Thursday, September 30, 2010


Perhaps the most maddening thing about banning, censoring, making things secret, is that it is always about privilege: I can know, but you can’t. You can’t handle the truth. Adult to child version: this is for your own good. (You don’t need to know about sex.) The powerful, the elite, the wealthy, the educated, the military, and the underworld all say, “This is information I can have but you cannot.” Therefore, those who tell, who spy, who remember and cannot be suppressed, are always dangerous and resisted. This is a world based on gaming and secrecy is the advantage in games, esp. military games.

There’s been talk lately about whether Obama is one of the secret-keepers, in spite of assuring us that he would enforce transparency in government. (That he would disclose everything in spite of a hostile and gaming organization of opponents trying to put him out of power.) What’s MORE worrisome is the idea that what he knows is so devastatingly pessimistic -- that things are so far worse than we ever could have imagined -- that he is keeping the secrets to protect us from despairing madness or desperate revolution. I’ve been reading about family secrets in Mark C. Taylor’s “Field Notes from Elsewhere,,” mainly his slow realization that there were several suicides by hanging in a family already plagued with depression. It was considered too suggestive for the descendants to know, especially since there were no obvious reasons for such a final act. Too many questions to burden the young with the facts. Therefore, no inquiry into mitigation.

Secrecy is interpreted as the only safe way to avoid intervention from authorities. Secret groups form all the time, sometimes secret by default because no one cares anyway, but maybe because of fear of punishment, dispersal, raids. Which is worse? How do we tell the terrorists from the simply neglected?

We have the idea that if we just knew enough, we could handle anything. If we knew the mechanism of tragedy (let’s say soldier suicides) we could unravel them. But identifying the causes is only the first step. What we really don’t want to know is what we’ll have to do to stop the wars that make soldiers suicidal. It would be better to leave the necessity and price of peace in some dim and dubious cloud. For one thing, a lot of military-based economy would have to be shut down. Shifting the money from war to resettlement of refugees would be so chaotic that corruption would run wild. Here on the rez the council has just about figured out how to handle oil leases properly when along come international corporations very sophisticated about wind farms. Who knows how to read a wind farm contract?

Suppose a person is adopted, which was a family secret, and at last discovers the facts. More questions are raised than can be resolved. Where, when, why, who? How does that change one’s relationships? What does divulging the secret do to other people’s lives? What will it do to inheritance? What about getting caught up in political issues about adoption by people outside one’s original genetic group? Weigh that against resolving some inner dissonance that always raised questions.

Catastrophic and inexplicable events leave us hungry to know more. Every exposé is followed by an exposé of the exposé, the hoax that was behind the public hoax, the self-delusion that was behind the hoax-accusers -- that they knew the truth when, in fact, no one knows the real truth because reality is so complex and shifty that it is simply unknowable except in bits, sound bites, screen grabs. So Woodward tells us that HE knows the truth about Obama. And Jimmy Carter tells us HE knows the truth about Ted Kennedy. To be “in the know” is to be important, smarter than others, well-connected. That idea sells newspaper.

The idea that people will buy or read dirty books for the titillation of it is only part of the story. Another big part is that the upper classes read transgressive stuff -- why shouldn’t I? And there sits “Ulysses,” unread. The “upper” classes sometimes read things that only make sense if a person has a specialized (meaning focused) education that is normally acquired only at great cost. Can YOU read Derrida? How about Paul Ricoeur? They aren’t about sex -- they are about rewriting the world. That can be far more obscene and upsetting.

Only the wealthy in time can sit around trying to decide what a perfect world would be like. Most people are simply trying to survive. The censorship of their lives is never having enough time to read, let alone think. An intellectual life is one of the greatest luxuries but it is so hard for an ordinary person to “see,” that there is a strong prejudice against it. In rural Montana a person who has time to read is often considered a slacker. They could have been doing something constructive like mending fence.

I say, “When I have money, I buy books.” But what I really mean is “when I have money, I buy time during which to read books.” After all, there are libraries. If you have a computer, there are libraries in it. I don’t have time to wash the dishes because I’m composing an essay. (If I can compose in my head while I wash dishes, so much the better.) The beauty of audible books mean one can read while washing the dishes or driving the car. (It’s a little risky to compose essays while driving -- more distracting than texting, so it’s lucky I live in a place with long straight highways little traveled.)

Evading censorship, reading banned books, can be a waste of time because there is so much else to explore. But if the highest virtue of reading and writing means following Ariadne’s thread (truth) wherever it might lead, no matter the consequences, then hiding truth becomes evil. And yet the truth-seeker has a responsibility not to be mistaken, not to dig out trivia and valorize it as significant simply because it was hidden, and to help deal with the consequences of revelations. Because they change the world. The ultimate game is not winning, but constructing the rules for the greater good rather than merely supporting the elite. Reading is not the only way to learn things.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


So many years ago that I can’t remember when, I began to tear out photos from magazines and save them. They were most often from articles about houses, high-end interior decoration. It must have been in high school when I sometimes housesat for my dramatics teacher. She subscribed to those magazines and decorated her house accordingly. After a while I had so many clippings that I put them into those expandable “red rope” filing pockets. There were maybe three. Then more and more and more. After I moved to Valier, theoretically retired, one of my tasks was to sort these clips and discard most of them, but instead they expanded as decorating came closer to what I wanted this house to be -- “shabby chic,” “Mary Emmerling’s cottage style,” and “romantic French.” I thought. Instead the whole thing went rapidly to “Binder Heaven.”

Not all of these are house clips -- two are the one-page missives I sent back to my home church every week from seminary. Three are about how to fix stuff: plumbing, wiring, building porches and patios. The question is now what to do with them. Not the binders per se -- someone can use them -- but the clips carefully in sleeves inside. I’m not going to do much else to this house and I’m not going to move. My young relatives have tastes QUITE unlike my own.

This is the reworked clothes closet in my back bedroom, now an office. The cabinet at the top contains my family’s photos, mostly black and white, some of them pretty good quality, going back to the homestead days of the Strachans in South Dakota in the early 1900’s and to early times in Oregon. My father was a wool buyer in Eastern Oregon and a mountain climber in the days when St. Helens still had a summit. I gave most of the sheep photos to my niece and most of the mountain climbing photos to the cousin who climbs. One whole album was WWII trophies collected by my uncle, who flew bombers. I sent that to his son, who is an airline pilot. One album was almost entirely about farming in Swan River, Manitoba, which I put on a dedicated blog:, where it can be accessed by family as well as the Swan River Historical Society who are welcome to download whatever is useful.

There is, of course, a record of my sibs and I as we grew up. So far I’m just posting selected photos of myself in preparation for adding print later. My theory is that if I do it over a period of time and try to capture the time and place of Portland, OR., in the Forties and Fifties, the result might be interesting or even provocative. It was a situation in which nothing seemed to happen, and yet there were forces gathering that totally transformed a quiet neighborhood into the violent black ghetto that Portland tries to ignore. My living brother will object. My dead brother has no say.

This array is on top of four four-drawer filing cabinets. The shelves hold two other sets of binders. Dark blue ones are full of slides, more mine than my father's, and so mostly taken in Browning in the Sixties. Lots of them are scenery, meant for reference for painting which I haven’t pursued. The white ones hold manuscripts of books, mostly the ones on in case all the cyber stuff in the world suddenly disintegrates. Or in case I can’t pay for an internet connection anymore and must retreat to paper. I think about such contingencies. In the cardboard box are my grandmother’s journals, mostly accounts of money spent, sometimes trivial amounts for thread, buttons and soda crackers and other times large amounts from sales of farm equipment. When the Strachans began to represent Kovar Krabgrass Kultivator, they made a little money for the first time.

I typed off one whole journal back in the days of xerox before the internet and sent each cousin a copy. It was about a tour of the American West in search of a place to relocate at the beginning of the Thirties. They landed in Portland, times were very hard, and they couldn’t sell the house in Winnipeg for years. The Kovar company had discontinued sales in Canada because of punitive tariffs. It's certainly resonant right now.

In the drawers are teaching materials, correspondence, my Bob Scriver archive, files to use in writing, Blackfeet Indian material.

This set of stacks is on top of three two-drawer file cabinets. The front stacks are to file, the drawers are for kinds of paper and office supplies, and the magazines at the top are going out to the bunkhouse to make way for more binders, binders, binders! Jerome Connelly painted the tree and boulder up in Glacier Park and I traded him a genuine Calvin Boy authentic Blackfeet rattle for it. I think he was expecting something a little more, um, antique. Calvin’s fav fur donor was the rack of Sallie Ann fur coats. In the drawers are my daily business and family genealogy records. Scotland. Oregon trail.

This set of boxes will have to find a new place soon because this is my geranium window which faces the south. There’s a big cottonwood tree out there that shades the window all summer and then drops its leaves to let the geraniums (perlargoniums) bloom in winter. The two boxes on the left are signs of progress: the folders in them are empty. I’ve burned or discarded the contents.

These file cabinets and boxes are all jammed with material, mostly church stuff but some from teaching. I’ll organize, type and Lulu.ize all the minutes and histories of Montana Unitarianism that I can, then send all the raw materials to the Montana Historical Society. One of the black boxes is all the Methodist orders of service and sermons for the year I served Browning and Babb. I had so much fun that I hate to throw them out, but they are hardly immortal stuff. I played a game, trying to reconcile the four recommended biblical readings into one sermon and mostly succeeding. But the orders of service were pulled out of the weather and other circumstances. I typed them off, suitable for Lulu.izing or something.

There are drawers of Unitarian sermons. What to do with them? They are not immortal, but a good scholar might get something out of them. Some of the best went into “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke,” but not all. Who should decide which are best anyway?

Here’s my secret sorting strategy: the case boxes the cat food comes in. They make excellent sorting trays with a card stapled onto the end to identify what I put in there: “museum de-accessions,” “Tennessee Williams,” “prefrontal cortex,” “material culture,” “vacuum cleaner parts,” “book-binding.” I put up a card table in the open garage and sit sorting in the dusty golden light. But I really ought to wash the windows instead.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The most efficient and least expensive kind of censorship is self-imposed. For all the authors who found the inner courage to let ‘er fly and devil take the consequences, there must be ten more who quietly took out the most powerful, the most crucial bits. No swearing, no obscenity, no politically incorrect, no slamming dead people, no body parts, no terrorism. All the agent has to do is clear her [sic] throat because the women are in charge of censorship. This is because they have so much practice. “Stifle yourself!” roars Archie Bunker and Edith does. (Of course, this was a subversive show where Edith’s stifling covered for a host of forbidden topics.)

I used to say that as a tubby old white woman I could stand in the Blazers’ locker room at half time with giant black muscle men stripping all around me and no one would notice me. If they did, they would think I came to clean the floor. Women and minorities are censored by invisibility. “Was anyone killed?” “No, sir. Just a couple of Indians/slaves/women.”

My Netflix vids have recently included two stories about women on borderlands being raped and killed. One was quite glossy and Hollywood with Penelope Cruz as a woman reporter who goes undercover to investigate deaths in maquiladoras along the south side of the Mexican border. There is enough romance, glitz (fancy parties where the bad guys cruise), chases and violence that the movie did well. The other was on the north side of the Canadian border where aboriginal women from the back country accumulate in the SRO hotels of Vancouver, B.C. The most famous actress was Tantoo Cardinal, who plays a ghost. By the end of the movie the only woman alive is her daughter. This time the villain is entirely charming, then obscene -- and sociopathic. The actors were drawn from the reservoir of fine aboriginal repertory theatre in Canada. Mexico: dramatic, colorful, famous name. Canada: gritty, psychological, fine unknown actors. Great combo for a classroom. (Border studies is a whole discipline in universities.) The point is that the economic migration of marginal women to cities or borders where their work for low pay renders them murderfodder. No one cares. Few can tell one from the other.

Last night’s movie was “The Lost Child,” also with Tantoo Cardinal because that’s how I found these movies: following her list of credits. This one was a Hallmark Hall of Fame sugar donut -- sweet and doughy, something missing: reality. A jumble of generic NA actors. Reality based plot. Central character clearly Jewish pretending to be Navajo when it was supposed to be the other way around. This time the identities were erased by sentimentality.

So it’s almost a relief to turn to a wild and crazy docu-movie: “V-Day: Until the Violence Stops.” The V-word, of course, is “vagina,” because this is about the “Vagina Monologues.” I can hear the marketing people scream at the idea of “Vagina Day” so it’s edited to V-Day and the V is supposed to be about Violence, which it is. The English teacher in me -- and maybe the anatomist -- insists that I point out that the V word is really for Vulva, which is the part of the female organ that can be seen from the outside. And because I have been talking here about Native Americans, I will point out that they have developed the idea that “squaw” means vulva and that it is a dirty word, and that they have built up so much politically correct clout over it that maps throughout the US have had to be rewritten at enormous cost -- a hundred thousand dollars or so -- to erase Squaw Mountain, Squaw Creek, Squaw Valley (what?), and all the other Squaw names out there. In vain do the NA academics point out that squaw does NOT mean vulva. It was a great chance for the Missionary-educated Smut Patrol to besmirch a lot of stuck up white people. Tantoo Cardinal is in this movie, too, but fortified with Jane Fonda.

What a great explosion of energy is released by using this forbidden word ! (No, NOT squaw! Just vagina.) Eve Ensler has taken her monologues to five countries, including Sioux country (Tantoo is Cree, but who cares?), to show how universally the female gender is is the victim of violence. Expanded far beyond the tart observations of one woman, each cast is filmed doing workshops, panels, rehearsals, dances and so on. Parts of the performance are shown.

Ukiah, CA, has everyone in red feather boas, even the local sheriff who says that cops are the ones who see domestic violence so they have every reason to support women in this cause. The Sioux sequence dwells on the land. The Italians are the sassiest. Harlem is the hottest. The Phillippinas are the most openly trafficked as "wives" for sale. The Kenyans are the most shocking because of the custom of clitoridectomy, surgical (without anesthetic and with the mother holding down the child) excision of the bundle of nerves at the head of the vulva. Only five communities are in this film, but 800 have been visited by the performance. I wonder how much lasting impact it had. There were men interviewed, men in the audience, and I wondered how many of them were aroused. Certainly most of the women were.

I wonder how much self-censoring was done by the editors of this video. It is ALWAYS necessary to leave things out, editing by nature is exactly that, and the best reason of all for making this vid palatable to a wide audience is that the point is to get the message out. There is art, quilts and carved squashes that suggest the vulva -- but no actual crotch shots and no enactments of violence. The closest to children was a set of high school girls in an upscale community with a tradition of social action.

Censorship is always about borders, pushing the margins, exploring the envelope. Too little of it and the images cross over into provoking what they are supposed to be resisting. Too much of it and we’re having to revise all the maps. Most of the public discussion is about sex or even violence. But these are not the only issues that are taboo. Money, power, madness. Death.



Today the censor is likely to be the faceless Facebook police who will tell you (via computer, no human has seen your video or post) that you have violated terms of service. They can and will delete you and anything and everything you have posted. Google does it all the time with gay blogs. They have deleted virtually thousands of them. This has created a vacuum that other companies such as Tumblr and Nibblebit have tried to fill. 

But here's what I find interesting: American writers and American artists have figured out that if you, a human being, report something that you claim to find offensive (writers turning in other writers and artists turning in other artists), and you cause a human being at the other end (of let's say Facebook) of the feed to have cause to actually look at a video or a dirty word, the banning is ubiquitous. Reporting a blog doesn't always mean a human being will look at it. Computers do most of this work. But if the computer flags an actual human being to do this, you will be deleted.

I see this multiple times every day. What it means is that you can squash the competition. If you feel that another writer or another artist is threatening your turf, report them. And if you can't get your competition eliminated the first time, keep reporting them.

Blip calls it tattling.

Le Tube calls it reporting.

Either way, it's humorless, arbitrary and there is no consideration for what is art whatsoever. I have been deleted so many times, I just expect it. How do I know the nationality of the writers and the artists who think the way to remain in the game is to eliminate the competition (versus being a united front)? They write to me. They go off. They do not attempt to hide. They want you to know who they are.

Although my work is pretty much an international thing, only American writers and artists have shut me down. Eliminating what they see as competition is the American way.

Tim Barrus

Having watched some of this game Tim describes, I have some other observations. The objectors came to the Facebook page following poets, which they fancied they were. Tim and several other people were writing remarkable pieces. The new people thought they were but they weren’t.

One of the most obvious characteristics of these volunteer censors was that they were poorly educated, inexperienced, and unsophisticated people who aspired to be their betters but weren’t very sure how to do it or, indeed, exactly what it means to be “better.” Is if virtue or status? This is where my template and Tim’s match up. These were people who know they are missing something, but don’t know what, and who resent academic authority but will near-worship any authorities who will cater to them. Think Red China. Think French Revolution. Think Sarah Palin. Think Levelers.

From my point of view, they are not so much after money as after status. They are the people who scoff at innovation, fear change, and try to shut down anyone who is different. This can quickly turn evil when it begins to destroy -- and it does. They must ensure their own safety by removing all security from others. It’s not just economic: it’s emotional. They’re the back-of-the-classroom kids who get even by telling their parents they’re being forced to read dirty books.

These banal wannabe “poets” who came to Tim’s website were sentimental, boring and falsely cheerful, masking themselves in religious conventionalities. I don’t think they were aware of how transparent they were. Their judgments are never according to reason. (They do not think that morality can be determined by reason.) They conform because it is to their advantage, and their chief guides are simply their cohort -- they do what the other kids do. Always have. They had simply stumbled into a place where they did not belong and therefore tried to shut it down. This kind of faux poet used to get into those fake ego anthologies that sell to the people they include or maybe the best get into popular magazines, which are gone now because the people who used to read them have turned to television and Facebook. But they preserve a vague notion that the goal is to be published. (Even in myself I have a hard time stamping out that idea.)

Tim’s other issue, the software platform that makes decisions rationally according to the profit game, knows very well what they are doing and defends their strategies via Gordon Gecko. Thus, it is easy to sign on! But impossible to sign off! An hour’s work to ensure your privacy! Their moral guide is simply the survival of the company, their livelihood. They are gamers, they live by algorithm. They often get very rich and never have any consciousness of it being at someone else’s cost. There are plenty of gamers out there to take them on. As soon as Amazon or Netflix invented its rating systems and “peoples’ reviews,” the writers and publishers were busy getting their mothers and friends to check five stars and write “the best book I ever read -- I simply couldn’t put it down.” Then others figured out how to review their rivals: “This book is totally phony. Anyone who reads it is a fool.” No algorithm could cope. People had to intervene.

Conventional conformers know the strategy of the kid in a department store: if you throw a big enough fit, they’ll give you what you want just to get rid of you. It has worked with parents from the beginning, unless something bad develops: for instance, a parent who beats the kid to shut him up. But then the parent feels so guilty that the kid can get what they want for quite a while. If you can trigger a false arrest in a department store, the lawyers can get you quite a bit of compensation. The gamers know it is a game -- they calculate the cost and if it’s low enough they just pay it as a cost of doing business. The conformers are too hot and the gamers are too, too cold.

What’s the Goldilocks Guide? How do you find the chair that is just right? Usually it takes a while for things to sort themselves out. And as we know, if you take too long, the bears come home. Best to use the delete button or, failing that, block 'em.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Today’s “books” are so different from what we used to call “books” that it’s hard to understand what “banning” them means. How does one burn an electronic book? How can it be suppressed at all? How can issues like pornography be pursued when books are no longer local, which is the locus of most obscenity laws for the simple reason that it’s different in different places? How can issues like political points of view be controlled when there are so many points and networks of transmission that efforts at interdiction simply call attention to what is supposed to be suppressed?

The change in the nature of “books” has been accompanied by such a radical change in the marketing of writing (what we used to call “publishing”) that content -- which is supposed to be what is banned -- is almost irrelevant. In some cases the banning has moved to the new focus of many censorship efforts: the author. Why ban books when one can ban authors? The most radical and effective way to silence dissent is to kill the speaker. Fatwa. One needn’t even pretend to read the books if the argument is that the author is just too wretched, heretical and obscene to be tolerated.

“Quills,” the movie based on the Marquis de Sade, vividly and wittily illustrates this phenomenon pitting content -- irrepressible and commercially profitable because so many people are avid to read it -- against that which certain interests are desperate to erase, usually for reasons that have nothing to do with the official reasons, more to do with elections and laws. It was not that de Sade was writing about sex in a offensive way -- it was that he accused those in control of idiocy and corruption. (At that point everyone was a little distracted by mass beheading. Why resent the upper classes when you can kill them all?)

It’s been fascinating to watch the Native American writers who were untouchable in the years when they were politically correct (and there was profit to be made from them) now being accused of obscenity a page at a time. When books were printed and bound volumes, they were condemned in those units. Now that people read excerpts and chapters, it is specific scenes, some only a page or two long, that are the cause of rejecting the whole book. James Welch Jr.’s book, “Fools Crow,” a conventional morality tale, is attacked on the basis of one dramatic set of paragraphs lining out the major illustration of the anti-hero’s immorality: he hides in a lodge where young women suffering from smallpox are sequestered, slides under their buffalo hides, and takes advantage of their naked and helpless state. Sherman Alexie, once an enthusiastic condemner of whites in feathers who write about Native Americans, claiming they were “stealing his heritage,” is now banned for writing about masturbation in YA books.

When I was teaching, there was a story going around -- evidently true -- about a school principal confronted with the sorts of issues in the paragraph above. Almost daily a parent would march in and attack some book in the school library. So this conscientious principal would promise to review the book, get it from the library and put it in his closet to wait until he had time to read it. When he moved on in a few years, some hapless person opened the closet door and was buried in the avalanche of books. This will not be a problem with ebooks: just hit delete. But why not censor at the point of objection? If one is offended, don’t read it. Of course, a lot of people are offended by the difficulty of mathematics and a certain part of education is learning things one doesn’t want to know.

Popular opinion suggests that dirty books sell better, but those who are experienced (I’m not, but I know people who are) suggest that this isn’t true. For one thing many consumers have gone to the image -- not sepia postcards of sinister men wearing nothing but socks with garters and doing things that experimenting children might think of, but videos that mix violence with graphic closeups. Tim Barrus suggests that today’s publishers are neither subtle nor leisurely enough to indulge in the irony of hoping books will be banned for the sake of publicity. Ray Stark, who with his wife wrote a witty pseudo-memoir of a porn queen, confided that they made only enough money for a nice vacation and it was such hard work that they really needed one. The real action now is not in suppression but in disclosure: government intrigues, corporate malfeasance, secret war negotiations and revisions. We’ve always known there was something going on. Leaks are the new pornography.

In a world where Wikipedia will tell you all the things that we used to try to look up in the dictionary (with very little luck), and supply graphic full-color illustrations of genitalia, death and money are still mysterious. In the end “banned books” have been crowded aside by TMI. The sweet-faced girl whose mother didn’t want her to read “Fools Crow” is fond of obscene ghetto-blaster music.

So what can “Banned Book Week” possibly be about now? The same things that most human strategies are about: class, prestige, control -- all more closely related to money than to sex. Our problem now is not how to get past guardians of decency at major publishing houses. Our problem is how to find the things worth reading, writing that tell the truth even if it has to be framed as a fantasy or a lie to protect the author. Printed books were a three-handed game: author, reader and intermediary supplier of capital to pay for printing and distributing the actual object. Then the poker game became crowded: critic, official regulator (especially at the international border since obscenity is local), marketing specialist, and corporate investor. Now the table is overturned and we’re back to only TWO intact players: author and reader, though some of us play solitaire.

Now it’s needle in the haystack. The new currency is time. The aggregator and the curator -- those who survey and sift -- are more important than ever but there's no money in it. The author writes in images and sound as much as print. No one can tell whether readers are lumping or splitting -- are they now content to read what the trendy media suggests, quite aside from issues of obscenity? Or are they putting up their own pickets in order to avoid what upsets them or seems dangerous? Are they reading to escape reality or to discover reality? What are we banning to keep from knowing?

Sunday, September 26, 2010


A recent article in the “Opinionator” by philosophy professor Jeff McMahan attracted a good deal of attention on my listservs, which include environmentalists, hunters, and animal studies people -- a broad assortment easily set at each other throats. Some took this article as absolutely received word and others said it was obviously provocation and still others were laughing too hard to have an opinion. The premise of the article was that suffering in the world could be addressed by eliminating all the predators -- which seemed to be defined as lions and tigers and bears (oh!) with little mention of predatory human beings. Or consideration of how we are going to get rid of carcasses if all the meat-eating bugs, rodents, and microbes are gone.

What sprang to my mind was a dim memory from World Religions class: the Jains, a religious group in India so concerned with not eliminating other life that they wear gauze masks to keep from inhaling gnats and carefully sweep the ground ahead of their feet to prevent stepping on ants. I looked it up.

Jainism is very old, going back nearly to the beginning of agriculture ten thousand years ago, which may be significant. The dislocations of such a major shift in civilization is bound to demand a new paradigm. The core of Jain reasoning is that every living creature has a soul and that the deepest moral command is kindness to all, because of reincarnation. When any living creature dies, it becomes another new living creature which is either “higher” or “lower” than the previous version, according to how much virtue was achieved. Thus: “Every soul is the architect of its own life, here or hereafter.” They speak of karma, a kind of fate, which is a bit of a joke to American culture (“My karma just ran over your dogma!”)

First you must believe in the soul, the ability of the “living” part of a being to separate from and survive the death of the body. “When a soul is freed from karmas, it becomes free and attains divine consciousness, experiencing infinite knowledge, perception, power, and bliss.” But don’t expect God or guardian angels to help you out if you’re Jain. “There is no supreme divine creator, owner, preserver or destroyer. The universe is self-regulated and every soul has the potential to achieve divine consciousness (siddha) through its own efforts.”

Jainism is one of the roots of Buddhism. Jains claim their beliefs are so ancient that they have always existed. Archeology and very early manuscripts tend to support this since there are traces back to nine thousand years before Christ -- that’s about the time Isaiah was alive, one of the thinkers that McMahan quotes. The Hindu stream of thought is independent from Jainism, but takes so many ideas from Jains that some think of them as a variation of Hinduism. And I have a hunch that Jesus talked to a few Jains.

Some say the most important contribution of Jains is the end of ceremonial animal sacrifice which had become so obsessional that it was consuming too much wealth at the expense of feeding families. In the Old Testament related ideas show up in the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son or Isaac having to be tricked into blessing Jacob, since Isaac preferred Esau, his hairy older twin son who usually brought hunted meat as sacrifice, while Jacob the smooth son brought ag products. Their mother, Rebecca, preferred Jacob and helped in the deception, aware that the twins had quarreled even in her womb. Some versions say that Esau sold his birthright for a mess of stew (which would include meat) and others say pottage, which is cooked peas or lentils. Reading these old stories is highly suggestive.

What I see in the kafuffle over McMahan’s proposition that all predatory meat-eaters be genetically altered to make them browsers is a new paradigm shift which cries out for a story. The culture shift we are in right now, which leaves so many families suffering from hunger, is about the new technological and bureaucratic advances that have made the planet a “sim world” where ecologies can be altered (global warming) and whole populations can be eliminated by denying assistance in the face of disease. After all, a virus is simply a bit of code. We ought to be able to alter it. So then the boys on the stone altar of trafficking could be spared -- but the angel is late. Abraham is not writing the check.

That’s one angle. Another is the preoccupation with suffering. a physical response to damage or sometimes childbirth or bodily disfunction, which it has been possible to formally escape if you have the money for drugs. At one time it was considered immoral for a woman to use anesthetics during childbirth because that agony was mandated as Eve’s punishment for disobedience. Suffering has become a kind of pornography. Consider the agony of Darth Vader as he changes from a Jedi to a menace. And all those movies about the 19th century when soldiers had legs amputated while biting bullets. Yet the promise to eliminate suffering seems to be the only way to get people to write checks. In general, they will do it more generously for animals than for people.

Here’s another idea: the suffering that comes from overpopulation of humans which we then impose upon animals, all of us living in little bureaucratic cubicles making and manipulating code, quite like chickens stuffed together in cages to lay eggs. This time we have sold our heritage for a plastic credit card. Salvation by prosperity, often at the expense of others who labor for low pay and live in hovels. Maybe cutting their hearts out with obsidian knives would be kinder.

The most sophisticated shift in recent thinking is well represented in the comments responding to this essay. It is ecology: the idea that all things -- living or not: animal, vegetable, mineral -- fit together in a constantly shifting and deeply interrelated pattern that is an entity in itself. Pull out the tigers from the jungle and see what comes undone. Send out frankensalmon to the seas and see what comes undone. Every change sweeps around the planet and every change, even so small as the size of a fish, raises the possibility that humans will no longer fit. It’s time to get back in touch with the continuous sharing with all beings that was taken for granted before the boundaries of agriculture were imposed. Which takes us back to Jains.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


“Religion and the Human Image” by Carl A. Raschke, James A. Kirk, and Mark C. Taylor (Prentiss-Hall, 1977) came onto my screen as backstory to Taylor’s current new book about the end of universities. I wish I’d had this textbook overview of comparative (world/history) study of religions when I was in seminary, though I suppose I was learning the same material in a more roundabout way. Most of the bibs at the ends of these chapters are familiar to me, even though I haven’t read all the books.

What strikes me now is that the last chapter “The Contemporary Social Crisis and the New Forms of Transcendence” are like a map to the psyche of Tim Barrus (not necessarily the one you know), which is part of the reason I’m so “into” him. Here’s a list. They are not jigsaw pieces of the same big picture, so they don’t fit together necessarily. They do not replace each other as the new idea develops but are additive, requiring reconciliation or complexification. They are all strategies in the search for transcendence, a new and reliable “take” on a dependable core for a life. These are notes for development into a proper essay later.

First of all, the writers propose, is trauma. Social trauma (world war, depression, collapse of lifestyles, mortal consequences of stigma and so on kick off the need for explanations. The death of both “God” and progress, including social mobility.)

1. The Beat movement. A new delight in myth, magic and mystical ecstasy: “the new Reformation.” (Peter Goodman)

2. The counter-culture (Theodore Roszak) reacting to the burning of ghettos, the corruption and ineptitude of authority, third world suffering, a questioning of whether there is ANY sensible approach to life. The valuing of the individual rather than society. Return to primitivism: nature worship, vegetarianism, sexual liberty, political “theologies.”

3. The cult of youth: reinvention of the world, the “now generation” that values only the present. “The experience of the recurrently new becomes in itself a custom.” Keep moving.

4. “Post traditional man [sic] strives for experiences that do not necessarily have a common point of orientation. In his case experience must be dramatic and unrepeatable, unmediated by familiar forms of interpretation.” “A dazzling confrontation by the individual in his solitude with extraordinary panoramas of the spirit.” “A private and intense conviction that something genuine has occurred.” (Kierkegaard) Ecstasy. (Harvey Seifert) Alan Watts.

5. “The new transcendence rests upon a picture of humanity that implies the loss of a sense of place or rootage.” (“Journey to Ixtlan” by Carlos Castenada) “Existence is a flame which constantly melts and recasts our theories. . . . We find in the other’s communication an experience of relationship [to another person] established, lost, destroyed or regained. We hope to share the experience of a relationship, but the only honest beginning, or even end, may be to share the experience of its absence.” “The Homeless Mind” Peter Berger.

6. “Tradition is seen as limiting men’s radical openness and personal freedom. Only the spontaneous creation of fabulous, unchartered worlds of intuition and imagination, the dizzying delight in all that roils in the miind, regardless of its conscious or unconscious sources, is appropriate to the Protean type of humanity.” [Scriver: is Trickster-- Hermes -- only a by-product of Proteus, a judgement on the part of observers?] “The New Polytheism” by David Miller.

7. Chemical transcendence. Timothy Leary. Beatles. Marijuana and acid. Psychedelia. “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley. Masters and Houston suggest that LSD releases memories from early in life. Claudio Naranjo also thinks so. Marlene Dobkin de Rios writes about Peruvian Indians. Some former users have moved to a straight religious version. Hare Krishna. “The destruction of the tenacious ego, the surrender of personal identity.”

8. “Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America” by Robert Ellwood, Jr. observes cults, witchcraft, fortune telling, exorcism, meditation, -- a jumble of alternative realities.

9. “The New Dionysian” centered on sexuality, nudity, lack of censorship in media, the elevation of emotion, catharsis, abandonment. The valuing of “play,” fantasy, spoofing. “Bending oneself to the supple rhythms of living.”

10. “Concurrent with the rise of the new Dionysianism there developed a notion of transcendence as liberation from dehumanizing social conditions. In the main, this idea entailed a fundamental critique of capitalism and the overall status quo. Herbert Marcuse. “Political theology” or “the theology of hope.” “Thus repression of sexuality, fantasy and play functions as an instrument by which certain classes of society can dominate others for the manufacture of wealth.” Transcendence is a creature of the far future.

11. The Human Potential Movement, John E. Biersdorf, director for Advanced Pastoral Studies, says its the valuing of “the sensitivities, experiences and achievements of the most loving and creative among us.” “Human nature is infinitely diverse ad malleable.” Abraham Maslow. Fritz Perls. Then Zen: “All ideation is harmful because concepts hypnotize us into faulty perceptions and wrongful thinking. It divides the individual against himself and separates him from the rest of creation.” Zen “supplies an ecstasy of self-discovery within the whirling vortex of contemporary social and historical change.”

12. This strand of social thought is NOT in this book because it is too new: the insistence that all suffering must be eliminated, esp. for animals. This includes pain-ameliorating drugs rather than the mind-altering kinds. A kind of neo-Jainism that requires people to live without being at the expense of existence. [IMPOSSIBLE !!] I think this is a blind alley. Rather, live in a way that justifies one’s existence with contributions to life. Barrus suffers intensely all the time -- does not step away from it except in the interest of raw survival. Tells his boys to make a contribution.

13. Another source of ideas and point of view comes from science: particle physics, the cosmos, and the like. The major telescopes and colliders. Deeper wonder at the vastness than ever before.

14. Inside, exploring the pre-frontal cortex: empathy, morality, decision-making, insanity. Simply speaking of the Dionysiac release of sex is not enough. There is plenty more to know and find out, particularly about “Haptic bonding.” The nature of the instrument itself: our bodies.

One of the major insights here is that one can only speak of post- this and post-post-that so long. Then the Gestalt must shift to the “pre-” something. The next step is exactly pre- what? Creation? Serving others? Self-discipline??? Envisioning.

So I ordered Mark C. Taylor's book "The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture," U of Chicago, 2001. Only trouble is I can't understand it. Is it the instrument: me? Is Taylor too deep into jargon? It's thirty years since I was on that campus. Maybe I've lost the context. No matter. I have a new one.

Friday, September 24, 2010


When I first came to Montana, aged 21, all frisky and up for anything, there were pads of counter checks at all the stores -- you wrote in the name of the bank and kept your balance register in your head. Your change came in silver dollars so your pockets were always a little baggy and clinked. If you had an overdraft, the bank called you up, you jumped in the pickup to go put some of your silver dollar stash in the bank, and that was the end of it.

Now I’m 70, retired, on Social Security with income of about $1,000 a month.

I have banked in Portland at PointWest Credit Union for decades, so when I retired, I kept my account there.

I had a number of safeguards:

At first there was automatic overdraft protection for a Silverline senior account. That was ended. But I didn’t know it.

Then I was protected by a line of credit. When I closed out all my credit cards a couple of years ago and consolidated everything into one loan, they closed my line of credit because it was the same as my VISA account. I didn’t know that. (The lady who helped me was shocked that my total exceeded their guidelines but that was mostly because they kept raising the limit on my VISA without my asking. Mostly I bought books. This computer. Motor rebuild on the pickiup.)

Earlier this year the Point West Credit Union online banking website, which I access through the Safari browser, began to say it could not certify authenticity, that the url could be a Trojan Horse dummy. I called the techies at the Credit Union who said to just ignore that, but I was very reluctant to use the the website anymore. I tried to call the supervisor of the tech support, but he only referred it back to the techs. I wrote a letter to the Board of Directors and got no answer. Previously, I had checked every few days to make sure I was balanced, printing out the record and striking off my register entries with a highlighter as they were processed. But I write very few checks, mostly utilities and groceries.

My checkbook fell out of my pocket into a driveway puddle (at least it was at my home and not a store parking lot) and was soaked through. I had to guess to reconstruct until my statement came.

Last January, without my awareness, the Credit Union stopped notifying people when they had overdrafts. They told me “no one paid attention anyway.” So I went on blindly writing overdrafts until finally I went to the website and discovered them. The total overdraft fees imposed by the bank were several hundred dollars though the original triggering overdraft was only a few dollars, because every fee triggered a new overdraft.

When I contacted the bank, they canceled four of these $30 overdraft penalties. The service person to whom I spoke said she had a checklist in front of her about criteria for withdrawing the penalties. One thing on the list was that if I had ASKED for her to drop the penalty, she was not supposed to do it. Luckily, I didn’t ask. I was very contrite and explanatory. I’m sure another thing on her list was to deny me if I got angry.

The local overdraft fee imposed by the store in addition to the bank penalty is $15. I’m told this is customary and to be expected. I didn’t know that since I’ve never had a local overdraft before -- very few of them at all. I paid this fee. What is harder to overcome is the damage to my reputation with these local people. Courtesies and services in small towns depend upon the good opinion of fellow citizens.

Now comes the big box grocery store eighty miles away with a $30 fee, though the original check was paid when it was sent in a second time. They tell me this penalty is “allowed by state law” and that it was posted in the store. I visit that store once a month. I have never looked at what is posted in that store. I called their service rep, who sighed and laughed and said she couldn’t do anything because the $30 had not been taken out of my account yet. AFTER it is, then we can talk. I know people who spend all day every day calling people to correct records, get things registered, get things fixed, apply for exceptions.

In the beginning I was very angry, partly because of fear. My money is just barely enough and even a small unexpected debit makes things difficult. Then I thought I should get smart, so I went online to the Oregon state banking law because of the bank being there. I am unclear whether Oregon or Montana law applies, since my bank is in one place and I’m in the other. But there was some consumer advice that was useful about what sort of approach to take, how to document, and so on.

Only cash is cash. Everything else is bookkeeping. therefore reversible and arbitrary -- no markers. But also, the bookkeeping is controlled by calendar triggers: social security is automatically deposited according to a schedule, automatic deductions happen on a schedule. Netflix threw me into an overdraft years ago because they take their $20 out on the same day of the month you signed up. By chance that meant they were deducting at the end point in the month when my balance was the lowest -- sometimes lower than $20. The only way to rectify this was to resign from the club, wait until the date would fall just AFTER my automatic deposit of social security, then sign up again.

There’s another side to this story. Point West CU merged with an hispanic credit union a few years back. Now many of the tellers and so on are Spanish-speaking ESL. In addition to my social security check, I receive a paper check in the mail from the Canadian government for the two years I served a church up there and paid into their system. One evening I received a phone call from one of the data entry persons who was about to input my $40 Canada Revenue check.

She was very concerned, because the automatic fee the Credit Union charges for foreign checks is $30, which would pretty much swallow my check. She was alert to this because so many checks go back and forth to the south, she assumed I didn't have money to spare, and she wanted to know if there were some way I could cash this check where they would not charge me so big a fee. In that case she would mail it back to me.

I pointed out that the check was drawn on a US bank. Canada transfers a massive amount of funds to a US bank which then writes the individual checks. She was very relieved to see this. Now I circle “US Funds” on the check with a bright red marker before I deposit it. I do not know what fees the Canadian and US banks charge to handle these transactions, or who was able to decide which banks got the contract.

I do know that the Mexican teller who cared enough to call me up and tell me about the problem was far more moral than the credit union itself. I can only hope she is a great success in life. I feel sure her family values her.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"SWEETGRASS" -- The Movie

"The Sheepherder" by Bob Scriver

“Sweetgrass,” is a simple but profound “documentary” -- more like visual poetry really. A record of the last high country summer trailing of more than a thousand sheep near Big Timber which is near Yellowstone. This movie is dead center on the cross-hairs of two of my high values: on the one hand, abstract near-literary analysis and on the other hand raw sensory experience. Watch this DVD twice, first with the commentary off. Watch it like music: just letting it come but watching for the themes and the chords. Then after a while or on another occasion, watch it with the commentary to see what the makers saw. This is NOT like the usual breathless witlessness of young people from back east who gasp, “How beautiful!” “How spiritual! How privileged I am to be here!” and completely miss the danger, the inhumanness, the desperate edge.

Many of us have the iconic world of the sheepherder in our minds as a marker for freedom and fiefdom alone with our dogs where we can be heroes, as though a sheep (or bear) cares. And some see it in a jokey way as “Brokeback Mountain” where men too good for sheep at least have each other.

I’m going to include some jargony high-concept quotes from the web here, because it will have meaning for some, but what it boils down to is an attempt to get at the actual experience of life, to go deeper, reach the core through all the fancy theory that has bogged us down in the last decades in order to get at what the theory is meant to clear your eyes for. Not romantic, not composed, not making a point. It just IS. It’s not a Western and it’s not an anti-Western, though the makers talk about it in those terms afterwards.

* * *


Ilisa Barbash is the wife of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and of the Social Sciences at Harvard and the 
Director, Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL)


The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard is a unique collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Visual & Environmental Studies (VES). Harnessing perspectives drawn from the human sciences, the arts, and the humanities, the aim of SEL is to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, with original nonfiction media practices that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence. As such, it encourages attention to the many dimensions of social experience and subjectivity that may only with difficulty be rendered with words alone. SEL provides an academic and institutional context for the development of work which is itself constitutively visual or acoustic — that is conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems — and which may thus complement the human sciences’ and humanities’ traditionally exclusive reliance on the written word. The instruction offered through SEL is thus distinct from other graduate visual anthropology programs in the United States in that it is practice-based, and promotes experimentation with culturally-inflected, nonfiction image-making.
Director, Film Study Center


“Visual representations from all cultures, such as sandpaintings, tattoos, sculptures and reliefs, cave paintings, scrimshaw, jewelry, hieroglyphics, paintings and photographs are included in the focus of visual anthropology. Human vision, its physiology, the properties of various media, the relationship of form to function, the evolution of visual representations within a culture are all within the province of visual anthropology.” What we make and what we see entwine.


“Castaing-Taylor’s work seeks to conjugate art’s negative capability with an ethnographic attachment to the flux of life.  He recently recorded Sweetgrass (2009), a film (produced by Ilisa Barbash) that is an unsentimental elegy at once to the American West and to the 10,000 years of uneasy accommodation between post-Paleolithic humans and animals. He is currently completing a related series of video and photographic Westerns that variously evoke the allure and ambivalence of the pastoral, including Hell Roaring Creek (2010) and The High Trail (2010). “ This is beyond idle tourism, penetrating into deep engagement.

If that’s too much for you, here’s a bit of more accessible interview.


An interview in the MARCH/APRIL 2010 issue of “Believer” magazine.


For nearly twenty years, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have sought to depict, as honestly as possible, the beauty and ache of actual lived experience. In their new film, Sweetgrass, the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based couple examine the world of raising sheep and sheepherding in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, in south-central Montana. This pointedly unsentimental and often startlingly intimate film provides, without commentary, an everyday view of life on a ranch and up in the mountains where three thousand sheep are being driven to feed—for the last time. Sheepherding is relentlessly grueling work, and the film, simply by getting out of the way, allows for viewers to experience this hard labor firsthand. Sweetgrass was an official selection at the 2009 New York and Berlin film festivals and opened theatrically at the Film Forum in New York City this January. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor met in film school at USC in the late 1980s. Barbash is a curator of visual anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Barbash grew up in New York City; Castaing-Taylor in Liverpool, UK. The interview was conducted over email and the phone in December 2009.
—Peter Orner

THE BELIEVER: What I especially appreciate about Sweetgrass is that, like the best literature, it refrains from overexplaining. The film opens and we immediately descend into this world of sheep and sheepherding. But why sheep? How did you get started with this project?

ILISA BARBASH: We were teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in film and anthropology, and looking for local topics. When we found out that a Montana rancher was the last in the county to be driving his sheep up into the mountains, we thought it might make a great film topic. It was close enough to be feasible, in a beautiful area, and involved some drama. We also loved the fact that it was the last of something. It’s a hackneyed and by now totally discredited trope of ethnographic filmmakers to film cultures on the wane, or in their death throes—it’s called salvage ethnography. I don’t mean to sound callous about the tragedy of these disappearing life ways, nor to denigrate the importance of documenting them. I did, however, enjoy the irony of finding such a moment in such a modern setting in my own backyard.

LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR: I went up there in the spring of 2001 and stayed for a week, wondering if there might be a movie there. I wasn’t sure, but we decided to devote a summer to it as a family. It was an amazing experience for us all. I ended up falling in love with the people, just as I was falling in love with the West at the time. The landscape, the freedom, the aesthetics of the space—everything about it bowled me over. As a European, I could never get over the sheer scale of the Absaroka-Beartooths, the fact that there could be anywhere so remote in the lower forty-eight. It takes them four to five weeks to trail the sheep from the ranch to the basins—about eighty miles, on hoof the whole way. In the Alps and the Pyrenees these days, they’re trucked up to the pasture. And here we are in twenty-first-century USA.
To read the rest of this piece, please purchase this issue of the Believer online or at your local bookseller.

“Salvage ethnography.” I live in the middle of it. Maybe I should be more intentional with a camera.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


My father played chess, which we thought was a great mark of sophistication.

About 1950 I remember a discussion at school about the difference between the working class and the middle class which caused me to come home and quiz my mother. (Who didn’t much like talking to her children about life but could be waylaid sometimes when she was doing something that made her stay in place -- “I stand here ironing” -- Tillie Olsen)

“Are we middle-class?” I asked.

“Oh, um. . .”

“Are we upper or lower middle-class?” I was pretty sure we were upper middle-class because we had so many books and my father liked classical music. We were more educated than the neighbors, though both my parents grew up on dirt-poor farms. Our Portland, OR, neighborhood at that point was mostly immigrant European craftsmen and working stiffs.

“Go change your clothes.” The rule was that you had to wear your school clothes at least twice before they went into the wash so you had to keep them clean. “Play clothes” were to be worn for a week. I had no “work clothes” and my parents had no “play clothes,” but I never thought about that. My mother wore “house dresses.” My father wore giant double-breasted suits from Monkey Wards and wool ties in Scots tartan. If you went downtown, even aged twelve, you wore white gloves and a hat. Men wore hats everywhere all the time, except indoors. Children had piano lessons, not a guitar.

For the last few years, for lack of a curriculum, I’ve been hopscotching through big ideas proposed by interesting men, some of them real people I know, some college professors, and some who turn up in magazine articles. I’m particularly interested in theories of knowledge and society: Merrill Singer, Kim Sterelny, Clay Shirky, Robert Sapolsky, Mark C. Taylor. Sometimes I go back through the shelves of books I saved to read when I retired. I have two copies of Peter Gay’s “Education of the Senses” (sub-titled "The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud.”) which suggested that I should finally read it. I think I bought it because of the “senses” more than class, but I’ve always been interested in class.

Back to my mother, still ironing and wishing she were not. “Are we high-brow, low-brow or middle-brow?”

“You didn't practice your piano lesson yet.”

Our sophomore high school teacher was the national president of the National Education Association and my high school was Jefferson High School, one of the best in the nation. We were very proud. That teacher, whose father was a prominent lawyer, brought three magazines to class. They were the television of the time. An Atlantic Monthly (quality), Life (slick) and I forget the last one which was pulp. It was not the Police Gazette, which my father hid behind the dirty clothes hamper. He kept his chess mags out in the open. Surely chess is high-brow. He played Tschaikovsky and Beethoven on his big phonograph cabinet. Gay suggests these things are bourgeois, and so was our way of thinking about them.

My mother had no time to deal with these things because she was ironing -- and cooking, and cleaning, and maintaining the yard. (She wore pedal-pushers in the yard.) She was a do-er and became a dynamic president of the PTA, a use of time my father rather resented. She went back to school, which the Depression had forced her to drop out of, and became a teacher in 1957 so she could put me through college. By then it was clear that my father was not going to rise through the classes, though we were beginning to feel financial limits. We resented this, not understanding until much later that a head injury in 1948 was mentally disabling. The promising young man, the pride of his birth family, kept his job through good will and conscientiousness, and kept us from realizing the problem by being on the road all the time.

When my elderly free-thinking junior English teacher heard that I had a scholarship to Northwestern University, she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! Now you’ll know rich people!” I could not puzzle out what she meant. But somehow I got the idea that she meant brilliant, cultured people -- high-brows, upper classes. Actually, I didn’t run into them until later at the University of Chicago. There I learned that even the Atlantic Monthly and Beethoven were not high brow: one read journals in one’s field and listened to either Mahler or Miles Davis. But I hung onto the idea I had developed at Northwestern: that art trumped them all. If you really knew art -- even if you were not necessarily an adept or famous -- you had escaped the relentless pressure to rise through the classes. When I married Bob Scriver, I found a new relentless pressure: to be a genius, though a woman was allowed to deflect the mission by supporting a genius. He’d better be worth it.

Marriage, a certified education that guaranteed a decent job, a nice house with a well-maintained yard, and prosperity -- these were the markers of success in life. But another element crept in: service to others. I figured this out in a package deal: ministry. But the education for ministry made it impossible to have a vocational life in a rural environment. (I was a Unitarian Universalist, which requires a city of at least 100,000 to assemble a congregation with this point of view. There are no cities in Montana that big.) By this time -- late middle-age -- all I wanted was a return to the scene of my youth, not just Montana but the Blackfeet Reservation. Like a thunderclap came the Internet, which made it possible to live in a village while participating in the city of ideas.

But it also destroyed the publishing industry I had thought would justify my choices. How many people get through life by promising themselves they would someday write a book about it? Some actually manage it. Or did before the marketing department, uneducated yahoos, decided what would be published or not on the basis of hot sales, shutting out all challenges to the status quo. But did they? Ten minutes signing up for a blog and the genii is out of the bottle.

That’s where it stands now. What class am I? What is the height of my “brow”? Is this “art”? (Why must I put everything in quotes?) Am I prosperous, a success, a credit to my family? My family has dispersed. One side is so locked into the pursuit of money that they have abandoned decency and sometimes the law. The other side quietly prospers (mostly) after decades of quiet honorable toil they did not enjoy. They do not understand the collapse of publishing, which was such a dependable touchstone of the bourgeois to which we have always thought we belonged. They read novels in bed. In the Fifties their mothers made their clothes to save money; in the Twenty-tens, they create one-of-a-kind elegantly embellished jackets and garden on a sophisticated level.

But this bourgeois thing that Peter Gay is analyzing: there’s something there . . .

When Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” at Reed College in 1956, I was a junior in high school but I didn’t know about it, much less did anyone suggest I attend. At our house we had an ambivalent relationship with Reed College. It was partly because my father, who had attended ag colleges, was attracted to Unitarianism and Reed was founded by Unitarians. It was a place for free spirits and intelligentsia, what would later be called the Counter-Culture. The other side of the tension was my Presbyterian mother who had attended Lewis & Clark College when it was Albany College, denominationally supported. I suppose both Reed and Lewis & Clark were and are on the border between middle and upper classes, with Reed (high brow) tending towards the avante garde and Lewis & Clark (middle-brow) defending respectability. Their poet was William Stafford, not Allen Ginsberg.

I used the Reed College library a bit during those years, because I was reading about Commedia dell Arte and they had books on the subject. I was conscious that this was a very “enriched English” thing to do and impressed by the beautiful hushed library. I was considered a “brain,” though I didn’t get straight A’s. But I was a finalist for a National Honor Society scholarship, which meant that I took an exam at Reed while a roomful of chicks peeped in the next room. (They were someone’s psych project. Skinner was “in.”) Out of a class of five hundred, two of us qualified for this test. The other girl was rich, arrogant, beautiful, and led a life as varied (and entangled with Indians) as mine was. We ran across each other now and then over the ensuing decades but weren't friends.

Like haiku, Commedia dell Arte has become a kind of middle class favorite, along with Shakespeare, Picasso, Pollock, and Edith Hamilton’s interpretations of Greek drama, -- all popularized among the bourgeoisie by Life magazine. That’s how I knew about them. The only way to escape Life magazine was evidently to be wicked, but even then they liked Beats and Mafia and were converting them to pop culture. Their dark sides were all turned to the wall. They were not role models because they were geniuses. By this time I knew I was no genius.

If I had not gotten a scholarship to Northwestern, which was the alma mater of my dramatics teacher, I would have gone to Reed, though my mother didn’t see why Portland State College, where she went (and my cousin) wasn’t good enough. The idea was to become a teacher, nothing more or less. I always wondered what would have happened to me if I’d gone to Reed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Compromise is a hoary old bear who messes up rebellion and status quo alike. It is at the heart of democracy. Sometimes if the compromise fails, one side or the other gets its way entirely, but at what cost? It’s better than warfare, but sometimes only barely. (Bearly. Bear market. I always get jokey when I’m worried.) Sometimes the compromise means lose/lose. Sometimes it means win/win.

It seems as though most often it means ambiguity. On the other hand no one really knows what the long-term outcome of our recent political refusals to compromise will be. The immediate moment is survivable so far. Probably. Servetus refused to compromise and they burned him at the stake. Galileo compromised and was simply confined for the rest of his life. De Sade the same, with a little help from his friends and wife. Socrates did not compromise on the larger issue but killed himself rather than be murdered. More than one have chosen to die but on their own terms. So did they win or lose? Ambiguity.

Looking into the unabridged dictionary, I was surprised to see that the original meaning of compromise was to agree to the decision of an arbitrator, an outsider. The second meaning is a mutually negotiated settlement. The third meaning is doing something that endangers someone else or a larger group. “The blabbermouth put the secret spy operation at risk, compromising their plan.”

Looking back over the local controversies as well as national issues, it strikes me that under most intransigence (unresolvable, non-negotiable) is one side operating on principle without regard for consequences and the other side operating in terms of practicality. One group wants “my way or the highway” and the other wants “evolution not revolution.” It’s painfully clear that the more Obama moves towards gradual progress, the more the tea party demands that all compromise be rejected. In terms of NA reservations, those who want sovereignty on principle want flat, inclusive, across-the-board self-determination regardless of funding or loss of service from state and federal agencies. (“Give me liberty or give me death.”) Those who are for practical compromise are willing to figure out which services are best performed by the tribe and which might better be left with outside agencies. (“Let’s make a deal.)

Rarely is such head-butting without history, either that of the larger globe or that which formed the minds and hearts of the individuals involved. Massive cultural transitions -- like the millions of Europeans who flooded America in the 19th century and crowded the Indians off the plains, or like the Internet, or the changes in sexual morality due to medical advances and economic change -- mean that much of daily life will have to be figured out all over again and the infrastructures that coped with the previous circumstances will have to be rebuilt in the most practical and obvious ways. Roads, bridges, schools, jails.

As I write, the water mains of this village are being replaced with great roaring, clanking and inconvenience. We are required to accept water meters for the first time. People are not happy, But they chose NOT to participate in the decisions made, which were largely dependent on funding grants from Big Government which imposed the meters; all made necessary by the march of time which had cracked and threatened the old masonry pipes while lowering the water table of our wells. Many of the small communities across Montana were founded about the same time, so this problem is being experienced by many of them at once, and that’s where the state money goes. The only people happy about it are the engineering businesses who are evaluating and executing the replacements. The greatest danger to the democracy of the village is the vocal desertion of malcontents, who would rather blame than participate but fail to move away. Old story.

It would be better (marginally) if the objectors played the game of “uproar” (overturning the card table when you’re losing at Poker), because then at least they would be in the room. “Funny uproar” is better than violent uproar. Someone just sent me a set of photos of the demonstration against the Pope in England. Pretty clever stuff! And they make some very sharp points, which will be seen and repeated by many, precisely BECAUSE they are funny. I need some good infrastructure jokes.

What strategy can one use if the deadlock is real and seems irresolvable? How can we think about it? One way is to try to find the overarching (or underlying) category that includes the two oppositions. Paul Tillich, a theologian, looked at the contradictory notions of being and non-being and made up a new term: “the ground of being.” Then he could speculate on the nature of “the ground of being.” It’s a lot easier to think about the quality of village life through time -- what makes people live in small rural communities like this and what are the absolute minimum basic needs just for survival: our “ground of being.” At least one person believes it is a well-watered lawn.

Same on a national basis: what is our ground of being? If we say it is democracy, then the basic requirement is that everyone is included and everyone should participate. If that’s not happening, then we have to ask ourselves why. Too busy, too stupid, too lazy, too late?? But the price we pay for freedom is that some of us (us?) have to carry the others.

That’s kind of a blind alley. So let’s think of another strategy, something way off the wall. Maybe this country is just too big to manage, to ever reach a consensus. Let’s break it up into ecosystems: disunite the states. Red on this side, blue on that side, hispanic here, Lutherans there.

That’s not radical enough? Okay, figure out the carrying capacity of each ecosystem, translate that to the number of humans economically viable in it and if there are more people than the carrying capacity, they have ten years to either increase prosperity by inventing new development, or somebody leaves. We could load them into boats back to Europe. Or we could count off by twos and sterilize every other person regardless of gender. Or we could simply stop funding cheap food, medical research, and law enforcement until starvation, disease and crime cut down the population. Attacking all funding seems to be the strategy of choice for Republicans. But there’s also delaying settlement of old debts (like the Native American funds previously embezzled by the government) until everyone in the class action is dead.

Does participatory democracy sound better now? Think we ought to sit down at the table (carefully setting it back on its legs) and see what cards we have?

Monday, September 20, 2010


I have an on-going wrestling match with the concept of praise. Here’s a list of problems with it:

1. In my experience, after someone has given me a lot of praise, their next move will be to ask me to do something for free, or something compromising, or to want to come live with me. (Two cats are my absolute limit and I already HAVE two cats.)

2. If I give someone else a lot of praise and then ask them for something (small and unembarrassing, let us stipulate), they suddenly disappear. There is no reciprocity in this game.

3. What do you do with praise from people who have no taste and don’t know what they are talking about?

4. In some quarters there is a constant stream of praise, the way one would praise a dog: “good girl, that’s great, oh wonderful, sit now, that’s right. . .” until it’s just noise. Means nothing.

5. Sometimes the best praise is not spoken -- just an action, a response, a gesture, a look. Kinda hard to do on the Internet, but it can be managed. I use fiction technique: “my hand rests briefly on your head.” But then I get hooked on the pursuit of praise: Did “I pinch your earlobe” mean they really liked it and for the right reason? How do I find out?

6. If I don’t get any feedback at all, I worry. Did I offend? Did I forget to send the message? Are they unconscious? Am I interrupting something far more important? Esp. if I’ve tried to praise honestly: was it too soon? Did I praise the wrong thing?

7. I HATE those thumbs up/thumbs down, “like,” five-stars, constant rating demands which are simply marketing research and go into your computer algorithm at cyber-headquarters to sell you something.

8. The worst thing about teaching was grading. The worst thing about being a student was grading. For one thing, it’s often comparative. I’ve graded classes on a curve and even awarded an undeserved A because the individual had the highest score in classes where NO ONE was performing up to the general standard or even near it -- because otherwise the administration and I would take so much political heat that we would be paralyzed. If I got an A in a class where no one even came close to my intelligence and background, it meant nothing. The two C’s on my transcript from my undergrad years were for acting and the philosophy of religion, the two courses that were most useful of any I took in the whole four years, knowledge that has been the foundation for the rest of my life. Those two C’s were in classes where the others were so brilliant that I had to fight even for a C.

9. Much praise is simply popularity. “Greatest hits” has nothing to do with curated and reflective analysis or even spontaneous emotional response -- just numbers sold. I used to get ballistic every time my denomination did a head count of who believed what and said that was what defined us. Surely there was something more permanent and valuable than flavor-of-the-week definitions of “God.” Likewise, I discovered that being a praiseworthy minister had more to do with popularity and “feel-good” quotient than insight into life.

10, Facebook categories: “Like” or “friend” trespass on words that I intend to mean something serious. I do not take liking or friendship lightly. Nor do I say “love” unless I mean something specific and high-value. I hate being forced into praise or gated categories (“you can’t come in unless you’re a friend . . .”) in the name of drumming up action. Likewise, Netflix rarely suggests a movie that interests me, though they offer a whole row of “based on” picks. Same with Amazon which more cagily says, “People who bought this book also bought that.” What do I care what other people do? Esp. when I don’t know who they are.

This weekend I have a Netflix movie that I really hate to have to send back. It’s “Seraphine,” the story of a cleaning woman who combined dogged hard work with a kind of obsessive, naive, patterned art of considerable intricacy and vivid impact. The plot, which is the artist’s true story, is about her discovery, her major reputation and sales, and then her abandonment in hard times (war and depression) which may or may not have led to her insanity. (She spoke to angels.) It’s a familiar story, but this version was inhabited by an actress, Yolande Moreau, of enormous charm and such particularity that she can’t be compared to anyone else. (There are YouTube vids of her. They’re in French.) Not really fat and not really thin, she clops along in her boots to the country where she climbs a tree and dangles her legs while her dumpling face and Siamese cat eyes drink in the sun. Her paintings are sort of halfway between Klimt and Van Gogh: repetitive, glittering, vivid, vegetal, feathered, full of eyes, visionary. for one set of reproductions.

Surprised by praise and fame, Seraphine has no defense except her religious ardor, which is partly what leads her into madness. The people in her ordinary life have no way to see what is praiseworthy to the sophisticated Paris art dealer and his clientele. Luckily one young woman remains her friend, but that might just be a plot device. What are we to make of this? That no one should trust praise because it is all fleeting and empty? I lean that way. But praise is also welcome, maybe a gift of insight and appreciation. But what if Seraphine had been praised for the wrong reasons that might distort her gift?

Yolande Moreau is a different story. A performance artist, soliloquist, clown and repertory actor, she is self-possessed and aware of what is praise-worthy by her own standard. One might say “shrewd” in the Belgian manner. (She was born in Brussels.) To say someone is shrewd is praise. A shrewd person is impressed by praise until she hears it given in the same terms to someone else who may or may not have achieved to the same level. Scots like me -- who keep their teeth clenched for fear of letting softness get in -- simply ignore praise and watch for actions. Of course, one is obligated to be grateful for praise and act accordingly, whether one uses terms of endearment or not. Let’s hope Susan Boyle, being Scots, survives praise better than Seraphine did.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Now we're in the mega-urban-floating-in-a-diaspora age and what the heck does that mean for fathers? Clearly resurrection is off the table now. But not crucifixion (AIDS, for instance).

A father is supposed to protect, nurture, educate, be a role model, provide a living. A lot of fathers do exactly that. Some don't. Some have never evolved beyond being hunter/gatherer/warriors and only know how to do that. The best they can do is to throw the kid into the pickup with them when they light out for the territories. They are Esau, the hairy man, the hunter.

Maybe today is not for a generation of fathers. Maybe now it's up to the brothers. Jesus had brothers or at least half-brothers. We don't know about Joseph’s or Mary’s brothers. Let’s try imagining Jesus' Uncle Jimmy, the one who is gay. This is a sort of new gospel. There are a LOT of really old gospels, you know -- old scrolls stuffed into jugs and lying in caves. The authorities just picked out the ones they liked (four of them) for the New Testament and put some of the others in the Apocrypha, but there are even more. In one of them Jesus keeps kissing John on the mouth. So much is well-known and accepted in the study of religiion that ministers are not allowed to take back to congregations. But this “gospel” (good news) is one I’m making up. Not in a spirit of mockery, but as an exploration. You won’t find any confirmation.

I had an Uncle Jimmy, actually my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. An ugly little man who worked his heart out every day and had the gentlest, most generous spirit of anyone I've ever known. Totally unlike my fiery unreasonable grandpa. Yet when we pulled into his yard late one night and put up our tent trailer, he came out with the shotgun because he thought we were stealing off his woodpile. He was capable of being fierce. He was not gay; in fact, not very sexy at all, but he was quite real. I borrow his name with fondness.

NA tribes who didn't have a tight grip on conception -- so couldn’t always point to the father -- expected the mother's brothers to do the teaching and protecting. And disciplining. So let’s imagine that Jesus has an Uncle James. (Maybe he was gay, but he certainly didn’t have AIDS, which didn’t make the jump to humans until later, though they say now that the monkeys had it 30,000 years ago.)

Let’s get outrageous. What if Jesus turned on Joseph one day, the way he did on the money-changers, and said, "Joseph, old man, you're a loser. I don't want to be a carpenter all my life, I'm outta here." And maybe in exasperation Joseph beat him. In those days he could legally stone his son to death. And then maybe Uncle Jimmy (who was after all not Joseph's brother but Mary's brother) came to find Jesus and took him home and comforted him and sent him off to India, the San Francisco of those days. (Still is!) And Jesus picked up a lot of ideas over there and brought them back with him. Things like “no violence” and compassion for the poor, magic like how to multiply loaves and fishes. Gandhi sorts of things.

Consider Mary’s point of view. Being inseminated by God must be quite terrifying. None of the girls of the Greek myth world seemed to welcome Zeus. Their children didn't fare so well. But then neither did Jehovah's son. I should think at that point Mary would have been pretty grateful for a sheltering man with a home and a job, despite the amount of moving around they seemed to have to do, but maybe she also depended on her brother Jimmy quite a bit. He had no children. That might NOT be because he was gay, because gay men can still inseminate and they can still be “turned on” circumstantially to women or they might simply be adaptable.

Among the Plains Indians there was a certain “type” who enjoyed women’s work, dressed as a woman, and had a special fondness for children -- NOT pedophilia (that’s a Euro concept, isn’t it?) but “uncleness,” care for the well-being of nieces and nephews. I’ve known local tribal men like this. They didn’t dress like women, but they enjoyed women’s work, even as defined contemporaneously. (Secretaries and nurses.) I don’t know any stories about transvestites in the Bible -- just in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But that’s irrelevant anyway. Gay is not the same as cross-dressing which is more like identity confusion. Of course, Jesus wears a long dress and some people argue about his sexuality. In fact, I reject the whole thing of male versus female as a construct sometimes useful and often not. I think gender/sexuality exists as a spectrum in society and as uniqueness in individuals.

What does gay Uncle Jimmy have to contribute in a male role model sort of way? One thing that comes to mind is love of the arts -- not that one has to be gay, but my girl friend in the fourth grade had a gay uncle who took us to the ballet. (I didn’t realize he was gay then.) Of course, my theatre classmates included a lot of gay guys -- quite various, not types. Among my students I noticed that some boys were good friends to girls. Some protected smaller, weaker boys. Might or might not have been gay.

Biologists have known all along that maybe a tenth of males in any mammal species will attempt sex with other males rather than females. The question is how they have escaped being weeded out by evolution. The answer is that survival fitness is not a matter of individual success but of the persistence of the whole group, the tribe. If individual success is at the expense of the group, survival is endangered. Contributions to survival in the cases of both gays and grandmothers is not in reproduction, but in the health and resourcefulness of the children once they are born. Life is a continuation of the gestation begun by insemination in the womb, extended outside the mother. Even the sacrifice of the occasional fetus/infant/youngster in the interest of better lives for the rest of the group can be a “fitness for survival.” We are mistaken to think that aggressive fierceness in men is a fitness when it destroys groups and possibly nations in useless wars.

The importance of the Uncle Jimmies of the world is that they share genes with their families and contribute to their health, defense and wealth without producing more children who consume and burden. Anyway, I find them to be lovable and dependable friends.