Saturday, October 31, 2009



Only a few miles north of Valier along Birch Creek which is the southern boundary of the Blackfeet Reservation, is a place called “Willow Rounds.” Via Google you can find some wonderful photos of the place because the ranch called that is currently for sale. You’ll see other info related to real estate matters. But what we are concerned with is how the place got its name: the “rounds” in question are tipi rings.

Tipi rings result from the edges of lodgeskins being weighted down with rocks. Since the glaciers carried in melon-sized and sorta melon-shaped stones from far to the north, the supply is endless and it makes more sense to find new ones than try to transport the stones from the last place. Anyway, the Blackfeet didn’t wander aimlessly: they moved through the seasons from one place to the next is a rather predictable pattern. They were in many ways migrant pickers, except that what they picked was wild. The seasons and terrain dictated what was ready for picking: camas now, berries then, and so on.

So the People came back to the same general location and often put their lodges up where they had been before. Instead of driving pickets around the edge of the lodgeskin -- which might be moved up and down in the course of a day as the need shifted from fresh air to warmth from the fire. One can find tipi rings in all sorts of likely camping spots, but rarely will there be only one by itself. The basic unit was not so much the nuclear family as the extended family growing into clan. So the tipi rings might themselves be in a big circle.

Tom Kehoe, who was the curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian and who (way back in the mists of time) was married by Bob Scriver to the woman who became the redoubtable Alice Kehoe, a noted anthropologist in Milwaukee, wrote an interesting paper about a phenomenon he found. Some tipi rings had lines of stones extending out from their edges in various directions and of various lengths. No one living could explain this. Tom’s theory was that they might have been like those signposts one sometimes sees at crossroads pointing in every direction, saying “Helsinki x miles” and “Mexico City x miles” and “Boston x miles.” The idea was that the line was code and the length of the line suggested the distance. I liked this idea so much that I put it into one of my “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” (For you to Google would be better than for me to link, since some of these articles are only in academic databases.)


The broad and complex stone circles that seem to record sidereal events or maybe the course of the sun through equinoxes and solstices are quite well known. Some have names and regular pilgrimages. But New Age people who claim them and “own” them or create their own figures or add labyrinths and so on, are a pain in the patootie to scientists. As usual, there is tension between those who want to preserve and study, and those who want to inhabit and renew.


The v’s that mark the edges of a run leading to a buffalo jump that is several miles away can be subtle since they were not so much cairns as anchors and markers for clumps of brush meant to move in the wind or stations for people waving branches or robes or blankets enough to spook a buff. The book about “Head Smashed In” piskun which is available online from the University of Athabasca, a virtual university, is a revelation in this regard. “Imagining Head Smashed In” by Jack Brink. (

Another little-known stone artifact discussed in that book is the chamber dug into the ground and filled with hot rocks to melt the fat and marrow out of the debris and bones left after butchering the animals killed by the fall over the cliff. The researchers have now found the “factory floor” where the animals were processed a little distance from what must have been a fairly repulsive stinking fly-ridden mess at the base.


Cairns themselves, sometimes considered to be “Sun Worship Altars” in Christian terms, will likely be on the tops of ridges and hills and if there are trees nearby they will be decorated like Christmas trees with small offerings of fabric or fetishes. There's one near Starr School.

The name is Gaelic but the practice is worldwide and for some reason often related to heights or crossroads or meant to look like a person standing. Sometimes a body or ashes are interred. When some young adventurers from Babb, Montana, which is one of the tourist towns on the Blackfeet Reservation, went to Africa, they took some small stones from the top of Chief Mountain, a natural marker of the boundary between Canada and the US, and left them on Mt. Kilimanjaro. They brought back some small stones from that mountain and when the matriarch of the family died, she was buried with a stone from each “istuka” (Blackfeet for mountain) in her red patent leather purse.


The glaciers brought along with the strewn “cobblestones” the occasional massive boulder that was finally stranded on the prairie when the ice melted. These puzzled the early prairie people who told a lot of stories about them coming to life and chasing Napi as though the latter were Harrison Ford in an archeology movie.

Once they were left, the boulders functioned a lot like a tree: a place to get up high for a hawk (there are often white marks), a sun porch for a mammal (our bobcats used to love the one along Willow Creek near Parsons), and a travelers’ landmark. The one on the road from highway 89 along Birch Creek to Heart Butte has become an altar, with small offerings left on it or at the base. Some call them “buffalo stones” and indeed that’s what they look like. In the old days the buffs would appreciate a good place to rub off old dead fur and their friction would polish the sides of the boulder smooth even as their hooves cut a bit of a moat around the bottom, which held moisture so that a small variant ecology would take hold there.


Hugh Dempsey, the emeritus scholar of history in Calgary who is also a noted prolific author, tells the story of a warrior who blundered and was consequently killed and left on a hillside where his people found him. In his honor, they marked the outline of where his body fell, like a crime-scene outline. Like so many things, it has since been disturbed and overbuilt.

Use, the Canadian Amazon list, to find books by Dempsey or his son. The book with the effigy story (photo included) is “The Amazing Death of Calf Shirt” by Hugh, published by the U of Oklahoma Press. The relevant story is called “Peace with the Kootenays.


Another important use of stones was the “dream bed” high on the mountains where shale was either piled up New England fence-style or propped up on edge to make a wind break for a person fasting and praying for a vision. Arlo Scari in Chester, Montana, can sell you a book with photos of the “dream beds” in the Sweetgrass Hills. ( Proceeds go to save the hills themselves, which contain gold and are the target of cyanide heap leach miners, who want to grind up the WHOLE HILL!! Since there are many uses and stories about those hills, they could be considered “artifacts” or at least “material culture” in themselves.

These artifacts are not so collectible as arrowheads, nor so attractive. One must take a photo, though the defenders of Indian artifacts will object even to photos of Chief Mountain or the Sweetgrass Hills on grounds that they are sacred and photos profane them, lowering them to the status of tourist items. Actually they are in the most danger from developers, careless uses, and contemporary blindness and ignorance. Those forces have long since obliterated the gardens going on without the gardeners that Tim haunted in his youth. Still, there are seed-savers who can re-plant.

(to be continued)

Friday, October 30, 2009



“Lith” means stone. Sometimes American indigenous people are called “stone age people,” though we used to kid each other in the foundry that the Blackfeet present were now up to the “bronze age.” The truth is that much of the early material culture must have been organic: hide, bone, wood, ivory. For the most part, such things go back to where they came from unless circumstances were unusual. There is, for instance, a bog on the west coast of Chile where meat was found preserved with a rope around it made from vine. The vine did not grow there: it was knotted. The date is VERY early. I’m thinking way before the usual ten thousand year horizon. It was always thought that the glacier over the northern half of the continent prevented access to the Americas, but that doesn’t consider the “boat hoppers” in kayaks or more elaborate designs that probably probed along the coasts and up the rivers in search of food.


Stone objects endure seemingly “forever.” Mauls, mortar & pestles, rollers, flat surfaces with rolling pins for making flour, heads of hammers or weapons with grooves chipped in them so they can be mounted on handles or spear shafts -- in some places they are easily found. And then the sharp edges of obsidian (really glass), they say sharp enough to perform surgery, and handheld blades for flensing hides.

The most familiar of the stone artifacts is the arrowhead, iconic in our thinking about Indians because arrowheads mean bows and arrows. The design of arrowheads, the source of the stone, and means of attachment to arrow shafts -- all these subtleties have meaning. They are hunter/gatherer basics. If you go to the top of a high ridge and look in the grass, you’re likely to find arrowheads, discarded products of flint-knapping gone wrong, and the tiny flakes pressed off the edges of the stone. Someone on lookout up there filled up the time by working on his arrowhead supply.

I’m not enough of an expert to explain all about arrowheads. The point is that they are so ubiquitous, so many people have carefully arranged collections of beautiful arrowheads under glass in their studies and playrooms, and arrowheads are so easily picked up on a walk and carried in a pocket, that they are a kind of “everybody’s artifacts.” Other “made” objects, like pots, when fragmented, become to most people’s minds very much like arrowheads. The scientific information that could have been derived from them is not perceptible to the casual person who picks up a shard. They are not as “pretty” as an elegant arrowhead. To many people they are debris.

Every time and place has its own style of making a pot, baking it, decorating it. I once read a study by a scientist who made a string grid over a former village site so that it was divided into squares, carefully mapped every tiny piece of pottery and its period, put it all in the computer, and produced what was essentially a map of the development of the village. It took enormous patience. No one is going to do that at every site. But at some sites it may be crucially important.

This seems innocent enough but can become very troubling when, like so many things, the collecting of arrowheads and potsherds becomes industrialized. It’s bad enough when archeologists mark off squares and dig up the area, sifting the dirt through screens to find everything. It’s entirely over the top when a backhoe comes in to move huge amounts of dirt in search of something valuable. (Even apart from the likelihood that they’ll leave the hole unfilled.)


Another class of “lithic” material is fossils, which are not manmade, but sometimes slightly modified. The “people’s fossil” is what the Blackfeet called Buffalo Stones, Iniskum. The accompanying manmade story is about a low-status wife (Sits by the Door) who finds a buffalo stone and is able to call buffalo for her starving village. They are actually the remains of the mud inside the sequential and graduated chambers of a sea creature called a baculite, which once grew in great numbers in the shallow inland sea that once covered the prairie.

There is a protocol that goes with iniskim. They are rubbed with fat and red earth until they are shiny, wrapped in a bit of buffalo fur, and kept in a bundle -- sometimes they are added to a pre-existing bundle. Sometimes the baculites have the original mother of pearl lining from the little creature, which makes them prettier but then they don’t break apart into the sequence of little “buffalos.” When they do have the mother of pearl, they are said to be “fat,” because fat can be shiny and rainbowy like that. Those are luckier. Pom-iniskim, supposed to bring prosperity! Easy enough to buy at a rock shop. Maybe sixty bucks for one to hold in your hand.

The trouble with something like an iniskim as a “found object” is that unless you’re Blackfeet, they have to be explained. Unless you know the story, even if you see the stones in a ancient bundle, they don’t mean much. If you’re looking for one, they are even less obvious. Mine looks like a handful of cement, squeezed when still wet. Yet they’re quite common and in some places where there used to be colonies of the creatures and where the topsoil has eroded back to expose them, they are thick underfoot.

But iniskim are minor. The big law-suit provoking items are dinosaur fossils, which the Blackfeet mythology identify as coming from Water Bulls and Thunder Birds. The stories here are about terrible battles between water and air creatures. The Blackfeet idea was to leave them alone, but until a few years back there was a company on the rez that bought dino fossils from locals and sold them to the “trade,” however that works. For a while a casting of “Leonardo,” a particularly striking and detailed fossil of a young dino, was displayed at the Blackfeet Heritage Center. One tribal enthusiast went so far as to suggest throwing out all the old materials from the Museum of the Plains Indians and devoting the whole place to dinosaurs instead.

It’s true enough that dinosaurs can be worth a lot of money but it is only a geological accident that they are here. Like baculites (which were much earlier), dinosaurs once found conditions very favorable along here and after their bones and eggs were deposited, covered in volcanic dust and glacial debris, they lay hidden until now when the wind and water are reversing themselves, taking away from the fossils what they once laid on top of the bones, now mineralized. The Blackfeet benefit from them in the way they benefit from oil or coal deposits, but they are not created by indigenous people and have nothing to do with their culture except as stories. Still, it is illegal to remove fossils from the reservation without permission.

(to be continued)

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Back to the bones.

We are constantly digging up things, including skeletons. Some on purpose, like paleontologists searching in Africa and finding the remains of eohumans that are six million years old, and others accidentally (possibly homicide victims) when making highway cuts or excavating for basements. When rationalizing their study of skeletons, scientists have proposed the idea that there is a difference between the ancient and the merely historical, but where do you draw that line? The day Columbus hit the Americas? The day the United States made itself into a nation? The day the glaciers began to withdraw from North America? The day they crucified Jesus?

The Kennewick Man
, found in Washington state along the Columbia River, created a huge furor. He was older than our conventional notion of first white contact but he had characteristics that were suggestive of a Caucasian. (The characteristics recorded by scientists are expressed in percentages -- or bell curves -- but people forget that. Some Indians have skulls like Caucasians. Some Caucasians have skulls like Indians.) The local indigenous people made a claim based on religion, so some Caucasians immediately invented a religion to make a parallel claim. I attended a public meeting where the tribal spokesman asked all those present who approved of organ transplants to raise their hands. Only the white people raised their hands.

So it is not just disrespect to skeletons that is in question. American indigenous people feel that their flesh and blood is being co-opted, that the right to be one’s own body is violated by transplants, or even DNA databases from cheek scrapings. And yet there is a small contingent that demands the newest medical miracles, including stem-cell and bone marrow transplants. None among them refuses blood transfusions.

The elevation of indigenous peoples to a state transcending nobility and approaching the supernatural is so pervasive that the people themselves feel that they are carrying something special enough to be magic. It’s really being “Other” all over again, but this time elevated instead of denigrated. Recently a boy in Minnesota with cancer rejected chemotherapy and resorted to what he and his family thought were “healing” ceremonies provided (for a price) by a tribal member. And why should that person go uncompensated, any more than a formal physician should do his work for free? This is partly what it operating in the “plastic shaman” phenomenon. (And the “Indian as Super Lover” parallel. Ruth Beebe Hill’s “Hanta Yo” Ayn Rand-type perfect lover.)

Back to skeletons. Early indigenous peoples were not above using the bones of “other” humans for necklaces and the like. Esp. “found” bones rather than -- let’s say, “created bones,” that is, murdering someone to get his finger bones or ribs. Murder to get a scalp is the whole idea, since the scalping was originally evidence of death, like the ears of a wolf or the tails of gophers. Whole heads (“bring me the head of whomever”) are bulky for a walking people, but a scalp could be attached to clothing or shields. Imitation scalps abound, mostly horsetails, on fancy buckskin shirts. (It is possible to take a scalp from a person who continues to live, but that party will probably want to keep his or her hat on, particularly in cold weather.) I have never seen a blonde or redhead scalp that I can recall. Maybe I don’t want to.

I’ve run across several stories in which someone failed to stay dead, but if the bones were filleted out of the flesh and the separated parts were thrown in a river, that person DID stay dead. This story of this an artifact, though it isn’t physical.

But you can’t generalize about bones -- or any other artifacts. Objects must be related to place, to situation, to specifics. Not just for scientific purposes, but in order to understand where they came from and what they mean: context. If you read Louis Owens’ novels (a good Halloween project) you will not forget the tribal practice of a people in the hot, wet, bug-ridden south. The body of one’s brother is put in a tree. In a year one returns, takes down what is left and cleans the bones with a fingernail grown out long specifically to scrape out the crevices. Then the bones are gathered into a bundle.
[ Here are the novels, all available through the University of Oklahoma Press: Dark River, Nightland, Wolf Song, Bone Game, The Sharpest Sight. Owens is worth Googling. He was a major Steinbeck scholar as well as working on Native American literature.]


Skulls are a special case. When they are perfectly clean (and some of the ones I’ve seen are neatly numbered with India ink because they were part of collections), they attract people. Quasi-humans, they acquire names. Along with skeletons, skulls have become iconic, somehow transcending death with a universalized face of holes and grins. In catacombs (common in Europe) and the bones of genocide excavations, the skulls get lined up on shelves or in stacked piles since they are relatively uniform. They seem made of ceramic, “bone china,” mugs. Wherever there are adolescents, skulls abound along with daggers, pouring blood, snakes, lightning and other punk icons meant to suggest the power of horror. Skulls became fetishes in some South American tribes, adorned with rows of colored tile. Movies these days are full of realistic decapitations.

Prairie indigenous people were persuaded not to leave their dead in coffins on the ground where they could be knocked about by large animals and invaded by small animals. They built “dead houses,” frail wooden mausoleums with no doors, and put the coffins inside. I have seen them. The coffins had been opened and the heads were all missing, even the heads of a mother with her baby in her arms, though these were not clean skulls. These were faces and hair, even recognizable, with living descendants who knew them. Few would defend disturbing them. Those houses are gone now. The people were put into the ground and the houses were burned.

When skeletons are returned by museums, the oldest people were wary about having anything to do with them for fear their spirits would be angry and make bad things happen. So the next generation down took over and invented ceremonies of grief and appeasement. The bones were interred in the ground with Pendleton blankets, sweetgrass, other assorted objects and many salty tears. Some of the grief might have been a little dramatic, but in the end it was a true catharsis and cleaning of old wounds. It was dignified and the blankets even made it seem a bit luxurious. The bones were not in metal coffins, but in short wooden boxes, sturdy and clean.

There are still thousands of skeletons in museums public and private, in personal collections, in forgotten cabinets. We had a skull ourselves. It was a clean one. I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know where it went, but at the beginning of the Sixties it gazed out among our books. We had two skeletons: a real one from Turtox biological supply company, which was probably a person who died in the street in India and which we returned, and a plastic one cast from the skeleton of a robust German man who died long ago.

I include all sort of thoughts here because I think that in the end no legal rule or moral principle can tell us what to do about human remains. Each case must be a delicate negotiation among the facts, the emotions, the times, the politics, the individuals, the resources, the possibilities, the implications. This not just about autochthonous peoples of America or even about only autochthonous people. It is about ALL human beings.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The ever on-going discussion and actual events around Native American artifacts have gotten tragically heated, resulting in arrests, jail terms, suicides and rented trucks carrying away literal tons of materials. Most people either have nearly violent opinions or can’t figure out what the heck to think.

In the past I’ve tried to sort through the issues according the points of view of the people involved: innocent whites, conniving whites, earnest Indians, scheming Indians -- like that. But it ends up with a lot of name-calling, so I thought I’d try a new approach: discussion according to the type of artifact. The items lumped into the category really are quite different.

1. Skeletons

The very fact that indigenous skeletons are considered collectible is a key to the problem. I remember vividly my undergrad biology lab class where a skeleton hung. While we waited for our instructor one wintry day we decided to warm up the bones by putting hat, muffler and mittens on it. When the young handsome teacher came, he was indignant. “This was SOMEONE,” he scolded us. “You’re treating this person like an object, a hat rack, a toy. If you are handling human remains, you must do so with deep respect!”

No other artifact is actual human remains except maybe scalps with skin attached. When we treat human remains with disrespect, we are saying they are like animals, whose bones everyone treats like the meat once attached. Useful, discardable, of no deep importance.

The funerary practice of prairie tribes was to leave the wrapped body in a high place, like a tree or a shallow cave on a cliff or just on a high ridge. The body was usually wrapped in a buffalo robe and the person’s belongings were left with it. This was practical because there were no metal shovels for digging into the ground, the ultraviolet light of high elevations (Browning is at about 5,000 feet) was an effective disinfectant, the belongings were mostly organic, and the constant dry winds and temperature extremes also tended to mummify. Most deaths probably happened in the winter when the ground was so hard that even now, for a backhoe to cut into the ground, a fire is necessary. (Used to be burning tires -- in Browning in the Sixties when you saw a column of black smoke from the cemetary, you knew someone needed to be buried -- now more likely to be a propane heater in a tent.) In early white communities winter deaths were often stored in an out-building until spring. The point is that bodies were ubiquitous, accessible, and not concentrated into a burial ground near a settlement until many decades after white presence.

The 19th century was of a magpie mind about anything collectible and bones were not spared. Much of the collecting was in the name of science, which still wanted to gather many many specimens in the interest of sorting them into categories and scrutinizing them for clues over such puzzles as “races” and “evolution” as well as evidence of what had happened to the original person. The notion of local history was coming powerfully alive because on the Western frontier it was so close, at least the history of the white displacers -- maybe because they were trying to figure out why they were there, whether it was a good thing to have done, what should happen next.

Scientific collection meant that museums and universities soon had drawers and drawers of bones, sometimes skulls long separated from bodies and sometimes entire. Gradually the scientists became able to distinguish between male and female; Caucasian and Asian and African; young or old; and various forensic features like violence or disease. As time goes on, things like nutritional status and radioisotope identification of elements have become detectable.

This has been extremely valuable, to the point that today’s CSI scientists are actually willing to put corpses out in the woods and document their decay. Not just pigs. A recent example in a story was an eight-year-old boy. It was unclear where he came from. He was not alive and suffering, of course, but this sort of cold-blooded treatment of human remains in the interest of science is particularly chilling to indigenous prairie people -- not just because of the disrespect to a “soul” in the Christian sense though many are practicing and believing Christians, but also because in the old days one did not hang around a body lest whatever killed that individual also reach out to grab YOU. Some expressed this as the fear that the spirit of the dead person would be very angry and take it out on you for not saving them or for provoking them while they were alive.

Today we have situations like the morticians who were not cremating bodies but simply dumping them in the woods, giving the relatives ashes from any source, or more recently the cemetery keepers who were digging up old graves, dumping the contents and re-selling the spaces to new families. The shock of these acts strike everyone as far more than a commercial transaction based on deception. Sacrilege is a intense experience even in a desacralized society. As Mary Roach describes in “Stiff,” we are losing that distinction, partly due to the constant closeup knowledge of bodies on TV and partly due to family doctors going to conferences where they alternate playing golf with taking surgery lessons on parts of humans that arrive in coolers: arms, internal organs, and sexual parts. On a reservation few know that. It is a very upper-class privileged sort of phenomenon.

Religious defense of bodies is weak now. It waxes and wanes over the centuries. The more dead there are, the more they are not “us,” the thinner the consciousness.

Parallel to the scientific advances that invent more and more subtle tests of bone and ways to learn from them, political opposition from the indigenous people has grown stronger, not just the desire to protect one’s own from indecency, but also as a protest against the constant tendency to make whole sets of living people into lesser beings, deserving of less respect than the “ruling classes” (prosperous, high-status men -- these days of any race), who can properly be “studied” like guinea pigs.

This tendency to indulge in de-humanizing study is strong in sophisticated academic circles. People come to the reservation to study the indigenous people, take their statistics and findings back to the academy, analyze them in sophisticated ways, publish findings that may affect things like funding, and never bother to send copies back to the original people who were studied any more than they would send copies of a study of cattle to the cows themselves.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


BORN IN 1939. So today I’m 70.
Looking at the decades in reverse:

In 1999, at 60, I was just moving to Valier, a huge jump. It was freedom. It was going home. At last I could read and write all day and have two cats. I DID get Bob’s bio written and published. I was blind-sided by the devastation of publishing as we have known it. Oh, well. It’s the writing that counts.

In 1989, at 50
, I had just left the ministry and was teaching in Heart Butte. It didn’t last, I was fired unfairly. (The superintendent framed me and after two years I gave up fighting it.) The rest of the decade was back in Portland working for the City and struggling to help my dying mother (she lived to 89) and subtly deranged brother. That was miserable, but I DID haunt Powells and educate myself about Native American writing by getting on listservs.

In 1979, at 40,
I had just started seminary in Chicago and was about to take a rocket trip through a world I barely understood. High octane. No regrets. Still digesting it. Then the circuit-riding ministry around Montana.

In 1969, at 30
, my amazing adventure marriage to Bob Scriver was in big trouble and I knew it. I was about to return to Portland in retreat, intending to become a psychologist and instead ending up in Animal Control, a watershed experience. I did take some psych courses and became a Unitarian. Missed the reservation almost more than my ex. Tried once more to be respectable, meaning prosperous. Learned much, not all of it welcome. My old boss, Mike Burgwin, just came with his wife on a very welcome visit. He’s 80.

In 1959, at 20,
I was totally absorbed in the world of Northwestern University theatre, the world of Alvina Krause: brilliant, stubborn, resourceful, brave professor of acting. A foundation. I dumped Presbyterianism. Any tendency to be conventional withered.

In 1949, at 10,
I was in fourth grade where Mr. Garnett had just discovered I badly needed glasses. The world opened up -- a little dangerous, a LOT dangerous . . . let’s say TERRIFYING. The world was just recovering from WWII. To me, it felt very personal. (Mr. Garnett had been a sergeant. Mr. Thiringer had lost his leg.) I tried very hard to be a good girl, but I wanted to burst into flames. Or, as Tim says, join the Resistance and pedal through the stormy night on an old bike with a crucial message clenched in my teeth.

In 1939, at 0, I was a pretty baby who lay in the baby buggy and played with her hands in the sunslant through the dining room windows, or so my mother said. I was the second of the Strachan set of cousins, with a male cousin about the same age but very VERY different. I was the first of the Pinkerton set of cousins, who were all also Hatfields since the sisters married brothers. By the time I went to school, I’d been thrown off my little red chair, my throne, by two younger brothers. I was mad about it until I was maybe sixty and the youngest brother died. The Hatfield/Pinkertons no longer speak to me. I’m not prosperous. They are.

The oldest Strachan cousin came to visit me this summer and I was thrilled. Her birthday was just a few weeks ago. So was Jeannie’s, her daughter Sharon’s, her son’s daughter Lola Rose, another cousin Bonnie Jo (her sister Shirley’s birthday is the last day of September), my cousin Ross’s daughter Deanna, my grandma Strachan, my Chinese friend Pearl, and our mutual friend Joanie. I figured out the cause of this pile-up -- count back nine months: Valentine’s Day. The power of chocolate. Note the preponderance of females!

My mother claimed I was conceived in a huge thunderstorm on Orcas Island where she and my father were visiting his old girl friend. The girl friend had red hair and so did I. My mother pondered that little trick all her life. But now my hair is falling out, like my father’s sister and his great-aunt. We knew this would happen. She said she would buy me a good wig -- didn’t say what color. I think I’ll just wear hats, like ball caps. Like a chemo patient. This summer is the first my that my skin has begun to look old, but my blood sugar scores are good, there is no further diabetes damage to my eyes, and I’m more vigorous than I was five years ago.

At the moment a wet blizzard is pounding the house and plastering over the windows. The power has been going on and off. Just blinked again which turned off the radio. I’ll be extra careful to “save” as I go. Because of the Internet, I’m aware of a baby being born with difficulty in South America, an old woman who spent yesterday in Emergency in Calgary (hours and hours of waiting) with evident liver failure, another woman just over the Rockies who recently lost her mother, and an old lady on the reservation (she’s my age, really) who called on the phone worrying about swine flu because of the newspaper stories about the flu vaccine shortage. I’m on the automated national H1N1 info line and was able to tell her that unless she is pregnant, she is not in danger and could safely wait. She doesn’t believe much that other Indians tell her.

Sometimes I ponder the age I am and what might be ahead. When I was about ten, it was a comfort and I guess it still is. I don’t think so much about technological advances. I once read a lot of science fiction and have not been surprised by the recent developments. If you live in Valier, you know that every technology -- even older ones like a supply of electricity -- has its limits, and -- like symphonies on the radio -- its delights. To me the best invention is still the book.

This has been a self-indulgent post, but -- hey! -- it’s my birthday!

Monday, October 26, 2009


“Small Beneath the Sky” by Lorna Crozier was one of the books offered to be reviewed by one of the environmental groups I belong to, one based in Canada. I’m only an hour’s drive south of the border and have many family roots in Canada as well as having served a congregation in Saskatoon for a couple of years. Crozier was one of the first writers I learned about up there, a poet with a unique and mischievous view of the world.

This is not the review. I wanted to point out something. The prairie is a hard place to live and the Depression up there was ferocious. Lorna’s mother was “hired out” at age six to a neighbor who didn’t permit her to visit home. On that employer’s farm she did the scut-work, the constant and arduous labor of keeping wood fires going, meals prepared from scratch, cleaning, animals cared for, and so on. She ate separately in the kitchen, but she DID eat. And she spared that family’s child from any kind of labor. It was the old European system of handling low-class, low-income kids. Whipping boys. Princes and paupers.

Today’s homeless kids haunt the interstices of cities as though they were raccoons or possums, surviving by rummaging or begging. Today’s New York Times described these kids as they are in Medford, Oregon, a pleasant and seemingly middle-class town. The fact that jumps out at the reader is that no one wants these kids, no one reports or records their status as missing, and that most of the solutions sound a lot like Depression-era Saskatchewan or Dickensian London. That is, catch them, confine them, force them to be different -- like, to be hard-working. As though it weren’t hard work to stay alive in a public park with predators everywhere. Not that the predators want to accept responsibility for them either: predators are one-time users. They don’t take them home to keep. Kids are disposable.

Many of these kids are on the street because dynamics at home broke down under financial pressure, adults who couldn’t get jobs and whose mortgages were foreclosed. But others are there because there was no real family in the first place, no committed adult who was a biological parent of these specific kids. Serial co-habitation means money constantly lost to moving, divorce, abuse, drug addiction, prison. These seriously inhibit the kind of bonding that motivates parents to do their best.

Lorna’s father was alcoholic, which the family could deny because he was always able to get work in the oil fields, dangerous though that might be for a drunk. It was a pattern that our society knows well: hard (if cranky) worker in the daytime, reckless bon vivant in the evening -- or sodden heap in front of the TV. Historically even encouraged. Today the hard physical labor that justified the beer in the evening is gone. Very few of those jobs are left. The other part that has changed is that meth is QUITE a different story than beer. And society’s new understanding of women has not supported motherhood though it has discouraged abortion.

Most of the indignation in the NY Times article was attached to money: how can we spend money on banks and wars when our children go hungry? I’m not sure it’s a money problem at all. How much money does it take to sit down and listen to a kid? They need the listening far more than they need, for instance, a car. And yet, there are times a few hundred bucks can make a big difference in a kid’s life.

One of my classmates back in Portland right after WWII was a bad kid, ornery and mean to others, high intelligence but low performance. My graduating eighth grade class meets for dinner once a month -- they’ve mostly stayed in Portland where one motivated woman keeps them rounded up. When they reconvened, this ornery kid was quite a revelation: all grown-up, prosperous, generous, truly interested in the others. He explained that in high school a man who knew about his checkered performance simply came to him, put an arm around his shoulder, and took an interest in him. That’s what turned the tide. So now the ornery kid raises money for an organization that helps kids.

It’s not that there haven’t always been runaway kids who got beat up at home and are starving in the streets. It’s because there are simply so many people that even if the proportion stays about the same, the sheer numbers increase and increase. The social forces -- like the breakdown of old institutions (family, church) -- haven’t been replaced by new social institutions, new visions. Here and there are individuals who make a difference.

I do NOT want to start a new version of White Buffalo Home (the shelter for Blackfeet kids that always runs into trouble of one sort or another) nor do I want to take in troubled kids. I wouldn’t mind providing a listening service: a kid calls, we go for coffee (NOT beer!) and I listen. Counselors know that simply sitting there and paying attention (which is what parents are supposed to do, right?) can be a powerful force for change.

Maybe you’ve become aware that I’m co-writing with Tim Barrus who has all his life tried to help boys -- unconventional boys so he uses unconventional methods because he himself is pretty UNconventional. One of his main principles is getting the kids to run their own programs. It’s a job that needs to be done, the kids need a job, ergo, the kids should get busy on that task. They’re the ones who know the facts. If listening is what works, then why can’t they listen to each other?

In fact, they do. They protect each other, they rescue each other. They do not try to enslave each other or make money from each other. They are not quite forming communes or religious orders, as has been a response to desperate times in the past, but they’re close. This is not something happening somewhere else. As the environmental groups like to point out, when you throw something “away,” you are assuming there IS an “away,” but there is not.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


In theory at least, you should be able to hear my first “published” sound blog by clicking on the above link. You might have to copy and paste to your browser.

There must be another step, namely installing a gizmo to play ON the blog. Nope. That's wrong. The problem is that "null" on the end. It means "nothing."

Back to the drawing board. (It's been an hour of looking and finding, repeating and guessing, managing tabs and figuring out vocabulary. So far.)

I'm going to keep working on this most of the day and coming back to edit this post as I go along. It will be a sort of journal. If you're getting impatient, watch the great vid below:

1:14pm Stuck waiting for someone at OurMedia to do something about the verification step. The two words I'm supposed to repeat do not appear. The automated system took my complaint (the two words being missing are at the top of the list) and promised to do something about it.

6PM EST Darrell offers more help about embedding a play button.

Two hours later, I have not succeeded in getting to admit they know me. I have a handful of 3X5 cards, color-coded, with pass words. I've also watched "Venus" with the director's comments on. It would be easier to make a movie.


Still not able to post. I will wait until morning when I can think with a clear head and possibly traffic will be lower. Sometimes techie things, like my pickiup, will sort themselves out if given a bit of time. I think of them as a long conga line of X's and O's that occasionally needs a bit of rest.


I suspect the culprit is my "uploader" Spinxpress. I can't get a response out of it nor can I find a way to ask for help. Now I'll begin to look for other uploaders. I get the impression that some of these programs are so successful that they are waaay overloaded and victims of success.


I gave up on Spinxpress. Now my sound file is on zShare. I think I need two more steps: a player on my blog and something else that I don't understand yet.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Years and years and years ago “Bend in the River” was filmed on the shoulder of Mt. Hood. It was about the Oregon Trail pioneers struggling through the last part of the trek, which was probably also the hardest part, getting over the Cascades, slashing through timber and lowering the wagons and oxen over cliffs. My ancestors did that on the Barlow Trail and my great-great-grandmother went insane from the hardships. So I was told. That part wasn’t in the movie. But Jimmy Stewart was. As promotion, a notice appeared on the movie page (in those days it was a whole page, not just a little schedule) saying to call a certain phone number.

So I did. Jimmy Stewart answered the phone. Well, it unmistakably SOUNDED like Jimmy Stewart and he visited for a few minutes. That was my first voice mail. It was so unexpected, so impressive, that the tears ran down my face. I LOVED Jimmy Stewart!

My reaction on hearing Whiskey Prajer’s voice for the first time was not quite so dramatic, but I WAS impressed! “Whiskey Prajer” is a pseudonym meant to protect his conservative Mennonite father (who turned out to know about the blog all along and to be proud). His real name is Darrell Reimer. “Prajer” means preacher, but he’s not preachy. He was one of the first people -- along with Michael Blowhard (also a pseudonym) and Chas Clifton -- to reach out to me with advice when I began to blog. He’s also the only other author I know. I “friended” him because the computer at Lulu kept telling me I had no friends and I became intimidated. is his blog. is where he posts his podcasts. His anthology of short stories, “Youthful Desires,” is available at “Rowdiness, brains, and a tormented sense of piety run amok in this collection of stories from one of the blogosphere's most charming intellects. Darrell is an excellent writer and a superperceptive guy; he's comfy around fiction of both the popular and the literary kind; and he's blessed with a very distinctive point of view" - M. Blowhard, (Michael has since left 2Blowhards. We grieve.)

Darrell is Mennonite and Canadian, married with young daughters who ransack his record collection and appreciate “Styx”, works from home, coaches “Ringette” (you have to be Canadian), and occasionally does a bit of short-order grill cooking on weekends. I forget whether omelets or crepes. Something sort of Starbucky.

Mennonites split off from the left-wing reformation of Christianity in Europe in order to follow a guy named Mennon. Similarly, our local Hutterites split off to follow a guy named Hutter. The Unitarians have some of the same roots but did not split off to follow a guy named “Unit.” However, if Moon Unit Zappa were to start a new denomination, they are likely to sign up.

This is a podcast of my favorite story in the anthology, one that rings true to people who grew up in small conservative ag communities, left in Joe Campbell fashion, and found a new life. The title of the tale is “Footnote to a Bread Recipe.” Darrell’s voice is rich and full: he sings even without music. He’s putting his whole book online as blogs, which is what I want to do with “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” There are several advantages, one of which is that people can download and listen to mp3’s as they travel. That seems to be the way many people absorb stories these days.

I’ve downloaded a stack of advice and Barrus also coaches me, though he and the guyz do mostly vids. Later, Gator, on that one.

The first thing is learning to record which is easy-peasy with Audacity and several other programs. I’m on an eMac, which has a little microphone. I taped it to the top of the screen. One of the advantages of Valier is that it’s so quiet, one hardly needs a sound studio. My back bedroom office is so tiny and so jammed with piles of stuff that there’s little or no echo.

Once the taping is done -- and mine is VERY quick and dirty so far since I haven’t learned to edit or add sounds -- the file has to be converted to an mp3, the standard form (for now) the same as jpg’s for photos. Audacity guides me to a free program for converting with the unpromising name of “Lamelib.” Must be an acronym.

The next step is to send the mp3 to an online aggregator (collector) that files it and gives it a url address. (I hope to do that today.) Then you need a gizmo on the blog that will link to that url, just like any other url. People recommend Feedburner.

There is some fancy stuff to pick up. (Always.) One thing is whether the podcast should just come on automatically or whether you should have to open it. The latter is recommended. When I was first fooling around at the computer at 3AM and hit (by accident) some screaming ad, the cats and I would all leap in the air and run off. I was glad no one in the house was sleeping.

Then there are things about where to PUT the gizmo that gives access to the podcasts: in the margin at the side? Recurring on every page? Included in a regular blog? The problem is compounded when you discover that the people who are really expert at this stuff are Chinese and know html better than English, whereas my head is wired the other way around. They say, “Oh, simple!” and launch into something that looks like algebra.

My plan at the moment is to include podcasts AS separate blogs, to make them very short (because I don’t know how to compress yet), and to do maybe one a week. I discover that success with this stuff is best achieved by starting “very simple” and gradually building on that, but my goal is nothing less than podcast radio with sound effects and maybe little plays, like Garrison Keillor. I want an mp3 CD by Christmas. Then I’ll begin to coordinate with slides so as to create videos.

Tomorrow the moon unit.

Friday, October 23, 2009

VENUS: A Review

Last night’s movie was “Venus,” in which a tottering Peter O’Toole relates to a teenaged girl bluffing her way along because she really has no idea at all what’s going on. Her only source of nurturing seems to be Top Ramen noodles and beer. The main strategy of those in charge of her is rejection and attempted domination (quite useless). The O’Toole character (“Maurice”) is a sensualist. He loves this girl (“Jessie”) for her young peach of a body. Why would he love her mind? What mind?

The miracle is that Jessie, in spite of herself, begins to stir as Maurice escorts her through galleries, theatres, and ideas. In the end it’s fair exchange, a literal end that Maurice doesn’t face alone and for Jessie an end that is really a beginning. Maurice is ecstatic over the smell of Jessie’s neck, shamelessly avid for the sight of her golden and naked against pink sheets, but he never crosses whatever boundaries Jessie imposes, an entirely new experience for her and one she experiments with, concentrating, never offended by Maurice’s age, unlike most of the reviewers, who automatically consider old men obscene and offensive. (They never think of old women at all.)

This movie was written by Hanif Koreishi rather quickly, he explains, and was one of those scripts that just unfolded organically, partly through the casting. (I love watching these explanations afterwards.) The original idea was a sort of Brit grumpy old men inspired by the little coffee shop where a few geezers were regulars, but then they somehow became actors with those amazing Shakespeare and BBC repertory company backgrounds and overtones as rich as cello concertos. As much as they might grieve over lost powers (about the only parts left for them to play are corpses) they can glory in their pasts and the solidarity of the stage world. Every shot in this film is a potential Old Master painting: framed, composed, elegant and eloquent.

For me, this is a sort of been-there-done-that tale since my primary love affair was as a 21-year-old with a 47-year-old. It wasn’t quite the same thing because for a few brief years we were the same age, my powers on the rise and his in decline, but this film comes much closer to a true exchange than so many of the Woody Allen dirty-old-man formulations that ridicule and demean all concerned. One reviewer of “Amazing Aphrodite” thought Woody Allen was repulsively old at sixty. Allen is no O’Toole, but in real life at least one young woman didn’t find him that repulsive.

My personal reaction to this film (and what is not a personal reaction to a film when you watch a DVD alone with cats in your own front room?) is even more warm after watching the von TrierDancer in the Dark,” which is bleak to the point of unbearability. At the moment in various sources von Trier’s latest, “Antichrist,” is being discussed as over-the-top, too misogynistic to be taken seriously -- too ugly, too violent, too depression-obsessed, and too male-punishing-female for modern society. The NYTimes review is more dismissive than horrified reactions in Salon and Slate. It’s telling that two of von Trier’s former actress heroines have refused to be in any of his subsequent films.

So the “Scent of a Woman” tone of “Venus” is certainly welcome. It’s as though we’ve had to reach back to an earlier age to recover the ordinary erotics of daily life, instead of the constant attempt to be more shocking, darker, more gruesome, as a way to feel SOMETHING ANYTHING. But in the end the result of extremes is like the survivor of torture in “Rendition,” a near-zombie. All the torment blurs together and there is no enlightenment.

“Venus” is not in any sense misogynist, though it recognizes the hardship that erotic narcissism can impose on others. Vanessa Redgrave provides the counterbalance to the ignorant young girl and to the blithe greed of Maurice, who so often makes a fool of himself. Vanessa’s just as old, just as eloquent, just as wise, and quite forgiving, but she, as well as the girl, has a clear sense of boundaries and makes Maurice stay on his own side. Her comfort comes from cats. And he can forget seeing the children he deserted, though they are beyond grown-up. At Maurice’s inevitable funeral, the wife meets the young woman in a lovely scene. Now Vanessa is dressed in a black velvet turban and a smashing rooster tail feather collar, nearly Elizabethan, and she understands completely what has happened -- finds nothing requiring forgiveness, accepts the young woman as a protegee of her own. Jessie will be able to learn from that now.

The geezers of Valier mostly don’t have such rich pasts and the young women like Jessie will never give them the time of day unless they're relations. I passed one of these local beauties in the grocery store the other day, looking like a pole dancer with her long streaked hair, her tight jeans and high-heels, giving off the crocodilian aura of an opportunist. If an old guy had a lot of money, maybe they would give him the time of day. The hunger for money and status will soon take them out of here.

But why does von Trier always torture women that are more fawn than reptile? Is it a version of “crush” porn, the kind the Supreme Court is thinking about at the moment? Is there something about innocent devotion that makes the young irresistible to predators? And what allows these women to be abused? Society? The models they see in movies?

The name of the screenwriter, Hanif Koreishi, echoed for me Kent Haruf and his novel about two old rural bachelors who decide to shelter a young pregnant woman. I once got into a big argument over whether any old men ever do anything selfless or helpful, whether they aren’t always smelly beasts who must have their own way. I defended old men with the Haruf novel as my evidence. It could happen here. But that’s not the same thing as this film, which is a kind of mutual redemption, each person leading from strength and achieving in intimacy a mutual respect.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

PRAIRIE COLORS (or colours)

It’s a still gray day, not even the skritching of dead leaves killed by cold before they could change colors and drop from the tree. If you were to paint the landscapes I saw when I drove to Cut Bank (thirty miles north), you would only need a few tubes of paint: Payne’s Gray, Yellow Ochre, and maybe a little Cadmium Yellow for highway centerlines and traffic signs. Some black for cows. But the colors are all muted, not exactly pastel, but a little grayed out. Thin colors in values that are close together, not very light and not very dark. Shapes are long and reclining, except that the edges of mountains and what we call “reefs” or buttes, make a kind of handwriting along the horizon, way far out there.

In the town the colors were Crayola, primary and color wheel stuff, meant to suggest enamel, plastic, flags, toys. . . commerce. I grew up in Oregon where the only crayons you needed were green. Did you know there are twenty kinds of green in the Crayola full set? Not counting the specialty crayons: Changeables (like Tangee lipstick, they go on one color and become another), Magic Scent (they had to stop using food smells like “berry” because the kids ate the crayons), Gem Tones and Silver Swirls. I’ve neither seen nor tasted any “specialty crayons.”

I went to Dick Blick’s website for art supplies to kick up some action in my brain and was pleased. It appears that in this context there are not only new colors but new “media” beyond pastels, oil paints, watercolor, or even craypas, which are a personal favorite -- though I never know quite how to use them -- because of their brilliant colors, highly “saturated” in the lingo. One Easter I wrote and drew on hard-boiled eggs with craypas, then dipped them in black ink. Looked great.

There are things called “color sticks” described as instantly drying oil paint. I’ve never seen one. It makes me think of animal markers (, which are (yes) for writing numbers or symbols on cows, horses, pigs, sheep. Here’s something I never knew about before: “SHEEP MARKING CRAYON - Designed for marking sheep in varying climates. 4”x 2” (10cm x 5cm) The Ram Crayon is to be used in conjunction with a Ram marking harness. The harness is to be placed upon the Ram. The crayon (which should be on the animal's chest) is fastened to the harness with a split pin. When the ram mounts the ewe the crayon will leave a mark that sticks well. The color of the mark on the back of the ewe allows the breeder to track the correct Ram. Consists of top grade waxes, and pigments which mark in intermittent weather conditions which sticks well to animals.” It makes me think of a naughty story about a woman who was intimately entered without her permission just after a doctor had painted her entrance with purple gentian to treat a fungal infection. The culprit, in his private part, had clearly “voted” for her, though it was not his finger that was inky. It strikes me that putting a crayon harness on a ram might be a little like belling a cat.

More properly, there was a Montana artist (I think a woman in Bozeman) who drew big gorgeous prairie scenes of runaway grass fires and flaming sunsets, using animal markers for their broad strokes and vivid colors. I’m told that over the years the colors, like the auto paints used by Jackson Pollock, lost their punch. I hope that’s not true.

The descriptions and instructions for this animal crayon website are in French. French animals? Cat Urbikit at, who ranches sheep in Wyoming, uses Nepalese ranch hands. Her guard dogs are big Eurasian breeds, but the dogs who work with the herders are more likely to be Australian heelers or black-and-white border collies. When they mark the sheep, what language do they use? Is there an international language of sheep marking symbols?

But I’m getting off the point again, which is colors. I discovered that the computer codes for colors are called “hex” colors because they are coded in 16 bits or pixels or whatever. They started to call the system “sexameter” instead of “hexameter” but the designers got all embarrassed. Clearly not French. I suppose the people who are really into it don’t say “blue” or “green” anymore, but rather refer to the sixteen number code. Talk about a foreign language. Usually the choices are presented as a table that automatically translates into “hex.”

I guess we can’t talk about color without talking about language. On the prairie, when speaking of color, it is also necessary to talk about the season. The green hazes of spring, the yellow and blue flowers that follow, the sheets of lupine lavender, then the tawny burn-off of late summer and the red-orange of Indian paintbrush in the mountains. When the day is winter and clear, it shimmers with the Monet iridescence of gold wheat stubble among snow reflecting sky blue.

When the land is wet in winter, which doesn’t happen for very many days, the colors are saturated, the russets and siennas and burnt ochres of old masters’ oil paintings of interiors. I’m always interested that some mud is greenish and other mud is reddish, depending on whether the sea life pulverized into it aeons ago accumulated copper or iron.

I tried to Google around to find out about what makes DayGlo colors so bright, but no luck. One gets lost in phosphorescence, flourescence, until the nuances are too hard to figure out. No one seems to really know.

Some people do not like the taupe, dun, beige, ecru, sorts of colors and their reaction to the color scheme of the late fall Montana prairie is that there is nothing to look at. But to my eye, that’s when things get interesting. There is only one color I really hate to see: the gray of a chemical fallow field, which has been sprayed to kill everything, creating vegetable ash. In theory, the killer chemical will be gone by the time a new crop is planted. In actuality? I don’t think so.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Two very different movies, “Dancer in the Dark,” (2000) and “The State Within,” (2006) both show -- in detail -- two people on death row. “Dancer in the Dark” is about a woman going blind and dedicated to a course of action meant to save her son’s eyesight. It takes her into a “blind alley” that leads to an accusation of murder. She is hanged.

“The State Within”
has a sub-plot in which an African-American man is framed to get rid of his knowledge, which he manages to transmit after his death. He dies of lethal injection. He is a “good guy,” but has been involved in some very bad things.

Most surprising are the two genres: “Dancer in the Dark” is a musical (the main character is Bjork whom I am too benighted in the boonies to have known about) and reflexively talks about the pleasure of musicals, the puzzle of a convention that allows everyone to break into song, even though the song content is very dark and the dancing is patterned and often synchronized in a rather old-fashioned way, reflecting the structure of assembly line plants and law protocols. I thought of “Carousel” or “Sandhog,” which never really caught on but was staged at Northwestern when I was there (‘57-’61) and has never left my mind since. “Dancer in the Dark” is innocently and directly a vehicle for the talents of the singer/actress, but very well done.

“The State Within” is a spy thriller, very closely related to the popular “MI-5.” Since the tale is basically British where the death penalty is not imposed, that part has to be American and one of the threads is always contrast between Brit and American. The Brit idea of America is not flattering. The tachistoscopic editing, the flip to negatives, the sounds, the high tech gizmos and the complex plots are standard in such movies now.

Either story could be taken as testimony against the death penalty by invoking the futility of a justice system trying to figure out what actually happened, much less what it implies in terms of justice. The African-American has been guilty of other deaths, just not this one, but his death is clearly rigged. The Bjork character is as much seized by fate as acting voluntarily. Von Trier, the director, is known for his innocently passionate heroines who devote themselves to those they love no matter the consequences to themselves. Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” is the parallel. It’s “The Little Mermaid” without the Disney candy.

I wouldn’t talk about the two movies together except that there was an intriguing development in the plotting of both: the jailer who at first appears to be stony and harshly violent, who then becomes a supportive guide through the ordeal. Maybe this comes from the English movie about the courtly executioner who kept his standards high as the last hangman. He begins repellent and gradually becomes the most likeable character in his story.

Neither of these doomed protagonists is noble in death. Bjork has to be strapped to a board to hold her upright while she is hanged. The hit man is also wrestled and restrained on a table. The jailer in the Bjork film is a woman, of course, who is a combination nurse and chaplain, while the official chaplain stands by numbly. In “The State Within” the jailer actually testifies in a clemency hearing. He explains that there are three kinds of people in his line of work: those who do their job and go home, those who rather enjoy the control and license to punish, and those -- like himself -- who pray for the condemned from the moment they arrive until the moment they die.

The Lutheran minister who was the head of the chaplaincy department in Rockford, IL, where I did my Clinical Pastoral Education used to say that for human beings, nothing really “happens” unless it was witnessed by other human beings. No secret ceremonies in some hidden place -- always a congregation, even if it’s one person.

By coincidence, an article by Richard Perez-Pena about Michael Graczyk, an AP reporter in Houston, Texas, just appeared in the New York Times. Graczyk is one of the few reporters who covers executions: he has seen more than 300 of them. He is not just part of the congregation, but also the witness of both congregation and condemned person.

“’There are times when I’m the only person present who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome,’ he said.

"Seeing inmates in the death chamber, strapped to a gurney and moments away from lethal injections, he has heard them greet him by name, confess to their crimes for the first time, sing, pray and, once, spit out a concealed handcuff key. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with other witnesses who stared, wept, fainted, turned their backs or, in one case, exchanged high-fives.

"No reporter, warden, chaplain or guard has seen nearly as many executions as Mr. Graczyk, 59, Texas prison officials say. In fact, he has probably witnessed more than any other American. It could be emotionally and politically freighted work, but he takes it with a low-key, matter-of-fact lack of sentiment, refusing to hint at his own view of capital punishment.

“'My job is to tell a story and tell what’s going on, and if I tell you that I get emotional on one side or another, I open myself to criticism,' he said.

“He often covers the crimes, the trials and the appeals, immersed in details so gruesome it is hard to imagine they are real.

“’The act is very clinical, almost anticlimactic,’ Mr. Graczyk said. ‘When we get into the chamber here in Texas, the inmate has already been strapped to the gurney and the needle is already in his arm.’

“Witnesses are mostly subdued, he said, and while 'some are in tears, outright jubilation or breakdowns are really rare.'

“But before the drugs flow, the inmate is allowed to make a last statement, giving Mr. Graczyk what even he acknowledges are some lasting, eerie memories.

“'One inmate “sang ‘Silent Night,’ even though it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas,' Mr. Graczyk said. ‘I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.’”

So executions can actually become musicals.

You can bet on this detail showing up in a movie some day. Graczyk might even be asked for an option on his life story. As a nation/congregation we have a greedy appetite for death and it seems only proper to make witnesses of us, so that we know what actually happens. After all, we’re the ones killing these people. Which of the three categories of jailer do we fit into?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The mail order bride had turned out better than he had really expected. She was neat, healthy, and hard-working. Pleasant looking, really, though not fancy. But there was a little part of him, left over from his youth, that had hoped for a bit of a love affair and there was none of that. Sex, of course, because they both wanted children, but he had to be the aggressor. She simply allowed him. There was only one bed so they had to sleep together.

The first time he evidently woke her up. He’d been lying awake, thinking about her back to him, which was the way she always slept, and had developed a powerful hard-on. So he just took her from behind. She almost leapt away from him, but she was next to the wall since he was the one to get up to tend the fire or investigate noises outdoors. Once pinned, she didn’t resist but didn’t cooperate either. Afterwards, she crawled over him and went into the corner where she’d set up a screen so she could tend to herself in privacy. There was only one room so far. She didn’t come back to bed but sat up in a chair, wrapped in an afghan she’d brought from whereever she’d come from. She never talked about that place. Months went by but she did not become pregnant.

The blizzard came down on the little sod house with what appeared to be no warning at all. The tundra swans had not come through on the way south yet, and people said they were the first of the big migratory waterfowl to go through ahead of the snow season. She still had flowers, a kind of pink snapdragon she had brought from Indiana, growing on the south side of the house where a series of Indian summer golden days had brought new leaves on them. Walter Hill had so much confidence in the weather that he’d ridden for town on their only horse. (There had been two, but one broke its leg in a badger hole.)

She enjoyed being alone. There was very little time to think but thinking was a little dangerous anyway. Still, she was constantly planning, trying to figure out ways to do things that were a little more efficient, that made the little soddie more livable, and then there was the immense luxury of planning for the future. It was a future with many hazards, but if things went right, she might achieve children, a real house, and the knowledge that she had fulfilled the destiny of a woman in this world. Much of it depended on Mr. Hill.

She hardly knew Mr. Hill, in spite of living with him all summer. When she became Mrs. Hill, they’d exchanged basic facts and he seemed to be a good man, but they didn’t really know each other. This was not a country that encouraged romance or even chit-chat. Life was short and brutal without either intentions or virtue being any kind of guarantee. People didn’t ask for happiness -- they only hoped for children who would be happier than themselves.

Mr. Hill was a huge dark shape in her life to whom she was bonded by law and obligated to obey. This was to her in the nature of things, just as her father and mother had been tied together until her mother died. They never made a fuss about it. In fact, her father made no show of emotion when her mother died. One’s duty in life was to accept and go on, no matter what. She was constantly alert to what the man wanted and where he was. If he called for help, she responded at once. Everything depended upon his ability to work, to plan accurately, to do good business. If he were hurt, both of them would be in trouble. There was no margin for error on a homestead. In fact, one could be remarkable in effort and virtue, only to have it all wiped away by locusts, drought, wind. Rightfully, Mr. Hill took up most of the space, the food, the decisions.

When he left for town this time, she was both relieved and a little wary about being alone, feeling the extra responsibility. In fact, when the grasses began to hiss under cold wind, she went out to check on the cow and chickens, that they were under cover and things were secured. It wasn’t until she realized how quickly the snow shelf of clouds was building behind the mountains and rising into the sky that she realized a serious piece of weather was on the way. Birds were scudding on the wind, low to the ground, looking for patches of brush where they could hang on with a little protection.

When the blizzard really hit, it was a bit of a relief. Surely Mr. Hill would have seen this and have taken cover somewhere, either not have started back from town at all or have stopped with neighbors. He would not be back tonight. She could indulge herself a bit.

Under the bed was her trousseau trunk where her good black dress lay carefully folded. In the bottom was the last bit of a bar of French-milled soap her sister had given her when she left. Scraping the trunk out from under the bed, she could smell that soap as soon as she lifted the lid. It smelled like . . . luxury. Wild extravagance. It took a bit of feeling around until she found it, re-wrapped in the flowered paper it had come in. She would bathe with it in the old tin tub. She would boil enough water in the laundry copper to get the bath really hot, instead of the second-hand lukewarm bath she normally got after Mr. Hill had washed. Not that she was sorry to have him bathe, since it usually meant a conjugal obligation would be fulfilled that night and it was more pleasant with a clean man. Bad enough that his big, dark, hard-muscled shape came down on her without him reeking of sweat besides. Smells were just smells and one couldn’t be fussy in an environment full of animals, but she tried to keep standards.

And so she argued with herself as the wind rose and hard crystals of snow sanded the front of the soddy where the door and only window were exposed from the hill that, dug out, formed three walls. This provided effective insulation. At least the roof was tar-papered and hardly leaked. And there was glass in the window though it showed only black with scratches of white tracing the snow trajectories in their millions.

The boiling water made the air humid, gentling her skin and curling her hair into tendrils. She laid aside her clothes, put the towel over the back of a straight chair with the soap on the seat in a dish. Her nightgown hung on the bedstead. She laughed at her sense of comfort, safety in the midst of threat, and felt a little thrill at being so daring without fear of anyone, even her husband, arriving in the middle of her little ceremony.

Then there was a clunking noise outside, barely audible through the storm. Did something blow over? Did a door come unlatched? She stood immobile, waiting for more clues. None came.

Stepping into the water, fancying herself as the illustration from some book about nymphs, she shuddered with pleasure even as her thighs stung with heat. The soap lathered well. Her shoulders were glistening in the lamplight. Should she wash her hair? She bent over to soak it in front of her.

A louder noise and the door sprang open, banging against the wall. The dark hulk of her husband stood in the opening, as soaked as she was, his face as red from the snow biting it as her thighs were from hot water. He said nothing for a long moment.

“For God’s sake will you close the door?”

He did, by falling against it. He stared, trying to comprehend. His lips could hardly move, but he blurted, “Came back . . . you afraid alone.”

“I’m not a child,” she snapped, not guarding her tongue. Then he fell to the floor. Kneeling by him, she asked, “Is the horse put away?” He nodded vaguely, his eyes closed. His face was crusted with ice.

He had to be gotten warm quickly. The cold was paralyzing him. Heedless of her nakedness, she began to strip off his clothes, throwing them to the side to get them off the rag rug. They had been stiffened into ice but were quickly melting. When they were all off, she dipped her washrag in the bath water and rubbed him hard, smoothing back his hair, but it wasn’t enough. The only way she could drag him into the bath was to get behind him, step in, then pull him with her, holding him between her knees.

When he grew warm enough to think again and even talk, he said, “It smells like spring.”

“My soap.” Her heart loosened at his recovery. She cradled him like a child in front of her and, heedless of using up the precious soap, she gently washed him. For the first time she really felt his skin, the shape of his neck, the strength of his shoulders. He reached back with both hands to hold her legs against his sides.

That was the night marriage made them one and they began their family.

Monday, October 19, 2009


There’s really no end to writing about writing or teaching writing or accounting for the success of writing, which is all to the good, isn’t it? In the nonexistent end what really counts is sitting down and just putting one word after another. Staying in the chair is the first success.

Some of us wouldn’t do it except that we need to do it. No accounting for it. Sometimes we write stuff that no writing teacher or even advanced writing student would approve of. I remember a sharp-tongued “friend” who read some of my early efforts and scolded, as a good veteran of writing workshops, “SHOW, don’t TELL!” But I needed to tell the reader a lot of stuff because readers don’t know stuff. Sometimes they just don’t have the facts and other times they’re looking at stuff in some old-fashioned or irrelevant way and need to be straightened out. If it’s good enough for Herman Melville to tell us about the whaling industry, why can’t I tell the reader about living on a reservation? I think this show-not-tell advice is valid if you’re trying to write workshop fiction of the most recently fashionable kind, which depends upon a kind of Henry James hidden shift in consciousness, revealed to the observer by subtle but perceptible signs, which is flattering to the author for being so observant but not necessarily interesting to the reader. Except that the conventional readers are rather alike and are fond of sitting in front of mirrors like subteens, searching for teeny variations.

Most people seem to like plot -- what happens next and what the final outcome might be. They’re out of luck these days when it comes to movies. A current editing technique jumps over boring stuff like going out of the house, driving to the store, parking, walking in the door. Now the shots just skip from going out of the house to being in the store, counting on the viewer to understand how the person got there. But lately that’s developed into big gaps in the plot where the screen writer simply didn’t think it through. At the end the action just stops, unresolved. Partly, I think, this is due to the repetitiousness of plotting: too many people have life experience that consists only of prior movies. THEY’re bored, so they assume we are, too. Mostly, we are.

Genuine original experience is still vital to writing. But there is a key irony in the difference between conscious experience/self-organization versus UNconscious experience/self-organization. It is quite possible to go to an event, think you have had a good time, come home and wake up shuddering in the night -- because while sleeping the conversation or someone’s face or the music finally triggered an old memory or a new realization. If an author can write in a way that plays off the character’s apparent interpretation of what’s happening, while all the time “showing” what’s really going on in the subconscious and maybe in a “realer” reality, then the story can become extraordinary.

When the media began talking about how the WTT catastrophe was the “end of irony,” I was confused. I thought the attack was meant to be highly ironic and it was, indeed. That a spoiled rich kid whose overactive and resentful imagination could get him to energize a lot of hedonistic jihadists (which is ironic in itself) to martyr themselves by smashing into overbuilt skyscrapers meant to symbolize monetary dominance, at the same time killing all the “little people” who worked there, is so internally contradictory as to be almost “over-ironic.” Excessive to the point of incredulity. Maybe that’s what they meant.

The human mind’s split between conscious v. unconscious is a built-in irony. The latter is full of connections, patterns, meanings, experiences, memories and hopes -- while the former wrinkles its brow, struggling to think of something. The more the conscious mind can “entrain” or activate the unconscious, the more powerful the writing can get. It’s the same for any art, which is why art can kindle a new identity. What the teacher does is not to say, “do it this way” but rather “you can do it.”

The quote below is from the most recent post on “Dragoncave,” the blog of the aptly named “Art” Durkee, a musician, artist and writer posting at He often reflects on his own method as well as content and emotional state. In this instance he’s talking about a major piece of composing that he feels brings him back to himself after a couple of years of challenge, suffering, and loss.

“Looking at the overall form, in retrospect, I see that echoes and weavings-together happen at each structural point in the music. As though I'd intended it, although no part of my conscious mind was aware of this happening during the actual writing. I notice the patterns and forms, their many symmetries and echoes, after it's all been done. I only accentuate a pattern I have noticed, during the actual writing, if I'm aware of it.

“Obviously some greater part of whatever portion of my self that is the creative force behind this writing has a better sense of overall form and shape and gesture than I do myself; "I" being the conscious, verbal part of the self, the most intellectual part of the self, the personality-ego interface if you will. That greater self knew what was going on, and shaped things more than I knew as I proceeded. I can look back and marvel at how intentional it all seems in hindsight; all the while knowing that during the actual writing I had no clue. I marvel at the wisdom of the greater self.

“Often I can look back over the writing of a piece like this, in hindsight, and spot more patterns and detailed echoes of form than I was ever consciously aware of during the actual writing process. This is nothing new. I'm quite used to this, as part of my creative process. It is how essays, poems, other pieces of music, and many visual artworks have been made. I actually enjoy finding the hidden echoes within a piece, afterwards.

“I have learned over time to always do my best to avoid analysis during the actual writing process: if I get too analytical too early on in the process, it can kill the energy of the entire project.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I’m always wary when people ask me for feedback about their writing or even, like that reckless Lance, think I might be a good writing teacher. In the first place, I soon discovered that what they really wanted me (or someone) to teach them was not about writing, but rather about success. But success as a writer is an elusive phenomenon that can’t really be taught because so much of it is uncontrollable, a function of time, place and culture. Also, “success” in most people’s minds is commodified, which is not about the writing at all -- it’s about the creation of saleable objects we used to call “books” but now call, in our sophisticated way, “codexes” meaning bound pages, piled up on shelves. (Thus the prob with virtual ebooks.) The idea used to be that discerning investors would put capital into buying the content, shaping and illustrating of these objects, then send them out to stores for sale. Promotion, of course, is crucial. A terrific book, exemplary in every way, is not going to sell (succeed) unless people know it exists.

Since the investors are now corporations whose shareholders demand ten per cent or more return on their investment, Manhattan publishers put a lot of money into market research in the belief that books are commodities like any other and that questionnaires will tell them what is a valuable commodity. This is a side-aspect of writing which really has nothing to do with the writing itself. I know little or nothing about the commodification of books as now sold by big box stores. Except that the factor of imagining the Emperor’s New Clothes is really big and so is the principle of “the son of” or “part X” or “the continuing story.” Branding.

As for actual writing, I’ve learned a few things like the trick about dialogue that I shared with Lance. (No one really teaches writing -- we all just sort of blunder along together.) For instance, besides making dialogue more convincing and engaging by letting characters talk past each other in fragments designed to reveal the underlying agendas of the speakers, there are tricks for getting rid of those pesky “he saids” and “she saids.” An amateur might get the thesaurus and begin saying things like, “he ejaculated,” which is a little alarming, depending on the circumstances. “She interlocuted,” which is pretentious, and other multi-syllabics. A trick I use is to include an assigned action just before the quote: “The lumberjack picked up his chainsaw. ‘Say that again and you’re a tree!’” Of course, it’s always good for characters to have distinctive enough voices that confusion is reduced. If there are only two people, they can just go back and forth with nothing but “DI”(two)alogue. Hemingway did that. Ping pong. Make it snappy. Or badminton. Make it stylish.

Two lessons came from a weekend workshop with Peter Matthiessen two decades ago. I had a sentence that would NOT behave: it went in kinks and loops that would not lie down and make sense. Peter changed a prepositional phrase into a gerund, threw out an intensifier, and made a participle into a modifier. The sentence now worked. (A sentence like that is sometimes best made into two.) The point I took was that if all you learned from your English teacher was to name and identify the grammatical construction of a sentence, you have gone to a lot of work for nothing. The point of seeing what they are IS to have the ability to convert constructs from one to the other. People who have taken Latin seem to find this easy, even fun. It’s not a matter of synonyms, but rather controlling the underlying message by structuring grammatical relationships. As well as meaning, one must consider what using more complex or simpler constructs and so on will do to the “rhetoric” which is (I think) the tone and style of the words. This is high octane stuff and requires a LOT of reading to perceive, something like training your eye by looking at art.

The other lesson came when I said that buffalo have purple mouths like chow dogs. Peter suggested that since I was trying to present buffs as majestic and impressive beasts, using a comparison to a dog was not a good idea. The lesson is that people will associate any image with ALL the traits of the subject. Buffs are not pets. (I’m more impressed with chow dogs than Peter is.) I took the point, but another writer at the table did not. He entered an argument about whether it is true that either animal has a purple mouth. Like so many people these days, he got entirely stuck on fact and lost the artfulness.

There are many many ways to use image, metaphor, comparison. Barrus often uses the displacement of a word properly belonging to one of the senses as a modifier of another sense, like saying music tastes of salt. We do it all the time, but he does it in a vivid incantatory way which is his personal style, learned in a time when it was characteristic of a society that is now gone (or underground) and largely unrecognized.

Ivan Doig often uses a noun as a verb or some other displacement of one “part of speech” into another, which is possible because we (maybe unconsciously) understand the grammar as well as the word. It is sometimes startling and IMHO if it is TOO startling, it stops the reader’s flow in order to figure it out. Ivan is also a product of his time and place, which happens to be close to mine except that he was in journalism and I was in theatre, which made a LOT of difference.

Which brings up the issue of the author as an exemplar. Again, IMHO, what makes writing truly absorbing and valuable is the underlying life. One who wants to be a significant writer, as opposed to a best-selling one, must develop him or herself as an instrument in much the same way as an actor. I don’t mean acting like one’s fav protagonist. I mean expanding one’s knowledge of the world, understanding of what’s going on, and something I can only call morality, a sense of how things ought to be or at least the possibility of what it could be -- sometimes through a dark portrayal of why the status quo is evil and destructive. This is self-serving, because what really finally let me see what my own writing should be was seminary: the consideration of human life in an a-human context. It is also one of the strong ties between Barrus and myself, which no one who doesn’t consider this dimension will ever understand.

Truth, in my sort of writer’s terms, is not a matter of factuality, but rather integrity, empathy, and other connections to the world, both ecstatic and fatal. There’s a lot more to talk about later.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

BLACKFEET EYES: A Partial Review

If you go to the above url -- and I hope the link holds, because it’s too long to type out -- if it doesn’t, try googling “Blackfeet Eyes - Google Books Result” which is where I got it. Or you could cut-and-paste. It links to a big piece of a mystery novel written by Dr. Leonard Schonberg, a deceased ob-gyn doc from near Billings. Enough of the book is there for you to form an opinion. It was supposed to be the first of a trilogy, but since Dr. Shonberg lost his life last year, I don’t know what that means.

My own opinion about this particular book is more aesthetic than political. I think this is by an ambitious Montana liberal who, in his upper-class narrowly-educated way (Docs these days are not known for their humanities background.), wants to demonstrate privileged knowledge of Indians on reservations. He’s gone to some trouble to get Blackfeet rez places right -- up to a point -- though Teeple’s IGA has now swallowed up both the Red Crow Kitchen and Ben Franklin and there are other glitches. It’s unlikely that any cop with history on the rez wouldn’t know about someone living along one of the main river coulees, no matter how reclusive he might be (esp. if he’s white and a little weird), and the roads on the rez ARE mostly paved now. It’s even less likely that a Browning cop wouldn’t know well the last remaining service station in Valier, which is the main stop-for-coffee-and-gas town between Browning and Great Falls. There is no gas station on the “outskirts” of Valier. Valier (pop maybe 400) has no outskirts. Little stuff like that. It’s curious that Valier is featured so much in this plot.

There’s the whole issue of whether a white man should be “entitled” to write about Indian subjects, whether he is “stealing” raw material from an Indian writer. I think in this case that’s a non-issue. The main thing keeping Indians from being writers is skipping school. But that’s an issue for another post.

The main trouble is something Lance and I have been talking about: dialogue. This book, like many other relatively amateur books, depends upon the dialogue to carry the story and stiffens up with so much information that everything slows to a crawl while one guy explains to another. William Kittredge has said that the main contribution he made to Jim Welch’s writing was to point out that people talk past each other, that much of what is understood is sub-text running along underneath the words, and sentences are usually incomplete. Gestures, body-language, timing -- all that sometimes means more than the words. In other words, a writer should listen to real people before inventing his own little puppet play in his head. (Or HER head.)

Thank goodness Schonberg resists writing in dialect -- people don’t say “init,” but he does throw in white man Blackfeet vocabulary words, the ones learned from a book, maybe, or in a class. Everyone in this book sounds pretty much the same. Another stumble is using real people’s names. White Calf is much too iconic and honored a name to use for a villain without getting into trouble. Standing Bear is no car mechanic. At least I’ve never heard him described that way. Motor-mouth, maybe.

Some rez people will go into a fan dance with race cards if they hear so much negative stuff about Browning. They are firmly of the opinion that if bad things don’t come up in polite conversation, bad things didn’t happen. Details such as meth crystals on a baby’s pacifier will make them, well, froth at the mouth.

My recent three sets of company were all horrified by the reservation towns, seeing only poverty, dilapidation, wrecked cars and wandering dogs. I forget that stuff. Truly. What I see is friends, stories, and many improvements. Bob used to say that it’s not that Browning has so many street drunks, it’s just that they all look the same to outsiders, so the same eight derelicts staggering around and around the block, seem like hordes. To anyone who knows them by name, we have a pretty good idea of what their agendas are, where they’re going. They don’t seem very scary. Strange that Dr. Schonberg never mentions ANY dogs! He picks up the obvious: racetrack, sculpture at the hospital, etc.

It’s true enough that horrible things happen on the rez, which is fifty miles on every side and includes more than 8,000 people of many kinds, most of them the kind that mind their own business. The growing majority get to work and to school, take care of their families, and join to abate trash, protect wilderness, guide kids, and all the other good things. Outsiders rarely even see them, much less get to know them. Neither did I see any sign, after reading the online sample, that there was going to be discussion of the dark powers of need, suffering and oppression that cause bad things.

The upshot is that though Dr. Schonberg’s physical landmarks might be recognizable, the relationships among the people are not at all familiar. This is a book by an outsider about issues that preoccupy outsiders. It’s not that it’s about murder, mutilation and the abuse of women, but that it’s all surface, even though the protagonist is supposed to be a tribal member. Hillerman is obviously the inspiration -- at least his sales record -- without awareness of the controversy around him and the depth of his participation of in Indian life.

Why get all worked up about Dr. Schonberg trespassing on reservation life when he clearly has no more understanding of it than some tourist with a notebook and camera? It is curious that he’s focusing on Blackfeet when his home was in Crow country. Since the latter are traditional enemies of the former, maybe he thought he could dodge some criticism. Likewise by making the villains all whites, outliers, freaks and geeks -- just like any good middle-class college grad who feels entitled to reject those who are nonconforming or “failures.” Why else would the book be promoted so heavily on Yellowstone Public Radio?

Not a whole lot of middle-class folks yet, though there are some. I doubt many will bother with this book. Nor should they, except maybe out of curiosity. It’s just irrelevant. If you want to know about Blackfeet, read Jim Welch.