Saturday, December 31, 2011

"DANCING ON HIS GRAVE": A Montana Testimony

Barbara Richard is a female Montana writer you may not have heard of since she doesn’t fit into the pretensions of the Montana bourgeois gatekeepers. She wrote a powerful trio of books with gerund names: “Dancing on his Grave,” “Walking Wounded,” and “Chasing Ghosts.” The first is relieved testimony from a family of five girls and their mother at the time of the father’s death. They had been terrorized, scarred and nearly murdered by that narcissistic sociopathic grandiose man. The phrase is not careless: it is a scientific category for a certain kind of person, usually a man.

The second book is about the girls and how they became competent women with happy children of their own. The mother did as well once she broke the “battered woman syndrome” enough to escape. The third book is in part an attempt to understand where such sociopaths come from, what makes them tick, and -- if possible -- what can be done about it. I’ve only read the first book and gave it away to someone who needed it. Now I’ll order the others. If you want to read these books, go to to order them, or go to Barnes & Noble. Amazon, for once, is not selling this book. There are excerpts on Barbara’s website.

When I was writing about Bob Scriver, I did a lot of reading about narcissistic sociopaths (people who think only of themselves) and Barbara has also done a lot of research. There’s a huge body of stuff out there. Bob Scriver was only mildly touched by this syndrome but Barbara’s father was extreme, whipping them bloody. He bashed his wife into unconsciousness. His mother died under ambiguous circumstances as a result of violence. There may be a genetic component to this, probably on the Y gene, and it is aggravated by hardship and violence, like dryland homesteading or combat.

One school of thought is that all this should be hidden, repressed, and erased in the hope that it will go away. It’s bad for sales. The impulse to achieve prestige by being irreproachable is a strong one. But, as the saying goes, it will come back to bite you in the butt. Anyway, I just have this craving to KNOW in order to do something about it. It’s intolerable to let it keep on happening without at least responding to the victims.

Another problem is raised by the worship of genius and a willingness to excuse all shortcomings in the interest of exceptional achievement. One of the publisher’s readers for my bio of Bob wanted me to remove any reference to him being narcissistic (I didn’t say sociopath -- he wasn’t that) because she said it undercut his artistic genius. Such ideas make good media fodder, but there are plenty of mild, generous achievers with major talent.

The next place that I think the public has a mind-skip is confusing a person who has this personality dominated by "narcissistic grandiose sociopathy" with the character of their offspring, damaged by growing up with such a man. They may have some of the markers of their fathers without suffering the whole syndrome. I don’t think there is much research on people like Barbara Richard and her sibs who have mastered the damage. If it is heritable, then females may escape the genetic component but will still be imprinted by violence. Barbara suggests that women who seem to have this syndrome often work to express it through their children, esp. their male children, to act out their abusive attitude towards others, esp. other women. That sounds right to me. Maybe a source of mother-in-law mythology.

And the next element I would add is grandiosity, the drive to be dominant and also to have exaggerated respect and status in a community. We see it in these Middle Eastern despots recently thrown out of power. But it’s not very hard to find in American cities and small towns. Consider our admiration of “Godfathers” in the Mafia or J. Edgar Hoover on the other side of the sheets. Barbara muses about Hitler, who was clearly a sort of Charles Manson -- not at all attractive or capable of force, except that that both somehow had the charisma to attract big powerful and yet controllable men. I think it is so deep in the brain that it even pre-dates the mammal brain. Much of evolution consists of a powerful drive that is then modified by the addition of controls or converters. At the heart of an engine is an explosion. It is guided and controlled in order to go forward. I suspect that the model is not an intruder mutation that can be somehow extirpated with drugs or punishment, but rather a drive close to the heart of biology that is missing the evolved controls that mutations had gradually built in, making space for civilization.

These men are notorious through history for their power and effectiveness. They occupy the bleeding edge of what makes us human, shading into the force that allows a chimpanzee to snatch off a human face. But we don’t think of them as SUB-human -- we admire them as SUPER-human, potent. Old age mellows some of them. Some become zombies. I’m not guessing: I knew some of these men on the rez in their young and rampaging days. Most were killed, accidentally or on purpose. Some women (co-dependent, enabling) fit into relationship with these men.

Barbara hand-sells her self-published books and travels around the territory being on panels and speaking. The result of this is low sales (there just isn’t the population density in Montana) and a bulging file of women testifying, “Oh, I recognize this! This is ME!” What does one do with this? Go on Oprah? (It’s an idea!) On the one hand the Big Media love shocking stories like this -- on the other hand, it scares them. And there is a small element that will blame Barbara herself for tolerating it or writing about it or thinking about it or doing anything that admits such people exist.

But some researchers suggest that as many as three or four in every hundred people is carrying at least the potential for these acts. Shouldn’t we be looking for markers, especially in this age of sudden berzerk attacks on innocent people in public places?

Friday, December 30, 2011

"IN TREATMENT": Review and Reflection

“In Treatment” is a television remake series that lasted for three years, which was in addition to the previous years the original series ran in Israel. Today I watched the last week of the third year of the American version, the only year not based on the Israel stories. After all this struggle the psychotherapist, “Paul Weston,” 57 years old, played by Gabriel Byrne, goes off into the Brooklyn crowd determined to close his practice because he doesn’t know how to love. Of his last three cases, the gay boy is collected by his MASSIVE Italian adoptive father, the Calcutta man deceives him enough to be deported (which is what the man wants), and the actress is “all alone in the world” trying to decide whether to “pull the plug” on her dying sister. She might do better to slap her daughter. Paul’s own therapist can’t talk him out of quitting. Off he schleps down the sidewalk like an Irish Woody Allen with his muffler wound tight.

What good is this psychotherapy stuff anyway? This series throws the doctrine into doubt even more than “The Dangerous Method” which at least makes it seem exciting. I’ve always been a skeptic about Freud anyway -- preferring Jung and seeing more common sense in Victor Frankl’s version of the “talking cure.” (His ideas came out of working with holocaust survivors.) Maybe I’m just not Jewish.

A friend suggested that “In Treatment” was well-Americanized, but I counter-suggested that it was well-“Manhattanized” even though it’s set in Baltimore and Brooklyn. The more I think about that idea, the better I like it. In Germany there was a high culture of bourgeois people, mostly Jewish, very educated and tightly socialized, squeezing their corseted women into hysteria, and distorting their children’s lives with arbitrary discipline while they regarded their own cigars with phallic attachment. When the rise of the Nazis threw them out of their cushioned surroundings, many landed in Manhattan where their high skills were seen as the pinnacle of civilization. The same in Israel. And they WERE, in fact, gifted and educated -- and now free to bloom, which they did. Think abstract expressionism.

But maybe they were in fact and reality, the same sort of searching -- indeed, ransacking -- of human nature after the death camps to find what was true and dependable. And in their trauma and suspicion and supersensitivity, maybe they came to the position of Paul Weston, who can’t accept a therapist who won’t enable him. This guy sympathizes with the patients whose parents ignore them, and yet will not pay attention to his own children and lovers. Indeed, when he isn’t ignoring them, he’s rejecting and critical. Who wants him? Only the co-dependent, the enablers.

So IMHO this series is a brilliant exploration of the problem, but not much in the way of solution. The one true solution I see (aside from the final therapist, who must give up her opportunity to relate to this man in order to stop the co-dependent process, choosing profession over romance) is in the man from India, who has a strict personal code and lives by it. It does not include being honest with one’s therapist. It is near-Viennese in its rigidity and preoccupation with family honor. But it works. Samil is not depressed, not confused, able to act to change his life in the way he chooses. He provides much needed friendship to his therapist, using his different culture as a cover.

It has been said that this series and “Paul” himself are most interesting when the script explores the boundary between culturally dictated duty and the real -- nearly biological -- response of one human being to another in the way that creates bonds and loyalties, even true love. I suppose one is skeleton and one is flesh, but I’m not sure where that gets a thinker trying to find a principle of reconciliation. People get lost on both sides of the line between the two. Nor are they helped when the line blurs.

But by the seventh week of the third year I was getting to the point where I wanted to give this “Paul” character a good kick in the pants. He WAS helping his patients, at least some of them most of the time. But he had only a few theme songs that he played over and over. Of course, this character is a creation by several writers sitting around a table, sketching out plot lines and discussing how to stretch and re-invigorate what is actually a very confined template: an office, two or possibly three people at a time, only talking. The ultimate “character” that results is a composite of those writers: mostly Jewish, probably mostly middle-aged, mostly in Manhattan. That is, the same people who have controlled the media and the publishing industry, as well as much of banking -- systems now collapsing.

These people were raised to believe they were intelligent, to aspire to creative work of some importance, and to assume this “earned” world would continue as usual. It has not. In some ways the electronic revolution and globalization have erased a way of life to the same degree that WWII did, though I suppose it’s heresy to say so. They ARE “Paul Weston.” Confused. Mice in glue traps. At least feeling that way.

The Valier librarian and I confer. She says the fastest moving books she has are fantasy -- that’s what she has ordered the most of for this year. People are in escapist mode. Or is it “speculative mode?” And the BEST books she’s been reading have been “YA” or Young Adult, a genre of books that is almost gruesome in its willingness to look at social problems. Very “gritty,” as they say.

YA gritty fantasy. It’s fun to imagine a panel of Paul’s imaginary young patients sitting down with him to try to crack that Eeyore carapace of his. “What are you doing for the poor people?” one might ask. “Where is your dedication to the welfare of the earth itself?” demands another. “What is this elitism thing you’ve got, this fascination with class?”So -- you had no mother. Why won’t you let us mother you?” Or, as many of his patients demand, “What do you want from me, Paul?”

Indeed, Paul wants to mother everyone else, even the ones who yearn instead for a father or lover. Or a teacher or limit-setter. And would it hurt to have a few belly-laughs now and then? If human beings in therapy aren’t ridiculous enough to provoke both laughter and love, what is? Better for us all to be out in the world, but this series can’t hurt you and might give you ideas. I thought it was interesting that in the sidewalk-ending Paul was occasionally obscured by a closer, bigger, handsome, briskly-walking, black man. Maybe that’s the other Manhattan.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


When one reads about the evolution of mind it is clear that percussion, dancing and chanting pre-date the Stone Age or even hominids themselves. Chimps are enthusiastic burlesque performers. In fact, it’s hard to resist their joyful hooting and prancing. Therefore, I suggest that if one is constructing a liturgy of joy and celebration, the key might be in NOT using the concept of the "neuronal platform" that normally coordinates thinking and action, that which may very well be the late-evolving brain element that finally distinguishes between humans and their relatives. Successful liturgies of joy might have to shut down or evade that super-egoish “working neuronal nexus.” Alcohol does it easily, of course, but there may be other ways if we think about civilizations that have learned how to be publicly and physically joyful. Zorba the Greek, for instance, and his love of dance.

Some peoples have managed to avoid performance -- which tends to be about a bunch of people watching few persons -- by emphasizing participation, a pre-theatre mode of expression. One could argue that rock n’ roll, hip-hop, and “flash” events where people come out of nowhere to perform in a public place are a partial return to participation, a reaching back for joy. It seems we agree that the Puritans were a repressed and sober bunch who sat in pews, resisting the wild May Day celebrations of Merrymount. And we know that the hands-up, swaying, lung-busting celebrations of the evangelical and black churches express happy ecstasy.

I was thinking about a kind of theory of sensory context: which are the earliest, which sense prevails, how that relates to the culture. One of the ceremonies I will discuss in the “Molten Chalice” is a New Guinea jungle event where the beat is kept by men jumping up and down to make the gourd fitted over their penis smack sharply against a belt studded with shells and nuts. It occurred to me that in jungle-based locations where one can hardly see very far, sound would become extremely important, more highly significant than sight as one listens for the rustling of prey. Smell would also count big.

But on the grasslands and shorelines of the early hominids, binocular eyesight would take precedence. Whatever that did to the development of the brain processor (probably pushed it right along) it would have been crucial to see and identify objects at a distance or shapes glimpsed but incomplete behind an outcropping. The ability to see and remember shapes might be the platform on which writing and reading developed. Writing and reading may have been what got everyone sitting in pews or at least standing at attention in a cathedral while a priest read from a big book chained to the pulpit. One takes a missal or bible or order of service to one’s seat to read along, so to that extent there is participation. In the beginning books were important to the point of being magic. (So far church goers don’t seem to follow on iPads, but students do that.)

The significance of smell is a great subject but I won’t develop it here. In fact, I’m not going to go on with this idea of puritans on the plains and bacchantes in the forest, but it would be fun -- worth someone’s time to research. It does suggest to me that we have made life so safe, so repetitive, so channeled, that we crave some excitement but our passive regard of pictured explosions, murders, political fiascoes, and natural disasters has no outlet. We never get up and run off the chemicals these images create. I suppose we become habituated and numb, incapable of either despair OR exultation. Stuck like a mouse in a glue trap, as the therapist who is in therapy himself puts it on “In Treatment.”

At the third-year UU Leadership School I attended, we were invited to design our own event. Out came the newsprint and the fibertips so we could write our lists. One item was an evening devoted to “fun.” The problem of how to design a “fun” event was solved in a way predictable if one knew the audience: middle class, white collar, conscientious, socially conscious, etc. They decided on an event of reversal (very Victor Turner): a cross-dressing Miss America pageant. (We had a lot of raving feminists at the time. No “out” gays, which there are now.) So the men would have a swimsuit competition. They had never been on a bright stage in swimsuits before and though they weren’t wearing Speedos, they weren’t used to public “gaze” and had not brought along dance belts or athletic supporters. As some pranced across the stage, intending hilarious social comment, they sported commendable and quite apparent “boners.”

No one knew what to do. It seemed the women could do such a thing without embarrassment, but these quiet officemen could not. Finally someone draped in an armload of beach kelp charged the stage as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Everyone ran off screaming. Much of the night was spent discussing, particularly between married partners.

So the next night Peter Raible decided unilaterally on a “do-over.” (This was the year we got stuck several times and had to jettison democracy in order to save ourselves. At one point we elected a “queen”-- the most sensible and trustworthy person among us -- to tell us what to do, which DID work.) Peter and his helpers told us all to be at a certain place at a certain time, to bring a cup and a dollar, and to wear old clothes. A van pulled up, someone jumped out and took our money, and then they left. We milled around nervously for a while. Then the van returned with -- VOILA! -- champagne !! Just as we got out our cups and were ready to imbibe, the windows above us opened and we were barraged with water balloons. Being surprised, remembering childhoods, imbibing a little alcohol, risking little, at last we were having fun. If the van had unloaded a troupe of nude dancers there would never have been another leadership school. So much of success is knowing the audience/participants. We were bold talkers but timid riskers.

Experiments in sensory elements of liturgy are fun. More is out there than drumming groups and liturgical dancing. One year at Easter I used as a theme Tolstoy’s “somewhere in the world there is a green branch and on it is written the word that will save the world.” I handed out raw asparagus with “peace” or “love” printed on each stalk and -- after assuring the worried that the words were written with food-grade markers -- we ingested the “branches,” thus internalizing the lesson. At another event dedicated to the earth we had a gummi worm “communion.” But it would be a mistake to call it a communion since there has not been a salvific worm. Or has there? Maybe considered in toto as preserving the topsoil of the planet?

At a ministers‘ meeting, one of the jokesters offered a banana communion in honor of penises. It was funny until it turned out there were too many ministers for the number of bananas and some had to be cut up. (Bananas, not ministers.) Another time I told the Demeter/Persephone story and handed out to each person six little kernels of pomegranate -- a minor disaster since the juice stains clothes. After that I used six red beads about the right size. If I were doing it again, I would string them together in clusters of six in order to save time counting out. It is not EASIER to include sensory information into liturgy. And it is not easy to make sure it’s joyful.

Here’s a liturgical story, which was told to me as true. A minister wanted his Easter sermon to be memorable, so he paid a small boy to go up above the ceiling of the sanctuary with a dove in a cage. There was a trapdoor up there and the idea was for the minister to cry out in amazement, “Lo, the Spirit was among them!” Then the boy would release the dove to fly down over the heads of the parishioners.

The minister gave the cue -- nothing came down through the trapdoor. He repeated again, louder. Still no bird. One more time, practically bellowing. The boy’s wavering voice from above: “Reverend, the cat ate the bird. Shall I send down the cat?” It’s meant to be a joke, but I wonder about possible interpretations. By being so serious in our worships, have we let the cat among the pigeons?

Oh, well, let’s just beat out a rhythm on the back of the pew just ahead and sing with Bobby McFarin, “Don’t worry -- be happy!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Not open legs. This is not about sex. It’s about humanness. When the chalice is cupped human hands

When we hold each other’s fiery hearts in our hands, we risk blistering what makes us human: opposable thumbs, readable palms. The liturgies of intense third-degree intimacy can be among the most painful. I’m impressed that when I read romantic genres, the moments of high passion are usually mixed with ordeals: knives slashing across bodies, struggles to climb a cliff, dropping from heights into water, gunshot wounds, and so on. There seems to be a struggle to find something intense enough to express extremes.

CONFESSION: Though we mean all tenderness and put our two hands on the sides of the beloved’s face to hold still their familiar visage, their uniqueness, and their returning gaze, yet we fall into anger, resentment and selfishness. The same two hands that caress can slap and rend. Or they are not strong enough: the bones break, the knuckles swell and jam, there are calluses and scars and warts. We drop things, we are clumsy, our scribbles are unintelligible, we can’t hold on. Our hands char with pain.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON: With luck, we arrive in the world to the hands of a skillful and loving human being. Two hands, cupped together, just about the right size to hold a newborn.

Two hands, cupped together, just about the right size to receive a meal’s worth of food.

Two hands, a little apart, hold a book.

Two hands, flexed and percussive, on the keyboard of a computer or a concert grand.

A hand on a shoulder. A hand on a foot.

Again that hand laid against the side of a well-loved face.

We hold out our hands to each other, no matter the risk, the damage, the mutilation, the stains and tattoos.

“Here, shake hands on it.”

“Hands up -- I surrender.”

One hand up: salute. Flat open: I am unarmed.

In the Gladiator series: fist strikes heart, then -- open -- extends to horizon.

Sign language: hand on heart -- "I love you".

“I swear,” holding up the hand.

But there’s no limit to the extremity of intimacy trials. They go beyond sanity. Men kill their best friends in a frenzy of drinking or drugging. Women in the grip of postpartum psychosis can’t be trusted to bathe their own babies without holding them under the water. Heartbroken youngsters hang themselves, sometimes in a pact. Weren’t all of them loved? Was it just a matter of not accepting the intimacy, not recognizing it, not thinking they deserved it, not tolerating the possible meaning? Loving hands could not save them. I’ve seen old movies of toddlers with rabies who writhed and lunged with fear-biting when the nurses offered them milk they craved. The nurses wore heavy rubber gloves to their elbows, their hands deep inside.

When the reconciling neural platform of rationality in the brain is burned through by the conflagration of insanity, the result is devastation, mass murder, suicide bombs. What’s a liturgy in the face of that? The chalice itself is destroyed. The holding community is flattened, prostrate with grief, like trees around a meteorite hit, immobilized. Yet the image of Communion was able to save the sanity of a group of Uruguayan boys in the Andes who had to resort to eating their best friends and closest relatives in order to survive.

I included that and another surprising liturgy of intimacy in “The Molten Chalice.” In fact, one of the things that got me thinking about it in the first place was reading an account -- I think in the Journal of Pastoral Care published about 1980 when I was doing my chaplaincy -- written by a pastor responding to a young woman who wanted to go through with a wedding though the groom had been killed in a car accident on the way to the ceremony. No one in her family wanted her to do this. They thought it was a crazy thing to do.

The article was not a justification for marrying a young woman to a corpse, but rather -- after he had already concluded that it would be sanity-saving rather than destructive, that such a ceremony would be a chalice for living love, so he told how he went about organizing the liturgy. It was and was not a marriage. That is, there were vows, prayers, and a ring, but no walk up any aisle and no congregational witnesses or attendants.

Mormons will “marry” in unconventional ways, including “marrying” long-dead ancestors to each other. In other cultures, for instance the Chinese, there are customs of marrying a dead man for various reasons, most of them having to do with the status of the family, the economic and political ramifications. In fact, I own a DVD of a Chinese film, “The Wooden Man’s Bride” in which the dead man’s stand-in is a block of wood, toted around even to the bed. It’s not at all about intimacy. In fact, it means the bride will have no intimacy. Nor children. Liturgy can be twisted and emptied, two skeletal hands, one clapped over the other to confine, create a prison. But a covered container will suffocate the contents.

I used to have a little quote about a young person asking an old person how to maintain a relationship. They happened to be at the beach. The older person took up a handful of sand. “Watch.” The hand was open, cupped, and the sand rested in it. “Now.” The hand clenched over the sand and squeezed: it escaped everywhere between the fingers.

There was another quote that used to be on Seattle area bumper stickers in Eighties, very New Age. “I release you, let you go free, and if you return to me, then I will know you are mine.” And the demonic variation: “I release you, let you go free, and if you don’t return to me, I will track you down and kill you.” Very strange culture we live in. Better to marry a block of wood.

In another story, a child holds a bird in his cupped hands, as though in a nest. He goes to his wise grandparent and asks, “Will this bird live or die?” The old person says: “It depends on what you do, doesn’t it? You could either crush it or set it free. It’s in your hands.”

* * * * * ADDENDUM:

This post has too many ideas in it, but here I am, about to add more. I just rewatched "The Wooden Man's Bride" and discovered the film is packed with ceremonies, liturgies, protocols, trials, ordeals from one end to the other. It's a gorgeous movie in a landscape very much like the American SW and a frank "Western" except for being Western China. A fort-household, a gang of outlaws, and a mother-in-law ruled by custom and reputation pitted against a girl so young she is "hairless" but old enough to be a rebel, even with both ankles broken. Love wins out -- partly sweeping aside the old traditions and partly adapting them new ways.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The subtitle of “Nature’s Mind” is ambitious: “The Biological Roots of Thinking, Emotions, Sexuality, Language and Intelligence.” Published in 1992 -- twenty years ago -- it’s now a little old-fashioned. This is Michael S. Gazzaniga’s report on “results so far,” mostly in the field of split-brain research. It had developed from that same lust for surgical intervention that justified lobotomies which severed the pre-frontal cortex from the rest of the brain in an effort to control intractable (socially unacceptable) behavior. The lobotomy scandal had demonic consequences for Tennessee Williams’ sister, one of the Kennedy sisters, and many others, mostly female. As it turned out, less brain was not more normal.

This time around the idea was to sever the corpus callosum, the thick connecting cable of nerves between the two halves of the walnut-shaped brain. The consequences hoped for was the quelling of electrochemical brain storms that threw the victim into life-threatening seizures. It was known that one-half the brain could even be removed or have been missing from birth without killing the person. For a while it was thought that the two halves were simply flipped-over mirror images, duplicates. But it turned out to make a huge difference which side was removed, which opened a lot of questions about what the difference was. To the naked eye, a brain just looks like oatmeal and jello. At least that’s what the special effects people use in movies when brains leak out.

But it has developed that the brain is pretty complex. And the difference between one side and the other turned out to be what Gazzaniga was at this point calling “the Interpreter.” (Later called the “global neuronal workspace.”) Nerve networks for various purposes were known to exist, sub-structures of the brain appeared to have independent reconciliation and sorting duties, but no one had realized that there was a location -- usually on the left side in a right-handed person -- where the inputs of these various sub-structures (mostly never available to consciousness) were given a final “staging” that filled in blanks and dropped out what didn’t match pre-existing expectations. This led to a lot of clever experiments that have over the years erased any idea that humans are “objective,” but in compensation began to uncover a lot of human resourcefulness.

I won’t try to summarize the book more than that, but I marked several ideas as particularly interesting.

Page 68. “In 1976 D.G. Freedman . . . was able to demonstrate clear differences betwen newborns of Chinese ancestry and matched groups of Caucasians on temperament items from the Cambridge Neonatal Scales. Although the two groups were indistinguishable in many areas of development, European-Americans tended to reach peaks of excitement sooner and to show greater instability to new states. Chinese American neonates, on the other hand, were calmer, steadier, faster to habituate or accommodate to external stimulation, more highly consolable when upset, and better at self-quieting.” Jerome Kagan got similar results at Harvard. No one has performed this comparison on Native American babies though their basic genome is also Asian

p. 149 “Asians have long been known to have a low incidence of alcoholism”. . . But consider North American Indian and Eskimo people whose genes are Asian. “Both of these groups are notorious for having drinking problems.” Both respond physiologically to alcohol in the same way. (Turn red with “Oriental flush,” palpitations and nausea.) Even babies given milk with a drop of port in it react this way. Why do Chinese people not become alcoholic? Does culture override physiology?

p. 147 After describing “kinds” of alcoholism, he proposes that “the evidence for a genetic link to alcoholism, particularly in Type 2, is growing. (“Occurs only in men, is characterized by antisocial personality traits, criminal activity and the pursuit of alcohol for its euphoric effects.”) Hard for the environment to impact. Still, inheritance is not inevitable -- 20 to 25% inheritance in sons with alcoholic fathers.

p. 79 “There is a good body of evidence to suggest that language can be dissociated from general-purpose cognition. For example, it is easy to show that you can have cognition without language. Animals, infants before they have a language, or stroke victims who are aphasic, can all display intelligence without the benefit of language. Looking at it in the other way around, patients who become demented are frequently able to speak relatively normally, but have little capacity to carry out the simplest problem-solving behavior.”

One whole chapter is about addiction theory. He is critical of using addiction models to account for obsessive behavior like hypersexuality because no substance is ingested and there are no physical withdrawal symptoms if the activity is stopped. But I think he overlooks the ability of the body to generate substances and the thin wall between addiction and habituation.

p. 134 He speaks of the advantage of the “interpreter structure” in the brain and likens it to a “system that allows for thought about the implications of actions, generated both by others as well as the self, will grasp a social context and its meaning for personal survival. Thus, you can both carry around and have access to your own “video camera” of events in which you are continually involved and think about the impact of your actions on your working environment. Furthermore, you can come to see the difference between your public and your private selves, as you realize that others think of you in terms of their interpretations of your actions. You come to learn that the public’s theory of who you are can be different from your own personal theory of being who you are and how you feel. Human beings learn quickly that feeding those two different selves is a major function of human existence and survival.” Ouch. I’m watching “In Treatment” on DVD’s. How true. I think the scriptwriters read this book.

So here’s the bottom line: p. 113 “The special capacity to make an inference about both internal bodily states and external actions of ourselves and others seems, when fully developed, to reside in the left hemisphere of humans, and is called “the interpreter.“The interpreter is a powerful system that is at the core of human belief formation. Without it, we would be little different from animals. With it, we become wonderfully inventive and individual even though our nervous systems are more similar than not. The selection pressures developed in humans a capacity that saves us from being completely beholden to the environment -- and thus, in some ways, has outsmarted itself.” I’m reading about this capacity in order to reflect on liturgy, but it is such a seductive idea that I keep getting distracted. I may be outsmarting myself.

Monday, December 26, 2011



At some point in childhood I realized that I was part of a “holding community” which was my family. It gradually unraveled during the malaise and confusion of post WWII, the same searching for new ways, the same harrowing and questioning that gave rise to a complex of counterculture movements like bikers, hippies, punks, beatniks, sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll. But my family did not go counterculture. They found their modest, conscientious, “holding communities” in jobs and neighborhood. So did I. Still, the confusion was there, gnawing, depressive, sometimes triggering determination to create change. It was scary and exhilarating at once.

Browning/Blackfeet was a good “holding community” for me because it was so loose and conflicted and I belonged in such a peripheral way, that no one tried to trap me. The school system was barely staying together. The point of a “holding community” is that it keeps track of you while you change and still recognizes you afterwards. (This one remembers me after five decades -- indeed, they throw their arms around me in perfect trust that I’ll hug them back, because we “burned” together.) Yes, the chalice that lets you burn together is strong, not quite the same thing as a community but maybe the force that holds the community together.

In the Sixties on the rez Bob and I were obsessed with our actual foundry, our very real crucible and bronze-melting furnace. We were not being psychological or rebellious. We were in a world of intense focus, drawing on a sensory realm that transcended any humans: the complex of terrain, creatures, weather, and grass that for millennia has sustained tribes.

In the structure of liturgy the liminal space is within a temporary “holding community.” If it is maintained too long, it becomes a trap and a psychosis. If it fails to achieve transcendence it may do damage. These are extreme statements meant to describe intense liturgies, maybe therapeutic, not Sunday morning services. The “holding community” prevents the molten person from losing all identity until he can cool and hold form again. If the “holding community” itself becomes molten, a chalice that has lost its shape, what keeps IT from losing all form (meaning)? It must be the culture, the ecology, the history in which the community is embedded, from which it arose and which sets limits. The same forces that created this sub-group will continue to hold it together from the outside or else the sub-group will resorb into the larger scene.

This is a very global theory that might only be useful as an idea, not particularly “true” in any test-able way except felt experience. But felt experience should be honored. Increasingly, it is supported by brain research.


The roots of the Abramic religions are books: hand-written scrolls for the Jews, printed bound books for the Christians. Somewhere in between for the Islamic Koran. These books call liturgists to turn to print, reading, writing, speaking. Books attract literary types into ministry, which reinforces the valuing of print.

The view of liturgy that I’m pursuing has its roots in theatre, the Greek kind of theatre which addressed the gods. To use a theatrical base means passionate conflict, and moral dilemmas acted out by living persons. One participates empathetically, not by speaking pre-determined words. Even knowing how the story will end does not preclude being drawn into events and feeling the emotions in one’s own body. Possibly being changed.

In liturgy the consecutive statements of “confession/pardon” set up the ultimate conflict, the dimensions of the argument. The closer these are to the actual lives of the persons involved, the more powerful the acts of worship. I say “acts,” rather than passages of print, no matter how cleverly assembled. Act in the sense of “actor.” My knowledge of this art comes from the theatre department of Northwestern University, especially the acting teacher Alvina Krause, and the “holding community” that formed around her.

Where is the holding community in theatre? I would argue that there are several. First, the stage itself where the light embraces the acting figures between proscenium and cyclorama. Second, the community that forms in the course of production from the first plans to stage a particular story to the last striking of the set. This is the community that “holds” the actors while they take the risk of becoming someone else, often drawing on their deepest motives and memories.

Then there is the audience, a group that attends to the issues, seeing only the actors and the story, something like the congregation in a church service. And finally, in the community there will be a larger scattered group of interested parties who believe in theatre in various aspects though they may never meet in the same audience.


The limen we cross in professional theatre is the approach to the theatre building itself, the entry into a foyer, a further entry into the auditorium, the lights dimming, the curtain parting. Then the play. We leave back over the limen after the curtain call, the house lights going up, when we rise, put on wraps, leave.

The platform of the “liturgy” is a stage, which might be raised and lit or might be only a cleared space or might be extended out into the audience. To keep from locking on the words, think of Pilobolus or Blue Men or Cirque de Soliel: spectacle, dance. Studying the vids of these companies when they are working to choreograph, think through, and execute meaning is invaluable instruction for a liturgist.

But another media switch is to the screen rather than the stage, so that the platform stage becomes a wall-sized, silvered, flat expanse or maybe a handheld, pocket-sized tiny image. The actors may be drawings. And yet these still manage to present passionate conflicts of meaning to humans, even in many different cultures with different symbol structures. What this means to me is that the “key” location of liturgy, an intense human art form, is in the brain structure -- not in any prescribed actions or writing. What the liturgist must seek is not the perfect combination of bell/incense/chant, but rather the underlying “plate tectonics” of human experience -- some of them “wired in” from before birth. These are what Robert J. Schrieter, C.PP.S, tries to valorize in his discussions of theology: not looking for equivalent symbols but searching for the deeper force that is being symbolized on the neural working platform of the brain.


In my undergrad years I took a Philosophy of Religion course from Paul Schilpp, a renegade Methodist minister who became a noted leader in the Ethical Culture movement. He liked definitions and he and I had a running argument. He said, “Art is an expression of the relationship between Man and the Universe.” We hadn’t gotten to women’s lib yet so that wasn’t the source of the argument. It was the word “expression.” I wanted it to say “art is a communication of the relationship between a person and the universe.” I was taking performance courses where successful transmission of meaning was the whole point. Going off to declaim fine thoughts in the wilderness was not enough. Being brilliantly unintelligible was not enough. the ideas had to get across -- that was the whole point.

My argument has stuck with me for fifty years: “expression” is a concept from writing and puts the emphasis on the liturgist. “Communication” is a performance concept that puts the emphasis on the sharing congregation. To “express” means to create something well and memorably. To “communicate” is to share that with a living community.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


In January the local ranchers will begin to calve a crop from their high-value embryo-producing cows. These cows produce ova that are fertilized in utero, then washed out and implanted in other cows who gestate them to completion. (Yes, it is also done to humans but with slightly less dependable success.) The birth of cattle is now enmeshed with technology, calendar, and sales in much the same way as religion and especially Christmas.

Jack Holden, who used to be my neighbor across the street, now lives in the country nearby. His family is a powerful dominant one that owns many of the businesses in town: service station, real estate company, feedlot. They participate in politics and the patriarch writes funny locally printed books. “The Prairie Star,” an ag newspaper for which I used to work, has a section called “Producer Progress” and Terri Adams, the reporter, interviewed Jack, standing tall and handsome in his cow yard alongside his blue heeler dog. “All the cows have been hauled home.” (They graze on leases all summer.) “We’re feeding them and making sure everything is buttoned down. We’re making sure the windbreaks are in good shape and the fencing done.” Now he’s going to do embryo transfers.

Maybe you didn’t know that calves in their beginning stages are often swapped around these days. Jack puts in “40 to 50 embryos a day, some for their operation and some for a customer.” The article doesn’t say where they come from (I guess Jack’s cows) or how they get where they’re going. My mental image is of a big box marked “bovine embryos” at the post office, the way chicks or bees are shipped. Probably not.

I had never heard of the Stevenson Sputnik operation in Russia which is one destination for Holden Hereford heifers with embryos installed. A veterinarian named Kate Zimina accompanies and supervises the shipping. (This is the kind of work for which my niece in Oregon is preparing.) Zimina is helping Jack get his cows on the Whole Herd Inventory and to register his 2011 calves with the American Hereford Association. Cows also go to Nebraska and Texas.

Jack doesn’t have a freezer full of bull semen (well, maybe, but it’s not in the article). He’s got BULLS. One gives them 130-day gain tests and sells them through catalog photos. They weigh 1,200 pounds and more and average a 3.75 pound gain DAILY during their first hundred days. When the calves begin to come next week, there will be 250 head with 80 of them embryo transfers. It used to be that one rarely saw a rancher at rest who wasn’t scribbling figures on the back of an envelope with a pencil stub, but now he (or she) hunches over a computer to crunch numbers. Every rancher contracts with labs where technicians hunch over a workbench to check genomes, nutrition, parasites. The hard physical labor of ranching is now overlaid with delicate technical work. The weather is still a variable that cannot be controlled, no matter how much hunch and crunch.

Birth is not so different for prosperous human beings who live in a country where medicine is technically managed. We lose touch with the births elsewhere that persist in the face of all odds, embryos disadvantaged from the moment of conception and gestated in wombs compromised by drugs or starvation or violence. Even just unhappiness, which is a real biochemical state. They come burdened, crippled and mutated, but they still come.

How remarkable that a human being is started inside another human being, attaches, complicates and swells up, and then at some point -- hopefully not too early and not too late -- is squeezed out into a culture that may or may not welcome it and complete its growth. Yet the babies come in spite of plague, drought and war, in the midst of natural disasters and dire predictions. How come there are no horsemen for birth? All they get is a stork?

Attending a birth is a remarkable experience. The mother is gripped and wrenched and split -- some more easily than others -- and finally the baby comes out the same place the father sent the seed in. It is slimy, curled-up, bloody with its mother’s blood, smeared with mother’s shit squeezed out by the birth, still attached in her by a lifeline like those on the spacesuits of astronauts. “Boil water!” they cry in the movies about the arrival of pioneer babies. (All babies are pioneers.) After seeing the mess once, it’s easy to understand why.

A cow can’t boil water so it just licks and licks and licks with her big rough washrag of a tongue until pretty soon the mess begins to look like a living being and tries to stand up. Brain swirling, eyes rolling, ears hanging down, knees buckling, but they just keep coming, the same as the original zygote just kept coming. (And the original sperm.) In a while calves get things coordinated and find the milk bag. Aaaah. First taste is best taste. Colostrum. The best medicine.

A new cow starting now. Or maybe at conception. Or maybe at re-implantation in a second cow. Which beginning? (Ask the Pope. He’s even in charge of the beginning of the World.) It makes a difference. If a calf or person is delivered by C-section or induced labor, is their birth “untimely?” Will it make a difference in their life-trajectory through the world? The stars are aligned a little differently, the beef market is up or down a little more, the rancher is in a better or worse mood so is more or less patient or skillful.

Maybe the weather turns bad and the calf is frozen to the ground despite all the licking. The cow -- where is the cow in all this? The bull doesn’t matter. He’s over. For now. The coyote, the wolf, being born in their burrows -- no help from any humans -- growing up together, delighted to eat a calf. The grasses -- some born from inseminated seeds like animals and others just budding and splitting and reaching out for a little more space and sun and water -- only to be bitten off or cut off to be cow food. The rancher’s wife giving birth to a child who will directly or indirectly eat that calf, that cow, that bull, that grass.

And now the camera pulls away -- this is like Google Earth moving from street to the universe -- so that we see all the continents and all the seas, all full of birth and death in their intertwining, and we are humbled. That star over there -- what’s its name? When was it born?

Saturday, December 24, 2011


The motto taped over my computer says: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (It’s Flaubert.) I am true to that motto. No need to fool around with bucket lists -- I’ve checked most items off. In fact, maybe it would be a good idea to make a list of things I’ve done right in the last decade. Some of them were sure things and some were gambles that paid off, both large and small stuff.

1. I was right to buy my exceptionally big blood-red geraniums and baby them along over the years. They earn their place in the “geranium window” every winter.

2. I was right to get these cats, who are far from perfect. (As if they gave a meow.) Crackers is a cat of little brain and much sinus. Squibbie is a cat with too much curiosity even for a cat and an inability to digest her food, which she solves by regurgitation. But we’ve bonded and they shape my day since they’re even more dependable schedulers than the radio. Sometimes I regret teaching them to get up at 3AM for a check around the house and a little something to eat. If I don’t do it, Squibbie slams doors and throws small objects off tabletops.

3. It was a good idea to buy a house surrounded by trees even though they rain branches, their roots prevent hand-mowing, and in the fall before the winds start I briefly have too many leaves on the ground. But the sound and light show is worth it, let alone the birds.

4. Valier was the right place to buy a house (near but not on the Blackfeet rez) and I bought it at the right time, just before Flathead refugees and Homeland security officers found the place.

5. It was good to take a chance on an old worn house and pay for it entirely instead of using the money as a down payment on grounds that houses are good investments. Hahahahahahaha! When I was in the ministry in the Eighties, the ministers were telling each other to refuse old-fashioned church-owned manses and to get their churches to loan the cost of a house to the minister from their endowments so that eventually the minister could cash in his [sic] house for retirement. Now it would be once again attractive for a church to own a house for their ministers to live in. Particularly since ministers are a lot more peripatetic than they used to be.

My list of seventy desiderata for a house has worked out very well. I won’t have to worry about stairs as I age. Swapping the shallow tub for a walk-in shower was a good idea. The rooms work well, though if there’s money in the future I will make this office into a laundry room and move my workstation to the front room. I don’t need a parlor. I discovered that company finds this house sadly lacking in basics and too far from Glacier Park for it to be a good tourist headquarters. So I don’t have to cope with their peculiar schedules and drinking habits.

6. Since 1999 my idea of writing -- which was the goal of coming here -- has changed drastically. Publishing has changed a lot more than my writing. Just in the nick of time I did get the biography of Bob Scriver (“Bronze Inside and Out”) published by the University of Calgary Press, who did NOT interfere with the content as the other presses wanted to do. The book is honest and intact and meant completing some relationships. In fact, that still happens as Charles of Charleston, OR, proves.

The “spine” of my writing is self-publishing AKA “blogging.” Consistently I have more than a thousand hits a week from all over the planet, though I think some of them are bogus. There seems to be another sort of diaspora of people reading second-hand through forwarding or printouts. Thanks to Christopher Scott at I’ve been encouraged to keep up with writing short genre Western stories, some about the rez and some just Fifties TV style. It’s fun and easy for me to do, which surprised me. The stories are on the website or e-anthologies are listed on Amazon. ($1.49 for six stories by assorted writers.) Cowboys may be coming back.

I’m still writing about and for Blackfeet at Mostly guides and compilations. This is where much of the material hits a subterranean distribution system, which is only fair since that’s how I got much of it. The younger leaders are the children and grandchildren of those I used to know and they are always surprised. Much of all these categories above shows up on Amazon which is busy trying to swallow the world.

It turned out that collaborating with the Montana Historical Society, the Montana Arts Council, and other local entities that I once aspired to work with just didn’t click. Their assumptions are not mine. They are status quo people. Luckily, this kicked me into a much wider context, the global internet webworks of scholars and explorers. There appears to be a whole class of hunter/gatherer writers out there. “My tribe.”

One of them has blasted my life with heat and light since 2007, not just changing my writing but changing who I am. My gratitude is painfully unlimited, but this is what I’ve been “regular and orderly” for -- this “violent and original” stuff. It will never end, but I have no idea where it will go in the future, which is a true gift.

7. Now I see that I’m off my list! but that should be one thing on my list: the freedom to lose the lists.

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” That’s a translation with an omission. The original sentence says: “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois.” Flaubert also exclaimed, “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n'est-ce pas?” He was working at a time that the bourgeois middle class was just forming out of a working and rural population who wished for prosperity and stability and to ape the uppermost classes. (As my birth family did.) I’m working at a time when we’re all in a panic about the diminishing of the middle class, because who will buy things and pay taxes? Like a regular and orderly bourgeois, I’ll take notes and make lists about this.

Then I’ll go right on thinking about sex, nakedness, torture, genocide, eukaryotes grabbing mitochondria, the global neuronal workspace in the brain, historical revision, and whatever secrets deserve to be told for the good of us all.