Monday, November 30, 2009


Suppose we dreamt we were Tiger Woods and we crashed our white SUV in the middle of the night while pulling out of the “driveway” of our fancy house in a gated community. Suppose we hit a tree and a fire hydrant and our lovely blonde wife had to save us by smashing out the rear windows with a golf club. And suppose the neighbor came rushing over with his mobile phone in his hand and called the police. And then suppose the Florida state troopers, though they had no jurisdiction, insisted on knowing the whole story.

This discussion will NOT be about what’s truth and what’s fiction, nor will we pay attention to rumors about a cocktail hostess who just flew to Hollywood to get Gloria Allred to represent her. (Who’s picking up that bill? A newspaper or a network?)

Let’s do this from “inside” Tiger Woods which is ultimately as invasive as it gets, but we’ll try to stick to universals and more-or-less shared elements by imagining “we” are Tiger.

First, we know we’re a celebrity, and we have to come through as a performer or our income and prestige will disappear. The pressure on us is very high, but also the access to “perks” which in this world means beautiful women. At the same time, it’s hard to feel loved for ourselves because of all this money and celebrity, so there’s a double bind: how can we know what is for ourselves? We’ve had the reassurance and total support of a father, who nevertheless pressed us to succeed. That source is missing now, which puts even more pressure on marriage.

Do we need our wife to be the kind of parental steadier that the father was? That’s kind of a drag on the sexual excitement. And a burden on a woman who might not be prepared to act as mom and therapist for a man she married because we are a celebrity (oh, say it isn’t so). Maybe she’s afraid we’ll go looking for another woman or that another women will figure out how to get through his conscience barriers, inside his “walled community,” and displace her. That this sort of dynamic surfaces in the “wee smalls” is no surprise.

Okay, another angle. Tiger is racially congruent with Obama, in fact, very similar in many ways, not least handsomeness and grace under pressure. But these very characteristics tempt people to give us less slack than they might give someone else. We begin to be “used” by those around us. A sort of resentment at our being seemingly bullet-proof causes people to be constantly feeling for weak spots, trying to get a little control over us, to guarantee our relationship with them. We must understand all this and forgive it, or we will be pushing everyone away from us, out of our “private compound.” We know that if we had less money, less talent, less good luck, we ourselves will lose the protection of that walled community and be out there with the rest of the people of our demographic category, which means a good deal of vulnerability.

So now I’m zeroing in on the “walled community” which is both a protection and a confinement. Very much like celebrity status, which also means privilege and access but always having to keep one’s guard up, to suspect motives, to watch out for those who do not wish you well -- precisely BECAUSE you are a celebrity.

But let’s not leave the racial shadows too quickly: the ghost of O.J. Simpson is prowling around in the darkness. Another celebrity athlete with a beautiful blonde wife who liked to play golf in Florida. Tiger Woods is a figure based on virtue: we would NEVER become violent with our wife. The whole idea of cutting her throat or even striking her is totally out of character, unthinkable. So rage has to be dealt with some other way. We get into the car to leave, get away. But where would we go? It’s also unthinkable to go to some barmaid eager to get involved.

Is this white SUV reminiscent of OJ’s flight down the California freeway? Is there some paparazzi out there waiting for a story, mobile phone in hand? Going out onto the highway is unthinkable. Don’t leave the safe privacy of home. But a neighbor is there with HIS mobile phone. What privacy is there even in one’s own driveway? The Florida highway patrol is infinitely curious. They are always infinitely curious -- that’s their job -- but they stand for the public as much as the newspapers do, in fact there is a symbiosis. They can get a lot of mileage out of leaks. Call a lawyer. That’s who defends private interests against public forces.

But before that, the crash brings an emergency that our wife responds to. We can’t leave now: we’ve blocked our own exit by driving into a tree and a fire hydrant. The fire is out. We’ve taken the damage ourselves: our “face” is hurt. Our wife uses up her violence with a golf club on the rear windows. (If this incident happened on the rez, we’d all laugh because it is such a common act of revenge to smash pickup windows. But let’s not jump to conclusions.) She smashes the rear windows, not the windshield or the side windows. Is she smashing the past rather than smashing the way forward?

A tree and a fire hydrant. Hitting a tree means striking a living thing. I wish I knew more mythology about trees in a SE Asian context, like what they mean in the life of the community. Hitting a fire hydrant is more mechanical, a public infrastructure, but a source of water which means life and safety in the event of a fire. A quarrel is a fire. Now the quarrel is over.

The bottom line from “our” point of view is that a man of great accomplishment and huge burdens, has found himself at odds with his main source of support, whom he genuinely loves. The hour suggests a sexual context. Either her accusations or his guilt or his impatient innocence has caused him to lose his temper. He has tried to protect her by leaving. He has prevented himself from leaving by driving into immovable objects and he has taken the damage himself. She damaged the car. Maybe she damaged him more than she intended. He extends his protection to her.

He’ll take a lot more before this is over, but he chooses the protection he has earned. I think we’d better let him have it. Florida highway patrol, journalists, Gloria Allred, etc. should all butt out. Dreams are private.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


When Lynda and Michael Sexson organized “Logon ‘83” I was circuit-riding through Montana and didn’t own a computer but had worked on one at the U of Chicago Law School, transcribing. The name of the conference was a pun, of course, since one “logged on” to a computer and the Internet and “logon” relates to reason, order, word as in the Christian theological word, logos. Lynda teaches religion and Michael teaches English. The conference, anchored in the computer, was both inspired and enabled by their national circle of friends, which was remarkably eclectic and at the same time in harmony.

I’m still looking for my notes, which I’m sure I saved somewhere, but I’ll draw on my memory for this informal post. One of the speakers was the inventor of a counseling program, very Rogerian, which said, “Would you tell me more about that? How does your memory of your mother relate to this? Do you think that’s unique?” The psychologist inventor was chagrined to discover that his own secretary was sneaking into his office while he was gone so she could be counseled by his machine.

It was a summer conference and the temps were hot, along with the local feminist movement. One session became so inflamed that it looked like violence until Michael, who was “enabling” the session, mildly suggested that we all go have a cold beer and that was enough to break up the deadlock. I can’t even remember what had everyone so wrought up.

I wish I could remember more of the sessions, which created categories in my mind that have never failed me since. One of the most potent was Thomas Moore (who has written MANY books and maintains a website at whose session was about our tendency to anthropomorphize our instruments, from the ventroquist’s dummy like Mortimer Snerd to guns like “Ol’ Betsy” to, of course, computers -- like Hal. And now, 25 years later, it appears that Hal-like computers can think for themselves. (Shudder.) They don't just counsel -- they fly airplanes.

In addition to Thomas Moore speaking, he taught a class on dream interpretation and I was kindly allowed to audit since the Sexsons were technically part of the Bozeman UU Fellowship and therefore my parishioners. The class was so desirable that it had been closed early and the room was crammed. Two attendees were party crashers.

These two boys were still trying to understand the great Counter Cultural wave in this country and their own interior lives as well. They were college age, but not college students, I think. They had not paid the fee to register. They had a dream they wanted to present for interpretation. As nearly as I remember, it was about driving an endless road and running over a snake which deflated with a long hissing sound. Innocents, they had not understood the phallic connection to snakes or even journey-as-life. They were still unraveling “Star Wars,” (1977) just finding out that there were other religions besides Christianity. I suspect some girl had told them about Joe Campbell and even fished out of her backpack a copy of one of his books, which is how books got around in those days. (“I’m Okay; You’re Okay” traveled in backpacks as an unpublished manuscript for years, gradually losing its outer leaves.)

Thomas Moore carefully and kindly guided them through free association: what snakes were there in their lives? What did the highway mean to them? As this whole new world opened up to these boys, their mouths hung open in astonishment. Others among us smiled smugly. Then the door burst open and in came the female registrar on the prod. She gave those two boys the hook -- they were outta there in a hurry -- and the class was aghast! We were all liberals, tolerant, inclusive, and so on.

So then Thomas Moore treated the occasion as if it were a dream. It DID have its surreal elements, so sudden and such a change in mood. What did we think of when we considered authority figures? What does it mean to limit a group? (There’s a whole body of scholarly comment on “fencing the Communion,” which the early Christians did -- only allowing baptized people to take the bread and wine.)

All of a sudden we realized that EVERYTHING is metaphorical, everything has both a personal history and a larger history plus relationship to old and deep patterning. And that much of the work of consciousness is bringing up some of that while maybe suppressing other elements we’re not ready to handle.

Tim and Cinematheque are beginning to do dream work, which is about all these things, because the antiretroviral called Sustiva causes over-vivid dreams, nightmares, and the temptation for the guys is to just evade them by not taking the drug, but it is one of the few drugs that can get into the brain. Maybe the “only.” Tim’s thought is that doing dream work -- not the way my mother used to with her gypsy meaning book on her nightstand -- it mostly dealt in reversals -- but personally and specifically with each guy trying to recover his dream on video. This turns something uncontrollable and mysterious that grips a vulnerable person into something that can be objectified and even aestheticized. Made into an art work. Shared. Even sold, because these drugs cost like hell, which is part of the nightmare. Even nightmares can become part of the healing instead of more of the affliction.

So I went looking on the Internet for Thomas Moore and there he was, sturdy and gentle and unafraid of guys at risk with compromised life-paths far worse than driving over snakes. He sent me an email and now I see he’s a community. I’m waiting to be admitted to the forum list.

Lynda and Michael Sexson are still professors in Bozeman and just published two things. One is a video about historical children’s books, like primers, (stand by for a review as soon as I get the DVD) and the other is a revival of “Corona,” which was a literary magazine they edited decades ago. Now it is an $80 “box” that includes things like a little figure made of mud from Arlo Skari’s daughter’s ranch and her article about it. I say it in that roundabout way because Arlo Skari has traveled with the UU community and is a staunch guardian of the Sweetgrass Hills where the stone dreambeds of the ancient Blackfeet still exist. The box contains a number of articles uniquely printed and the expensiveness comes in part from having to hand-pack each box. This is where I’ve predicted that “books” will go post-codex, freed up by the eRevolution. Humanities Montana pays no attention to all this stuff, except they did make a grant. They’d rather stay in Missoula on the safe side of the Rockies.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Being ordained is a little like getting married. I like to joke that I was ordained on the set of “Death of a Saleman,” which is true. The Grand Street Theatre in Helena was staging that sturdy old tragedy and the set required that there be no front drop curtain. The ordination was there because the building was originally the First Unitarian Church of Helena and we borrowed it back. The Tiffany glass window is there as a memorial to the original minister’s wife, who started the first kindergarten classes in Helena besides running a friendly little theological discussion group in the couple’s quarters. They were said to include the rabbi, since Helena had a synagogue in those days. Kind, ecumenical, dynamic and devoted, she died young of cancer.

The church was paid for when her husband, discovering that several of his parishioners were copper moguls being prosecuted for this and that, made it his business as their respected religious leader to go sit by them during the trial as a sort of testimony to their church-going. Then, of course, they were obligated to write checks to help pay off the building, which -- like several Helena landmarks -- arrived in town via railroad as pre-cut stone to be assembled like Leggos.

The laypeople worried that they didn’t know “how” to do an ordination but I told them all they had to do was to show up with their fellowship banners and as many column candles as they could find, so they did that. We hung the banners down the sides and put the candles where footlights would go. The rest was fairly predetermined and predictable except that no one had been ordained for a circuit-riding ministry of four fellowships until then. Nevertheless, the “old bulls” gathered: Russ Lockwood who was the district exec and the person who had invented the whole project and raided a little cache of hidden Universalist money to pay for it; Peter Raible who must have been the president of the Pacific Northwest Ministers’ organization and who was in any case the organizer of the Leadership School that got me all fired up in the first place; and Alan Deale, my home minister.

At that time Alan was the head of the Fellowship Committee, which decides who gets into fellowship with the UU ministry and who does not. At least that’s the way everyone thought of it. In fact, our denomination has congregational polity and a congregation is welcome to look foolish by installing someone uncertified. People who knew he was my home minister were very cautious around me, even Meadville profs. There were a few close squeaks where I probably would have been jettisoned if it hadn’t been for “belonging” to him. I was not above taking advantage of that.

So imagine me walking around Helena with these three scarred and wise old guys (not so old, looking back), all history buffs and all doing their favorite thing anyway: being ministers among ministers instead of ministers among parishioners. We walked up the hill to the cathedral and the irrepressible Alan spotted the holy water inside the huge doors. “Come over here, Mary. I’ve always wanted to do this!” And he dipped into the water to invent a ceremony, halfway between Baptism and Ordination, sounding a lot like the beginning to “Ulysses” by James Joyce. (He started out to get a lit degree.) The light was streaming in the stained glass windows and I felt quite transformed and exalted. Alan has yearned after Catholic charisma ever since a priest friend got him out of a Boston traffic ticket by loaning him a reverse collar outfit. “Oh, father!” exclaimed the civil servant at the fine-paying wicket, “There must have been some mistake!”

But then in Helena a priest, not from Boston (more likely Butte), affronted, came bursting out of the confessional to see what on earth was going on and we burst back out through the heavy doors and scattered down the stairs like kids. I don’t think the cathedral had to be reconsecrated, but it was lucky that priest hadn’t been invited to the Ordination -- which meant something quite different to him anyway. When a Catholic priest is ordained, he becomes an Instrument of God and is acted through by Him. The four of we Unitarians barely believed in God, if at all, and were certainly well aware that we had no magic powers.

The Grand Street Theatre is quite nervous about letting Unitarians use the building. The First Unitarian Church of Helena crashed in the Thirties Depression. It is leased to the City of Helena for some symbolic amount with the proviso that if it is used improperly, it can be taken back. Don Marble had to invoke that clause when the City was being pressed to sell it to a restaurant chain.

We ministers may sound as though we were being frivolous, since God for us had been reduced to being an onlooker, but in fact we were deadly serious. It was our solidarity in defending the ideals of the institution that were at stake. The ideals. NOT the institution itself, which is necessarily transient as are all things earthly. In 1982 ministerial fellowship was all for one and one for all in a way that has itself probably passed now. This will sound crude, but guys are dogs and gals are cats. The UU ministry is now more than half female. You can get dogs to run in a pack, but not cats. I don’t know what proportion of the ministers are second-career people, but quite a few. That also dilutes commitment -- it is no longer a lifelong dedication but a backup choice.

I believe in vows and struggle to keep them, but in this case I did not swear fealty to the UUA. A ministry vow, unlike a wedding vow, does not mean exclusive allegiance to one partner, and so I was and am free to minister to whomever may need it, quite apart from their label, only according to their needs. Sometimes I use the “Reverend” tag but more often not.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Some years ago I was looking for a hanging plant for my big east kitchen window. I thought it ought to be pretty heat-tolerant as that spot gets pretty warm in summer. In a commercial nursery I spotted a nice fleshy plant with interesting pods along the stems. The stems dangled down a couple of feet. The nursery owner had called it a “fishhook cactus” on grounds that the pods were sort of hook shape. But a “fishhook cactus” when I googled it, turned out to be Mammillaria microcarpa, which is a small squatty, roughly boob-shaped, cactus with a wreath of lavender flowers around the top. (Funny how we are always interpreting plants in terms of animals.)

So anyway I bought it. Since then, we’ve been through a lot. Once after I’d left my house plants outside in the fall a little too long, it froze back to the soil, but soon it regrew. It was very heavy so I worried about it pulling its hook out of the ceiling and somehow, though it was in a relatively small pot and watered in very irregular fashion -- which is the way I treat my house plants and why I’m good at geraniums, who like that -- it sometimes grew to hang down five or six feet. Then I’d just lop off the stems with the scissors. If I forgot to water it for a really long time, the pods would shrivel up and maybe a few of the multiple stems would die.

Once I felt so guilty about the way I treated this plant that I went through a phase of trying to give it away. At that point it was in a pot on the bookcase in front of the window, sort of coiled up. My neighbor sniffed, “It looks like a saucepan of green worms.” She wasn’t entirely wrong. So I gave up and hung it again.

A few weeks ago I repotted it and because the new pot was bigger, heavier and had no drip pan, I put it temporarily on the window shelf with the long heavy stems spread out along the sill. Then I sort of forgot about it. (My household thrives on benign neglect, or so I assume.) Then one day I was startled to see that it had changed. Not only was it producing a kind of frondy shoots, but they were joined by stems with little flowers on top.

Clearly, by changing the relationship to gravity, I had put this plant into a new mode. It was not a hanging plant at all -- it was a trailing plant meant to lie along the ground. What a homily starter!

There used to be a minister in the New England area whose father had run a greenhouse business. This minister would bring a dogwood sapling into the pulpit every Easter so he could talk about the symbolism of the bloom. (The four petals each have a sort of little “nailhole” at the tip.) Then they’d plant the tree on the grounds. Plant symbolism is about to run rampant as we enter the season of Christmas trees, boughs of holly, and mistletoe clusters. It doesn’t occur to many that these are all the detritis of ancient northern Europe vegetable symbolism as laid out in Robert Graves“The White Goddess” and quite heretical if one is a purist. The original Birth Tree of Jesus was a palm tree.

Though it is clearly a fleshy plant, the meaning I would get out of this nameless and sometimes creepy succulent would be philosophical and abstract. I’d think about getting into the “right relationship” with abstract forces like gravity and light in order to be properly flowering. I have no idea whether a fruit or seed of some kind will result, but I’m watering it a bit more faithfully in hopes of finding out. I thought that if I blogged about it, someone out there might recognize it and give it a name.

My former student, Robey Clark, who has far exceeded my own accomplishments, had an office in Portland with some big geraniums in giant pots in an entrance atrium with a lot of sun. But they didn’t bloom. He asked me for advice. Actually, geraniums have stems very easy to break because they are meant to start over all the time. One is really supposed to make cuttings and begin new pots, which I’ve remembered to do this fall. But the other secret is that in their natural climate there are long dry spaces and then heavy rain, which is why they’re ideal for me. I never heard whether that worked for Robey: to dry them out completely, then water generously.

But it was another case of duplicating the original environment, what the plant was genetically adapted for. If something is not growing where it was planted, it may be planted in an unsympathetic place. What makes a geranium impossible to grow outside in Montana, makes it the perfect spot of blood red color in the overheated house all winter.

Once I read a wonderful story (a Western) about a woman who was widowed on the prairie, stranded without the strength or money to ranch. She had two resources, though it took her a while to figure them out. One was a couple of pots of geraniums and the other was a fecund old mother cat. Eventually she made a living selling cuttings from her plants and kittens from her cat, both much valued by lonesome wives in homesteaders’ shacks. (Where did the tomcat come from? If you’ve ever lived in a remote place with a cat that came into heat, you’ll know that tomcats can scent a “queen” the way a grizzly bear can smell carrion. They just show up.)

The “lesson” of this homily is to pay attention to the interplay between environment and individual. Sometimes it’s worth adapting the environment and sometimes it’s a good thing to just change your alignment to it. (That minister his cohort called a “floral theologian” eloped with the church secretary. I don’t know whether that worked or not.) I’m so pleased to be aligned as I am. And so are the two feline queens, who -- like my plant -- are sprawlers.

So would it be heretical to ask whether Christianity and Islam were in right relationship to their environment?

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Last Thanksgiving I was a guest for dinner across the alley at the Andersons. Eli brought a turkey, Rose cooked it, and Wayne and I were appreciative. Rose died of cancer last spring. Eli and Wayne were killed in a car crash this fall. Eli took a plate to Lee, who lived alone in an old warehouse. This year Lee has been taken to a nursing home. I’m thankful for last Thanksgiving, which was a happy day.

This year I acquired a grand-nephew, a baby so big he’s always in the ninetieth percentile on the growth charts. His papa is in the timber business, so I figure he’s a throwback to Paul Bunyan. Just week, I discovered that the house where I grew up is now owned by a bright and handsome professional couple with a two-year-old named “Finn.” I’m thankful for these two babies named for mythic characters.

I’m thankful for ten years in this house, and looking forward to the next ten. I came to write and that’s what I’m doing. My thanks are fervent for my co-writer, Tim Barrus, and the guys who are so important to him -- and me.

Yesterday I found the following url of a video that struck me so hard I was weeping. It’s made a big impression on other folks as well. Commissioned by Harvard in order to teach elementary cell biology it animates scientifically accurate events and entities in one human cell. It looks like cosmic ballet with humorous little bits and then amazing sequences like Hubble telescope photographs of galaxies, the birth of stars. The second url is comments by the studio that made the animation. They say it is as accurate as possible, except that they had to put in far more space than is between these molecules in your cells as you sit there. All this stuff is crammed together in one tiny skin.

This is quoted from the second url:

The Inner Life of a Cell, an eight-minute animation created in NewTek LightWave 3D and Adobe After Effects for Harvard biology students, won’t draw the kind of box office crowds that more ferocious ˜and furrier˜ digital creations did last Christmas. But it will share a place along side them in SIGGRAPH's Electronic Theatre show, which will run for three days during the 33rd annual exhibition and conference in Boston next month. Created by XVIVO, a scientific animation company near Hartford, CT, the animation illustrates unseen molecular mechanisms and the ones they trigger, specifically how white blood cells sense and respond to their surroundings and external stimuli.

“Nuclei, proteins and lipids move with bug-like authority, slithering, gliding and twisting through 3D space. “All of those things that you see in the animation are going on in every one of your cells in your body all the time,” says XVIVO lead animator John Liebler, who worked with company partners David Bolinsky, XVIVO’s medical director, and Mike Astrachan, the project’s production director, to blend the academic data and narrative from Harvard’s faculty into a fluid visual interpretation. “First, we couldn’t have known where to begin with all of this material without significant work done by Alain Viel, Ph.D. [associate director of undergraduate research at Harvard University], who wrote and guided the focus to include the essential processes that needed to be described to complement the curriculum and sustain an interesting narrative. I’ve been in the medical animation field for seven years now, so I’m a little jaded, but I still get surprised by things. For instance, in the animation there’s a motor protein that’s sort of walking along a line, carrying this round sphere of lipids. When I started working on that section I admit I was kind of surprised to see that it really does look like it’s out for a stroll, like a character in a science fiction film or animation. But based on all the data, it’s a completely accurate rendering.”

Anthropomorphizing white blood cells is familiar to the Cinematheque guys who struggle daily with HIV, which eliminates white blood cells, exposing the guys to mortality. To stay alive they must know more about their cells than most people do. This high awareness can be a burden but it is nothing compared to the burden of ostracism and blame that society throws at them.

I subscribe to academic “aggregators” about the environment and nature-writing, about Westerns, Western history, animals, arts and book reviews. A steady flow of ideas and information comes through this old computer. Recently H-Amerindian ran a short clip noting that in Manitoba the demographics of HIV-AIDS has shifted from gay single guys to families, because the origin of the infection has moved from blood exchange through sex to blood exchange through contaminated needles used for drugs. They said it is now typical to have one member of a family come in for treatment, to test the rest of the family, and discover that even the newborns are infected. This is a function of poverty. The drugs treat fear, starvation, and abuse.

At one point in the history of Cinematheque, a history as crammed together and complex as the workings of a cell, the guys began to take Sustiva. They were living in an old warehouse that had small spaces for each to have a studio/bedroom. On the first night of Sustiva, Tim asked the boys to sleep in pairs or trios so that no one would wake alone in the night, because the drug -- which can pass the brain barrier in pursuit of the HIV virus -- causes terrifying dreams.

I told Rose about all this and we shared a concern for these guys, esp. the youngest, so we cooked up a fantasy to make ourselves feel better. We pretended that we were able to go to that dormitory in the deepest part of night and trail around in our old lady nightgowns among the boys, putting our hands on their heads to reassure them. It was kind of goofy and we made it funny by saying Rose didn’t have her teeth in. But imagining such a thing did have some power, at least for us. Tim told the boys.

The epigraph on Cinematheque’s blog is by Picasso: “Everything you can imagine is real.” Let us imagine a better world, even as we are thankful for this one.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


This evening I was watching “Wire in the Blood” and thinking about how extremely stylish it is and how sophisticated all the references to ritual and psych theory and the Bible, etc. etc. and how formidably stark and ingenious the architecture is. Of course, it’s ten years since I’ve been in a real city except once overnight in Calgary to promote “Bronze Inside and Out.” But I was thinking about what a cultural gradient is and what it does. PBS is supposed to push you up the incline, but some people scorn it as an anchor preventing innovation. Someone just analyzed Sesame Street to show that all the gritty ghetto stuff that originally made it wonderful has now been dissolved away, drained into colorlessness. Oscar the Grouch becomes a victim of low self-esteem and Big Bird stops asking all those pesky questions about where babies come from.

When I was talking about “value gradients” meaning profit in reference to Native American artifacts, I noted that the steeper it is -- that is, the bigger the difference between how cheap you can acquire something (pretty cheap, if you’re just digging it up) and how profitably you can sell it (pretty high if you’ve got the right contacts in Japan and Germany) -- the more people are going to be doing it. But where’s the pay-off in a “culture gradient” and what is it that’s differing? Like ghetto music sold to volatile kids.

I see more and more that our Montana society is de-laminating along class lines that are about prosperity, but that’s always been there. There’s always been a boss up on the hill and the workers digging in the mine. In the past it was pretty predictable that there would be ethnic markers -- skin color, to be blunt. That’s not the way it is anymore. High class people can be of any racial origin. Misread that and you’re in for a ride, like the red-neck brothers who took on a Blackfeet county commissioner. (January trial in Libby, if it goes that far.) Shared class used to be a force for solidarity. Now it’s every individual for himself. Not even family unless you’re an immigrant.

If you have money, you can buy education, but the kind of education is quite different than it used to be. Everything now is focused on federally enforced standards and earning potential. When I taught in Heart Butte twenty years ago, the lit textbooks I ordered were the standard college-prep senior lit about classics: Beowolf, Macbeth, Keats and so on. I figured that at least they would recognize the names though I taught them non-traditionally -- for instance, Beowolf was the movie “Aliens.” They got it. I have no illusions that as soon as I left, those textbooks (formidably expensive for no real reason) weren't jettisoned. Not because the teachers didn’t think the kids could read that stuff -- and it’s true that they didn’t think they could -- but because the teachers had never learned those basics themselves and didn’t find them either basic or relevant. If they somehow blunder into the company of some upper class well-educated people at a cocktail party who began to chant in unison, “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,” they wouldn’t get what’s going on. In a way it doesn’t matter, but cocktail party chatter can mean a difference when you get to a certain level.

In a way the current war of religious books is a good thing, because even if no one actually reads the Bible or the Koran, I think by now they realize that they matter and that they are a kind of alphabet of stories, far more similar to each other than would justify any war. But as I reflect, it appears that all sense of continuums has disappeared -- everything has gone out to the ends, the edges, to the us-against-them whether we’re talking major geopolitical splits or just politics at home. I’m not fond of middle men, but the middle class -- which is often based on mediating merchandise or buffering social functions like law enforcement or technology -- seems to be debilitated. No one wants to be middle class anymore. They either want to be rich and glamourous or wicked and counterculture. Except the counterculture is no longer wicked. The sense I have is that most of them are quietly maintaining their standards out of sight. The wicked will have to go with the underculture, which seems to be rather overachieving, though it -- like everything else -- is corporatized, which means bureaucracy. Is wickedness all that wicked if it’s not free lance?

In some ways age groups can’t even be put on the same continuum. For instance, I see that the youngsters are making a sharp break with any taboos on sex. As far as they’re concerned, anything goes -- BUT they are also very aware of setting boundaries, defending their own space, and will say STOP. Generally, that seems to be effective. (Unless you're starving.) On the other hand, there seems to be no taboo at all on violence, only a technicalization/medicalization focus on autopsy afterwards. (This is very much in evidence on BBC-PBS serial murder tales where the forensic investigator is generally quite droll.) Of course, for news and graphic images no one can top the daily news.

I’m hoping that when the dwindling appeal goes out of sex and violence, that the lure of ideas, the shock of insight, the explicit graphics of history, will pull us back over to some kind of sanity. One obstacle is the tendency to hush, hush all admissions of knowledge of anything. I think of much email indiscretion in terms of the tale about the king’s barber who knew the king had asses’ ears, had to keep the secret, but couldn’t help whispering it to the rushes along the river, who ever since have rustled “the king has asses ears.”

And where does it say the king has to be warm and fuzzy? Now that it appears that Obama may actually be effective at dealing with enemies, the complaint is that he doesn’t take good care of his friends and supporters. (Evidently a lack of booty.)

Those of us who manage to survive all this will be the fittest for this time and place. The question is what will be the terms of the next society? Are we preparing?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Betty MacDonald, author of “The Egg and I,” was also the creator of Ma and Pa Kettle. Incredibly shiftless and cheerful, they were living proof that survival can be achieved by pure persistence. Fitness and energy need have nothing to do with it. In fact, the Kettles must have been composites with pseudonyms, which in those days did not send ideological shudders through purist critics. Macdonald set up the structure of her book to contrast the neighborhood extremes: the Kettles on one side of the Macdonald chicken ranch and the equal but opposite uptight and scrubbed Hicks family on other side. The game the author plays is the unexpectedness of Ma Kettle’s generosity and fabulous cooking in the face of an outhouse with no door and flies everywhere, over against the pinched intimidation of Mrs. Birdy Hicks who had everything on her place fed and sterilized and was herself starched and immaculate by 7AM. The progression of the “memoir” is MacDonald’s own steep learning curve of life on the farm. After two years, having achieved prodigious changes and marveled at much local culture or lack thereof, they moved again to a better ranch and the story ends.

It’s an old pattern and one that the people in my childhood dearly loved as they struggled through their own lacks and challenges, with the occasional tiny success to keep them baited along. Lake Woebegone is not that different. A successful current practitioner of this genre is cowboy Ken Overcast, who writes the ongoing saga called Meadow Muffins, a column in which shiftless neighbors work their way along with the help of “barley sandwiches” (beer) and amazing good fortune. Overcast also appears in person to sing and tell the stories live. Emily Carr, the Canadian painter and writer, was a master of this style. (It helps to have a lot of animals.) One of her tricks was to personify objects and Betty does that well, most notably in the case of “Stove” who had more personality (mostly balky) than most people. Two other techniques are incredible hyperbole and unusual words, either localisms and jargon or elevated Latinisms a little out of place.

Writing this way is more ticklish these days because of Political Correctness which doesn’t like us to make fun of Pa Kettle’s lisp or the fact that his child was stunted in infancy by “fits.” In fact, the daughters of MacDonald were nervous enough about her reaction to Indians to write in a foreword that they are CERTAIN she would have taken a different attitude today. Basically, the problem is that Macdonald’s understanding of Indians was formed by Blackfeet in parade mode during her childhood in Butte. The coastal fish Indians of the Washington coast were quite a shock, though her husband, the irrepressible and indefatigable “Bob,” was a great friend of the Red Man and a devoted hunting buddy of Clamface, Crowbar and Geoduck, the Swenson brothers.

That’s another secret of this kind of writing: funny names. And drunkenness, which Bob was in favor of, partly because of the solidarity of getting pie-eyed together. But in another switcheroo, the best of the moonshiners is a teetotaler, so trustworthy that Betty let him babysit her infant. Do you believe all this stuff? I’d be guarded. Journalists never tried to uncover the truth.

What isn’t told is some of the real heartbreak that she is turning into slapstick. She married at 20 to a man who was 31: like me, she was advised that she would appeal to an “older man” who appreciated a firm bosom, strong arms, and a high body temperature. The reality is that this chicken farm enterprise destroyed the marriage and though she doesn’t describe “Bob” in particularly malevolent terms, it’s clear that he didn’t devote as much maintenance to her as he did to the chickens. I can relate. But she gives the book an invented happy ending.

In reality they were divorced in 1935 and he disappeared to Oakland, CA, where he worked as a carpenter until he was stabbed to death in 1951 by the ex-husband of a woman living with him. She had brought her two girls to the household. Bob and Betty had two daughters.

As a single mother, the author pieced along with jobs through the Depression until she was forced to spend 9 months in a sanitorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. In 1942 she married Donald McDonald and they lived on Vashon Island where she wrote most of her books, including childrens’ series, until the couple moved to the Carmel Valley in California in 1956. “The Egg & I,” written ten years after the chicken farm experiment, was an ENORMOUS success and Ma and Pa Kettle went on in nine spinoff movies. Betty died of cancer in 1958, aged 49. By then she was back in Seattle where most of her family lived. Her second husband lived until 1975.

Betty’s sister, Mary Bard, also was a published writer and friends and daughters have written about Betty. One daughter and one sister are still living, if you can believe Wikipedia. There’s quite a bit of information online. They’re sort of an American West Coast McCourt family and all interviewers report aching sides from laughing so much. But also, one thinks of Lucy Maude Montgomery, who turned so much struggle and disappointment into the beloved Anne books but, in spite of the constant hope and love of beauty in the stories, ended up committing suicide.

Why is it that one era will go for the stiff upper lip and the quick quip over the same material that we’ve lately learned to call “misery lit?” Why is it that everyone then -- and Montana ranchers now -- find bone-breaking misadventures and disgraceful drunkenness to be acceptable as funny stories? A slight shift in demographics and the critics go wild with pointing out evil hoaxers among the memoir authors. Sherman Alexie would be indignant at the shenanigans of the fish Indians in MacDonald stories, but uses many of the same techniques of exaggeration, disguise and elocution in his own work.

When asked why Mary Karr is an outstanding memoirist, Susan Cheever (who also writes memoirs) says that it’s about addressing an ordinary situation many people know in a tough-minded way while being very funny and unsparing. Cheever suggests two more ingredients: a unique and appealing voice and, in the end, a measure of transcendence. For Betty MacDonald that transcendence came in the gorgeous mountains of the Washington peninsula, the fabulous abundance of excellent food, and reckless humor learned in the bosom of her family.

Monday, November 23, 2009


These days education is in roughly the same shape as the economy: that is, those at the top are doing fine, in fact, probably quite a bit better than in the past, but those at the bottom aren’t even included. They are out there somewhere mysterious, existing in some kind of parallel world with rules of its own, though it sometimes intersects with others. It escapes every attempt to control, tame, or even understand it. Feral culture. I have little or nothing to offer in the way of wisdom about it. Ask Tim.

But I know quite a bit, maybe unconfirmed but real, about small town and high culture educations, the former yearning forever after the latter, hoping that education is the way to “rise” to prosperity and security. The most notable thing about education at the moment is that education has shattered. The homogenizing, patriot-creating public school education of my childhood is embattled. The action is with home-schooling, charter schools, correspondence schools, and the like. The old “free schools” paradigm, which comes alive when change is needed.

Tim embedded in the Cinematheque blog ( an interview of Melinda Gates by Charlie Rose because he works with HIV guys, but there is considerable content about education as well. Charlie is nearly worshipful of this earnest, so clean, dressed-like-Hillary young woman -- soooo intelligent, sooooo well-meaning. What Sarah Pallin ought to be. But Tim’s dry comment is that she has no contact at all with people in this country struggling with HIV/AIDS. Her management skills are used to deliver meds to people in Africa, the same as the anti-malaria bednets for children: finance, logistics, stats. She feels that if Bill and she go there and help administer oral vaccines one afternoon, they “know” the scene. NOT.

I think that Tim is wrong about one thing: if the Gateses are moving among gays at all in Seattle -- and I don’t see how they could avoid them since so many are in computer fields -- they DO know people infected and on antiretrovirals. But these are folks with high incomes, good educations, a support community, and probably no kids. Very technical, very cool, very nonthreatening. You can’t identify them by looking. The Gateses do not know the feral people with HIV-AIDS, surviving in the street, teens or younger because mortality hits early, abused and neglected, often with brain damage like FAS, PTSS, autism or old-fashioned schizophrenia. Tim is right to say, “Melinda, put on jeans and a hoodie and come on down to our nabe to meet the folks.

She wouldn’t have to travel so far. Seattle has its street people.

All that aside, when Melinda talks about education she is so far into Dilbert territory that it’s funny. “Let the teachers sit down together at the end of the day and examine their skills and strategies,” she says, never having been knocked out the way by teachers rushing home to take care of their own kids or get to second jobs made necessary by low pay. “We need to incentivize good teaching,” she babbles, not knowing that in a small town out west on the prairie the best incentive is a relative on the school board who can protect your job. And WHAT teachers’ union? She is totally unaware of the Native American or African American anti-intellectual kid who sneers, “I’m not gonna learn anything from YOU! You’re my ENEMY! You try to destroy my people!” Their point is valid. (Not useful.) Neither is she aware of how just flat out-of-control so many kids are today, conceived by accident and growing up under rocks. We used to exclude them. Their parents didn’t used to have any rights, since they were labeled low-class semi-criminals. A Microsoft-type manager is totally irrelevant.

She doesn’t seem to know how much the schools in small towns are dominated by the athletic program, which is the identity of the town which so desperately wants to be Number One and Best in State that they tolerate a high level of sports injuries and hope their cheerleader gets inseminated by a good athlete -- probably at a kegger subsidized by someone in the town hoping to “incentivize” a winning team. Then there are the car crashes and the many many many many long sleepless health-eroding miles on million-dollar Bluebird buses as the teams crisscross a state bigger than many countries in order to play commensurate schools. The main ethic they learn is “winner takes all” and that’s the way our political system works today. With loser kicking and screaming and undercutting all the way. One thing about it: this system make good soldiers.

In spite of all that, there are kids who succeed, who turn out to be solid citizens, who qualify for high-class universities, and every other good thing. The trouble is that they leave. The ones still there facing the world from a high school stance hire old coaches to be principals, sell all the books in order to buy a few soon-obsolete computers, keep up with the old cliques and, when eulogized at their early deaths from heart attacks, are remembered for their performance in some long ago basketball tournament. They run the town’s business and law enforcement and infrastructure maintenance. I’m caricaturing, but there’s truth in what I’m saying. The kids themselves will tell you so. And it’s not all bad.

Progressive culture is a city phenomenon. But the kids who disappeared before they got to high school (fifty per cent on the rez in 1961 and probably still the same) are lucky to survive at all. In small towns we know their names and wonder where they went. In cities the morgue picks them up and toe tags them Doe.

In the end I guess it’s a failure of imagination, that one part of the country -- not regional but by layers -- is so blind to other parts. It’s a failure of the media as well, since it drives us in a little circle of what-you-expect-is-what-you-get. So it’s up to the arts, slamming into the heads of many in that same dizzying way that the counterculture used to. I think they’re beginning to get their point across, thanks to the Internet. At least the point is there if anyone thinks to look. I have a mental image of a kid, not necessarily in the USA, crouched somewhere dark, studying the screen of a handheld device. It’s autodidacticism.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Meadville/Lombard Theological School is selling its building. This is my alma mater seminary, though much -- if not most -- of my classwork was done at the University of Chicago where I also earned an MA in Religious Studies. Most of these academic labyrinthine arrangements are pretty mysterious to those outside the biz, but maybe I ought to give it a shot before the Meadville seminary -- one of the three denominational anchors of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- disappears. I have no doubt that when the building is gone, the seminary is also gone. It’s already changed so much that a person could argue that it doesn’t exist except for its library, which is a formidable collection of mid-Western Unitarian and Universalist materials.

In fact, for me, attending (1978 to 1982) in the days when each student had a key to the library stacks for studying in the middle of the night, the library (minute compared to the colossal Regenstein a few blocks away) is the most sacred space of all. Waking at 3AM, I’d slip over there and sit cross-legged in parallelograms of moonlight on the polished cement floor of the stacks near the top of the tall stone windows and try to understand what it meant to be a religious leader and part of a religious movement. What the skills? What the obligations? And the books behind me would whisper in the voices of many people long dead. Very romantic.

Let’s be real. Hyde Park is a very expensive place and now too expensive even for Unitarians, notoriously well-heeled but unfocused. The ministry has shifted from the concern for a “learned ministry” to a sort of “all-aboard” approach, anchored in therapy. The internal U of Chicago Div School MA -- which required a French proficiency test and the passing of six tough survey course exams: three on the history of religion, one of which concentrated on Modern Thinkers (We called them Modern Stinkers behind their backs-- er, the backs of their books. They were mostly dead. And male.) and three on methods. At the U of C Div School one must stipulate one’s “method,” by which they meant governing discipline by which they meant something like, “Is this going to be football, tennis or what?” The terms of the investigation. The building of the U of Chicago Div School will not be sold. It is part of the formidable “quads” whose stone walls and gargoyles frustrate modern improvements, but no one suggests that the University move to the corn fields outside the metropolis. (Just knock down some ghetto and replace with steel and glass.)

I recently had a little spat with a former cohort member about who had the highest Graduate Record Exam scores, which are one of the criterias for admission to this double-enrollment. His were high. Mine were high-as-you-go on the verbal half and shockingly low on the math half. He had a little spat with M/L itself and took his degree at the U of C. I had a little spat with my advisors and ended up getting my degree after two years of innovative ministry circuit-riding in Montana. In the meantime M/L had redefined and redefined its degree requirements under pressure from the credentialing body.

Credentialing bodies are the invisible-to-the-public organizations that validate whether higher education schools are marketing worthwhile degrees. If you’re looking for an alma mater, this is a good place to start: ask who punched their right-to-play card. They are cross-denominational but the certifying body that judges “learned” seminaries will be QUITE different from one that judges “enthusiastic” (“inspired”) or Bible-based (Fundamentalist or Evangelical) seminaries. It would be hard to judge how to classify M/L now. “Mainstream” would be one way. They certainly are non-rigorous compared to the way they started out. Some people would say this was a good thing -- that ministers shouldn’t be ivory tower scholars anyway.

This would be more relevant if it weren’t a bit of an embarrassment to admit that the UUA (which is not technically a denomination but rather an association of free congregations) is really only interested in cities and academic communities. The rural element comes almost entirely from the Universalist side, which tried hard to avoid the merger in 1961 -- close to fifty years ago. (The same year I arrived on the reservation.) Unitarians came out of the “neighborhood of Boston” and their heresy was anti-Trinitarian, an egghead argument. Universalists developed mostly farther west around the heresy of universal salvation, a heresy of the heart that rejected the apocalyptic punishing God that is so popular these days among Taliban-style leaders.

In modern times UU’s often spare themselves the trouble of either thinking or heart-kindling by simply adopting high status people they like and declaring them UU’s, maybe simultaneously with the person’s own self-declared allegiances. Thus they would be happy to claim Obama -- after all, isn’t he from Hyde Park and all that? And he’s probably enough UU to smile and agree. Provisionally. Depending upon method, game rules. In this case, "birds of a feather." (We don't care what color.)

Selling the Meadville building is a decision of the head, the business head. It simply doesn’t cash out. All that paneling, marble, granite, and tradition is hard to maintain. Housing for students is pinched and Hyde Park -- the U of C will not be happy for me to tell you this -- is an EXTREMELY dangerous neighborhood. And the relationship with the Div School has broken down. The two institutions are no longer on the same page.

Grieving for a well-loved place, bonded to it by intense growing experiences -- sometimes only redeemed by grace -- cannot be helped. But the truth is that I separated from everything EXCEPT the building some time ago. A building is not a seminary. A seminary is not a denomination. A denomination is not a religion. The education needed in order to function as a valued and effective Unitarian is available at any major university with a decent religious studies department. (Make sure they require high GRE scores.) If your interest is Universalist, which is one way to approach the pluralism always touted in the search for new members, then you might as well go Trinitarian at a mainstream seminary.

But remember this, there is -- down in the basement running through an humble open gutter -- a stream of water from a spring fed by Lake Michigan. The architects had a choice between letting it run through or trying to suppress it, which would eventually have been impossible. I shouldn’t have to explain. I just ran through it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


From the review of Yagoda’s “Memoir: A History” by Judith Shulevitz: “Ben Yagoda asks the question we’ve been waiting for: How do we know when we’re being duped? The answer is almost worth the delay, even though it’s a quotation from nearly a half-century ago: Think of the memoirist ‘as a person to whom you have just been introduced,’ a Times Book Review columnist named Raymond Walters Jr. wrote. ‘Size up as best you can the personality of the man or woman who is talking and take it constantly into consideration as you judge the truthfulness of what he has to say.’” For obvious reasons, Tim and I think about these questions.

Anyone who reads books carefully, anyone who has dealt with many people in a range of settings -- from those with every reason to deceive to those struggling hard to find rock bottom honesty -- ought to be able to reach a judgment. But it would be far from a guarantee. By now most grownups have come the conclusion that truth is conditioned on context anyway. (Since realizing that there is no “real truth” is part of being a grown-up, I’ve got a loop going here.) This evening’s movie, the second episode of the sixth season of “Wire in the Blood,” kept quoting Nietzche in which he says, “Power over Truth,” meaning what’s considered truth depends upon who has the power.

You already know about Barrus’ books, both by himself and with pseudonyms. (There were more than “Nasdijj” and, in fact, most genre writers use a lot of pen names.) Now, under our real names, Tim and I are writing a “Vook” which is such a new medium that no one can really define it except that it mixes electronic print with videos, so the context of “The Fallen and the Flight” is just as provisional as our credibility. No one knows how much power an ebook can generate, let alone money. Tim has frankly disguised the young men who make the videos. The only context for them is that they are members of Cinematheque, a guerrilla school for boys with art talent who want to get off the streets. They are intense and fragile at once, flammable. As an old lady, I find affinity with their HIV through my Diabetes II, so we’re all about blood and being stalked by death. The modern condition.

I got irritated with Tim the other day because he said he’d wanted to partner with me for my creds, which are academic rather than street-earned. He still has the idea that universities reward true achievement, can define it, put a value on it. He thinks that if I say he’s a genuine high grade artist (which I do believe) then people will stop blowing him off as an imposter. But I am not the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Anyway I long ago abandoned the illusion that a Ph.D. really means a lot more than that you’ve paid out a lot of money and jumped through a lot of hoops. Even being ordained is more political than sacramental. The lifeline I could throw him in this regard is pretty frayed. I want him to write with me because he likes my writing. It’s my problem. He’s reassured me again and again that he values what I write.

At the other end he was annoyed with me because I suggested that his support group -- not just the boys but adults with big creds -- amounted to an NGO. To him that implies a lot of people sitting around a table in a conference room, arguing and negotiating themselves into a state of paralysis: “suits.” He wants to be seen doing things as a guerrilla, coming out of nowhere.

Shulevitz concludes her review, “Truth is the least of memoir . . . though truth can’t be dispensed with. (There’s that little matter of having to speak in good faith.) The power to persuade is all. ‘Once in a while the person talking is just plain funny; the wink in her eye and the tone in her voice tells us we shouldn’t take anything she says too literally,’ [Yagoda] writes. ‘Then there are the prodigious story tellers. They look us straight in the eye, and have us from the first word.’” I’m the winker. Tim’s the prodigious one. The question is whether the good faith between the two of us, which is real, can include the reader/watcher.

A Vook is more than words. Vids of faces, esp. when Tim is earnestly speaking to the camera, all alone except with his dog, ought to tell you something. But we all know about Photoshop and CGI. Is there any such thing as visual confirmation of the truth?

Shulevitz suggests that the point of a memoir may be to justify a life. One critic suggests “[I]naccuracy is a problem to the extent a memoir depicts identifiable people, depicts those people in a negative light, (demonstrably) gets gists as well as details wrong, is poorly written, is self-serving, or otherwise wears its agenda on its sleeve. The more of these things it does and the more egregiously it does them, the bigger the problem is.”

In the Nasdijj memoirs the author disguised people BECAUSE he was depicting them negatively and “wearing his agenda on his sleeve.” They were certainly vividly written. It was the journalist unmasker who “revealed all.” He was the one who had a covert agenda (endorsing Sherman Alexie as a noble if victimized Indian) and who got facts and gists wrong -- on purpose -- in order to make his case against the author by ripping away all the protection from the people involved. The problem was not the subject of the expose -- the author of the memoir -- it was the writer of the expose, the destroyer of the author. That’s where the power is now: attacks and suspicion.

Yagoda’s book, like many histories of ideas, is clarifying and ultimately reassuring. We’ve all been through a lot over the centuries and the story is not nearly finished yet. My first awareness of authors came on a family visit to the home of the author of “The Egg and I.” My parents assumed that because they loved the book and movie, the author would love them. Actually, she was very patient with us and let us hold her puppies. Tim is not so different.

Betty Macdonald
lived in this little chicken coop house and wrote about it in “The Egg and I.” These photos were taken in August, 1947, near Center, Washington. We forget how people lived during and right after WWII. Even today some people would be pleased with this little shelter.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Indie films and Native Americans -- okay, “Indians” -- seem like a match so natural as to be inevitable. The newest one I’ve seen is “Frozen River,” just now being mentioned on the new West Lit blog. (The cowboys have discovered the Indians! And they’re female!) This film is also highly suitable for the discipline called “border studies” which might be described as something like philosophical geography.

The Mohawk Nation preserves its autonomy strongly enough that their reservation/reserve sovereignty persists on both sides of the Canadian/US border, which is a river because many of the early treaties between nations of all sorts defined territory by physical features like rivers or mountains. Through Montana the border is the edge of the drainage of the Missouri/Mississippi rivers, created by a row of small volcanic hills and then defined by surveying the 49th parallel. The Blackfeet Nation is on both sides of the line, but it is not contiguous. The US side is against the line, but the Canadian side is scattered into small areas. Nevertheless, in theory tribal members have free passage between the countries. It’s sometimes hard to convince border agents of that. Mohawk have more successfully insisted that their boundaries take precedence over the national line.

Two women, one played by Melissa Leo (my favorite “Homicide” detective) and the other by Misty Upham. Misty is Blackfeet and must be part of the family of “Doc” Upham who used to play in club bands with Bob Scriver. She grew up in Seattle, a part of the Indian community over there. Every Upham that I’ve known has been pretty remarkable for brains and enterprise. Leo, who is coming up fifty, looks her age (she’s a smoker -- that’ll do it) and Misty dumped her Pocahontas image by cutting her hair and gaining 65 pounds. (I’m not sure she realized what that would do to her health, but she has taken forty pounds back off.) This is a reality story, not a reassuring little parable. The two women collide more than they meet, and bad fortune throws them together into a scheme to make money by running third-world illegal immigrants across the border from Canada to the US. They don’t need a boat because the ice on the river is multiple feet thick in winter when temps go far below zero, though sun in the daytime produces a layer of slush.

Another border is between the Indian woman and the white woman, sociological but not economic -- both are at the edge of survival. Thanks to racial profiling, a white woman is not likely to be stopped by off-rez police, so she has a smuggling advantage. On-rez it’s the Mohawk who has the sympathy of the officials so long as she doesn’t ruffle the Tribal Council hens. (Mohawk keep the pattern of tribal matriarchy.) The ties between them are about their children: Leo’s husband was an addict and gambler who took off with the family’s hoard of money meant to buy a new trailer. Upham’s husband is dead, gone through the ice while smuggling, which is how she got into the racket, but he left her pregnant. Since she’s living in a tiny camp trailer with no water (she sleeps in her coat), she can’t keep her baby. So the strong bond is children, the most basic human motive for women. This pushes the plot and resolves it in the end.

Such a setting provides plenty of suspense and the same kind of bleak but sublime long horizons against the sky as on the prairie. The cast was mostly local with white bit parts most likely to be doubling crew members. There is a growing pool of experienced tribal actors, especially on the Canadian side where the government supports arts. Budget was under one million dollars. It was Courtney Hunt’s first writing and directing undertaking.

When one looks at amateur painting, the most usual deficit is in “values,” which means the dark/light dimension, white-gray-black. Colors, composition, drawing and so on may be pretty good, but the sameness or skewing of values will give away inexperience. Likewise, the element most often missing in Indie movies is what Marshall W. Mason calls “beats” in his book, “Creating Life on Stage: A Director's Approach to Working with Actors,” which is drawn from his career with the Circle Repertory Company in NYC. When one listens to the voice-over comments for an Indie, the chatter is most likely to be excitement over how “felt” the story is, how realistic, how from the heart, plus a lot of memories of good times and scary times. When one listens to an old pro Hollywood or London director, the talk is far more technical and analytical, much more about art-form concerns. “Beats” are a way of divvying up the timing and emphasis into a coherent and controlled whole, rather than taking a sort of general scenario approach.

On the other hand, as Hunt points out, this story has children and dogs in it, found at the last minute and barely guided in what they did. Equipment was limited so camera angles were confined, there was no studio, and even local merchants controlled what could or couldn’t be done. (The local trailer sales emporium was leery of the low-class image of trailers.) This movie was made simply with heart and faith. It was “found” as much as composed.

One of my all-time favorite movies about Indians, “Loyalties,” is a big budget version of a similar theme that would be interesting to watch alongside “Frozen River.” One of Tantoo Cardinal’s early films (I would not hesitate to suggest that Misty is the next Tantoo.), it happens much farther north in Cree country. Anne Wheeler, who started out very much like Hunt, is the director but she had professional English actors and a budget. That story is about an English doctor who mysteriously arrives with his family to work in the Boonies. His wife is confused and paralyzed by the environment so the doctor hires a local woman to help her -- that’s Tantoo. When I looked at the remarks, I was gratified to see that people said that though they’d seen the film twenty years ago or more, it remained vivid in their minds. Same here. The two women become friends and then more than friends when she and the English woman must protect the children at a high cost.

Today, a time when immigrants are treated with such suspicion and when the long tradition of citizens being able to cross the border peacefully without a passport has ended, we all need reminding that it is the fate of our children that should be our ultimate loyalty.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Camille Paglia has always been at the periphery of my vision as one of the femme terrible writers who stalks the edges of polite scholarship -- sort of the Patricia Limerick of sexuality. It MUST be about sexuality, right? After all, she’s lesbian. Her life must be all about that. Her name came up recently so I got curious and have been downloading a few of her pieces, esp. from the BU journal, Arion, though she writes for as well. And occasionally indulges in the sort of cat fight that was featured in that grand old Western called “Frenchie” in which Joel McCrea (the sheriff) had to take off his badge and use the pin on the back to puncture a bustle because he couldn’t hit a woman and if he tried to pull them apart he was likely to get damaged.

So, gingerly, gingerly, I turn to the first two pages of “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art” which is the beginning of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. This is a thesis, a “groundbreaking and controversial survey.” By now it’s rather old news from the Seventies, but I remember it fondly.

“Portraying Western culture as a struggle between masculine, phallic, sky-religion on the one hand, and feminine, chthonic, earth-religion on the other, Paglia seeks to show that Christianity did not destroy paganism, but rather drove it into the underground of Western culture, to later emerge in Renaissance art, Romanticism, and contemporary popular culture, especially Hollywood.” I like this one, but like everything else it gets distorted. For a long time in UU circles it meant that men were Xian (from outer space) and women were earth mothers (kitchen gardens).

“Paglia associates Apollo with order, structure, and symmetry, while identifying Dionysus with chaos, disorder, and nature.” This degenerated into Apollo “owning” technology and science while women wrote poetry and committed suicide if you took the bell jar off their heads.

“Paglia discusses sex and nature as brutal daemonic forces, and she criticizes feminists for sentimentality or wishful thinking about the cause of rape, violence, and poor relations between the sexes. She also stresses the biologic basis of sexual difference and sees the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they fleetingly escape through rationalism and physical achievement.” This is an excellent counter-argument to the idea that both sex and nature are automatically wonderful, if over-commercialized, idyllic gates to heaven, much benefited by the use of hallucinogenic drugs to kill the inner Apollo.

“In keeping with the theme of unity between classical art and pop culture, the "sexual personae" of her title include the female vampire (Medusa, Lauren Bacall); the pythoness (the Delphic Oracle, Gracie Allen); the beautiful boy (Hadrian's Antinous, Dorian Gray); the epicene man of beauty (Lord Byron, Elvis Presley); and the male heroine (Baudelaire, Woody Allen).” This totally neglects my most favorite person, the Sean Connery who is the King of Scotland: experienced, competent, humorous, and a little gray around the edges but still quite physical. Old cops, old soldiers, the sadder but wiser guy -- where’s he? And where’s my mermaid?

“Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements." This is where I’m REALLY different from Paglia. Imagine the eohuman at the edge of the forest -- edges are important -- gathering food of various kinds and then snoozing in the safe “arms” of the trees. These moments are just as important as the occasional arrival of a jaguar among the bonobos. It all depends on where you put the emphasis. I choose celebration. Perhaps the women put the emphasis on the food and baby-cuddling while the men put the emphasis on fighting the jaguar, but human understanding of life and the surrounding world comes from emergent meaning of ALL of life, not just the emergencies. Much of even the horrifically based Xianity (from crucifixion to apocalypse in one easy book) has long pastoral stretches.

“The serpent is not outside Eve but in her. [Ho, ho, Freud ahoy!] She is the garden and the serpent.” I’d start the analysis way back, before Genesis, before the waters and the land were separated, because I don’t divide everything into conflict: I start with the fused unity. God is that than which nothing can be greater. God (genderless because not anthropomorphic or -centric) includes nature. Nature and God are the same except that God can be theoretically greater than nature. It is humans who made this division and humans can take it away without any slithering and blaming.”

“Even the best critical writing on Emily Dickinson underestimates her. She is frightening. . . Dickinson is like the homosexual cultist draping himself in black leather and chains to bring the idea of masculinity into aggressive visibility." Well, THERE’s a provocative idea! The dark side of Emily forks her Harley and splits to Big Sur. At least this gives her some power again. But maybe she’s my mermaid, with fused legs, in a sea of dreaming about the leviathan.

“Throughout the 1990s, Paglia said that a second volume to Sexual Personae would be forthcoming . . . Eventually, she decided not to proceed with the book as planned, as it would need to undergo too many revisions . . .” This is endearing. So many people light on one smashing idea and then can’t give it up for fear of losing their readership. But never fear the feminists who attacked her probably guaranteed her a place on the shelf.

John Updike wrote about Sexual Personae: “It feels less a survey than a curiously ornate harangue.” [Some people would say this about Updike, whom I love dearly.] “Her percussive style — one short declarative sentence after another -- eventually wearies the reader; her diction functions not so much to elicit the secrets of books as to hammer them into submission.... The weary reader longs for the mercy of a qualification, a doubt, a hesitation; there is little sense, in her uncompanionable prose, of exploration occurring before our eyes, of tentative motions of thought reflected in a complex syntax.” And, of course, some people weary of Updike’s ornate, twining, teasing, multi-syllabic coiled speculations. Not me. I love both styles. Why can’t we be inclusive? Bibfeldtian?

I see that I’ve wandered off into secondary comment and gossip. So I’ll keep reading but stick to primary sources in future.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Out beyond the fancy tourist Native American artifacts, the authentic, the historical, and the humble ritual objects, is something else that is beyond the intangible: the core of the Native American process and the materials from the land, just as Native Americans would create according to precedent, but without any of it coming from Native Americans.

I tried this once when I was circuit-riding for the Unitarians. When all the Montana people gathered, we created a Bundle of red material that contained Important Objects from the group: a fossil, a fishing fly, a beloved poem, a bolo tie. The idea was that when we met again, we would open the Bundle and tell each other about what was in there to add recollection and community bonding to our meeting. It didn’t work. We weren’t enough alike, the reunions didn’t include the same people and the objects didn’t mean that much. No one could remember who had custody of the Bundle. Bundles arise from intense meaning in a specific community.

Darrell Kipp
used to joke that if “today’s Blackfeet” created a Bundle, the first thing included would be pickup keys, then a TV remote control, and some big rubber sneakers. Of course, now there would be a lot of small electronics, though no one would leave them in the Bundle unless they were considered passe, and that happens so quickly that in five years no one would be able to remember what the thing was. A VC what?

Bob Scriver moved to a slightly different sort of ceremonial, the painted tipi. Again, one began with a dream which he did, seemingly not planning it but certainly hoping for it. Later he made a sculpture of the dream in which he transformed himself into a Blackfeet boy on a horse, looking down at a badger. In the dream the badger has a half a moose hide that he’s trying to pull down his hole. Watching are two crows and two “thirteen-line spermophiles.” (Ground squirrels with stripes: “Striped Squirrel” is a local name.) A wolverine was interfering and the boy defended the badger. It was fall, the aspens were golden and berries were bright red.

These animals became the basis of the Bundle that went with the lodge, each with its own song and gestures. Bob called this a “badger tipi” and associated it with his father. Bob had kept badgers as pets, liking them even more than the pet bobcats and foxes. They’re powerful but droll little creatures. The eerie part of it was that in the coming year the animals themselves seemed to surrender and to reveal their meanings. The badger was a small roadkill I found along the highway when I drove to Browning because Bob’s father had died and I went to be with Bob. (Bob had divorced me in the interval between his father’s major stroke and his eventual death.) The dead squirrels showed up during his daily walks with his grandson which were meant to improve his heart after his heart attack. Of course, as a taxidermist it was easy for him to prepare the skins with red beads like berries for eyes.

The actual canvas “skin” was commissioned from a local tipi-maker. The design and actual painting of it and the association of the songs with each animal was the “enchantment” of it, which made a couple of old-timers from Canada Bob was paying to paint nervous enough to leave halfway through. Tom and Alice Kehoe, noted anthropologists, were there with their children throughout, taking detailed notes, treating it as authentic though they were well-aware that it was not historical. George and Molly Kicking Woman were active participants, as family members. Molly made the ceremonial berry soup while I made a huge pot of spaghetti for lunch.

As is traditional, there is a badger facing the “door” on each side, its alimentary canal and heart marked out. The black top with four stripes and round stars is there. The bottom shows hills and potholes. The back has a false door which is blue because when a badger goes into his hole, he goes backwards so he’s looking out at the sky. The part Bob loved most was that at the top of the back there was a “dream butterfly” which was actually a moth, and in its center was a little decoration based on a badger tail. The badger I had picked up along the road became a “flag” to fly from the end of one of the tipi poles, while another badger hide went into the Bundle. Songs were “found” either from the pre-existing Blackfeet repertoire or from Bob’s “dreams.” This was also true of the face-painting: stripes like a badger face. The whole process was recorded in photos which are included in Bob’s book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”

After Bob’s death his remaining artifacts, those left over the sale to the Royal Alberta Museum, went to the Montana Historical Society. They had no credentialed curator of artifacts and were totally baffled and confused about what they had acquired. I tried to tell them but was not welcome. Actually, I was a co-creator of this lodge and would have “painting” rights. If someone wanted to make a replica, they would need to compensate me. Officials cannot figure out a category for such an object, which has disappeared. I’ve been told it was in storage with Bob’s art and (by the same person) told it was missing. Many of those artifacts were returned secretly, not to the tribe but to prominent individuals from the tribe. In turn, some of those were quietly re-sold off the reservation.

To the minds of the people who control these materials, the only value comes from identifying a strictly Native American object. They have no way of dealing with things that fall between categories, especially since the categories were invented by 19th century anthropologists informed only by watching and asking (often erroneously) the tribal people who had every reason to be secretive and deceptive for self-protection.

If you think of Native American artifacts as antiquities, that brings them into the present dialogue between nations about classical and other antiquities collected in museums as part of empire building, even though some materials remained in place, concentrated into local museums. Sorting out what to do is very difficult and often passionate. Not many tribal peoples have been included in this thinking. Not many are aware of the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin marbles. Many Americans don’t take NA antiquities seriously -- they are still categorized in a split way, either children’s bow and arrow sets and toy Indians or magical noble elements exceeding all others.

Philosophically there are three sources of principles: origins, destinations, and process. This small essay has discussed all three in a specific case, but there remains a much larger and more significant discussion of the autochthonous materials of people in the Americas before, after, and during the transformation imposed by Europeans.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Earlier in this series I talked about Uhlenbeck and his collection of linguistic material, which he took (without removing) in the form of stories and later analyzed for grammar and structure. He did not publish books of stories for popular consumption like the many versions of Napi stories. (See Monday, October 02, 2006, “WHO TELLS THE TALE.”) Nor was he an anthropologist looking for information about how to hunt buffalo or make horse gear. Another kind of person who loved the early Piegan and recorded their lives was the artist, like Sharp, Schreyvogel, or -- of course -- Charlie Russell.

By now the scientific study of native peoples has specialized in a dozen ways. The study of the plants, which was Walter McClintock’s original training and government assignment, was much of the information ending up in “The Old North Trail” as well as the only published book by John Hellson. (Ethnobotany of the Blackfoot Indians. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 19. 1974 $81.90, "used" at Amazon as I write.) Blackfeet Community College has a faculty member who is also a tribal member and who runs a geodesic dome greenhouse on the campus. For a while he raised sweetgrass to sell. (It’s harder to find these days -- it’s ALWAYS hard to find -- because it requires human tending, if only by being burned over, and the old-timers who used to watch and thin the patches are gone.) More recently Mr. Fish decided it was more important to come into the early 20th century practice of urging people to grow kitchen gardens. Considering diabetes, he’s undoubtedly right. People are aware of the Amazonian jungle being touted as the source of miracle drugs and suspect that old people’s knowledge of medicinal drugs has somehow been taken.

Most people would think of sweetgrass braids as NA “herbs”, which can be bought online at They are nice to tuck into a linen cupboard like lavender. I grow my own and use it to smudge as a kind of prayer discipline, which is close to making magic of the ordinary lives of a specific people rooted in a circumpolar ecology. (In some of the Eurasian contexts, sweetgrass is thrown under rugs to scent the house.) When one becomes closely familiar with a culture, shared similarities are as likely as singularities. None of these scientific and semi-scientific bodies of information are what most people would think of as “artifacts,” though that’s what they surely are. To be apparent to most people they need the “value added” layer of scientific or historical interpretation.

A man contacted me on the email because he was writing a novel in which there was a long passage about a Blackfeet man’s ancestors going to war. He wanted my advice about equipment and strategy. I’m hardly any kind of expert, but he rejected all my suggestions about where to go that would be more reliable. Then he said that when he was writing, he liked to play music but he couldn’t find anything inspiring while writing this part. I suggested Jack Gladstone, but he rejected Jack on grounds that he was too modern and too adapted to white men. (I’m not so sure.) I suggested Kenny Scabby Robe’s Black Lodge Singers, who had just won “best” in the national competition among drum societies. He rejected them on grounds that they were too screechy. (Traditional singers sing falsetto.) He wasn’t really that fond of romantic Indian flute music either. I figured he was hopeless and recommended the Grand Canyon Suite.

In fact, there is quite a body of symphonic concert music “inspired” by Indians. Most recently offered is the gorgeous oratorio by Rob Kapilow, “Summer Sun Winter Moon” on the topic of Lewis & Clark, which has a libretto by Darrell Kipp. (It was on PBS as part of Native American Month alongside a documentary about a champion Blackfeet girl’s basketball team.) It’s very beautiful, not particularly based on Blackfeet songs, and about the advent of whites as much as the endurance of indigenous peoples, with the scenery dominating the humans.

Bruno Nettl
is far more the discriminating and technical collector of music. If you look at, you’ll find a sketch of his conclusions about the early music which were much derived from recordings collected by earlier people. Nettl’s book is called “Blackfoot Musical Thought,” which tells you right there that is not going to be “stooping” to think of the autochthonous as being simplistic or instinctive in some primitive way.

He points out that Blackfeet music is vocal plus percussion, which occasions require song, what the internal structure is likely to be. Songs are quite patterned in terms of setting the theme, repeating at certain points, and associating the songs with specific animals or actions in ceremonies like Bundle Opening. By the time you’ve read Nettl’s book, you will not be able to sing the songs, but you will think of them in quite a different way. For instance, in old times there were evidently no songs specifically for children except “mice songs” that were associated because of being small. But the Blacklodge Singers have recorded a rousing modern American-subject fusion version called “Kids Pow-Wow Songs” which celebrates cartoon animals like Mighty Mouse. I’ve played that so many times I’ve almost learned it. “Ohmigosh! It’s Mighty Mouse!” The words are English but the style and structure are classic Blackfeet.

The most generous and thoughtful thing about Nettl is that he sent his collection of historical recordings back to the reservation to be put into the care of the Piegan Institute, purely Blackfeet. They immediately set about transferring the material to disc, translating what was said, asking remaining old-timers (notably Joe Old Chief) to comment, and so on. This blast from the past was revelatory and often set everyone laughing because the comments in Blackfeet by bystanders were understood. Patient wives, waiting while their husbands recorded songs for which they were paid “per song,” urged their men to think of more songs. “We need the money!” they reminded. Piegan Institute’s goal is to recover the Blackfeet language. Many on the rez would not understand the jokes.

Faught’s Blackfeet Trading Post (
) has a major section devoted to Native American music.

Such intangibles as music or ethnobotany or language or stories are not addressed by NAGPRA though they can just as surely be stolen and marketed. If John Hellson had stuck to plants, he would not have served jail time. When dealing with Blackfeet ceremonial materials, John himself would say, the songs and prayers that carry the “power” of the objects are as valuable as the objects themselves. Both will crumble in time if not kept alive by active use, and yet using them means that over time they will drift away from their roots, acquire deviant variations, and become detached from the lives on the prairie that produced them. It is irresolvable, a human condition.