Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Though I don’t have television, I have not escaped the images from Pakistan and Afghanistan of tall robed men in turbans with full beards and flashing eyes. Neither have I missed the strong dark jaws or penetrating blue eyes of the Marines. We are getting a full dose of the military version of the Alpha Male. Which is about where you’d expect to find Alphas. The concept comes from wolf packs where one wolf dominates all the others. The poor Beta wolves, plural, must wait until Alpha weakens or they grow stronger and can “take” him in a fight. (Actually it’s more complicated than that, but this is the way the concept is seen.) takes on today’s meat market among the employed, generally mainstream, mild-mannered, middle-class American men, those who aren’t so poor that they live in the shadows nor so rich that they can do as they please. He’s been spending some time trying to analyze how Alpha and Beta play into this and today he came to his conclusion. First he lists two fallacies. One is that everything good a modern man can be must represent an alpha trait. (The report card interpretation.) The other is that everything that represents an alpha trait must represent something good for a modern man to be. (The prescription interpretation.)

“The point of this whole series has been to point out why these fallacies are actually fallacies, especially for middle-class men. For middle-class men in modern society, the best response to take in many scenarios is often the beta response. And for middle-class men in modern society, many alpha traits can also be extremely counterproductive and even self-destructive.”

“RickyRaw,” the blogger, points out that in capitalist, democratic, developed, monogamous circumstances, the Alpha qualities of imposing order, suppressing violence even with the use of violence, making CEO decisions, and so on are delegated to what he calls “Alpha proxies” like legislators and the police. Protections, provisions for the needy, and so on are delegated to the state or the church or other organizations. And yet we insist on maintaining the myth that an Alpha male is one who defies all this. This causes what he calls “Alpha Dissonance.

I just watched the companion DVD to “Gladiator” that is three hours long and explains how the movie was made. (I’m not changing the subject.) It began with David Franzoni reading about Rome, which seems to catch the fancy of a lot of modern men, and he had creds from “Amistad” which he cashed in with Stephen Spielberg. Then he went to Ridley Scott with a print of a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso ("Thumbs Down"), which was very much in the lush style of Alma-Tadema, depicting a grisly moment in the Coliseum when an opponent is down flat and the Emperor is signaling to kill him. Very Alpha.

Now I need a little schematic invented by Athol Kay, one of those quadrant charts like the Johari Window.

Franzoni is one of those men who understands that there’s a time to be Alpha and a time to be Beta. Ridley Scott is a movie director: movie directors are Alphas. I don’t care how they dominate (carefully), they DO dominate. So Franzoni just slipped this print to him and Ridley was on board.

Then it got interesting. There was no script, just an idea. Franzoni went to work but ran aground and brought in John Logan. Again later, they got stuck and brought in William Nicholson. All of these men were writers, all were seriously intelligent, all knew what they were doing, and they did not put each other down. (Gammas?) They went for the core ideas: this is a movie about a gladiator. Okay. His family has been destroyed. Okay. He’s going to kill the bad emperor. Okay. But it’s been done before. More thought. Finally, the epiphany was that this was a man who just wanted to go home. He was violent, he was ruthless, he was dominating, but in the end he just wanted to go home. The fact that “home” turned out to be the Elysian Fields was all the more poignant. Ridley Scott understood at once. Women love this movie so much because The Gladiator was a Gamma Male.

There were two men in this cast who didn’t really get Alpha Dissonance, who totally bought the idea that real men do their own stunts, drink like fish, have their own way, and so on. One was Oliver Reed, who had played the acting game that way all his life, but only on his own time. When he was on the set, he was a dependable Beta. Mostly. But his Alphaness killed him before the picture was finished. He died of a heart attack in a bar one Sunday.

The other person was Russell Crowe, who kept trying to rewrite the script himself. He just felt he WAS an Alpha, therefore, he knew what the character was all about and he would just be Australian about it. Evidently he has not resolved this Alpha Dissonance in the years since and Alpha Proxies have had to slow him down now and then.

The perfect Beta male in this movie was played by Djimon Hounson, drawn into a larger and larger part until he got the final word. In early versions he was only a buddy, just as formidable as a gladiator, but nurturing and protective of his friend as we understand black tribal people to be. What choice do they have when only white people can be Alphas? It’s a useful racism. (Cicero is also an honorable Beta.) And poor weak Commodos is an Omega who has been born into a role for an Alpha, as his sister could be, and has let his insufficiency deeply corrupt him. So the Alpha Proxies, the senators, are willing to help knock him out.

See how useful this stuff is? Excellent pot lifters for moving concepts around. And we surely need to work on this. The comments were appalling. One man insisted that only a sociopath had the balls to be a true Alpha and offered himself as an example. Most of them obsessed about getting enough sex. One reader suggested a new series analyzing women and another thought (evidently seriously) that such a series would have to be written by a lesbian. (Maybe he was trying to think of the word for “feminist.”)

As a humanist, I suggest an Alien from another galaxy be invited in. But I was encouraged that a commenter on Athol Kay’s blog suggested that Jean Luc Picard was the perfect strategic Alpha, willing to play Beta and Gamma when the situation was right. Never an Omega.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Even though I’ve read most of the articles about AIDS that come my way (also Ebola Fever, Spanish Flu, various plagues, but not so much cancer) and even though I’m working with Cinematheque which is for boys at risk who already have HIV, there are aspects I hadn’t thought about until this morning when I began to read through my new esubscription to

What I find is not so much that I don’t have the basic facts as that I’m naive about how that plays out. But maybe I don’t know all the basic facts either. I don’t feel too badly since even the sophisticated researchers aren’t sure they know what they know. This entity is so small, it’s like studying electrons.

First, this is not a “germ” in the sense of bacteria. It is a virus, which is essentially “code gone wrong.” It’s the bare minimum that can be considered life at all because it is only that little bit of code that has the ability to use other cells to replicate itself. Antibiotics will not eliminate it. BUT the little bit of code that is an AIDS virus has the effect of knocking out the body’s ability to protect itself by eliminating not only viruses but also bacteria, fungus, and all the other little bits of invader that live off bodies. This means that it gives the occupied body the same immune status as the Bubble Boy who was born with no immune system and had to live in a sterile environment.

Two things made this virus turn into a plague. Neither of them was being homosexual. The first was human populations constantly invading places they never were before, like the deep African jungles. So we’re talking ecology here. Like, Rocky Mountain fever stays in the Rocky Mountains until someone infected with it carries it somewhere else.

The other thing is that this virus is carried in body fluids, so anything that mixes body fluids has the potential to transfer the virus. Many of human diseases (like small pox or undulant fever or anthrax) came from domestic animals which had died quietly and alone until humans rounded them up and kept them together where excrement piled up and where they were cut apart, shedding a lot of blood, and eaten. In the deep jungle there are few domestic animals, but the people get their protein by killing “bush meat” which includes monkeys. When they kill them and cut them up, they get monkey blood into their own wounds or maybe they ate them raw. The virus changed somehow so that now it could live in human bodies as well as monkey bodies. There are new diseases always forming. Right now, north of me, “mad cow disease” is being found in cows. People can catch it.

There are several diseases that are transmitted from one human to another if a human eats an infected person. “Kuru” is the big example. So now we have a third force: social practices. But it is not just anal intercourse that is the social practice that spreads AIDS. It is also a society that throws away boys, and pretends it does not, so that the boys become vectors. Plague in the Middle Ages was not defeated by killing fleas: it was necessary to kill the rats that carried the fleas; more than that, it was necessary to eliminate the conditions that made rats thrive. Getting rid of AIDS on the planet today means eliminating social conditions that some people like, profit from, or tolerate because they think it protects people they value more, the way prostitution is supposed to protect “good women” from rogues craving sex. (Craving sex is supposed to be a universal characteristic of all men and a few women.) Now we’re up to four enablers of plague.

All of this is much complicated by the problem of stigma. Stigma is a way of identifying and excluding people it is inconvenient to include, mostly because they will cost us money if we do. So much about disease comes down to money that those who have figured out how to manage our fear of disease are nearly bankrupting our society. Stigma kept scientists from doing serious research until in our country the stigma was confronted and opposed by people like Elizabeth Taylor, who saw her friends dying from AIDS and who was never afraid of much of anything. (I try to be like her. In some ways.) So then we all wore ribbons and the money was coughed up for serious research. Some meds came out of cancer research, anti-retrovirals, that will repress but not eliminate HIV virus. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief and went back home. Too soon. The slightest challenge or lapse and the virus flares up.

These meds can be controlled and the state loves control. So does the “under-state” which makes black market profits supplying what the state won’t. The pharms loved all of this because they are in the catbird seat with the ability to make meds (drugs). They make sure the state doesn’t import meds from countries where they are sold more cheaply. If you’re outside the system, you don’t get meds. Street boys are outside the system. Anyone stigmatized by color, origin, disability or the nature of their desire is outside the system.

Beyond that, street boys think they can do anything. They think they can fly, survive fire, and somewhere, someday, find a father who will teach them how to be men. But they need money. The ways they get it are outside the system and infects them with AIDS. To both keep them from catching AIDS and keep them alive once they have it, they must want to save themselves, because AIDS meds make you nauseous; they must be taken in very technical regimes, carefully timed and never skipped, so you can’t run out; and they just don’t work on everyone because (see beginning) what a virus is is a bit of genetic code and everyone’s genetic code is different. It’s also helpful if you have a safe warm place to sleep, clothes, food, and a way to feel important. That means a way to tell your story so that other people will think you’re a unique and valuable individual.

Stigma means these things are withheld with righteousness, denied with indignation, and portrayed as a just consequence. Those who help are those who are not stopped by stigma. They learn to accept it and use it. One of their most valuable tools is good information., for instance. I’m a beginner -- they are not.


Mary nailed AIDS dead on.

Which begs the question...

Where's the cure.

The medications have only gotten better and better but they are a holding pattern. The virus can still (and does) hide from the antivirals in places like bone marrow.

Billions went into developing these medicines. They were created by Big Pharma.

Americans pay more for these medications than anyone else in the world because Americans are seen as stooges willing to pay anything.

Exactly zero dollars of those billions went into finding a cure.


Think about it. The answer is in front of you.

If Big Pharma can keep hundreds of millions of people around the world chained to medications that only hold the virus off (eventually the virus wins) like a bunch of addicted antiviral junkies, who need these medication year after year, virtually until the patient dies, the profit margin is sky high big bucks.

There is NO INCENTIVE to find a cure. They would lose all their patients.

The NIH is doing nothing to find a cure.

The Chinese government was the only government on the planet developing a vaccine with live virus.

Then boom. A curtain of secrecy descended on the drug trial.

Anyone who has gone through a drug trial knows what that means. It means dead bodies.

The other word that needs to be used in this discussion is pandemic. This is no epidemic. This is every country in the world.

AIDS services (including medications) in the United States are way down the list. Other countries do lots more. Brazil for one. India makes sure that the medications are cheap and available. America does exactly the opposite.

Ironically, the United States AIDS services mirrors infant mortality rates in a striking analogy. America has a shameful infant mortality problem. It's AIDS services are shameful as well. The two are on the same statistical decline.

Question: if you are too poor to own transportation, and the only AIDS clinic (my family lives in Hendersonville, NC where every physician in town refuses to treat AIDS period so people have to travel to Asheville if they can get there) is 300 miles away, how do you get there let alone how do you pay for the medication.

At Cinematheque, the boys are on an average of ten medications per day. In America, per-child, the cost of that would average $500.00 per day.

Not even the best junkie thief in Harlem can rip that off PER DAY.

Vast fortunes are being made from world-wide suffering. Humanity is a disgrace.

History is going to ask questions. Oh, yes, it definitely will.

History is going to want to know how thirty years has passed and there is no cure anywhere on the horizon -- Big Pharma owns the horizon. It is not simply a moral issue. It is a national security issue as well.

History is going to wonder what you did to help.

Our children's children's children are going to be baffled as to how this happened. They are going to shake their heads in wonderment that it was allowed to happen.

History is going to want to know how it was that no investment in a cure was made.

History is going to conclude ONE WORD and that word is a crime against humanity.


Monday, March 29, 2010


We live in an age of ambiguity. We have discovered so many things that we just didn’t know before, so could ignore in our ignorant bliss. Even our hoary old institutions, like church and state, are of little use, running along behind our need to know right actions (when is a fertilized ovum a human being? when is it permissible to withdraw life support? what does marriage really MEAN?) or (how is it best to manage our resources to support ourselves? what IS a good investment? is there really any such thing as insurance when you come right down to it? or can someone totally unlike me -- different color, different education, different economic status -- make laws that will protect and support me? if not, what do I do?) or (what do we do when the institutions themselves become corrupt and predatory so that neither our children nor our livelihoods are safe with them?)

How can a person make moral decisions without even knowing what’s happening -- maybe because they are secret (we don’t even know they’re there -- what do YOU know about “shadow banking”?) and maybe because we can’t interpret what we’re looking at. It was a real comfort when we could say “God knows!” but who knows anything about God anymore? Christopher Hitchens, that know-it-all, has turned Christian in his quest for self-improvement (which I hope was less painful and more permanent than having his family jewels waxed to render them hairless). Now he shares with us the mostly unknown information that there are more than one sets of Ten Commandments. In the Old Testament: Exodus 20, Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 5. They are different. Look ‘em up yourself.

I’m going to ignore those outdated tribal injunctions in favor of the ten “injunctions” of the Code of the West, evidently not inscribed on stone but recorded in a book by James Owen. He’s an author and retired Wall Street investor. Take that into account. Here’s the list:
1. Live courageously.
2. Take pride in your work.
3. Finish what you start.
4. Do what’s necessary.
5. Be tough but fair.
6. Keep promises.
7. Ride for the brand.
8. Talk less and say more.
9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
10. Know where to draw the line.

I had thought these were the Rules of Lucy. (That’s my mom.) But I’ve internalized them well. The problems come with applying them, same as those Biblical commandments. How do you know what’s necessary? What if your work is dubious but you’re proud of it? Like, um, you’re a Wall Street investor? When do you decide the brand is corrupt and doesn’t deserve to be ridden for? The Rule of Combat is “do something.” Because if you don’t, things happen to you.

So what I deduce from that is you’d better be prepared to take some damage in life and devote some time and energy to recovery. You might need some help. You might end up with scar tissue or amputations that keep you from following your original goal, so you need to have a backup plan. Maybe several. And since presumably your life will constantly bring you new information, skills and so on; and since certainly the world changes every minute -- more than we know or might want to know -- it’s a matter of adapting to whatever plan is at hand. Forget stone.

Hitchens comes up with a list of no-nos (but throws in some moral imperatives):

1. Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color.
2. Do not ever use people as private property.
3. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations.
4. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.
5. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature. Why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them.
6. Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature and think and act accordingly.
7. Do not imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife.
8. Turn off that fucking cell phone -- you have no idea how UNimportant your call is to us.
9. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions.
10. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above.
IN SHORT: Do now swallow your moral code in tablet form. (Vanity Fair, April 2010)

If you make a list of ten, the very fact of pre-determining the number means that there will be some weak inclusions and the most important principles might not stand out. This is a weakness of all rule-ethic strategies. We all know the game of finding exceptions to the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not kill.” Well, then why are those Old Testament tribes, even the obedient ones, constantly involved in turf warfare?

I recall a Benedictine monk, a friend and classmate, whom I knew well enough to ask questions. “How do you handle those vows?” I asked. “You know, chastity, poverty, and obedience?” His answer was: “Chastity is HOW you do something, not whether; poverty is a pre-existing condition; and obedience? Well, we’re into creative obedience.” And the Pope never saw that memo go over his desk either.

Bob used to say, “All you can do is the best you can do.” By definition. And his watch-word was “An Honest Try.” But that put a lot of emphasis on effort -- you know, “A for effort,” and not much on the end achievement or the consequences of focussing everything on trying to reach a goal while not asking whether it’s worthy or what to do once you get there. I think that’s one of the political questions of our country right now. Our goals are all admirable: good educations, universal health care, happy marriages, a comfortable home, good nutrition. Peace in the world. Ending pollution. Protecting wolves. The questions are mostly about effectiveness and what means we have used or are willing to use in the future.

The ambiguity is just rearranged. Does it make decisions easier or not? NOT.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


They say humans were originally tree animals, but I have a hunch that we enjoyed a good burrow, too. Today there was a long story in the GF Tribune about a new pack of wolves that has moved onto the rez and expanded to fourteen individuals before Art Carney, the wolf and griz man for the tribe, set about making some changes for the sake of the ranchers. A few wolves around are not a problem. A pack of fourteen -- even if they were feral domestic dogs -- are big trouble, a money sink. What impressed Art was that the wolves had found a burrow that had stood empty for twenty years, since an earlier pack was eliminated. (Art has been here a long time.)

How did they know where to find it? If you pay attention to holes in the earth, it’s not so surprising. I get the blog feed for, whose idea of fun is to take his terriers (earth dogs) out into the country and chase varmints (ground hogs, raccoons, foxes) down their holes -- then dig them back up. He explains about “pipes” (the tunnels) and differences in the burrows of different animals and how they swap them around, some enlarging the pipes and others making more side-tunnels with hidden exits. He knows some of these holes and after digging out whatever is in there this time, he always fills them back up -- not to eliminate the hole, but enough to keep from stepping in them and breaking a leg. But anyway there are few horses galloping around where he is.

The most important feature for bears when they look for a hole for hibernation is the exposure. They want a north-facing entrance so it will drift over with snow that won’t melt all winter and not wake them up too early. Another critter might prefer a southern entrance, so the sun can lend warmth for cubs. The next thing is the kind of soil, which is better if it’s easy to dig. But it’s also good to have a big tangle of tree roots or a pile of boulders so that a bear can’t dig out a marmot. Wolves might like to be along their network of trails, shared by both predators and prey, and in a place where lifting one’s nose in the air would supply a lot of good info about what’s going on, which would mean close to an updraft, maybe one shaped by a nearby coulee.

When the big devastating meteor hits smashed into the earth 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, part of the reason the mammals survived was that they could jump down their holes and eat roots. In the Fifties when we all thought the atomic bomb would drop any day, people built quite elaborate bunkers in their backyards. Even in Nanking the people dug holes in their backyards in hopes of surviving the bombing that always precedes invasion. In London the subways became vast bedrooms during WWII. Even now, individuals will take refuge in such tunnels, looking for alcoves and crannies where a person might survive unnoticed. And the warhead missiles live in holes.

Later today I should go under my house to connect the garden hose. There’s no basement and whoever dug out the crawl space enough to put a hot water heater down there turned out to nearly have destroyed the house. It’s clear that some of the driveway and the garage slab both slumped and the sink wall in the kitchen has been rebuilt with a beam overhead to take the weight of that side. It took me a while to “read” this past damage. Under the house is where all the footnotes of construction are: wires and pipes that supply the phone, the lights, the electrical outlets, the water in and the sewer out.

There was once a very big tree too close to the east wall of the kitchen, so one side of the crawl space, where the mighty roots were, is not dug out. When it was cut, the stump was left even with the ground and it is gradually rotting. In summer I often leave the trapdoor down to the space standing open and the tiny bit of light that filters down makes the roots start growing again. I’ve never been able to make my garden hose hookup down there stop leaking -- not sure why -- so I just keep a bucket under the leak and empty it occasionally. There is a sump pump in case a pipe breaks, which has happened twice, the second time when the house was empty, so no one noticed and it filled up enough to float the kitchen floor just slightly, popping the nails up that held it to the joists, and cracking the hard asbestos tiles which are illegal to remove without special procedures. When I can afford it, I’ll put something flexible on top. Sheet vinyl or one of those “floating” floors.

The surfaces of the planet rise and fall, except much more slowly than water. The old cities gradually submerge beneath the sidewalks, and then new cities are built on top of them, but then people realize that there was something deeper and, like terrierman, spend a lot of time and energy digging it back up. Part of the reason this is good fossil-finding country is that the earth-level is going down, eroding under cultivation, irrigation, excavation, and wind. As it goes down, an ancient stone spinal column becomes obvious by its regularity, a skull emerges from the side of a widening coulee. The water brings to the surface the old bitter chemicals of the sea, the salt and the alkali, making the ponds white around their verge, allowing only the beet-colored growth of certain adapted plants.

In Valier we are constantly struggling with the subterranean infrastructure. People forget to make maps and jack-leg in pipes with no plan. Jerry Sullivan, who makes his living digging up, repairing and reburying stuff, has a lot of knowledge in his head, which makes him valuable on the town council but also powerful. And I? I burrow in my books, feeling along like a star-nosed mole seeking earthworms. I eat ideas.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

NANKING: A Reflection

It’s not that I don’t think there’s any such thing as Evil. It’s that I think what is good and what is evil is defined by human beings, not by any god, and I resist the idea that there is a supernatural cause, a great big EVIL that reaches into the world despite our best efforts to keep it out. “The Devil made me do it!”

But have we really drawn on our own best efforts? When I say this about evil, that the universe itself has no evil, I am saying something much worse. The universe does not care. It will not intervene. It is more vast that we can understand. Though people say they have a spiritual melding with it, that’s in them: subjective -- not in the universe. Although a person who is looking at reality can get into a certain amount of harmony, in the end it’s either an illusion or very good luck that makes that happen. We do not control the universe. Some of it feels very evil indeed, but that’s in us -- not the universe.

My movie tonight was “Nanking,” one of the major atrocity stories of WWII, a holocaust that had nothing to do with Jews and everything to do with how war kindles a fire it cannot control. The earlier movie about North African soldiers, who bravely fought for France and then were killed when they demanded their pay, is the same thing. We find the same story everywhere, on every continent but the Antarctic. Tim would say “Genocide.” It IS Evil. But the universe didn’t do it. WE did it.

What makes “Nanking” exceptional is that the atrocities were witnessed and recorded in words and images and that those witnesses actually took effective action. These people could have left unscathed because they weren’t from either China or Japan -- they were “Westerners.” And they included Nazis, who were allies with Japan. The very people who are often reviled and mocked in theory circles, a few Colonialists actually tried to live up to the noble ideas of “civilization. The Nazi said he tried to find a moral way out in his own mind, but could not. The people needed witnesses.

The form of the film is a mix of old film, interviews with Chinese who were little children at the time but managed to survive even as their families were murdered in front of them, interviews with the Japanese soldiers who smiled as they told of repeatedly raping little girls, and historic written material read by actors. These latter were a bit unexpected. Mariel Hemingway with no makeup as the head of a girls’ college. Woody Harrelson. Jurgen Prochnow as the Nazi businessman. They did straightforward “readers’ theatre,” sitting in chairs wearing clothes that weren’t exactly costumes. No fireworks in the performances, just deep sincerity. None of the Westerners portrayed are living anymore. Mariel Hemingway’s character left after the crisis and then committed suicide. A Japanese officer is also represented by an American actor reading a translation.

There’s no question that what happened was evil, a frenzy of suffering and destruction, a murderous mania in men who were supposed to be disciplined. One said, “We had nothing else to do, so we raped the women.” Then the little girls, then the little boys. You want to talk trauma, you want to talk holocaust, this is a good example -- but no better than the many contemporary examples we’ve sworn would never happen again. How do we even begin to think about such stuff? I think we have to back way off and think about our methods. And I think we have to make it part of our ordinary lives, not some specially marked day or place. Not attributing it to a mysterious force that makes us powerless.

Worship came to mind since it was illustrated several times in the film. Ineffective in stopping events, but maybe helpful in responding to them. Then I thought of Von Ogden Vogt, the minister of First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, Chicago, from 1924 until the end of WWII. He built an amazing Gothic mini-cathedral there that was not properly maintained and has since had the Gothic spire removed. I guess now it’s truncated Gothic. He also had a rather definite understanding of worship which I share in my own way. He was the same sort of patrician and determined person as those illustrated.

Part of this worship is a double sequence at the beginning which I call “the Dilation of the Soul,” which is an invocation of ultimate dimensions. The idea is to confront the worst terrible things, the Evil, in concrete examples and personal confession. In fact, some liturgists call it Confession of Sins. Greed, envy, sloth, anger, vanity -- loss, suffering. Lay it out there, as stark as you can.

THEN comes the hard part and the real use of the minister: the Assurance of Pardon, gratitude for love and grace, human courage, all the dearest things about being alive. If you can make this affirmation honestly -- and particularly as a group -- you will find yourself on liminal ground, open to ideas and change, prayer and thought. Then it’s important for the minister to call you back out to real life without discarding whatever happened in that space/time. You should find yourself either confirmed or changed.

That’s what this movie does. That’s what many great works of art do. Make you confront the evil, and then make you look just as hard at the glory and the power. The two things need to be in balance. Lately it seems that the world has offered so many images of ghastly things that it has been a challenge to come up with the equivalent redemption. The temptation is to shirk and deny the bad stuff.

These heroes in Nanking simply defined a “safe zone” where ordinary noncombatant families could come to be spared. They asked the countries to endorse this, but no country would. So they went out and stood personally at whatever gates they had -- the entrance to the girls’ college, the gate to the Nazi’s grounds -- and personally denied entrance to any Japanese soldiers. The soldiers didn’t quite dare to kill or overrun them, few as they were. I’m not saying these heroes were protected by God. Some were not particularly religious. But somehow they had Real Moral Courage, clear enough to change human events. The universe did not smile; it did not frown. But WE do. And we're so glad that they alone escaped to tell us.

Friday, March 26, 2010


My movie last night was a documentary about the Jonestown mass deaths -- nearly a thousand people. The incident happened November, 1978, which was just weeks into my first year of seminary. The U of Chicago seminary community was devastated. Many knew people who “drank the kool aid” and died. One of the members of the class ahead of me lost a close friend. Don Browning, whose “Ethics of Pastoral Care” class we were taking, explained about “liminal” events that happen in a sort of “time out” space, a place in our heads where we go when we worship or play but a place where we can get stuck and lose our grip on reality.

The minister of the First Unitarian Church kitty-corner from us told us that Jim Jones had come to him to see whether he could become a Unitarian minister. There are two kinds of ministers: inspired ministers who are presumably directly zapped by the Holy Spirit and only need a little Bible study, and educated ministers who get graduate degrees as though they were doctors or lawyers. The two categories are defined by the denominations, each certifying their own leaders, and Unitarians belong to the learned ministry, those with degrees, often doctorates of some sort including Ph.D.’s. Jim Jones came from Pentecostal roots and had no undergraduate classes at all. One wonders what would have happened if he had decided to bite down and get a bachelor’s degree, then a ministry degree. Would it have prevented him from madness? But we all wondered if some of us weren’t as insane or could become as insane as he was. Where did he go wrong? Or was he just essentially evil?

Another Unitarian minister was contacted by a sister of a member of the People’s Church. She told him what was going on and begged him to intervene. He didn’t believe her. After the deaths, he was devastated, feeling that he could have prevented so much tragedy. But that was pretty grandiose. Plenty of people who could have done something did not, because they were swayed by his “good works.” Also, most of the authorities were white and the congregation was “integrated,” which was one of the highest values of the times. Lester Mondale, Roslyn Carter, all sorts of people, met with him and seemed to endorse him even as he made their elections possible by mobilizing his resources, who were hard-working earnest people. Jones knew how to “talk black” but he looked white, so he was able to walk back and forth to join the two groups in the high emotion of Pentacostalism and faith healing.

Denomination (and the roots of denomination, which just means “naming”) did have something to do with it. Aside from the inspired/learned, rightbrain/leftbrain, emotional/rational balances in each denomination is something known as “polity,” which refers to their form of organization. The Roman Catholic church is organized hierarchically, so that everyone is supervised by someone higher up with the Pope presumably supervised by God. Parish priests are very much governed and sent, which is why it is so offensive that their supervisors don’t detect and eliminate child abuse. The Catholic church is organized this way because it grew out of the Roman Empire (Holy) and kept their style of working. When the Lutheran, Methodist and Anglican churches broke away, they kept this pattern of hierarchy governance. Anything else would be thinking outside the box.

But then there were small sects and heresies that sprang up and since they had to stay relatively secret or because they bolted to Holland or the New World to escape the old system, they had congregational polity. They were responsible only to the immediate congregation: radically democratic or, technically, socialist/communist. Thus, Unitarian, Baptist, Quakers and Pentecostals as well as individual Bible-based groups formed using this polity. Where else would they fit? Over the centuries, some of them formed loose coalitions of like-minded congregations so they could pool their resources to develop materials and meet annually for ideas and friendship. Nowadays some individual congregations are so big that they are like denominations all by themselves, except that they’ve developed internal hierarchies.

If you Google “Jonestown” you’ll find an array of opinions and theories, plus survivor stories. But I find the best explanation is a different church and minister in the same time and place. This is from their website:

“In 1963, winds of change were blowing mightily through San Francisco. Nowhere were these forces of transformation more visible than at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. That year, a young African-American minister named Cecil Williams came to Glide determined to bring life back into the dying congregation. Cecil changed both policies and practices of the conservative church, helping to create the Council on Religion and Homosexuality in 1964. In 1967, Cecil ordered the cross removed from the sanctuary, exhorting the congregation instead to celebrate life and living.

"’We must all be the cross,’ he explained.”

One answer is right there. Jim Jones said, “I am the Cross. I will be your God.” Cecil, a joyful and sharing man, said, “We are ALL the cross.” There were other differences. This was a Methodist church and therefore it was part of a huge apparatus of support and guidance. The Methodists originally developed as a way of redeeming country people who moved in the Industrial Age to the British cities where they were confused and soon prey to poverty and gin, newly invented. (The gin, not the poverty. Though city poverty is different.) It wasn’t that different from being a hippie, a prey to crack cocaine, newly invented. There were many built-in safeguards. Cecil was a learned minister, earning his degree at the much respected Perkins Seminary.

“As the conservative members of the original congregation left, they were replaced by San Francisco's diverse communities of hippies, addicts, gays, the poor, and the marginalized. By 1968, the energetic, jazz-filled Celebrations were packed with people from all classes, hues, and lifestyles. That year, San Francisco State University erupted in protests over demands for ethnic studies and affirmative action. Cecil and the Glide community helped lead the demonstrations; the church became a home for political, as well as spiritual, change. Glide offered a safe space to groups ranging from the Hookers Convention to the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers. In the midst of their political work, Glide never forgot the basic needs of the community.”

There’s another answer. They didn’t turn in on themselves, but reached out to serve others. They didn’t withdraw but stayed open.

“As a decade of clamoring change came to a close, Glide further added to the joyful noise: The world-renowned Glide Ensemble choir held its first rehearsals in 1969. And Janice Mirikitani, a noted poet and dancer, had also just been appointed Coordinator for Glide's programs.”

And there’s another key. They welcomed the arts: sophisticated, intelligent artists. Watching “Jonestown,” one sees how much song and dance were part of their community but in ways that distracted from and camouflaged the huge burdens of hard work and the sacrifice of lifetimes of assets. The Jonestown congregation was eighty per cent black, most of them with history in black churches where the minister is revered and obeyed. These people had survived slavery and poverty with their music. Glide was doing something slightly different, which was art in service to thought and social justice.

“Time and time again, the Bay Area came to look to Glide for moral guidance and spiritual sustenance. When gay activist and City Supervisor Harvey Milk was murdered by fellow Supervisor Dan White in 1978, Cecil and the Glide community opened their doors to the city, comforting and healing those who were frightened, grieving, and potentially violent.”

They were daring, creative, in-service to others, engaged in the community. It was these qualities that prevented them from disintegrating into a Jonestown. They weren’t prissy but they were not passive. They knew crazy when they saw it. Jonestown saw it and joined it.

Why does everyone know so much about Jonestown and so little about Glide? Ask the media. SO much more fun to exploit bad stuff than explain good good stuff.

In fact, my co-writer, Tim Barrus, was in San Francisco and disagrees with what I have said. Not so much "disagrees" but thinks I don't get it, which is not so surprising. Following is his take:

Jim Jones was psychotic and his so-called Church was in the Western Addition of San Francisco. The Western Addition is a No Man's Land. It is not like nor does it belong to any of the other distinct neighborhoods that have very specific characteristics; many of them ethnic. Jim Jones' church was oppressive, ugly, cavernous, dank, gothic, cold, void of anything but rhetoric, bordered on hatefulness, and attracted a crowd of semi-hysterical (on a good day) victims.

Victims in search of a leader.

I thought so and said so way before Jonestown.

The behavior of those people was quite simply bizarre.

I thought so and said so way before Jonestown.

In my book, fanaticism is a huge red flag. My response is to run.

Fanaticism requires followers. Jim Jones had them by the busload. I thought then and I think now that victims find their persecutors and that persecutors find their victims and that the roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer are all fluid and interchangeable. I thought then and I think now that Jonestown and the horror that went on there said far more about America and the people who are a product of that particular culture playing out all three roles -- victim, persecutor, rescuer -- on the grand stage of death than it said anything whatsoever pertaining or relevant to any other part of the planet whatsoever and that includes Guyana. The people of Guyana were as shocked as anyone at the murders of Jonestown. This horror was not germane to Guyana. This was mass murder and it was germane to American culture and only American culture.

Which is murderous.

Whether America can see it or not. Murder and hysteria are emblematic of American culture. War and death and destruction. Murder and hysteria and greed are what Americans are about. The bottom line.

That Jim Jones' "church" was in the Western Addition said everything to me I needed to know. I went by that ugliness every day on my way to work (I took another route home) at the San Francisco Hearing and Speech Center where I taught communicatively handicapped four-year-olds and then went home to write about it.

After Jonestown, that building was turned appropriately enough into a punk rock club.

Mary doesn't believe in evil. But I do.

I do not ask (or require) Mary to believe what I believe. I have no need for that from anyone. Mary does not ask (or require) me to believe what she believes. We see the world in different ways and I value that. I value her insight. I especially value insight from someone who gives me the space to be all the difficult things I am. It's rare.

I knew that place -- dark and brooding concrete architecture -- was evil the minute I laid eyes on it. It stuck out like a sore thumb with a compound fracture. I stood there on Geary Street and watched big cranes tear it down into rubble and I applauded.

There was a punk rock mosh pit during that punk rocker period. Performers would jump off the stage into the arms of the punks in the mosh pit. Males mainly. Most females avoid the mosh pit.

People died doing that. They landed on their skulls and they twitched and they died.

Other mosh pit victims simply became disabled for the rest of their punk rock lives.

The punk rockers tore the inside of the building to gothic shreds. It was haunting.

I knew it would be torn down. It was torn down. Now, and I cannot for the life of me explain this in rational terms, every time I pass by the spot where that horrid church stood, I am almost overcome by the smell of urine.

There is a very dark side to San Francisco. It is not all Tony Bennett and hearts and flower children and ferries across a deep blue sea to Angel Island. There are tens of thousands of San Franciscans who are desperate, hungry, homeless, filthy, deranged, drug-addicted, alcoholic, unemployed, suicidal and without hope of any kind. More people kill themselves in San Francisco than in any other city in America. Even those statistics are bogus. They do not include the number of people with AIDS who can kill themselves any number of ways (you can just stop swallowing the pills) and do not make it to the statistics. They die a "natural" death (pneumonia mainly) whatever that is.

The part of San Francisco that has the most homeless, the most drug treatment centers, the most dead bodies on the street, the most IV drugs (you had to be careful getting on the bus at Geary and Jones because your feet would crunch the syringes), the most desperation, the most psychotics screaming on the street corners, the most Single Room Occupancy hotels, the most hookers, the most rent boys, the most tuberculosis, the most people with AIDS, and, quite simply, the most densely packed people (the Chinese family next door to me slept ten people to a room) in the city is called the Tenderloin.

My daughter and I lived at 729 Jones #503 (top floor). There were stairs to the roof. Now, whenever I write a story with a rooftop, this is the rooftop,. From the rooftop, looking down, one could see the entire extraordinary parade of animals in all their agonizing glory.

The food line of thieves and junkies and whores and homeless at what is referred to as Glide church by those very thieves and junkies and whores and homeless stretches three blocks long three times a day.

Glide is the vision of Cecil Williams.

I love him madly.

I remember him dancing with my daughter (who was three) and the two of them laughing outrageously because it felt good to be alive.

Even in the Tenderloin.

Which is a place of murder, organized crime, violence, rape, and dead babies found in dumpsters.

The people are hungry. So Cecil feeds them.

Glide takes in the homeless and gives them a place to sleep.

If you come to Glide to be rescued, you may be disappointed.

Because Cecil puts people to work, too. The man is a torrent of positive energy and direction.

You cannot compare what happens at Glide to what happened at the People's Temple because what Jim Jones designed was a cult.

What Cecil has designed and implemented is a church.

Jim Jones took lives. Cecil Williams gives life back to people who have lost everything.

Jim Jones was a hysteric.

Cecil Williams is a focused, dynamic, powerful, facilitator of change.

Jim Jones was a dead end road.

Cecil Williams is the incarnation of possibility.

They are not alike. They are not related. And I do not buy any disingenuous, contrived theory (San Francisco is full of theories) that there has to be some kind of cultural demographic that explains analytically the success of one and the failure of another because Glide is not the People's Temple, it mainly serves the Tenderloin; the congregation at the People's Temple were from the suburbs, and they drove to a No Man's Land to attend a church that was a nowhere church where life itself was a mosh pit.

There is no relationship.

One had nothing to do with the other.

Jonestown would have happened anyway. Even had Glide not existed.

Any implied correlation is mumbojumbo. Even the architecture is different. Mary is right. Glide never withdrew into itself. It looks OUT. At a community it embraces. And empowers.

I used to eat there all the time. I was a writer. I was fucking poor. I lived by the skin of my teeth. I tricked and whored when times were tough and times were tough. I've been homeless. But I've never given up what I do. Not for love or money. No matter what the consequences. I'm a writer. I'm writing this. It's what I do. Glide was there for me and it was there for my kid. I could have never joined the People's Temple in a zillion years.

It still stinks with to high hell with piss.

Tim Barrus

Thursday, March 25, 2010


THE FIRST CAUSES: Light, dust, wind, mom & dad, rain, snow, sky, insects, grass, horizon, story.

These are the near-poems, near-prayers, that form the weft of Lorna Crozier’s book, “Small Beneath the Sky.” Its weave is memoir, memories from growing up in Swiftcurrent, Saskatchewan, which is on the way between where I live in Montana and Saskatoon where I served a congregation. I know these places. She is no longer here, having achieved her tenured and well-earned reward in Victoria, B.C. where she is an esteemed professor. This is the dream of most prairie academics.

Lorna likes lists. As soon as I moved to Saskatoon, I trotted over to the used bookstore and bought local writer anthologies. Ever since then “The Garden Going on without Us,” has actually been going along with me, including the famous carrot poem, which comes from another poem list about vegetables. I’m fond of the one about radishes who “if they had jobs, they’d be nurses who drive red sports cars after work.” Apt and vivid metaphors are her hallmarks.

Poverty and hardship are not easy to write about because so many people write about the same thing. Fathers who are alcoholic ne’er-do-wells are familiar. Wallace Stegner, who grew up not so far away, addressed that father/mother puzzle (why do mothers stay with that kind of a man?) over and over in his novels. Repetition compulsion? Yet Crozier’s second husband, Patrick Lane, who was also alcoholic, somehow sobered up and is a respected poet. Does this marriage redeem that of Crozier’s childhood? The pair co-edited an anthology about addiction. Each has an eponymous website: and I recommend the linked Joseph LaPlanta interview about this book. It’s so good to hear Lorna’s humorous, flowing answers.

The harder issue is class. Growing up in a small town is duck soup if you’ve got status and money, but strictly gristle if you don’t. The kernel of the memoir is a jousting match between pride and humiliation. The heroine is Lorna’s mother who always has the hardy practicality to get through anything. Lorna remembers fabulous childhood incidents like confronting a giant lizard in the underground of the old house: her mother comes to the rescue with a butcher knife, stabs the reptile and casts it into the blazing furnace. This is not rational. (There are no lizards in Swiftcurrent.) When asked, her mother doesn’t remember it. Throughout the book the mother refuses to be pitiful, never buckles under stress, and ends up (again in magical realist fashion), visiting Lorna at the Benedictine monastery in Muenster -- a consecrated place if there ever was one! -- and again in a wheat field, also surely sacred ground on the prairie.

Fathers are more difficult to grasp but throughout the story there are flashes of redemption and forgiveness. Teachers reach out and principals stand ready to intervene. In the wind-hardened prairie, there is a fenced swimming pool that Lorna slips into alone at night in her Speedo with no bra underneath, a secretive transgressor making waves all her own. But she is a life guard. Her own.

She says: “What I am trying to establish when I write is a movement back and forth between the profound and the ordinary.” This strategy succeeds wonderfully when the ordinary is remembered through child’s eyes, which Lorna never quite closed. Transcendence stands trembling in the leaves of a giant wild cottonwood. Immanence erupts through light, dust, wind, mom & dad, rain, snow, sky, insects, grass, horizon, story. A child may be small on the flat, alkaline Saskatchewan landscape but growing up there can create a sweet, densely imagining, woman poet.

This is a beautifully produced book, pleasant to keep to hand alongside a reading chair or slip into a pocket to read while resting on a walk. But it’s form, short pieces of writing would make it also a good eBook to read on the likes of iPhone where it could be accompanied by photos or artwork. In fact, I think the form comes from writing poetry and from the practice of selling short pieces of memoir as essays in magazines. However it was created, the deepest forces were literary. We are grateful.

The formal review of this book ends above. I will add more for the blog version. Just as the US closed the Canadian border to returning US citizens unless they have a passport, when it comes to writing, the Internet and other cultural forces have called me to ignore that border. Part of the invitation is family history, which I am retracing at Some of it is Bob Scriver’s family history in Quebec plus the University of Calgary Press’s publication of “Bronze Inside and Out,” my biography of Bob Scriver. Much of it is the fact that I’m a place-based, ecology-conscious person and writer who prefers east-slope prairie, unlike Crozier or even Ivan Doig who grew up here in Valier. That includes the fact that I’m a scholar and friend of the Blackfeet tribe, which is on both sides of the border with perhaps the closest ties to the past on the Canadian side.

But partly I’m pointed north by the constriction of the Montana scene: not just the writing but the whole humanities scene. Even more than the Canadians, the Montana folks are attached to the idea that humanities are a sign of prestige and that prestige requires conformity. Like the American publishers in Manhattan, they want to see what they saw before, when Montana writing was famous and the writers themselves were still young. The gatekeepers, who once opened gates as professors who supported their students (Richard Hugo was famous for it.) now keep the gates closed to control competition or anyone who might criticize them. In retirement, they need their prestige as much as their income. Even the cowboy art scene is now controlled from outside Montana. They will deny this. It’s at least worth discussion. I also have a short list of Montana books that have a lot of similarities to Canadian prairie books. Maybe it’s unconscious, maybe it’s the result of shared ecology. Just saying. Economics and technology are the plate tectonics of the humanities.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


What is the value of “nice”? It means you are prey. It means you can be managed. That’s why “nice guys” finish last. People tell me I’m a “nice lady” -- in Valier they say “nice LITTLE lady” even though I weigh two hundred pounds. Stupid girls who think they are dangerous feel free to call me up and are shocked, SHOCKED when I rebuke them. When people say “nice,” they mean powerless: no money, no connections, no F350 pickup. They kick you to the curb. Old nice ladies aren’t even good for sex.

Hey, don’t tell them any different. It’s good camouflage. They even think GOD is nice. They think saints are nice. They don’t think about the people who kill the saints, often officials of the church. They killed their saints in torturing ways, observing carefully, commemorating the agony with huge sumptuous paintings. Well, when you start with crucifying someone . . .

What is the value of evil? It means you are a predator. It means you can be managed. Like those brothers in Cut Bank who liked to beat up helpless drunks, the kind of person who likes to kill street people or drive-by-shoot domestic animals in fields near roads. It means institutions will have permission to catch you, cage you, and keep you alive forever so they can give you bad food, poor medical care, and never let you sleep. You will forever after be vulnerable to prison administrators, other prisoners, and guards.

Nice and evil are banal ideas. Banality goes deeper than either good or evil. It is a product of a numbly narcissistic society and an anthropocentric understanding of the planet. Good or evil shift all the time, according to taste and fashion. So does the planet shift, but by its own rules which are neither good nor evil. We are specks on the surface, constantly afflicting each other and pretending God did it. Well, maybe the Devil if we don’t like it.

One of the big values to which I commit is one that they say everyone approves of. They write books about it, sing songs about it, try to follow the example. It is faithfulness, true love. I am still in love with Bob Scriver. Still now I am only besotted with the memory of his physical self, but make no mistake -- it remains a relationship with his body though he’s been dead for a decade. Power was not the attraction -- but power, or imagined power, still makes him a target for the powerless who trade in secrets, the supernatural, sensationalism, and what they think is evil.

Therefore, they are telling a story about him. They say that in his lifetime he raped so many Indian women that now his ghost wanders the alleys of Browning where the street people and dogs drift, looking without hope for some way to reclaim his soul, some atonement.

You believe that? Well, if you do, I have this GPS device here and I want it attached to Bob Scriver’s ghost because I have a few things to discuss with him, and it will save time when I go looking for him. I do have to say that the alleys of Browning are getting a little crowded.

It’s not as though Bob Scriver doesn’t have enemies who aren’t drifting drunks. There are art dealers and lawyers who glance over their shoulders. Don’t forget that Bob was a justice of the peace and the city magistrate in Browning for a long time and some pretty vicious people came in front of him, both Indian and white, both rapists and victims. It’s not as though he was a “nice” man, all meek and mild. The Masonic Lodge asked him to leave after he was divorced the second time.

A gold mine of sympathy comes with claiming to be a victim, even the victim of a ghost. It’s a great excuse to go on the attack, which makes a person feel powerful or at least virtuous. It attracts “nice” little college girls drifting through the corridors of academia, looking for some kind of empowering cause. It might be a mistake to even repeat this accusation because it contributes to spreading the rumor and marks me for attack.

I don’t care about “nice” or “evil”. What I care about is consciousness. I want to perceive and understand as much as I can, even about people who play with what they think is the dark side. The real dark is unconsciousness -- not knowing, not feeling, just blank nonbeing. Consciousness is the defining gift of human beings. An ancient religious rule says persons ought to do what their unique nature allows them to do. Humans are the creatures who can rejoice in creation. (Forget the Creator -- too much like a human.)

People have wanted me to give up my ties to Bob Scriver, because they think it interferes with the possibility of me becoming attached to THEM. They have wanted me to move away from Valier and come live by them. Even some people in Valier would like me to move away so I WON’T live by them. People actively drove me away from Heart Butte. “You don’t belong here,” said the vengeful woman, and then she moved to Valier!

My guiding religious compass is the circle with a dot in the middle. Bob Scriver and the high east slope prairie are the dot, the center place, my axis mundi. The Internet, writing, and Cinematheque are my farthest reach of the circle so far, but now that I know these trails to the edge of the precipice, I can see beyond and go even farther.

The few people I’ve told this story about Bob have had two questions. One is why would anyone make up such a story? The other is why would anyone tell me it existed, knowing that it would hurt me? The answer is that these are just the flip side of the people who tell me what a great man Bob Scriver was, how close to him they were, how he loved them best. Both are looking for power, connection. It was right to tell me. I want to hear everything. It is all part of experience, evidence about the world. Pain is merely the price for feeling at all. My task is to grasp it all and figure it out, cruel and terrifying as it might be. Bob Scriver’s ghost is neither to me: I welcome it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The ads along the sides or in a line at the top on gmail are triggered by w is said in the message. I get that. Sometimes they are so out of sync with the sense that they are funny and I add them as a post script. Then my correspondents and I began to understand that we weren’t getting the same ads, presumably because of different demographics, so it was clear the computer algorithm was including several factors. Region, maybe, or previous purchases.

Today on “,” (, a favorite lunchtime talk show, Robin Young interviewed a couple of wild characters who were editing a magazine called “The Exile” in Moscow. The 3/22/10 program is called “Tales From The Dark Side Of Post-Soviet Russia.

The tale goes as follows:

“In 1997, Mark Ames founded The Exile, an English language newspaper that took on the establishment of post-Soviet Russia in ways no other journalism dared. After the fall of communism, a series of political and economic reforms sent Russian society into a tailspin, but nobody was writing about it… except The Exile. Mark Ames and partner Matt Taibbi went native, immersing themselves into the culture and sub-culture to get the truth — a truth that they say was ignored by the mainstream press. We speak with Mark Ames, as well as James Verini, who writes about the rise and fall of The Exile in the current issue of Vanity Fair.”

It was pure wild-man expose, making Cinematheque look like rubber duckies in the wake of these guys rocketing through on Zodiacs. The story, which is archived online as a sound file, told about joining the corrupt and decadent (to say nothing of lethal) Moscow culture to find out about it. Stunts like “loading up on Viagra” in order to “test drive” nine prostitutes in nine hours. Since Viagra was originally developed as a heart drug that expands capillaries and congests both heart and brain, the guy was lucky to live through the experience. It is counter-indicated for people who have heart problems and this guy is a former athlete, almost all of whom have such overdeveloped bodies that their hearts struggle. He would have had a helluva headache if he’d been drug-free enough to feel it, but he added cocaine to the mix. There comes a point when this stuff is just suicide by adventure. Is that more than you want to know?

That’s not the point I want to make. The article itself was supposed to be in Vanity Fair this month. So I got my copy and looked for the article. It’s not there. It was online, but not in my copy of the magazine. Evidently it’s like Google: what you actually get -- even though you assume it’s standard -- has been edited to suit your demographic. I knew they were playing with several different covers for the same issue, depending on what they thought would sell. I also knew that with digital publishing it’s very possible -- and common practice -- to publish different versions of a newspaper for different parts of town. (Those who are in towns big enough to have different parts.) But I hadn’t put it together. This story was evidently considered too intense for Montana. Huh? Well, for the people in Montana who buy magazines.

When printing can only be economically done by setting up once and running huge numbers of the same thing, Texas and California by so many copies that they can control the contents of textbooks by insisting that they be tailored to their culture, meaning creationism is in, abortion is out; conservative religion is in, abstract art is out. But now that domination is potentially over. It’s not that hard to tailor texts regionally, state by state, even district by district. If they can do it for Vanity Fair, they can do it for science textbooks.

But what does that mean in terms of access to the truth? We had thought that Google was giving us fair lists of everything online. But it’s doing exactly the same thing that China is: telling us what they want us to know. Like Wikipedia, telling us what THEY want us to know. The difference between Chinese bureaucrat autocrats and over-educated, under-experienced white men of a certain class and education is no difference at all when it comes to the principle of controlling information in order to control the people. Both giving us what WE want and giving us what THEY want is still control.

So this is the next logical step in the Adam Curtis sequence leading from the group hypnotism of Hitler, to the psychoanalytic force for conformity of Freud, to the advertising and political strategies of Bernays (who relied on his own grasp of human nature), and the current questionnaire-controlled spin that manipulates us in so many ways. Why fuss around with a questionnaire asking us what we think when they can simply edit the facts -- alter the evidence -- in a way that causes us to think what they want us to.

When I realized the article about THE EXILE was missing from my copy of Vanity Fair, I resorted to the online website. THE EXILE was there and I read it. I also read the comments, which split half-and-half between the opinion that these guys were brilliant and daring and the opposite: that they were minority nut cases. They should be censored. Children might read the article.

Yesterday I had a long talk with a fairly sophisticated Blackfeet educator. He remarked that the kids now (and by kids we meant people under forty) seem frozen, unexcited about anything at all, floating like zombies, except that if anyone tried to force them or coerce them, they blew up -- violently. I can testify that it’s not just a rez phenom. I think it is a denial based on fear. To borrow an image from my recent movie, they are in a mine field, afraid to move for fear of setting off explosions-- either from inside themselves or from others -- so they freeze. They cannot stand the fog of ambiguity and not-really-knowing that is the modern world. They cannot reflect on possibility. They cannot reach out. They refuse to risk.

Call Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, Ask them whether that sounds like Moscow as they came to know it. Fear-based politics. Hang on tight. It’s not over. Is that more than you want to know?

Siren was right: her email was too long to put on comments, so I'll just add it as an edit. I have her permission.

Dear Mary Scriver,

I originally meant to post this as a comment on your blog, but alas, I'm too long-winded, and too attached to my own words to shorten what I want to say. This morning when I told Sharon (sbpoet) I'd just stumbled onto your blog, she made a delighted sound, encouraged me to comment or send an email to you, and told me if I did to tell you hello for her. So: Sharon says hello. And if you object to this email, it's totally her fault, as I probably wouldn't've written to you if she hadn't told me you were okay and that you like cats. So if you feel the need to express any complaints about some opinionated upstart contacting you out of the blue like this, you should most definitely take it up with her.

Anyhow I'm writing this in response to the last part of your blog entry (the one from earlier this week titled "What Do You Want to Know?" [March 23, 2010]), and to save you some clicking, the paragraph I'm responding to is this one:

"Yesterday I had a long talk with a fairly sophisticated Blackfeet educator. He remarked that the kids now (and by kids we meant people under forty) seem frozen, unexcited about anything at all, floating like zombies, except that if anyone tried to force them or coerce them, they blew up -- violently. I can testify that it’s not just a rez phenom. I think it is a denial based on fear. To borrow an image from my recent movie, they are in a mine field, afraid to move for fear of setting off explosions-- either from inside themselves or from others -- so they freeze. They cannot stand the fog of ambiguity and not-really-knowing that is the modern world. They cannot reflect on possibility. They cannot reach out. They refuse to risk."

Now I'm not a rez kid, but technically I'm still a kid, and since you argue this is not just a reservation-specific thing, I take that to mean you think it's a more general truth about young people everywhere. So as a young person, I feel compelled to tell you we aren't all volatile fear-frozen zombies caught in a denial-based apathy that grows from being incapable of tolerating the unknown and the inability to know.

I can't speak for other young people, of course, and I don't mean to make it sound like I think I'm a sophisticated anything, but I can tell you I'm probably more like you than I am like the kids you describe here.

Yes the unknown scares me, and I don't like it when I find out some ambiguities will always be mysterious to me, especially when those ambiguities live here inside my skin, and even more especially when they have anything to do with morality and integrity and accountability and such.

But I'm not paralyzed. I reflect on possibilities to the point of being totally insufferable about it. I look inside and try not to blink, even when I feel unsure of what I see, even when I touch something and it explodes. And I do reach out and take risks, like right now for instance, even though it makes me totally nervous, and even though pretty much everything in my life has taught me the safest thing would be to tuck deep inwards and make a hard shell. I have this thing, see, of wanting to make connections, and wanting to understand other people, and wanting to learn what I can about this place and time, this new world I'll be spending the rest of my life in, and might even have a hand in shaping someday.

So take heart. The things that matter to you matter to some of us youngsters, too. I know I'm different from a lot of people my age, so Sharon relentlessly claims anyhow, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who can feel fear and yet still dare to move. I'm sending this email, after all, ha, even though it's likely more than you wanted to know, even though you're scary-smart, even though you're a real grownup and I'm not, and even though there's no reason why I should assume someone like you would want to hear the reactions of someone like me.

I want you to know people like me exist. There are still young people who are bravely in motion, and who are not afraid of approaching this wild, amazing, confusing, foggy, frightening, mine-filled world with excitement, with wonder, and, however sappy it sounds to say it, from a principle of love.

So there.

Respectfully, if a tiny bit indignantly,

P.S. Today I've been browsing some of your entries tagged "morality" and "ethics," and I thought you might be pleased to hear you are the first person I've come across who speaks of these things in terms I might be willing to use myself. (Well, okay, I'm pleased about it, anyhow, ha.) Of course, I haven't been on the web for very long, and it seems I've been looking in all the wrong places, so maybe I've only just now hit this pocket of thinkers, and for all I know you're just one among many, but still. From what I can tell, you seem pretty cool, even including the ageism thing, and I like the way you talk about stuff.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I lilypad through the Independent films by ordering via Netflix from previews on the DVD’s. They are always remarkable. For example, I’ll tell you about the last three I watched.

FESTEN or THE CELEBRATION is a Danish film, the first in a category of films called “Dogme 95.” “Dogme” isn’t about canines: it’s Danish for dogma. “Dogme 95” is a list of principles in a manifesto by filmmakers with a thirst for reality. Here are the first three rules of the list of ten:

1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.

One of the rules is that the director must not be named, so I won’t. The truth addressed here is not just in terms of film technique. One Dane in comments could he hardly bear to watch it because he recognized so much hypocrisy in the “dogma” about families and his society uncovered in this devastating account of a sixtieth birthday celebration of the patriarch of a family clearly askew, soon revealed as psychotic due to the beastly conduct of the man they are celebrating. The filming technique makes it convincingly a home movie, artfully spontaneous. It’s hard to remember that the actors are not actual people, that there WAS a director, cameras, crew and so on.

I was also struck by the variety of reactions in the reviewers. The film opens with a man walking on a country road in what one man described as a “bleak landscape,” but the character (who is talking on a cell phone as he walks) says it is beautiful and that’s how it looked to me as well. I think that many movie viewers are only urban.

It’s pesky to deal with film that has subtitles, but I’m willing to put up with it and quite unable to learn Arabic, which is one of the languages of “INDIGENES” or “DAYS OF GLORY.” I could occasionally get the snatches of French. Actors were far more than actors in this true account of the soldiers of North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, and other Arabic countries), the brown and black people who were drawn into WWII because they were part of the French empire. Incredibly proud, sometimes professionally military for centuries as mercenaries, and dirt poor in the most literal sense, the story follows four men whose stories were shaped by the ancestors of the actors. The director, Rashid Bouchareb, waited many years for experienced Kurdish actors to develop, infusing them with determination to help get this film done.

Four major characters, quite different, emerge to claim our hearts. “Said,” Jamel Debbouze, is the poorest and most simple, the traditional rustic always on the edge of comedy. “Abdelkader,” Sami Boualija, is the educated one who insists on justice. “Yassir,” Sami Naceri, is the professional soldier, hoping to make enough money to set up his brother for life -- if he lives, since he’s also a soldier. “Messaoud Souni,” Roschdy Zem, the dignified marksman, wishes to be French and at liberation in Marseilles is instantly attracted to a French woman who returns his rapport and takes him to bed. Their love is aborted by military censors who ridicule their heartfelt letters and throw them away. Only one man survives: “I alone escaped to tell you.”

This relatively simple movie is easily as powerful as any Hollywood production full of special effects and explosions. The actors are skillful and the fact of their strangeness to an American makes them seem altogether real. It was a shock to see the actors interviewed as themselves. They were working to illuminate the injustices that triggered the post-modern Marxist thought that underlies so much resentment and justification for terrorism among students who were never there, who would be the great-grandchildren of these men if they were Arabic, and yet who know nothing about it -- just that they are angry and defiant. They do not know that these men, who fought in sandals during mountain winters without resentment, waited patiently to be paid until they could stand it no longer because their families desperately needed the money. When they demonstrated, the French simply massacred them.

is Kurdish for TURTLES CAN FLY. This Iran/Iraq joint production has no actors: all parts are played by refugee children simply being themselves as they retrace events. Four are main characters: a tall bespectacled boy, a little older and beginning puberty, is a natural leader and keeps his horde of raggedy children organized enough to earn food money by clearing the barren fields of mines. Many are missing limbs. A little “family” of sorts has its own leader, another boy like the first but with a keen blade of a face, no arms, and an ability to see into the future. He can find mines which he disarms with his teeth. A stunned but beautiful young girl is with him: the film opens with her stepping over a precipice into space. A small child, blind, is with them.

There’s much more to this story, much mysticism and Kurdish symbolism, which I might unravel if I watched this film again, but it was so painful that I could hardly make it through the first time. There are funny moments and strongly political ones, especially when the US soldiers, just beginning the invasion of Iraq, appear on the road: healthy, strong, equipped, running alongside their vehicles as though the refugee camp didn’t exist. Suddenly you realize that there are no fighting-age men in the movie until this moment. It is a world of children who try to help themselves as well as guiding the old men charged with running the village.

This is the least sentimental film of the three. Sentimentality, easy emotion for people who have life easy, is not a characteristic of Independent films. I’m so grateful. “No sentimentality” is one of my “dogmes.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010


An email from a divinity school student came at just the right time. I was using my new bright orange, alligator hide, 3-ring binder to sum up my understanding of some of the stuff I work on and she was just the right person to tell about it. In case there are others like her out there, here’s what some of my notes look like.

DELEUZEGATTARIAN THOUGHT: I’m finding that people have been taught not to be ironic about theological stuff involving people with long names (especially when they’re two people’s names jammed together) so I’ll have to tell you outright that some of this stuff is funny and meant to tease. I have two official books by these two philosophical guys now, but if you want to read up, I would recommend starting with Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge ( which is an online journal. Costs you nothing. The reason for reading up on the hard versions is so that I can write up Cinematheque, the Vooking and art group for boys at risk, for an article in their September issue.

HERACLITUS: Always a hero. So far back in history that much of his work is lost, but the main message is that all is change and process. Even change itself varies in rate and strategy. When a person accepts this, life goes better. When I preached about Heraclitus, I always talked “fire and honey”: the sweetness of the flow of time that burns things away even as it kindles new things. Poetic, eh?

BIBFELDT: This is a nonexistent theologian invented at the University of Chicago Divinity School as a reaction to too much emphasis on Kierkegaard’s unforgiving either/or. Bibfeldt’s name starts with B, which is traditional with many major German theologians on your educated ministers’ bookshelves. John Updike was fond of Barth. By now there is a body of work, some of which purports to be written by this “person” and some of which simply develops his principles, which turn out to be remarkably fruitful. There are Bibfeldt conferences and sometimes he actually appears, bearing a family resemblance to Martin Marty, beloved professor.

MIRCEA ELIADE: These days some feminists are mad at this man who loved women. He’s gone now so he’s a safe target. I don’t quite grasp the issues but it has something to do with the nature of shamanism. It might actually be JOE CAMPBELL they’re angry with. He was another man who loved women; at the women’s university where he taught, the co-eds are said to have leaned against his knees as they sat around him in a circle. Bill Moyers didn’t do this when he interviewed Campbell on PBS.

Eliade and Campbell are accumulators and sorters (aggregators and curators) of religious experience and do a lot of reconciliation among world religions. They dive for a very deep level of experience, like that duck (or muskrat -- depends on your tribe) that goes down to the bottom of the watery world to bring up the first Earth. Just the simple grasp of the idea that sacred experience feels different from “profane” experience and that such a thing can be as simple as standing in a doorway (transitional, liminal) gets a person off the dogma kick.

I think it was reading Eliade or maybe PAUL TILLICH that got me started on my own diagram of the spiritual universe. Instead of the Christian Cross -- which depends upon the intersection of the vertical (reaching for God) with the horizontal (living in the world) which creates a point that tempts some Christians into trying to fence off and charge admission -- my schema depends on a dot (which is really a pole, that vertical going both up and down) which is your own center point rather than an institution, and a circle which is as far as you can reach out into the unknown. The goal then is inclusion: to trek out to the edge of the known world (Do you know Tim Barrus?), always coming back to your center.

ROBERT J. SCHREITER, JAMES HILLMAN, and THOMAS MOORE extend and explain this sort of thing at length, though Moore recently had the bad luck to publish a book on the spiritual contributions of golf just as Tiger Woods hit the wall -- er, the fire hydrant. (There’s symbolism in that!)

CHAOS THEORY is something I need to go back and look at again. I need to read up on fractals, which are what make the northern lights and the map of a coastline look so beautiful. One of the ideas is that things are made up of a lot of small things and the small things often repeat the patterns of the big inclusive pattern. It’s paisley, really. But it also has a lot to do with narrative patterns, like life-stories.

There’s something in here that relates to Freud’s idea of “repetition compulsion,” that a person has to repeat a story until getting it resolved. A principle of symphonies, actually. I don’t find a great deal that’s helpful in Freud (indeed, after watching Adam Curtis’ 4 part series about Freud, Bernays, and what they invented ( ) I’m highly doubtful. The helpful idea is that much of what a human thinks is not accessible to the conscious mind. The demonic development is that you can control a human being, or even zillions of them at the same time, if you can make a shrewd guess about what’s in that unconscious part. No drugs or coercion necessary -- just advertising, really. Spin, you know.

So that brings me to the last set of thinkers I have room for: THIRD FORCE and OBJECT RELATIONS psychological systems. They’re like Christian denominations, each claiming a different variation on roughly the same themes. The two issues I address most often are boundaries and intimacy. They are universal human issues because they emerge out of our relationships with the people who raise us. (Not necessarily the people whose genes and womb-environment we had.) Some people call this the porcupine problem: how can porcupines get close enough to each other to keep warm (or make babies) without piercing each other with their quills? In the end (so to speak) the only way is through experience, which means you’re going to accumulate some wounds. But if you do a good job of processing, it WILL be possible to be intimate without being hurt.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"REAL MEAT" by Bob Scriver

The Blackfeet had one of those duality categories in their language. To them, the Blackfeet were the “REAL people” and everyone else was “nothing people.” (A person became Blackfeet by learning to speak the language.) Likewise, buffalo were “real meat” and the other animals were “nothing meat.” (One warrior remarked that he hated leaving the prairie because it meant eating “nothing meat.”) Grizzlies were “real bears” and black bears were “nothing bears,” of no concern. This is why Bob Scriver’s bronze sculpture of a group of buffalo is entitled “Real Meat.”

It is a “real bronze” in several senses IF one has a casting made in the Bighorn Foundry, which was Bob’s own foundry. Second, it was portraits of real people and animals. Bob had been riding in the Moiese National Bison roundup for several years. He was permitted to return at the time of slaughter (the herd has to be constantly culled or it will overwhelm its range) so that he could measure animals to make accurate individual portraits. The model for the horses was his own favorite, Gunsmoke, affectionately called “Gunnysack.” The Blackfeet were Fern Omeaso, Sr., and Lyle and Clyde Heavyrunner. They were part of George and Molly Kicking Woman’s family.

But that only scratches the surface. When Bob measured animals, which is one of the foundations of the reality he was able to evoke, he drew them from the side and top, front and back, and then put calipers on the dimensions, measuring the distance to the quarter-inch and recording them on the drawings. All these measurement schemas went to the Montana Historical Society where they were not recognized or understood. They didn’t look like anything to the art technicians there. I hope they weren't discarded.

The only part of Bob’s relationship to the tribe that the sensationalists understand is the accusations surrounding the sale of his artifact collection to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. They do not grasp that the men who posed for this sculpture were friends, that they were paid to pose as well as sometimes working in the shop, and that posing -- often in the evening after work -- were occasions of camaraderie and mirth as the men sat astride a homemade shop bench, wielding a broom for a spear. Stories were traded and visions of exploits ghosted through the air.

This bronze was not quite finished when my story about Bob Scriver appeared in American Artist magazine in 1965 between an article about Norman Rockwell and an article about Maurice Sendak. Nice neighborhood! Paul Juley had to be flown out from New York City to take this photo for the magazine because no local photographer at that time could get the results they wanted. The photos Juley took are now housed in the Smithsonian with all the photos taken by Paul and Peter A. Juley, his father, who between them photographed all the major Beaux Arts sculptors of familiar monuments back east. The Sixties are a half-century in the past now and it’s hard to recapture what those times were like in Browning, Montana. It was a transition period with the Kennedy administration just beginning to pump in money for housing. The “Free School” movement had not quite started. Historic Blackfeet religious ceremonies were still underground, not because anyone actively suppressed them but because there were only a few in the generation that remembered them, the people eighty years old.

When “Real Meat” was first displayed, attacks on it were swift but not fatal. The complaint was that it was a “copy” of Charlie Russell’s “Wild Meat for Wild Men.” This was because the subject was the same: two men on horseback chasing buffalo. This is the level on which many people perceive art: the subject matter. If they can’t tell what the subject matter is, they don’t like the art, thus the suspicion about abstract art. This also promotes the constant search for some content that hasn’t been portrayed before, which can lead to strange sculptures of things like babies in the process of being born, instead of concentrating on the qualities of the work -- which is what really distinguishes one artist from another. There have been hundreds of depictions of biblical scenes like Christ being taken down from the Cross. Indeed, in some times and places depictions of religious subjects, like the afflictions of saints, were the only subject matter allowed.

So this was a bogus accusation, but not an unexpected one. Bob worked against it several ways. Russell used a slightly smaller scale, his figures were generally quite rough -- partly because his work was mostly “haptic” meaning hands-on -- but Bob used tools as well, and the compositional design was different. In “No More Buffalo”, his self-published book about his Blackfeet series, Bob says, “Upon analyzing the basic composition of his [Charlie’s] sculpture, I found it to be based on a counter-clockwise movement, so I based my piece on an explosive design. Thus, though the subject matter is the same, the basic designs are entirely different.

Charlie Russell never chased buffalo this way. They were gone by the time he got to Montana. Bob Scriver did. That makes a difference as well. Bob was constrained by reality but Charlie was free to imagine and exaggerate. Which is better is a silly question. Each method is good in its own way.

According to the newspaper, a casting of “Real Meat” will be loaned for display to the new Federal Court House in Great Falls. I hope it is a good casting, as a sculptor is at the mercy of his or her foundry in a way that a painter is not. Bob’s patinas were based on “Les Animaliers,” the French Beaux Arts sculptors who excelled at creatures and were supported by the same brilliant foundries used by Rodin. Indeed, some of them trained with Rodin. But one of the many blunders on the part of the uninformed lawyer who drew up Bob’s will (or one of them, as he revised them almost daily) was not understanding that by giving the collection to the Montana Historical Society, the copyrights would not be enforced, thus opening the way to cheap casting. The Historical Society has neither the will nor the funds to pursue cases. Once again, the sculptor is at the mercy of non-artists.