Friday, December 31, 2010


This Christmas I was commissioned to create a sculpture!  A year or so ago I had told Lorraine King about making a little calf out of FIMO, the hobby polymer clay, and she was looking for a gift for her husband, Raleigh.  They raise Angus cattle at the edge of town so part of the reason we had talked about me trying to make little calf sculptures was that I’d asked to measure their calves, which will begin coming in another month.  But then I never got around to it -- I have too much fun writing -- and the idea sort of drifted away. 

I do keep a “morgue” or archive of photos out of mags for reference.  This is a good part of the world for that because often the best photos are in advertisements meant to make calves look good and there are articles discussing how and why they look that way.  But there’s nothing quite like having the real animal in your hands.  I love the narrow necks of calves and their big ears.  I love the way they fold up as they might have been inside their mothers, those long legs in a Z next to bodies and the front legs tucked under.  (I’m no good at making them standing up so my animals have to be lying down or standing in grass.  That way I don’t have to figure out an armature of wire inside.)

Bob Scriver liked everyone to do whatever he was doing, so when he made a sculpture he thought I should, too, and the materials and advice were close at hand.  My favorite thing was taxidermy eyes which I used on a sequence of paper mache puppets: a fox with glass fox eyes, a monster with big flat fish eyes, and so on.  The eyes make them come alive even if they’re only a blob.  Once I made a glass-eyed kitten lying on its back with its feet in the air, playing with something.  It was plastilene, which has an oil/wax base, so it would never have gotten hard, but a tourist lady saw it sitting around and asked to buy it.  She was crestfallen that it wasn’t sale-able.  Later I decided it looked more dead than playful -- eyes or no eyes -- and wadded it up, threw the eyes back into the eye drawer.  Or maybe it was a note in Bob’s voice.  He was fine with me making things -- selling it was different.

FIMO, SCULPY, and SUPER-SCULPY are exactly what we used to long for in those days: a substance that was as malleable as plastilene or even water-based clay, but that could be hardened without molds or kilns.  These polymer-based clays can be hardened at low temps in a kitchen oven.  They are a little bit problematic in two ways:  one is that the stuff needs to be prepared by kneading, especially if it’s a little old, and the other is that it’s so expensive that it’s not practical for large objects.  The hobby supply places sell it for dolls or jewelry. 

There are many magazines and books with advice about how to handle the stuff.  Like mold materials of lab-created products, which must be somehow similar, there are many variations: colors, degrees of softness, glow-in-the-dark, “flexy”, metallic, translucent, pearly and so on.  One kind will mix with another.  I always put a little pearly and translucent in my human figures.  I had tried a couple of small busts and left them with Jack Smith at his Mountain Man gallery up the street, ( but they didn’t sell.  Which was okay.  They weren’t particularly inspired.  I’d really rather write.

Then there was a death among Tim’s boys at Cinematheque in Paris that left us all struggling with emotion.  I tried to make a crucified boy but couldn’t bear to put him on a cross.  The cat killed a dove at that point (they nest in my tree) so I put its wings on the boy and sent it to Tim. 

The calf I’d once started kept looking at me with its black pin-head bead eyes.  Even earless it had personality.  So I began the Angus calf, making an aluminum foil core and working from photos.  The deal I made with Lorraine was that payment would include the first calf that died this spring so I could bring it home and measure it, look at it, photograph it, and -- well, okay -- maybe even commodify it into saleable figures.  The problem is that the King’s calves don’t die.  Just the same, in order to remember, Lorraine wrote on her kitchen whiteboard:  “Mary wants dead calf.”  Raleigh was stunned!  What on earth?  I think he understands by now.

If I get a dead calf, I’ll skin it to look at the muscles and salt the hide in case I have enough money to get it tanned.  In the old days, says Lorraine, they skinned a lot of calves because the hide could be used as a disguise for an orphaned calf so a bereft mother cow would accept it as her own.  But now they use a tranquilizer that makes the cow groggy and accepting.  Tanned calf hides used to sell briskly when Scriver Studio was still a taxidermy shop.

When I was a child, Walt Disney included the birth of a buffalo calf in “The Vanishing Prairie.” (It’s still vanishing.)  This was considered daring and innovative since it depicted one of the four taboos on mammal life:  birth, death, excretion and sex.  No one wanted to face all those questions about how the calf got in there in the first place.  People were off the farm now and didn’t want to remember shoveling manure.  Today on YouTube one can probably download human birth and probably even versions of “how the baby got in there.”  I didn’t look.

What I liked was bringing a bit of polymer clay (the calf is 3” X 5”) to life in my hands, an art birth.  I got the proportions about right, the legs and back in roughly the proper shapes, then the head -- ears last.  It was still only clay.  I took the little calf in my hands and gave it a twist.  Suddenly it was alive and looking at me.  I stuck on a red heart-shaped sequin eartag and painted a wet nose.  Raleigh will have to give it a name.  It’s his now.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Tim and I like each other’s writing and that’s a fact.  As time went on and we wrote to each other daily on the Internet, we liked each other’s writing even more.  We began to echo each other and even outsiders would say that we were both writing with more power and precision, each from our own place in the world, never meeting.  It was Tim’s idea for us to be co-writers in a call-and-response way but then it was my idea to compose a book of our messages back and forth,  “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.”  At the time Tim and the boys were in a warehouse in Amsterdam that was undermined with long tunnels for something or other.  They called them catacombs and put on a dance performance there with their primary dancer pressed into making the plaster skulls one needs for a catacomb. 

So I wasn’t the only one who thinking of the Christians hiding in the catacombs, but I was probably the only one who didn’t know that it was the name of a notorious gay leather bar in San Francisco.  I didn’t even know that my own name, Mary, is what some gays call each other -- which led to a certain amount of confusion.  But then once I sent a message to Kilian saying I had “copied” Tim with something and the boy who was tending the email that day saw it and thought I was admitting to plagiarizing Tim.  He went straightaway to Tim to demand that he break off with me at once!  Had I no morals?  I am not surprised at the strict standards coming from a boy at risk because of HIV infection due to sex work and/or drugs.  These boys stood back-to-back to protect each other and, most of all, Tim.  He was their rallying point, their flag, their rescuer.

In the early part of the twenty-tens, before we met, both Tim and I had written traditionally published books.  His were contracted, copyrighted, and paid to his own real name, but publicly identified as written under a pseudonym, Nasdijj.  Everyone was pleased to think he was half-Navajo.  Parallel to that, avascular necrosis was destroying Tim’s hips so he had to do some author appearances in a wheelchair.  The book money paid for hip replacement surgery.

At that time I was writing my biography of Bob Scriver who was also stalked by the identity police because of selling his family’s collection of Blackfeet artifacts to a Canadian museum for a million dollars.  The FBI had convinced Bob that AIM had targeted him and would burn him out.  I had been divorced from Bob for decades by then, but would have said his enemies were more likely to be white wheeler-dealers, and that did indeed prove to be the case when I tried to get “Bronze Inside and Out” published in the logical places.  I ended up doing what Bob had done: went north to Canada away from the grasping politics.  The book was published by the University of Calgary Press.  The wheeler/dealers have been saying it's not available, but you can buy it on Amazon.

By that time I had picked up a remaindered copy of “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” and loved it, though I saw this was NOT written by an Indian but was true to the reservation.  Tim had been labeled a hoax and the doors were shut on him.  But I knew some of his accusers.  The real hoax was their framing of him. 

In 2007 when I smarted off about Nasdijj in comments on an art blog, Tim saw it and contacted me directly.  “What are the names of your cats?” he asked, disarmingly.  He thought I was a little old lady English teacher.  Slowly I was drawn into his world of boys in a loft in Paris -- without leaving my Montana village.  He suggested we write together -- leaving my blog as mine to write, but joining him on his veritable library of blogs, rapidly becoming “vlogs” because the boys went out daily with video cameras to collect footage for complex layered images that took days to create.  The boys were suspicious of me, but Tim insisted they needed more contact with adult women, so there I was, Mary among the Marys.

It wasn’t adult women they needed: it was a chaplain.  Their lives were constantly threatened by contagion, accidents and despair.  Now and then one died.  Tim’s theory was to keep them moving so they couldn’t form dangerous connections, to keep them working on projects.  He took them on long walk-and-talks and sat with them in the hospital.  Much of his time went to the administrative tasks he learned from managing Headstart when he himself was barely out of high school, keeping together meals, clothes, and the crucial antiretrovirals as they went.  More than that, his questing nomadic life had given him trustworthy contacts all over the planet at every level.  He couldn’t prevent trouble.  Sometimes he could mitigate.

Once, I decided I wasn’t really needed and tried to withdraw.  The boys didn’t mind, but Tim was aghast.  So I went back, but he said never to do that again and I didn’t.  It’s remarkable that with all the friendships and love affairs and intense confrontations Tim has had, the ones who have turned bitter and vengeful are the exceptions.  Otherwise, even attachments from his old childhood “nabe” still endure.  The boys thought there would be a blowup between us any day -- but there never was.  On the other hand, I turned out to be a lousy agent for the two of us and never placed our book.  I’m still trying.

The publishers’ blacklisting enraged Tim, who marched outside their ramparts with his blog trumpet blasting them day after day. Gradually we realized his writing WAS published, right there on the screen, straight to the reader.  It was ePublishing.  No intermediary.  The walls of old-fashioned Manhattan publishing tumbled down like those at Jericho -- almost too quickly to understand.  The whole game was changed: not just the way of producing the object called a book, but also the business plan, the employment structure, the distribution and storage system, the regional salesmen, and the bookstores -- all .  Tim Barrus, even with AIDS and avascular necrosis, had outlived the system.

Barely.  It’s one day at a time now and we’re not really co-writing but the emails still fly back and forth, sometimes only a word or two.  Cinematheque has been put into a chrysalis state to protect the boys in uncertain times.  They govern and comfort each other now and I don’t talk to them, but think of them often.  Some have grown into men and left.  The Paris loft was emptied -- too dangerous these days -- and the boys have gone monastic -- they are in a bonded community removed to safety.

The deepest form of creation is one’s own life.  The truest generosity is to share it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Decades ago in Portland, Oregon, I attended a conference at Lewis and Clark Law School about exotic animal trafficking.  It is problematic because it strips the originating ecology of that animal and inserts the animal in an alien place where it can become a pest, dangerous, or destroyed.  A man was speaking about the difficulty of writing effective laws and I have never forgotten his advice.  “People are too alert about laws, which must be voted on and reviewed by courts.  The smart thing to do is to concentrate on regulations.  They are not voted on, they are controlled by administrators, easily changed, and too complex for anyone to monitor thoroughly.  That is, it’s hard to pass a law forbidding the importation of tigers, but it’s easy to create a set of regulations so restrictive that no one will want to bother with it.” 

Thus, my eye was caught by an analysis of the seven books (and counting) of Cass Sunstein, dubbed the “Regulatory Czar” or more formally the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Analysis (OIRA).  The piece is written by Joseph Postell, an assistant professor of political science at the U of Colorado on behalf of the Claremont Institute which announces itself “for the study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.”  In fact, it is conservative, right wing, and believes it is defending the original concepts in the US Constitution, particularly free trade.

Regulations, aside from the clever evasion of law, are increasingly problematic in two ways.  On the one hand no one wants to create the expensive machinery of inspectors and their oversight to ensure diligence and prevent corruption (which dependably never quite works in practice).  On the other hand, we have inadvertently developed a system of dueling regulations.  On the political left the regulations seek to create more fair and protective practices for more people (the greatest good for the greatest number) and on the right the regulations seek to protect trade advantages, the gradients that create profit in the name of “freedom” and hard work.

The interesting part of this argument from Mr. Postell is his suggestion of how political stances have developed.  He begins with “progressivism” which is my grandfather’s sort of Republican, that is, based on development usually supplied by engineering as the frontier was “developed” with dams, mines, universities, and transportation systems.  He was a white man, born and educated in Scotland, whose family immigrated to homestead in South Dakota and thought very little about displacing the indigenous people, who were already removed or there would have been no homesteads.  No one in his family smoked, drank, played cards, or slacked off.  They believed in family, Yankee ingenuity, cooperatives and Rodale.  Postell feels liberalism is a degenerate and redistributive version of this.

Postell feels that Sunstein is rejecting these classic values by citing deconstruction in a self-contradictory way.  Sunstein says “meaning is created rather than found” and “no text has meaning apart from the principles held by those who interpret it, and those principles cannot be found in the text itself.”  But he says, “This does not mean that all argument is manipulation or that good reasons cannot be offered on behalf of one view rather than another.”  I take Sunstein to be saying that it is necessary to step back far enough to examine one’s values, which Postell is reluctant to do.  He doesn’t want to admit that his basic values (profit and freedom) are in conflict with those of Sunstein (the greatest good for the greatest number). 

Postell’s idea of the goal of regulation by government is “to protect property rights and enforce contracts, . . . preserve markets and voluntary exchange of goods.”  He objects to the idea that government should “redistribute wealth from one person to another.”  That is, tax the rich to feed the poor, which he feels has become the practice of liberals who want health care and social security, etc.  He says “Sunstein has written that pragmatism is an approach to solving otherwise interminable questions about first things.”  Meaning values.  Instead of beginning with ontology (essential beginnings like the Constitution) Sunstein is going to teleology:  goals and results.  But he is not willing to use regulations in a repressive manner, and his desiderata are not the same as Postell’s.

The wonderful phrase “choice architecture” and less wonderful “libertarian paternalism” get thrown around, both of them coming out of consumer strategy.  The idea is to make it easy to choose what the regulator wants, often by NOT taking an action so that, for example, by default you accept a free trial but are billed for continuing service if you don’t cancel by the deadline.  Or by hiding consequences behind glowing versions of what you are getting.  (Gift VISA cards with many small fees for the user.)

An example belabored in this argument comes from the book called “Nudge.”  It has become obvious that people (many of them poor or kids) live on hamburgers and french fries at the expense of their health.  Bad health means higher social costs.  The right winger wants absolute freedom to keep on selling something so profitable as fast food.  The left winger works to get such food removed from schools or from food subsidies. The “Nudge” compromise is to require the restaurant to print the calorie counts of the foods on their menus.  Postell feels this is an imposition on the freedom of the food seller.  But he does not argue with health inspections to eliminate rats and roaches nor does he argue with TB screening for food handlers.  Would he argue with a requirement to serve only food produced in the United States?  Would anyone argue with the unenforceable requirement that all food handlers must wash their hands thoroughly before returning to work?

The strange part of all this is the passivity of so many citizens except when it comes to consumerism.  People (including kids and immigrants) often know amazing amounts of technical detail about what they buy, whether it’s drugs or washing machines, but know hardly anything at all about how a democracy operates.  Their passive choice IS “libertarian paternalism,” even if it means working in a bar sodden with lethal second-hand smoke.  Their passive choice is not voting, not attending meetings, not finding out the basic information they need for good health -- much less acting on it.  In fact, much of their consumer research is simply thrust upon them by advertising.  So why WOULD any intelligent, enterprising, progressive who only knows people like him or herself want to waste any effort on the lumpen masses?  Let them die.  If they don’t care, why should anyone else?  Now we're partly into religious values and partly facing the practical consequences of poor, desperate, suffering people -- which is social disorder and ultimately revolution. 

What are the differences among a nanny-state, a justified butt-kicking (forget nudging) government, or a fascist elite minority that makes sure all regulations cause the money to run into one corner of the table -- THEIR corner?   Can the difference be found sitting around a government conference table designing effective regulations while NGO’s huddle to push their own causes and across town the corporate lawyers meet to evade all restraints?  I’m skeptical.  Our ecology has changed.  Our value landscape is in turmoil.  Our laws and even our constitution are challenged.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The Strachans, Christmas 1946.  I'm next to my grandpa with Irene, my Christms doll.

You know about "air guitar," of course, that instrument that boys play so energetically in order to achieve the state of creation, that exalted state when people realize who you really are and fall back, big-eyed.  Or big-eared.  Whatever.

So I’m going to be an air memoirist.  Or maybe it will be an air novel because what it is the difference anyway if the publisher is also made of air, invisible, never there, only hypothetical.  This air memoir will be brilliant!  Who could prove it’s anything else anyway?

First of all, my childhood.  I really did have naturally curly red hair and too much imagination for one little girl, which is why I cried all the time, so that’s a cliche and cannot be included.  I lived in a rather ordinary neighborhood full of railroad and shipyard craftsmen, mostly first and second generation European immigrants.  The black people that Kaiser imported for his shipyards didn’t live in this neighborhood until after the Vanport flood.  They were a different kind of black people then anyway: very Southern rural and determined for their children to be achievers. 

There was a war.  It was a world war on the desperate dimensions of Lord of the Rings.  The world at war is what I think of as a norm.  People were very sad and tense because they had relatives who were in those newsreels we watched.  My aunt was an army nurse and  my uncle was a B-29 pilot.  My fourth grade teacher had been a sergeant.  My PE teacher was an amputee.  Why would a man with a wooden leg be a PE teacher?  But this is an air memoir.  What difference did it make?

Well, it did because of the movies.  “The River” was a movie about girls with naturally curly red hair who fall in love with amputees because they want to write air memoirs.  I have a video of it, but I really should reread the book. It’s not in “air,” it’s in print.  It’s of no use as a model because in those days publishers cherished their writers and Rumer Godden (her sister as well) were effective actual cherished novelists.  But English, which is different.

How was I supposed to know all this was stereotype and cliche and that scribbling females with naturally curly red hair have been around since long before Brenda Starr.  (The mutation for red hair is only about 500 years old, I’ve read.)   Never REALLY being true nor unique is sort of internally contradictory.  But that’s the nature of memoir:  that what a person remembers was never really there and certainly never unique.  The same genetically governed developmental processes unfold about the same ways unless the person dies and then they can write nothing.   More-or-less the same cultural forces create girls who think they are special.  If you pry into those forces, you will not necessarily find what you expect: often it is heartbreak.  Or maybe the British class system.

I suppose the point of a memoir is the relationship between the person and the culture, whether it is a merging with the status quo or a defiant revolution and who won at what cost or advantage.  So it has to span enough time to able to tell which it was and enough distance for the person to understand just what that culture is, what it does to the people who live in it.  Or maybe enough time to have escaped to some other time and place or enough time for the culture itself to change.  Or not. 

Families reposition internally as the cards of chance turn up.  The subtle change that has taken a long time to realize is the change in my father after his head injury in a car crash.  And then the change in my youngest brother after his head injury in a fall.  Quite obvious was the slide of the neighborhood from a quiet place of diligent people to a ghetto, a spawner of gangs, and how race played out in that.  But by then I’d removed myself to a reservation, another place where race and culture set up quandaries.

My biggest quandary was always love and that was an echo of a puzzled culture where the terms of sex changed daily.   I lived half in old books where love/commitment/fidelity was the point of existence and half in a real world where my mother (who had license to say what she thought) told me no one would ever marry me because of my selfishness and grandiose ideas.  I tried to be wicked and even have affairs, but I couldn’t stay interested.  Was that selfish or was that grandiose?  It was useful to a few men who got a lot of work out of me to their benefit.  Is there something wrong with that?

It meant that my economic life couldn’t depend on marriage, but then what did it depend on?  Through high school (a big solid recognized school in my day, only later to become a confusion, an imitation) I was told I was specially gifted but I never quite knew what that meant except that I was supposed to do well, so when I didn’t, whose fault was that?  Suspecting it was mine, I tried to confuse the issue with goofiness and eccentricity which succeeded pretty well.

The ministry was a labyrinth.  I never flew up to success.  I drove along parallel.  I carried my books back and forth, so many books that I damaged my back.  My mother resented that I went into an intellectual place she didn’t understand except that it meant I escaped her.  Exactly.  My ivory tower.  Possibly an air tower.

In the end one third of her house was a gift allowing me freedom at last in a flimsy old house in a village back with the Blackfeet.  I wrote a first book, found a publisher in another country just as publishing exploded and lay in electronic ruins. 

Out of that came the deepest and most unlikely friendship, a co-writer and image maker more daring and wicked than I could hope to be and yet someone with steely integrity also beyond mine.  A man who wrote true memoir, labeled hoax, then fiction, then a new kind of writing in image and poetry.  That's Tim Barrus, dying but intimate, and his guyz, gripped in the rending vice of culture.  Vice in both senses.  All their senses in the confusion of survival.  They’re getting a lot of work out of me to my benefit.  I have reached the stage of creation.  Better stand back.

Monday, December 27, 2010

ALAN A. RYAN (1936 - 2010)

 From the Great Falls Tribune

SUNBURST.  Alan A. Ryan, 74, of Sunburst, a longtime educator, former county commissioner and Navy veteran, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home.

Memorial service with full military honors is 2 PM Monday at Sunburst Lutheran Church, followed by a reception for family and friends. Burial will take place at a later date. 

Alan was born January 26, 1936, in Havre, to Oscar and Lea (Steeland) Ryan.  He spent his first years on a ranch near Chinook.  His family moved to Havre during his elementary years.  After graduating from Havre High School, he enlisted in the Navy, and served four years.  Much of his time was spent at the U.S. Naval Radio Station of Garrigada, Guam.  When honorably discharged on March 20, 1958, he returned to Havre to attend college.  He earned his degree in science and mathematics from Northern Montana College, and a Masters of Science in chemistry and mathematics from New Mexico Highlands University.  He also received his administrative degree from Montana State University in Bozeman.

He met his wife, Joyce Boyum, while attending Northern Montana College.  They were married Sept. 17, 1960, at the First Lutheran Church in Havre.  Alan and Joyce celebrated their 50th anniversary in September at the Sunburst Lutheran Parish Hall, with many friends and relatives attending.

He taught science and math in Cut Bank and Browning High Schools and later became the finance director for Browning Public Schools.  In 1976 he became the superintendent of North Toole County Schools, and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1994.

Some of his professional memberships included the American Association of School Administrators, Phi Kappa Delta, Association of School Business Officials, Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion and Church Council Presiden of Sunburst Lutheran Church.

Alan was a devoted husband, father and grandpa.  He also had a deep Christian faith.  he was a supportive husband and a great companion for his wife.  He enjoyed taking her for rides in the country or just around town to see the sights.  He enjoying watching and listening to any sports his grandkids were playing, and was their proudest cheerleader.  His family meant everything to him.

Alan’s hobbies included ranching, training horses, riding, golfing, reading, snowmobiling, camping, playing cards, and enjoying pie and coffee with his friends.

Alan had a contagious laugh.  He was always known for his practical jokes and putting a smile on your face.  He was very proud to get his last driver’s license.  He fought several long-term illnesses and was a positive man to the end.

Survivors include his wife, Joyce, of Sunburst; son Dave (Kristen) Ryan of Sunburst, daughter Amy (Ron) Walker of Edina, Minn; grandchildren Andy and Katara Ryan of Sunburst; and Ben, Bailey, Jack, Sammy and Izzy Walker of Edina, Minn; sister Barbara Gallup of East Glacier; as well as many loving nieces and nephews.

Alan was preceded in death by his parents; his sister, Jane; and two infant brothers.

When I moved back ten years ago, I went looking for Alan but missed him several times and decided he didn’t really want to talk over old times anyway.  That was probably a mistake.  Way back in the spring of 1971 when I was briefly the PR person for School District #9 (a very inept one because I still hadn’t learned that PR is meant to address the complaints, not the problems), Alan was the financial officer.  I was classified as “administrative” for those few months, which meant that my little corner was in the then-new administrative building, so I was around Alan quite a bit that spring.  Everything his obit says is absolutely true.  He was a sterling character, a true Jimmy Stewart, laid-back and conscientious at once, and formidably intelligent without being overbearing..

I always had the impression that he’d been a prisoner of war in Korea and had been tortured, but maybe not.  I got the idea from a recurrent dream he had that he told us in his musing and humorous way during a coffee break.  The idea was that he was lying on his back on a table, immovable, and that an endless line of Korean soldiers was filing past, each putting a pebble on his chest, until he couldn’t breathe and was finally crushed.  I guess that might really have been about heart/lung problems, but he never at all complained about his health.  I see from his photo in the 1972 Etaikasi (BHS yearbook) that he was a smoker.  Still, the dream is such a vivid and recognizable sort of feeling that I’ve thought of it and recounted it many times since.

At 71 a person begins to see contemporaries die.  Grant Gallup, who has “gone on ahead,” was Alan’s brother-in-law.  I had thought the two men married red-haired sisters and that there were more of them, one who married a judge.  I was going to invent a novel about those sisters, sort of “Mitfords on the High Line.”  Maybe I will yet.  I see Barbara Gallup when I preach for the Browning Methodists.   Grant, a fiery and iconoclastic guy, would make a great subject for a novel, but maybe I should think about Alan more:  the friendly man who sits in the cafe with his coffee and pie, listening to people’s problems, taking them on as if they were his own, and finding solutions.  Church problems, school problems, county problems and always that cheerful laugh as he figured them out, maybe writing numbers on a napkin.  To be married that long, to be a superintendent that long, takes enormous focus and a certain amount of forgiveness for fools.  Most people never really figure out the core of things and when they make a big tangle of it, they just leave.  Alan was neither trivial nor shallow, at least from what I saw.  I never saw him get resentful or even angry.

I was looking at something not long ago that traced the family relationships among white business people in Browning in the Sixties and early Seventies.  It was a relatively stable time, the period in which today’s Blackfeet leaders were growing up.  The saddle-maker/jeweler and the postmaster were twins and the daughter of one of them married the photographer’s son.  The wife of one was sister to Phil Ward, the superintendent.  Joe Lewis ran the cafe (now slid down to being Ick’s) and originally commissioned Albert Racine to paint Napi on the building, eating a short stack and scarfing down pie.  The Greco brothers ran the drug store and the bakery.   What I hadn’t realized was how many of them were Mormons.  All gone now and so is their church.  Browning is no longer a white town.  Today the businesses and the school system are managed by Blackfeet, which I take to be a sign of success and progress.  I think that of all people, Alan Ryan would agree and be pleased to know he helped make that shift, not by creating uproar and confrontation, but by quietly solving the problems.  He was what is meant when people say, “A pillar of society.”  If you can imagine a laughing pillar.

Sunday, December 26, 2010



Melting snow had frozen when the sun went down, so that the church on its side-hill slope was like a castle on a glass hill in a fairytale where the hero needs a horse with spiked shoes.  I was struggling to sidle from one clump of sticking-out weeds to another, when suddenly two hands planted themselves firmly on my butt and propelled me right on up to the door.  I turned around to find Angie Howe and her mother, Donna, the home ec teacher, laughing and panting beside me.  It was Angie who had decided I needed help.  We went in the door pink-cheeked and wreathed in good will.

The Catholic church in Heart Butte was an old one for this part of the country.  It was stuccoed concrete over logs, with buttresses to keep the walls from bowing outward, and had an emerald green door which peeled  between repaintings.  It was a mission church, which had been maintained by devoted Jesuit priests and Ursuline nuns.  I chose a corner seat over to the right rear, mostly because that is always my tendency, but also because the two other times I had come to this church-- once for Mass and once for a funeral -- I had sat in that place and human beings are creatures of habit.
Bob Scriver had worked on the statue of Virgin Mary in the adjacent graveyard.  I felt that gave me some legitimacy.  I knew Father Dan Powers would not object to my presence.  Recently I had attended his Mass at Holy Family Mission and afterwards shook hands with Carl Cree Medicine, who used to work for us.  Tonight, as near as I could tell, the only white people present were myself, the priest (who has grown braids as a sign of joining the people) and Sister Edna, who is also a blood sister to Bishop Hunthausen, known as the Peace Bishop.  Donna Howe is Blackfeet, married to a Crow.

The funeral I had attended here was for Carl Cree Medicine's son, Butch.  When I had last seen the young man he had been a toddler clutching Carl's long leg.  Barely adult, Butch was killed by a young white drifter, high on drugs which they may have been sharing.  The killer, at the wheel of Butch's pickup, shot the Blackfeet boy as he sat on the passenger side.  When a Highway Patrol officer named Mary Pat pulled the weaving pickup over, expecting a drunk, she also was shot point blank but survived.  The case got a lot of attention, mostly focussed on Mary Pat.   Father Dan had begun the funeral by sprinkling us all with Holy Water from a twig of sweet pine.

This Christmas Midnight Mass began, as usual, a little late.  (One of the first cultural differences whites generally notice is often called "Indian Time," which means things are done when all is ready -- not according to a clock.)  The sanctuary was painted peach and the windows were merely frosted, not stained glass.  But the Stations of the Cross hung in place.  In the front at the right was a kind of grotto for the créche, formed of Christmas tree and branches.  On the left was a pastel plaster statue of the Virgin Mary.  In back was a country music band around an electric piano.  Someone played the flute and someone else the fiddle, while the piano player sang softly into a microphone.  Father came in and out the door at the back of a partitioned corner at the right which led across the path to his house.  Another partitioning on the left was only storage.  When the crowd began to gather in earnest, Father gathered his vestments out of that corner, and calmly put them on in our plain view.  The chasuble was a brilliant red with the Latin for "kairos" (the transcendent moment which contrasts with "chronos" or ordinary time), in a gilt pattern on the front.

People came in breathless, dipped fingertips in water, crossed themselves, chose a pew, genuflected before entering and knelt to pray quietly-- the pattern is old and natural.  It was I who seemed stiff and resistant, just sitting in my Protestant way.  I began to be aware that my fancy lined boots smelled of mothballs.  Gradually more people came until the room was full and we were praying and singing together, melded into a real congregation. 

Father's sermon was just a story but a true one, he said.  It was 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 though the boy, who was older, tried hard to take good care of his sister, on Christmas Eve they felt they could stay alone no longer and resolved to go to the neighbors.  Reservation neighbors will always take you in.  There was no phone and the nearest neighbor was five miles away.  It was very cold and the snow was deep.  But they wrapped up and set out together. 

The little girl, who had been the most ill, began to falter after a couple of miles, but the boy urged her on.  At last she said she could not go farther.  He tried to carry her, but could not make much headway in the snow.  Then she died there in his arms on that cold snowy night. 

Years later this boy had still not recovered.  Now it was he who drank too much and could not stop.  But it gave him no comfort, for he was always haunted.  He behaved badly.  Somehow on a Christmas Eve he found himself back near the same place where his sister had died.  He was drunk and he fell in the snow.

Instead of dying, he had a vision.  His sister came to speak to him.  She was standing with Jesus and she told him she was happy and wanted him to be happy, too.  She told him to go from house to house until he found a home where there was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.  He was to stay with that family and to get well, to stop drinking, to make something of himself.  The vision faded and the young man hitch-hiked back to town.  He did go door-to-door and he found the family, who welcomed him.  And he did stop drinking.  Now he is married and has babies of his own.  If anyone comes to him wanting to stop their bad ways, he lets them stay and helps them.

Father named the man and we all knew him-- or so we felt.  The story seemed true.  Two years later, Father confessed to me that he had made it all up, but that he had been divinely inspired, not knowing what he was going to say next, just working to stay open to it.  It didn't matter.  The story pointed the way to salvation.

It was time for Communion and people went forward reverently.  Two women and one man, a tall and dignified Indian rancher, offered the wine and blessed wafers.  One of the women was the Indian clerk of the school district.  I sat quietly abstaining, praying, half-dreaming.  The band sang softly, both Christmas carols and the usual country gospel church ballads.

When it was time to go back out over the threshold, the men stood spaced out and handed us along across the ice.  Ungloved, I went from one large, dry, strong hand to another.  People paused to wish 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 swish, but their smell enveloped us. 

I had parked away from the church, down by the cemetery, so that I wouldn't be trapped in the crowd leaving the mass.  From a little distance the small church on the hill was archetypal: it could have been anywhere, maybe in Poland or China or Paraguay .  The voices of the people rang and echoed like bells.  Human experience united us.

(From a manuscript called  "Heartbreak Butte" by Mary Strachan Scriver)

Saturday, December 25, 2010


The quote below comes from my Netherlands friend, the poet and psychiatric nurse Aad de Gides.  (He is not “English as a Second Language,” but maybe as Fourth or Fifth Language and I find the irregularities charming, so will not edit.)

ungraspable suffering rains through the human affairs.easily this could be a core
denominator for the human condition.maybe paradoxically we should say,where
we tend to think every diminishment of suffering is beneficial,we haven’t suffered
enough.maybe with this charging thought we approach the realms of belief.also
would i like to add that my aim of this text is to hold no boundaries to come to some kind of basic feeling for and understanding of,suffering.

My movie last night (a strange choice for Christmas Eve) was “Requiem for a Dream” which traces the trajectories of various addictions in a small group of people who live near Coney Island.  In an “extra” on the back of the disc the author, a thin, battered and hard-luck guy named Hubert Selby Jr., was interviewed by Ellen Burstyn   He explained:  “People have pain and the pain should make them pay attention.  That’s what it’s for.  But instead they deny it and ignore it and never do anything about it and then it begins to be suffering.  Terrible suffering.” 

The part of Aad’s poem that I’m after is the “aim . . . to hold no boundaries to come to some kind of basic feeling for and understanding of, suffering.”  It would seem to be a religious quest. 

One of the more interesting public figures who speaks about religion is Karen Armstrong.   She is a writer who often addresses  comparative religion, especially the current Christianity/Islam opposition.  You can see her on these vids.

Her agenda in these specific vids is a little “pop,” kind of Hallmarkian, but I think that is fault of the book (or in this case “vook”) marketers rather than Karen, who was once a nun and has struggled with epilepsy, both of which pushed her to recognize her pain.  I wanted to hear more about the idea that “religious dogma” got so important in the 19th century when everyone was rushing around listing and defining and sorting life.  Why was that?  You won’t find it in these vids.

The point of my post here is that compassion is the one pressing reason to shift the crux of religion away from preserving the individual, or even the group, back to an autochthonous (derived from experience of the local land) consciousness of the interwovenness of all existence that is being rediscovered by cutting edge science.  Blackfeet took it for granted that everything was connected, unfolded out of everything else, always preserving the possibility of holy power in ordinary things. 

One does not find all that much compassion out of doing small favors for others or even from “doing unto others what would want done to oneself.”  I always remember Julian Huxley or Shaw -- one of those dry English types -- asking,  “What if you are a liver fluke?”  Or more simply, you might enjoy a nice fry-up of bacon and coffee, but what about your Mormon or Jewish friend?  What about your grannie whose doctor has forbidden both?  Compassion is not compassion unless it is accompanied by empathy, an ability to see through the eyes of the other.

But we don’t really want to do that.  Why?  Why are we so stubborn and crippled about understanding the “other” whether it is someone who looks different or speaks a different language or does things you would never do?  Why are we afraid of those who suffer?

The Abramic religions (descended from Abraham:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam) formed at a time when being tribal was a given and creating a walled city to protect prosperity was the very definition of the salvation of a tribe newly dependent on agriculture.  The group was what counted and to keep the group together, their “chosenness” was emphasized, conformity was important, and beliefs-in-common nearly defined them.  This was a time when newly domesticated animals were allowing species-jumping disease to spread things like smallpox and diseased people could only be guarded against by excluding them, since there was no treatment.

For Christians the idea was that going by the rules would get a person into the Kingdom of Heaven, through the Pearly Gates, admission monitored by that desk clerk, St. Peter, who indicated thumbs-up, thumbs-down Roman style.  Paul wrote letters about it all the time:  the ones the exclusionists quote today.

I’m not aware enough of the history of Asian society to understand how those people developed in a different way, just that somehow they concluded that suffering is everywhere, inevitable and deeply in the nature of life itself.  They connected suffering with longing and desire, and therefore concluded that the best strategy was acceptance of one’s lot and withdrawal from all desire.  Even as Karen Armstrong urges us to reach out to everyone else, Buddha was advising withdrawal into meditation, though he also endorsed a version of the Golden Rule.

Hubert Selby Jr. was on a slightly different path.  (He is gone now, without founding a religion, though he felt very spiritual.)  His idea was that if you recognize your own pain and extend it into an awareness of universal suffering, then you will break through the walls.  Modern science takes that even further.  All of existence is connected to everything else, even the past and future.  What seems like something new, even the birth of Jesus, is only a recurrence of something that has already happened again and again and will continue to do so always.  There is nothing new, only transformation, one thing coming out of everything else, molecule by molecule.

To many of us change is painful, even as we yearn for something different and suffer for lack of it.  But if we are aware of the suffering of others, we will not begrudge the changes that help them, perhaps something so simple as no longer buying long-stemmed red roses.  (Raising them industrially destroys the land, diverts it from growing food, and chemically injures the workers.)  No matter how pretty and traditional it is, we will always be stripping the conventional -- a bouquet of red roses for the diva or lover -- always raising our consciousness.  Do unto others what is best for all existence.  Whoever suffers is healed by understanding.  To deny suffering is to deny each other.

Friday, December 24, 2010


This blog post is more like a true web-log, drawn mostly from the links on Arts Journal’s blog called “Life’s a Pitch,” a review of the music world.

The Sacramento Choral Society was holding what police called a "well-publicized" event to sing the "Hallelujah Chorus" in the mall's food court, scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
But less than an hour beforehand, too many people had crowded into the mall.  The police had to evacuate them.   Turns out, the free performance was a bit too well-publicized.

A comment by Maren Montalbano gives background.  "The Hallelujah chorus flash mob idea started in Philadelphia, when the Opera Company of Philadelphia produced a "Random Act of Culture" at Macy's on October 30. Ever since then, there have been dozens of groups pulling off similar things all over the continent, which is incredibly exciting! It's just too bad that things in Sacramento got so crazy."

The Opera Company of Philadelphia video can be found here:

What Philadelphia understood and Sacramento did not was that the idea of a “flash mob” is for the people who are in on the deal to keep it a secret, using cell phone technology to suddenly appear somewhere at the same time for some purpose.  When you see the Phillie tape, you understand how astounded everyone not "in the know" was -- the astonishment was part of the performance.  Self-promotion was not the deal.

Go to “Life’s a Pitch” for the rest of the links.

Of course, if the event could publicize the singing group, PR folks were quick to understand that it could just as easily publicize the location and Nordstrom leapt right to it.  Seattle is Microsoft country, a kind of flash mob for the last decade, all seeking commodification, so  Seattle Symphony Music Director Gerard Schwarz joined forces with Nordstrom to present a version of the Hallelujah Chorus themselves. The performance involved the Seattle Symphony Chorale and over 500 local singers. There's a video linked at “Life’s a Pitch.”

Almost immediately a sit com picked up the "flash mob" idea (this time it's dance and a gay theme is woven in): Modern Family is the sit com.  Linked at "Life's a Pitch."

Then inevitably Messiah became a Nordstrom franchise and there were performances in Santa Anita, California with the LA Master Chorale, and in Dallas, Texas with the Dallas Bach Society. Who knew Nordstrom was such a supporter of random acts of song?  Santa Anita and Dallas are linked from “Life’s a Pitch.”  You CAN go direct to YouTube which has enough versions and discussions to crowd a shopping mall.

The best comments were appended by readers to “Life’s a Pitch.”

By carol:
Whatever brings music into the public domain is a big plus. Audiences for classical music and opera have become almost uniformly gray-haired. Exposure like this is bound to enlighten people and build appreciation for the glories of Western civ.

By Zachary:
I can't help but be reminded of The Messiah, a film by French photographer Willy Ronis. In the film he juxtaposes a production of Haendel's work with images from prisons, Vegas, poverty, Wall Street, and the text of the work which takes on entirely new meanings...America's hypocrisies and suffering against one of the cornerstones of Western creation. How is it that such a wonderful composition now finds its audience, AND performers in...a shopping mall at Christmas? Perhaps I'm playing the role of Scrooge here but I am far less charmed by these events than others may be in terms of potential cultural behavior and "consummation."

So there are your issues:  is the ultimate consideration raising consciousness about the glories of music like this  or should the music be celebrated in the context of social action, the enormous shortfall between what we pretend we are doing and what we are actually achieving -- or even trying to achieve.  NPR, always conscientious, tries to do both and has been pointing out how much of our Christmas silliness is rooted in 19th century bourgeois commodification that wiped out the Puritan idea of Christmas as a time of repentance and fasting, a dark turn of the year when we beg for forgiveness instead of trying to “commodify” the lives of those who don’t have enough the rest of the year.

Here are some wiki facts for you to drop into the conversation at Christmas parties.

"Messiah is an English-language oratorio composed by George Frideric Handel, and is one of the most popular works in the Western choral literature. The libretto by Charles Jennens is drawn entirely from the King James and Great Bibles, and interprets the Christian doctrine of the Messiah. Messiah (often but incorrectly called The Messiah) is one of Handel's most famous works. The Messiah sing-alongs now common at Christmas usually consist of only the first of the oratorio's three parts, with Hallelujah (originally concluding the second part) replacing His Yoke is Easy in the first part.

"Composed in London during the summer of 1741 and premiered in Dublin, Ireland on 13 April 1742, it was repeatedly revised by Handel, reaching its most familiar version in the performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital in 1754. In 1789 Mozart orchestrated a German version of the work; his added woodwind parts, and the edition by Ebenezer Prout, were commonly heard until the mid-20th century and the rise of historically informed performance."

So, the music has been entwined from the beginning with benefits for the poor.  What could be wrong with that?  Oh, I suppose the biggest problem is that it’s a celebration of white male Euro stuff, on which axis much of Victorian middle class life turned, conveniently dropping out the Irish.  The Unitarian Universalist churches that I served loved the Messiah -- they ignored the dogma in the lyrics which are from the King James Bible.  You could do the same.

Slightly abridged alternative Messiah lyrics (not for NPR)  from

Move out the way when I'm passin' through
I got heads to the front an' the back of you
I got the world in my hands, you can have it too
I got two middle fingers an' they're pointin' at you

I'm the Messiah, I'm anti-celebrity
I'm anti-war like John Lennon in the seventies
Dead Celebs are movin', you're the students
It's time to change the world, kids, here's the blueprint

Somethin' 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'
Like Kurt Cobain's ghost came back an' wrote these lyrics
An' forced America to listen
With a million angry Misfits screamin', "Fuck The System”

I'm the pain in Axle Rose's diary
That's why an 'Appetite For Destruction' lives inside of me
I'm not your typical lyricist
Strippin' naked an' sellin' on appearances

This is for those who came to tackle giants
This is the anthem, 'David versus Goliath'
I'm so sick of bein' caught up in your sideshow
I'm the anti-American Teen Idol

I spread peace through a pen like Bob Dylan
An' crash the set of Popstars while it's filmin'
Expose foes for lies an' propaganda
Like dirty cops swingin' batons on camera

Let's march up these steps an' face the fire
Scratch a match an' burn this empire down
So let the games begin
You either turn with the world or you watch it spin

An' if your dreams were stolen by a liar
Then steal it back with your name as Winona Ryder
Don't be afraid, be stronger divide an' conquer
Come out swingin' like Ozzfest concerts

Time's up, I'm callin' you to rise up
No more walkin' blind with your eyes shut
Find the message hidden in these chapters
Like Black Sabbath records playing backwards

I wait for this like it's a violent game
A cross between Grand Theft Auto an' Max Payne
I'm the magic in the hands of David Blaine
Turnin' back time to the days when [Incomprehensible]

Along came a spider spinning webs of hatred
Welcome to the wonderful world of entertainment
Where stars are born an' celebrities tell lies
The revolution will now be televised

I haven’t tried to sing this with Handel's music.  I mostly just sing “hallelujah.”  Because, indeed, new things are born all the time whether or not they’re bought and sold.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


I told my friend Tim a funny story about camel drivers.  I had no idea how apt it is.  The drivers put a pebble in the uterus of a camel they are using for a long trip so they won’t get pregnant, a sort of primitive IUD.  This camel driver lifted up the tail of his camel to make sure it had a pebble (you can imagine the moaning protest) and was startled to see an eye staring back at him.  In the end it turned out that some high-tech driver had put a shiny ball bearing in there.  It was highly reflective.

But the eerie feeling that camel driver had for a few minutes is going to be creeping up on a lot of internet creeps when they realize that they are no longer secret.  Transparency has found the masses.  Us ball bearings are reflecting on who’s peering under the camel’s tail.  Google Metrics, which was designed to tell merchants who was hitting their websites (by url, not by name) and where they lingered longest, is now revealing bullies and hackers and stalkers.  This will change society far more than any Wikileak, but it will be one little epiphany at a time, not a huge data dump of international tipi creeping.   Big changes often come through the accumulation of small changes.  Partly this will be because the object of a malicious post will be VERY interested in finding out who is sending it and might even have a few real life clues.  This is quite unlike the huge accumulations of vaguely relevant material and occasionally scary info sucked up in Wikileaks.

I’ve said many times that in circumstances where money doesn’t matter, either because of too much of it or none of it, then secrecy becomes a kind of currency.  But a secret is worth nothing unless you know where to tell it and when.  It’s like any other kind of value gradient:  acquire at low cost/risk, sell at high cost/risk, but you don’t necessarily need recompense in money.  Privilege will do.  Control, power, status.  And again, it is like an object with value -- you have to keep it a secret.  And you have to “handle” that secret, which means that it can’t throw your own internal emotions and sense of reality off base.  What if you really knew a dangerous secret: a suicide bomber, the end of the world, a fatal crack in the fuel tank of a moon rocket -- could you handle the truth?  What would you do?  Would you know whom to tell?  Possibly the most marketable secret of all is the true identity of who knows the secrets and how they got them in the first place.  The first rule of merchandise is acquiring it and the second rule is keeping where and how a secret.

There is another angle to being able to handle the truth.  It is related to stigma, which controls the value of the secret. If there is no stigma attached to being born out of wedlock or being gay or having had an affair while married, then there is no need for secrecy.  Scandal and extortion dwindle daily as we grow more and more accustomed to knowing things about each other.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell” gave too much value to secrets, until the value began to distort lives.  Still, some people can’t handle the truth.  Why should we be forced into pretense to spare their feelings?  Why can’t they grow up? 

But some are busy trying to stigmatize more and more things, trying to build a scandal around the secrets they know -- often fairly obvious things that we pretend do not exist.  What do we make of assertions that one third of women on reservations have been abused?  Do we deny it?  Do we imply it’s because they deserve it, maybe because they are Indians (and use words like “squaw” to carry that idea)?  Do we say that happens to ALL women or do we assume that Indian women are a targeted population, justifiably paranoid?   Do we say “this is NOT normal!  What’s happening?”  Or do we say “Clearly law enforcement, counseling, refuge houses, and a publicity campaign all need to be funded?”  Then do we pull out who has done what to whom, or do we declare amnesty but say,  “in future all offenders must register where they live.”  Thus spawning more secrets.

Some people associate secrecy with security:  hiding your money means it is safe.  Other people think that by keeping symptoms secret they can successfully deny a disease or injury, so my great-grandmother died of breast cancer which she hid until it was too late and the abscess began to smell.  At the time cancer was considered a punishment, a stigmata.

Secrecy in the sense of mystery, like patented ingredients in treats or meds, can be either alluring or threatening.  How do you know what is safe?   And what about the allure of the Great Mystery of Life which charlatans exploit by claiming that they are the only ones who Really Know, but will tell you -- for a price.  Maybe just the price of a movie ticket to watch a movie star become dazzled by number puzzles and strange icons from the Masonic tradition.

Secrets always purport to be truth, but how do you know that’s what they are?  Who guarantees secrets?  Who fact checks them?  They wouldn’t be secrets anymore, would they?  Can you trust a Wiki?  Esp. if it is covertly controlled (edited) by parties invested in either building up or tearing down?  Isn’t that covert control a deeper level of secret than what is “revealed” in the wiki post?

On  the Third Force heavy hitter thinkers have been talking to Danny Hillis about all this stuff.  (If I had to be stranded on a desert island with someone, let it be Danny Hillis!)  What I’m getting out of the discussion so far is that equally relevant to our society’s right to know everything because it is a democracy, is our own obligation to handle secrets intelligently when they are told and to tolerate those that ought to be kept secret out of practicality (military strategy) or compassion (your mother hates your guts).  We need educations that give us context and principles for sorting what out matters from what does not. 

The real secret of murder is not who murdered whom and exactly how -- it is why humans murder at all, which is a secret that seems to be a big ball bearing looking back at us from under the camel’s tail.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


The elephant has pockets.  I’m thinking about Republicans but also about that parable we hear everywhere now, the one about the blind men trying to figure out the beast, each of them finding something different:  a rope, a tree, a fan, a garden hose.    But there are pockets that the blind men’s seeking hands never touch.  Even so small a village as this one is so many different things to different people.

My internet connection has been breaking off every afternoon about 3PM until late in the evening -- maybe 10PM.  It’s not a disaster for me because most of my emailing is first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night.  My writing partners are on the east coast and Europe where the time zones are quite different.  I’ve been hypothesizing that it is congestion caused by the school kids getting online to chat and do homework, but one local person pointed out that the hours also coincided with the east coast closing down their day and transmitted big data loads.  We have a LOT of federal entities in Montana.  We may be getting bumped off at a much higher level than our own backyards. 

I went scouting around only to discover that the rich people here have wireless and the poor people don’t even have computers.  My DSL connector is showing all the wireless people when they go online, as though were were all sitting in Starbucks.  They don’t seem to know or care.  Few were aware that corporate forces have just captured the FCC in their new rules about freedom of the Internet.

Last night I went to the town council meeting, as I always do, and asked to be put on the agenda.  “Oh, no,” said Marie Antoinette, the mayor.  “You have to apply 24 hours ahead in order to be on the agenda.”   Huh?  New rule.  Then some back-pedaling -- did I want some kind of action?  No, I just wanted to report what I knew about this internet access problem.  “That’s not our problem,” said MA.  “That’s the telephone company.  I went to wireless.”  She’s soooo much more au courant than the rest of us.  (She’s from Microsoft country over there by Seattle and was once the world’s authority on a piece of software now defunct.)
“Would you like some candy, Mary?”  
“I’m diabetic.”  
“But it’s wonderful hand-dipped specially made truffles!”  
“Are you deaf?  I’m diabetic!”  
“Diabetes is an epidemic in our community.”  
"We can't push sweets at meetings anymore."

I made my report.  No one had a comment.  They were worried about snowplow protocol.  At exactly what time should the city employees arise to plow if the snow is 2” or 4” or . . . and what exact route should they take?  And who will knock on the plow drivers’ doors to alert them to snow height?  MA has prepared a detailed plan.  She has little idea who gets up when to work where, where the school buses go, which are the most-traveled routes, etc. 

The sheriff’s deputy on the council had an idea about plowing the snow to the middle of the widest streets instead of berming in everyone’s driveway.  Much discussion about whether the plow should be required to open everyone’s driveway.  At least they weren’t insisting on us shoveling our sidewalks (major issue in Great Falls) since a) there is NO sidewalk in many places and b) the sidewalks end up under a four-foot berm of snow-turned-to-ice.  One look at the plow driver’s face and you knew he was going to do what he always does anyway:  what’s possible and what works.  The day before the meeting the two employees had been required to watch an OSHA safety film about how to plow streets without running over dogs and little old ladies.  The exasperation is palpable.

The second issue that came up was taking back the airport, which is legal county property, because it is prime lakefront land and if people built fine houses there (the kind of people we like and want to associate with -- like RICH people), our tax base would be much improved (as well as our social status).  Why is the airport there anyway, they asked. 

First, you have to know this lake is an irrigation impoundment rather than a natural lake and that the canal company that owns it could drain it anytime they wanted to.

Second, this is not a lovely sand beach.  When the water is low (often, late in the season, there is mud.

Third. the mountain view is thirty miles away and rather low on the horizon.

Fourth, there are far more splendid places closer to the mountains -- accessible by rich people who own airplanes but they can't land here if there’s no airport.

Fifth, if there were no airport, the fine houses would be looking at cheek-by-jowl trailer and RV parking in the campground.

Sixth, this airport was built as an emergency landing strip during WII and the “Lighthouse” for which our excellent eating establishment is named was originally the airport beacon.  The airport itself needed the lake as an orienting landmark.

Seventh, though those present believe the airport is not being used much, my ears tell me differently, even now that the crop-duster and his poisons have moved out into the country. 

Eighth, in the notorious flood of 1964, the airport was underwater.

Ninth, this is not a “rich person’s” treasure.  It is a geezer lake where fish are planted so someone sitting in a boat or an ice house can catch them.  (Rich people fly fish in streams.)

Tenth, just across the lake is a Hutterite pig farm, whose lagoon once broke and emptied into the lake, which is the water supply for the county seat, Conrad, though when the lake is low they pretty much suck mud.

Delusions of grandeur are not surprising when things get tough, but the truth is that this year Montana had the best grain and hay crop of any for a very long time.  Beef prices are up.  People here are building on to their small houses.  They are too busy to attend the town council meetings.  Why do I go?  I sometimes claim the idea of being a public philosopher, but the truth is that I’m acting more like a community minister.  Yesterday I typed up all the information I’d found out, complete with persons who need to be contacted in order for them to have the evidence they need for upgrading the system.  (Some pretty competent and enlightened people, I must say!)  I handed my document around to places I thought it would do some good.

Marie Antoinette has taken up daily residence in our village office.  She does not see her constituency as being the population of the village and its surrounds.  She sees herself as an enforcer of rules, like any good corporate officer.  I have a larger concept in mind.  The problem is not MA.  It is that the elephant has lost its memory and is settling for peanuts when it could have the freedom of the veldt.   But you have to show up at the circus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


In spite of all else, I still enjoy the good old post WWII cowboy tales, politically incorrect as they may be.  They are preserved and extended at the website called The material below is quoted with permission from that source.  I had to strip out the portraits and book jackets.


Each week, great western short stories and cowboy poetry are posted onto the Rope and Wire website. This is where you will also find dozens of your favorite old western movies along with interviews from current western authors and so much more.

The winners of the very first Rope and Wire Western Short Story Competition have been officially announced.
All of the judges agree that the stories submitted to this year's competition were all very good. So good in fact, it was a close call between many of them. . . . none of the judges knew who the others were until the winners were posted onto the Rope and Wire website. As it should be, and how it will be again next year when we host our second annual western short story competition.

I'm sure everyone is excited to read the results, but first, let me introduce you to the three judges who put so much of their time and effort into making this competition such a success.

Preliminary Judge, James J. Griffin

While a native New Englander, Jim has been a student of the frontier West from a very young age. He has traveled extensively throughout the western United States, and has visited many of the famous Western frontier towns, such as Tombstone, Pecos, Deadwood, Cheyenne, and numerous others.

Jim became particularly interested in the Texas Rangers from the television series Tales of the Texas Rangers. His deep interest in the Texas Rangers led him to amass an extensive collection of Texas Ranger artifacts, which is now in the permanent collections of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco.

Jim has also been an avid horseman all of his life. He bought his first horse, a pinto, while he was a junior in college, and has owned several American Paint Horses, including his current mount, Yankee.

Jim's books are traditional Westerns in the best sense of the term, with strong heroes who have good moral values. Highly reminiscent of the pulp westerns of yesterday, the heroes and villains are clearly separated with few shades of gray. No anti-heroes to be found here.

Jim is a graduate of Southern Connecticut State University. When not traveling out West, he currently divides his time between Branford, Connecticut and Keene, New Hampshire.

Death Stalks the Rangers 
By Jim Griffin

Texas Ranger Sean Kennedy is preparing to feed his troop's horses their morning rations when he spies an approaching horse. As the animal draws nearer, he recognizes the mount as belonging to fellow Ranger Thad Dutton. Dutton's body is hanging from the saddle, his foot caught in the stirrup.

Also just released by James J. Griffin,  Ride to Redemption, the second novel in the Cody Havlicek Texas Ranger series, from Condor Publishing, Inc.

Jim's Top Five (preliminary) Choices...

Alias the Cook 
Alias the Cook is imaginative, original, and just a darned fine piece of work.

Disturbing the Peace 
This is an extremely well-written, engrossing character study of the main protagonist, Sheriff Leo Coughlan.
For the Love of a Woman 
For the Love of a Woman is a fine human interest Western short story.

Some dog stories can be overly sentimental and maudlin, but the author hit this story just perfectly

Flash of Light 
I chose this story for its lack of pretension. It's exactly what it's meant to be, a romantic tale in the style of the pulp short stories of the late 40s or the 50s.

Preliminary Judge, Celia Hayes

As a writer, Celia Hayes is passionately interested in the history of the American frontier. She was brought up in an eccentric, baby-boom family, which provided rich materiel for her memoir "Our Grandpa Was an Alien".  She earned a degree in English Literature (California State University Northridge, 1976) before an un-slaked thirst for adventure and foreign travel led her to enlist in the United States Air Force.

She trained as a radio and television broadcast technician, and served for 20 years in Greece, Spain, Japan, Korea, Greenland and Ogden, Utah, in a wide assortment of duties which included midnight alt-rock DJ, TV news anchor, video-production librarian, radio and television writer and producer, production manager, and base tour guide.

In 2002, she became a regular contributor to the military-oriented weblog, "Sgt. Stryker's Daily Brief" (now "The Daily Brief") as "Sgt. Mom" writing essays and commentary on matters historical, personal, political, literary and military.

Daughter of Texas  By Celia Hayes 
A drama of a woman's life in Texas, before the cattle drives, before the Alamo, before the legends were born!
Celia Hayes at Open Salon

Celia's Top Five (preliminary)Choices...

The 4:15 Fiasco
I really rather liked the twist: that the robbers inadvertently did the good thing and got rewarded!

Flash of Light
Nice concise ending, and best closing wise-ass remark evah!

The Double Eagle
Nice classic western, loved the double-twist

Alias The Cook
Original character and set-up (I had to flip a coin to decide between this and The Professor Goes West - similar easterner adapting to west theme)

The K-Bar Incident
Didn't see THAT coming. This one, incidentally, could be done as a full-length novel.

Dave P. Fisher

Dave P. Fisher has spent half his lifetime as a working cowboy, rodeo rider, bronc buster, horsepacker, and guide. His adventures on the back of a horse have taken him from the wilds of Alaska to Oregon, and all through the Rocky Mountains .

Dave began putting his cowboy knowledge and experiences into poems, and then into western novels and short stories. His latest publications are the western historical trilogy, The Poudre Canyon Saga. Book 1 – Where Free Gather is out and can be found at bookstores and Book 2 - White Grizzly is due out mid-December 2010, and Book 3 – The Men From Poudre Canyon will be out the beginning of 2011.

Information can be found at >>

He is internationally published with over 300 non-fiction articles and fiction works to his credit. Along with winning top places in national western short story competitions his short stories have, to date, earned 8 Reader’s Choice Awards and others have been published in anthologies. His collection of Western short stories: Bronc Buster – Short Stories of the American West was awarded the prestigious Will Rogers Medallion Award for Outstanding Western Fiction.

THE WINNERS of the very first Rope and Wire Short Story Competition, along with comments from our final judge, Dave P. Fisher, are...

1st Place, and the winner of the competition's top prize of $250. 

The K-Bar Incident 
By Bill Henderson.  

Caught and held my attention from the beginning.


2nd Place, and the winner of the competition's prize of $75.

  For the Love of a Woman 
By Charlie Steel

.  Paints a picture of a couple struggling with a problem many have and the emotion and turmoil they experienced makes the story realistic. 

3rd Place, and the winner of the competitions prize of $50.

By Tom Roberts.   The writer gives us a look into Chapman’s tortured soul and broken heart and the depths that a man can sink to.

4th Place, and Certificate of Honorable Mention. 

The Double Eagle  
By T. T. Thurman.  

Well written, flowed smoothly with a good plot line that stayed on track.

5th Place and Certificate of Honorable Mention. 

Disturbing the Peace.  
By Elisabeth Foley

.   A young man who has been a friend to all finds that friendship returned when he is down. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

FISH & BEARS: MONTANA TALES -- okay, Idaho, too.

One of my most useful correspondents is Paul Wheeler, who has ties in this community and who as a kid in Browning for a while fed a lot of quarters into Bob Scriver’s mechanized rattlesnake.  His business is property maintenance, so he gives me good advice about fixing things.  Like so many of us, he loves local history and muses about how things used to be.  For instance, fishing:

We must have used some sort of bait spear fishing, but I don't recall what it might have been. Was telling my uncle, there used to be a bit of spear fishing go on here years ago. In December, burbot used to spawn up all the creek tributaries on the Kootenai and out of work farmers, loggers and the like would take their pitch forks and gunny sacks and scoop them up for sale. Hard to imagine a fishery so thick that you could fish with a pitchfork, but there are pictures of it in the museum.

In my early Forest Service contracting days, we formed a loose co-op, The Kootenai Kollusion. We were tree planters, thinners and cruisers, all organized to take advantage of a common bookkeeper/tax gal and deal with workman's comp and all the millions of issues that we all hated doing individually. Another advantage is that if you ran short of work in your field, you could go plant trees or thin for awhile. Early winter was a bad time for us all and we'd frequently run into each other, fishing the Kootenai at the mouth of the Yaak. Whitefish are another winter spawner and you could see thousands of fish headed up the Yaak in early December. We looked into the possibility of getting a commercial fishing license and did. Only problem was, none of us had a clue about how to go about it. We waded around the occasionally deep mouth of the river, pounding in t posts and chicken wire, trying to make corrals and pens. Our first harvest was great. When we came back the next day, the whole works had been torn out and sunk somewhere in the Kootenai by a log that came down the Yaak. By the time we got the thing rebuilt, the spawn was over.

We smoked and dried several hundred pounds of whitefish, ate our fill and easily sold the rest. The next December, a couple of us die-hards tried it again, but our traps got taken out the same way almost immediately and we gave up without a better idea of how to be successful.

Personally, I'd love to see a few interviews with folks re fishing. I know it was my major force in life until I moved to the mountains. What else is there to do in E. Montana? I haven't seen much reference to fishing as a major subsistence to homesteaders in the area, or at least not nearly as much as hunting, but I'm guessing it must have played a considerable part.

I've seen old film of those Columbia fish, aren't they also called Grunion? The Haida Gwaii fish for Ooligan like that North of there. Candle fish. Dried you can light the tail and have light throughout the night. They use them to make this foul-smelling and tasting ooligan grease. It's a clear oil that is used as a condiment on a lot of foods. Took me a long while to get used to the taste, but it does grow on ya.

The Kootenai Kollusion co-op is still kicking. Aging hippie/back to the landers. The majority of the folks are tree planters. We still have the CO OP agricultural supply joint. They left Bonners ten or fifteen years ago after a massive fuel leak showed up. They're still a growing concern in Sandpoint though. We haven't had a food co op here for many years, but it's been replaced with the vigorous farmers market and the big co op, Azure Standard that makes regular drop offs all over the N.W. Not much need for co op's  anymore.

Here’s a bear story.  It was early spring on Boundary Creek which is an old road into the Continental Mine. The Continental was one of the few successful gold/silver operations in the area. That road is a marvel, built in many places on a sheer cliff. Every Spring, avalanches took the road out, or at least filled the road with rock and boulders that blocked further passage. I had a cruising contract up there and was scouting the area to see what kind of access I was going to have. All the way up the road, I had to stop, get out and roll rocks off the side of the road. I also took advantage of the area and cut firewood on the way. Coming out, I had to keep stopping again to roll more rocks because of the lower clearance from the wood load. I've always loved rock rolling, even though it's gotten me in trouble from time to time. There's just something satisfying about watching a huge rock falling, bouncing, rolling, taking out trees and starting smaller avalanches while it alters the landscape.

Anyway, I was standing on the road, not paying attention to much but the crashing rock, when I noticed a grizzly in the creek bottom looking up at the chaos I'd created. He was grazing on the new green grass poking up here and there. It's interesting watching bears eat grass. Their big heads swing ponderously back and forth, it almost reminds you of a Hoover vacuum cleaner. Step, swing, swing, step, swing, swing. I got the binoculars and settled down to watch him for awhile. After a time, he came to the cliff face and without a wasted motion, started to climb up towards the road. I had no idea bears could climb like that. It was a nearly sheer, 250'-300' climb. You hear how grizzly bears aren't very good climbers because of their claws being too long, but it appears to be limited to trees, because that cliff didn't slow him down a bit. He had all kinds of tricks up his sleeve and looked like he'd taken climbing lessons from world class climbers. One movement I'd seen rock climbers do is called "chimney mantling". It's kind of a hard maneuver to describe, but essentially it entails pulling yourself up to a ledge with your arms until you can get your feet on the same ledge. In a seeming flash he was up to the road and I was scuttling back to the safety of my truck. Paying me absolutely no mind, he turned the other way on the road and sauntered down it to a small ravine that went up the cut slope of the road and disappeared into the brush and trees. That bear looked like an absolute athlete, lithe, sinewy and strong. One of my favorite experiences ever.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


The earth is hiding
the sun is gliding
soon will be backsliding
then solstice dividing
the seasons.

There are reasons.

This fumbly effort was my contribution this morning to a couplet conversation with a half-Blackfeet high school girl in Calgary who will respond in kind.  We don’t say anything really -- just a few lines that rhyme.  Sometimes more like “slant rhyme,” which means sounds that are almost the same, but not.  It showed up in my mailbox right next to a forward from Tim Barrus, my co-writer, a review of Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s “Canti” (songs) from Italian.

The reviewer (Peter Campion) offers this example: 
   Sometimes your image comes to mind again,

Aspasia. Either it shines fleetingly

in lived-in places, in other faces;

or in the empty fields, on a clear day,

under the silent stars,

as if evoked by gentle harmony,

that exalted vision reappears

in a soul still verging on dismay.

Campion says:  “This passage balances, gorgeously, on the border between adoration and loss. Galassi conveys the tremble between opposing emotions with delicacy and strength. The subtle rhyme of “clear day” and “dismay,” for example, underlines that central duality.”

I found this quick description of Leopardi.  “In the Zibaldone, Leopardi compares the innocent and happy state of nature with the condition of modern man, corrupted by an excessively developed faculty of reason which, rejecting the necessary illusions of myth and religion in favor of a dark reality of annihilation and emptiness, can only generate unhappiness. The Zibaldone contains the poetic and existential itinerary of Leopardi himself; it is a miscellaneous of philosophical annotations, schemes, entire compositions, moral reflections, judgements, small idylls, erudite discussions and impressions. Leopardi, even while remaining outside of the circles of philosophical debate of his century, was able to elaborate an extremely innovative and provocative vision of the world. It is not much of a stretch to define Leopardi as the father of what would eventually come to be called nihilism.”  (No author is attributed -- it’s a wiki.)

In youth Leopardi was physically captured by his family (tried to run away but was brought back) and in adulthood he was captured by illness, dying of cholera in 1837, not quite forty years old.  His desperation struggles with love without achieving optimism.

Jonathan Galassi, who heads Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, may be one of the last of the traditional publishers: a poet, a translator, and a civilized man with a strong sense of romance.  He appears able to stand astride the risk of daring and harness of practicality.  When asked about boyhood reading he mentions both “Wind in the Willows” and “The Alexandria Quartet.”  But he also describes his parents and grandmothers reeling off words from memory.  He loves the summoning of images, no matter the mode.  And now, of course, “writing” is able to present actual images, even videos, meshed with words, a rhyming, a new kind of coupling being explored by Tim as the last best use of his powers.

By now I have four figures in this post:  a high school girl in Calgary, a despairing poet in 19th century Italy, a generous poet and publisher in Manhattan, and Tim.  The thread of continuity is the love of words.  I’ll curl this post back to the girl in Calgary with a Galassi poem.

by Jonathan Galassi

If your bearded friend
helps you catch the trout  
in the pool of the dream  
and you carry it in his pail  
up the rocky stream
to the playhouse where he fries it in his pan;
if you snip the dill
for the carrots and then swim
until your lips are bluer than the lake
where will it take you?
Not anywhere as pure
and primal as these sunstruck days  
sistered by starstruck nights.  
Don’t cloud the drowning  
brightness of your eyes,
don’t answer my asking look  
with anything but the truth,  
don’t spill the fresh-picked  
raspberries on the car seat
and stain your shirt with indelible blood.

Or spill them, darling.  
How else will you know
the color of crushed time;
how else will you feel
what it is to change and remember,
to lose and absorb
this summer inside you,
xylem and phloem of your leafy future  
already starting to spread its shade above us?

This is the world Leopardi never had, a free and sensory relationship with the world itself, accompanied by the love of an adult.  (I’m not talking about just sex.)  This is what Tim puts against the nihilism expressed by his dying boys, even as he dies with them.  Both Galassi and Barrus “put” this joy in their heads and hearts with words.  There is a religious doctrine that the purpose of human beings, what they are best suited for, is the perception and celebration of the natural world.  (Creation, if you need a creator.)

The mechanisms of this “putting” are located in two poetically (or at least metaphorically) named little curls of tissue in the brain, one over each ear.  Somehow the senses feed into the front and memory (including emotion) come out the back.  Words are produced and managed by the whole brain and word-weaving is much like lifting weights:  the more one does it, the more cells and synapses thicken and connect.  For a poet with a rich and daring life the secret -- oh, the secret -- is not in the words but in the world they encode, “the color of crushed time.”  But brains dwindle and die.

Tim knew that Tristan, an over-experienced child, would be dying just a little ahead of him and determined to make the fall of the season a clear and clean beach of life where they could sit on the rounded stones to sip Scotch from cups and share their blankets with the dogs.  Now Tim’s thick brain remembers but soon the weaving will thin and then fail. 

I’m not a poet, but I am a translator of experience -- this is what my life has taught me to do.  So then I will pick up the strands, sharing with young men who were boys when I first knew them, and we will go on with this work of being human, the remembering, the escaping, the translating, the joy of words in couplets.  Or not.

Either it shines fleetingly

in lived-in places, in other faces;

or in the empty fields, on a clear day,

under the silent stars,

as if evoked by gentle harmony,

that exalted vision reappears

in a soul still verging on dismay.