they are as profound and more explanatory. Perry uses cutting-edge brain research to guide his gentle therapies with children mostly younger than those of Barrus and not so criminal as those of Vachss. Perry understands a brain is something “built” by responding to what is happening to it and that damage at different points in the development of the brain leave it with deficits in characteristic places, affecting behavior in different ways. The answer is not surgery, is sometimes drugs, but is mostly social interaction in a way the brain can respond with new growth. Often the help is so basic and obvious that one groans that it hasn’t been provided earlier.

For instance, Perry tells us about Mama P, a huge “grounded” earth mother in a muumuu. All the children she cared for were “her babies” and when they freak out, even if they are seven years old, she simply holds them and rocks them. What she is doing is nothing like the grotesque exaggeration of “holding” that Perry also describes, a kind of restraint and injury that forces a child into distortions of reality. Mama P knows what she is doing and subscribes to no fancy theories. When Perry is confronted with an institutionally raised mother whose child is wasting away because she gets none of the natural cuddling and play most mothers love to provide, he asks Mama P to take in BOTH the mother and baby to live with her. This is done FOR A YEAR and saves them.

Perry makes it clear that one of the major deficits in the lives of children is the loss of the extended family and the alert community. This last week I was questioned again by former friends who could NOT understand why I would live in a village of 350 people on the prairie when I “could” be living in a city. I would not have to explain to Perry, whose original training was at the University of Chicago a while after I was there. He makes this clear right at the beginning by describing his two supervisors in the clinic. One, who might as well be called “Herr Doktor,” is all suit and theory, advising against anything but distance and analysis. The other is a male version of Mama P, doing what is obviously natural and helpful.

When Perry the beginner sees the little family of a girl he is trying to help going out into an arctic Chicago night, he knows that theory says he should keep his distance and let them cope, which he does a few times until he can’t stand imagining them at the several bus stops they will have to take to get across town. So he drives them home, agrees to stop at the grocery store on the way, and finally helps carry the heavy sacks up the stairs to the one-room apartment. That way the mother can carry the baby.

Was she just manipulating him? Playing games? Or wasn’t it simple decent practicality to get this woman and her young children home as safely as possible? Does one have to ask “what would Jesus do?” He is afraid to tell his stiff supervisor about it, but his human advisor is delighted he has made a “home visit.” “We should require EVERYONE to do that! It is SO valuable!” Perry is able to explain why the latter supervisor was right. He was not able to explain how that woman found the drive and strength to get help for her child at such a cost.

For many decades I’ve read this kind of book, partly to help myself. I had no great suffering in my life, but always a bit of a deficit somehow. I can trace them to public context (WWII), generational deficits (a maternal great-grandmother and then grandmother who died young), core family dynamics (a father who made his living on the road), and genetic vulnerability (hot-wired, introverted and near-sighted). I have never found any huge traumas, though there were some painful incidents. Blundering along, I found Bob Scriver and the Blackfeet who together healed some shortfalls. I think this is most often how the lives of most people are. But once in a while things go terribly wrong and unlucky. That’s when you need someone like Perry or Vachss or Barrus, depending on the problem.

You know where to start? Art. Barrus’ boys have portfolios. Perry begins with his children on the floor with coloring books and crayons. They don’t necessarily color inside the lines.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This is what the text of the page above says:

Terrance Guardipee is an internationally acclaimed Blackfeet painter and ledger artist whose work is featured in the permanent collections at the National Museu of American Indian in the Washington DC, Smithsonian, the Gene Autry Museum, the Museum of Arts and Culture in Santa Fee, New Mexico, the Hockaday Museum, the Dakota Museum, the Margrett Casey Foundation Art Collection, the Hood Museum of Dartmouth, the Heard Museum, the CM Russell Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History in Hanover, Germany, all feature Terrance’s artwork. Terrance is in numerous art collections.

Terrance studied at the Institute of American Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was the first ledger artist to incorporate antique maps, music paper, war ration coupons, and antique checks in his work. At the 2007 Harvest Moon Ball (in East Glacier, Montana) Terrance held the unprecedented top bid of $22,000 on his piece entitled “big sky the northern pacific railroad,” an antique map and ledger piece. Most recently at the 2008 Santa Fe Art Market, Terrance was awarded first place in his category as well as best of his division.

A featured artist for the 2008 Anniversary Heard Museum Indian Art Market, Terrance created “The Black Horse Society,” one of the ponies for the Trail of the Painted Ponies, to benefit student scholarships. Terrance Guardipee was a featured artist at the National Smithsonian Indian Museum in 2007.

When the plains tribe warriors were captured, they were often taken to Oklahoma or the southeast for holding in old forts, I suppose because there were facilities left from the Civil War. They weren’t exactly high-grade and one thinks of Guantanamo. In this strange climate and away from everything they knew, the men needed something to do. One of their occupations at home had been painting their war stories onto buffalo robes or tipi liners and so they asked for something to draw on. Their captors gave them old business ledgers, even though there were all those lines and maybe some writing. Thus was born “ledger art,” stylized war stories painted onto old ledger pages of the bureaucracy that held them captive.

When I first ran across Terrance Guardipee’s ledger art, I saw that he was Blackfeet, and then I stood up close to the paintings to read the names on the pages under his warriors. To my shock and delight, I knew the people who were listed! At least I DID know them in the Sixties when I lived in Browning. Many are gone. It seems Terrance lucked onto a pile of ledgers discarded after all the information was transferred to modern computers. His work is remarkable, not because I could recognize the people in his ledgers, but because of its inventiveness, mixture of tradition and irony, and skillful composition. His work is finer and sells for more than the work at the “big” CM Russell Auction, but here it was at the “Indian” art show.

Who was this guy? His table was tended by a prosperous and pretty Indian lady with her spiel down pat. There was a pile of the “SAY” magazine that you see the above page from. Since I first saw his work, I had asked around about him, but didn’t find out anything that rang a bell. I went on. Circled around. Saw a big guy with a fancy haircut -- shaved sides, ponytail. Probably the style has a name. Went over to talk to him, thinking, “Gee, he sure looks familiar.”

He was Terrance Guardipee. “Who’s your grandmother?” I asked in my faux knowledgeable way. “Nora Kipp.” My jaw dropped. “You’re related to Darrell Kipp?” “I’m his nephew.”

He was Geraldine Kipp’s son. Geraldine was one of my earliest students at Browning High School and always stood out in my memory as what I consider to be archetypal Blackfeet women, except not so tiny. Prized Blackfeet women were always modest, quiet, competent, dependable, intelligent and organized. They were the shelter and nurture of families who could absolutely depend upon them and therefore were confident of achievement. For the last decades she has been the mainstay of the Piegan Institute, calmly keeping the books and answering questions at her desk, taking the payroll checks to track down Darrell and get his signature if he’s in town. Never seeking the spotlight herself. Always quick with a smile.

So here’s Terrance, huge, stylish, calm, aware. “You know, Terrance,” I said. “I’ve looked at the family tree of your family, which you know comes down from Kipp but is at the core Heavy Runner, and the family trees of some of the other achieving people in this tribe, and what catches my eye is not the MEN who carry the family names in the English way, but a woman named “Blue Bead Woman.” He knew.

The name “Blue Bead Woman” refers to the single blue bead on a thong that is worn on the neck and wrists of a Bundle Keeper. It is a special sign. Bundle Keepers were serious people, dependable, protective, wise. He knew.

I said, “Sometimes I think i would be a good thing to write a novel about Blue Bead Woman, to create a life for her that would explain why seven generations of descent would still carry her pride.”

He knew. “Do it!” he said. He didn’t say, “That’s MY story and only I get to tell it!” He said, “Why not?”

I should try to make it like a ledger book, riders and lodges and that dream moth, all across a map, a list of pay-outs, ration cards, and train tickets. Over the top, the original lives of the People resurgent, triumphant.

Fifty or a hundred years from now, a run-of-the-mill cowboy painting will hang somewhere unremarked. A Terrance Guardipee ledger painting will be more precious than it is even now.

Monday, March 23, 2009


At the Native American Art show in Great Falls during the CM Russell Auction there was a unique piece that I wish I’d taken notes on since I can’t remember the artist. It was Indian faces, I think produced by modeling the faces in something solid and then pressing some kind of paper over them, so that they looked like leaves with faces embossed in them. Subtle and eerie, they have stayed in my mind more than anything at the major auction exhibit.

Indian Art is on the way up. For the first time the Mayor of Great Falls came to speak at the NA Art show -- of course, Dona Stebbins is no slouch and Indian-friendly in several ways. Her father was a veterinarian so she has a unique affinity for animals and her husband is a musician (she is a singer) so that other element is alive in her as it is in Indians. The current chief of the Blackfeet Tribe, Willie Sharp, was in the “rawhide drum corps” that opened the ceremonies with the presentation of flags. An outsider would find it hard to unbraid the forces acting together in this setting. Feminism with traditional grandmas, sophisticated graphics with naive dream-catchers, portraits of chiefs with depictions of drunks. Human beings. The People. Their faces.

Carl Cree Medicine, Sr.
, was honored with a plaque for his years of participation and service. He responded by reading this piece written by Henry Boyle which Carl uses in a little handout when he shows his art.

“Carl was born and raised on the Blackfeet Reservation where he now resides with his wife, Carmelita, on their small horse ranch. Prairie grass, willows and giant cottonwoods stretch westward through the Badger Creek valley to the Rocky Mountains, a perfect setting for an artist’s imagination.

“Mr. Cree Medicine does sculpting with various metals, both small and large, in bronze, bone and silver, as well as beadwork and leather crafts. He worked with the famous sculptor and taxidermist Bob Scriver of Browning for over twenty-five years, learning the art of taxidermy, bronze-casting and sculpting. Mr. Scriver also taught him the intricate method of “patina,” mixing proper chemicals to color the finished work of castings.

“Carl was instrumental in compiling a book with Bob entitled “No More Buffalo,” published in 1982. Carl, his wife and son served as models for many of the depicted sculptures in the publication.

“Over the years Mr. Cree Medicine has participated in art shows at the Native American Art Show in East Glacier Park and Great Falls, Montana; the Art Market in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Bemidji, Minnesota; Potsdam, New York; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to name a few.

“Carl’s earrings carved from bone or made from different metals dangle from the ears of many people throughout the world. His sculptures and works of art adorn numerous homes, offices and hotel lobbies as well.

“Carl can be reached at his home address: Pikuni Arts & Crafts, Box 60, Browning, Montana, 59417. (406)-338-2097 at home. (406) 338-7842 at work.”

The second part of Carl’s brochure was written by himself.

“My name is Carl Cree Medicine Sr., born and raised on the Blackfeet Reservation where I now reside and own a small horse ranch. I live approximately twenty miles south of Browning, Montana, in a small community known as Old Agency. (A history is behind this little place, also known as Badger Creek.) I have my own work place at my homestead where I contemplate my art and craft ideas. I do my own sculpting, hand painting of my work, and work with crafts in various medias.

“My earliest recollection of my artistic ability goes back to my childhood, during the time my father was alive as he too was an accomplished artist in his own right. He more or less worked with wood and his work has been displayed by different merchants in Browning, Valier and Dupuyer, Montana. I dabbled in art while I was in high school, but never pursued it until later in life.

“During my early adolescent years I became acquainted and employed with the renowned Western artist, Mr. Robert Scriver. He took me under his wing and gave me the opportunity to flourish in the art world. He saw the potential and knew I had a hidden talent to become an artist. With his belief in me and the encouragement I developed my own style and set goals for my art career. In the early years with Bob, I was taught the wrongs and rights to become an accomplished sculptor, taxidermist, and proper procedure for bronze casting. He also taught me the steps to the finished work (patina), the proper procedure to where very few people are famliar for this type of art (mixing the proper chemicals to color the castings). I did all this approximately ten years. Then we went on to establish the foundry. This was the peak of my art career where I worked on my own. I had first hand knowledge of experimenting with different medias and made major decisions to where my employer was my best friend and mentor in the art world.

“I owe a great deal to this gentleman, because without his belief in me and the faith he restored, I can’t say I would have set goals for myself as I have now. I have goals yet to conquer in the art world, but I know I will reach them for now I have the knowledge and know how for being a successful artist in my own right.

“I worked closely with Bob for twenty-five years and retired to take up other interests and work as a free lance artist where I am today. I travel to different art shows across the country and am invited to participate in various shows during the year.

“Since 1985 I have been participating in the Great Falls Native American Art Show, Great Falls, Montana. The largest I have participated in was in 1990, the “Art Market,” Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“I also had the privilege of working with Mr. Scriver in putting a book together titled “No More Buffalo,” featuring my son and wife in the book. the book is about the beginning of the Indian, notably the dog days and the travois to modern days.”

Carl is about my age (seventy or so) and was working for Bob when I arrived in 1961. He made a dollar an hour and I made $5 a day. (I was also teaching school most of the year.) He was wrestling with alcohol, which he finally beat with the help of the Catholic Church, and sometimes didn’t show up for a few weeks. But when he came back, he just picked up where he left off. We all did everything, whether it was receiving tourists in the front, building something in the back, repairing something at the ranch, riding horseback, skinning a bear, answering the phone, or doing the many small finicky tasks of producing art plus the huge life-endangering ceremony of pouring molten bronze. Carl paid attention. He learned. His son, David, became Bob’s much-prized foreman.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Go to www.greatfallstribune.com/westernart if you’re a visual person who craves video.

Think of this as a three-act play, except that though I experienced it in sequence yesterday and you’ll have to read it in sequence, it was really happening all at the same time as though it were staged on three sides of the audience.

First is the main stage, which is at the Heritage Motel in Great Falls as it has been for many years. It’s the kind of huge motel with an indoor swimming pool in the middle and glass slider doors onto that space. All the furniture comes out for storage in trucks and the artists put up false walls to convert each room into a gallery. Or the less affluent just rent a regular motel room and spread their display out on the bed. There were fewer people this year -- I found a parking place right off. But there were more people eating breakfast and more of them had white hair. Some were missing. Every year more are missing. Every year the management has everything even more smoothly organized. The Ad Club, who has always sponsored this, is VERY sharp and energetic. No detail is neglected.

This year I was on the programme for the book-signing, which in this context also means signing cowboy hats, signing buckskin vests -- not just signing but also drawing a little picture. I wasn’t quite so creative, struggling hard to think of something meaningful to say in one sentence. The lawyer who destroyed Bob Scriver’s estate came on his belly to buy a book. Trying to be nice for the sake of Norma Ashby, the best I could come up with was “best wishes.” I didn’t say for what. The last time I heard from him was years ago when he sent me a letter forbidding me to ever enter his office because I told someone I wanted to punch him out.

Eric Newhouse mentioned me by name in the calendar, though there were more important people signing books. I sat next to Joan Stauffer, who wrote “Behind Every Man: The Story of Nancy Cooper Russell.” That’s Charlie Russell’s wife, whom everyone agrees put him on the map. She arranged his shows, set the prices, and ran off the little kids and loafers who kept him from working. Joan used to dress up and deliver a monologue as Nancy Russell, whose elegant portrait is on the front of her book.

I asked Joan if she thought Nancy had any regrets. She said yes, that Nancy regretted that she hadn’t shown more warmth to Jack, the couple’s adopted son. He was a little bitter and didn’t visit. Joan lives in Tulsa and is active with the Gilcrease, which has the largest and “best” Russell collection, the one that “got away” from Montana, leaving them determined never to let that happen again. Tom Gilcrease was a Native American who got rich on oil and used it to educate himself by touring Europe (a classic alternative to university) and returned to celebrate American history.

When I asked Joan if she knew Tellefero, author of a controversial tell-all bio of Charlie and Nancy Russell, she looked off into the distance and went silent.

I did sell all the books I had left and could have sold more. Hastings and the CM Russell Museum should have sold out as well. One of the most charming book buyers was Ron Ukrainetz, an artist whose saloon-keeper/hustler father sort of tricked Bob into his early career. The story is in the book, but Ron and will have to get together to tell stories. He says they have a cache of Bob Scriver letters with little sketches left from the negotiations (before I came to Montana) and have framed some, might print others, and will never let anyone read a few. I have a unique document: the letter Bob wrote in the middle of the night, consumed by panic that he had done the wrong thing and breaking off. The only paper he could find was an adding machine tape and the only pen was red. Ron and I are about the same age and he exhibits his good work in Jack Smith’s gallery down the street from me in Valier, but we’ve never met before.

The three people I always seek out are old Bob Scriver friends. One is Joyce Clarke Turvey, whose wood carver father, John Clarke, is an historic figure. I used him in what I hoped was the symphonic chord at the end of “Bronze Inside and Out:” an imagined interaction among a fine sculptor educated at Beaux Arts in Paris, named Voisin; John, who both learned from Voisin and was the subject of one of the busts the sculptor was there to do; Charlie Beil, a protegee of Russell and mentor to Bob Scriver; and Bob himself, fourteen years old.

Then there was Rex Rieke, whose wife is my self-declared most devoted blog fan. We have a lot of jokes about that. Rex is another of those fine artists who excels at both paint and music, which he plays at many venues around the state. He brought his so-fine Maynard Dixon-type mountainscapes, not his abstract work. While I was talking to him, his hired man called to say they had just had another lamb out at the ranch. Rex said that Dick Flood, one of the first of the art higglers, used to find Russells in the early days by simply walking down Montana streets after dark, early in the evening before the shades were drawn. He could spot them through the windows and return the next day to buy them.

Always I check out David Powell, son of Ace Powell, who in the earliest days was at the heart of Western art on the northern prairies. David and Sasha’s autistic little boy is making good progress in a special school program; their college-aged son is getting straight A’s and wants to go into airplane crash investigation as a profession. I would love to hear what Ace would say about that! There weren’t even airplanes when he started out.

This event is a niche within a niche, maybe within another niche or on another layer. First of all, this event is a friendship circle and the people who experience it that way see it as an annual reunion, like a high school class coming together. They are not a university crowd, not inclined to analyze, not sophisticated about much of anything and not defensive about it, but good-natured and generous. Good spenders! Good friends -- aging.

They interface through the Ad Club with two other groups mainly. One is the artists themselves, which can be grouped in a lot of different ways, but who address exclusively the American West and mostly the 19th century American West that white folks have made legendary. They love art that has been called illustration or calendar art, but some are pretty good impressionists. This show does not attract the big names, though long ago when they were little names, they weren’t too proud to come. There are bronzes everywhere, some of them pretty obvious copies of Scriver works. I don’t fuss about it. I DO fuss about the many illegal castings, but the entity that has the power and obligation to do something about it is the Montana Historical Society -- not me.

The other group interfacing through the Ad Club is dealers, a mixed lot. Some are honorable and fair, some are true predators, looking for weak people to exploit, whether artists or buyers. The Ad Club keeps them somewhat in check, though Montana art law is nearly nonexistent.

Besides the centerpiece auction there are six other events, at least: what they called “March in Montana” is really the same wheeler/dealers out from under the thumb of the Ad Club in a more downscale motel; the Native American Show in the Civic Center; the Western Heritage Artists Association and March Antiques Show at the Holiday Inn; Jay Contway and Friends at the Expo Center, specializing in yarning as much as sales; Studio 706, a local collective selling through their own gallery; and Western Collectibles with all the paraphenalia. There was also an auction at the Pacific Antique Mall. Maybe some action at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.

I only have the stamina to attend two. The Native American Show and “March in Montana.” The Native American Show was the best experience of the day for me. First, the work was vibrant, new, jumping and alive. Valentina LaPier, whose work grows constantly, really impressed me. Deborah Magee, whose family has many ties to me and Bob Scriver (Deborah's father Merle was Bob's hunting partner and on the school board that hired me.), won best of the miniature category with a “bead painting” that was a small portrait of an historic Indian woman, all done with solid beads and framed in painted rawhide. It tickles me that the newest and most intellectual art is done by the Native Americans. But it puzzles me (maybe it doesn’t really) that there is such a wall between the White Triumphalist Western Art (Kevin Red Star was the only Indian over there at the main auction.) and the Native American highly sophisticated and often hilarious work. Few whites even come over to look.

It was a great pleasure to see Carl Cree Medicine Sr. receive an award for his long-standing attendance (25 years) and work on behalf of artists. When I came to Browning, the average annual income for Indian men was $500 a YEAR and their average life-span was 47 years, or about as long as a person can live with chronic alcoholism. Carl wrestled demon rum (or rather demon Thunderbird) for a long time. He looked at his plaque and said, “Pretty good. Ought to be able to get a couple of jugs out of pawning it!” But he was only joking. One of his sculptures was called “Alley Preaching” and showed two winoes being scolded by a guy in dark glasses. For years Carl ran a centre where street people could take shelter. The place was blue with tobacco smoke and their coffee was about like battery acid.

The politically correct crowd will ask me, when I say I know some Blackfeet person, “Have you ever invited them to your house for dinner? Have they ever invited you over for dinner?” Suburban culture and corporate culture both organize around dinner parties. When I say I know Carl, I mean that we ate many a coffee break donut and long john (maple bar) at the bakery lunch counter with our elbows bumping, and I had many an argument with him drunk while Bob hid, and we risked our lives together in the foundry pouring molten bronze. The boy who posed for the bust of a child in Bob’s group of Blackfeet portraits was there with Carl. His name is Tim. He’s one big dude these days. I suppose he’s about forty and looks healthy. Carl is my age. His life shows.

I’ll post more about Carl later. And also about Terrance Guardipee, about whom I’ve been asking people for years and who turns out to be Darrell Kipp’s NEPHEW! His mother was Geraldine Kipp, who was my student once, and who keeps the Piegan Institute organized and on time now, ever quietly and gracefully as she always does everything.

Then I went, sighing, over to the “other” auction, where there were no pretty ladies in evening gowns to carry the paintings, and the auctioneer was running the art and NA artifacts through the process as fast and hard as he could. A small audience, mostly dealers, sat in front; probably a hundred more were invisibly streaming and bidding online, another double-dozen were perched alongside the upstairs balcony railings, and some were watching from inside dealer rooms, both on laptops and by craning their necks. Conversations were often interrupted as some choice item looked momentarily promising. This was where the economy and the general down-curve of nineteenth-century American West enthusiasm was being felt. There weren’t as many white heads as dyed heads, mostly male. The rooms had not been emptied, so the beds were covered with tomahawks and rare books. These are the last of the “higglers,” though they call themselves “antiquarians.” This is where you can find out the real truth of things.

I checked in with Adolf Hungry-Wolf who was not glad to see me because “nineteenth century Blackfeet braves” are never glad to see white women, and said hello to his best friend, Paul Raczka, who keeps a low profile over in Choteau. They know more about the Blackfeet than the Blackfeet know about themselves.

By then my back ached, my head swam, I could barely pronounce words -- much less remember names --so I went home. It was a gray day, mixed clouds moving slowly in a high stratus sheet and patterns of cumulus over the mountains. Not too cold and not too hot. No green yet. The question I pondered as I drove was the one we were all asking ourselves and each other: “what about twenty years from now? Will there be an auction? Will anyone care about Charlie Russell?”

More later.

Friday, March 20, 2009


My movie this week included “Country Matters” which is a compendium of dramatized English short stories from the Edwardian times. One of them was called “The Higgler,” which is their word for a man who goes around the country with a wagon, buying small things low and reselling them somewhere else for a higher price. Eggs, produce, pans and the like. There are art higglers in Great Falls today as the CM Russell Museum benefit auction that the Ad Club puts on each year begins. Satellite shows are also open. Most people operate out of motel rooms, but some use RV’s or car trunks or even, in the case of monumental sculpture, flatbed trucks, which can be rather startling when encountered in traffic.

In the old days, by which I mean the Sixties which I suppose could be called the JKF times, the wheeler-dealers were still cruising the Eisenhower highway network to search the country for art bargains and then sell them as great treasures elsewhere. Sure enough, in those years original Russells were still being found stored in attics and chicken houses across the high prairie. One could buy an old book in a junk store and shake out an illustrated letter. Not many people got rich but some did well enough to keep going. Certainly, it’s how Dick Flood got his start.

The higgler wheeler-dealers of the last half of the twentieth century are a little thin in the ground now. Instead they use computers. But some have galleries. A few, knowing there are rumors about them and famous swindles that they made, have come to self-proclaiming their wheeler-dealer status. Others are disguised as patrons who pretend to be helping the alcoholic or improvident artists from whom they buy, later inflating their reputations. Running art through an auction is a good way to attract attention, even if quietly buying it back through a front is the main way to establish a high selling price.

We used to think of gallery owners, publishers, and other impresarios as people who knew quality plus a formidable amount of art history and who were prepared to see potential in beginners or to find quiet rural geniuses. That was back in the days when professionals, like doctors and lawyers, were seen as “professing” something and to self-monitor for ethics. Nowadays, of course, the waves of greed have transformed them into profit-meisters whose high pay makes them able to accumulate the capital to play games with people’s lives, though they really rather prefer them dead. And they like the artists to fit into a “brand” expectation on the part of the buyers.

For their part the bourgeoisie are likely to be buying to be part of the crowd, to do the “in” thing, to be able to say to their friends, “Oh, I picked up a bluhbluhbluh for a real bargain price!” Also, like high school kids, they love the party atmosphere of auctions and high brow (they think) shopping in galleries. Around here, of course, the Western art has the huge advantage of being subject matter that has been experienced by many people who then buy portrayals that remind them of their own lives. Neither buyer nor seller is likely to have studied much about art and their “eye” these days is mostly taught by movies and television.

But then, we didn’t know a lot back in the Sixties either. Ace and Bob used to muse over what made a really “good” painting. Ace kidded about how a painting on stretched canvas was worth more than one painted on canvasboard, but then there were the gimmicks of a painting by Charlie on a windowshade or a silk petticoat that belonged to winkwink. Did using a lot of different colors mean that the painting was worth more money? Was an oil painting worth more than a watercolor? Surely it was worth more than a print? (This was before giclĂ©e prints made fortunes for some artists.) Was it more valuable if an artist taught himself, thus avoiding the contamination of scholars and professors, or was it better to have gone to prestigious schools? (Which WERE they? We knew about the Famous Artists correspondence courses.)

Would it be better to own a painting that had actually appeared on a calendar? Calendars and magazines were the art most people knew and they weren’t surprised when suddenly those same people turned up as high-dollar easel painters in the Western mode. Now that so many have eyes educated by animation, a surprising number of Western artists come from Disney. Among the most skillful and accepted painters are Chinese artists, but people here still aren’t quite sure about Native American painters who paint abstractly. We don’t know how to look at them. How do we know what they’re “about?”

Sculpture is both easier and harder. Wood carving is easy, though many of the old timers used a lathe-type machine to make multiple bears and mountain goats. After all, they finished them by hand. Marble is like that, too. Bronze casting baffles people, though not many still believe that they are whittled out of metal. We’ve seen too many photos of Charlie Russell with clay or beeswax in his hands. But many still believe that the modeled product is somehow “bronzed” like electroplated baby shoes.

If you say “mold,” people see in their heads a machine, though old-fashioned French or Roman block investment is pretty much back-bending labor. Modern ceramic shell casting is far more industrial, cheaper, faster, less skill-demanding, much better suited to mass production -- natural enough since it was developed to cast parts for space-age rockets in military applications. All the little signs of excellence in casting and patining metal are harder to learn.

The three main categories of Scriver bronzes for sale might be labeled white, black and gray. The “white market” bronzes are those cast in his lifetime in his own foundry in Browning with his skilled Blackfeet crew (plus me). They were sold with a certificate of authenticity showing the limits of the edition and that was registered in a book that the Montana Historical Society refuses to search for in his estate, thus crippling estimates of value. But very few of them go through auctions anyway.

The black market bronzes are flatly illegal castings, often originating in the Flathead Valley. They are invariably ceramic shell castings and usually have lousy patinas, often looking like paint instead of the subtle depths of a true patina.

The gray market castings come from sculptures that were commissioned by entrepreneurs, a new kind of wheeler-dealer, who suggested subjects, bought them WITH the copyright, set their own edition numbers (often as high as a hundred copies) cast them through some Montana ceramic-shell foundry, and sold them through their own galleries. Now they show up at all the auctions and on eBay. When Bob died ten years ago, his will specified that all molds should be destroyed. But he didn’t own the molds that belonged to these speculators and most of them didn’t have warehouses to store them, so they remained with foundries that later dispersed. No one knows where they went then, or even whether they still exist. It’s hard to maintain even today’s durable molds in prime condition.

A whole new field of expertise has developed -- not in higgling -- but in tracking the activities of the wheeler-dealers and how they parlayed opportunism into high dollar SW galleries. (I can’t think of any who ended up in New York.) There are books, some of them autobiographical. We need some good novels. I’ll get right on it!

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In the course of a day I download quite a few articles, some short and some quite long. Then I stack them. Sometimes I refer to them. The theory is that I will file them. Recently I went through the most recent ones to separate out the articles about art. The stack is about five inches tall.

Recent economic events have turned attention to the “arts” in general (the first to go in small town high school budgets where sports must be preserved at all costs) and to specific uses of arts as capital. We’ve come a long way since Andy Greenshields, then president of the Browning Bank, got a good guffaw out of the idea of Bob Scriver borrowing money to buy a Rungius painting of a moose from Rex Rieke. That was 1960 or so. (Bob borrowed the money from his mother.) The painting was auctioned at the dispersal sale of Bob’s estate. Everyone will ask me “for how much” while few will say, “What was the painting like?” Because along with the commodification of everything else, we have radically commodified art.

Art is worth whatever it will sell for. That depends on how much it is wanted by people with capital. People with capital are used to taking the opinions and analysis of others who are supposed to be experts. They expect there to actually BE a dependable estimate of value. You can see where that got us by reading the newspaper. Dealing art is stick game, bone game.

So Annie Liebowitz, a top-ranked photographer, has had to pawn the copyright to all her life’s work in order to pay her mortgage debts. Institutions from universities to train stations have walked through their buildings to search out murals and old gifted paintings that might have some value and have discovered to their delight that some neglected, dark and dirty works are valued enough by “those who know” to finance the repair of those very same buildings. So they were sold. In fact, the Whitney Museum of Western Art in Cody, now part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, was originally founded with Remington paintings that Harold McCracken bought from Remington’s birthplace museum in New York so they could fix the roof, get a new furnace and such.

Some of these sales have caused huge outcries from people who were in love with the thing-itself, the paintings. Museums, who collect art the way a hospital collects sick people, became clever -- or maybe I should say have always been clever -- about accepting art in the front, winnowing it in some warehouse, and quietly selling some of it out the back door, which outrages the original donors if they find out. In fact, the organizations of museums have framed up “de-accessioning” policies and try to keep order by threatening museums that don’t comply with expulsion from the certifying organization. This happened to the National Academy of Design, of all entities, though it has managed to get back into good graces recently.

Different genres have fared differently. French Impressionists have always been a good investment and individual paintings are known and followed through acquisitions and sale. Picasso is good but it depends on the circumstances: which one, what media, where it has been (provenance), the circumstances of its creation because “story” is a big part of every art. Abstract expressionists were very much loved as being aligned with creative outbursts, untrammeled passion, human romantic aspirations. The story of the artist’s life is important. But no one knows quite what to do with huge Jackson Pollock paintings that have changed color because of the paint used, transforming the mood and balance of the pattern. Recently an English critic, Jonathan Jones, took on Andy Warhol as a master of the flimflam, the Emperor’s New Clothes, “toxic art,” so to speak, that was leveraged out of sight, derivatives.

The secondary circle of galleries, dealers, scholars, explainers, and critics have always known how to make money from other people’s art, either by explaining it (What DOES a soup can mean?) or by certifying authenticity. (Not easy with a Pollock even with computerized analysis.) Of course, there is the usual cloud of lawyers, pointing out that reproduction rights, copy rights, “intellectual property” rights and etc. should all be pinned down in law and litigated.

Then we come to American Western art, a loose and composite genre (not always respected) that can include photos of Yosemite, self-taught scenes of authentic cowboy action, abstract American Indian canvases, wildlife portraits, the carefully thought-out easel works of Connecticut slick-magazine illustrators and classically trained Chinese immigrants. Oh, and as long as we’re at it, the artifacts of the Old West from cowboy roping cuffs to Amerindian tipi skins, the books of the Great Dream of the West, the movie posters, and so on. The buyers seem to like prints as well as originals as long as the reproductions are by a process with a fancy name.

So how is a person supposed to figure all this out in terms of their own capital investments? I once took a class from an art professor in Cheney, Washington. He said there are two ways for an artist to “make it,” that is, sell enough art to consider it a living. The first was to hop on every trend, watch every auction, check stickers in every shop, walk the museums and galleries and engage the experts -- then provide what the market wants. This will mean some drastic changes over the years.

The other way was to follow your heart, enter the spell, go to the studio with focus and diligence to find the path that is yours alone. If you have the fortitude to do that long enough, he promised, you will be great. This is not bad advice for a buyer as well.

The real value of that original Rungius painting of a moose couldn’t be measured in money. It was in New Brunswick, one of those early dark green and gray paintings, with fallen logs making the canvas-crossing X that was always the structure of Rungius’ composition. The moose is stepping carefully through the deadfall, watching the horizon under a silver sky. It always hung over the little spinet piano against a grey wall, in a room with dark green drapes. We would sit looking at it every day. There is always in that kind of Rungius painting a spot of bright red, small but vital, like our hearts.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


It’s a biological principle (for a minute there I had a typo that said “biolegorical” -- bio-allegorical -- quite relevant) that life forms in the edge ecologies around meadows or forests or lakes are richer and more diverse than those in the middle. This comes to mind -- here in Valier on the edge of a lake, the edge of the Blackfeet reservation, at the edge of the Rockies, near the edge of Canada -- because I have a strong awareness of inventing my own way of life along those edges, partly made possible by technology: the Netflix/imdb/Google world which are also an edge.

Out the window I watch the poplars and storm skies go through the seasons. On the “window” of the computer and the television screen (which has long been detached from either cable or broadcast television) I’m back to a self-imposed course of study that began in 1957 when classmate Stu Hagmann took me along to film series and classes. It was definitely edgy. (Stu went back to the mainstream.) It was the time of a terrific explosion of film: Bergman, Fellini, Truffault and so on -- technically and culturally challenging. Though these were considered “foreign” films and “auteur” films, I was not a film student and so they washed over me as experience, no differently than “Joan of Arc” with Ingrid Bergman, or “Prince Who Was a Thief” with Piper Laurie, or “The Quiet Man” with Maureen O’Hara, and hundreds of other studio films. In the television years of my childhood (after the Fifties) I was as devoted to Westerns as anyone, which is partly how I ended up here in Montana.

But now, without leaving Montana, I’m going back to film, partly just roaming and partly with some specific inquiries. Lately I’m looking at what are evidently called “structuralist feminist” films. That is, movies like those made by Sally Potter and Jane Campion. For me, Jane Campion’s “The Piano” is a link with Montana. If Harvey Keitel’s role in that movie doesn’t remind you of Bob Scriver, you didn’t know Bob Scriver. At least not the way I did.

And yet, I’m nothing like either Campion or Potter with their boomer-generation, head-trippy, sometimes over-intellectual and pretty Marxist (I mean that ambiguously) approach to life. My trip from theatre to theology has been anchored in blue-collar work and the very real community of small congregations (not unlike the community of theatre and film creation). My sensory life is aesthetically influenced but not at all dominated by art of the American West and it doesn’t exclude the abstract, but it does carry an interest in costume and setting that is shared by Campion and Potter. We examine and criticize culture through those elements.

One point of departure from the “feminist” thing is that I don’t feel it as a political problem so much as a practical problem, like where do big fat old women buy clothes that fit except in the men’s department? I’ve always been uncomfortable with “ists”, more interested in how the unique can demonstrate the universal than making the unique precious.

Another is that the romantic dyad is pretty much “solved” for me. I mean, I bypassed children, bypassed financial success, bypassed dieting and makeup (mostly -- hey, even Gary Cooper wore eye liner!) and fancy clothes. Still, I’m not into that tango personally, but I’m not past thinking about it in a more abstract way.

I do not confine my attentions to “nice people” which is the way many thinkers avoid anxiety. I’ve been exposed to people “in extremis” and though I don’t go out of my way to look for them, I feel that I should respond to them and do my best. I have been out on the edge myself and appreciate the help I got.

So I’m not the feminist -- am I the structuralist? MUCH closer. It does seem to me that everything has a “song,” an algorithm, an inner pattern, and that they are the source of meaning. Changing one’s religious pattern from the three-layered world of the tribal Mediterranean to the cosmic world of waves and particles, all connected and all moving, has major implications in the way human life is considered. For one thing, this conversion or “paradigm shift” deeply challenges the idea of the romantic individual who can do as he/she pleases without affecting the lives of any others. This notion is still alive in the work of Campion and Potter, as nearly as I can tell. Less in Potter, who thinks about things like world peace. Maybe it is necessary for anyone working in the “auteur” tradition.

Last night I watched Potter’s “Orlando,” based on Virginia Woolf’s novel which I have not read. It’s philosophical fantasy, but openly so -- right out there in plain sight, rather than hidden in a fancy story like, say, the “Elizabeth” with Cate Blanchett. But it is equally beautiful and seductive, pulling us into vignettes of enormous power. The first scene especially, which shows the young “Orlando” in 1600 in a long sequence on ice -- literally -- is strange and horrifying, from the girl frozen into the lake causing the men to laugh, to the old woman carrying her burden of sticks, a sight also archetypal in the art of the West context. All those so-familiar court pavanes are quite new when done on ice! The costumes are beyond gorgeous. But nature as winter, uncontrolled and killing, is something we know in the high West.

We also know desert and strange cultures, as the Arab sequence illustrates; we know the relief of a culture that doesn’t press everyone into the Euro-dichotomies of gender. The high intellectual drawingroom/salon sequences mean nothing to us but dispossession of the property of the weak by the strong is our preoccupation.

Campion is from New Zealand, which is much like the Pacific Northwest. Potter is English. Kimberly Peirce, writer/director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” is the US rough equivalent. Follow Hillary Swank from that stunning film (based on a real story of a girl passing as a boy) to “Million Dollar Baby” and who do we meet? Clint Eastwood. And isn’t that a gender-role challenging film?

Maybe the “edge” meets the frontier in the ethnic persons of Katy Jurado and Tantoo Cardinal, though they don’t so much question their cultural assignments as just overwhelm them. I like that game plan. But in the meantime I really like this impromptu nighttime wandering back and forth over boundaries between Westerns and foreign film, feminism and BBC costume drama. Maybe no product will be produced by me. Who cares? I’m subsidized by Social Security.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

PNWD-UUA LEADERSHIP SCHOOL: Narrative of The Third Year


(It’s my understanding that a third year was never offered again anywhere. I don’t know about second years.)

The third summer was almost painful because we all knew this was our last summer, including Ord and Peter. By now we’d seen people changing over time: some divorced, some married, all older, a few health issues. I knew I was going to seminary in the fall and wouldn’t be back to the Northwest for a long time.

This time we bunked on the officers’ side of the compound and contracted with some Unitarians to cook for us, which meant we had exceedingly healthy and delicious food and also that we had some kitchen chores to do. Not that it was a hardship. I particularly remember one dishwashing session with us singing “Summertime” in harmony.

This time the idea was for us to form an “ideal community” -- to use all the skills we’d been taught and the desires we’d brought with us to design a way of life for a few days. We could do anything so long as it wasn’t illegal or destructive. It was a little surprising how conservative we turned out to be.

The planning structure was quite rigid. There were two givens: every day started out with half an hour of meditation which Peter began with a short thought and ended by shaking the hand of the person next to him. Each evening ended in our Odyssey groups (which served the same purpose as Credo or Journal groups) where each of us sketched out our spiritual growth and development and explained why we came to the UU churches. Even on the days we were doing the model community, no one wanted to change those two basics that bracketed the day.

On the first evening Ord laid out an outline for the plan of the week. There was no textbook, custom or otherwise. The biggest problem was that everyone wanted to leap into action immediately without doing the basic groundwork. We had to be pulled back over and over.

Next morning we began with a long painful struggle to define our needs, which were inchoate. The following list is what we finally came up with after “pyramiding” to get consensus:

1. Private space and time.
2. Balance in pacing and activities.
3. Opportunity to share leadership and experience new roles.
4. Celebration, inspiration, ritual and spiritual development.
5. Giving and receiving, nurturing, gentleness, trust, acceptance and intimacy.
6. Opportunities for individual growth and learning.
7. Experience collective energy, purpose and unity.
8. Open communication, integration and feedback.
9. Permission for spontaneity, risk and failure.
10. Boundaries/structure (i.e. role clarification and worth)
11. Creative and aesthetic opportunities.
12. Relationship to the environment (sensitivity to and integration with)
13. Respect and integrity.

(These were not ranked.)

In the afternoon we designed our purpose: “to enhance our personhood and UU religious questing in a covenanted, participatory community, by designing, living and evaluating experiences which attempt to nurture the creative, spiritual and human needs of the its members with recognition and acceptance of the differences among individuals.”

Every word and phrase of that purpose was argued over, fought for, compromised, and semantically rotisseried until we had consensus, which meant that when all the rest of the week everything was matched back against that purpose, the congruence or discrepancy had real force. This purpose was our Constitution. We were our own Supreme Court.

The next meeting was to design the leadership and set their relationships. We had a basic decision to make as to whether the Odyssey groups, which were our only small groups so far, should also be the management groups. We finally decided against that on the grounds that if the management groups had tough times, we would have the Odyssey groups in which to take refuge. This turned out to be a mistake, since our management groups proved not to spend enough time together to get any commitment or identity. We should not have trusted our Odyssey groups to be able to be supportive and critical at the same time. I don’t quite know why we lost our nerve when we had learned in previous years how to do that, but I think it may have had something to do with several disruptive personalities coming into the group without having been through the very critical second year process. We who had been through that scalding knew we could survive anything. Except the uninitiated.

Anyway, the management design came out like this:

Stage 1: All Odyssey groups take talent inventory of what people are able and willing to lead or contribute.

Stage 2: Put up signs for the task groups and let each person walk to that group he or she likes. Persons can then “eyeball” their decisions on the basis of who is in the group, how many people are needed, and what the task is.

Stage 3: Each management or task group would choose one representative to be on a central council which would be responsible for coordination and arbitration.

Stage 4: The council would meet, decide on their own structure (whether to have a chair, divide authority among them, appoint persons to oversee specific things like cleanliness or refreshments, etc.), make up the final calendar and decide on their future meeting schedule.

At the next meeting (by now we were on the third night) we discussed rewards and why a leader would want to go through a lot of hassle. We talked about built-in rewards (money, privileges, extra time, titles) versus natural rewards (pride, power, etc.) and so on.

The next morning we checked back over our plans to see whether we had forgotten anything and to see if our leadership design fit our ideological purposes and tasks. Looking back, I think our UU tradition of individual choice encouraged us to be too loose in our design, so that too much had to be invented as we went along. The council met, a calendar was produced, and we started out.

That night the calendar called for field games, some silly time and some child-type games. I can’t remember the field games. (Not my thing anyway. I might have taken a nap instead.)

The silly time went evil. It was supposed to be a take-off on a beauty contest with men dressed as women. (Cross-dressing is a common preoccupation in prairie culture, Blackfeet culture, and modern culture. But it was crossing the threshold into liminal time and space about sex that had evidently still not been resolved by this group.) Somehow it turned malevolent in a very sexist way. What was meant to be clever had sharp edges. The men were naive about athletic supporters and were revealed in embarrassing ways when display turned out to be obviously stimulating.

Everyone was unhappy and no one could turn it back into a good experience though some people tried. (Always the “fixers.”) No one wanted to just blow the whistle and call the game. Finally we struggled to a conclusion, which came off somewhat better when one “contestant” arrived draped in seaweed as the Monster from the Black Lagoon, pushing the fear-based witticisms into slapstick.

Next we played “Sardines” for a while, which was pretty exciting with three big empty Victorian houses and lots of grounds for hiding. No one got the instructions straight so we never did figure out who won. No one cared. At one point there were fifteen people huddled under my van!

Then we danced and sang for a while until the Park Rangers came to quiet us down. (The noise problem was back.) It was interesting that as soon as outside authority showed up, the model community dissolved and Peter was left to meet the badges and make excuses. On the other side, I suspect the Rangers were mostly curious. We weren’t THAT noisy, but they may have thought we might be a cult or something. All in all, we got off to a bad beginning.

The next morning, we had agreed, was to be silent until after lunch. We silently, ate silently, and went for a long silent hike together, off through the woods and along the beach. We were so quiet that rabbits sat beside the trail, watching us, and birds didn’t stop singing when we passed. When we got back, some people played volleyball, some played a silent child’s game about things in paper sacks, and some of the women went off together to massage each other with fragrant oils. By this time some people were desperate to communicate and doing a lot of gesturing. Finally we joined together with a worship service to break the silence slowly and gracefully. This was one of thge best parts of the community. We all expressed great hunger for spiritual discipline and low-key intimacy.

In the afternoon early we played “New Games:” Pruii, Skinning the Snake, and handing people overhead, mosh-pit-style. This was very threatening to me and I don’t know whether I could have done it without the reassurance of the morning’s experience, but I really liked it in the end.

Then we had formal classes. I led one on the Progoff formal Journal-Keeping (based on Jungian principles). Peter did one on Bible study. Joan Goodwin did one on materials for fellowships.

That evening the shit really hit the fan! All our design flubs showed up in spades and when it was time to “reconsider and adjust” everyone wanted to blame all the trouble on Ord. Mutiny was in the air and everyone was mad at everyone. It wasn’t clear whether Ord and Peter were in charge of the evening or whether the council we had empowered was in charge of the evening.

Finally, the council took hold. In fact, Donalda Regehr, as authorized head of the council and voted “most trusted person present,” took hold of the entire group (including Ord and Peter), restored order, and made up a plan of action. This was a heady experience for her, as she doesn’t usually end up as the leader.

The council was directed to divide up, go outside and take complaints from individuals, meet to compare stories, and develop suggestions for the total group. Instead, some rebels lingered inside, resenting the fact that the group had been divided up, and formed their own separate power group. When the council returned and started to put through the rest of their plan, the rebels refused to accept their authority and burst out with all sorts of objections. No one knew what to do. Peter and Ord were both swearing. It seemed as though everyone might pack and go home. Utopia was in flames.

Finally, it began to filter through that no one was angry about the community as such. They were mostly angry about the abstract question of who had the power. (The reality was that Donalda had it.) Therefore, in order to go on, we had only to agree on where the power should lie. We resorted to parliamentary procedure (much to Peter’s disgust), moved and seconded that Donalda should be in power, voted the same, easily dispensed with the complaints, and went on with the original game plan.

The next morning all was calm. Peter dressed up in his seersucker suit and we went up to the classroom for a formal sermon on “Raible’s Ultimate Theology.” The basic gist goes as follows. (I justify including it because it was the entire pre-existing theology that prompted the leadership school operation -- which the initiated call “theogamy.”)

From the very first lecture we’d been working with a series of concentric circles with one’s self at the center, opening out to intimates, community, country, world, universe, and finally folding around to self again, as the conceiver of the universe. (This meant so much to me that it has been my basic theological pattern ever since, with much benefit. Eliade confirmed it.)

Peter “concentrated” on just five circles: self, intimates, communities, causes and the Ultimate. Then he designed a sort of stairstep of interactions that go like this. (Blog format will destroy the format but preserve the words. Imagine that each set is indented.)

The self gives the self knowledge.
The self gives the intimates commitment.
The self gives the community binding.
The self gives the ultimate questing.

The ultimate grants the cause creativity.
The ultimate grants the community purpose.
The ultimate grants the intimates meaning.
The ultimate grants the self transcendence.

The cause grants the community outreach.
The cause grants the intimates altruism.
The cause grants the self empowerment.

The community grants the intimates acceptance.
The community grants the self inclusion.

The intimates grant the self enfoldment.

Peter used this framework to evaluate the UU churches. Has our community stayed involved with the world? He says he’d give us an A to a C, depending upon the issue. Has our community attempted the new? Peter would give us an A. Has the community “articulated religious values?” Peter thinks we deserve a C. Have we built religious community? Peter would give us a D.

This lecture (for which I was on the sponsoring committee) was followed by a formal exercise for an hour. People were asked to form triads at first with people not from our church and then to re-group with all the people from their own church. In both groups we were to address four questions.

How does one give oneself knowledge and how are YOU doing it?
How does one give one’s intimates commitment and how are YOU doing it?
How does one bind community together and how are YOU doing it?
How does one quest for the Ultimate and how are YOU doing it?

We spent the rest of the morning preparing for gifts that night, massaging each other in the sunshine, and visiting quietly. That afternoon we presented gifts to the community. As individuals each of us gave something by putting it on the table with a few words about it and then took something according to fancy, as in a flower communion. Objects ranged from a beach pebble to a cherished book. One group of us had written a poem in unison, which we read. A giant mural had been constructed from old New Yorker cartoons, in-jokes, original art, and bits of the environment. That was presented to the community. Later it was cut up in pieces and hauled home by several different churches with the idea of reassembling it at a PNWD annual meeting. I don’t know whether this ever happened.

Then we had the second silly time, which turned out to be REALLY silly. We were instructed to appear wearing old clothes and holding a dollar and a cup. We were told to stand in a line. The committee came by in a VW van, jumped out, took our dollars, got back in and disappeared! We were left gaping and gasping, utterly abandoned with no instructions. The only member of that committee left was Juanita Russell, so we took her hostage and tied her to the porch. But just as we tied the final knot, the van returned with a garbage can of ice and champagne! That’s what the cups were for!

Once we’d killed the champagne, our instructions were to play “Alice the Camel,” except instead of being in a circle and smashing the central person, the idea was to smash Peter against a building, which we did with glee. But just as we were enjoying flattening poor Peter, someone glanced up and screamed! Overhead on the roof was Ord with a whole box of water balloons! The revenge of the leaders! His aim was good! The committee brought up boxes and boxes of water balloons that had been in the nearby basement -- evidently they’d been filling them all afternoon -- and we had the world’s all-time most satisfactory waterfight. Rebels against leaders.

After supper we evaluated the model community. Most of our problems centered on our management design. Our purpose was okay and our task design was okay and, as usual with UU’s we survived on good will and ingenuity -- with some cost in terms of tempers. It was quite a pointed lesson.

On the last morning we evaluated the whole leadership program. [This document doesn’t include that formal evaluation.]

We knew that it would be very hard for all of us to end this school. Therefore, we made a special effort to design a graduation/worship sequence that would channel our emotions into something constructive. The graduation came first with all those who had attended three years receiving certification which we had designed and xeroxed in town instead of dittoing them on our own indispensable machine. (We had used boxes of purple masters and reams of paper in this one week.)

The worship was rather formal and simple. (This was true of all our worships that summer. They were at suppertime and had a sort of vespers quality.) We played the entire first band of the Pachelbel Canon while the group meditated. There were opening words by Peggy Woods. Joy McKim led us in a responsive reading. Virginia Lane led a meditation quoting Clarke Wells: “Some day you’ll have forgotten all about this summer and then you’ll open an old suitcase and out will jump a jaguar and yards and yards of coloured silk.” Ord played Spanish guitar softlyu and classically in the background. Janet May directed everyone to come up and light a candle, and while the group held their candles in front of them, I read a piece I’d written comparing the school to a phoenix.

Peter had supplied the candle on the first day at the first meeting. He’d blown it out when the second year class dispersed and lit it again to begin the third year. We’d used the symbol several times during the week. Now the idea was to carry our candles out into the world and not to worry when they went out, because we knew how to light them again. I led the way out the door and everyone carried their lights along behind me -- this time we didn’t leave anyone sitting there, unwilling to recross the threshold!