Wednesday, June 30, 2010


If you go to YouTube and type in “Ivan Doig” you’ll find some good historic photos of Montana and Ivan.

Ivan Doig
graduated from high school right here in this village in 1957 and hasn’t been back since. I am the same age he is, graduated from high school in Portland, OR, the same year. We both attended Northwestern University, class of 1961, Ivan in journalism and history; myself in theatre and English. We must have been in the same B43 comped-out English lecture class from Bergan Evans, so big a class it was in an auditorium. My roommate, Gwen Cline, dated his roommate, Ralph Votapek. (Yes, the Tchiakovsky pianist.) When we graduated, Ivan went on for a master’s degree. I came near here, to Browning, Montana, to teach high school. My step-daughter (when I married here) had been Ivan’s schoolmate, though she was a little older.

Both Doig and I write and you might think we’d have a lot in common, both being Scots and word-people and connected to this place. You’d be dead wrong. Ivan does the right thing. I do the wrong thing. No use in telling you to do the wrong thing, so let me tell you the right things that Ivan does.

1. He married very well indeed. His wife is beautiful, intelligent, educated, a college professor, willing to work during the lean years when Ivan was writing but no money was coming in, willing to get in the car with Ivan and a big pile of copies of “This House of Sky” to hand-sell them across Montana. She is very much the model of some of Ivan’s excellent heroines.

2. He didn’t stay rural. The trouble with rural is not that they’re stupid, not that they don’t appreciate good writing, or anything like that. The problem with rural is that there are not enough people. In Seattle Ivan can do speaking and reading engagements in great numbers without having to drive more than an hour. To speak that much in Montana he’d have to cover hundreds and hundreds of miles, adding the costs of gas and motels to whatever other costs there are.

3. He actively sells his books. He maintains a website “platform” with a calendar on which he posts his speaking engagements. He doesn’t hide unless he’s actually writing and needs not to be interrupted. He’s an engaging personality.

4. He got into the book business before the collapse. When he started out in the Sixties, books were still revered, publishers still nurtured their authors, people still read books.

5. He writes what people want to read. “Winter Brothers” and “The Sea Runners” -- let alone “Prairie Nocturne” -- did not appeal to his core audience. It was “This House of Sky” and the “English Creek” sequence that sold like mad. A good gold miner doesn’t dig where there is no gold ore.

6. People around Valier do read these books and they do like Ivan’s books, but they always think maybe they know a little more about it than Ivan does. The people who really praise and glorify these books are the ones who know the least about this country. They know what they think they know, which is a glowing country of stalwart people, and they like that high-class “lapidary” near-poetry prose, and they have no way to tell that it’s a construct. Over-simplified. A little on the Mark Twain side.

7. To Ivan’s credit he brings in a bit of history and he generally does his research. He is quite like Annie Proulx because his stories come from the library or the newspaper rather than from being at the rodeo, in the bar, on the rez, etc. (Let’s not talk about the rez. That’s a sore spot -- not for me, for Ivan. He used to say it was up to Jim Welch to cover that beat.) Things happened, likely could happen, but Ivan wasn’t there. (It was more confusing to be there.)

8. So far as I know, Ivan’s real life has been regular, secure, and happy. He seems to be a middle-class achiever and proud of it, the same as his readers.

9. His books are available as speaking books in CD’s, cassettes and audio downloads. These are sold at the same chain stores that always keep his books in stock: Borders, Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Indiebound.

10. Ivan is book-club and classroom friendly, providing discussion guides, questions to consider, reader’s guides, personal notes and all the other paraphernalia meant to make the reader feel part of the initiated group.

In short, this basically self-contained, quiet and even shy man has created a niche for himself where people feel they know him, though there’s very little unstructured interaction; where his reputation is as an expert on Montana while for half a century he has actually lived on the Pacific Coast in the great mega-urban sprawl around Seattle; where he highly values family but has none. It is possible that the current running through the books is one of yearning, a seeking to reconcile roots with blossoms. Like Wallace Stegner, he was a Westerner who was taught to seek culture in the city. “Wolf Willow” (Stegner’s memoir) and “This House of Sky” are among the very top Western memoirs, so they are ironic. They do not glorify the West. They’re quite aware of why they left and what they found in the city, which was culture, respect, ways to build their professions.

The funky ones -- the ones who love the West and stay, managing somehow to find books and teachers and now sitting late into the night at their computers -- will probably never make it into print with their books. They might not write any. They might sing songs instead -- that’s always happened. They might write wonderful letters that no one saves. Nowadays they blog. They’re likely to BE what Ivan writes about. So which is the right thing and which is the wrong thing or doesn’t it matter at all?

I don’t think Ivan and I should ask each other. I think it goes back to our high school days, when his high school teacher taught him to be proper and cultured and my high school teacher taught me stagecraft and tragedy. (She married an older man in Nevada and had lots of adventures.) Though we sat through B43 English together and both laughed when someone put goldfish in Bergan Evans’ pitcher of ice water, we heard with different ears. In 1961 I lit out for Indian Territory. He didn’t. That’s the bottom line.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


They’re saying that I’m really Tim Barrus. Not that I’m Tim Barrus’ co-writer, but that Tim made me up. I’m flattered that they think my writing sounds like Tim Barrus, but then they can’t tell one person’s writing from another. That’s because they rarely read it. They like oral scandal. Harder to trace.

Who are they? I run across them now and then. If they’re in Montana, they’re bound to be in Missoula or Butte. If they’re on the rez, they’re bound to be in the three resort towns, usually in a bar. It’s always a little mysterious where their money comes from. They used to show up on all the time, not so much as the regular posters but in the comments, more likely. They know ALL about everything. Because they SAY so. No doubt their mothers agree with them about that. And everyone they know in Manhattan. They’re the Entitled Generation. They Know Everything and edit Wikipedia, so the masses can become enlightened. At least as far as their term papers go. They are conservative -- they don’t want to lose their status -- but they love porn -- that’s what their status is for.

When I first started corresponding with Tim, I got warnings from friends. In some ways it’s my own fault because years ago for April Fool’s Day I invented a long story about how I’d fallen in love with a three-hundred-pound Samoan man half my age and would be moving to Samoa soon, except that his mother really didn’t approve of me. But we were soul mates and so on. I was highly entertained that so many people believed this tale. Of those people, half congratulated me and remarked on what a wonderful thing love is to transcend all barriers of culture and age. The other half were concerned -- “Oh, it’s not going to work out and your heart will be broken and think of that young man’s future, after all!”

Of course, some of these same people had watched my romance with Bob Scriver, warning me away from him and pointing out the enormous difference in age and culture and predicting that I would soon lose interest. After twelve years I got pushed out, but I never lost interest. In fact, he’s dead and I’m STILL interested.

When we started corresponding, even Tim didn’t quite believe that I was real. Once he asked me to post some photos of my growing-up years, showing me with family. He has stalkers and spies, you know, and he thought I might be one of them. Sometimes I think he still wonders whether I’m real. I might be Marie of Roumania.

Not that I would mind. When I was a little kid, my family used to take Sunday drives up the Columbia River to the Maryhill Museum where Marie of Roumania’s coronation gown, cloth of gold encrusted with diamonds, is on display along with her golden (and very square) carved throne. She was quite lovely. Alas, I can tell I’m not Marie. She had one of those 17-inch corseted waists. Tim’s wife Tina would fit into that gown. Not me. ( Very nice short vid there about art.)

Anyway, after being fooled by that Samoan (I think they really just WANTED to believe in him!) my friends were suspicious of Tim and went straight to Wikipedia to get the TRUTH. Oh, no!! I was co-writing with Rasputin! There was no Evil beyond him! After all, he had written three books in which he pretended to be half-Navajo! Few things are such ghastly acts of betrayal -- at least since the actual prairie clearance massacres -- as claiming to be a Native American. Esp. when indignation is good advertising for an NA stand-up comedian who needs a little boost. (The secret thing this guy and Tim really shared was agony over a disabled son.)

Everything is turning out pretty well between Tim and I, considering that the publishing industry is down the drain. I mean, Tim and I co-write day after day after day, preparing for the time when some kind of “publishing” re-constitutes itself and is ready for words both spoken and printed, mixed with video, music, and whatever else we think of. Tim wants to be published more than I do, but he has real work in his real life. I don’t give a rip about fame and fortune. I’m retired.

When I was working with Bob Scriver, he instructed me that I was the subordinate, that I should not get the big head or imply to others that I was doing anything except what I was told. Actually, of course, I was up to my elbows and sometimes over my head in what was happening, but he said that people expect an artist to be in charge, to be the only genius. So I agreed. But Tim is not like that. He believes in equals. That’s partly the difference between someone born in 1950 versus someone born in 1914, and partly a matter of personality. But I love it. It’s inspiring.

Maybe I ought to be angry at these guys who think I’m only an assistant person for Tim, a sock-puppet, the way Bob asked me to pretend to be. To them it’s a further demonstration that their interpretation of the world is rock solid. They will not change it and they will not accept any evidence that would ask them to. They will not believe that I’m the co-writer of “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs,” even though I’m sending out the queries and my name is all over it. They say the boys helped write it, but they also say the boys don’t exist. In fact, anything they don’t like simply doesn’t exist except for Tim Barrus.

They crave Tim Barrus. If they thought I was real and if they really wanted to know the truth about Tim Barrus, they might ask me. But they don’t want to know. They don’t want to talk to me. They make no contact with me. (They don’t like girls anyway.) They just want to get their hands on Tim Barrus: it’s a love/hate thing, I guess. It was there before the Nasdijj scandal. It was even there when he was a little kid. Charisma, I suppose. Bob had it, too. Dangerous. It attracts abuse.

How do you relate to a person with charisma that everyone wants to get their hands on? Well, it’s a helluva lot easier when it’s only in print. (I’ve never met Tim, I keep saying.) I mean, when you’re eating and sleeping and working all day every day with such a person, things get a little “fraught.” Ask those boys, those “unreal” boys. Now and then everyone has to stop and sort things out. Bob and I didn’t get to do that. The dramas got way too intense. I don’t miss that part, but it sure supplies a lot of writing material.

At least Tim and the boys read it. And I read what they write. Because there is no better way to get really close to a person than by reading their writing when it’s real and it’s true. If you can tell that’s what it is. The first way is to give up your entitlement. Marie of Roumania did.

Monday, June 28, 2010


When I was sorting some magazines, I ran across two issues of “Sculpture Review” with covers that seemed to be good illustrations of suggestive ambiguity. This magazine is produced by The National Sculpture Society and dedicated to recognizable figures though not necessarily absolutely realistic and not necessarily contemporary. Most of the images are human (you can’t very well sculpt landscape) but maybe primitive or experimental. It is not necessarily the most realistic that are the most effective.

Consider these two: Fall, 2006, shows “Behold the Boy” (Ecce Puer) by Medardo Rossi (1906) made of beeswax over plaster. 17 1/2 high. Sweetly blurred, we see an unformed child.

Winter, 2006, is dedicated to memorials of Genocide, Holocaust and War. This is the head of "Proeizione" by Novello Finotti. (2004) Bardiglio Marble, 10 feet high. The skull yet has a human personality.

Richard Stern
introduced my writing class to the idea of this ambiguity (which is exploited by the post-moderns) by asking us to read a short piece by Robbe-Grillet. It is simply a description of a room, but by using our tendency to project emotion and meaning onto objects, it is menacing. A pillow shows a staring owl. A window is cracked. Things on the table are askew. One expects a shot to ring out. The younger members of the class had trouble understanding. To them, a cushion was a cushion. Or not. They were still at the stage of labeling taxonomy. Some people never get past that and do their morality the same way: it’s either good or bad. No in-between, no mitigating circumstances.

They understand gender the same way: you’re a girl, go to the kitchen. You’re a boy, go to the garage. And yet they have learned that stereotyping is bad, which muddles them until they decide “you don’t fit the system, so go away. I don’t like being confused.”

We live in confused times. Maybe we always do, but right now we seem to be in the midst of crashing surf as the cultural patterns of historically and geographically defined cultures must compete for resources like oil and water, damaging the earth that holds them. Thinking, recorded in art (and that includes writing), can help to at least keep track and sometimes to reassure. Certainly the Old Testament has leapt back into meaningful life as the same terrain becomes a battlefield again and the same commandment-based fundamentalism must go head-to-head with scientific enlightenment ideas about what it is to be human on a planet with no gods.

We know enough to identify diseases that would probably have been simply mysterious plagues in the past, things like leprosy or AIDS, and yet we don’t quite know enough to prevent or cure these diseases and must hold everyone in a kind of chronic suspended animation while we wait. In the meantime the rising tide of environmental contamination laps at our dinner tables.

Did you read the story about the sperm whale tissue assays over the weekend? While we obsess over the BP oil spill, we are destroying ALL the life in the sea. The very fact that we have the ability to dart whales in the Arctic to get tissues samples, can analyze that tissue for trace elements, and that the results are expressed with mathematics expands the incredibility of what was done. Few of us have ever darted a whale. We are conscious of the specific, the perceptible, the personal, the sensory. Big global forces like weather change or the state of the national economy are too ambiguous, too contradictory. How do we know who’s right?

To keep from getting paralyzed, we need some sure things. That makes everyone susceptible to flat statements from authority figures, whether scientists or politicians. The advertisers have taught the nation’s ambitious to use fear to sell: fear of stinking, fear of ostracism, fear of being out-dated or unloved or poor. We’ve been so well taught that emotion is meaningful that reasonable, patient, measured men just look stupid to us. Why doesn’t Obama get angry at that oil spill? Where’s his heart? Doesn’t he REALIZE?

Rarely do artists make big flat statements. More often they aim to arouse a way to think by using sensory markers, like the furnishings in an ordinary apartment. We confront a direct experience instead of an algorithm.

There is another responsibility for art and that is to give courage to be different. It is effective enough that artists are notorious for being uncontrollable and eccentric. (In fact, some people cash in on the uncontrollable, addicted and eccentric part of the image without ever creating any art at all!) In some times and places such a personality is demonized and excluded. (Like now. And like the Fifties.) At other times and places the same personality is celebrated. (Like San Francisco in the Sixties and Seventies or Paris in the Thirties.) What’s funny is that the artists sometimes change places, so that Kerouac or Ginsberg or Wilde or -- come to that-- Shakespeare, are brushed off as losers but then later dusted off as geniuses. Last year’s bold tough innovative general is this year’s loose cannon.

From the artist’s point of view, part of the ambiguity is never really knowing whether they are bum or prophet. They must concentrate on the work itself without considering whether it will make them famous or they will soon be lost. But they also need to think sharply about what the work is saying in the world. Art changes people and can lead them in new ways. It gives them something specific and sensory to understand. This is one reason art is sometimes considered a therapy. It is not about fear -- it is about vision.

Today on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” a three part series by Barbara Bradley Hagerty began. It is about brains, specifically the brain of a man who studies murderers and discovered that his brain is exactly like theirs.
James Fallon kept this secret for a long time because people are so inclined to jump to conclusions without considering circumstances that he could easily have been labeled a murderer in spite of his non-violent personality and his many contributions. We’re always looking for obvious markers. This one is serious enough that in some cultures people might be inclined to give all babies brain scans and kill any that had this pattern, the way some peoples used to kill twins at birth because they were “unnatural.” As it turns out, other factors are the “warrior gene” that regulate serotonin in the brain, and abuse or violence in one's childhood. "And fortunately, he wasn't abused as a young person," Diane [his wife, who has known him since she was twelve years old] says, "so I've lived to be a ripe old age so far."

The commentors on this story so far are interesting. Some said this is just a gimmick to sell more pills, some said the whole thing is a fraud, several said the idea lets people off the hook for their own behavior and that sociopaths “enjoy” killing, and some pleaded for a better society, one where the atypical and “free wheeling” person can find a way to be a contributor. I’m waiting for the next two installments.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Back a while I got into a shoutdown at a Valier city council meeting with a newcomer who insisted that the sheriff’s deputy had no business responding to dog complaints because that was the job of the humane society. I couldn’t get it to register with this joker (who came from a big city) that there is no humane society or even an animal control officer in Pondera County. The sheriff and his deputies handle everything from murder to barking dogs to grizzlies visiting the Lighthouse Restaurant at the edge of town. (Not that I blame them. It's an excellent place to eat!) Valier has no police force so pays part of the county sheriff’s costs.

But in Glacier County there is indeed a “dedicated” sheriff’s deputy who acts as an animal control officer and has the basic equipment: truck, snare, rifle, traps, garbage bags, and washable uniform. Glacier County is up against the Canadian border on the north edge and includes almost all of the Blackfeet Reservation, where they don’t often have jurisdiction, so the Sheriff’s log is mostly but not always about the town of Cut Bank which is mostly but not always white. For the last few years the sheriff has been enrolled tribal which doesn’t affect whether or not the sheriff’s deputies can act on the reservation. That is a matter of contract and training. In the summer the deputies are busier because the three resort towns along the edge of Glacier Park (East Glacier, St. Mary, and Babb) are swollen with tourists who are fuzzy about what they ought to do and often too young to have enough common sense to do it anyway. Some of them -- well, talk about wild animals!

But here are some of the more absorbing entries in the Sheriff’s Log for Glacier County recently. First is a sequence about a mountain lion that still hasn’t ended. Then some short incidents.

Friday, MARCH 12:

2:17 PM: Male caller about having a gun on the reservation to help keep mountain lions from his livestock. Advised him to call tribe for further information.
Friday, JUNE 11
11:03 AM: Animal control officer reporting a mountain lion was seen today in the southwest park. he had his dog down there but indicate there were any fresh tracks.
10:48 PM: Woman wondering if we are looking for the mountain lion that was spotted. Advised her yes, but to keep an eye on her kids and pets.

Saturday, JUNE 12
9:17 AM Caller about the mountain lion. He has his kids out in the front yard and he lives on Fifth Ave. SW. Told him the animal has not been caught to watch children and pets, especially in his area.
10:28 AM: Woman reporting a German Shepherd barking. She thinks there is a mountain lion or a wolf out there. She saw something out there but doesn’t know what it is because she has bad eyesight.
9:32 AM: Animal Control officer advising he just received a call from a woman who lives north and west of Cut Bank along the creek. She thinks she saw a mountain lion down there today. She had also called last weekend and her two hound dogs were kind of torn up. The wounds looked too high up to be a badger and she thinks it was a mountain lion. Officer went down below the river car bridge to swimming pool yesterday and he will be going again today. There is a swim meet this weekend and officer sill be camping out in the trees between the pool area and the campground so should be safe with all the kids around but he will be there just in case.
4:17 PM: Caller at the swimming poor advising there are people going down into the coulee. Officer said he will go down there and warn them about the mountain lion but cannot keep them out of there.
7:25 PM: Female called advising there is a large dead cat on the highway. Caller thinks it may be the mountain lion that has been around. It was all puffed up. Officer said it was not a lion, just a very large cat.

Friday, JUNE 18
1:14 PM: Possible sighting of the mountain lion. Officer will be in the area looking around but saw nothing.

Saturday, JUNE 19
12:32 AM: Caller wondering if they have found the mountain lion. Their Golden Lab is missing and he never leaves. It has been missing all day and has no collar or tags. They live on South Road near the airport.
9:08 AM: Male caller advising the mountain lion is on the cliffs south of the bridge. Caller says she has a kitten and that is why she is hanging around. Tried to ask more questions but caller hung up. Will let Animal Control Officer know.
2:57 PM: Caller advising the mountain lion is in her backyard on Carter Oil Road. It went right over to the neighbors. Officer responded.

Sunday, JUNE 20
5:55 PM: Call wondering about the mountain lion. Advised her there has been no sighting today.


Caller came out of his house and neighbor threatened to shoot with a gun. The neighbor is upset about some cat poop. Caller removed it from the guy’s yard and knows whose cat it is. [Not a mountain lion.]

Caller reporting a loose pug running around the swimming pool park. The dog has no collar and a child was bit on the cheek. Animal control took pug and it is under quarantine. Same pug as last week.

Friday, JUNE 11
3:52 AM: Caller on 1st St. NE said his dogs were making a bunch of noise and he looked out and there are four people climbing the elevators across the street. he doesn’t recognize any of the people but one is 3/4 of the way up. Officer responded but doesn’t see anyone climbing the elevator. Officer does now see people up there but they don’t want to come down. They are about 100 plus feet in the air. Officer does not want to spook them and have something go wrong. Caller watched the people go inside the elevator. One went in and three came across and saw the light from the door and went in. Officer used his words to talk them down. Two persons are coming down off the tower. Officer has two males and a female in custody.
7:28 AM: Officer reporting there is garbage blowing all over out of the dumpster in the 100 block of First and Second Ave. SE. Animal control officer will come over and pick it up. The city won’t.

Some days you’re the hero and some days you’re the housekeeper and some days you’re both.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

CURLED-UP BOY: A False Start

Since I don’t regularly make art -- I write -- I tend not to establish good standard practice like clearing a space and allotting enough prep time, but since I live alone and the cats no longer prowl the tabletops (they’re getting middle-aged and fat), it’s safe (relatively) to leave things out. I think I’ve already mentioned that I don’t really clear space the way I ought to, so my projects have a tendency to overlap in ways that sometimes do damage. In short, I’m unprofessional.

This time I tricked myself in a new way. I’d been so pleased with the little figure of the child with arms up, that I rushed into making a new figure of an older boy, curled up in pain or despair. This time I’m using Sculpey III instead of Super Sculpey. All these polymer clays come as extruded sheets and at first the clay is crumbley, a little like feta cheese. One has to knead them in the fingers for a while to get them to be responsive in the way clay ought to be. I hurried -- it’s a LOT of work to knead the stuff a bit at a time. I had my wire skeleton and the aluminum foil crumpled onto it, so I started to pinch on the clay sooner than I should have.

My payback was that last night when I went to work on it again, it all crumbled in my hands. Now I have to start back close to the beginning. It’s a beginner’s mistake, an amateur’s mistake, a kid’s mistake, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just practice, experience, learning. Which is why it’s important to really enjoy the doing of it -- even the re-doing of it.

It’s pleasant to sit at a table and squeeze this stuff in my fingers, though it takes a good deal of muscle and some time. Even Bob’s plastilene had to be warmed up before it could be used easily and my job in the evening was often to sit beside him and knead the plastilene until it was warmed up enough for him to use. So I know how to do it. The associations I have with the act, though not the substance, are familiar and pleasant. I only failed to prepare the clay because my ego got in the way. I wanted to do this for the admiration of others. Not that it wasn’t a strong idea that I wanted to complete, but that I was distracted, jumping ahead.

I didn’t measure this little fellow either, though I eye-balled him for proportion, which is why I made the head first. People proportions are often expressed in terms of “heads” as a unit. The natural tendency is to make the head much bigger than it would be in real life, which is what makes a figure look like a child or even a cartoon. A grown man is -- on the average -- eight heads tall, but accidents of development or inheritance might vary proportions. I want this figure to be older, a teenager, very thin because he is intended to illustrate how AIDS feels, and possibly when I get to the end I may give him tattoos. Not the sailor or skull sorts of tattoos, but the Maori kind, the jagged solid arm-wrappers. Arms usually reach the hips. Some people have long bodies. John Wayne, if you’ve been paying attention, had short legs in relation to his body length and instead of tailoring (shortening) his jeans’ legs, he simply turned them up in a deep cuff. I don’t know why.

One of the valuable parts of Bob’s estate was his morgue, which is photos cut out of magazines that demonstrate proportions or show where muscles or bones go. His were all carefully glued to pasteboard and sorted into categories, then stored in file cabinets. The Montana Historical Society people in charge of them know so little about art that I’m afraid they’ve discarded them, along with his library of actual measurements of animals. I have my own micro-morgue, which is in a 3-ring binder.

Of course, now a person can go online and find all sorts of things. For this little figure I’ve been researching the shoulder bones, since they show in a thin person, esp. one that is tense and contracted. Shoulder blades, or scapulas, were a revelation. I knew about animal scapulas, but they are not like human shoulder blades because four-legged animals do not have collar bones or clavicles (with a few exceptions). In a human, the scapula is bladelike, but at the top has a kind of hook that reaches around to connect with the clavicle. At the point of connection there are shallow cupped sections where the top of the arm bone, the humerus, essentially dangles, held in by a girdle of muscles, tendons, and cartilage. There are bumps and grooves in all these bones to guide the contracting parts and attach to them. The sternum is the breastbone that connects the ribs in the middle front. The clavicle attaches to that. These bones turn out to be higher around the neck than I imagined, though I can see my own in the mirror. They are vulnerable to dislocation and breaking, while the surrounding tissue girdle can be prone to inflammation or tearing. If you were sword fighting, I imagine you’d try to break or cut the shoulder.

When working on the human figure, one learns a lot about bodies and how they work. I’m beginning to learn the “little” fractal names for the parts that stick out and the notches and grooves. They all DO have names. I’m not setting out to do that. It’s just happening as I go back to look again. It’s amazing that the drawings I see date back to Gray’s Anatomy but clear that drawing bones is a valuable art form.

When I was working with kids, esp. here on the rez, I found that they were reluctant to do things unless they could be guaranteed success. They were workbook kids, fill-in-the-blank kids, who could not go ahead unless they had lines to color inside. The penalties over the decades have been so harsh that they were unwilling to risk any kind of failure. But exploration and experience come largely from tolerating little failures. People who can tolerate failure are hard to manage. A horse that is willing to endure pain, cannot be ridden except through cooperation and willingness. People are not different. And the impulse to make these little figures is still strong.

Friday, June 25, 2010


The names of mental health diagnoses change all the time -- committees meet to throw out some, suggest new ones, change the definitions of the ones that stay, and so on. They are not “real” things like a virus or a fungus or a bacterial infection or a broken leg. The “health” parallel doesn’t always hold up. Sometimes a syndrome that is quite common and seemingly “real,” just vanishes. Like, for instance, the belief that a limb is paralyzed when physically it is not. It was called “hysteria.” Lots of people had it. Now it’s gone. Before anyone thought up a name for post-traumatic stress syndrome, people were just having a nervous breakdown or shell-shocked. Many people the world over are assaulted, raped, humiliated, damaged, bereft -- and just get up and go on. No syndrome. No name for one. Just life.

When I was in seminary (early 80’s), the big junk category diagnosis was “borderline personality,” which mean anyone who was unpredictable and didn’t always play by the rules. (I guess. I was supposed to be a “borderline-borderline personality.” So were both of the co-therapists of my most useful “growth group” in Hartford, Conn, which is a therapy town.) But now everyone seems to be back to the all-time fav, “paranoid schizophrenia.” Most people interpret that as just plain crazy, seeing ghosts and making trouble. But then the rebuttal -- so true it’s a poster -- is “you’re not paranoid if they’re really after you.” As for schizophrenic, some people just call it multi-tasking or attention deficit disorder.

I jest. But paranoid schizophrenia is the dominant mode of much of our media life: movies, books, vids, newspapers and blogs. Thrillers. Someone is after us and we’re having an identity crisis. This evening I watched “State of Play,” the more recent American version that was adapted from the much longer earlier BBC series. Little was the same, from the plot premises to the character development. BUT both were paranoid and both were schizophrenic. It’s just that the diagnosis worked out in different ways, according to our national paranoias and shattered identities.

In England the markers were still class distinctions, old school affiliations, money and hubris. In America the markers are political and religious conservatism, and the corporate corruption that has risen out of the Bush wars. In the English version there were discussions, in the American version there were shootings. One factor that threw the American version in a totally different direction was casting the boss as Helen Mirren instead of Bill Nye, who always projects a sort of amused tolerance at the folly of it all and a sense that he is way ahead of everyone else in understanding the possibilities. Mirren was reduced to doing a sort of “Prime Suspect” imitation without the cigarettes. She just shouted, seemingly powerless to do anything else because of the unreasonable “new owners.” The cops, on the other hand, were passive and obedient.

Russell Crowe filled up the screen and the story. He is NOT paranoid. He projects his schizophrenia, if there is any, out to a great disheveled mess of notes and documents. He’s a laser, right through the story. This is quite unlike the reporter in the English version. But this guy is an Aussie. Aussies know who they are. It might not be quite nice but effective.

Here’s the story on American Affleck, a near textbook perfect case: “In paranoid schizophrenia, delusions are often focused on the perception that you're being singled out for harm. Your brain misinterprets experiences and you hold on to these false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. For instance, you may believe that the government is monitoring every move you make or that a co-worker is poisoning your lunch. You may also have delusions of grandeur — the belief that you can fly, that you're famous or that you have a relationship with a famous person, for example. Delusions can result in aggression or violence if you believe you must act in self-defense against those who want to harm you.” He’s subtle, but that’s really where his American head is. First it was communists, now it’s international corporations and terrorists. Then a preggers girl-friend. As for Pointcorps, their invented name for Blackwater which has now changed its name to Xi, my personal opinion is that that’s not paranoia -- it’s real. And WORSE than in the movie.

These days “paranoid schizophrenia” is seen as something different from a psychological problem. Rather, it is considered a true organic brain processing problem with the most convincing evidence for that being auditory delusions that can be induced by using magnetic waves against the temples. Voices, music, and so on. This movie definitely depends on a conditioned-reflex sound track to build tension and a sense of danger in the same old parking garage shoot-out, the same old taping-from-the-next-room, the same old silhouette at the end of the flourescent-lit hallway. Don’t we all dream these?

The DVD discussion of how great the director was rang a little hollow, I thought. The talk about the set for the newsroom was not as convincing as the same talk for the English version. There was a boast that they filmed the underside and idiosyncracies of Washington DC instead of the same old halls and monuments. I, for one, can’t recognize the underside of Washington, DC. Seemed way too white to me. I did like that inflated moving crab though.

But the real point of this blog is not a movie. It is how much we live out in our ordinary non-movie lives the suspicions and premises that we’re in someone’s sniper sights, that someone is running a scam at our expense, that the cops are inept and the politicians are corrupt, that the international corporations are totally out of control. In Britain the class system at least offers a few guidelines and handholds, but what is there in the US? I’m astounded that the Supreme Court has continued the line of rulings that seem to me to have begun in Florida during the Dubya election scrape. The covers have come off the oil industry now. (Adam Curtis has posted some very interesting info about the origins of BP. Some people seem determined to replace Obama with Palin, which is too ridiculous to even use as a frat movie premise. What does it take to end the Korean War? We may see an atom bomb blossom sooner than we think.

Will it ever stop raining? I think it is raining on me more than anyone else and I am hearing music: “Raindrops keep falling. . .” My tomato plants are rotting. The universe has it in for me. My house is so sodden that the doors are swollen shut. HELP! HELP! Call Harrison Ford !!! Call an Aussie !!!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Don Browning was one of the first professors who made an impression on me at the U of Chicago Div School. In fact, that impression has remained so strongly that I used his ideas about what a family is when I was cowriting “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.” He was my quintessential model for the “stays put” person who is totally reliable and faithful and yet will reach out a disciplined mind without limits.

That first class was about the ethics of pastoral care. I’m not sure we were even aware of what pastoral care WAS -- I don’t think many people are very aware of such a thing. In fact, I run across ministers who have very little consciousness of it. Preaching, obviously; community-building, right. But pastoral care -- it happens quietly and discretely because of its very nature dealing with private matters and it’s exceedingly difficult, sometimes pushing the pastor him or herself over into needing some care, or at least advice.

When people come to a minister for help -- and all the standard sources say, “Go your minister when you are in trouble,” will he or she have anything helpful to say? And what are the self-management rules, both in terms of good mental health and in terms of the specific faith context of that religious tradition? Secrets plague every church (sometimes deeply historical) and all ministers. Leaks, imagined leaks, unjustified rumors, sensitive information -- sometimes the most mundane facts like pledge amounts, but sometimes explosive material like pedophiles. The media uses the device of privileged confession even outside the Catholic context where it arose. It is a legal concept that’s not the same from one state to the next.

So the first lesson Browning had to give us was the difference between going by rules and going by principles. Rules: the Ten Commandments. Principles: the Golden Rule. It’s the diff between the Old Testament “Do as I say,” and the New Testament “Do as I do.” Once you internalize this difference, which some would say is the distinction between ethics (principles) and morality (rules), what’s next? Situation ethics. That is, looking at a dilemma from a plenitude of angles that gathers in many specific facts for consideration. Murder might be as evil an act as there is, or it might be a great mercy or even save the world. Woe to a mistake in judgment.

Too many people say they just “feel” what’s right. The famous English conscience. But it’s only habituation to a particular social context and what is “done” there. Sometimes “ethics” is just demanding what you want.

So we looked at reasoning out what should be done by beginning with original concepts: God is the creator. God is good. The world is a suffering and broken place. Why does God allow that? It’s called “theodicy,” an irresolvable contradiction with which any theist must find some kind of peace. (“You’ll get paid back in heaven.” “It’s only an illusion.” “You don’t have the big picture.”)

Or you can be teleological (it’s not the same as theological) by arguing towards what you think final outcomes will be or what you want them to be. (“This world will end and a better one will come.”) Then the problem is predestination -- the idea that God already knows everything that will happen and is making it be that way, so why struggle against what is wrong or painful? This point of view can lead to cynicism, fatalism.

Another option is finding someone you really admire: Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Gandhi, Thoreau, et al and then reflecting on what they would do, given their life evidence. Note that their final consequences were not always pleasant.

Browning especially focused on hospital issues: birth and death. Ethical decisions in hospitals have dire and immediate consequences. One cannot simply retreat to the idea that the least expensive option should be activated, though that’s what actually happens in many cases. And what about the comforting and invigilating of the actual medical staff? What happens to their faith?

Overlapping my years (‘78-’82) Browning (‘77-’83) was the Dean of the U of Chicago Disciples House. His denomination was the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The word was that he got to know each student individually and well. There weren’t many of them, but when you add that to his constant writing, teaching and participation in panels and conferences, it was rather remarkable. Not all professors take an interest. Not all can cope with that much work, but he had a steady dedication to what needed to be done.

I didn’t have a personal relationship with Browning, who was only five years older than myself. (He died of cancer, but I don’t know what kind.) He was close to Martin Marty who remembered me years later at a conference in Helena, but a little more formal. He had a “gimlet gaze” that was intimidating and maybe he was more dedicated to the definitively Christian context. As far as I know, he never served a congregation (Marty did.) but he consciously took the Div School as his congregation and extended concern to all of them. He didn’t condemn or exclude or label -- he was simply circumspect. One of his obits says he was a major movie fan. That’s one subject area where I could have engaged him.

Such a person comes along in one’s mind, a wise adviser for life. I hadn’t been launched on my first ministry more than a few weeks when the first person came to me with a nearly unsolvable problem: his sexual abuse of his own child. His solution was suicide, so what good was my advice? From some angles he might have done the right thing. The family -- which had long been shattered -- was not my problem: I was my problem. Browning rarely addressed sexual matters in class, concentrating more on the nature of marriage, parenting, and human growth. (He was fond of Erikson’s stage theory of maturation.) And yet his calm, meticulous sorting of every angle was invaluable to me.

In a scattered, shattered, contradictory world Browning wasn’t just a theorist: he lived his work by providing an example. No one who has attended a major university like the U of Chicago would think he was able to duck out on crisis or human tragedies. Some of his work was at the attached hospital where the casualties of Hyde Park and environs were brought: a ghetto rife with violence and inequity. The murder rate right in Hyde Park is high, Third World people preying on the privileged intellectuals, which is in itself an uncomfortable situation mostly solved by gentrifying, a whole other category of ethical problems. It’s not an accident that this environment produced President Obama, who reminds me of Browning.

Over the years I’ve often sold books that I thought weren’t useful any more. I have never sold a book by Don Browning.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


No sooner do I figure something out than I discover there’s already a book about it. In this case it’s an expensive textbook called “Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects,” Martha J. Kolin, mentioned yesterday on Jane Friedman’s blog, “There Are No Rules.” It’s a college text so maybe I’ll just set out to do a high school version, because THIS is what grammar is for. It is NOT meant to be a way for middle class A-students (usually girls) to put down the working classes (usually boys) by pointing out their grammar errors.

The REAL reason you do all those outlining exercises is to learn the structure of a sentence and what difference it makes to change it. When students say that grammar is pointless, they’re right, because all they learn is the definitions and the means -- never the end, the goal, the real playing field.

Consider. “The deer are browsing in the forest.” You can change the prepositional phrase to any location in the the sentence because it tells WHERE, which is an adverb question. (where, when, how, to what degree) So you could write: “In the forest the deer are browsing.” Or “The deer in the forest are browsing.” Or you could change the adverb preposition phrase to an adjective and say: “The forest deer are browsing.” If you were Yoda, you could say “Browsing are the forest deer,” but people would look at you funny and some people would think you were describing a kind of deer called “browsing.” Which you are, really.

Word order is a part of grammar that is never addressed in high school classes because the bulk of the class is still back there trying to find the prepositional phrases. In the years I taught high school, no class ever came along quickly enough to get to gerunds and participles except maybe in May when half the class was already missing. So how are they supposed to know that you can move them around, swap them in and out, but not without changing emphasis and possibly even changing meaning -- assuming the antecedents don’t get lost. This is an entirely different matter than rapping people on the knuckles because they said “ain’t.”

This is the part where you get to expand and contract your sentences like concertinas. This is crucial to clarity and the flow of the sense, to say nothing of the elegance of the words, the style. I once asked a professor of lyric poetry what “rhetoric” was and she basically told me it was what it was: indescribable. She COULD have said that it was about the choice and order of words in sentences and she COULD have said it was all governed by the clarity and purpose of the thinking it was trying to express, but she didn’t.

A writing workshop with Peter Matthiessen was the breakthrough for me. It was only a few days. We were chosen by submitting a sample and he liked what I submitted but he noted two memorable things which I’ve repeated to people (even readers of this blog) many times because they were powerful. So I’ll note them again here.

First, I had said that bison have purple mouths and tongues, like chow dogs, which is true. Peter said that choosing to bring chow dogs into the reader’s mind reduced the bison from their status as wild, powerful, free animals, because chow dogs are domestic. True or not, I needed some other comparison because every metaphor and comparison valorizes a new “brain realm,” as it were. I still haven’t found a worthy metaphor for the purple mouth of a bison, so I just say it’s purple. Let the reader’s mind go where it will: royalty, thunderclouds? This is why it’s so crucial to know the world so you can find powerful comparisons that people recognize.

Second, I had a sentence that was so convoluted and intricate that it just couldn’t be read. I forget why I wanted to put so many ideas into one sentence anyway, but Peter performed transformative surgery right there. A prepositional phrase became an adjective, a subordinate clause became an appositive, several items were brought into parallel by changing them to the same grammatical form, and then the whole thing made sense.

I used to deploy a little exercise where I printed on a work sheet a sentence that was fairly complex. Then under that sentence would be the same sentence with the task assigned to label the subjects and verbs, all the prepositional phrases, whether they were adjective (you can’t move them) or adverb (you CAN move them), the participles (same rules as prep phrases), the gerunds, the subordinate clauses.

Then under that sentence would be the same sentence with all the prep phrases or all the participles etc. knocked out -- just an underlined space. Their job was to fill the space with new versions. So it ended up with the three part worksheet problem looking something like this:

A: On June 26, 1975, in the late morning, two FBI agents drove onto Indian land near Oglala, South Dakota, a small village on the Pine Ridge Reservation. -- Peter Matthiessen, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

B. (Prep phrase telling when - adv) (prep phrase telling when - adv) adj adj subj verb (prep phrase telling where - adv) (prep phrase telling where - adv) appositive (prep phrase telling where, but used to describe “village.”

C. “On June 23, 2010, during a thunderous afternoon, my lone self wrote in the back bedroom of my house in Valier, a town near the Blackfeet Reservation.
It would be against the rules to add a direct object telling “what” I wrote because Matthiessen didn’t use a direct object. But I wouldn’t have to follow the original so closely. Here’s another version:
In the early century, during the homesteader era, a married couple settled in a foothills coulee near the Rocky Mountains in Montana, a good place for raising livestock.

By the time you have the whole class’s versions, it begins to get through what a grammar template is. Then you can talk about “when and where phrases” to begin a book (as this sentence begins “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse”) and how significant timing and location can be when telling a story. The converging crosshair forces that caused a tragic standoff were produced exactly by the when and where they happened. They give a mental picture that anchors the reader as well as hinting about what might happen.

Nothing happened in my back bedroom this afternoon. Sigh. In the early morning, after some strong coffee, my expectant self will drive to the south by eighty miles to Great Falls, my closest shopping town on the prairie. Anything might happen.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


So there it was in my email, the official announcement:

“NEWTON CENTRE, Mass. -- Two leading seminaries have agreed in principle to form a new interreligious university-style theological institution that seeks to become an innovative center for educating religious leaders for service in a pluralistic world.

“The as-yet unnamed institution will be established during the next year by Andover Newton Theological School of Newton Centre, Mass., and Meadville Lombard Theological School of Chicago. Other seminaries will be sought as partners in a design that allows participating schools to keep their historic names and sustain distinct faith traditions while gaining significant financial and administrative advantage through a single corporate infrastructure.”

Who do they think they’re fooling? The same people who were fooled when the Unitarian and the Universalist denominations merged in Portland in 1961? That was the end of the Universalists in spite of the new name: Unitarian Universalist Association. This is the end of Meadville/Lombard. Of course, Meadville/Lombard has that slash in the middle because it was the result of a merger between Meadville Theological School and the Ryder School of Religion of Lombard College (Carl Sandburg’s alma mater), which snuffed both of them. Meadville had been in Pennsylvania, beginning when a young man in ill health who owned a library appropriate for the education of religious leaders was set up to teach. The Ryder School of Religion had been acquired by Lombard College which was then acquired by Meadville/Lombard. The merger meant that the new seminary acquired an Illinois license to teach horseshoeing.

The rest of the news release is horse patootie and double-talk, which is what some people think religion is about anyway. When people start “valuing distinctions and serving all religions,” the real message is that the unity is lost. The consensus has broken.

“The Rev. Dr. Lee C. Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, who will become a senior executive in the new entity, said, "This new interreligious 'theological university' is designed to serve seminarians of all religions, and seeks to strengthen their faiths and identities - not water them down. It is in valuing each other's distinctions that we find the ground for the greatest learning. We hope other like-minded seminaries will join us because they share our mission to train leaders who are prepared to serve in a religiously diverse world and want to do so in a model that can offer a financially sound footing."

“Meadville Lombard is in the process of selling its four-building campus in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. The sale will liquidate the school's real estate assets and terminate needs for ongoing maintenance, freeing up assets for better use in the educational mission of the new school.” This means paying the salaries of the professors. Ironically, the potential entering class was 26 or so. Will there be more or fewer students when they realize they are now attending a mail order school?

Three of the buildings on the “campus” are simply former homes, divvied into rooms and offices. The actual school building, the one with the library in it, the one with the big reception room and a few small classrooms and the faculty offices, is the real dream now gone. When one is admitted into the ministry by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which comes from the denomination rather than any seminary, one preaches a demonstration sermon. Mine was about that building and talked about the spring that’s under the granite and marble and wood paneling. It’s pretty humble, just a little trickle of water running through the basement but a nice symbol of renewal. The architects had the choice of either trying to suppress it or letting it run through openly and took the latter choice. Otherwise, the constant pressure and erosion could undermine the building. I think the architect was wiser than the school it housed.

In 1975 I attended the Pacific Northwest UU Leadership School which was a week-long marathon of classes and experiences, a camp up at Fort Worden on the Washington state coast. I was thunderstruck. Now they tell me that the Leadership Schools are old-fashioned, no longer useful.

In 1978 I was admitted to Meadville/Lombard Theological School. I never applied to Starr-King School of Religion in Berkeley or Harvard. Starr-King (irreverently called Tuna U.) was wildly creative, guided by one towering personality, always on the brink of collapse -- one end of the Unitarian spectrum. Harvard, the other end, totally intimidated me. But my undergrad work was at Northwestern University on the north side of Chicago, so going to grad school on the south side seemed okay. My Graduate Record Exam scores would not quite have gotten me into the University of Chicago, but they were actually not too shabby and I would be able to attend the classes as a student of M/L. That was MY dirty little secret: I was as interested in U of C as M/L.

In 1980 I received my MA in Religious Studies from U of Chicago. In those days one earned the degree within the M/L program and the biggest obstacle was learning French. I did pass the written French exam. My entering class was six people. One transferred to Union in NYC at the end of the first quarter. One never really intended to be a minister and now sells wine for a living. I left the ministry in 1988 so as to return to Browning, Montana, where I served as the Methodist minister for a year. Another has served as a Baptist minister. One is the head of the flagship UU church in Bellevue, Washington. In the class after mine, there were four people. One set the Meadville library on fire and left under a cloud of smoke. In the next few years the U of Chicago MA became optional. Most U of Chicago Divinity School students become Ph.D. teachers of religion rather than parish ministers. They are a formidable crowd, but M/L ministers these days mostly just want to be best friends.

My M/L degree came in the mail in 1984 after I picked up one last course in the Old Testament, which I took from Marvin Shaw at Montana State University in Bozeman while circuit-riding between 1982 and 1985. None of this was anything I would have expected. I thought that I was entering upon a stable, revered, learned ministry, not a constant state of fund-raising, a paranoid behind-closed doors scrambling for power, much re-framing and compensatory arrangements. I thought I would earn a D. Min. rather than the M.Div. I settled for. I didn’t know that in spite of all the scholarships and subsidies, I would emerge with one of the first debts: $12,000 -- considered exorbitant in those days -- and never make much more than that in any year of ministry. (I finally paid off the last of that loan with part of my mother’s estate in 1999.)

Even one of the bright stars of the class after me, a preaching prodigy who resuscitated an ancient church and made it a hugely successful institution, has now backed off to teaching in a small college. Another is busy trying to become an oracle in the atheism movement.

All is whirl. The center did not hold. In the end, it really doesn’t matter very much anyway. Springs dry up but the horses still get shod somehow. I’m sorry that Valier has just banned horses except for parades.

Monday, June 21, 2010


As soon as I was old enough to travel downtown on the bus by myself, I would go to the Portland downtown library, a graceful and impressive building, and ascend up the echoing broad marble staircase to the third floor where the fine arts books were kept. I'd stop to look at what I now know was a Beaux Arts bronze of Pan and then I’d go to where the ballet books were shelved. Some of them were in French. I’d take them down and run my eyes through the sentences though I didn’t understand French and only recognized a word here and there.

I did this in part because I loved ballet (What girl doesn’t? Or do they all love soccer now?) and in part because that’s how I had learned to read English and hoped it would work on French. It didn’t (I didn’t realize you had to speak the language before you could read it), but I love that feeling of being on the brink of understanding, fiddling with the doorknob and catches of a passage into a new world. I thought, on some level, that if I could learn to read French, I would be able to dance ballet.

So far as I know, there is no computer game, no virtual reality situation, that allows a person to learn ballet or at least to experience it in some second-hand way beyond watching a movie. This might be because girls don’t do computer stuff. Or maybe simply no one has thought about it yet, but an article I ran across, an interview of Toni Dove by Brian Massumi, has been suggestive. It is about the sense of one's own “body” that a video gamer experiences. The reference is to an interactive game called “Artificial Changelings” about compulsive shopping in the 19th century. I hasten to say that I know nothing about this game or any other game. I tried playing Pacman and Whack a Gopher once. That’s about it. But I do understand a little of what gaming is about.

And I’ve thought quite a bit about bodies: how they know where they are, how they picture themselves, how muscles record the idea of movement even when they aren’t moving and other philosophical thoughts (by a person lying on a couch because they had an impulse to exercise and are waiting for it to go away). Dove in this article talks about how one experiences movement prompted by what one is seeing, as when one gets seasick watching a movie of a pitching boat. But she’s on a much more subtle level, like varying the speed of movement slightly to control what the viewer internalizes. Massumi suggests: “It’s based on rhythm. You have to sense an unpredictable rhythm and try to unite your movement with it, it’s not on an object basis, where movement begins and ends in a particular place, and has a destination ‘out there.’ It’s an open-ended rhythmic space that’s neither here nor there.”

Dove says: “It’s like a trance, the desire to maintain a connection even when it can’t be kept and it’s quite easy to get it back. It’s not frustrating. It doesn’t go away for so long that it’s irritating.” They speak about a kind of partner-dance between the experience on the screen and the internal experience of the viewer and talk about how the uncanny is the backside of the ordinary and vice versa.

Then Dove springs this idea that “uncanny experience” has split, back there somewhere (the 19th century?), into the idea of the unconscious (the unseen uncanny) and genre fiction (the formula uncanny, the ordinary but unpredictable horrible and unscientific happening that can be commodified as pulp fiction). It becomes what she calls “the unconscious of consumer economies.” (I’d suggest this is now joined by the craze for “spirituality,” which is nearly a reinstatement of the supernatural, but displaced to a protected place not quite in the unconscious. It’s supposed to be in the “soul.” Yet available for marketing.)

Again I’m surprised, by an idea entirely new to me but instantly recognizable: “the theater of commerce.” (Oh, me and my high-end slick shelter mags and my love of haute couture!) But this twist on it is “kleptomania.” It’s interesting, she says, “because it’s a pathology that gets codified in the 1860’s when the department store emerges and becomes a theatre of commerce, a site of incredible spectacle of advertising and seduction. Upper- and middle-class women started stealing things from stores. . . apparently either the pillars of society were corruptible or the forces of merchandizing were problematic. Neither position was acceptable, so they pathologized their behavior. The women were no longer responsible for their actions. Commerce could march on.”

I was never corruptible enough to steal from Meier & Frank, but how intensely I recall a few ceremonial low-level seductions (paid for in full). I bought my mother a Sheaffer white-dot fountain pen, ivory with gold lengthwise grooves. She used it all her life and at her death my brother asked for it. With some of my first teaching money, I bought myself a compact of custom-mixed pressed powder at The Paris. Perhaps one of the most potent experiences was buying high-end leather gloves in the days when they were fitted as carefully as by a corsetier. (Oh, echoes of the Store -- er, Story -- of O!) Shopping at Target doesn’t even come close. “Madame’s fingers . . . in the tight little lambskin sheaths!”

Massumi says, “There’s a slipperiness to consumerism. You can connect with an object and buy it or steal it, but that’s never enough. There’s so much more that you could have . . . the purchase is just another step towards the next purchase. There’s a perpetual promise mediated by a very abstract technology -- money.” Money, which was silver dollars when I came to Montana, is no longer even bills or a check book. It’s a plastic rectangle “swiped” by a machine. Shoplifters are no longer the captive upper class women who are only free when shopping -- now they may be boys in search of the electronic threshold to the world.

Dove responds, “I’m thinking about the installment plan and the credit explosion, how it was contradictory to the notion of thrift that was so important to the personality structure that was part of the original building block of capitalism.” (Quick! Call Nassim Taleb!!)

Massumi says, “It puts individual lives in movement, following the movement of deferral. Money is the motor for a perpetual motion machine.” (Life as a great lay-a-way.)

When these two inevitably talk about whether this change is modern, post-modern or post-post-modern, Massumi surprisingly suggests that Dove’s line of thought is outside that sequence. “Because postmodernism was either this terrible nostalgia for the plenitude promised by modernity, or a celebration of its impossibility, with a sense of emptiness, as if nothing would come after it -- the whole rhetoric of the end of history . . . It’s not after something, after the end. It’s revisiting continuity.” The choices are not “rich or not rich”. Life is a process of going along without those labels.

Dove suggests that the ruptures between cuts or steps can join into a kind of fluid continuum of narrative, (maybe become a stairway, a hallway that is in fact a long threshold?) and, indeed, the whole principle of movies is that one individual frame after another will be melded in the mind to unified motion. I sure could get into that. I’m tired of modern, post-modern, post-post-modern. Around here, posts are to support a line of fencing.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


If you’ve come to this post looking for something pastoral and uplifting, you probably won’t find it today. I’m cutting trail for a Deleuzeguattarian article to submit to a scholarly journal, using Cinematheque as the subject. It’s at the outer limits of what I understand myself so I might not be getting it right.

The justification for using an exotic Italian philosophical analysis to investigate a small, essentially domestic group such as Cinematheque is finally a matter of social critique. The persisting stigma of homosexuality has combined with the sexual victimization of children now infected with HIV-AIDS and traumatized by emotional suffering and drug use. Opposed to that are Tim Barrus’ developing ideas about tribes and art as a force for both recovery and economic participation. Art here is defined in the broadest sense, esp. focused on making video. This is a grassroots, ground level, entirely independent group, though connected to an international matrix of helpers.

At Cinematheque everything is on the move: the group as individuals and as a whole is nomadic though there is a central loft in Paris. Tim’s theories and techniques move developmentally since no one has done this before and no one really knows what will work until it is tried. Anyway, what works with one boy with one background might not work with another boy, and all the time the boys are growing up while Tim is growing older. Watching since 2007 and archiving daily messages, I have seen and can document the changes. My role is watching and occasionally providing material for the steady stream of blogged material. I reflect.

This particular reflection is centered on the chapter called, “1914: One or Several Wolves” in the book called “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia”, translated by Brian Massumi. It’s useful to find out who Massumi is: “a Canadian political philosopher and social theorist, his work focuses on perception, affect and the virtual.”

“Massumi collaborates with Erin Manning, director of the Sense Lab, a research-creation laboratory affiliated with the Society for Art and Technology in Montreal, and [they] are founding members of the editorial collective of the Sense Lab journal Inflexions: A Journal of Research-Creation.”

“Massumi is currently teaching at Université de Montréal, in the Communication Sciences Department and in the Media and Communications division at European Graduate School in Saas-Fee. He received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Yale University in 1987. He is currently a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of Montréal in Quebec Canada, where he directs both the Ph.D program and the Workshop in Radical Empiricism. His research is two-fold: the experience of movement and the interrelations between the senses, in particular in the context of new media art and technology; and emergent modes of power associated with the globalization of capitalism and the rise of preemptive politics.”
Sounds promising.

I take preemptive politics to have to do with restructuring society. Radical empiricism dates back to William James who valued first-hand experience and THEN theory. Massumi does not turn away from “intensity, psychoanalytic meaning, or experiment in society.” (All this material is a composite of Internet sources.) It tells me a lot that his website “wallpaper” is the fractal paisley of oil slicks.

This D&G chapter is about “The Wolf Man.” In 1914 Freud was treating a man he gave the code name “Wolf Man,” because one of his key dreams was waking as a child and fancying that a tree outside his bedroom window had white wolves perched in it. Freud, of course, worked out the meaning as being that the Wolf Man had witnessed his parents having sex and now feared castration, symbolized by the tails being cut off the wolves. The actual Wolf Man, who became known by others since he continued his psychoanalysis throughout his life (he lived to 92) though Freud declared him “cured” and dismissed him after a few years, protested that this interpretation was not just unlikely but impossible. He thought Freud was a fraud. It appears that the patient was grappling with family depression (several close family members committed suicide), childhood sexual abuse, severe constipation, and possibly homosexuality. Late in life he fancied that a doctor had drilled a hole in his nose. (It’s hard not to think of Michael Jackson!)

Another -- non-Freudian -- version is “that the case of Sergei Pankejeff, commonly known as Wolf Man, is an example of an unsuccessful religious sublimation. Freud focuses on the efforts by Sergei’s mother and his nurse to educate him in the Christian faith. He points out that, although these efforts were successful in making him into a piously religious boy, they contributed to the repression of his sexual attraction to his father, the arrest of his psychosexual development, and to an obsessional neurosis reflected in blasphemous thoughts and compulsive acts of religious piety.” Diagnosis often tells one more about the diagnoser than about the patient.

Whole books exist about the wolf man. This is from Amazon: “Whitney Davis’ "Drawing the Dream of the Wolves" offers a new and challenging reading of Freud's case study of Serge Pankejeff, the Wolf Man, on whom Freud conducted a complex psychoanalysis from 1910 to 1914. Much of the analysis revolved around the patient's childhood dream of wolves and a drawing of this dream made for Freud by Pankejeff and amateur artists in the first weeks of the analysis. Davis explores the role of the drawing of the dream in Freud's interpretation of the patient's latent homosexuality, showing that Freud based his decipherment of the drawing and, in turn, of the patient's sexual identity in part on his own established practices of making and using images to represent the history of persons and their sexuality. During the analysis, Freud interpreted the Wolf Man's childhood phobia and intense fear of wolves and his adult neuroses as having been the result of the little boy's latent homosexuality.” It’s all very pretentious and perverse.

Deleuzeguattari investigate this case from an entirely different angle, much closer to the actual nature of wolves and the functions of perception. At the highly theoretical level, D&G speak of the molecular multiplicities (seeing lots of little versions of a concept everywhere) and the molar unities (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). Freud found it significant but misleading that there are five or six wolves in the tree and began to whittle them away with theories until the tail of the last one is cut off, which he claims signifies castration. The D&G philosopher’s daughter points out that wolves come in PACKS and what’s in the tree is not a wolf, but a PACK! Sometimes theory must yield to the obvious.

Likewise, Cinematheque is often discussed in terms of one boy at a time, but it is in fact a collection of boys, changing as some leave and others arrive. The constant is Tim Barrus, but he is a variable constant even as his hips and shoulders are replaced due to avascular necrosis and as he learns from successes and failures, who are often real fatalities.

Cinematheque is not a franchise. There is no pretense to academic advances. (Intellectualizing is mostly mine but possibly also connected to Jack Fritscher, a powerful thinker in the context of homomasculinity.) The idea is simply to save these specific boys by teaching them to support and love each other. Sometimes a little “talking cure” helps sort things out. Cinematheque is privately financed through a foundation and occasionally connected to related organizations like Doctors without Borders. There is no hierarchy. The boys, when unified, can overrule Tim. They also protect and nurture him. I understand this to be an example of what D&G call “rhizomatous” organization as compared to “arboreal” hierarchies.

Massumi’s translation suggests, “One of the essential characteristics of the dream of multiplicity is that each element ceaselessly varies and alters its distance of multiplicity in relation to the others.” In this case the boys would be the elements. This new way of thinking is schizophrenic in the sense of shattering, dividing. “The problem of the unconscious has most certainly nothing to do with generation [Freud’s obsession with sex] but rather peopling population. It is an affair of worldwide population on the full body of the earth, not organic familial generation.” We “only have a desert with tribes inhabiting it, a full body clinging with multiplicities.” Not child-descendants but friends and co-workers.

I have to go away and think about this now.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


There are a zillion blogs and articles out there about how to be a writer. I probably spend too much time reading them. At first it was roughly two-sided: one side about how to market, find the handholds to be known and so on, versus how to actually write something worth anyone buying. Then the tech bomb of electron print smashed into the scene and sent fragments flying in all directions.

This has been so dramatic and so mind-bending that it has drowned out a just-previous shift from actually finding, editing, and putting into print worthy books to simply “packaging” exploitable material like confrontation politics and celebrity notoriety. Partly globalizing and partly the consequence of a previous technology -- television -- and partly the decline in the quality of public schools and the splintering of demographics by immigration, this big earthquake went pretty much unnoticed by a lot of people.

Among those who concentrate on writing as sentence-by-sentence careful thought and enduring story, something similar happened in the form of post-modern theory. The transgressive or revolutionary calls of the Sixties consciousness were knocked into the ditch like shamans by a kind of sneering despair that anything really meant anything anyway. Again the schools took a hit when every kind of instruction was defined as self-serving oppression and passive defiance was the mode of life.

But the children of that wave could see that someone had to pay the bills, so they’ve been concentrating on skills that would get them jobs. They live quietly and are not pleased when their parent generation shows up to interrupt their daily drill and try to climb into their cocoons with them. It’s not that they get divorced -- it’s that they don’t bother to marry. But they take pretty good care of their own kids: each has his or her own computer. Gotta do something about that junk food.

The trouble is that outside the small worlds of “gettin’ ‘er done,” the planet is shifting as it always has. We knew the shortage of oil would eventually hit, but the limits of water are here and translate into food shortage. We did not anticipate the woes of the flesh that come from environmental contamination or that we would hit the limits of antibiotics or that even the limits of DNA research. No one had heard of any retroviruses and there was no consciousness that any affliction mutating in the jungles of Africa was only a plane ride away from our Best and Brightest. We were busy watching outer space when maybe we ought to have been watching our inner space more carefully.

So dystopias have been “in.” Despair is “in.” But that tends to be in the music and movies. The people who are still buying books, we’re told, are young literate women -- the same demographic now out of work because they were agents and editors in the big publishing houses that don’t need them anymore because they’re “doing deals” instead of reading through slush piles and correcting grammar. Knowing they could easily write a good book every six months if they had enough income to keep eating, the women still reflexively interface with the Big Money by running workshops and magazines about how to become a writer.

I remember attending an early version of one of these. The speaker told us NEVER to put our photo on the dust jacket because no one CARES what you look like: the writing is what counts. Yesterday I read in an advice blog that you MUST put an interesting (trick) photo of yourself even in your query to a publisher, because that’s what they will judge by. Got that? Your face, not your writing.

The reader reviews on all these “social websites” that invite recommendations are scarily similar: “I was swept up, I forgot where I was, I couldn’t sleep until I finished, I couldn’t put it down, I was transported to another world.” One hopes their batteries didn’t run out. But they seem still to be reading paper books. They like writers who produce a steady stream of similar tales, predictable but with twists they can’t see coming. Writers they can identify with and discuss on websites or even directly twitter.

When my mother was dying ten years ago, she had a blood cancer that made her weak but not mentally dull. She asked me and the local librarians to find her books that would sweep her up and make her forget she was dying. She was too smart for the usual sweet tales, too cynical for the smart women’s histories (“I lived it -- why would I want to read about it?”), and anxious to read things that would show she was respectable but “with it.” So she read Al Gore. Maybe she was secretly comforted to think that if she were dying, well, so was the world. But she liked the “chin up” stance and when we got right down to the last hours, she said, “I hope the next world will be as much fun as this one has been!” She wouldn’t allow the minister to come because she didn’t want him to see her down flat in bed in an old nightgown. She had stopped buying new ones because what would be the use with so little time left?

She read what I wrote but never saw anything of mine published. So far the things that have been published are praised by those who read them. The missing link is promotion, but there’s no profit in promoting them and I’d rather write than promote.

Anyway, writing is no longer a matter of books except as a section of the stream of print that plunges through the world in a steady torrent as we all call across the new wilderness to each other, speaking to people we would never meet in real life. That’s writing to me, conflated with reading, mixed in with video and sound. Glimpses of gazes focused on worlds I’ll never visit. Funny stories coming up under the glass like those old black fortune telling balls we used to ask questions when we had slumber parties: will I fall in love? The answer comes swimming up through the ink: “maybe.” Will I become famous? “Practice, practice, practice!” And then someone grabs the ball out of your hands. “Let me look! Let me ask!”

Friday, June 18, 2010


When I saw remaindered a book called “Rolling in Ditches with Shamans,” I absolutely had to have it. Most of the people I know who are fascinated by shamans talk about psychedelic drugs and secret ceremonies -- not rolling in ditches. But what I know about shamans -- the real ones occasionally spotted around here -- is that’s not unlikely behavior at all. In fact, they are far less Zen-like than you would think and much more like sorcerers with not altogether laudable motives. Less mystic than opportunistic.

This book is not about shamans, but about anthropologists before there really were any anthropologists because the discipline in America was barely forming. Jaime De Angulo was a little later than Joaquin Miller and a little earlier than Gary Snyder but occupied roughly the same poetic territory in terms of geography and intellectual pursuits, as well as pioneering the “free life” on the Pacific coast while doing careful scholarship and husbanding two remarkable educated women. He owned a ranch in the coastal mountains and in his later years would appear as an apparition wearing nothing but waist-length hair and riding a horse. Those who visited him in his house (for a while he welcomed paying guests, saying that he was not quite starving but close to it) found that he’d moved his open fireplace to the middle and knocked a hole in the roof to vent the smoke.

In his early days Kroeber and Boas tried to guide and even suppress him. In fact, he learned anthropology directly from them rather than taking classes and some of their exasperation came from his ability to do fine work but never quite to their specifications and expectations. His first wife, Cary Fink, was a fellow student in medical school at Johns Hopkins where both took MD degrees. His second over-lapping wife, Nancy Freeland, was diverted from being a handmaiden of Kroeber. In the end his first wife, remarrying, joined the Jungians in Paris and his second wife returned to doing valuable anthropology. Psychoanalysis was also in its infancy and it’s clear that these most human of enterprises were coalescing out of the same raw material, perhaps driven by the experience of WWI.

Briefly, de Angulo was born to Spanish parents in Paris who migrated to the US. His photo on the dust jacket of this book shows a lean and handsome man in an open-necked shirt with a fleece of short hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. He is seated outdoors with a typewriter. Born in 1887, he died of cancer in 1950. His second wife, who had divorced him, moved him back into her home to care for him through the last two years. She lived until 1972. His bohemian but scholarly friends said his ghost was welcome with them any time. In the Seventies his spirit was revived by Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder and he was published again by Turtle Island. California Indians are generally scorned as not so romantic and “wild” as the Plains bison tribes, but de Angulo’s deep interest in California Indian language and mythology has proven to be timeless. Yet most people know little about him.

Partly this comes from the preoccupation with being “proper” middle-class orderly people that defended many of the influential early anthropologists. They spent most of their time in (aboriginal) university settings and knew that their tenure depended upon the English gentry type of upper-class probity -- at least on the surface. Short forays into wild places were supposed to be “for research purposes only” and one of the worst crimes was “going native.” But de Angulo was a rancher who employed Indians, rode with them, and got drunk with them. He rolled in the ditches and knew the shamans as far more than simply “informants.” Yet he never fabulized or made himself a hero in the way that Joaquin Miller or James Willard Schultz did. Never losing his MD creds, he read his anthropological stories aloud for the radio and made his life into a rolling seminar, always searching theories. Ezra Pound was a friend and mentor. And yet he teetered at the edge of professional anthropology in part because at first he was self-financed, using the money of his mother and wives, a mark of the amateur. When the discipline tightened in the Twenties, it was academic degrees, classwork and publishing that counted.

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz is in a way doing “salvage anthropology” on the earliest anthropologists now that enough time has passed to take a “history of” approach. Her “field of specialization” on her professional website at University of Wisconsin-Parkside is described as: “Language and social interaction, ethnography of communication, intercultural communication, semiotics, communication theory, childhood socialization, history of the discipline, interdisciplinarity.” The coalescing of anthropology is now splitting again.

This book with the seductive and devil-may-care title is in fact very particular about describing de Angulo’s work. Recently retired from a long teaching career, Leeds-Hurwitz values the university context and clearly wanted to rescue de Angulo from being shrugged off as unimportant though he only taught briefly. There are other books that are more personally biographical. I’ve put them on my list.

One of the personal points of focus was a tragic auto accident in 1933 that killed de Angulo’s only son (he had several daughters) and badly damaged Jaime himself. That ended his professional work and seems to have changed his temperament. Given my family experience, I suspect his actual brain tissue was altered enough to derange the usual mechanisms of self-management.

What intrigues me is his participation in a webwork of personalities and pursuits that plainly laid the foundation for a strong current in our modern culture that values primitive people. Jaime was as fascinated as any hippie by what he called “the primitive mind” and the meaningfulness of myth. His life connected the South American peoples with Paris, Taos, Big Sur, San Francisco, always looking for the subterranean “catacombs” of the subconscious while still using the sharp scalpels of academic disciplines.

While this has touched Montana very lightly, de Angulo did have dealings with Clark Wissler, the primary anthropologist of the Blackfeet, and C. Hart Merriam (1855 -1942) who was also an MD, a natural history taxonomist and an ethnographer, which seems to be a nice term for self-taught anthropologists, esp. those who love myth.

Some might have said Jaime de Angulo was a “nagual.”