Thursday, March 31, 2011


Now that I’ve read “Gilead,” I see that it is really about universal salvation, once the cornerstone of a whole denomination and then taken so for granted that it seeped into the mainstream, and now again needed in this time of fear and shortage.  It was a rural, Jesus-loving but liberal sort of denomination and its money paid for the Montana circuit-riding ministry I did 1982-85.  In the modern context I see that the idea of predestination and hell -- terrible punishment awaiting all who do not accept a certain point of view -- has been restored to us through the right-wing fundamentalists of all three Abramic religions and has become the advertising theory of the health industry as well as politics:  stir up terror and offer to protect from it.  Suffering and death are seen as avertible by prescription.  (Or money -- to them, the same thing.)  
We are asking “where is salvation” and it looks to me as though Robinson is suggesting immanence, quiet human lives in homes.  But she is also aware of events like the Civil War that demand the sacrifice of all of that in a mighty effort to achieve justice, even though in a few generations (there are four Ames generations here) the warriors will be forgotten.  The story’s foundation effort to reclaim that courage is Old Ames as a boy, walking for months to his grandfather’s grave with his own father in a time of drought that has made a fertile land into a desert.  There are echoes of Abraham and Isaac, but there is no intent to sacrifice the boy.  Instead both are fed when they locate the grave and clear away the undergrowth.  All through the book, the women guard the bodies of the men by feeding them, a commandment in the country where men do hard labor and sojourners pass through.
“Gilead” explores nonconformity (which the churchy dogmatic feel should condemn someone to hell)  as being in the end openness to freedom.  It confronts the faithlessness of people who risk their lives to rescue slaves and then re-enslave the same people through prejudice against their skin color.  The nonconformist who ignores that stupidity is punished, even threatened by hell or at least ostracism.  But the grandson of one of those warriors, “Old Ames” (pun intended, I think) in a generational line of clergy, in the end grants formal blessing.  (This strikes to the heart of me because in the last few years I have tried to convey blessing to the nonconventional desirers we label “homosexual,” because they are already carrying the demonized curse of AIDS with Big Pharma money standing in the way of a cure.  I can be more explicit in other venues.)
This book is packed with preachers, all of them with sons of one kind or another.  The women watch, feed, mend, and plant -- carrying the pastoral domesticity which I’ll save for discussion in another post.  In the end -- I’ll just give it away -- one old preacher, finding his best friend’s son about to leave town and finally understanding what a virtue breaking the rules can be, and what a terrible price it can exact, puts his blessing hand on the brow of the man who waits for the bus as he has when he christened the same man in infancy.  He has given this man not just his word, but his name.
The book unfolds subtly.  Near the front is a charming story about children christening kittens.  One of the challenges to the Christian template has been the boundary between animal and human so that children can ask whether dogs go to heaven and declare that if dogs don’t, the child doesn’t want to go there either.  But the author reminds us that the hand of the minister fits the head of an infant just as the hand of a child fits the head of a cat, and also the minister’s hand fits the brow of the adult petitioner.  (The narrator reflects wryly that it was a good thing the baptizers of cats were not Total Immersion Baptists.)  There is an unspoken likeness to a caretaker testing for fever.   What it feels like to be the receiver of these attentions for either purpose is also unexplored.  Instead the narrator remembers the sensation in his hand and the frank response of the beloved receiver.
There is a second sacrament that appears again and again: communion.  Not strictly, but the act of putting food into an upturned, trusting and loving face.  Old Ames’ father tells about receiving an ashy bit of biscuit from the hands of his father.   (Ashy from the lightning-struck and burned old church.  Judgment?  Human judgment tried to burn the black church and failed.)   Old Ames himself tells about the baptism and first communion of his second wife, theologically unsophisticated but committed.  Nothing is said about the wine.  I should reread this book and index it for more study.
And there is a third “sacrament,” an American mid-West act of communication and grace:  a man and a boy playing catch in the long summer evenings.  Old Ames’ namesake, Old Boughton’s prodigal son, comes to throw the ball with Old Ames’ son by his second wife, who is immediately warm to that same man “Jack.”  Old Ames is jealous and fearful -- he is easily displaced, he is facing death by old age, and Jack could take his family away from him or just inherit it after his death.  It’s not until he realizes that Jack has his own family, separated by racism, that he relaxes.  If one thinks of a church as the pastor’s wife, and vice versa, Old Ames is easy to understand.
It appears to me (and possibly this is because of my own focus and preference when it comes to traditional religion) that we have here a pastor whose approach is based on dogma (“Old  Boughton”) alongside one based on sacraments (“Old Ames”).  They are both loving men, but both limited.  I often talk about the contrast between Unitarianism, a heresy based on rational principle, and Universalism, a heresy based on the heart.  But Calvinism is the father of both movements and deserves more attention, especially the recovery of Jonathan Edwards’ joy in immanentalism, the belief that holiness wells up from within.
This interpetation of the preachers owes something to Martha Nussbaum’s idea of the “Fragility of Goodness,” which may be the real meaning of being spiders dangled by a thread over a kitchen stove.  I haven’t read it -- just a quick summary that suggests that those who try to do good can pay a terrible price.  The two preachers in this novel are very old and frail, even as the church buildings are abused and overgrown or else given over to proud brick prosperity.  Each man has paid a price, not so much for his beliefs as in spite of virtue, which did not save them from suffering.  In this version of the story, the prodigal son cannot return nor can he find happiness in another land.  But he can be blessed in his effort.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


John Keats (1795-1821) was a remarkable English poet famous enough to have been in the English literature canon we were required to learn when I was in high school (1953-57), a stage of education I now see -- for myself and others -- as mind-shaping.  My teachers would have accepted Jane Campion’s movie about Keats, “Bright Star,” but they would have been nervous.  It’s a very “chaste” movie -- only a bit of kissing because, after all, he was dying of TB which is highly contagious.  And absolutely period-accurate in clothing and setting, though Campion chose a slightly larger double-house of the same period so they could get the cameras into the rooms.  But there’s always something about Campion’s attitude and assumptions that is unsettling.  Fanny Brawne, so proud of her fashion, has a Mother Goose look about her.
This online interview with Campion offers some clues.  You can read for yourself, but I’ll list some quotes I really like.
Negative capability”  is that idea that great men have a way of managing to stand within doubt and uncertainties, mysteries, without irritably searching after fact or reason.  . . .that sort of feeling that people don’t know what to do with gaps in their lives. It’s a scary notion, but actually, if you can stand in space just for a little while, a new door will open, or you’ll be able to see in the dark after a while. You’ll adjust.”
An easeful thing . . . is another idea of Keats, that poetry should come as easily as leaves to a tree, or it had better not come at all.”  (Alvina Krause used to say,  “stop trying and just do it.”  Sometimes “don’t force it to come from you -- let it come THROUGH you.”)
“I think that three-act fundamentalism in film culture is a problem sometimes, because it’s almost too obvious, or it’s too expected. And it’s not the only way to fill two hours, or to phrase things, or to order thoughts, or order ideas.”
“I kind of made my own ballad of Fanny and Keats.” 
“. . . for ideas to become real, they have to be played on your senses.”
My English teachers would have prepared the important points about Keats’ life and probably analyzed a poem or two.  They wanted us to be the best, the top, to rise in the world through knowledge of fact plus determination to achieve.  In short, they accepted the same structure of life as coaches: skills, strategies, certification by authorities, middle-class respectability.  

All the things that a Romantic rejects.  They were nervous of the senses, so no wonder the first “modern” street drug to capture Romantics (I’m not counting opium a la Coleridge) was LSD which expands and swirls the senses, shakes up all assumptions.  (Tim tells me this.  I’ve never tried it.)  Today’s sports focus on beer: obliteration of consciousness.  And head trauma.  One of my former students from the Sixties says he still has gaps of memory from his football days.
So “Bright Star” seems simply an experience.  I needed to watch it twice: once because of the unfamiliarity and then again in a spirit of recognition.  Campion uses the letters Keats wrote, along with his poems. to let him be what he is.  No one, not even the determined Mr. Brown who loses the rules of caution in his own life, “explains” the poems, though Campion hired a professor to dissect the poems for the cast.  The cooked and “pulled” poems we learned in English class are left outside the film.  Instead we simply watch the plume put them on the page.  The actor wrote them out himself.
The period was a terrifying time, with France -- not so far away -- busily decapitating its best and brightest, and prosperity flickering in and out for the newly developing “middle class.”  Boys went to work at thirteen or earlier.  Keats was trained as a doctor, in hopes of a stable income.  Instead he threw over that intention in order to become a poet.  Then the burdens of TB bore Keats and his brothers down into poverty and death.  Keats went down writing, sustained in part by writer friends.  Shelley is buried near him.  Other writers were part of his circle of friends and even nursed him.  Keats, in torturing pain, was denied opium by his friends, who feared he would commit suicide.
Exclusiveness of relationship was not addressed in this movie.  In fact, the poem called “Bright Star” seems to have been written as much for the benefit of Fanny Brawne’s predecessor, Isabella Jones, as for Fanny.  Another departure from fact is that though Fanny was in mourning (a formal state of dress and behavior) for six years, she married after twelve (she would have been thirty years old then), producing three children.  She was not Emily Dickinson.
More than facts and dates, this film concentrates on place.  Once the location was chosen, it was allowed to unfold as it was:  a vale of bluebells, a field of naturalized daffodils, a forest of pale tree trunks.  The idea of the duplex house allows the shared wall that joins/separates the bedrooms of Yeats and Fanny as a metaphor for the relationship.   The idea of a romantic “conceit” is exploited when Fanny makes her bedroom into a butterfly refuge, not some kind of supernatural fantasy, but retaining the “bugness” of them: keeping them in jars with cheesecloth tied over the top, brushing them aside in order to open a door without crushing them, and finally, when despair sets in, carrying the winged debris out in dustpans and on trays.  This is not a cheerful or escapist story.
This film is always “en famille” with the small cautions, holidays and vanities of a bourgeois household of limited means.  The little red-haired girl called “Toots” blurts out what is not politely said.  The weedy stalk of a boy named “Samuel” whose duty is to chaperone, grabs his stovepipe hat and stoically trails Fanny through her impetuous flights.   A fond tuxedo cat is often present.  The mother and family friends offer much wordless support as well as unheeded advice.  Mr. Brown, in his anxious protection of Keats, says quite enough.
This is a way of life that I embrace and enact in my solitary way.  I’ve witnessed enough mindless violence and forcing, enough of the attempt to nail everything down with facts and regulations.  Now I want pastoral domesticity so that life can come not from me but through me.  I’ve stopped trying to write.  Now I just do it.  It is a “negative capability.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


My sex life was solitary and secret until I got to college.  It remained silent and secret in regards to myself, but suddenly my reading knowledge of sex (which was very science-based) was greatly augmented by roommates -- one in particular.  (This was ’57 - ’61.)  I was much impressed by her black underwear.  I hadn’t known there could be such a thing.  (It was many more years before I came across red underwear that wasn’t long-johns, much less leopard-spotted satin or purple lace.)  She informed me that sex is no different from food.  A good fuck was equivalent to a good steak.  And gender mattered not.  
I was reminded of what she thought DID matter more recently.  We’re in our seventies now and she was shocked that I didn’t realize that while she was my roommate she was regularly being taken to the floor by her most important professor.  Worse, I’d never heard of him and didn’t know how significant he was.  She had the idea that she was attractive because of her brains, which were considerable, but it seemed transparent to me that it was because she was a cute little blonde whose personal life was already so freeform that when “student health” sent her to the University shrink they turned out to be having sex with the same handsome young man, dubbed “Steppenwolf.”  Things did not go well, then or now.  In fact, when she announced she was coming to visit Montana with her handsome husband, I quickly picked a fight so she wouldn’t.
Martha Shull, my high school sophomore English teacher, who was also the president of the NEA that year, taught us that the Atlantic Monthly was an upscale, prestigious, respectable magazine.  Thus I was a little disconcerted when someone forwarded me the Jan/Feb Atlantic article called “Hard Core” by Natasha Vargas-Cooper .  I didn’t catch up with the companion article “The Hazards of Duke” by Caitlin Flanagan until just now when sorting a pile of mags for discard.  It happened to coincide with the current news wave about rape as a weapon of war.  The rest of this is not about me.  I just wanted to prepare you with my point of view, which is amazed but not surprised.
You can see anything on YouTube, including a perfectly clear and straightforward interview with several male Congo fighters (doesn’t matter which side, since they switch all the time anyway) who explained why they rape women as an act of war.  They are convinced that their success in battle is directly related to their raping because it reinforces their “magic.”  (Nothing was said about raping boys, though they do that, too.)  When the interviewer pressed a little bit (“What if you caught someone raping your sister?”  Unhesitatingly:  “Oh, I would kill him.”) they began to shift their eyes and look a bit uneasy.  (Was there something they hadn’t been told?)
With that in the background, I’m told (sorry, there I am again) that high school, college and professional coaches urge their teams to imagine that the opposing team has raped their sister, killed their mother, must be punished.  I’m told that coaches who do this (only in the locker room) are called (approvingly) “red-blood coaches.”  Their teams win because their aggressiveness is so ramped up.  That’s the stick.  The carrot is the promise of a beer blast afterwards, the tab being picked up by members of the Chamber of Commerce, which doesn’t acknowledge it.  Athletics and schools are deeply, deeply linked.  Also, drunkenness and drugging.  Aggression is so useful in school athletics.  When it comes to hiring for ordinary jobs after graduation, not so much.
Into this triangle of forces steps a liberated woman named Karen Owen, who decides to “sleep with” the entire lacrosse team at Duke University.  Treated like dirt, she develops a “Power Point” slide show describing and ranking them, right down to their penis size and shape.  It’s hard to know how she could rank their sexual performance since few lasted more than five minutes and she was beer-blasted out of her mind at the time.  However, she put a high value on aggressiveness, meaning brute force, and ranked those who left cuts and bruises above those who didn’t, even if she couldn’t remember what actions caused the traumas.  She did not address any bruises on the boys.  I didn’t read her prose but judging from the photos she included, these were handsome well-built upscale white boys.  Some of them were also involved in the scandal in which three black hired strippers/exotic dancers were thought at first to have been raped in a frat house.  (Later it was all excused as a mistake.)
In short, these boys (technically old enough to be classified as men) were not at all different from those Congo soldiers.  About the same age.  Convinced that sex added to their magic. They didn’t go in for foreplay either.  This is all so primal that it’s not surprising except that the context of an academic campus is quite different than a Congo jungle.  It’s harder to understand Karen Owen, whose Power Point went viral on YouTube, along with a lot of commentary if you are interested.   She “went into hiding” by canceling her Facebook and Twitter accounts.
I’m going to have to talk about me, or at least my roommate.  What she got out of sex on the office floor was the honor of it all -- not just the aggressiveness, which was also a thrill -- but the fact of a high prestige man’s “endorsement” at the, uh, “root of his being.”  Hey, what’s a Ph.D.?  (Actually, these days, not so much.)  Come to that, who cares about the law or campus regs?  Let alone contagious diseases.
So what will happen to Karen Owen?  Judging by my roommate, not much.  She’s had the same journal editing job all her working life.   Feminist rhetoric is not much use in the corporate world.  Those who know say Owen’s Power Point wasn’t really that well-done in terms of Power Points, which are going out of style as being too focused on checklists instead of sound basic thinking.  That sounds about right, though I never use Power Point.  She’ll undoubtedly have a boring low level job in a boring hierarchical bureaucratic world.  I don’t think her academic major was mentioned.
I’m more interested in the fate of the high schools and universities.  They always protest that without athletics, they will fall apart.  Without drunkenness and sex, it just won’t be the traditional campus.  Okay.  Let’s push it.  Cancel the sex, booze and fucking.  If nothing is left but classes, that’s okay with me.  Then maybe we can address war rape with clear heads.  And reach a better understanding of the place of sex in human life.  I guess it’s pretty personal for each of us.

Monday, March 28, 2011


When I read animal-related listservs, I get very impatient because the members usually know so little biology.  Their level of understanding in some cases is not much more than “ducks say quack, quack and geese say honk, honk.”  But worse than their grasp of animal biology is their understanding of matters vegetal.  To them grain is like leggos or pop-it beads, small indistinguishable no-harm pellets of food, only suspect when their diet gets too carb-heavy.
My motivation and knowledge in relation to grains comes from two sources: the obvious one is that I’m living in grain country where the fields come right up to the boundary streets of the village and the historical one is that my father’s roommate at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Rudy Peterson, was part of the Green Revolution that improved grain seed enough to lift countries like India away from mass starvation one more time.  These were grain seeds changed by cross-pollination, not direct genome interference as is so controversial (and rightly so).  They were so proud!  But it entered them into a circle: the more food, the more people: the more people, the more food needed.
This was entirely different from today’s predatory commercial grain seed genomic stock “improvement” (gerry-mandering) which is meant to make the fields “Roundup ready” (meaning Roundup dependent) and non-germinating (meaning that you cannot save part of the crop to plant for the next year but must buy new seed stock).  I find that terrifying and yet I hear very little about it from environmentalists.  Maybe it slips attention because those who resist frankenfoods are mostly concerned about their personal health and not about the economic existence of farmers and ranchers.
So, aside from bigger and more, what do traditional wheat breeders work on?  Basically, from the outside of the practice, I’d say protein content which is something they talk about and test all the time; gluten content both for high-gluten to bake bread and low-gluten because some people have allergies; pest resistance; drought resistance; short growing season; ease of harvesting; storability; proportion of grain to straw (the stems) and other stuff that’s more esoteric.  I suppose rate and vigor of germination and, so some degree, pure aesthetics!  Some growers don’t like wheat with black beards -- it just seems wrong to them.  And I suspect that they love wheat that waves -- wouldn’t like stuff too stiff to dance. 
People have their fav varieties which begin life as formulas like MT0249 and later are given names that honor places or individuals.  “Duclair” is from MT0249 crossed with the pre-existing “Choteau.”  It’s a spring wheat with a solid stem -- you realize, of course, that most wheat stems or straw are hollow which is why we call those tubes for sucking up pop “straws.”  But there’s a little beast called a “sawfly” that gets into that hollow center to lay its eggs and then they go to work like mini-saws and -- timber! -- the wheat is on the ground.  You can’t cut it at harvest time if it’s lying on the ground.  It  can’t ripen if it’s cut while it’s still green.  Once it’s on the ground it begins to rot or sprout or be carried off by other small critters.  
The name “Duclair” comes from an old map that shows a post office by that name in the heart of sawfly country near Turner, Montana.  “Choteau” was also a solid-stem variety so the improvement came from MT0249 which had longer green leaf duration.  Green leaves are what pump energy into the plant (chlorophyll is the photovoltaic mechanism for harvesting the sun) so the more green leaves the better.  The energy goes into the grain and then into your Wheaties and then into you.  Maybe that’s why Duclair is a little taller than Choteau.  Maybe you’re a little taller, too.
MTS07 13 winter wheat is a cross between a “Vanguard” derivative and the semidwarf AgriPro line “NuHorizon.”  The ag team wants to name MTS07 13 for a long-time extension agent named Judee Wargo.  In comparison to Genou, which it is meant to replace, the yield is four bushels per acre higher, has a more solid stem, and is about three inches shorter.  It resists stripe rust, has excellent milling and baking quality, and is as winter hardy as Genou.
The third new wheat is MTSO721, meant to be a potential replacement for “Rampart.”  It’s yield is seven bushels an acre higher, it has a solider stem than “Judee”,  it is as winter hardy and three inches shorter.  But the protein quality and baking quality are not quite so good.  Still, it resists sawfly better than Judee.  They want to call it “Bearpaw.”
Wait until the yuppie foodies get hold of this!  It might become more popular at cocktail parties than wine snobbery!   They’ve already been poking around in potato varieties.  Maybe you thought university people sat around with books in libraries.  These guys are out in the dirt.  
But plants is not all they do.  The entomologists are cooperating to figure out “trap crops” that are planted next to wheat fields, stuff that sawflies can’t resist so that they’ll all rush over there to saw off the stems of some other crop with no food value that can be ground up or burned, sawflies and all.  Those county extension agents are a devious bunch.  Their biggest problem was convincing the suspicious early ranchers and farmers that THEY were not a new form of sawfly.  I think they’ve probably managed to get that job done.
There is a third reason I think about grain quite a bit.  It was grain that began the ten-thousand-year-old development of cities and cultures that could sustain humanities and sciences.  Without grain we could not continue.  Yet we raise our grain in monocrop rows vulnerable to commodification, dependence on chemicals that will run out in the foreseeable future if they don’t cause us all to die of metabolic disorders sooner than that, and erosion of the topsoil of the planet that took millenia to form.  They don’t talk about all this in the small town caf├ęs of grain country.  But they do at universities.  I hope for more cross-pollenization.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Sent to me by Aad de Gids, who is a poet in Rotterdam, one of the major cities that will be threatened early by the rising sea level caused by global warming and the breaking up of the polar ice sheets.  I’ve left it as sent, though English is not Aads’ first language (he has three) which I like because he finds world/word slants like cnnamatic/cinematic.
At the end Aad is quoting other poets who exchange ideas and work on Facebook.  These are the people Tim was working with for a while before Facebook dropped him.  (Facebook has been dropping MANY people.  They don’t always know why.) Elazar Larry Freifeld, lives with his wife, Lois, in Tel Aviv, where his name echoes a famous Hebrew poet from the past, Eleazar.  A bibliography of his work is at   The other, Jacques, is Jack Hughes.  Many people have this name, but I think this link is his:
I don’t know whether these people are reading “prairiemary.” Aad certainly does -- this is a response -- so the serpent at the end is the one in my blog post earlier this week.  They have accepted this paradigm shift into endless, transformative, inclusive new times -- Jacques more than Elazar and Aad more than either.  Aad is an academically trained psychiatric nurse (35 years of service) but also wrote his thesis on the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, which is not so much the “deconstruction” of Derrida and Foucault as a reconstruction of new ideas.  Recently there has been increasing interest in the relationship between psychotherapy and philosophy, the latter being a bit more detached from the person and more interested in his or her worldview.  
If paradigm shift, as Thomas Kuhn suggested, is a matter of accumulating dissonance -- cultural information and scientific facts that don’t fit what is directly observed and proven, then why wouldn’t the person who sees the problem and comments upon it be chided for being crazy, not conforming to what the culture says is true?  Even science has to fight its way past the assumptions of the culture.
A strong element these poets (including Tim) share is raging indignation at the loss and violence in the world, a social consciousness that becomes an inner fuel for resisting oppression through singing stories, even terrifying rants.
overwhelming submerging
maybe there is a greater sadness here. exemplified, and suffered at first and last,
of course, in japan, maybe we sense a greater loss. it is best described in inclusiveness,
as to appreciate all visions posted here, as we have different generations, but a recurrent 
theme seems to be the spiralling or circling or of recursiveness,
which can be as well taoist as melancholic, eastern as western as experienced in a jiddische profundity of insight. but the sadness remains and,of course,is one of the things evolving 
out of that enormous seismic shift, which somehow,also seems to incorporate a paradigmatic 
shift. a loss of capitalism or economy perhaps. another loss of identity. a shakenness. 
vulnerability. a primal fear to get submerged, drowned, in sorrow, tears, a deluge. this has 
to be interpreted as symbolic as cnnamatic. 
as cinematic,if only to stress that that last word was what it was. cinema picked up on it
real soon,”now”, as i discovered when looking up “honshu” or “fukushima”. the animes were
already made. ready mades. neoduchamp. absorbed in the neonneon of tokyo,the neoneon
of yokohama. 
the sketch of jack also is emblematic. 
partly it comes from the writerly economy of the internet. all of this writing, all 
of this nest-building -- the sense of vertigo when you are shown the long view, the 
incessant circles of nest building, circles like growth rings of a tree....... that sense 
of too-muchness, of each inner tree ring being cut off from the sun by all those 
beyond it... this is an optical illusion... a perspectivism.... it is no different from 
the immanence, the hereness of the present moment...... and yet, it requires a 
readjustment of our spiritual parameters. It is much different than the old model, 
that of patient ascending composition, editing, revising, submission, eventual 
possible approval, that huge cresting wave of the publication, and now the published 
book, the thing done, the achieved..... which is an illusion..... instead now it is the 
sand painting, the mandala, the circle drawn in the sand, the thinker sits crosslegged 
inside it, the sand mandala woven of dropped bits of sand for hours and days.... and 
then, once accomplished, we take it outside, we hold it up to the wind, it blows off 
free and clean..... which is an illusion..... and yet how different these signs may be, 
these metaphors may be.....”/j.
after this i can extrapolate further that,the longer, the more, the harsher we hang on to old
“modules”, ”nodes”, of thoughts, feelings, the more difficult it will be to live in this world
really evidently. paradoxically that may mean: really artificially, virtually, [posthuman],
bereft of our centralist position or positron, geocentrism, antropocentrism, heliocentrism,
perhaps “centrism” alltogether becomes blown away at last. at last,after the finishing of the mandala,”at last", good riddance.
“i've been hearing this demise of the old stuff all my life until i have seen my dear 
modernist friends get old, and their talk. and like the leaf insect eaten by another leaf... everything gets old, Jacques, and not everything dies...i love publishing, i have printers ink in my blood, i am the ghost of 'printer's devil'”./elazar
“i like illusions, i have beautiful loads of it/them. i do agree however with the shifting 
spiritual perspective and quantum thereof...i just don't feel like a drip or mandala or 
circle drawn, Jacques. the bulwark of old or new is foolishness because the passion 
with which i turn to re to redact the better i become a writer, imo. where is the
inclusiveness that we share, if not in taste only”./elazar
the inclusiveness, i guess, sits in the experience of “shift” and a “new “ that doesn’t entirely
excludes “the old” but, swallowed it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


When the markers of success you’ve picked out for yourself, maybe with a little help from others, simply evaporate, what do you do?  This question is prompted by the collapse of the publishing industry.  First it rotted from within, like the USSR, commodifying and pandering until the product was pretty much just some paper (hopefully acid-free so it wouldn’t disintegrate) between hinged boards.  Then it was challenged by the Great eParadigm Shift, and now it’s a ruin.  Everything from marketing to distribution to billing is thrown into a heap.  It’s taking about as long to sort and rebuild as the Japanese coastal villages and for some it’s just as painful, represents just as much of a loss.
I do not think I am the only person who has lived a risky life on the premise that I would put it all into a self-justifying book.   Sum it all up, prove it, provide a major insight into human life, all in immortal prose.  That’s fine and I suppose some people think they are doing it.  But I’m not sure it’s possible at the moment.  It wasn’t until I began reading Peter Gay’s big book about “The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud” that I began to understand how entangled this idea is in social class.  These are the people who enshrined publishing and thought writing a book (that was PUBLISHED !!) meant having 19th century-type adventures around the Empire and returning to have them saluted by the upper classes or professional societies.  That’s why they’re so in love with Lewis and Clark, but also have been so determined not to note Lewis’ syphilis or Clark’s slave.  It’s why many people own some version of the Journals of the trip but few really read them.  They’re generally edited versions anyway.  The folks at home don’t REALLY want to participate and would not have survived if they had tried.  The same with voyages of introspection that go into uncharted waters.  (That’s the Freud part.)
For a while there has been a coherent society, which was pleased to think of itself as “middle” class, and which stabilized in the 19th century because of industrialization, which provided for a great many people enough economic elbow room for a little comfort and leisure.  Not everywhere.  Many of my neighbors think that both reading and using a computer (except to check the stock market) are “play.”  They say,  “I wish I had enough time to sit around reading.”  As youngsters both of my parents were quickly rousted if they tried to sit and read, so they learned to hide.  Both became good students because of their reading but they were curiously passive, both in their reading and in their work lives.  My sibs and I followed that pattern, even though we were allowed to read all night if we wanted to -- and we did.
I wasn't always passive, because of marrying Bob Scriver who was constantly on the move.  But it wasn’t until I got to Divinity School that I learned how to be an active reader.  '78 - '82 was just the beginning of the post-modern theories that have done so much good and so much damage.  On the one hand, they properly dynamited the industrial-era assumptions about class and values -- mostly a matter of justifying the luxury of some and the suffering of many -- and on the other hand they were too damned obscure for the suffering to really understand.  They just became dull weapons of resistance and resentment.  Sharpened and clarified, they might have minced the fascists, once and for all.  Revision, revanchement, regret and reversal are what have brought us to political deadlock.
In the meantime the real transformation of thought, the post-industrial, scientifically fueled, HUGE paradigm shift that has not just transformed what is written but also the means of communicating it and who reads it, the reframing that will rearrange the wealth of the world, seed new religions everywhere, and perhaps even dissolve national boundaries, is around us like a wind.  It’s not that story is gone, it’s that we’re overwhelmed with stories.  
But the old stories are gone.  The little oddball who writes a novel that, once certified by a publisher, makes her rich and famous and lives happily ever after is gone.  “Anne of Green Gables” is gone.  In her place is Lucy Maude Montgomery whose father neglected her, who married a depressed minister and had to cover for him, who hated having to write the same story over and over again for the sake of the money (not just for her but for the Publisher -- an author is like a hen, she must lay similar eggs one after another for the Publisher) and who finally committed suicide, exhausted.  Meriwether Lewis died insane, alone.  Clark never freed  his slave.  (He had a name: York.)
Life is tough.  It’s not a parlor sport.  Prizes mean nothing.  Economic security or Victorian privacy are no longer possible.  Ethnicity, national allegiance, and squalor are beginning to bore us.  Our industrial accomplishments threaten to wipe all life from the surface of the planet and the depths of the ocean.
No one is addressing this in novels.  Some are tackling it in poetry, but mostly the story has gone to music: songs are the stories we want now.  All the arts EXCEPT published print are making music in the wind now.  Those who were readers are now dancers now.  The world is no longer a stage, it’s a ball-room and I intend the double entendre.  Keep moving.  No rest for the wicked.
One of my objections to Christianity (I don’t object to the whole complex) is its constant assumption that everything stays the same, at least as measured by one lifespan, generally the lifespan of the person or persons in power.  Christians insist that things have an identifiable beginning and end:  a creation and finally an apocalypse, as written in a Book.  But I see (often in retrospect because that’s when the phenomena become perceptible and interpretable) CONTINUOUS creation and CONTINUOUS apocalypse.  Here a birth and there a death.  Always the transformation.   The drifting cycle of the seasons, renewal, destruction, winter, spring.  
And so it is with the idea of redeeming oneself by writing a book.  Instead of the Christian notion of being so virtuous that you will be saved by judgment (always that authority figure) at the moment of death, I move over to the Taoist notion that we are all saved, always were, always will be.  We ARE stories.  Don’t even have to remember them.  Just ARE.  No need to write them down.  ARE.  Robins in the snow.  Their cunieform feet imprint melting tales.

Friday, March 25, 2011


So?  So you’re higher up the food chain, the status ladder, the hierarchy.  What does it get you?  Bigger bananas?  More chimp sex?   A higher nest on the tree?  No, this is goes deeper than primates.  Probably to the reptile level if not lower.  It’s survival, baby.  Raw survival for you and yours.  It’s another one of those things that can’t be eliminated.  It goes too deep.  But it can be managed.
How do we manage the destructive aspect of the drive to dominate, to control, to eliminate the pecking order? Empathy would be a good start -- understanding how other people feel.  Moving away from leadership as “the last man standing” towards protection of the whole.  Thinking of the entire ecological web and the effect on it rather than encouraging -- romanticizing -- individual “desire.”  Salvation as participation in the grand design instead of personal achievement.  Dropping the idea that virtue leads to prosperity and vice versa -- although, truthfully, there is a pretty strong relationship.
Can stigma be eliminated?  The most dangerous dimension of it is the internalization of self-blame, guilt where there really IS no crime.  It marks the person so that others have permission to abuse, which deepens the stigma both in the victim and in society.  Once a girl has been raped, if she accepts self-blame, she attracts other rapists.  Once the boy has been beaten up, if he show signs of it, the bullies will flock to him.  What they sense is not their own strength, because they are not strong, but their own weakness which they try to address by the nonsensical and ineffective attack on the person in which they see their own weakness.
Well, la-de-dah.  How does that work out in real life?  Not so well.  That’s why we need “game” and alliances and fall-back positions and other niches other places.  After a few days of thought, it seems to me there are two ways to consider class/status/prosperity/success.   Even morality.  One way is what might be called “zero base.”  The other is based on comparison.
“Zero base” is whether you’re well enough situated to survive.  Enough to eat, enough shelter, and so on.  Then maybe (going up the Maslow pyramid) enough to afford your tools, so in my case enough to buy paper and printer toner and internet access.  And next, enough to afford what you’d like: travel, good books, a new toaster, a two-car garage.  (This is not my list, which is monotonous:  books, books, and books.) 
At about that level “zero base” considerations fall out.  Now we’re into comparison and that means class awareness, class yearning, class resentment, the imposition of stigma and force, and a host of less-than-virtuous feelings and actions.  (Less than virtuous because they are personally erosive.)  Class is not about how well things are going in a personal, specific, way but how well things are going compared to the others.  Usually those “others” are not on the broadest scale.  If you’re reading this, you probably are not at the lowest end, say, a skeletal woman with zombie eyes walking across the desert with her most recent baby dying in her arms because her breasts are no more than flaps of skin.  At that end survival is ebbing.
Nor do most of us worry about whether we are beautiful as Liz Taylor, gifted as Richard Burton.  We define our “class” or the one we’d like to belong to, and then compare ourselves to that.  (“Is my butt bigger than x’s?”  “Is my ranch better managed than my neighbor’s?” )  But it makes a huge difference how much we know about others.  This is where the gradient factor kicks in and today we are exposed to gradients more than ever before, both because we travel so much and because we’re constantly exposed to images of others.
California computer millionaire moves to rural Montana and puts up an enormous house.  That’s one thing.  Seattle small-businessman who’s done pretty well moves to Valier and throws his weight around.  That’s another thing.   Blackfeet full-blood gets a grant to visit Bulgaria and comes back chastened by visiting a respected elder professor who lives in a one-room stone cottage with a hook on the wall for his Sunday suit and a bed built into the corner because there is only wood enough for one leg -- the other corners attach to the walls.   There is one hen who lays one egg which is given to the guest.
We watch each other out of the corners of our eyes.  This IS primate stuff.  Is that other monkey getting grapes when I’m being stuck with only a slice of cucumber?  Much is eye-based, what you can see.  Presentation.  Facade.  Appearance.  Certainly sells stuff.  Great for the plastic surgeon, who has to defend his or her morality by saying they also do cleft-palate repair for toddlers or by finding studies that prove good-looking people make more money than ugly people.  (WHAT!!  THEY DO??  Is my nose too big?)  
Comparisons at some levels have become taboo.  The differences are too emotionally hot to be shared: sexual apparatus and practices, the true value of a rancher’s holdings, your actual IQ, whether your mother loved you.  (Well, after the level necessary for your survival, obviously.)  When we began to deal with Colonel Harvey in Calgary, we remarked to someone that we’d never heard of him.  They said,  “He’s so rich he can afford to be anonymous.”  In some ways that’s better than being rich enough to do what you want to do without people interfering, but maybe no one is ever that rich.
So what is the what of class status?  First, do you have enough moxie and clout to survive in the basic sense: food, shelter, etc.?  If not, you’d better figure out what to do about it, if only appeal for help.
Second, it’s all a game to play your markers and see where you go.  Your real, personal, intrinsic soul-value has nothing to do with it.

Third, sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield -- that is, you can’t control everything and should cheerfully take your losses in this game.  The great temptation is to destroy all competitors and that’s where we get into trouble.  Dictators, school shooters, tattletales and back-biters, meddlers and -- let’s be honest -- do-gooders.  Why?  Because they are often proselytizers trying to pull you into their world view because that world view gives them a one-up on you while giving what they do a moral spin.  Morality, like prosperity, is a matter of comparison.  Zero-based or comparative.   Is it your way to be a teetotaler because it’s good for your own health or does it make you “better” than drinkers?  Morality, of course, is the lever for stigma which justifies holding the others down.
Holding others down is a self-destructive class strategy.  Ask those dictators now being thrown out by people who see the rest of the world for the first time and don't like the comparison.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


The present foundation of Anerican class structure both is and is not similar to that of the British Empire which has given rise to so many good tales because Brit class offers so many social precipices to fall over.  Someone asked in a recent review why there were no good tales of American class structure and asserted that “class” was certainly there.  There has been a taboo on admitting it, but more than that, it’s changing so quickly it’s hard to bring to consciousness.  And our fault lines are likely to tangle with each other.
The first new schism is between those who are computer-savvy and those who are not.  They live in quite different worlds.  
The second is between people in high population density places and those in low population places.  Urban versus rural are subsets --  there are sharp differences between a city in a high density place or a rural area in a high density place with the urban and rural in low density places.  Often this is a matter of ecology, which throws in another variable for the construction of subsets, though in truth ecology and history are what originally create low population density as compared with high population density.  Montana versus Connecticut.
A third schism might be those who are xenophobic versus those who are at least international and possibly accepting of human difference in a Star Trek uber-anthropologist manner.  I call racism a xenophobia.  Maybe all stigmas, which amount to a rejection of the humanness of others are xenophobia.  
A fourth break is probably moral differences, by which I mean method more than content, particularly sexual.  Some folks are phobic of anything their parents didn’t do (in some cases, barely enough to produce children) and at the other end of this continuum people who have had the opportunity and energy to explore the farthest reaches of experimental subculture, thus becoming foreign to their own parents.  Possibly to themselves.  In between are a lot of people watching cable television with their mouths hanging open, hoping that no one finds out.  While on YouTube (I just discovered by reading a high-end publishing blog post that referred to this vid), people frankly watch a “monkey fucking a frog” -- though it was really a juvenile chimp masturbating with a toad -- as though they were three-year-olds.  What class is THAT?  And how patronizing am I?  Is that because I’m “higher class?”
Another factor (I think we’re up to five now) might be religion: those who accept a pre-determined system and rationalize it or compartmentalize it or reject it as best they can, versus those at the other end of the spectrum (movement along the spectrum often being experienced in terms of conversions or break-downs) who want to be amorphously and shiveringly “spiritual.”  
Sixth I would put science, though these elements are not arranged hierarchically.  I mean, this is not sixth in terms of importance.  And maybe seventh is the concept of “learned professions” as a class distinction.  (Not the idea that cosmetologists should look “professional,” for God’s sake!.)  Education is also best considered through method rather than content -- there is a huge gap between those who still think education should be industrialized: a matter of facts, obedience and punctuality.  The paradigm shift this time has gone so deep that university divisions, disciplines and departments are thrown to the curb.  I see this paradigm shift itself has become my marker of "high class."  Hmmmm.
The writer who wishes to consider “class” in America must then choose a domain, preferably one they know well enough to convey the material culture, the emotional assumptions (“A person I love will know what I think and if they love me they will do what I want.”) and the pitfalls and triumphs of the specific sexual (um) “positions.”  Consider the influence of all these class schisms on something like prostitution.  A “low class” person might be an old-fat-dirty-infected-female street creature who performs next to a dumpster with a customer who only understands friction and domination.  A really high class provider might not even be female, probably is in a megacity or a high-end resort, someone found only through networks, with a material culture that includes very sophisticated objects (how ever you want to define them -- decorations or implements).  Such a person might marry royalty.  Has.  Why do the Brit movies know so much about this?  They’ve been dealing with class for a long time, dahling.  And consider what running an empire can do for your experience level.
One of the domains of great usefulness in the UK but maybe less so in America is that of crime.  Political and financial crimes are easily forgiven in both places (one of the markers of class) but what do you do with J. Edgar Hoover in a fancy dress except comedy?  The American idea of comedy is generally at the level of frat boy flatulent slapstick, which the Brits also do better.  Not that I like it at all.  (I’m too classy.   But not particularly coherent, maybe.)
In my life I’ve been a clumsy player on the social staircases, which means I’ve accumulated a lot more observations than those who glide easily upward.  It’s not a matter of having no ambition.  Rather it’s an internal gridlock between my Scots diligence heritage and my Irish go-to-hell attitude.  On the one hand I want the time to virtuously sit reading worthy material.  On the other hand my attitude is that it’s far better to get out into the world and sashay around.  But no danger please.  This inner opposition of forces is one of the things Tim and share, except that he has Dutch where I have Scotch, and he accepts deadly danger.  When writing about American social class, unless you’re writing about Native Americans, the shadowy influences of pre-immigrant days are still in play.  (Don’t think Indians are all alike -- there is enormous variation from one place to another.)
Money is a lubricant, but probably overrated, particularly if it is hoarded, which is the same as not having it.  The intriguing thing about the stories of the Edwardian gentry who married American “buccaneers” for their inherited industrialist fortunes is that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.  Sometimes the women understood the terms, but only rarely did the men understand whether the women understood the terms -- so it became “don’t ask, don’t tell” until the terrorism set in.  Probably the American end has not been well enough explored despite Edith Wharton.
In the end writing about class well depends -- as always -- on the skill with which it is done, the clarity and meaningfulness.  Even the usefulness in our own lives.  It should “ring true” whether or not the facts are exact.  The important word is small:  “so?”  A good novel answers that question.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


“Gosford Park” was beloved by many people and so myself and many others are delighted to have a sort of continuation in the series called “Downton Abbey” by the same author, Julian Fellowes.  The time is the decade or so is earlier, just after 1900, a time of held breath, of climax culture of a sort, a balance point in a world about to go mad.
My mother-in-law, Ellison Westgarth Macfie Scriver, was born on September 4, 1887, in Clarenceville, Quebec, which makes her about the same age as the girls in “Downton Abbey.”  Her mother’s cousin was a Lady and the Macfies had a great house in Scotland.  To all accounts, Wessie’s mother was very much like the dueling dowagers in the tale, except not so willowy -- built rather more like Queen Victoria.  To put this in perspective for Paul, who just visited Wounded Knee, that massacre is dated 1890.  To put it in the perspective of “Downton Abbey,” there was no Macfie on the Titanic (the sinking of that great ship is the first event in the plot) but there was a lady who later married a Macfie.  She went into a lifeboat and spent that devastating night rowing in the darkness alongside her lady’s maid, not knowing which direction they were going and without any destination.  A LIFE boat, you know.  Fellowes has been engaged to write a new Titanic series.  
Walter McClintock came to the Blackfeet country in 1896.  One looks at his photos without being able to comprehend the industrialization that was changing whole continents of lives.  Steam engines on the railroads and rivers, electricity in the houses, automobiles replacing horses -- all pulling us into different, previously unknown, configurations of thought and life.  But possibly all of them repetitions of the insoluble problems of “place” and pecking order.  What are the trustworthy sources of authority?  What is the measure of a “good” man?
“Downton Abbey” tries (and succeeds) in showing several good men, each in their own way and level of class.  The “master” is a fair one, the “butler” is a diligent one, the “new man” -- a lawyer -- is an earnest man.  Is this big pile of a house worth their efforts to save it?  Well, the present real-time owner -- a very pretty blonde -- seems to think so.  She says it is a “masculine” house, a trophy house, so full of paneling that it’s hard to hang wallpaper.  I admired the many doors that opened directly onto verandahs.  Knowing the reputation of English climate, I expect that when the sun finally gets warm, one wants to fling open those doors and burst out to walk on the lawns.
What is a “good” man now?  What is a grand house?  What is the relationship between city and country on a continent as vast as America -- not a island so small as England where the indigenous people were quelled years ago?  What are the markers of success in a world where one vital resource after another blows up, one political arrangement after another turns terrorist, one aspect of the humanities after another collapses, and no one knows quite what ought to be taught in the schools?  If 1914 turned the world upside down, what will 2014 do?  I’m surprised to probably be here to find out, but in the meantime I’m hoping to pick up survival tips from these tales.
The people DO have consciences and make choices according to them.  Mostly, those who do bad things are repentant.   (O’Brien leaves the soap where it can be slipped on, Mary allows the passionate advances of a exotic man with a literally bad heart, Edith -- oh, poor Edith.)  But after reading the comments by viewers, I think the person who caught the problem with this elegant tale was the one who noted that Robert Altman,  with his hustle and random mess, was an excellent balance for Julian Fellowes, who really is a bit soft on the aristocracy country lifestyle and admits it.  This director was a little too respectful.  Middle class?
The sharp notes are struck by the women, not the rather clueless daughters, but the older women.  Maggie Smith and Jessica Brown-Findlay are evenly matched (would you have guessed ANYONE could spar with Maggie Smith?) rather as were Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins in “Gosford Park.”  Much of the best dialogue goes to them.  But Elizabeth McGovern with her triangular eyes and dimply mouth can pitch a wicked line with a hook in it just as well as any of the above.  Her American point of view is just as elitist as their Brit hierarchy and far more self-aware.
The unsinkable Titanic is as good an example of industrial hubris as the perfectly safe nuclear reactors in Japan, the carefully safeguarded BP oil well platform, and the effective dike system that protected New Orleans.  War both drives and derives from change, with industrialization making as much trouble as digitalization.  The new season of “Downton Abbey” will show the stately house converted into a hospital for soldiers who have somehow managed to escape the WWI trenches alive. Somehow that seems to be a lesser tragedy to the English, or at least a more dignified one, than conflict-driven immigration from parts of the Empire never expected to come to England, though when those brown people lived in proper colonies, managing them was a way to get ahead.
My mother-in-law rather felt she was living in a colony.  After a few decades that feeling wore off -- I think maybe it was WWII that made more of an American nationalist of her.  Bob was born at the beginning of WWI while she was still longing for Quebec.  Browning was pretty raw early in the century but by WWII people were sort of finding their feet.  Even today there is still a sense of aristocracies  -- not one system, but several that intersect and contradict each other, according to one’s sense of what the criteria are.  The Blackfeet in white beaded buckskin parade outfits, the ones who constantly went back to Washington, D.C., are one system.  The earliest white people, mercantilists, have not fared so well, except for the ones with children who intermarried with the “brown” people and then went on to succeed in professions.  But there were always a lot of people who paid little attention to hierarchies, they just went on rowing side-by-side in the life boat.