Thursday, December 31, 2009


“Publishing” is not and never was what people think it is or was. In truth and actuality, it is simply the conversion of print into a saleable object -- in the case of ebooks, a “virtual” object. That is, it looks like ink on paper, but it isn’t and will disappear if not constantly fed by a machine somewhere, maybe one in your hand and maybe one mysteriously linked across continents and oceans. Let’s put that aside.

Take it to the level of paper and ink, pages numbered and held in order by a glued and sewn binding, which sophisticated people are calling a “codex” in contrast to a “scroll” though Jack Kerouac tried returning to scroll mode by taping pages into a long roll to be fed through the typewriter. Commentors are constantly returning to the evolutionary sequence of marks on a surface: clay tablets, hides, then hides cut into scrolls, then pages, then moveable type, then linotype machines. Remember them? When I came to Browning in 1961 the Glacier Reporter was composed on a linotype: it was a very noisy machine with a “typewriter” on one end that spat out lines of type cast in lead at the other end. The founder of the Prairie Star in Valier has burn scars on his arms from molten lead spattering from cold molds when the metal type was recast into pigs to put back through the process. He was a kid, assigned the task by his dad.

Newspapers were useful but expendable objects: low grade paper, smeary ink, stories of fleeting interest. These days the historic content is being put on the Internet. High end codexes are very valuable indeed: consider the huge Audubon books of bird prints, kept in cases where a page is occasionally turned by curators. But a precious codex can also be valuable, like the small letter-press poetry chapbooks that someone had to compose using an old-fashioned typestick, sort of like a hand-held Scrabble tray, to compose, and then a big wheel to force the ink onto the paper, one page at a time.

At both ends of the value scale, these are objects, inventory, merchandise, saleable as individual units with a relatively standardized value. To most people the “publisher” is the guy that made the book, though printing is only the beginning, not even really the beginning.

The book entrepreneur, which is what a “publisher” is, looks for books that will sell or that OUGHT to from his point of view. If you can get a franchise for a context that requires everyone to buy this book, you’ve got a gold mine! Bibles, textbooks, operating manuals. But let’s stick to our modern idea of novels (which are supposed to be fiction), political comment (which are supposed to be true), and memoirs (which go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction which seems to be our preoccupying category division, more than the the “prose versus poetry” of “le bourgeois gentilhomme.” The apex marker seems to be “the Great American Novel,” without ever questioning whether such a thing is possible.

Publishers early in the 20th century offered excitement, life-guides, and so on -- all chosen by the head of the publishing company according to his taste and evaluation of the times. So, CHOOSING THE MANUSCRIPT was in the hands of one or a few men. It was a mark of value because the publisher was assumed to have good taste. It was being “chosen.” Today this step is dominated by surveys and the principle that what just sold well will sell well again. (Not.) The salesmen see their task as telling the publisher what to publish, so they can sell it. No longer is the salesman expected to find a way to sell what the publisher says is valuable. They don’t CARE what’s culturally valuable. They want to sell, so they’ll get a commission.

PRINTING is something most people could understand until it went to electronic screens. In fact, the government understood it well enough to tax books piled up in warehouses before they’d even gotten to the stores because they are inventory. This meant estimating the number of books to make had to include whether it were possible to pay taxes on them sitting in warehouses. The bookstores were also taxed for what was sitting around on their shelves as inventory. In the Thirties publishers allowed bookstores to return books that wouldn’t sell. Today many bookstores return as much of the inventory as possible right about now, so that the publisher will have to pay the inventory tax. Maliciously, they return shopworn books, books with dayglo sale stickers, and books they will re-order after tax time is over because they DO sell. To keep from paying the warehouse tax on unsold books (remainders) the publishers just pulp them up.

That was yesterday. Nowadays with online used and remainder book sellers able (barely) to make money, the extra books are more likely to be sold at an enormous discount and go out into the public where they compete at low prices. This is certainly the way I buy books! Not just because they are cheap, but because they are often much higher quality content than the shiny bright schlock that salesmen push to bookstores.

There are ways for publishers to cut corners. Never let a book exceed 200 pages. Don’t hire a layout specialist. Use a standard template for the font and so on. Don’t add an index or footnotes. Limit the number of illustrations or graphics. All these things cost money.

But the major way to save money is simply not to advertise. Advertising is in the end what makes a book sell. I don’t mean sleazy salesman tactics, I mean just letting people know that the book exists at all. People are often passive when it comes to book buying -- books “happen” rather than being sought out. The potential reader catches a scrap on the radio or sees an excerpt somewhere.

All these steps can be contracted out to specialists: finding manuscripts (agents do this); market research; editing; layout; illustration; actual printing; advertising; promoting; distributing; reviews; and I suppose eventually some enterprising soul will offer to house your actual codex physical library for you: organize it, inventory, recover copies, suggest the next book, keep a list of intended reading. Personal librarians. I love it. No more dusting, no more interior decoration dilemmas. No more wandering around in your nightgown in the wee smalls to browse your holdings. . . Well, maybe this needs reconsideration.

Especially in view of this insight:
13. Book publishers will have to admit to real confusion about what the product is that they produce. The big meme coming out of 2010 will be “what is a book?” Publishers will increasingly be releasing productions that contain video, audio, animation, slide shows, and interactive game elements. Movie, TV, and game producers will see an alternate marketing and revenue channel available through “ebookifying” content they have and moving it through book channels like a “tie-in.” Where one stops and the other begins will become increasingly difficult to see (and increasingly irrelevant). (From the Shatzkin Files)

Tim Barrus adds this next part. The interview with Auletta is dynamite.

And here's the irony...

Agents and editors (publishers to a lesser extent) know that change is coming. In fact, it's here.

Now, it's personal.

I fathom that there's a take on publishing as a business. Clean and simple.

Publishing is a business of extraordinary ego.

I dare anyone to approach any editor employed in mainstream publishing, and bring up the subject of change, particularly digital change, and not receive a response that isn't downright hateful.




They do not LIKE this change. Because they can't control it.

Hence, lots of Internet discussion on content quality and the need (everyone should have one on the wall) for the proverbial editor.

Change is coming and publishing has its head in the sand.

Ken Aueletta has a kick ass book out called: Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.

This is the book that has major implications for publishing.

But note: Aueletta goes to the PERSONAL: in this book. He interviews all the Internet gurus and comes away from the collection with PERSONAL observations that it is ALL personal.

Publishing, too.

They don't want to hear that change is a constant.

Anyone who comes to them with this message will be thrown out on his ear.

My own take: As the platforms change, I think more writers are simply going to become publishers. I do not know how this will work. The advertising business paradigm they have all invested in has failed.

No one knows how this is going to work.

But it will be PERSONAL.

The idea that business is simply business provides them camouflage. This is Auelleta on C-span.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


My view of religion is probably best called “emergent” or “immanentalist” or “experientially based” or “up-welling” -- some category that so far is poorly defined though the actuality is always around. Institutionalized religion wants dogma, scripture, priesthood, history . . . funding. What many call “spirituality” doesn’t need any of that. The hardest thing is bringing it up to the level of words, since most of it exists in us as pre- or sub- verbal concepts.

The human brain begins to develop months before birth and, if electrochemical activity is an indicator for thinking, babies think right from that beginning. They are aware -- react to -- movement of the mother, sound, some level of light. The thinking is “filamental,” meaning recorded in the growth of axons from nerve cells making connects and also susceptible to something like mood, supplied mostly by the hormone and enzyme status of the mother, which can affect the way the axons join up. Genetic developmental patterns also pertain. These connections are preserved to some extent lifelong, though they tell us that in the first years all the potential connections that go unused are edited out. The very first months and years of experience after birth shape the way the brain thinks.

These early pre-verbal concepts are the most basic and deepest of our psyches and, I would suggest, are what we access with what we call “spirituality.” They are interacting dualities: being lifted and being dropped; an uncomfortable temperature (burning or freezing) and being blood temp warm; blinding light and total darkness; and maybe a few others like too much noise versus quiet. These sensations are prominent in the accounts of mystic visions. “Jesus” or “God” is to some Christians the state of being in the best pre-verbal categories: embraced, warmed, enlightened, surrounded by music. To other religious systems, those same states will exist because they are so deeply human, but they will not have the same names, because language is from culture.

Language develops from the need to describe, ask, answer, indicate, command -- speak to someone else. It is necessarily developed out of that world where the speaker resides (and a baby comes to language) and since slightly different things are important or simply emphasized accidentally, the words for the environment will not be uniform. Maybe twenty words for snow and maybe twenty words for sand, because the people in that place observe carefully and make distinctions that people in other places can’t perceive and don’t have to, since probably the tiny differences don’t indicate anything useful where the outsider is.

So Jesus speaks of grapes and lambs. His key ceremony, communion, is expressed in wine and bread, which are meant to evoke blood and flesh, the original sacrifice that ties the lamb imagery to Jesus’ crucifiction [sic] because human blood and flesh is universal to all human speakers, but lambs are only there for sheepherders. Thus one of the ways to approach my idea of religion as being a specific local interpretation of a human universal (and I mean REALLY universal, not just Christians) is by looking at the big difficulties missionaries have confronted when they tried to take communion to cultures that had no bread or wine. Rice and saki don’t quite make it. And what is bread to a culture (Inuit) that eats only flesh? What would the significance be of a communion of Twinkies and Coca Cola? Or think of the woman who was prevented by her denomination from serving communion, though she was studying in a seminary and was asked to serve communion in her turn: she served a bread and water communion, which calls out for interpretation as punishing imprisonment and the denial of nourishment.

If these local versions of human universal pre-verbal concepts are strong enough and ingrained early enough, people have a hard time stepping away from them. When others who have other ways suggest that their own way is wrong and they must give it up, the “believer” concludes that the outsiders are wrong, must be converted, eliminated or at least kept out. It’s a temptation to interpret everything in terms of what is already known, like the old Navajo man to whom the Peace Corps volunteer was trying to describe the Empire State Building. The old man asked, “How many sheep can you put in it?” The same with a 747 airplane: the old man asked again, “How many sheep can you put in it?” This is not different from asking about every religion, “what is their god like?”

I interpret deep psychological analysis -- or universalizing poetic instinct -- as having the capacity to take people to the pre-verbal level where such seeming contradictions can be reconciled. I take intense liturgy as also having this capacity, when as in Victor Turner’s theories, people are taken over the limen (threshold) into the virtual place in the mind where pre-verbal concepts exist (play, art, devotion, dream) and are susceptible to revision as well as reinforcement. But much of today’s Christian worship is about words: dogma, theory, mantras, defined terms. Asians do better. Autochthonus people probably the best, so long as they are still living on their original lands. It’s being removed that drives people out of their gut feelings and up into their heads. Christianity has been removed from the original homeland many times, and -- even if you went back -- it’s not as it was 2,000 years ago.

It is living in contact with one’s environment that causes the upwelling of pre-verbal ideas. This is why material culture can be so important. Before being mapped into words, ideas usually are held in our minds through sensory memory, which is the raw material of the arts, play and liturgy. This is why there is so much overlap. I would even suggest that the child’s play is what becomes art -- that art is deep and serious play -- and that liturgy is art that addresses the deepest human concerns. All three can be guided by basic principles, such as entering the liminal state, feeling for the most intense concepts, and then leaving the liminal state into ordinary (profane) life. “Art is the communication of the relationship between a human and the universe.”

We venerate religions based on books. But what would it be like to touch a spirituality based on a Vook of images, music, movement, speaking humans? It would mean a whole new level of art and play.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Over the years I have discarded a few ideas, some early and some recently. Some that were family heritage, some that were traditional scholar’s assumptions, and some that I’d invented for myself.

One of the main ones to be cast off was the idea of progress, that everything is gradually getting better, which includes the increasing value that is supposed to correspond with increasing technological “advances” and more complexification of ideas. I surely accept change, because what could be more obvious? But I think that “better” and “worse” are braided together all through the passage of time and that one must do a bit of sorting right along the way so as to find the “better” in the moment and tough it out through the “worse.” There is NOT a steady progression onward and upward, though my family so sincerely believed in it out there homesteading on the prairie. To them progress was nearly synonymous with patriotism, the belief that America (which in their minds included Canada) is progressing, perfecting, always improving -- even though in their own lives there was only one short period of relative prosperity in the middle period of their lives.

Related to this is the idea that the “primitive” is either less complex or satisfying than contemporary ideas and lifeways. Life before agriculture, life before cities, life before the Internet, were neither more golden nor more leaden. They just WERE and the people in every time have varied in their ability to make the best of it. “Primitive” cultures were neither Eden nor necessarily hardscrabble. A culture of bone, hide, stone and feathers can be as elaborate and evocative as one of metal, silicon, electricity and radioactivity. After all, it’s always pretty much the same humans.

And again, I reject the notion that being younger is “better” than being older. Being a certain age can favor one person’s skills or another, but the point is to find out what you can do during the age you are, given the context of the times, rather than mourning over or glorifying the past, particularly when that glorious past was high school!

Another sequencing puzzle that I think will never be “solved” as good/better/best is that of the generations -- how the success of one converts to the failure of the next and then back again. Environment (both time and place), genetic endowment, and something elusive like expectations, all interact. Melding with this is one’s luck in finding other people or institutions who can protect and support. The right attitude and the right mentor make all the difference. Much of it is just pure dumb luck, but I don’t quite accept the idea that one is confined by fate to one alternative. I think there are always a set of responses that can affect the situation, even if they include passive acceptance, madness or physical escape.

The advantage of discarding all this baggage is that one is free to concentrate on the present moment, to extend one’s awareness. But one should not play it safe. It is always worthwhile to jump to a new context that will uncover whole new realms of alternatives, some of which might be vital to you, but all the while one must accept that some of them might simply kill you. (Homesteading, for instance.) On the other hand, one shouldn’t discard everything. I think one main plan and a couple of backups might be the right proportion.

Another discard category is that of awards, prizes, institutionally certified achievements and so on. I find them quite hollow. Obama’s peace prize in a time of war is not an exception. Ceremonies like ministerial ordination or Christian marriage are mockable and imitated with fake certificates. University degrees are unrecognized as the Ponzi schemes they can be: one cannot get them without pleasing the people in charge of the terms and then the receiver must validate that material by imposing it on the next generation. It’s a conserving system. To dissent is to be eliminated. Doing a thing and excelling at it ought to be its own reward. If others agree with your self-evaluation, it’s blessed. If you HAVE to jump hoops to get where you want to go, just do it. No preening.

But uniformities are dangerous: it only takes one small chink for the whole category to collapse, whether it is Irish potatoes or some culture now lost, maybe one that drank wine boiled in lead pots. Another trap is binary oppositions instead of integrations: right versus wrong instead of right variously interacting with wrong. And false continuums. To be human is to be part of a spectrum condition, but which spectrum and which end is advantageous is strictly situational. What could save your life in one predicament might wipe you out in an alternative dilemma. Being smart or strong or well-connected sound like good ideas, but if you didn’t bring your insecticide-treated mosquito netting and you’re living in malaria country, you’re no better off that the dumbest, weakest and most abandoned little kid. If the kid has sickle cell anemia, he or she might have a slight advantage, since that confers some resistance to malaria.

I had thought -- and been assured -- that the higher level of education I attained, the better the job I could get and therefore the easier life I would have. This turned out to be pretty misleading in several ways. One can “over” educate oneself right out of the job market -- in fact, this is easily true in small-town Montana -- or have the wrong kind of education. In fact, an attachment to place -- which I share with most of the people around here -- can undercut the kind of employment that our politicians insist on calling -- ungrammatically -- “good-paying jobs” because there aren’t any. (This place is great for people who have large chunks of capital for ranches or natural resources.)

When it comes to religion, what I want to discard is God. I’m not an atheist, an un-theist, an anti-theist -- I just don’t want to talk about theism. I think it’s a waste of time. There’s plenty of other subject matter that is religious and much more useful in daily life. I’m not inclined to deny others the right to talk about God, but they should be warned that from my point of view, they’re talking about their relationship to authority figures and not much more. More about that tomorrow.

Monday, December 28, 2009


My current Netflix sequence is “The Glittering Prizes,” by Frederic Raphael, from his book by the same name. It is semi-autobiographical, account of his years at "Cambridge, where he majored in the usual Oxbridge subjects -- condescension, arrogance, lordliness, classics and philosophy.” The smart-mouthed characters, led by Tom Conti who is a sort of Anglicized version of Al Pacino, bounce around bedeviling each other and trying to find a woman -- they claim for sex, but actually for mothering.

“’The Glittering Prizes’ reveals Raphael's remarkable technical expertise and depth of emotional insight as he traces the unfolding lives after their graduation, of a group of Cambridge contemporaries. The chief of these, Adam Morris, is a novelist similar in temperament to Raphael himself. He is an ironically minded but aesthetically talented Jew whose temporary foray into the world of the mass media is engaging farce, meant also to define the difficulties that the serious artist encounters in holding fast to his genuine impulses.

“The difficulties that the serious artist encounters in holding fast to his genuine impulses.”

Northwestern University, where I did my undergrad degree, was no high brow English school, but we were very much focused on being “serious artists.” A lot of us were Jewish (not me) and my own little theatre circle included some gays, which we kept quieter than Raphael does about being Jewish. Or maybe that was just me, since I wasn’t developmentally far enough along to be either straight or gay. I was sort of latent, “pre-sexual,” childish. But I had no intention of being ordinary and neither did any of the rest of us. It’s just that we went around in phalanxes of three or seven -- not so much pairs.

Whether or not we “held fast to our genuine impulses” is only now, fifty years later, becoming slowly apparent. But part of the problem of deciding about that question is that our original impulses were kind of fuzzy and an even more major part is that fifty years later, myself and maybe some others realize that our goals were dominated by the Frederic Raphael pattern without our knowing it. We had wanted “glittering prizes” maybe, but now maybe we don’t. There ARE other ways of looking at a life.

Raphael himself ran into the phenomenon when he was asked by Stanley Kubrick to write the screenplay for “Eyes Wide Shut.” Raphael wrote a memoir about Kubrick called “Eyes Wide Open” which mostly people thought was an alibi for a remarkably strange movie. “Eyes Wide Shut” certainly testified to the values of the Viennese Jewish paradigms of Freud mixed into the English markers of their class system: pretentious houses, education at famous schools, and the idea that sex is something privileged that can only be properly understood and practiced by the rich. But the whole thing exceeded privilege, becoming weirdness.

At Northwestern I lived in stone “quads” patterned after Oxford and so on, but the real action was here:

The house number on this old-fashioned alley “carriage house” with its converted hayloft apartment that often smelled vaguely mousey, depending on the weather, was 616 1/2. The primary occupant was Stu, our Golden Prince, a doctor’s son from Wisconsin whom we all considered a genius on the scale of D.H. Lawrence. In fact, we identified so strongly that when “Sons and Lovers” came out, I knitted us all woolly neck scarves. I still have mine. Stu was engaged to his high school sweetheart, whom he eventually married. The two sets of parents had insisted that the couple attend separate colleges to make sure the relationship was durable. “Durable” understates the case! The marriage is like the Rock of Gibraltar, regardless of living in Brentwood for many years and traveling in a fast lane, sometimes with car wrecks.

In a few months Stu and Jerry, the two guys here who are now in their (ahem) sixties, will be voting on that glittering prize called an Oscar. They’ve both gone far in Hollywood. If I told you their names, you could Google them and be impressed. The women in these photos are Greek, not that that’s particularly relevant, and they were neither actors or directors, but have served in many ways. One married an actor. I, of course, split to Montana. Different mythology. Dusty prizes.

We were all kids, not much older than the Cinematheque guys, and -- like them -- fiddling endlessly with tools to make them work, though it was all mechanical. Nothing electronic, unless a light meter is electronic. I don’t remember any of us being much of a quick quip-er, though I can pull off a good one nowadays. In those days, if one were sarcastic or metaphorical Stu would focus on you and ask in an arch voice, “Do you know why they don’t send donkeys to college?” Then we’d all laugh.

Laird, who became a famous Shakespearean actor and for years directed “A Christmas Carol” in Denver, probably comes the closest to what we thought was the “highest” art in those days. We believed in repertory theatre and the classics. I lost Tom for a while, but found him again thanks to Google. Rather surprisingly, he is a noted artist as well as acting. He’s kept in closer touch with the original cohort in some ways, but not Stu. Now and then I think of the names of others who weren’t part of the “inner circle” of 616 1/2 and Google to see what they’re doing. Many are just lost.

616 1/2 actually belonged to Alvina Krause, our beloved and sometimes terrifying acting professor. She lived downstairs in the house and rented rooms upstairs. Paula Prentiss and Dick Benjamin lived there. Once they came into the upstairs hall and found AK, as we called her, in her nightgown with her hair down, balancing on the railing over a two-story stairwell. She was sleepwalking. They talked her down. That might be an apocryphal story, but I’m inclined to think she was about to fly and she could have if she’d wanted to. Tony Roberts, then Dave, and Dave Pressman were part of that inner-inner circle and both were part of a Manhattan Jewish tradition of theatre and burlesque that has served them well over the years. These people have achieved about as we expected.

Tom remarks on how intense the memories from those years still are. I’ve wondered who will be the one to capture the legend in print. I only watched, but that might be an advantage. The terms of education and of life-goals have changed drastically over fifty years, but I think those times could still be mined for gold, whether or not it glitters still.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I’ve never been to Paris, except in the movies, that morphing morphine of guided fantasy. When I sleep I see those rooms, those ascending staircases, those long halls, those reinhabited factory lofts, those catacombs and labyrinths. But you can’t push the river and you can’t step into the same river twice and if I went to Rodin’s studio or the street along the canal or the plaza below the Eiffel Tower, I wouldn’t see what you’ve seen. I can’t even see the same movie twice and see it the same way. It’s always different because I’ve always changed in the meantime, and yet the flashing images are the same.

Some of them -- from movies I saw as a child or a student -- still stay with me. One of the most vivid is from “La Belle et Le Bete” -- Cocteau’s classic. It just the hallway with the torch sconces that were human arms, which moved as the characters walked, lights that were consciously guiding. We had gone in a small group to see that famous film, we acting students from Northwestern, and it moved us so deeply that we decided to walk home along the lake shore, though it was miles. The city reflected in the water and it was magical. The police shadowed us for a while, curious about what we were up to. We didn’t stick to the path but jumped along the jumble of curiously square and flat stones which had -- are you SURE? -- names on them. They were tombstones. From a sacrificed cemetery. We had not known there was such a thing. That was fifty years ago.

For the next ten years I was on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation learning to cast bronze through the same lost wax/Roman block investment process that made Rodin’s work, the Animaliers’ work, Rosa Bonheur’s work so compelling. We were good at it. Bob Scriver thought it would make him as close to immortal as men could get. He had not seen the images at this website, but I have.

Nothing is immortal. Yet nothing ends. Pierre Jahan, photographer, tells my story for me. Here is the end of one statue.

Far more vulnerable than bronze statues is human flesh, and yet the stories of human relationship have outlasted all the statues. Let these hands and knees stand for the tenderness, the ingenuity, the resourcefulness and generosity of human relationship.

My two life rules are:
If given a choice between money and education, take education.
If given a choice between security and adventure, take adventure.
Not making that leap is the same as not being alive.

Make the leap. But know that you will walk among the beasts, some of which wear suits.

Here be dragons, the fabulous monsters that inhabit dreams, haunt life, scuttle along that hallway lit by torches with men’s arms for sconces -- just far enough back in the dimness that they can’t be seen. But you don’t want to lose them.

They fight against the industrial mechanized world even as they are destroyed.

They leap out at you when you least expect it.

In the end they cannot be subdued. Solstice has passed. Endarkenment is ended. Let the enlightenment begin.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


A quick Google reveals that Professor Fox has had two main jobs since 1990. The first was four years (1990-1994) as the managing editor of “The Pet Dealer Magazine” in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The second, from 1994 until today, has been as an associate professor at “Chinese Culture University, Taipei.” His degrees are a BA (‘83) from Rutgers and the Newark College of Arts and Science; MA in Poly Sc. (‘84); M.Ed. Teaching English as a Second Language (1992) from the same school; and Ph.D. from Tamkang University, Graduate School of English (2004). His dissertation was entitled: “Writing is Fighting: the Politics of Resistance in the Works of Frank Chin.”

In Taiwan in 2007 at the International Symposium on Diaspora and Ethnic Studies, National Sun Yat-sen U., Fox presented a paper called “The Hoax that Hurts: the Pathology of Playing Indian in an AIDS Memoir.” I’ve downloaded it and read it. It is a rehash of easily Googled material, all of it criticizing Tim Barrus’ “Nasdijj” books and holding him personally and malevolently responsible for them rather than publishers, who supported the identity while knowing Barrus. Fox clearly has no insight or even information about the state of publishing in the US, the conditions on reservations of any sort (there is no evidence that he has ever visited one); or the politics of either Indian reservations or Native American writing. He’s simply recycling, mostly the LA Weekly chop job.

As Fox’s thesis title reveals (“Writing is Fighting”), he is interested in writing from an aggressive political point of view, presumably one that agrees with his own aims. Since he is in Taiwan, like James Mackay in Cyprus, he is not accountable to the usual overseers of scholarly accuracy and worthiness. Nor has he done any real research. He does not know that Sherman Alexie, the chief attacker, had previously had the same literary agent as Barrus but had quarreled with him, so that the agent had every reason to throw “Nasdijj” in Alexie’s face. He does not make a comparison between “The Blood Runs like a River Through my Dreams” (which was published in Chinese -- I have a copy here) and Alexie’s short story that became “Smoke Signals.” (They are nothing alike.) He does not note that the attack on Barrus coincided with the need for publicity for “Smoke Signals.” Nor does he note that Alexie had considered himself a cinch for the PEN prize for minority writers that “Nasdijj” won. Alexie, the white man’s Indian, never speaks with forked tongue, eh? Is too noble for human motives?

Fox, who seems to know little about publishing, believes that if a white man writes about Indians, then the Indians themselves will never get published. Actually, it appears that it was the bogus “The Education of Little Tree” which sold so well, as cliche genre will, that it persuaded publishers to try issuing Native American books, some of which became so popular (Louise Erdrich, James Welch) that they were eventually shelved with regular fiction. In fact, “The Education of Little Tree” really WAS written by a racist, (Asa Carter, Governor Wallace’s speech writer and a member of the KKK) and still sells so well that the University of New Mexico continues to publish it and is said to make millions off it.

The wave of philosophical reinterpretation that came out of Algierian and French philosophers with anti-colonial sympathies: Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Said and a host of deconstructionists, post-colonialists, and psychoanalytic reinterpreters, was so compelling that it wiped out the previous norms of narrativity and modernity. When I was in seminary, the ideas were everywhere but uninterpretable without a Tom Mix decoder ring, which was mostly a matter of attitude. In fact, this stuff was dubbed “the politics of resentment” AKA “you owe me money.” By the time it got to the reservation tribal colleges, it had been reduced to a Wheaties boxtop from which the address was missing. But the attitude was there.

Some say that’s what finally killed Native American literature because it put everyone in such a fighting mode that publishers and movie producers everywhere saw it as the “third rail” of American culture, the one that, if you touched it, would kill you. For the Indians themselves, it was probably the huge success of “Dances with Wolves,” a return to good old narrativity, that so idealized Native Americans that nothing the people themselves wrote could ever match it. They were nailed back into the 19th century genre coffin.

It seems to me that that box is exactly where Tim Fox and James Mackay want to be. They have never recovered from reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which was written in libraries by a white college professor and was about the END of the prairie clearances that enabled homesteading, very much in the same way that the Scots and Irish highlands were cleared for raising sheep. “Braveheart”/”Dunbar” seized these suburban boys on their way to grad school and they’ve never been able to give it up, somehow believing that their suburban growing up was only redeemed by their enormous insight into Native Americans.

They do not know that Michigan was always Indian country or that Barrus’ “suburbs” (in 1950, that’s not what they were) was not far from indigenous village remnants. They do not know that the huge dry Western reservations are like Third World Nations where people struggle with poverty as they do throughout the world. They believe little factoids about food, like whether an Indian taco can have mutton on it (never thinking about whether fry bread in the first place is an Indian food) the same way as they decide whether they prefer red or green peppers and how definitive of identity this is. Foodies to the end!

Both Fox and Mackay have a backup favorite subject: science fiction. Fox writes papers on Star Trek. I suspect they are more reality-based than the one he wrote about Barrus. It’s interesting to me that both these men have escaped their own culture in order to live in a more exotic place. In the 19th century whites often went to live with the Indians because they could not succeed in their original milieu. The trouble is that the 19th century has ended. The only way to live with 19th century Indians now is in fantasy.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Maybe no one will mind if I tell a few of my favorite Christmas stories.

When I first came in 1961, it was as an English teacher and also the speech & drama teacher. These days the Browning Blackfeet kids win debate and interp competitions and stage Broadway musicals all the time, but in those days they were pretty dubious about the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, the first Christmas I arranged a series of still tableaus, climaxing with the traditional manger scene. No one flinched at that idea then.

Phyllis Pepion was Mary and at first we tried to scare up a babydoll, but there didn’t seem to be one that would work. So then we thought she could just hold a bundle of swaddling. But I had the brilliant idea of putting a lightbulb inside the swaddling so it would look as though the baby were radiant, divine. The pageant night came, Mary looked beatifically maternal, but the choir singing “Silent Night” went on a little longer than they had in rehearsal.

Suddenly the swaddling clothes began to smoke and then burst into flame! “Mary,” ever resourceful as any rez girl should be, quickly threw the baby Jesus on the floor and stomped the fire out. There was a long silence before everyone figured out what had happened and began to applaud and cheer.

The second story is from about ten years later. Bob had divorced me in November, 1970, but I failed to leave. We just went on as before, which Bob wouldn’t have done if he’d realized it gave me the leverage to abort the divorce. I didn’t know that either. I just couldn’t think where to go. On Christmas Eve he asked me what I’d like to do. I had two things in mind that we’d never gotten around to. One was the traditional Christmas Eve dancing which was then still held in a log round house in Starr School and the other was Midnight Mass at the stone Catholic Church of the Little Flower in Browning. So that’s what we did.

It was very cold, zero or below, but the trusty pickup took us out to Starr School where the round hall was packed with people, oldsters and little kids on benches (that was before everyone had lawn chairs) around the walls and dancers with bells on their ankles and roaches on their heads keeping perfect time to the pounding drums. Things were smaller and plainer in those days. Most guys wore home-dyed long underwear as the basis of their costumes. Many of the old ladies and a few of the old men wore silk scarves on their heads, while the more cowboy of the Indians wound black silk scarves around their necks. Heat came from an oil drum converted to a stove, burning so hot that it glowed red. One worried about a drunk blundering into it.

But most of the drunks were outside. The ones who were taking a break from dancing steamed as though they were smouldering. They stood around pickup beds with their elbows on the edge and their hands inside, pretending that you didn’t know they were holding bottles in there. The door would fly open to let someone in or out and orange light would splash out across the snow, along with a burst of noise. Then the door would slam and outside it would be silent except for the drinking men laughing softly and maybe a pickup door slamming.

When it got close to midnight, we drove back to town with the tires crunching on the snow, driving slow because it was treacherous and anyway you didn’t know what might be stopped on the road. We had to park a block away and sit in the last pew where a Vietnam soldier on leave moved over for us as much as he could. He was a little drunk and took a liking to us. He assured us that since we weren’t Catholic, he would be our guide and show us when to stand or kneel. But either he was too drunk or he wasn’t all that Catholic, because the three of us were out of phase with everyone else and it was just as well that we were in the back pew. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful mass. It’s always a good feeling afterwards to file out with the congregation and linger for a few moments to greet friends.

The last story is about Midnight Mass out at Heart Butte in the old St. Anne’s Church, a log building with many coats of cement stucco. It was 1990 and I was teaching out there. Inside, the church was painted peach and the windows were frosted rather than stained glass. In the front at the right was a kind of grotto for the creche, formed of Christmas tree and branches. On the left was a pastel plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. The Metis fiddle group clustered around an electric piano behind the congregation. Father went in and out a door behind the altar until the crowd began to gather in earnest. Then he calmly put on his vestments in plain view. The chasuble was a brilliant red with the Latin for “Kairos” in a gilt pattern on the front. The word means the transcendent moment which intersects with “Chronos” or ordinary time. People came in breathless from the cold and the struggle up the ice-coated hill from the parking.

When we got to the sermon, Father was inspired. He told about a little boy and girl, Blackfeet, who had lived not many miles away. Their parents were drinking and careless; there was no food or fuel in their house. They had been ill and the boy had tried to take care of the younger sister but she was getting worse. They decided they should go to the neighbors for help. There was no phone and the nearest neighbor was five miles away but they set out in the snow. The girl couldn’t make it and died out there while he held her. In adulthood he became a hard drinker and somehow on Christmas Eve he always found himself near that spot in the snow where his sister had left him behind.

But one Christmas he had a vision. His sister came to him and told him she was happy in Heaven. She said he should go to a house where there was a new baby and ask to stay there. He did that. They helped him become sober. Years later Father confessed that he’d made it all up but it was a great story anyway, and might do some good. In fact, a lot of people have sobered up in the last few decades.

When it was time to go back to our cars, the men stood spaced out in a line and handed us along over the ice. Ungloved, I went from one large strong hand to the next, all of us wishing each other Merry Christmas. The stars were great wreaths and swirls of sarvisberry blossoms across a black velvet sky. There was no wind to make the pines sing, but their incense enveloped us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


People have mystical experiences that convince them of a powerful source of inspiration, an awareness of power that is entirely “other” whether it’s another mental/emotional state or a supernatural dimension. The question we used to visit at seminary was whether “the Holy Spirit” could be “called” by devotion or discipline. (We didn’t count drugs.) Can you MAKE it happen? Recently a poll in the United States (the United States loves to ask itself about religion) said that institutional religion is shrinking but individual mystical experience is growing. It was suggested that religious institutions usually try to suppress mysticism because obviously it encourages people to go off on their own and ignore dogma, much less the building fund.

There’s a parallel here with art and schools. Conventional art schools are institutions, like it or not, and they always tend toward orthodoxy, the endorsement of a “right” way to do things, which can become confining. On the other hand, if an artist plunges off in pursuit of his or her own vision, their work can become inaccessible to others, impossible to market. So what is the right balance between the individual and the institution?

Possibly it is something we could call community, which is people together out of common vision but not hardened into an institution exists for its own sake rather than for the participating individuals. A community will form spontaneously among people who share interests or goals. A friendship circle, we might say. Or maybe a cluster of disciples around a charismatic person. Then the next person who is visionary will be received according to his relationship to that community: Jesus’ vision is the whole point; Judas’ vision is an anti-vision in the terms of the group and they will try to discredit it. Herod, the baby killer, is the institution personified.

This country tends to see art as an individual gift that is unrelated to either community or institution and yet it values “art school.” Most of us don’t trust ourselves to work out what materials to buy, how to solve practical problems of construction or procedure, or what sort of subjects to portray. We WANT to be told that if you work in oils, you should lay in the dark shapes first and then work towards white with final impasto while in watercolor you should start with the most pale areas and then get darker with thicker paint. It saves a lot of time to be told such things. And then you’ll have something to react against.

There is a puzzling phenomenon of the person who simply wants to be seen as an artist for the glamour of it all -- forget about having to stand in front of an easel all day. That’s quite a lot like the person who wants to be seen as a religious figure, but is not interested either in personal devotion or the improvement of other lives. Institutional schools can be useful in pointing out humbuggery in either art or religion, so long as they are responsible about certifying their students. But there is a sort of feral talent for art or even religion that institutional schools simply can’t see and always interpret as rebellion. Why would such a person stick around anyway?

Institutions lean to bureaucracy and hierarchy, which I tend to see as necessary evils. Bureaucracy, to my mind, is largely record-keeping and organizing for the sake of efficiency and a sort of group memory. It’s valuable when it provides clarity, guidance and some kinds of restraint for the greater good, like permitting systems or budgets. Hierarchy is also a move towards efficiency, but one even more prone to being subverted as the higher authorities get more and more out of touch with the lower levels and fringier functions. Dogma, when it really works, helps to hold the point of focus to prevent what has come to be called “mission drift.” An institution that supports both community and individuals is making their lives easier, more pleasant and more productive. An institution that uses bureaucracy and hierarchy to simply preserve the institution has betrayed the cause that founded it. (Yes, I’m talking about my seminary. And the U.S. Congress.)

Mysticism breaks out of all categories, escapes all institutions, accounts to no one. It goes beyond talent or desire and doesn’t always stop on this side of madness. By its very nature it is mysterious and unaccountable, belonging to that fourth pane of the Johari window where nothing is known -- not even ways to describe what has been touched. Some individuals seek it and some fear it. Institutions and communities may talk about it, but mysticism as an experience is individual, which makes it easy to burn mystics at the stake in medieval times or contemporaneously just ignore them.

I’m intrigued by the writing of S. Brent Plate, partly because he works on film and material culture, both of which interest me. In today’s “Religion Dispatches” (an automated aggregator) he quotes:
“The witty classics professor Norman O. Brown, in his brilliant little essay from 1960, ‘Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind’ . . .[says]

“’I sometimes think I see that civilizations originate in the disclosure of some mystery, some secret; and expand with the progressive publication of their secret; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged, that is to say, profaned.’

“Brown is playing on the roots of the term apocalypse as a “re-vealing,” an “un-covering.” When all is revealed, when we are out of secrets and the sacred totally profaned, the world comes to an end.

Norman O. Brown continues his discussion, offering some suggestions:
‘ And so there comes a time (I believe we are in such a time) when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new.’”

In, one of my favorite blogs (an interpretive aggregator of genetically based studies), it is remarked that it has been 1500 years since the birth of a new major world religion, which happened to be Islam. In some ways it was a return to Old Testament theism and the claim that “God” is an unknowable mystery that ought not to be depicted or interpreted because it CANNOT be.

Plate cautions: “. . . New media enable reformations by publishing, or making public, what was once private. In this way, new media act to reveal what was once hidden, and thus enable the world to continue to end.” This is the doctrine of “continuous apocalypse,” otherwise as known as housekeeping. (One of his examples is Gutenberg revealing the Bible to the masses.)

We must “acknowledge our need for the poet and the prophet, potentially some crazy-haired, locust-eating maniac who comes in from out of the wild to reveal something to us—a monster who de-monstrates.” Bring ‘em on.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The day after Warren Buffett bought BNSF railroad, a little line of grain cars with one locomotive stopped at the Valier rail line spur to load up and left itself parked across the highway for minutes. Bad planning: long train, busy grain-shipping season.

Last week I went to Shelby, a major BNSF rail/truck shipping transfer yard, and was blocked again because I didn’t use the town’s bridge over the tracks. I could have but I like to watch the trains. This one was long and entirely truck trailers stacked two high. There were very few marked Hanjin, which usually dominates the trains, because this train was coming from the East and the Hanjin traffic crosses the Pacific, coming towards the East.

In the news: Buffett and a staff of about 20 people in Omaha oversee a collection of Berkshire operating companies that employ more than 200,000 and sell goods and services including energy, candy, clothing and luxury flights. Burlington Northern brings Berkshire another 40,000 workers, and Mr. Buffett said the takeover won't have an effect on employment.

"We've got 20 people in Omaha, and there isn't one of them that knows how to run a railroad," Mr. Buffett said. "You'll be running the railroad, and you'll run it in an efficient way, and when times are good, you're going to have more people employed than when times are bad."

Brian Kahn
, who runs a Yellowstone Public Radio program as well as Artemis Common Ground, this week interviewed Daniel Finn, St. John's Professor of Theology and Economics, discussing Pope Benedict's recent encyclical, which calls for major restructuring of the global economy to "achieve justice." This was new info for Kahn and me, too. You can listen to it at:

One of the remarks Finn made was that in Europe it is often assumed that the employees of a major corporation will sit at the table with the board of investors and managers. This is a shocking idea for the democracy of America, which is often stuck in a model some brought from England in the 19th century, which had defied the Pope and invested in prosperity as a marker of God’s approval. See Finn’s credentials at He received his Ph.D. at the U of Chicago the year before I arrived in 1978, so I feel confident that Jim Gustafson and David Tracy, both strongly humanistic men working within the Catholic context, were major influences on him. I also want to mark that St. John’s is Benedictine, a place where the arts are loved. The best religious thought has always been humanist: what is good for human beings, acting on this planet for the greater good of all including nature. There is a long tradition of this INSIDE the Catholic history. We’d be fools to reject it.

The advice I keep seeing in essays and hearing in radio talks is that the crying need over the next decade will be in the twofold character of management: first, the motivating and guidance of employees and second, logistics, the getting and scheduling of things and events. The two main models we’ve be following have been athletic and military, with a lot of overlap. They make very little room for humanities patterns for management. What does that mean?

Both the athletic and military models are based on the assumption of adversarial relations outside the group and strict control inside the group. They are also based on force and hierarchy as well as strategy, often secret strategies. But the most crucial strategy is not that on the battlefield: it is logistics. The general that outruns his supply lines has lost his army. No boots, no food, no fight. Warren Buffett knows this and that’s why he bought a railroad as well as empowering the workers. Aside from motivating workers, including them means far better logistics.

What might be humanistic management strategies? I would point to transparency: understanding what is going on and the necessity for ordinary stuff like schedules and inventories and bookkeeping. I would point to the honoring of those who do the small jobs -- as they say in the theatre, there are no small parts, only “small” actors. Yet after a generation that drove their kids to be big and important, white collar, heads of companies, major players, and that had few kids so they could put them all through good colleges and grad schools “so they won’t have to work as hard as I did,” we’ve come to a place where we have to either outsource work or import workers to get things done. That means not just being able to speak a language besides English, but also learning a kind of meta-culture, an ability to look at human basics beyond what is conventional in the local place, the taken-for-granted community.

Nationally Obama is doing this, but it scares the wits out of people who don’t know how to get to that level of thought. They are still way back there, stuck in the belief that anyone not just like them is not even American. Locally, Valier’s town council is young (from my point of view) men whose success has come from the hard and often stubborn work they learned to do in high school, usually on athletic teams. They are about to meet their new mayor, a woman from “outside” who has been in the corporate world and who considers herself a poet. I will be fascinated and take a lot of notes.

The major problem of this area in the coming years will be the management of diminishing water resources. In the past the water has gone the same way as the management of Blackfeet trust funds: with a big white thumb in the pie. The law is there, was there all along. The problem will be managing the transition from thumb-in to thumb-out, which will hurt a lot of people. The more all parties involved can keep their goals clear and reasonable, the more they can mix practicality with idealism, the less damage and desperation there will be. I worry about a town that resented learning Blackfeet history because “it has nothing to do with us.” But I also worry about a tribe run by resentment and entitlement. Both sides are largely Catholic. That might be an unexpected plus, if the priests are on board with their Pope.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Arthritis in her hands sometimes meant she felt more as though she were typing with claws than with human fingers, but she got along pretty well most of the time. Except that she had brought her new Mac laptop into a rather upscale coffee shop, feeling very cool and hip, but then she couldn’t get the little power plug positioned just right to connect it. Luckily there was a young man at the next table who gallantly leaned over to help her out.

“I hope you’re not a cougar,
” he joked. He was a nice looking kid, about the age of her grandkids, maybe just out of college. Shaggy but friendly.

“Oh, no, I’m just on Leopard or Tiger or something, but I’m really more used to my old Panther system.” He laughed and she was surprised until he filled her in.

“Cougar is slang for an older woman on the prowl for younger men. I thought you might be coming on to me. I wouldn’t have minded.”

She looked at him consideringly. “Well, I don’t think I would have minded either, but I hadn’t intended a seduction today.”

“What did you intend? I mean, are you writing a book or anything?”

“What if I am?”

“I suppose it’s a memoir.”

“No, it’s not,”
she lied.

“They’re a little passe, you know.”
He had one of those very thin metallic Macs.

“What are YOU writing?”

He laughed merrily. She was beginning to like him. She liked the way he stretched out his legs and arms. “I’m writing a memoir. What else?”

Her eyebrows went up into her hairline. Her hair was white now but she still had a lot of it. “How could you possibly?”

“I know what you’re thinking, but a memoir is not dependent on having lived a long time. Or even on accomplishing very much. Memoir is poetry, it is impressionistic, it might not even have happened.”

She frowned. “I think maybe that’s true.” But she was being very strict with herself. It was so easy to soar off into lyric accounts of life on the prairie and hawks in the wind and all that stuff. She wanted to include the bitterness of cold that nearly snuffs the little flame of blood-oxygen if you get stuck in a snowbank and have to. . .

He interrupted. “I want my words to soar lyrically. I want to write a memoir that’s like Gerard Manley Hopkins writing a sonnet, full of word play and spirituality, the joy of being alive. ‘Shining like shook foil.’”

“Glory be to God for dappled things,”
she muttered under her breath. He didn’t hear because he was staring out the window at a passing girl. She was thinking of a particular horse in her past who was certainly nicely dappled, but she never felt like thanking God for the beast.

“You know what the new Mac OS is called?”
He was circling back. “Snow Leopard. Peter Matthiessen wrote a book about them but he went all the way to Tibet or someplace and he never actually saw one. He just saw the place where snow leopards were and that was the same thing.”

“Very mystical.”

“Gotta go.” The young man jumped up, tucked his laptop under his arm, clapped on his hat and never gave a backward glance. So much for her skills at seduction.

She sipped her latte and read up to the point where she had stopped earlier. It was dangerous to write about him and she knew better. The spell of him could pull her under, but narcissists are like that, sucking you into their world. Just the same, part of the reason for writing about him was to drive a stake through his heart. He would be there in his studio, bending over a work table, she would come up behind him and . . .suddenly in the coffee shop she could smell him, that mix of art materials and tobacco. It wasn’t a stake that got his heart -- it was those little white cylinders he boasted couldn’t get HIM because he was Cherokee and Indians have a spiritual understanding with tobacco.

She thought of the young man wanting to be spiritual. All these young people talked about being spiritual all the time and she figured it was mostly an excuse not to have to wash the dishes and walk the dog.

She had wanted a dog but he wouldn’t tolerate one. The barking, he said. And all that having to walk them. Cats were what he liked. And they liked him, too. He had a higher body temperature than most people and they loved to be against him. She had, too. Loved to be against him. After he died, the cats left. She put out food, same as usual, but they just weren’t there anymore. When she got back to the prairie she could have a dog.

Snow leopard. She was circling back herself. The big city zoo had snow leopards and every one of them had a mutilated front paw. They said it was because the only way to catch them was to use one of those bear trap, spring-trap things. Why would people mutilate something in order to keep it in a cage where it could only limp around and around?

Her aunt had been part of the Gray Panther movement. How brave and empowered she had seemed. Almost aggressive. Oh, yes. Even with demi-lune spectacles like Maggie Kuhn herself. And she wrote checks to the Black Panthers which scandalized everyone. They expected the FBI to come interview her any day, but they never did. Why were there no White Panthers? Maybe there were -- albinos happen in every mammal plus birds. But a snow leopard might count as a white panther. Maybe she’d be a snow leopard.

But then her mind jumped, as it often did these days, and she thought to herself, the kind of dog I want is a Blue Heeler, an Aussie sheep dog. And we’ll walk and walk and walk across the prairie, if I can keep the arthritis out of my knees. I could name him Cherokee. She typed into Google “blue healer” and laughed at her misspelling.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Tim is snowed in on the east coast and has been cruising the Internet, bailing stuff over to me in Montana. The above struck a chord right off. Not so much for Tim who gets rid of books once he’s read them. He reads all the time. It’s just that he believes in the virtual electronic world enough to trust it, the same way as the Cinematheque boys do. Though some of them love books, too, and pack a few around with them. Tim gave one of them his Kindle.

Myself, I have shelves and shelves of books, both those I saved to read when I had time and those I read and loved enough or valued enough to want to go back again. But I don’t treat them “well,” since I mark them up and fill them with sticky notes.

The idea of the website of the url at the top of this post is simple and something that other websites have done to some degree, just not taking it to video and interview status. Each vid on this site is an interview with an author, asking them to explain their books. These are modern authors, mostly young people in apartments. In fact, I was bemused by their interiors: very Crate & Barrel, very Sonoma-Williams (or is it Williams-Sonoma), very Ikea.

The rooms all had hardwood floors, squashy sofas (not sectionals), empty pale walls, folded cellular shades, no evidence of television (probably in the bedroom) and no piles of paper or filing cabinets. The father had two huge plastic bins of toys behind the sofa. They appear to work on laptops set on nearly empty tables. Their book shelves were much alike: wall-covering built-in regular sections (1’ X 2’) with enough room for a cat on top of the books or behind the books. The occasional object. Very interior decoration.

One man and one woman had grouped the books they read for research in these sections, though the number of books didn’t always fit into the same space. Too few wasn’t a problem since an object or cat could fill the space. Too many meant some figuring. In general I was shocked that there were so few. No one had books sidewise on top or in front. One had boxes of books in the basement.

One said she arranged her books for the aesthetics of them, how they went together by height and color. A man said he was relentlessly alphabetical regardless of everything else. But his wife was not, so her books were all crammed in every-which-way on the bottom last shelf. One woman had arranged hers according to their personal significance: much beloved and meaningful books were in the bedroom so she could guard them there. She was the only one who admitted to having kept truly old books, although there was one man who had read one of his books nearly to pieces. In fact, the author was insulted when he was asked to sign it, which was dim of him.

Several women sheepishly admitted that they kept a few books hidden, either where the framing of the bookcase covered them or tucked in behind other books. They were big picture books about how to be more beautiful, which they thought was an unworthy impulse, even though one of them worked at Glamour magazine. In fact, these people probably all know each other and are what we in Montana would consider Manhattan insiders.

Their own books were trendy, gimmicky, pop, little more than expanded magazines. The website is a way for them to promote their own books -- they are all VERY good at this promotion stuff.

One of the most interesting had written a graphic book, trying to account for one of those runaway dads so many people seem to have these days. A narcissist, he was elusive enough that even as a child this writer had drawn cartoons about moments she was trying to decipher. One of the recurring elements was a cuckoo clock from which a bird popped out to make comments, not always “cuckoo.” Maybe “uh-oh!” The writer had saved her childish (but talented) cartoons which were the source material for her published book. When her little dog decided he liked the early drawings well enough to sit on them, she had to caution him that they were archival.

She showed us some of her graphic novel collection which made me want to run out straightaway and buy them all. In the bookstores they have to keep graphic novels behind the cash register because otherwise people steal them. More than other books. I used to try to get Blackfeet kids to do graphic novels. (Are you reading this, Marvin Blackweasel?) That was the essence of the iconographic tales painted on buffalo robes and tipi liners.

Another interesting woman had written a book about keeping chickens and had live ones herself, so we got to see them. All the photography is well-done, clear and close enough to really inspect those wild topknots and glittering eyes. There aren’t many writers on the site -- I assume there will be more -- but they are witty and funny and lovable, even though they’re mostly so young. I don’t know about you, but I’m out of patience with both the endless catalogs and recommendations that I get, and not entirely happy with Charlie Rose and his guests, all of them aging before our eyes, no matter how significant they are.

The down side of these author’s books is that if I want to read a magazine, I’d rather read a REAL magazine and then throw it away. These books that are timely and topical can get stale fast and then what do you do with them? The libraries are already throwing out books so they can make room for computers. Powells is getting mighty resistant to “ordinary” books. My cousin in Portland said she carried in two grocery sacks of cherry-picked books and was offered only a few dollars. Like, TWO.

It would make more sense for these books to be electronic with a nice cheerful interview on vid with the author. When its sell-by date had been reached, it could just be deleted. But that sweeps away the whole premise of this website, which is that books are objects. Particularly these with their glossy bright dustcovers, the pride of their writers, collected alongside the books they actually bought. They are the most exciting things -- THINGS -- in these cool, pastel rooms.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Sex and secrets are well-known “coin of the realm” when people are too impoverished to have any of the more conventional wealth. Clearly sex and secrets are interrelated because of conventional morality. If no one cared who had sex of what kind with whom, then one president, a number of other politicians and one notable golfer would not have had troubles as they did. But people DO care and not just because Mrs. Grundy says NONONONO.

What makes sex valuable? Love, babies, comfort through the night. And then what makes secret sex valuable? Extortion, blackmail, emotional unfulfilled need, the craving for danger.

Originally sex was valuable because of inheritance law: the progeny got the land, the money, the stuff. So it was important to know whether a child were actually the physical result of sex between this man and someone else. Therefore, it was very important to make sure the woman had no possible way of getting inseminated by someone else. She was kept locked up, surrounded only by women and eunuchs. I wonder whether it ever occurred to anyone to use AI. Maybe not until turkey basters were invented. When was the first turkey baster invented? If someone knew the secret of turkey baster use for AI, what difference would it have made? Would it be different from Mary the mother of Jesus being inseminated through her ear by a dove?

Early AI might be the key to a rousing historical speculative novel plot. In fact, there have always been rumors that Elizabeth II and Margaret were conceived with a little help, but it was medical and the source was the proper father, who was evidently not a particularly good propeller of sperm though he was an excellent father. But there’s a good shocking plot -- if the Royal gendarmes couldn’t get you. Who would be a good sperm donor, if that were the pretended fictional secret? Might be a good parlor game, more fun than claiming the royal families were descended from Jesus. (No one has ever really addressed the fertility of Jesus, though there is a bit of interest in his erection when crucified.)

So there are legal consequences to productive sex. What about sex that was only for pleasure? Or domination? That never produced children. Like maybe between same sex partners or children too young or women too old. Was that one of the sources of Winston Churchill’s and Benjamin Franklin’s valuing of the older women?

At one time vasectomies were secret so that a male lover could play some games with his lack of fertility and women always play games with “the Pill.” One can imagine scenarios that made the advantage go either way, playing expectations off against reality. The pill, of course, occasionally fails, so it has its own games to play. The law, on the other hand, is on the side of someone who claims to be fertile but can’t “come through” as it were. Grounds for annulment or divorce.

A whole new level of secrets might be connected to an abortion or naturally miscarried pregnancy and the disposition of the evidence. If an infant were born dead or killed after birth, or if the whole pregnancy was somehow managed so that no one knew, those all lead to secrets. Adoption has in the past been secret, but modern practical good sense has managed to arrange for open adoption where everyone knows what’s going on and the only games are the usual human attempts to obligate and intimidate. But most sperm donors remain cloaked as well as egg or zygote donors. (I'm guessing.) Surrogate mothers -- in the sense of allowing someone else’s baby to grow in their uterus until delivery -- adds another dimension. Such highly medicalized and technical procedures put enormous secrets in the hands and folders of doctors and hospital records clerks. What about the brief but poignant story of the blastosphere in the petri dish that is NOT chosen to be carried by anyone, but simply discarded or made into stem cells.

Sometimes babies born out of wedlock are quietly acknowledged but not allowed legal rights and other times their existence is denied. The possibility of proving parenthood with DNA has changed the landscape drastically. For one thing, fathers who were merely inseminators find themselves with the power flow going the other direction: instead of claiming that the woman was at fault and his fatherhood can’t be proven, they have now acquired the major liability of the obligation to support the life they started. Instead of bragging about how many babies they’ve made, they might find it more practical to just leave the country. Of course, there is a certain type of male who believes that the woman he has inseminated “owes HIM” because he “gave” her a baby. Some women believe this and end up supporting both baby and husband. They should think it over.

It’s a little strange that sex should be the focus of so much social morality. Maybe. But the use of sex as a distraction from other issues (money, war, politics, even scientific advances) is so time-honored and still so effective because it’s a scarlet thread through almost everything human and certainly everything mammal. Wait! Humans are animals! Wait! What about all those birds, bees, and fish who depend upon sex? Oh, yeah. Most animals don’t “do” sexual morality. They just do what comes naturally. Unless humans divert them. (Big argument about dog “rape racks” and anthropomorphism on one of the H lists.)

But let’s get back to the point. Conventional arrangements about sexual matters -- which are “covert,” which are monetary, which are inter-familial or intra-familial, which can or can’t be examined scientifically -- are arbitrary, but they surely don’t feel that way. Their symbolic weight alone makes them powerful like nothing else except possibly money.

Take the issue of survival in a world where little kids are created and then abandoned because there is no acceptable social structure to protect them. In Dickens’ time, when the shift from country farm to city factory changed everything, the streets were full of unwanted boys, many of whom simply died and others of whom clung to life through extraordinary and disgusting means. Something similar happened to women.

Or, given the season, take a look at Matthew 2:16-18. Because of the prediction that Jesus was being born in Bethlehem, Herod had all children (my New English Bible doesn’t say “male children”) under the age of two killed. (Nothing said about babies still in utero. Maybe Herod was anti-abortion.) Secretly Joseph and Mary had skipped town. (They had not had sex.) There is historical evidence about Herod. No proof that he actually did this. He evidently died in office, so his strategy worked. It was what some might call an endarkenment strategy, more appropriate for the longest night than for a single star.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


"Return of the Blackfeet Raiders"


It’s a little late to be giving advice for Christmas presents, but maybe the people who buy Scriver bronzes for gifts are able to expedite delivery. Certainly they can buy by phone or maybe even online. So here’s an overview of what Scriver bronzes are auctioning for these days. That’s not the same as buying from a gallery or private owner which is probably the way most important Scriver bronzes change hands, usually when the previous owner dies and the inheritors sell.

I don’t have enough money to subscribe to the database, which keeps track of an avalanche of information, but the list below is free from which appears to be based in Taos/Santa Fe. I don’t know more than that about the website, but I will add notes about the bronzes.

I should also add another thing. One of the problems when buying bronzes is avoiding recasts and illegal casts. On the other end, casts made by Scriver at the Bighorn Foundry are MORE valuable, especially the ones from the Sixties. They were all cast using the “Roman block” investment method, which preserves much more surface quality and were patined in a traditional French way. We learned to do this together and it was not easy. If it makes you feel better, the crew was all Blackfeet.

But the new thing to be added is that it is now possible to discover the “DNA” of bronze. Bronze is an alloy, a mix of metals. By analyzing what molecules were combined in what proportions, it is possible to determine the casting “pedigree” of a bronze. Ours were usually Herculoy, a patented silicon bronze alloy.

Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea

25" x 15" x 18"

This sculpture would be a version of the heroic-sized statue in Fort Benton that was dedicated on the Fourth of July, 1976. It would have been cast after that, possibly in New York at John Spring’s Modern Art Foundry, who cast the monument. Look for a foundry mark on it.

Pay Window
26"x 25" x 14"
Scriver’s rodeo series, a spectacular breakthrough in 1970, shows a bareback bronc leaping so that only one rear hoof is touching the ground. Bob created one large piece for each event plus a portrait of each animal or contestant involved. I do not know of anyone recasting these, so this is likely to be a Bighorn Foundry casting. Many artists have created their own version of the pose.

The White Flags

A later sculpture, this is a graceful animal group, probably cast via ceramic shell casting. One can tell by looking inside the bronze. If you are buying a bronze with a wooden or stone base attached, ask for the base to be removed so you can look inside. Ceramic shell material is hard to get off the metal, which is why it destroys subtle surface detail, and the underside will show vestiges of it.

Return of the Blackfoot Riders

c. 1960

Created in the early days of Bob’s career, the four warriors on horseback make a complex group with a lot of detail, all of which was authenticated by Claude Schaffer, then curator at the Museum of the Plains Indian, across the road from the Scriver Studio. George Montgomery bought a hydrocal (hard plaster) version of this in 1961 and sent it to a foundry to be translated to bronze. In the process, of course, it had to be broken apart and he gave the pieces to the CMR Museum. I don’t know what they did with them. I’ve never seen that bronze, so I don’t know how well it was done, but I’d be skeptical. It would be considerably less valuable than a Bighorn Foundry casting unless you’re a big George Montgomery fan and want the story.

Tall Tales to Tell

c. 1992

I don’t know this piece. I only know it exists.

The Winchester Rider
c. 1979

This was a promotional commission, much pushed by B. Byron Price in his role at the time. The idea was to associate the rider with “Yellow Boy,” the famous Winchester rifle with brass butt plate and so on. That long gun is often in Westerns and features in paintings.

Explorers at the Portage

25.5" x 29" x 16"

A second Lewis & Clark monument was commissioned for Great Falls where it stands near the giant American flag. York and the Newfoundland were included with the two expedition leaders. This would be a smaller version of that heroic-sized statue or possibly just a few of the figures there. A one-off fiberglas casting of the two monuments combined was given to the Lewis & Clark Interpretative Center in Great Falls.

Layin’ the Trap #4

This is the major rodeo series portrayal of team roping. The only one I know of that has been auctioned is the one Asgar Mikkelson accepted as payment for the photos he took for Bob’s book, “An Honest Try,” which shows all the rodeo bronzes plus descriptions of the events. If it’s Asgar’s casting (he is deceased), the dedication to him is written on it and would increase the value. Story always increases value.

Buffalo Bill
c. 1975
17" x 11" x 8"

Judging from the dimensions, this is a smaller version of the portrait of Buffalo Bill that stands in the foyer of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Many times photographed, the statue is familiar to many and would have special meaning to fans of Buffalo Bill.

The Moon of the Yellow Leaves

Another of the smaller graceful groups of deer that Bob loved to do. Though the market was for Western bronzes, Bob’s heart was with the animals and his first affiliation was with the Society of Animal Artists. But this is a later piece and probably ceramic shell cast. shows 326 Scriver bronzes passing through auctions. It makes a big difference to know WHICH auctions, since some are just threshing floors cleaning out the sweepings in a hurry while others showcase and urge sales far more. Of course, the whole thing about auctions is that it depends on who is there and bidding, though that’s now distorted by people able to bid online. They need to know what they’re doing as bronze is a medium hard to evaluate via a photo. Probably they will have someone on the scene who gives them a inspection report or they will know the source of the bronze. There’s a public/private split in the knowledge of what is auctioned.

Scriver bronzes are also complicated by his late-in-life practice of selling casting rights for small commissioned sculptures. Entrepreneurs cast editions of a hundred, which seriously diminishes value (twenty-four is considered a lot), and they were almost all locally cast in small ceramic shell foundries. Some are tastelessly patined with gaudy color, and those are often illegal. Also, incredibly, some people with early plaster tourist trade figurines have cast them. The best Scriver bronzes are not likely to show up in auctions, but these smaller, lesser-value pieces circulate constantly as little more than gambling tokens for those who use art as though it were the stock market. To get a realistic idea of fair prices, it would be necessary to separate the two levels.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Clearly the two deaths were a murder/suicide. There was a witness and a camera was running. He was a famous warrior but showed no symptoms of PTSD, even though he had witnessed and participated in many Middle East atrocities, often perpetrated by the leader of his own nation. It seemed that he was just so in love with the action of the battles that he was willing to ignore the victims. Just the same, he was a leading philanthropist who gave away fortunes to the poor.

She was the perpetrator, in spite of long service in religious orders working with hospitals. This was where she got her knowledge of poisons, which let her choose a painless sort of death for herself and her lifelong lover, who -- according to his best friend and fighting companion -- was reconciled to the death on grounds that he didn’t wish to age anymore. He considered himself elderly though he was barely fifty, if that.

He was handsome, a hunk. Well, maybe a Big Lug. His friend was an even Bigger Lug, but he didn’t understand what was going on. The killer was religious, or so she claimed. At the end she stated she loved this guy more than God. She also refused to mourn him, which is a religious duty. More than that, she was Catholic which prohibits both murder and suicide. Just not Holy Wars, though they cause both.

The motive seems quite mysterious but the facts are very clear. They’ve been more or less known for centuries, but not quite this take. It’s Robin Hood, the 1976 version with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. Robin has come back from the Crusades where Richard the Lion-Hearted had become besotted with violence and dominance to the point where Robin wanted out. Released by Richard’s death, he returns home where everything has gone to pieces. It’s not so much a case of Robin feeling old as the constant reminders that nothing is as it once was when his sheer vitality carried him along. Marian has become a devoted (but cursing) abbess (management), reconciled to the way things are, though she has tried suicide in the past. We see the scars on her wrist and she freely admits it. So the precursors are there. But she is quickly drawn back into Robin’s orbit. So are others.

Everyone wants the past except the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is not a bad sort in this incarnation. (Almost all the main characters are played by actors whose lives echo the figures they are assigned. This one is Robert Shaw. Richard Harris is King Richard, the Lion-Hearted who becomes a bit of a hyena.)

This story has been repeatedly inhabited by remarkable actors and reinterpreted partly by the choice of characters, the plot emphasis, but most of all by the casting. I see there is a new one coming up next year, directed by Ridley Scott, which appears to be Gladiator II: same smoking forest, same wolf on the trail, same Russell Crowe. This time Maid Marian is Cate Blanchett and I see in the little preview trailer that they have used the becoming-cliche gesture of one lover putting a hand over the other lover’s face. Is he obliterating her identity or memorizing it? All we know for sure is that it’s about identity.

For most people, Erroll Flynn IS Robin Hood (1938). His Maid Marian was Olivia deHavilland. The sex was mostly in the sub-text, since “in like Flynn” is a phrase that originated about this time during a trial in which Flynn was accused of having seduced a girl in a shower and the whole jury trooped down to the shower in question since it was rather small and Flynn (reluctantly) said it would have been an impossible feat. Basil Rathbone was Sir Guy of Gisborne, an adversary who doesn’t appear in “Robin and Marian.” Claude Rains was Prince John and Ian Hunter was King Richard.

The movie was made at an “interesting” time between the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of WWII. Economics and heroism were of great interest. The first director was replaced by Michael Curtiz, born in 1888 in Budapest and more famous for “Casablanca.” He often worked closely with Flynn and brought Flynn into the picture.

Of the many other versions of Robin Hood, Kevin Costner’s is the most forgettable and maybe he ought to be grateful. His Maid Marian was Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. No one wanted to stop thinking about Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves” which was Costner’s immediately preceding film. “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” was released in 1991, a strange time. A rising social consciousness didn’t seem to know where to go. Like Costner.

“Robin and Marian” (1976) captures an elegiac tone at a time when the great WWII heroes were fading. To us in 2010 both Connery and Hepburn don’t look that old. To us, maybe forty or even fifty is the new thirty. Hepburn and Shaw checked out early, but we’ve watched Connery and Harris age. Now we know what a graceful and hearty old age looks like, and we also know what a frail dissipation-riddled old age looks like. Both are still onscreen, Connery still a romantic hero and maybe even the true King of Scotland. He still IS James Bond.

I had thought that maybe I could use this movie as a contrast to “Unforgiven” or even “Gran Torino,” since Eastwood is also a mega-personality. In “Unforgiven” he prevails -- collects his reward and moves his family to San Francisco where they thrive. In “Gran Torino” he chooses suicide, though violent. (Robin had no choice but had a painless death.) It looks to me as though the two movies are advocating self-extinction not because THEY were aging, but because they didn’t like the times. (English Bob -- Richard Harris again -- goes out fighting, but he’s not offered as a role model.)

Robin and Marian is a beautifully seductive film, as poignant as the three apples rotting on the windowsill. Our feelings are so engaged that it’s hard to think about the actual facts. Hepburn makes euthanasia seem transcendent, a religious act justified by love. “I love you more than God,” she says to Robin. A heresy. Would you have accepted this outcome if Marian had been Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio? I wonder what Cate Blanchett will do.