Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Ham Smith, my cousin’s husband, sent me the book above, a big fat one, the first in a series by Steven Moore.  I loved the image on the dust cover and I figured he sent it to me because of that, since both my cousin and I have red hair and our families made a fuss about it, partly because it was “emergent” red hair -- none of our parent or grandparent generation are red-headed, but our great-grandfather Archibald was, along with the legendary temperament.  Recessive genes will eventually out.

The painting is by Jean-Jacques Henner and is called “La Leseuse.” (1880-90).  When I looked him up, I finally discovered who had painted the original of a little print I’ve had for fifty years.   I’m not sure Ham knew that I had it.  The glass on the front broke and I’ve put it aside until I could replace it.  This one is called “Solitude.”

Normally it hung in the bathroom.  I put my nudes in there.  And I keep a big book in there for the intimate intervals.  I’d just finished Peter Gay’s “Education of the Senses” and needed another big book to replace it.  By the time I’d read a few pages I was thrilled to realize that I’d found another book as insightful and delightful as Gay’s much appreciated re-framing of the 18th century English convictions that continue to plague us so with their bourgeois pretensions and convictions, their hierarchies and aversion to change.  The received wisdom about novels has been as pedantic and self-serving as our received wisdom about sex.

I’d read only a few pages when I began to wish for a high-lighter.  Then a page or so later I realized I was lucky there was no high-lighter in the bathroom because I’d be highlighting everything!  It’s a genuine paradigm shift, a defense of outliers that moves the high ground out from under the feet of the smug establishment.  The sub-title is “An Alternative History” and is it ever!

Religion has been a victim of rigid, hierarchical, dogmatic way of thinking that came out of the desert trinity of Judaism/Christianity/Islam, hinging everything on the nature of the “chief” of the tribe and enforcing its edicts with threats of torture.  But in some circles it has surrendered to the new evidence of genome, molecule and cosmos to re-envision the world as a place of infinite interacting forces, always in motion, rippling and bubbling with every tiny flick of the butterfly.  Now Moore points out that novels are the same: just another name for story.  This volume is about the beginnings to 1600.   A second is intended.  It will get harder as the history becomes  less winnowed by time.

I’m not even to the end of the introduction.  It goes VERY slowly to read material this rich and, of course, I did rush to the computer to google up some articles and biographies.  Moore can actually explain William T. Vollmann -- well, point out things that are very helpful since probably no one can explain Vollmann.  (That’s in an article, not this book.)  Moore is undeterred by flim-flam about what is reality and what is fiction and what is made up and all that nonsense.  Nor does he veer away from the ugly and overwhelming.  He is global in terms of nationality and period.  (My mother’s all-time favorite book, “The Tales of Genji,” is one he likes as well and I guess I’d better nab me a copy and read it.  I guess I’m grown up enough now to find out what her secret life was like.)  And he despises that tangle of barbed wire called “post-colonial, post-structural, etc. etc.  that forced us all into such ungraceful postures for a while.  (It’s not that the ideas were wrong -- they were just so unfortunately presented.  It was the attitude.)

So far, Moore is offering other people’s definitions of what a novel “is.”
E.M. Forster:  “any fictitious work over 50,000 words.”
Jane Smiley:  “A novel is a (1) lengthy (2) written (3) prose (4) narrative with a (5) protagonist.”
Moore himself (augmented by a quote from Calvino):  “A prose composition longer than a short story, either fictitious in content or in its treatment of historical events, ‘worked out with an eye toward a strategy of effects.’”
Jane Austen:  “Work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

Extending that along the lines begun, my guess is that the future of the novel is already embodied in “graphic novels” (which he points out was a Mayan form of novel!)  and cross-media narratives so long as they are coherent and evocative.  He figures coherence is something the reader achieves, not a pre-determined given.

I particularly like the copy on one of the end flaps of the dust jacket.  Moore is described as “pugnacious.”  (I think I’m related.  Possibly he once had red hair.)  One never knows who writes flap copy (sometimes they haven’t read the book), but this is what the person said:  “Though Moore regards literary novels primarily as ‘performances’ -- authorial chapters of style and technique -- he does not neglect their value as cultural criticism.  For the history of the novel is also the history of the rivalry between secular literature and sacred scripture.  Indeed, Moore holds that the “secular scriptures” of literature provide a better guide to life than the sacred scriptures (fictions of a different sort).”  That’s why people are always dragging in morality.

This fits exactly with the “Five Percent” book explaining that people who get stuck in one version of reality become troublemakers because they try to force everyone into their template.  If they succeed, they have murdered, because when they prevent growth (which is change) and punish outliers (who can save us all), they have killed time and existence themselves.  This is the crux of the dilemmas of small towns, reservations, nations, families, and seminaries -- that they experience everything -- except what they already know -- as some kind of assassin’s plot.  Only when that confining assumption is broken open like an egg can the story continue.

I think I’ll revisit “story theology.”  It was sort of stuck -- maybe some of this stuff can renew it.  Who knows what recessive genes might be waiting, nude, for either a lover or a book.

Monday, May 30, 2011

AVENUE MONTAIGNE: Review and Reflection

The lead “citizen” review for “Avenue Montaigne” says:   “This is very glossy mainstream French stuff; could do well with the older US art-house crowd,”  Chris Knipp    Well, that’s ME!  Though admittedly it’s a hard identity to maintain in Valier.  Thank goodness for Netflix!  (I often look up the critics -- be warned.  This one is a very rarified and sophisticated print maker in San Francisco, so he knows his art houses.)

Avenue Montaigne” has a totally different title in France. (It’s a French movie.)  Never mind.  You won’t need the French version here.  Actually it’s a Leslie Caron gamine movie, nearly a musical except for not so much dancing.  If Leslie Caron sang, this would be a Leslie Caron movie.  Or maybe Audrey Hepburn, though she’s not quite so bouyant.   Cecile de France has the key part.  One reviewer says she looks like Jean Seberg, but I was thinking of that little sprite who played Peter Pan -- the one who had a bad eye.   Sandy . . .?  You could also call this an Eiffel Tower movie, if you think of that structure encrusted with twinkling lights, like an expensive store at Christmas.

The plot is three-pronged and interwoven around the theme of people who are at the top of their game to the naked cultural eye, but who actually crave something different, something more, mostly because they ARE at the top of their game.  Such feelings are not controllable by outside forces, but -- one might say -- come from the heart.  An aging art collector is selling his fine collection (you’ll recognize them), the concert pianist wants to play for plain citizens, and the comedy actress is ready to get serious.  “Jessica” wanders among them wide-eyed.

It’s real and it’s not.  Who cares?  The sets are beautiful, the repartée is fast and funny, the people are appealing.  I do not know whether French directors have to pander to producers as much as they do in the USA, but if they do, the producers appear to have much better educations as well as much higher expectations of their audience.  I just watched “Earthsea” over again with the director’s voice-over on, and was even more determined to warn everyone away.  This guy, asked by the Sci-Fi channel to direct a delicate, informed, Jungian, philosophical fantasy instead refers to Errol Flynn with dragons, which he thinks are animals.  And male.  He can't tell Ariadne's thread from Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs.  Clearly, he didn’t bother to read the books.  As if it would have mattered to him.  He’s only about himself.

There’s more magic in the glass box of a cafe where Jessica works for a week or so, couch-surfing through the lives of the charming and driven.  Since this is a French film, all the women are slender and intelligent and all the men are scruffy and full of angst. 

The world of arts is a world of performers, who are always a bit different onstage than they are in real life, where they are often tired.  This film recognizes the people who surround and support performers, whether they are mistresses or waitresses.  Churches are not so different, nor are universities. 

One of the key characters is “Claudie” played by “Dani.”  (Investigating her, I find “Pigalle, la nuit”, a current French series and that led to plain “Pigalle” a dark movie from 1994.  The first is not on Netflix but the second is.)   Claudie is a “concierge” which means she fills in everywhere, knows everything, sweeps the stage, takes in the lost and bruised, gives foot massages.  With her scarlet hair, startling eyes, and buck teeth she reminds us that the backstage people are often more interesting than the stars.  But she has wanted to be a singer and is never without her iPod, lustily singing along with her favorites.  I think I’ll take her for a role model.  Without the iPod.  Well, maybe if it had a lot of opera mp3’s on it.

The truth is that a film is not the same from one person to another and isn’t meant to be.  Maybe to one person it is an expansion of the world, to another it’s ideas for the future, and to a third it’s just escapism.  Trivial, light-hearted stuff can strike home to the open heart.  Listening to my circle of constant readers, I notice that they choose books the same way most people choose movies:  they listen to friend recommendations, feel popularity is a good sign, don’t much read reviews.  But I enjoy a far more solitary and exotic sort of venture, lily-padding through the electronic resources, following names of actors or directors, staying well clear of the mainstream, being grateful that subtitles are so much more clearer to read than they used to be (all those little yellow fonts), and hoping that someday, maybe, I will suddenly be able to understand French.

I think one reason I like dark, gloomy films is that they don’t talk very much.  When they do, it’s likely to be short sentences that are made perfectly obvious by what’s happening.  Avenue Montaigne is an exception, but I loved that they went back and forth between languages sometimes.  Sydney Pollack only ventured a little way into French.  His performance was not a “stretch,” but casting was pretty much “le type.”

If you want to look for more films by this director, here is a list.  They’re all on Netflix.  I won’t watch the goofy one.  Putting in these titles will get you a list of movies the computer thinks are similar.   Their formula has a lot of trouble with me.  It keeps hopefully suggesting what was most popular last week in Great Falls -- mostly stuff about guys brain-damaged by high school football who have become superheros endangered by massive explosions -- possibly from their own rear ends.  I’m sure the director of “Earthsea” would love them.

La Reine Margot (romantic tragedy), The Mad Adventures of “Rabbi” Jacob (goofy),  Those Who Love me Can Take the Train (dark).   Change of Plans (comedy of manners).  Jet Lag (romantic predicament).  La Buche (most like Avenue Montaigne).

Sunday, May 29, 2011


“The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts” by Peter T. Coleman lives up to its title.  Don’t confuse it with other “Five Percent” books -- there are several.  Don’t confuse it with the 20/80 rule, which is about business:  twenty per cent of the effort/product should produce eighty percent of the profit.  And so on.  This not-very-long, not-very-hard-to-understand book is about the way the universe works, either in the micro or macro senses.  It is about how complexification gives rise to life by forming nodes or nexuses, little knots of forces, which are sometimes good and sometimes bad -- at least from the viewpoint of humans.

Take war for instance.  Please.  In fact, the driving force behind the book is the International Project on Conflict and Complexity.

“ICCCR’s International Project on Conflict and Complexity (IPCC) is an interdisciplinary consortium of peace and conflict scholars and practitioners from anthropology, psychology, international relations, physics, and complexity science, funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, working to generate new insights and methods for addressing difficult, unresolved issues in the areas of violence prevention, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace. It supports a variety of innovative, inter-disciplinary, scholar-practitioner activities.”
A lot of people produce this kind of statement -- all of them nicely sitting around the table being proudly credentialed.  What qualifies me for being any sort of expert or thinking I can judge what works or doesn’t?   Battle scars, that’s what. 

Beyond that, in 1957 when I took my first “Language and Thought” class from Dean Barnlund, a gentle man who tried to teach us discussion skills in spite of loud students who protested they were being confused on purpose, I thought I’d found the key to the universe.  Northwestern University School of Speech (now renamed and reorganized) was the first place where I ran into the contrast between those who MUST have simple rules in life (whether they are liberal or conservative, progressive or reactionary, black or white) and those who are always looking for the edges, the interactions, the gray areas -- maybe in order to find a force for potential growth.  Ecosystems are balanced and integrated.  One must go to the edge of the forest, where it abuts onto a meadow to find a place for creativity, where a living being can control its environment by ducking in and out of the shadows.

Originally I ordered this book because I want to rewrite my own manuscript that I call “Heartbreak Butte,” which is about the little hamlet upstream from Valier where I taught for two years (1989-91).  It’s a place that gets stuck in violence, prejudice, and intimidation.  Not many can survive there, but some do.  Even thrive.  That’s not necessarily a good thing, because they often want to prevent change. 

Not many will admit that one reason reservations have a hard time is because too many people (often white) are making big-time money off the vectors that prevent growth:  for instance, supplying alcohol and drugs.  The FBI secretly likes the romance of being the only real Big Time force for good on a frontier: THEY decide who gets prosecuted or even investigated for rape or murder.  But they are not part of the community, so formal retribution is always administered from outside.  Informal retribution lines up ancient schisms and current family wars in exactly the way this book identifies as paralyzing change.

My key motivator is an incident a few years ago when one of my former students was beaten to death by her drug cohort.  Everyone in town heard her screaming, everyone knew what was happening, and no one could think what to do about it -- so they decided she deserved it.  She herself thought that.

I sat down and made a list of what I would do.  It was highly relevant because I was in Portland where the FAS little girl next door to my mother had beaten her new puppy to death.  It began on the front porch as I was walking by and I tried to intervene, but the girl took her screaming pup into the house.  My mother begged me not to call the police or animal control (where I had worked) because the girl’s mother was so frighteningly violent. Even if she didn’t dare do anything to my aged mother (who was in her eighties) the woman would attack her own parents, also helplessly elderly.  My mother was afraid of her car being trashed, of her house being burned.  These were realistic concerns.  My list of what to do to intervene for the girl being beaten in Heart Butte was similarly drastic:  ram the house with a pickup, set the house on fire and call the fire department which would undoubtedly claim that the truck wouldn’t start for some mysterious reason.  I rejected guns out of hand.

So why didn’t I do something for this girl while she was in my class?  Why didn’t I teach her something that would change her idea of who she was?  Her grandfather, with whom she lived, had been described by his real name in a book as a drunk and troublemaker.   Just writing this much here will cause people to recognize whom I mean.

There are at least a hundred factors holding the status quo in place.  One of them this year may be a repeat of the flood that wiped out the hamlet in 1964.  Another may be the growth in population, the housing projects which were built where powerful people would benefit from them -- on flood plains.  Reservation construction does not have to meet state construction standards.

But other factors push for change: a functioning store, a medical clinic, strong churches who bring in outsiders every summer.  The schools are up high, out of the flood plain, big enough to be shelters.

When I became a minister (1982), it was in large part because I’d been to Leadership School where a big component was organizational design.   The kind of Div School education I had was very much focused on complex systems, which is what distinguishes a university from a small Bible college where one is taught The True Way -- no argument.  People sort themselves out when they attend such institutions or join denominations or even buy homes where jobs are.  Small towns are congenial for people who want stability and rule-based living.  Cities appeal to those who can adapt, transform, move through the interstices. 

Make no mistake -- I’m “with” the latter.  I just choose to live here.  But the prairie only seems to be a simple place.  Where it is untouched the sod is complex with interwoven beings.  That cannot be said for the zillion square miles of monoculture grain in straight rows.  Nor for the white whirring pillars of the windfarms.  We don’t know what the consequences of that will be.

BUT, this book illustrates, simplicity may be a force for good, may SAVE complexities.  Just so we keep the flow moving and the flood gates working.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


My cousins and I are enamored of haute couture, though we are nothing like the scarecrows who have lost their straw, the narrow-as-an-arrow models.  For us, who are rather more like the ladies who sit quietly at tables hand-sewing beads and sequins, there’s considerable fascination in these women (and men) young enough to be our grandchildren, but not much identification.  We are women who grew up sewing.

I once read about a singer or actress -- can’t remember which -- on tour in South America with a companion, possibly a sister.  The performer had one beautifully made black dress.  As they traveled by train from one performance to the next, the companion -- who was equipped with a tin of sequins, would rip out the sequins she had sewn into a pattern on the dress, and sew on a new one.  Sometimes a beaded bodice, sometimes sprays of flowers over the shoulders, sometimes strict lines down the skirt.  It is the elaboration in the face of restrictions that is rewarding.

Our ancestors, only one generation back, were homesteaders and did something very similar.  Instead of buying a new dress, they bought a collar or a new set of buttons.  My Aunt Elsie was particularly clever at coping with growth or a shortage of material by adding insets or a fancy cuff.  My cousin Jeannie created a fabulous wedding dress for her niece by adding to a legacy dress a lace overskirt, embroidering it with beads which took her months.  I’m not so up-close clever as the others, because my original training was largely as a theatre costumer and because my temperament is much more impatient than theirs and because I have almost no manual dexterity.  But I have more attitude.

We are all gay-friendly, but not gay, and my cousins’ husbands are standard heterosexual husbands, rather conservative.  But then, they’re not into haute couture like “we gals” are.  (I’m the only non-mom.)  We ransack Netflix for movies about designers.  I love fashion mags (when they aren’t fashion for pre-teens) and Jeannie clerked at Mother Goose in Portland, which sells fine art artisan clothing.  None of us is safe in a fabric shop.  I still have drawers of fabric uncut and boxes of clever buttons.  I can draft patterns but would rather not.

Anyway, this is about “Lagerfeld Confidential,” a portrait of the man who (after working with Balmain) redeemed the House of Chanel.  (Also, later, Fendi and Chloé.  I used to wear Chloé perfume.  It was the only thing that fit.)  The movie is wonderful, a prize-winner.  It begins with Lagerfeld’s book-piled bedroom, which also would fit me.  One of those creamy paneled French rooms with high windows and curvy marble mantels with a giant gilt-framed mirror over it.  On the mantel was an array of iPod versions.   I expect by now they are replaced or joined by iPads.  Everything fabric was white.  There were puzzling (to me) sort of dome-things that I think might be speakers.  Fashion seems to demand music.

It turns out that Lagerfeld has a secondary skill beyond fashion design, which is photography.  His Nikon is equipped with a little unit on top that sends the images to a computer as the photos are taken.  Instant feedback.  But it makes his camera so heavy that an assistant has to act as a sort of tripod/prop.  For outdoor shoots, someone must carry the laptop where the images are scrutinized.  When one adds the people who maintain the models (ordinarily the photos are of models and destined for advertising), there is quite a crowd.  One of those people is a producer who must solve little problems like curious police arriving to see what is happening, possibly blocking traffic or without proper permits. 

But Lagerfeld’s real image work is himself.  As a young man, he was sensual and lithe in that full-lipped, curly-haired way that Caravaggio liked.  Then the good life blew him up like a balloon, which met the onset of middle age.  He went on what he called a “3-D Diet,” wrote a best-selling book about it, and reinvented his whole look, which is now so severe and yet ornamented that it verges on S/M: leather with metal embellishment, hands either heavy with silver rings or in gloves with cut-outs (occasionally red), hair always the same length and in a ponytail -- since it is white now he uses powder dry shampoo to keep it always white.  His hair is naturally curly, which he dislikes.  He wears a good deal of makeup, esp when on TV or on stage.  He wears boots like a storm-trooper or a biker, I suspect because he’s a little short.  He’s also a little bow-legged and I wonder whether he suffered from rickets as a child.

This tough guy flies with a flat pillow over his stomach, which was made for him by his nanny when he was so young it had a choo-choo train appliqued on it (now removed) and now it’s so battered that he made a soft case for it.  He cannot fly without it.  The shots on the inside of the business-class jet, esp. the ones in the cockpit, are among the most spectacular in the film.

The core of his personality seems to be his mother, who was a little like Aad’s “scorpionic” mother and a little like Chanel herself.  That is, she was very strong and insisted on self-reliance but never removed her attention and judgment.  There are shots of the child Lagerfeld playing in the surf, a beautiful small sprite, but what his mother responded to was achievement and toughness.  When he complained to her that men had tried to molest him, her response was, “Well, look at you!  You’re inviting it!  Take control of the situation!”  (Not the modern liberal response that demands that the whole world be made safe for them to do as they please.)  When he told her at the onset of adolescence that he had realized he was gay, she said, “Well, that’s okay.  Everyone is something.  Nothing wrong with it.”  He was soon experimenting.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933 (he says 1938), he lived through some very dangerous and tough times and has now assumed a protective image that he has nearly become.  But it takes energy.  He needs a lot of solitary time.  If I don’t stop watching videos about him, I won’t get this post finished!  So if he intrigues you, here are two interesting examples that will tell you a lot more.  (I despise Viceland, but made an exception.)  This is a “world,” a construct.  Androgenous, seductive, expensive, druggy, against vulnerability.  Not really about clothes.



Friday, May 27, 2011


Ursula Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon, which means that during my life there I’ve run across her in person now and then.  She is small and has been gray for a while, so she can blend into the surroundings pretty well.  Her books have been a mainstay of mine for a very long time, but I’ve been afraid to watch “Earthsea” the movie.  I used to tease my mother for her refusal to watch beloved movies from the past because they would look awkward and old-fashioned by modern standards and spoil the magic, but something similar is the case with this tale.

In fact, this made for TV in 2004 movie is far more low-budget than “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” but bungles the Jungian approach and ancient myths.  At least the main set -- the San Juan Islands were there and indestructible.  The IMDB.com reviews are scathing attacks.  The best part of the whole thing is that it’s so bad that someday someone will make it again and do the job properly.   It's doesn't interfere with one's imagined Earthsea, because there's no relationship.

I think the real truth is that the world does not have an English speaking culture that CAN produce this story.  It is deeply anthropological, naturally, given that her family is rooted in that context.  But the insensitivity of this version -- things like Ged’s original wizard-tutor, Danny Glover, having a name that is pronounced much like “OJ” -- are close to malicious.  Robert Lieberman is a Canadian director of commercials who has done a lot of youth programs.  All this certainly shows, plus the suspicion that he doesn’t have a strong liberal arts background.  He appears to be part of the Lucas crowd, which rather explains how Star Wars keeps sneaking in.  Since Kevin Brown, a black actor with whom Lieberman had worked, was said by Lieberman to have helped with the script, it’s hard to know why all the black or brown characters have been bleached, except for sales purposes.

What I’m really saying that it probably didn’t matter how good the writing and direction was -- probably the producers had them by the throat and producers are quality killers, neither balls nor brains.  Certainly not what it would take to create a true Le Guin tale.  (She confides calmly in a YouTube vid that she has balls.)

Most of the set dressing seems to be a matter of  great clusters of candles (mostly beeswax pillar candles -- very popular now, particularly if something is intimate (bedroom, bathroom) or medieval.  Having used that many candles myself once, I’m glad they were outside in wet country. 

Isabella Rossellini and Danny Glover were fine and I suspect their names were important in getting even this low budget version made.  Rossellini has that Ingrid Bergman echo of saints and nuns.  Glover is the familiar black-man-as-conscience figure.  But the imdb critics are right: most of the rest of the actors are beginners who slur and slip their lines, such as they are.

“A Wizard of Earthsea,” the series, began to be published in 1968, so those who see the derivatives should know that the ideas came FROM, not TO “Earthsea”.  In fact, it’s not so much a series of books as it is an invented world context that Le Guin uses for a whole set of books, like Faulkner or Steinbeck.  More than just a description of the San Juan Islands, it is a web of cultural assumptions that might naturally have developed in such a setting.  There is a later animated version that Studio Gibhli, a major Japanese company, created and a BBC radio version narrated by Judi Dench.  They say Le Guin disliked both movies.  The radio version sounds more promising.

The main trouble with this TV version is that in spite of a few CGI tricks, they can’t handle the half-here/half-there shadowy, misty quality of the Pacific Northwest itself or the story.  Everything is made too explicit and familiar.  I miss the little creature who lived in Ged’s hood (maybe it turned into the kinkajou by the bedside of the villain) or the shadow that slipped around in corners, always seen out of the corner of the eye, always watching.  (I can’t check some of this because I sent my basic set of Earthsea books to someone who was in emotional trouble in hopes that it would help them.  The tales have a strong element of consolation.)

I had imagined that Le Guin knew Ishi (you know, of course, that he was the last of the California Indians and was taken in by the Kroebers, her parents, in an awkward mix of friendship and study) and maybe played with him.  But she wasn’t born until after Ishi died.  It’s worth going to her website.  http://www.ursulakleguin.com/UKL_info.html.  But for a short insight into what went wrong with the TV “Earthsea,” the below is invaluable.

Ursula K Le Guin  chose 
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) as the Sci-Fi writers who influenced her most.

You can't write science fiction well if you haven't read it, though not all who try to write it know this. But nor can you write it well if you haven't read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup. Useful models may be found quite outside the genre. I learned a lot from reading the ever-subversive Virginia Woolf.

I was 17 when I read Orlando. It was half-revelation, half-confusion to me at that age, but one thing was clear: that she imagined a society vastly different from our own, an exotic world, and brought it dramatically alive. I'm thinking of the Elizabethan scenes, the winter when the Thames froze over. Reading, I was there, saw the bonfires blazing in the ice, felt the marvellous strangeness of that moment 500 years ago – the authentic thrill of being taken absolutely elsewhere.

How did she do it? By precise, specific descriptive details, not heaped up and not explained: a vivid, telling imagery, highly selected, encouraging the reader's imagination to fill out the picture and see it luminous, complete.
In Flush, Woolf gets inside a dog's mind, that is, a non-human brain, an alien mentality – very science-fictional if you look at it that way. Again what I learned was the power of accurate, vivid, highly selected detail. I imagine Woolf looking down at the dog asleep beside the ratty armchair she wrote in and thinking what are your dreams? and listening . . . sniffing the wind . . . after the rabbit, out on the hills, in the dog's timeless world.
Useful stuff, for those who like to see through eyes other than our own.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


The Western art season is heating up as people begin to travel, some of them actually visiting the West and others visiting the major institutions that exhibit Western art and artifacts, both Indian and other.  But you can also “visit” by cruising the web.  In fact, you’ll probably see more by looking at auction lists than by going onto the floor of a museum or gallery.

To become a player -- or just a gazer -- you’ll need deep pockets most of the time, but not always.  Then you’ll need a list of the auctions which appear in the Western art mags or on AskArt.com.  Or I subscribe to Art Daily at artdaily.org, which provides a daily overview of all kinds of art and the related scene.  In fact, that’s where I found this story about Sandzen.  You’ll remember that when I reviewed auction offering a few days ago, I skipped Sandzen.  He’s a little TOO Fauvist for me, though one of my most cherished pictures IS Fauvist, painted by Bob’s teacher Zoe Bieler at Dickinson College in North Dakota.  The name of the category comes from the “wild colors.”

The startling news today is the sale of a Sandzen painting for $262,900 at the Heritage Fine Art Auction.  Details from their website just below.  The website makes it possible to examine the signature up close as well as the back of the painting.  This information from the website. If you were wanting to look for similar paintings, you google things like “Fauvist” or “Taos” (VERY popular now) or “American Colorist.”  The auctions are less specialized than they used to be, branching out from “Western art.”  The MOST important thing about buying art is training your eye, which can only be done by looking and looking and looking, the same as the way to learn about writing is to read and read and read.  Thicken the brain cells, broaden the mind.

FIREFOX PREVENTED ME FROM ADDING ANY IMAGES.  You can see it at the link below.

10 internet/mail/phone bidders
1,868 page views

BIRGER SANDZÉN (American, 1871-1954)
Late Moon Rising (Wild Horse Creek), 1923
Oil on canvas
36-1/4 x 48-1/4 inches (92.1 x 122.6 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Birger Sandzén / 1923

Acquired from the artist by a former student, 1923;
Thence by descent.

This painting titled Late Moon Rising is an important motif of Wild Horse Creek, which ran through land owned by Birger Sandzén's in-laws near Bogue, Kansas. The creek provided an endless source of imagery for the artist and he once told his daughter Margaret, "Wild Horse Creek was a blessing to me and a lesson in simple construction - construction of earth, of ground itself - water, sandstone, hills and pasture."

Mr. Ron Michael
Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery
Estimate: $80,000 - $120,000.

Sandzén, Birger: An associate member of the Taos Society of Artists, Birger Sandzén was a Swedish artist famous for his vibrant landscape paintings of the American southwest. The son of a minister, Sandzén displayed an early artistic talent which was encouraged and cultivated by well-educated parents. His formal artistic training was completed in Europe, and in 1894 he immigrated to America where he had accepted a teaching position at Bethany College. For more than 52 years Sandzén was a professor of art history, drawing and painting in the small Kansas town of Lindsborg. He was a staunch advocate of the arts and worked within his community to organize art clubs, exhibitions, and lectures. Throughout his career, however, Sandzén’s own painting was relegated to late night sessions until 1945, when he retired from teaching in order to devote himself to painting full time. Sandzén’s early artistic style was heavily influenced by tonalism and Scandinavian Romanticism, but once he began spending his summers in the American southwest his palette exploded with color. He began visiting Taos in the summer of 1918 at the height of the artist colony. Four years later Sandzén was elected an associate member of the Taos Society of Artists. That same year, 1922, he exhibited with the group in New York where he also had a one-man exhibition at the Babcock Gallery. Sandzén's Fauvist palette and strong brushwork energize the landscapes for which he is best known. His thick impasto layers are reminiscent of Impressionism but tempered by a modernist execution. As with many of the Taos artists, Sandzén painted en plein air in order to work directly from nature and there is a resulting vibrancy and purity to his canvases. .

Condition Report*:
The following condition report was prepared by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This painting was removed from its original stretcher sometime in the last 25 - 30 years and mounted using a synthetic adhesive onto a fiberglass fabric, which in turn was mounted onto a stable piece of aluminum with a latticework of "honey comb" construction within. Effectively, there are two sheets of aluminum sandwiching this light weight, stable and technically reasonably appropriate surface. The paint layer is very lively and stable; the impasto is in beautiful state which for a picture of this scale is a major benefit. There do not appear to be any retouches and if desired, the painting can be hung as is.

DALLAS, TX.- Birger Sandzén's Late Moon Rising (Wild Horse Creek), 1923, brought a stunning $262,900 as the top lot in Heritage Auction's May 17 combined Signature® Fine American, European Art & Western Art sale, held May 17 at Heritage's Design District Annex at 1518 Slocum Street. The auction realized $2,597,907 total, with a sell-through rate of 71.7% by value. All prices include 19.5% Buyer's Premium.

"Prices realized across the board were solid," said Ed Beardsley, Managing Director of Heritage's Department of Fine Art. "We saw more than 750 bidders vying for 391 lots across three different categories. Interest was strong and the bids were there to back that interest up."

The $262,900 realized for Sandzén's Late Moon Rising (Wild Horse Creek) is the second highest price ever realized for the artist at auction.

"Sandzen's works are among the most highly desirable paintings on the market today, as evidenced by the fierce bidding we experienced for this breathtaking piece," said Kirsty Buchanan, Consignment Director for Heritage's Art of the American West department. "This painting is truly an iconic depiction of Wild Horse Creek, which ran through land owned by Sandzén's in-laws, near Bogue, Kansas, and provided an endless source of inspiration for the artist throughout his career."

A diverse trio of fine paintings, Eanger Irving Couse's haunting oil painting The Spirit of the Pool and Wilhlem Kuhnert's dramatic Zebras, 1912 and Guy Carleton Wiggins The Empire State Building, Winter, all booked a final price realized of $44,813.

Rounding out the auction's Top 10 are Birger Sandzén's Early Fall, Smoky River, 1927, and Lorser Feitelson's Bathers, 1923, both realizing $38,838.

This material is from: http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=47708

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


The twelve graduating seniors of Valier High School were featured on the Valierian and as usual I get all absorbed in looking at them.  Seven boys, five girls.  Moody, innocent, athletic, sultry, thoughtful.  I recognize most of the family names.  This is the second Jason Calf Robe I’ve seen go by.  The Mary Mittens I knew must have been three generations back in Thomasine Mittens’ genealogy.  These kids don’t look THAT different from the kids who have been graduating from around here for the last fifty years.  But I know they are different in ways you can’t see.

I wonder what music they listen to.  An article in the New York Times by David Hajou was talking about cohorts in music, taking off from Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday.  His premise was that a cohort forms from the music they hear when they are fourteen, so he lines up John Lennon, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, George Clinton, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.  The idea is that in 1955-56 rock ‘n roll erupted and changed those youngsters forever.  You sure couldn’t prove it by me.  I barely noticed Elvis Presley.  I don’t know half these people on this list even though I’m about their age.

But I certainly remember 1955-56.  I was a junior in high school, deep into dramatics, wound so tight emotionally that I ended up in storms of desperate weeping without any cause.  It was the year Hungary tried to break free and the US said,  “Do it!  We’ll back you!” and then we didn’t.  I woke up at 4AM to do my homework, because I was gone to rehearsals all evening.  I had the radio on low to monitor Hungary.  We had a two-bedroom house -- I slept in one and my two brothers shared the other.  My father traveled but when he was home, he and my mother slept on a fold-out couch downstairs.  She was going back to college and woke to study then.  My brother had a paper route and left the house.  On weekends we all slept until noon.

Fourteen is when one’s key mammal brain starts to be overgrown by the human layer of brain, the part that has empathy and demands justice.  It’s an age when one can envision non-existence and want it and know how to make it happen.  It’s the front edge of falling in love -- may you never fall out -- but you do.  Still, hormones rule -- you can smell the result.  People change, esp. boys so that they barely look the same and their long bones grow inches in months.  I downloaded these checklists from the Internet.

Emotional and social
Concern about looks and clothes
Focus on self, going back and forth between high expectation and lack of confidence
Make more of their own choices about friends, sports and studying with their own personality and interests
Interest in and influence by peer group
Moodiness, may become short-tempered sometimes
May have anxiety from challenging school work
Some teens sometimes feel depressed
Easy to have eating problems

Express feeling through talking better
A stronger sense of right and wrong
Increasing ability for complex thought
Physical development
If a girl, completes growth spurt
If a boy, reaches peak and then completes growth spurt
If a boy, voice deepens
If a boy, adds muscle while body fat declines
May have had sexual intercourse
If a boy, motor performance increases dramatically

Cognitive development
Is likely to show formal operational reasoning on familiar tasks
Displays relativistic reasoning in familiar situations
Masters the components of formal operational reasoning in sequential order on different types of tasks
Becomes less self-conscious and self-focused
Becomes better at everyday planning and decision making
Evaluates vocational options in terms of interests, abilities, and values

Social and emotional development
Combines features of the self into an organized self-concept
Self-esteem differentiates further
Self-esteem tends to rise
Is likely to be searching for an identity
Is likely to engage in societal perspective taking
Is likely to have a conventional moral orientation
Gender stereotyping may decline
Has probably started dating
Conformity to peer pressure may decline

Language development
Can read and interpret adult literary works

What strikes me about these lists is that they are so “nice.”  Where’s the stuff about defiance of authority, craving sex, getting interested in forbidden behavior and substances, forming gangs and pairs?  Where’s the stuff about personality changes like temporary insanity, obsession, refusal to take basic hygiene measures like cutting nails or washing hair or else a refusal to ever come out of the shower where there is an array of scented personal products.

What easy marks for the advertising industry.  They are daytime burglars, drunks, carjackers.  Whores.  Dead bodies.  If you can survive fourteen, you’re probably going to be okay the rest of your life, but fourteen can also mark you for life.  In Europe fourteen is the beginning of legal adulthood.

It used to be that you could tell where the “fourteens” were by the seismic level of noise.  Now you don’t hear their music -- instead you see a strange hypnotized look on their faces and little wires from their earbuds.  The comic strip called “Zits” captures this phenomenon, usually combined with a capacity for mis-hearing and non-integration that’s close to what in a young child is called autism.

We used to keep baby animals of one kind or another and since their life-trajectory is shorter -- born in the spring, they had to be near-mature by fall -- we became sharply aware of the transformation that in humans is called adolescent or puberty.  Short of castration, there was no hope of persuading a little fox or bobcat that it should stay a baby.  Suddenly sexual, craving movement and freedom, hot-tempered and stinky, yesterday’s cuddler was suddenly declaring equality and maybe even dominance.  But there was always variation between animals.  One might take it mild and the next -- even a sibling -- become ferocious.

Humans are animals.  The same basic biology happens.  Culture has to deal with it.  Some do well and some either abandon the fourteens or so confine them that it becomes a kind of castration.  The worst thing to do, it seems to me, is to pretend and euphemize and lock out.  In the best of all worlds, high school carries a fourteen safely to eighteen, a young adult.

I feel fourteen myself.  The world feels fourteen.  Is the Middle East the new Hungary?  But this time we did help.  Some.  Our eighteens will have to finish the job.  And the fourteens.  And theirs.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Let’s play a little game.  Let’s go to the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction which is in Reno for historical reasons.  The gallery started in Coeur d’Alene and then sold out, leaving the name behind except for this auction in Reno.  Nowadays, with the auctions happening on the Internet, physical location matters less.  http://www.cdaartauction.com/current/  We aren’t really going, but we’ll pretend that we’re there by going to the website.  Here’s the game.  I’m going to pretend I have a zillion dollars so price is no object, and I’m going to “walk” through and tell you how I would spend my money.  
First I have to disqualify the Scriver bronze of a pack train because I was married to Bob Scriver and would naturally, out of loyalty if nothing else, buy that.  It’s a nice pack train and I’m sure it’s technically correct.  This looks like a later version of the original one that in the Fifties was commissioned by Red Harper for the Businessman’s Club, a “nice” saloon in Browning where you had to be buzzed in, though there was a window for less cleancut characters.  That packtrain version was behind the bar for many years and another casting of it was in a diorama in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.
I would also disqualify the Remington, though it’s a casting of the one in the White House Oval Office.  Even Obama gets his photo taken in front of it because the world associates it with America, but it’s really more of a G.W. Bush bronze.  Anyway, there are battalions of Remington bronze castings in the world: original, posthumous authorized, knock-off, really horrible imitations and so on.  Anyway, Remington was an Easterner.  I’ll pass.  
Even the Russell bronze, which is also familiar to those of us in the West, doesn’t appeal to me.  If I were buying a Russell from this auction, I’d buy the pen-and-ink “Magpie Surveying Indian Tipi Village”  which is witty, authentic, and doesn’t take up much room which is a plus since my house is full of books so hasn’t much wall space.  
Likewise, the little sketch for a large painting by Carl Rungius really appeals to me.  I always kind of like sketches more than big finished projects and the final painting was probably four or five feet on the side.  It would be interesting to find out where that painting is.  If the Glenbow in Calgary has been fulfilling it’s curatorial role, they should have a record.  Even small as this is, one can see the geometric nature of the mountains and Rungius’ characteristic X-composition.  The blue and gold palette is also there.  Bob Scriver would pounce on this because both he and Rungius loved mountain sheep beyond all the other big game animals.  Informed people now no longer speak of just Remington and Russell, but include Rungius in the “three Big R’s.”  This is partly because these days the West is seen much in terms of nature -- not just cowboys.
I’d linger over Harry Jackson’s “Pony Express” because I do love Harry and this is one of his outstanding works, but the subject matter is not all that appealing and there is a wagonload of politics connected to this whole subject.  I can’t tell you the whole thing, because all I can see is “ends” sticking out of the melee.  They aren't pretty.
I had never heard of Wilford Langdon Kihn until I saw this portrait of the Blackfeet Little Plume in his parade suit and Sioux headdress.  Its detailed and formal symmetry is remarkable and I’m sure it’s authentic.  I went to www.askart.com  where I was briefly distracted by another auction  http://www.littlejohnsauctionservice.com/index.html  I see there is an Ernie Burke bronze of a “Blackfoot Tracker” for sale.  When Bob started out, Burke and George Phippen were the only people doing bronzes of the same quality and subject matter.  But if I hopped to a different auction that would break the rules.  
Kihn was doing a kind of art related to “salvage anthropology” meaning that they had the idea Indians would soon be an extinct species and should be recorded for posterity.  Catlin was the first to capitalize on this.  Winold Reiss comes out of the same background as Kihn and has that same feel for pattern and decoration.
While I’m considering others, I’d grab the Maynard Dixon for sure.  “Sculptured Sandstone,” right on that edge between abstract and realistic that desert artists (like Georgia O’Keefe) come to.  This one has that formula for the “sublime” that C.S. Lewis said was the small land-holding up against raw and overwhelming nature.
I think I’d buy Paul Dyck’s “Warrior’s Horse.”  I love the dream-like quality of his work and I know that, though a person can’t see it here, it will be layered egg tempera glazes of European traditional skill.  (Yeah, Van Dyck was his ancestor.)  I always loved Paul Dyck anyway: short, fierce, focused.   Dyck, Jackson, Scriver are my Major Trinity.  I don’t exactly approve of people who buy art or books because of their creators and then try to wedge themselves into their creative lives, but I just happened into relationship with these atypical, unclassifiable, and renegade men -- Scriver the least renegade of the three.  (For reverse reasons, you’ll never catch me buying a Terpning painting.)
At one point Bob had managed to corner many of the giant Fery near-murals that hung in the Big Hotel in East Glacier and a lot of small Sharp sketches of the country around Browning.  I grieve that these didn’t go to someone who would keep them together.  Both are far more deserving of a place at the Montana Historical Society than the junk that sometimes accumulates there.  So I’d get the Fery “Elk in Glacier Park” but try not to look at the elk, which Fery always botched.  And Sharp’s “Summer Clouds, Taos Valley,” which is not that different from the north slope of the Rockies.
My two dearest “genres” are plein aire sketches (me and everyone else) and beautiful polished still-lifes of table settings (how corny can you get?) so I can’t resist Richard Schmidt’s “In the Studio.”   Who the heck is Gunnar Widforss?  Oh, I don’t care.  I want his “Mountain Landscape.”  

How many is that?  I don’t care about that either really.  I see a Wyeth but I don’t want it.  Where are the Russell Chatham paintings?  There are never Chatham paintings.  I suspect it’s because no one wants to auction theirs off, no matter how much they need money.  The really good Scrivers are not in auctions either.

Monday, May 23, 2011

THX 1138 versus BLADE RUNNER: Some Reflections

I ordered “THX 1138”  (1971) and “Blade Runner” (1982) to come at the same time without really knowing whether the two movies could be compared.  Lucas’ THX 1128 is plainly a precursor to “Star Wars” without CGI and “Blade Runner”, which is supposed to happen in 2019, is the reality that a lot of people know today: living in squats and eating Top Ramen noodles every meal.  But Ridley Scott was building on “Star Wars”, the most obvious reference being the casting of Harrison Ford.
One person’s dystopia is not like the next person’s except in one regard:  the issue will be how humans fit into it.  Not just “humans” but the individual human being.  Will there be imitation humans, more human than we are, or will humans be made into robots, much less than we are?  Will the environment be the crowded clutter of “Blade Runner” or the erased white surround of “THX”?  One of the dynamics is whether one’s imagination runs Apollonian (Platonically erased of all but the concept -- well, and some car chases and a little nudity so people will pay money to watch)  or Dionysian (film noir, cyber punk, bloody death, ambiguity, Joe Campbell).  Desert or coast?  Asia or Europe?  Super-controlled or out-of-control.
These movies are part of a trajectory of films about invented environments for archetypal tales, mostly rooted in urban or suburban America.  Ridley Scott, a Brit, brings a kind of Masterpiece Theatre skew (not the Austen/Shakespeare thread, but the mystery thread which is far darker over there) to literary sci-fi, if any BEM (bug-eyed-monsters) tales can be literary and why can’t they?  Isn’t the minotaur a BEM?   Thus “Aliens” (1979) instead of car chases.
What neither conceptualist quite grasped but that has become terrifyingly real is the modern BEM, a predator drone or a rocket-armed helicopter that can fly to your apartment balcony and annihilate everything.  The police in the sky are a commonplace in LA.  Lucas, in the first “Star Wars”, is one of the few to consider what devastation in a sparsely populated arid setting might be like, but that’s probably because he was drawing on the vision of Robert Heinlein’s “Red Planet Mars” which seems to echo American prairie homesteading, a surefire indicator of virtue and resourcefulness.  Or you could think of it as early Israel.  Or maybe a Western -- a column of smoke replacing home or wagon train.  I expect it echoes in Iraq or Pakistan.
Both these movies concentrate on individual human beings in their reflections on what it is to be vulnerable but purposeful in human terms: programmed and confined and yet fighting to follow their hearts.  They don’t give much attention to community, which has been a much neglected context in sci-fi unless one goes over into fantasy, which I think the third “Star Wars” does when it gets to the Ewoks, which were consciously designed to echo the early California tribes where Lucas’ ranch is: the primitive and childlike but resourceful.  When Ridley Scott considers government and, well, “civilization,”  he goes historical, like “Gladiator.”   But it is the old “Firefly” series that explores on-going community and relationship outside of romance.  It takes a lot longer than one movie.
Religion comes off badly in “THX” -- a dogmatic repetition of cliches that requires so little humanity that it can be taped and run in a loop in a sort of phone-booth chapel or is that supposed to be a confessional?  Probably.  Maybe it was about that time that “Eliza,” the counseling computer program, was in the news.  Some of the lines are from her repertoire.  The lie detector contraption in “Blade Runner” is another interface between person and machine, but it works the opposite way:  the mock confessional is sealed off from any possible empathy, but the lie detector says “I don’t care what your humanness is like, I know better, I see through your defenses.”  This is not about human vs. animal but rather about human vs. machine.  So which is god-like?  We must hope neither.  The animal vs. human blurred lines are in other movies, except that one astute reviewer noted that the robot-detecting questions were often about the treatment of animals.
The religion in “Blade Runner” is mythic, the unicorn.  Olmos is the trickster guide, the one who knows and is in sympathy with the hero but also in league with the powerful.  He is a conveyor, an interface who knows.  The artist here also has a role in the little man who makes creatures that are not quite human.  Velveteen Rabbit and Pinocchio stuff, where love makes the inanimate human.  “A.I.” is a brilliant depiction of that.
What does it mean that we have lost the feeling of being the “chosen animal,” the one who is unique in the cosmos and protected by all-powerful but inscrutable and uncontrollable forces?  We anxiously scan the galaxies for planets like ours, half hoping that there will be intelligent beings and half dreading to find them.  People obsess about whether computers will get too smart by half and begin to boss us around.  (Like so many other things, they’re already doing it.)
Lately the changes in our world have seemed to come quickly and with devastating crashes, economic or pandemic.  Dave Lull keeps me up to date on Taleb’s thinking which has been focusing on what makes phenomena sturdy and reliable, as opposed to the air castles of Wall Street.  He urges us to think of a future that is “robust,” which seems to mean something more like “resilient” than indestructible.  If you apply this criterion to these two movies, “THX 1138” is brittle and unsustainable.  In fact, one of Lucas’ little tricks is to always show the cracks in the facade.  (Harrison Ford pounding on the dashboard of his space ship to make the loose wiring behave.)   When “THX 1138” climbs out of the underground hive he faces an ambiguous overwhelming sun.  How will he survive here?
“Blade Runner” generously allows the cyber-creatures to become human through love.  He slides the issue over from the worry about robots as destroyers to the shared torture of loving in the knowledge that we are all limited, that we will all die.  His most relentless and murderous Nazi character dies gently, releasing a dove in a Christian symbol which is also related to the perfectly ordinary keeping of pigeons on rooftops, a bit of nature in the city.  The hero is allowed to take his lover with him to a new place up north.  Maybe Montana.  If they show up here, I’ll throw my arms around them.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


On Sundays I often try to find some kind of religious issue but I think that after last night’s Rapture Not and the likelihood of reactions all over the place, I’ll sort of go sideways and talk about The Book.  First, let me say that I’m reading two books at the moment. The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts -- with Contributions from the Faculty of the International Project on Conflict and Complexity” by Peter T. Coleman.  It’s 224 pages long, I’m 53 pages in, and it begins with an account of the probs and punishments of the House of Atreus, a rousing theatrical text that surely qualifies as an Impossible Conflict.
What I get so far is that the Five Percent of Conflicts that simply cannot be solved are caused by no one simple cause (there’s a refreshing change!) but rather by an alignment of complex webbed forces and causes, possibly beyond any human or divine control and possibly not even conscious or maybe even accessible to consciousness.  Maybe a stage of evolution.  I also get that sometimes these conflicts, though arising unwanted and causing terrible horror and destruction, can produce leaps in understanding and compassion.  Maybe you’ll remember that the key seed tragedy of the House of Atreus is the mistaken eating of the next generation, often one’s own children.  But it ends in the realization that vengeance is futile and in the nobility of self-sacrifice.
As a kind of counter-force I’m reading at Steven Pressfield Blog | A Video Series and Blog from Author and Historian Steven Pressfield   “The Warrior Ethos” for free as a “lightbox text,” which means an ebook on my computer.  Pressfield is fascinated by war.  Right now on his blog he also has “up” an explanation of how a publishing auction works -- that’s when an agent is selling your book by getting publishers to bid against each other.
There’s also a side bar he calls “Doing the Work Wednesday” which right now discusses “The Artist and the Addict,” the latter being addiction to resistance to getting down to work.  A little roundabout and geared for beginners, but everyone seems to be doing a bit of "farming" the beginning writer now that everyone has access to blogging.  It always strikes me as being like the rush to become Unitarian ministers in certain circles -- it’s kind of an ego thing and when the hard boring parts begin, one needs urging.  It’s perfectly clear that not everyone is cut out for the role, but how will you find out unless you try?
So is being a warrior like that?  Pressfield goes back to Troy and Sparta.  Boy babies were examined for their wholeness and health at birth.  Any flaws and they were thrown off a cliff, discarded.  Then their education was a romantic hardening to do battle and the women were educated to be proud of their deaths.  "Son, come home with your shield or ON it."  Pressfield says that a body of formal protocols, rules of war, tribunals, and other restraints and guides have been produced over the last millenia but we’re leaving that now.  This is post-civilization battle we’re entering.  
It appears that one condition is spontaneous revolution of unprepared and desperate people -- not naturally warriors at all.  And another is the return of the trained mercenary at the same time as the disappearance of the nation, which means that those who hire armies are doing it selfishly to defend their own wealth.  Spartans without Sparta.  What’s the diff between that and an international corporation or a mafia hiring Blackwater, whatever its name right now?  Pressfield will argue, I think, that a good soldier is always one who exemplifies the Warrior Ethos.  According to the newspaper this morning, those who can battle without subsequent trauma are those who identify with a group.  Part of the ethos is belonging to a band of brothers (he allows sisters).  Well, Jesse James thought so, too.
Okay, so what’s my next move in this biblio-head-to-head, different in content, different in form.  What if these two books were sub-books in a larger book called “THE Book,” because that’s exactly what the Christian Bible is -- a compendium of books copied from Torah, from miscellaneous manuscripts and letters composed and revised and rewritten by various people over a long period of time.  If there is anything the Bible is NOT it’s NOT a mysteriously coded instruction book or horoscope.  “Half” of it advises beating plows into swords (the Warrior Ethos) and the other half advises beating swords into plowshares (The Five Percent Solution).   Scrolls and scraps, curated by a committee of old men who wanted their own way and excluded anything they didn’t like.  (The Apocrypha are the manuscripts excluded and you can also buy books of the manuscripts of the same age and types of origin that weren’t even considered.)  The Bible is not so much a book as it is a bound library of stuff collected near the Mediterranean to suit the goals of a new institutional church.
And then the darn thing (“codex”) became a sacred object in the usual way -- the priests wouldn’t let the ordinary folks read it because they might get the pages dirty and they might get funny ideas about what they read: you know, not interpret it the “right” way.  Of course, the biggest problem was that most people couldn’t read.  Only a few years ago it was still forbidden to teach American slaves to read.  (We’re at the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  Slavery has returned but it’s covert.)  
And then books were pretty expensive.  But Gutenberg fixed that when he invented movable type which lead directly to disintegrating wood-pulp paperbacks with mind-pulp contents.  But also lead to ordinary people owning Bibles and reading them, which lead to a movement away from corruption and back to basics, which lead to rebellion (protesting) against the church, which lead to all sorts of chaos and confusion and (gasp) religious freedom.
So where are we now?  Still eating our children.  But these days the books are not just print, they are videos of people talking directly through hand-held devices.  All you need is electricity and internet infrastructure.  They are saying that “texting” has caused a new uprising in Northern Africa.  There will be crucifixions.  There will be new centurions.  There will be new Christians.  And some people will reach for icons and amulets, like a Book.  
Others will grab their smart phones in order to twitter.  Do tweets remind you of verses?  Is belonging to a Facebook group like being part of a soldier’s squadron?  How many children will be eaten?  What will we call the new religion that is bound to result?  Rapturists?  Or Raptors?  We’re moving pretty fast, so maybe Velociraptors.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


This is just a set of reflections about the writing/publishing/bookstore/reader nexus, not so much about the internal forces that give rise to writing, which interest me a lot more.  My motivator is that I have enough short stories for an anthology I’m calling “Wry Love Stories for the Dry West” and am thinking about where to send the manuscript.  If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably read most of them.  I’ve sent some of the stories to www.ropeandwire.com which is a fascinating website that holds on tight to the old-fashioned understanding of Westerns (Fifties television, Zane Grey).  They are a gentle bunch, almost universally male, and they LOVE the gun and death-dealing alpha males, which makes you wonder.
Recently the owner of the site, whom I like very much, asked if I had another story, so I sent him “French Milled Soap,” about the mail order bride who does her duty but no more until a blizzard nearly kills her husband but carries them into real love.  It was rejected, on grounds that it was too sexy and the site is meant to be for families.  So I wrote the bloodiest story I could imagine, “La Femme Rouge,” and sent that.  Praised and accepted.  Go figure.  
I saw that Newwest was accepting stories about the West and thought of sending something but there were two problems.  The current story is written in such predictable and overwrought rococo prose, nearly 19th century, that I wondered whether it was meant to be parody.  Is that the standard?  Ropeandwire.com loves this kind of thing, sort of spaghetti Westerns in print.  One writer in particular, an older man, turns them out almost by the hour.  A man on a horse, a canyon or mountain ridge, an adversary, a death.  A ritual.  Mixed metaphors, vivid prose, slightly arcane.
For a while I was pretty good friends with Richard S. Wheeler until I ran into Montana literary politics and decided to give the whole damned state a rest.  Instead I’ve been writing with Tim Barrus, who is working a global frontier almost beyond imagining if you’re in Montana.  It makes guns seem merciful.  But I think that Wheeler and I spy on each other through our blogs.  http://richardswheeler.blogspot.com/  Like Barrus he has a long history with publishing.  Unlike Barrus he resists the new technology, the new ways of writing, the new audiences, globalization, and so on.  I just sit here like a cat and watch.   Lately Wheeler has been thinking out loud on his blog about readers, genres, the business of publishing, and all the other confusions.
I remember when the first self-published lady author who specialized in stories about children healed through the love of a horse was admitted to the Western Writers of America  http://www.westernwriters.org/ and how horrified Richard was.   The Western Writers of America was once the only quality-marker for publishers besides the academic Western Literature Association. http://westlit.wordpress.com/about/  The WLA is soon meeting in Missoula.  The just-past president of the organization was so horrified by Barrus that though he has been a correspondent for years, he now totally rejects me.  He is an expert on Cormac McCarthy, the most atrocity-focused Western writer I know.  Go figure.   The blog of the WLA is now focussed on pop culture, hardly academic at all. 
People at parties -- on discovering you are a writer -- inquire whether you are published in the same way that -- if told you are a minister -- they ask if you are ordained, because they think this eliminates charlatans.  They have no idea how to judge the implications of WHO the publisher was, what the sales figures or critical response was.  Nor are most people equipped to evaluate denominational requirements for the ministry or the quality of this seminary as compared to that.  For writers whose ego is based on being published, the recent crater left by the implosion of publishing is a torture and a prison.  To say nothing of a threat to one’s income, perilous in the best of times.  Wheeler has now recovered to the extent of publishing ebooks.
My own writing is split between working with Barrus and his boys and my own writing.  In some ways I act rather like an agent, searching for venues and publishers out on the edge.  Since Cinematheque works more in image than in print, and more in the style of a poem  (the intense or lyric moment) than a narrative (though a narrative is always implied), the values are intensity, meaningfulness for a narrow but global category of consumers (boys at risk who may not speak English), and CGI effects: overlays, conversion into quadrants, loops, distortions, arty stuff -- not the constructed realities of computer games.  The point is that my writing can lean that way. 
But I find that I’m old and slow when it comes to technology and though I’ve got a digital camera now and understand that it will do video, I don’t want to take the time to learn how.  IMovie on my MAC computer is not even hard to do, and my background in theatre and film is enough for me to probably do good things but I have a whole series of print projects queued up ahead of that.  Neither do I want to give up any time for conferences around the state -- book selling festivals that mean only BOOKS, solid old-fashioned BOOKS, even as the Valier library is now equipped to loan out Nooks and teach a person how to download ebooks from the Montana State Library.  Even as one cousin’s husband so generously sent me an iPod with audible books already on it and I’ve found out where to download more.  I just don’t want to take time to learn all these things that so fascinate kids and men.  I’m still expanding my actual writing skills in print.
I initiated a little six-person panel of cousins and friends (my peers in age and education, and all formidable readers) to balance out the seductions of boys in vids.  They love bookstores (so do I) and libraries and have many books of their own.  I’m also on the mailing lists of such eclectic people as Peter Koch, http://www.peterkochprinters.com  at the extreme high end of fine printing, and Barry McWilliams  barrytoons@dishmail.net , a Montana cartoonist who once taught English in Browning.  I am ever so grateful for the continuing forwards of Dave Lull, who has no website but a huge webwork of contacts.
Today’s is a terrifying world, not because it is different from the world in the past, but because we know so much more about what is happening.  Tim started a project called “Show Me Your Life”, assuming that he would get heart-breaking stories of boys living in the streets.  He was jolted when the footage from the pocket vid cameras he sent out included beheadings and gang rapes of children.  His first witnessing child in the Congo died from infected machete wounds because there were no antibiotics and he was HIV positive.  You can find much the same thing on YouTube.  Tim’s work is mostly on www.real-stories-gallery.com  "Show Me Your Life" - Tim Barrus | Real Stories Gallery   Don’t go there.  You can’t handle the truth.
Speaking of YouTube, I’m still trying to figure out how to think about the young chimp trying to get a toad to give him a blow job.  It’s not just a terrifying world, much of it is inscrutable OR so minutely scrutinized that one hardly knows how to assimilate what one now knows.  TMI is a real phenomenon.  Which is why I’m letting all the fancy tech stuff fall by the wayside.  I even lose control of my sentence grammar sometimes.  It seems to me that the core issue I must address is how to be human.  I do not want to turn away from the already-dying suicidal boy trapped in Russia with no human contact except Skyping Tim on the Internet at 2AM, but I do not want to derange or challenge gentlefolks who simply want to read a story they can put down at the end.  I’m past the point of putting things down.  Except in print.

Friday, May 20, 2011


In the Fifties when I was young, I came across a list of psychological defenses.  My mother was taking psych classes for a teaching degree, so it may have been in one of her texts, but my father, who took a bad head injury in 1948, was also buying mental health books to try to understand himself.  So, of course, you can see why my main psychological defense was learning about things, esp. by reading in a private and solitary manner. 
But I could have used a little guidance with this list, which shocked me deeply.  I thought that being defensive was bad, so I thought the list was of things to NOT do because in the Fifties all the emphasis was on controlling oneself, being virtuous, conforming.  According to this list, I was so defensive that I must be very wicked.  I was evading justice, defying society, etc.  And no wonder that I wasn’t dating because who would be attracted to a narcissistic, grandiose, rationalizing, denying, displacing, oblivious, attacking red-headed teenager anyway?
 When my marriage/relationship (which was, I thought, an excellent defensive strategy since I was marrying someone older, wiser, and more powerful person than myself and would be under his wing) cracked and crumbled, I went to a shrink.  I told him all sorts of things and he said I was like a terrier who had a bone buried at the edge of the yard and spent all her time barking on the other side of the yard so he wouldn’t find my bone.  I didn’t even know what the bone might be.  (A tendency towards self-destruction.)
It was decades before I got to seminary, aged forty, and the counselor running a group for future ministers complained that I had NO defenses!  Now THIS was a crime!   Double-bind time.  I fell apart.  Another kinder group of the same kind told me I had borderline personality disorder because I didn’t choose and defend a stable identity.  Then the Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor began to rip me and the other students up for his own defense, and I had had it.  The hell with defenselessness.  I went on the attack.  And won.  
A defense is a defense.  I finally got it through my head that a defense is not evil.  Defenses are necessary, even vital, and one cannot lower them until in a safe place, which is often a small comfortable room with a trusted individual.  Or maybe in bed with a lover.  Certainly it’s not safe to have no defenses when writing, because writing IS a defense and a good one!  A strategy.  That’s the whole secret to defenses: strategy.  Of course, it’s a good idea to look for places that don’t demand elaborate defenses because they take too much energy.  The best defense of all is a life-goal so absorbing and passionate that a little collateral damage means nothing.  
Of course, it’s also risky.  People will figure out that they can affect you by attacking your life-goal.  The strange thing about defenses is that they are two-edged, because they reveal what they are defending, even as you bark as hard as you can on the other side of the yard.  Narcissism reveals a lack of confidence in one’s own center.  Rationalizing reveals an emotional attachment that is needed maybe a little too much.  Accusing others shows a fear of being accused.
In the end the best defense is knowing oneself so as to find constructive compensations for the needs and desires that might require defenses.  Sometimes no defense is needed after all.  Sometimes the knowledge is painful.  I remember preaching once and saying,  “I always wanted to be a ballet dancer, but was not equipped for it.”  The congregation laughed and I was hurt.  Was it my fault my body is stiff, heavy and droopy?  It was a while before I realized that the REAL problem was my inability to bite down on something and give it the narrow obsessive attention to control that is the key to something as formal as ballet.  But then I thought of Isadora Duncan, who said nonsense to all that courtly rigidity and went nearly naked into self-expression.  A role model!  (Red-headed, too.  And a little self-destructive.)  I did some practicing with some window curtains where no one could see me.  And then a little defiant lawn-dancing at a UU summer conference where we were all drunk on lack of sleep.
Because our society is managed so much by stigma and the consequences (and then circling back causes) of stigmas like poverty or criminalization or drugs or illnesses are so lethal and produce so much suffering, the need for defenses is higher than ever.  Alongside commodification, the legalization of defensiveness is at industrial levels.  And it turns out that even that is bought by the rich and eroded for the poor.  A court-appointed public defender is supposed to protect the impoverished and bewildered.  One is discouraged from defending oneself.  But the rich can buy the connections and trading chips they need to evade jails.  Up to a point.  And public defenders don’t make the big bucks so they are not jobs sought out by the high-scoring law students.  Up to a point.
Many believe that power, status, wealth, college degrees, family connections will protect them.  A good enough insurance policy and enough really skillful doctors and you won’t even die.  But there is no defense against death.  Some believe that if they are humble enough, quiet enough, offend no one and occupy as little space as possible, they will be safe.  But there is no defense against life.  It will come and get you.  Life is a process, a negotiation, a magnet drawing through you through time.
The strategies that really work are the ones that allow the extended hand, the joyful moment, and participation in the sensory adventures that we call the arts, if not as a creator then as an appreciator.  Because that’s what human brains can and should do as they draw all the world’s sensations and patterns into themselves, making of them an identity that is a negotiation, a dance, a reciprocity.  Keep moving.  Those are strategic defenses.  
But there are no guarantees.  There will be agony, there may be long gray stretches of numbness, emptiness, and all that other stuff.  In every era people sell snake oil, recipes for surefire cures and salvations.  Printing lists of defenses.  Not that they aren’t useful for strategies.  If you google you’ll find “top ten” lists and theories about what makes them necessary (aggression, sex, loving your mother too much).  Test your strategies as you go.  If they work, fine.  If not, go dig a hole and bury them.  Or, hey!  Why not just dig right on out of that yard to a larger world !!