Thursday, June 30, 2011


I’ve been offline for a week.  Here I am again.  I resurrected these glasses from the past because the new fashionable small lenses are bad for computer work.  In the summer I am a ruddy person as you can see.  And skeptical.  And aging.   A little goofy.

You might know that I have a double blog-life and that while I quit this one for a while, the other life went on behind the scenes with Tim Barrus.  “Prairie Mary” attracts readers who want to know about romantic and historical subjects: landscape, Blackfeet, Western artists and authors, small towns, geology, and so on.   They buy into the “regional” scene, find it appealing and manageable, and are happy to think about big frogs in a small pond.  For a while Montana was awash with this sort of writer, but now they’ve mostly moved to Portland.  There are two local bloggers I follow:  Kari Dell who works in Cut Bank  and Lisa Schmidt who ranches in Conrad   Kari comes from a rodeo family (I taught with her father) and Lisa raises sheep.  They are funny, intelligent, young, and very much focused on what they’re doing.  I’m nothing like them at all.
The other life is international and shared with Tim and his “guyz.”  It’s not about sex.  It’s about human society and how some parts prey on the other parts and how (whether) we can help each other survive.  This other life is as much video and still photography as print.  I don’t do much with a camera -- I’m a print shepherd.
I am so deeply ambivalent about publishing.  On the one hand e-publishing is exciting and promising and we’re really UP for it.  But it hasn’t really gelled yet and won’t without a universal format consensus that works on every device.   I see ominous signs like the beginning of infrastructure failure and national/corporate censoring.  Maybe taxation. There are times when I think that the reason someone in the Congo appears to be reading my blog (click on the map with red dots down low on the right hand column to get the particulars) is that my computer has been hijacked and has a life of its own.  (Now and then I get lists of Somali pirate seized ships that have been returned ??!!  I don’t know where they come from and can’t get rid of them -- the emails, not the pirates, though them, too.)
It’s so hard to give up the wonderful fantasy that “publishing” is an honorific event that can justify a life.  Even knowing that it probably “means” something meaningless.   At rock bottom it is only the manufacturing of objects with your words in them, promoted enough to make some money -- less and less of it for the writer. Once read, either discarded or stored. 
Fame based on a publisher’s advertising promotion means nothing.  Fame based on touching hearts doesn’t have to be conveyed in a bound paper book.  Promotion that has somehow become the responsibility of the writer rather than the publisher strikes me as rot.  Once sneering arrogantly at vanity publishing, now the publishers themselves are forcing writers into it.  Intelligent criticism and analysis of writing has fled from the newspapers to untraced locations.
I appreciated the time “off” but didn’t spend much of it “catching up.”  I did work on my two dozen two-inch three-ring-binders containing conversation with Tim over the past four years.  It has been more than the equivalent of a university education.  I feel compelled to get it organized and distilled, maybe into the hands of others.  It’s an archive that cries out for sharing.  So many need this thinking. 
It helps that “Bronze Inside and Out” is appreciated by Brian Rusted, a professor at the University of Calgary with a Ph.D. in performance arts from Northwestern University, my own undergrad alma mater.  He sees that I was trying to look at Bob Scriver’s work through the actual creation of it -- not the subject matter or how much it’s worth in dollars.  My approach to my Tim Barrus archive is likewise through the creation of it and the creation of his extraordinary life.  Tim’s focus is justice, social prophesy, living at the edge.
Mostly I resist dichotomies but some distinctions are useful so, in the spirit of means versus ends, I will use that very binary.  What means do I have?  What ends am I after?  My means are blogging -- obviously -- backed up with a specific kind of education (pastoral/prophetic/mythic).  My end is . . .   Well, the reason I didn’t stick in the ministry (this is my REAL reason and I’m being honest) is that it turned out that the “ends” of most ministers are to make money and achieve high status.  I didn’t care about those two things, though they are also the goals of many writers.
One “end” is a certain sensory life which I have here on the prairie.  The weather, crazy as it is, suits me.  The people leave me alone -- I knew their grandparents.  Low income is not a handicap.  I can keep cats.  If the internet disappeared (it nearly did when my computer died) I would be crippled but the internet is a means to the end, a kind of publishing, a speaking to the world at large.  Preaching, if you take an exceptionally broad view.
Second, I focus on a few causes:  Blackfeet, high prairie environment, Tim Barrus in the broad sense (his work).   (I’ve discarded other causes, like animal control, teaching English, ministry.) I want to keep alive the powerful access to ideas given to me by education.  That is, causes are occasions for me to focus and organize, mustering up a net of thought about them that relates to my own belief and value system.  When I was formally preaching, people paid very close attention.  I could see that they were.  Afterwards they had nothing to say.  When I asked them, they said they were still thinking about it.  My blogging seems to work the same.  I get few comments.
But I do make friends, find lost relatives, get access to materials, and so on.  The aspect most like “publishing” is that I get responses to things I wrote years ago.  Writing persists as much online as it would if it were a library book, maybe more, considering the number of used books I buy for literal pennies that turn out to have been culled from libraries.
I formed a little email group of women pretty much like me: age, education, interests.  I’m very fond of them, they came to the rescue when my computer crashed, and we visit back and forth, but some do not relate to this blog.  They don’t have time.  They don’t like risk.  My true peer group seems to be sort of edgy middle-aged men with big questions about life and human identity.  More like Tim Barrus.   Not gay, but then he's not either. 
Lately I find myself sitting, staring.  I never seem to get enough sleep and my dreams are crowded.  Through experience I know I’m working on issues at a deep subconscious level that will probably surface in this blog.  But at least for the rest of the summer, I’m going to stick to a M-W-F-Sunday pattern of posting.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Though the time I gained by not posting until July 1 was used to replace my computer (oh, I miss my old white egg of an eMac) and recover some of the lost contents (a lot of it was just accumulated "lint") I'm finding myself having to push away from the keyboard to keep from writing anyway.

Actually, I'm writing online in two places.  One is to a little circle of women pretty much like myself (cousins and friends) and the other is to "Orpheus in the Catacombs," which is meant to be a platform explaining and discussing the actual manuscript of the book with the same name as Tim and I look for a publisher.  The circle of women is closed.  Don't look for "Orpheus in the Catacombs" unless you're in sympathy.

Aside from that I did manage to save a couple of ongoing manuscripts, partly because I put them on blogs you might not know about.  They're pretty academic and maybe hard to read.  One is "Take My Hand,"  (  which is the raw material for a book based on what would have been my doctoral thesis, and the other is "Prairie Rhizomes" which was preparation for an article in an online magazine that ultimately became scared because of googling blogs that mocked Tim Barrus.  Nevertheless, the research is valuable and has proven a good link to other thinkers.  For instance, Aad de Gide, the Rotterdam poet, and Brian Rusted, a professor of communication and performance at the University of Calgary.  The theories of DeLeuze and Guattari have been my best access to the paradigm shift of postmodern criticism.

There are quite a few other blogs, but they aren't active.  Canadians in particular might enjoy  which is simply an online version of one of my father's photo albums with remarks by myself.

It occurred to me that now that traffic is light, it might be interesting to take questions and suggestions for topics after July 1.  I've never done that before.  You could just append them as comments to this post.


This horse is ready for the parade.  Since it wasn't painted for warfare by a male heading into battle, but rather by a young woman with an optimistic outlook, it sports a happy face in spray paint, graffiti-style, and a glitter pen addition above that.

This is a classic Metis band, with a little audio amplification.  Around here they play for funerals and dances, parades and Saturday nights.  This low-boy is probably carrying more than 150 years of musical experience from these three friendly guys who supply so much of the glue that holds the communities together between continents and countries, tribes and homesteaders.

Fiddlers are especially esteemed, continuing a tradition passed along for many centuries.  Maybe you know the Peter Bowen mysteries in which the Metis fiddlers are lifted up.

Monday, June 13, 2011





Sunday, June 12, 2011


At 4:30 AM the eastern sky was heaped with red embers -- not a forest fire, just the sun coming up -- and the rest of the sky was ashen -- not from real ashes, just clouds but not the low sodden ones that we’re tired of.  On the good side, my sweetgrass is almost long enough to harvest for braids.  On the bad side, the yard grass is exactly the same height as it was when I cut it -- hey, wasn’t that yesterday?
I lay in bed for a while but got bored and went to fish around in my newspaper box -- no paper.  But then, I’m not sure I paid the bill.  So I put on my duds and entered the day.  Valier is quiet on the still mornings.  Only a few guys will be up and that’s because, well, this is a geezer town and old guys get up early.  The places to get coffee open shortly after dawn.  I went to the remaining service station -- which removed their laundromat because it was too much hard work and because there was more profit in beer and pop -- to get a paper.  Corky, whom I’ve known since he was just a little squirt, was holding down the coffee bar and hailed me.
Women have coffee in the middle of the morning when they’re gathering their wits for the day’s plans.  Young moms will have gotten everyone else out the door by then.  A few of them will gather on the Internet, signing off by saying,  “Time to start the day.”   But most women email just before supper when everything is cooking.  There’s another kind that will call you up while they deal with the dishes afterwards.  
I generally have my coffee while I read the paper and start my blog, but I was up so early, I thought I’d perch on a stool with Corky.  Usually I don’t join older men’s groups.  There are two kinds: those who are still at a boisterous age who whoop it up and are obnoxiously loud, and those who are bashful and will all tip their vizor caps down to peer into their coffee cups and peep at women out the sides.  But they know things -- they’re better gossips than women because they mostly leave out the editorial comments and just give you the facts -- but ALL the facts.  Even the grisly ones.
Things can get technical: a discussion of high-protein winter wheat this morning, throwing around a lot of percentages and guessing about what has shipped so far.  (Mostly all.)  The only thing I know is that high protein wheat is better for bread and low protein wheat is better for noodles, but that didn’t seem germane, so I tipped my visor cap down and studied my coffee.  
I had grabbed my Mickey Mouse hat this morning.  One of the reasons I stopped to talk to Corky was that his sister--in-law, who gave me this hat, is fighting cancer and I wanted to know how she was.  She’s fighting -- that’s it.  Corky, his brother Boyd, and Boyd’s wife Lila were all my students once.  I hate it when people die out of order.  Students are not supposed to die until AFTER the teachers go.  These kids are like family.  Boyd and Lila are the ones who took care of Bob Scriver -- as well as his fourth wife -- in the last months.
More men came.  The one I offered to usher out of the Town Council meeting saw me, wheeled, and left.  Two went out to stand in front with cigarettes, but then came back.  When I was on the road all the time, I was a big breakfast-eater and sitting at the next table eavesdropping on men was better than television.  I learned a lot about cattle and wheat.  Since around here there are no salaried emergency responders, the local men fight fire, run ambulances, act as deputies -- so sometimes there’s a lot of sorting of emotion and thoughts from the night before.
Corky was the only one I really knew since I don’t mix into the community much.  I always like to make the crowd smile but didn’t succeed with one little fellow until Corky was telling about looking for a used car and finding only gas guzzlers.  “What can a guy do with a Lincoln Continental these days?” he demanded.  I suggested putting it in the backyard and raising chickens in it.  That got a grin.  But then we remembered that the “hens” on the city council think that keeping chickens is too much of a downscale country activity for a “nice” town of 400 people with one paved road.
I was cautious about being so free and easy in Saskatchewan small towns.  Their ethic was still largely Ukrainian, meaning women are classified as possessions if not beasts of burden.  I’d be asked bluntly,  “Where’s your man?”  I learned to say, “He’s meeting me just in the next town and he has a very bad temper.  Did I mention he’s big and a karate black belt?”  After that I never got any coffee refills.  
In Browning the people often come in couples, married or not, and the climate is far more relaxed, the gossip much wilder and less reliable.  In Valier people have known each other for decades.  In Browning you can make that centuries.  In fact, sometimes the gossip is that old.  And the doughnuts might be a little suspect as well.  (Jokes.  I take it back.  There were never leftovers at the Red Crow Cafe.)
Years ago I read a humorous piece by a Lutheran minister who was serving a small town instead of the city churches he’d been used to.  The people in this town complained that he didn’t know what was going on and was kind of a lazy fella anyway.  Slept in, you know, like some high hat fancy guy instead of a working stiff like them.  When the rev figured out that the earliest coffee klatches were the lifeblood of the community, he was stumped about how to survive his schedule which was often committee meetings or individual emergencies (deaths, births, threats) late at night.  Then his wife reminded him that they would not know if he went back to bed after coffee.  She would neither rat him out nor start vacuuming.  So he did.  And they all lived happily ever after.  

I think I’ll go back to bed now.  The day has silvered out into thin clouds and all the early birds have caught the early fish.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Mr. Dillon is dead.  Miss Kitty and Doc had gone on ahead.  Chester, too.  So the biggest guy was ridin’ drag and eatin’ dust.  But he wouldn’t make a fuss.  If the job needed doin’, he did it.  No super powers, just big, clear-headed, and competent.
Dennis Weaver came to Browning once in 1986 to film “Amy Grant’s Headin’ Home for Christmas” show.  Bob Scriver, who was also in the show, reported that Weaver was courtly, generous, and patient.  In 1951 James Arness was in Cut Bank to film “The Thing,” which was scarier then than “Alien” is now.  It was in the early days of stunts and Arness walked through fire in a special suit.
We seem to be deeply invested in our comic book heroes, even as some of our local real-life heroes slip away from us.  Two recent Montana losses registered strongly with me.
One was the Reverend George Harper in Helena, born on the fourth of July, 1923, in Salem, Ohio.  He was a great big guy, a political force to be reckoned with, a star athlete, and the progenitor of five gifted children.  His wife was his match.  His partner in ministry, the Reverend Robert Holmes was a little shorter but just as dynamic with his own tribe of achieving kids.  The children of the two men formed the Montana Lumberjack and Ballet Company which blew us all away with their sharp but hilarious political satire.  
When I landed in Helena, green as grass and over-motivated to make a success of a Unitarian Universalist circuit-riding ministry, George Harper listened to my breathless declarations of undogma.  Then he leaned forward in his chair and put the tip of one giant finger on my knee.  “Mary,” he said gently.  “God is love.  That’s all you need to know.”  Then he made a couple of phone calls to help me get a vehicle since I had no money.  And he let us meet in the Methodist parlor -- no charge.  That was 1982.  George had a basketball court named for him -- there’s probably no higher honor in Montana.
Much earlier I got to know Dr. Robert K. West because he and his partner Dr. Marquette were the Scriver’s family “docs.”  Born in 1921, in Great Falls, he was a different kind of athlete, a top-flight rodeo roper.  Bob Scriver used him as the model for his bronze in the major rodeo bronze series.
What I didn’t know until I read his obit was that his original degree in 1942 was in geology.  He graduated a year early, joined the Marines and served for four years.  He was at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  When he got out, he put himself through the University of Minnesota Medical School by taking boys from Camp Lincoln on pack trips through the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  In 1952 he returned to Cut Bank to set up his practice.  The original idea was that the two docs would spell each other, but they were soon overwhelmed and worn out.  Marquette died of a heart attack.  Doc West had an accomplished wife, the historian and writer Helen West.  I’m not supposed to tell you what happened, but it was predictable.  
The Doc went to Fresno, CA, then (1970) to become an emergency room doc.   In 1981 he married a woman named “Billie” and that union was for the rest of their lives.  She died just days ahead of him.  Much of his time and energy went to Salvation Army medical projects and as much as he could manage went to rodeo events, where he was a strong competitor, and to backpacking through the Bob Marshall with his grandkids.
Sometime in the early Eighties, probably on the way to the Calgary Stampede, he stopped to see Bob and I happened by.  When I walked up with my hand out, he was a little startled, maybe not quite sure who I was.   But he shook it, wary but cordial.  It was like shaking the foot of an eagle.  (I do KNOW what that is like since we once had an eagle.)  Some worried that he would lose one of his surgeon fingers to a rope loop, but he didn’t.
It used to be that heroes like that -- professionals with a sense of place, a strong spirituality, and a feeling of obligation to the community -- were what we expected.  They were big physical guys like those Sixties cowboy heroes, but they were also very, very smart.  Both these men were valedictorians of their classes.  I often wonder whether it was WWII that created them or whether somehow their kind is just not noticed so much now.  Have we lowered standards by letting women and minorities and people educated in other countries come into our churches and hospitals?  (I’m not supposed to say that.)  Or is it that the great struggles of the Fifties and Sixties and even Seventies had a way of calling out heroism in men and now the world is just too confused for Knights in Shining Armor.
Or is it that our tightly managed-for-profit hospitals and emptying churches just don’t provide the kind of platforms that lets these men grow and shine? Was their education different?  Were their moms at home with milk and cookies when they were little and got bruised by life?  Were their dads role models?  It’s a puzzlement.
I taught here in the Sixties when the country elsewhere was metamorphosing so fast it had the bends.  Now it’s fifty years later and people are backed way off from change, still not sure what happened.  I know this:  if I had had to pick out which of those kids in the Sixties would turn out to be the heroes of right now, I would have gotten it all wrong.  For one thing I would not have thought Eloise Cobell could take on the US Government and win.  Those 1950’s cowboy heroes were all big male gun-slingers who were a force for good.  Eloise is a force for good, but she’s -- well -- SHORT.  I love it.
But I mourn for James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Amanda Blake (oh, THERE’s a clue!), Milburn Stone, the Reverend George Harper and Doc Robert West.  Giants.  Walking through fire.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"SUMMER HOURS": Review and Reflection

Never before have I heard of a film being commissioned by a museum unless it was some kind of documentary overview about an artist or collection.  In fact, I didn’t order “Summer Hours” because of that -- didn’t find out until after I looked up the movie on the Internet.  The museum wanted a fictional and calm reflection about the dispersal of art collections, both those created by the artist and those collected over the years.  They got it, very gracefully done.
The issue is a sharp one for me because of my age -- at seventy-one I’m the remaining wife of four women married to Bob Scriver (b. 1914).  His peers in the category of Western artists are now slipping away.  The dispersal of Harry Jackson’s personal collection is scheduled at the next Coeur d’Alene Art Auction.  I have special sympathies for Harry, who was like a younger and “classier” version of Bob Scriver, but I’ll save all that for another blog.  
The larger issue is how to think about collections as such.  The set-up in the movie is that a woman, very elegant and thoughtful, has three children.  She has been the guardian of her uncle’s estate.  The uncle was a fine and famous artist, closeted gay and yet a lover of this woman.  She has clear ideas about what should happen to the house and the objects, which include useful household items: a desk and chair, an armoire, art glass vases.  
They are used -- in fact, some of the things in the bottom of the armoire, like cleaning supplies, may constitute mis-use.  Of course, every time a glass vase is used, it is endangered.  The elderly housekeeper has no notion of their value and, in fact, considers them ugly, but finds one useful for the large bouquets cut on the grounds.  The theme of “brokenness” and wear are also presented by an ordinary plastic shopping bog unceremoniously containing fragments of a broken Degas figure, one of the sturdy ballerinas, which the family thinks is irreparable but does not throw out.
The three children are set up to represent three points of view: the daughter now lives in America and is about to marry.  Some of the objects, silver, mean something to her and she takes them.  A set of sketchbooks also matter to her but she wants to sell them at Christies and fancies she knows their value and how to handle it all, because she is an art designer.  She turns out NOT to know.  France blocks the sketch books from being exported from the country because they are classified as national treasures.  Christies is slammed as likely to maximize profit by tearing out the pages of the books, which are meant to stay together and intact.
One brother represents hard-headed practicality and simply wants to convert everything to cash because he will be living in China, has three children to raise, and takes a management point of view, since that’s his occupation.
The other brother, who lives nearby and is what one might call an “ironic economist” -- that is, he is sentimental and protective but not reactionary -- must do the actual business, painful as it is.  His encounters with the lawyers, the museum board, the curators, the housekeeper, are our guides.  
One of the interesting members of the museum board argues against acquiring the Art Moderne desk and chair, even though they’ve been borrowed for exhibit earlier and at that time there was interest in acquiring them permanently.  “Why acquire them only to lock them up where no one sees them and they quietly molder in the dark?” he asks.   (Oh, yes.  Bob Scriver’s work is locked up in warehouses.)  In the end they are accepted and exhibited, but the third brother and his wife ask each other if the sterile presentation is really how such a familiar and useful piece of their lives should be honored.  Shouldn’t someone still be writing at that desk?
The ultimate and sheltering “art” is the great house itself with its hillside grounds full of paths down to a river.  The movie begins with the joyful screaming and scrambling of the grandchildren romping everywhere.  It ends with the same thing except that the children are now young adults and they are bursting with music, beer and pot in a big crowd of friends.  Is a careless house like this a better place for art than a careful and serene museum?  The beautiful things have all been used, taken into memory, made carriers of many happy times.  But I’m reminded of a relevant novel,  “The Bowl Is Already Broken” which seeks to discover who is responsible for dropping a priceless ancient Chinese porcelain bowl, and what the implications might be.  The point is that loss is inevitable.
And then, embracing the house, the art, the lives of the people, here is this film!  Not much deep and bruising inquiry into private lives.  We never even SEE the uncle, only his representative the niece, so we never really know how he came to acquire the house or even how he became an artist.  Since the most valuable objects are by other artists, we assume he didn’t leave a fortune and we don’t really know what his work was like.  This is quite different from the usual sort of film about art.  It’s cool, philosophical, not a study of fraught genius, but rather a reflection on what to do with what has been gathered together.
Museums become a little more crowded all the time.  Taste changes so the problem of what to discard -- something HAS to be discarded or the museums will become the size of football fields -- becomes highly contentious.  “De-accessioning” is the dodge-ball term for dumping out what the current administration thinks is out of favor.  And the government often finds it politically worth meddling with.
In the end I think that “Summer Hours” encourages us to live in the moment, enjoy what we have without smothering the next generation, drink today’s wine from the most elegant stemware and pass canapés on the loveliest silver trays, but don’t hesitate to jam autumn’s asters unsorted into a capacious art glass vase.  Still, one can’t help respecting and yearning to preserve the goals of that elegant, upright, slender, silver-haired niece who keeps her secrets but is willing to place worthy art where it will be appreciated.
Summer Hours (French: L'Heure d'été) is a 2008 French drama film directed by Olivier Assayas. It is the second in a series of films produced by Musée d'Orsay, after The Flight of the Red Balloon.”

Thursday, June 09, 2011


The first time I drove to Great Falls after moving back to Valier in 1999 and got close to town on highway 89, I gaped and gasped.  Suddenly, with my City of Portland “flood plain lady” eyes, I saw nothing but potential disaster. Now it’s here.  There were dikes and levees, there were some houses that were plainly built to some kind of flood plain standards (high foundations, bedrooms on the bottom floor with easy egress, etc) but like so many settlements, Great Falls is built on the confluence of rivers because those were the first highways and because settlements need water.  Also, rather uniquely for this state, the actual Great Falls were and are a major source of hydroelectric power, enough for metal refining.
But the pressure to build and the low prices that go with previously flooded places like Sun River combine to encourage outlaw housing.  Some people have the idea if they get established there, the government will be obligated to maintain levees and supply insurance.  But not this government, not now.
The journalists are pointing out over and over and again and again that no one properly understands the rule-of-thumb about flooding, which does NOT mean that in a “hundred-year” flood plain there will only be one flood every century.  It means that every year there is a one per cent chance of flooding.  In fact, since weather patterns tend to persist for a few years (even this year’s rogue pattern is not that different from last spring) there tend to be clusters for a few years.
Anyway, what the engineers did in hopes of getting some kind of provisional order was to guesstimate the volume of water likely to travel through a flood plain, use the isometric height contour maps to get a kind of estimated boundary, and then draw an imaginary line.  It’s all “if-then” thinking and since people are constantly filling in and leveling the land, the surveyed contour maps are soon out-dated.  In the Nineties the Portland Site Development team was constantly having to make decisions with major financial consequences for builders according to maps that were largely fantasy.
Now, of course, with GPS and satellite imagery, things are slightly better, but the whole concept needs to be rethought because of Global Warming.  Global Warming does NOT mean that the planet will soon be toastier (though that, too) but more relevantly means that the dynamics of weather will be radically changed because they will be driven faster and harder by the increased energy we call “warmer.”  
I read stacks of information on what happens to houses in floods.  First of all, they float off their foundations, since they are built like upside-down boats.  In some places the house sills may be bolted to the foundation and that’s a good thing (for earthquakes, too).  When a floating house is surrounded by water up to a height of about a third, it is likely to turn turtle, though it might not go all the way over and end up on its side.  
But the real danger is from floating debris crashing into the house, whether or not it is waterborne.  Other houses, big trees, and things like propane tanks that might explode, or cars which float as well as houses.  Then, of course, the infrastructure of piping and wiring throughout a town is likely to be damaged with bad consequences.  We’re sweating our sewer system at the moment, including the settling lagoon.  I’ve got a sump pump running in the basement and am badly in need of enough of a rain break to repair my gutters.  Valier is built on gumbo, ancient volcanic dust, which when dry is like cement with big cracks from shrinkage but when wet turns to sticky pudding and will not support weight.  The water is not coming in through cracks in the foundation, but welling up at the bottom from the saturated water table.
Yesterday I zoomed north to Shelby to pick up some supplies and also out of curiosity to see the Marias River, which comes out of some of the highest snowpack in the Rockies.  Sure enough, it’s way out of its banks and carrying debris, like trees, from banks that have caved.  I didn’t expect caving at the cut-down of the exit to the town, but crews were trying to figure out what to do.  The sliding dirt wasn’t falling on the road yet.  In Billings, the badlands rimrocks that rise above residential neighborhoods are loosing boulders big enough to crush houses.  A house there just exploded from accumulated natural gas, probably released by shifting pipes. 
Infrastructure includes vital transportation.  Water is taking out roads, large and small, and bridges, of course, but I did not know that it could warp and shift railroad track.  Though farmers are always begging for water in this dry country, the timing is lousy.  No one can get a wheeled vehicle into the field to plant and what was planted before the deluge is now rotting and floating.  No sunshine to drive roots into the ground and call out foliage.  
This was supposed to be another high-productivity year for Montana, much needed because other areas around the planet are having atypical weather patterns that have diminished their crop yields.  The planet’s reserve is drawn down, more than it would have been if so many grains weren’t grown now to produce ethanol.  Everything is connected.
FEMA is maxing out.  People have figured out how to game the system, and maybe the worst consequence of that is those who legitimately need help get short-sheeted.  Montana’s Governor Schweitzer has advised towns not to depend on the National Guard, which will be busy doing other things than sandbagging, like rescues and preventing looting.  Maybe all those people who want to build houses on beaches will think again, as will those who want to build in scenic but combustible forests.  In many cases we are living in exciting places with as much expensive technological and fuel support as we would need in outer space.  Air conditioning is all that keeps trailers in the SW from baking their occupants to death.  Moving one’s house (an RV) to fit the weather is a good (old) idea except for the cost of the fuel.  It worked better with horses.
In this rural community we cope pretty well.  Infrastructure isn’t that dependable even in the best of times.  So we depend on common sense, ingenuity and community memory.  For many of us, that goes back to 1964  which was NOT a hundred years ago.  I’m intrigued with the idea that this is related to sunspot activity, which is increasing greatly.  Floods may be nothing compared to the loss of our satellites.  The planet IS a space ship.  Sometimes flying blind.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


So many people have a book in them, often a personal and even obsessive account of their own lives but often an account that offers valuable help to others.  This is entangled in the American conviction that the right book can lift anyone into fame and fortune, sort of like being a movie star or an athletic hero.  And for American Indians there is another force, the one created by the worldwide fascination with the 19th century horseback warrior as depicted over and over -- talk about obsession.
Trace DeMeyer knew she was adopted, knew she was Native American, but had no idea what that really meant, so she stashed it.  But in one of those contemporary puzzles of not feeling as though one is really who one seems to be -- Trace calls it being “a duck raised by chickens” -- it kept coming back until she addressed it.  Not all at once and not without kicking a lot of other monsters out of the brush.  Like sexual abuse and alcoholism, but not in her Indian roots -- rather in the white family who adopted her.
Trace is short for Tracy, and a great name for a detective.  The book she finally self-published,  “One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects,” is a case study both of herself and of a whole class of people produced by social worker policy in adopting so many indigenous kids out of what were considered sub-standard families into what were thought to be “normal, well-adjusted” white families.  The name given to this class of person is “split-feathers” or “lost birds.”  
No doubt most of the people concerned in the Fifties, when this practice was at its peak, thought they were doing the right thing.  Adoption is one of those complex, double-edged psychological issues.   But now, partly because the political implications of genocide (snuffing an entire category of people, not by murdering their bodies but by renaming their identities) and partly because of money issues (many tribes are organized as cooperatives that share all assets of the group or at least as share-holders in the corporate model) things have become complicated indeed.
At the core of the issue is the feeling of being “different” at best and “not good enough” at worst, and hoping to leap out of the dilemma by discovering one is a “lost princess” switched at birth.  Then the danger becomes locating one’s real birth family and having to face all the issues that caused a child to be removed, voluntarily or not.  Especially for those with romantic ideas about Indians, the jolt can be pretty hard.
These forces both are and are not present in Trace’s story.  Her middle name is Persistence, I feel sure, and she had an experienced journalist’s ability to constantly find new leads.  She was and is in Massachusetts so didn’t have to be told,  “Yes, Virginia, there are Indians back East.”  She knew Indian families and wrote for Indian newspapers (News from Indian Country, Ojibwe Akiing (which she helped found), and Pequot Times) besides participating in online discussion groups like H-Amerindian, where we met.  (I am not Indian but have a fifty-year relationship with the Blackfeet reservation.)
The key to her story is infrastructure: networks, contacts, legislation, social worker practices, genealogy, genomic evidence and this is what makes her book more valuable than simply her own story -- which is what holds it all together.  She took notes, she kept records, she organized.  She helped all the other Lost Birds.  (I don't like the term "split feathers" much -- I'd prefer "double feathers.")
For a while Trace was in the Pacific Northwest where we might have met except that the timing was off.  Two major area figures in the “Lost Bird” movement are Terry Cross, a social worker specializing in issues about the abuse of Indian children, and Terry Tafoya, who speaks at workshops on the subject of cross-cultural adoption.  Trace mentions Cross, but not Tafoya, who has spoken more about adopted Indian males.  
Minority babies are often considered very “cute,” like little dolls.  Esp. in a liberal community they are accepted because they are no threat.   Tafoya is eloquent about the boy who at adolescence meets the issue of whether you’d want your sister to marry an Indian.  But the adult female is still not a threat -- in fact, the vague exotic aura can be sexually attractive.  Trace is quite beautiful.  Even with bleached hair she has high-cheek-bone flair, and because she had been abused, she has had to fight to get the “kick me” sign off her back.
There has been much talk about the glass ceiling over women, but not so much about the glass ceiling above “dark” people who must fight a different kind of stigma.  Like women, NA people are promotable into petit professional jobs: management, teachers, business entrepreneurs.  So long as they have recognizably virtuous ideas about reliability, sobriety, “values” and all that,  everything is fine.  But getting into the real responsibility and money just doesn’t happen.
The worst part of it is that those with the stigma accept it.  They feel it is part of their identity.  It takes a good deal of experience, if not therapy, to get past that nearly unconscious belief that somehow white people have contacts or skills or information that the striver has no access to.  I think this is where some of the rage over people who claim to be Indian comes from.  Another aspect is Indian impatience with all the zillion people who claim to have Cherokee princess grandmothers, even Bill Clinton.
Trace had the idea I might know where she could find a publisher.  She and her friends are self-publishing now and only partly aware that the publishing industry has collapsed.  It’s very recent and, in fact, not enough time has passed for publishing to re-form as something new that can handle both paper books and ebooks.  But I have this idea for publishers:  consider the success of Indians in re-forming from cultures smashed in their 19th century form, but somehow carrying their essential identity into today’s corporate reservation or urban diasphora.  Consider that Trace herself managed to rebuild from a slightly uneasy and askew adoptee into a resourceful double-heritage and eloquent spokesperson for many people.
In the meantime, buy the book direct.
Trace A. DeMeyer
PO Box 1061
Greenfield, MA  01302
Google News Group:  American Indian Adoptees

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

BLACK SWAN (The Movie)

The second time through “The Black Swan” I get it.  It’s a teeny-bopper fantasy that meets a grandiose narcissist abusive father fantasy ABOUT teeny-boppers.  “Growing up means sex, sex is evil and abusive, accepting it will kill you, growing up is the worst thing that can happen.”  Well -- next to competing with your mother, who probably wants to be your lover if not YOU.   
Wanting to be perfect is a common and destructive teeny-bopper fixation, because they are too young to know that no living thing is perfect.  Perfection is paralysis which is death, so one COULD say that the drive to be perfect is what killed our little swan, our “little princess.”  Nabokov’s version was much kinder, since Lolita simply becomes imperfect, a part of life.
Grandiose narcissist abusive fathers know nothing, NOTHING, about seduction.  I mean, when the choreographer turns to the little swan’s partner and demands,  “Would you want to fuck this woman?” does that put her in the mood?  (I thought the partner was quite sane.  Even the guy in the scary wizard mask who greets the little swan backstage with a cheerful “hey”!)   This story is about power-rape, sublimated through a “darker” woman who resorts to rohypnol, the date-rape drug, and makes it all the fault of the little swan that she doesn’t know any better and goes mad.  But tonsil-swallowing and crotch-grabbing are not turn-ons for beginners.  When the dancer becomes the black swan and kisses the choreographer hard, HE doesn’t respond -- just looks silly.
On the other side is the myth of the mad genius who is entitled to demand anything and dominate every woman he can.  (I suppose some people are dragging Balanchine into this.)  What if the little swan had met and fallen in love (remember that?) with a gentle, possibly androgenous dance partner?  Quite a different story, requiring a different director.  And a much different interpretation of sex.
Turning to another approach, I consult Boria Sax’s “The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature.”  The animal bride is a repeated figure in almost all mythology, Boria suggests possibly representing the emotional struggle with domestication, which meant separating people from wild animals in one way and bringing them closer to domestic animals in another, into a dependent relationship like a bride.  “Animal bride” stories are about women (occasionally men) who are captured, usually by seizing their skins when they’ve temporarily taken them off.  Sometimes they are bears and in coastal regions they are often seals, selkies.  
Boria suggests that the earliest “animal brides” were snakes, because they take off their skins annually and can be seen doing it.  Sometimes they are considered symbols of renewal, even healing.  In the oldest stories they are not so much associated with Freudian penises as with Medusa’s hair.  But Boria believes that at some point many of the Mediterranean and European myths begin to switch from snakes to big waterbirds.  He suggests the theme of “escaping” or running away might be related to migration when even pet birds will leave unless prevented some way.  I will suggest that many NA tribes replenished themselves by capturing women (including whites) who might or might not bond with the new group, so that they might long to escape “home.”  White women who had been captured since childhood might, if “rescued”, reversely long for their Indian families and homes.
This ambivalence between two worlds, expressed as human and animal, plus the shift from serpent to big bird (giving rise to feathered serpents and birds with long snaky necks) is the seed of “Swan Lake,” the original myth.  None of this seems to have been conscious or worth consideration for Aronovsky who, as his alter ego states, wants a stripped-down, shockingly intense version of the tale.  It sells tickets.  He sees this is about schizophrenia and the extreme discipline of the body.  Teeny bopper stuff. They buy tickets.
This is all background and related to what will probably be my most controversial position about this movie:  sex is here portrayed as almost the same thing as Evil.  Our American culture has bought into this.  Violence, even lethal violence against innocent people, is okay.  
“Good” (“hot”) sex is always violent.  It is portrayed that way.  Someone on the radio yesterday joked that a US senator was called on the carpet and thrown out of office because he was a family man who loved and protected his children and had sex only with his wife in a loving private way at home in the marital bed.  What an underachiever!   How boring!  If senators were like this, why would anyone run for office?
What a strange culture that demonizes virtue!  But, of course, it demonizes and stigmatizes everything that can’t be commodified.  AND wickedness sells better than virtue, esp. if the wickedness means access, power, domination, pleasure.  This movie is marketed as a “horror” movie, a psychological thriller, and much is made of the doppelganger, the double.  Although, as the guy in the club remarks,  “all you ballerinas look alike.”  I didn’t recognize Winona Ryder at all.  Even Hersey (once “Barbara Seagull,” remember that?) has the same bony face, big eyes, knob hairdo.
If I had the power to change one thing in this movie, I would have the CGI guys (who can do anything) create a shadowy black swan with powerful wings that would rise from the body of the white swan and soar out over the audience, though the walls of the building, and into that giant moon from the stage set.

Monday, June 06, 2011


This was evidently “roots” week, as I had three threads on the subject going all week!

First was a query from a man in Norway trying to find Bob’s brother’s wife’s descendants.  That would be my ex-niece and former student, Laurel.  But she was on vacation and her cousin is a nurse who works odd hours, and this man was getting more and more frustrated so he was sending me more and more messages.

Second was a re-contact with Trace De Meyer, a woman of mixed genetic heritage who had been adopted out of a Native American family into a white family that turned out to be abusive (sexually and emotionally).  She recognized me because she had been on some of the same NA “talking lists” and is now keeping a blog for “Split Feathers” or “Lost Birds,” the many many Indian children adopted to white families for several decades.  Many vital issues to discuss.  She has published a book which I’ll review later. "One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects."

Third was Bob Scriver’s first wife’s seventh child, who was adopted and whose existence was only known to a few family members who kept it secret.  That wife, Alice Prestmo Scriver Skogen Stainbrook (three husbands) died soon after the birth of Karen, who was adopted to a successful family and cherished, but always curious about her birth family.  Clearly the way we once handled adoptions --  denial and sentimentality entwined -- doesn’t work, but the trouble is in part that no one “way” is successful in every case anyhow. 

In this specific case, there is Gardner’s Syndrome in the genome -- a proclivity for intestinal polyps that can develop into colon cancer.  That was the cause of death for Karen’s mother and grandmother and her half-sister and half-brother, who were Bob Scriver’s children.  It’s possible that Bob had a recessive version of the troublesome gene.  This mutation was also denied and suppressed by the people who could have told Karen.

Both Trace and Karen (as well as Amy) are achievers, but restless, uneasy in relationships until many years of wrestling yielded enough of their unknown stories to give them a little confidence and let them reach out.  Trace has the more dramatic story and is a journalist quite capable of telling it.  Karen is an artist.  What’s remarkable is how many times the three of us have lived in the same places and crossed trails without knowing it.  (I am not adopted and have a LOT of genealogical info.)  Karen’s third husband was close friends with the son of Bob Scriver’s best friend, Ace Powell, and her husband knows several of my good friends on the Blackfeet reservation.  These women are in their forties, about the daughter-age for me.

The man from Norway is in a slightly different situation.  He’s middle-aged, has no immediate family, does IT work for a living so spends a lot of time alone.  Such a man has a little proving to do when contacting female relatives, to assure us that he’s not just cruising, but he did have a body of information to share.  I DID emphasize to him that his branch in this country has had a long struggle with depression/alcoholism/Alzheimer’s (not uncommon in northern Europe) so he might look into his own genome.  That cooled his jets a little. 

For both Karen and Trace there was no happy mother pleased to see them -- both women died before they could be met -- but sibs and others were curious and pleased.  Adoptions can arise from unhappy or nonexistent marriages, so there are always hints of sexual nonconformity, somebody not playing by the rules, which can even threaten present relationships, both for the mother and the daughter.  Each situation is unique, but there are major social constructs about such things as adoption, especially when romantic cultures like Native Americans are involved.  There was real trauma and injustice.

My impulse is to work at two levels: the most personal and specific and then in the background the most universal and scientific.  What are the great human universals in regards to children and identity?  Are they considered possessions (all too often!) actually owned by the father, along with their mother?  Are they legal access to wealth, either by inheritance from blood parents or by entitlement to membership in a specially compensated group (tribe)?  Is a person’s identity determined by pedigree (the acknowledged ancestors) or genome (no two people have the same genome) or by how the physical body and brain have been developed over years of experience and skill-building?  What special vulnerabilities or talents have been carried from one generation to another?

What status does parentage bestow?  What are the relationships, legal and emotional, between blood parents and adopting parents, to say nothing of children created in a petri dish, implanted with eight ova (some of which were deliberately snuffed to save the others), fathered by frozen sperm from an unknown donor, carried to term by a surrogate mother, raised by an adoptive mother or even by a genetic mother who delegated all care (including nursing) to a hired servant or a slave.  When these practices are broadly shared, a kind of class of person is created, like Southern children raised by slave nannies or British boys raised by the equivalent of religious boarding schools for Native Americans with discipline just as harsh.  I expect there to be some rather powerful groups to eventually form out of the many female Chinese babies adopted in this country.  I call them the Little Empresses, because those I’ve met have strong personalities.

Nineteenth Century people strategizing about the Native American “problem” were dealing with Nineteenth Century cultures still mostly intact and functional, but they had no awareness nor respect for “other” cultures, so they tied entitlement to provenance, figuring that intermarriage with whites would gradually dilute the gene pool into assimilation.  But then they put children at the pairing age together in government boarding schools, so now there’s a generation of multi-tribe people who are “all Indian” but don’t have enough tribal percentage to gain entitlement in any of them.  Eisenhower, who wanted to get rid of reservations as inefficient, thought,  “Oh, we’ll send them all to the cities and that will break up the symbiosis with place.”  But the government, in its usual half-hearted way, didn’t fund or guide relocation enough to keep people out of the ghettoes, so now the NA’s are mixed with blacks, Asians, Polynesians, Maori, Hispanic, Irish, etc.  I call them Tomorrow’s People.  Many of them are on the Pacific coast where people gathered during WWII for wartime manufacturing.

But Trace is aware of the irony in her situation because the more she traced her heritage, the more she found very early European immigrants.  In fact, I once heard an expert suggest that any family with roots that go back more than a couple of hundred years is bound to include Native Americans.  But at the same time the tribal relatives she found were a great source of satisfaction on both sides.  I think joyful and forgiving perseverance is the way to go.  Check out Trace at

Saturday, June 04, 2011


A young man has asked me for advice about Meadville/Lombard.  Actually, he is asking about ministry in general and whether and how he could fit into it.  Presently he’s a high school English teacher, bored out of his mind, teaching to tests, thinking there must be more to life.  He’s right, of course.  He sent me a TED vid url:   It’s a nice one, especially at the end.  In part it prompts these thoughts.

I think one of the problems about ministry is how to “locate” it.  This young man asked me about what he has to do to qualify for ordination so he can be hired for a church.  That’s the way it works for teachers.  But in the UU tradition, it is the congregation that ordains.  They are saying,  “We value you and accept you as our leader, therefore we ordain you.”  Of course, that’s gotten corrupted and faded like everything else and a lot of congregations just rubber stamp the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee which has a set of minimal requirements.

One of the most useful of those requirements is not a class or set of classes or list of books to read.  It is Clinical Pastoral Education, which is a system that takes ministerial candidates into a hospital or other high stress situation (prison, factory) -- no one has done a CPE in combat so far as I know, but CPE is combat in itself -- and exposes them to reality to find out what they are made of.  Regardless of dogmatic conviction, the person goes to others, sits by their beds, and opens up to their needs and beliefs, responding to them in some way that helps them to heal, to die, to accept a new infant, to accept the loss of legs or eyes, whatever.  All the miserable and challenging things that happen to humans.

This is the heart of ministry.  Not supernatural formulas so that some other world acts through you.  Not representation of a denomination, no matter how powerful and distinguished.  Not the tradition of an admired seminary.  Just the human capacity for being truly heart-to-heart with someone else, no matter what it costs you.

I’d be willing to bet that only ten percent of all legitimately identified ministers of all kinds actually do this -- actually and truly ARE ministers.  The rest go through the motions, enjoy the office and robes, and feel free to pretend as the congregation wishes -- with a little sneaking around on the side.  Like politics.

I would also bet that ten percent of human beings at large, undesignated and unqualified, are capable of and willing to embrace other humans intimately and feel what they feel.  The nice thing about seminary education is that it gives you a lot of good words to say and gestures to make, a vocabulary.  CPE throws you right up hard against life and death.

If a person wants to be a minister or is a natural minister, no institution is necessary.  I don’t mean a person SHOULD be a minister without a denominational identity or a congregational salary and office, but that it is NOT necessary.  One can minister as a nurse, a teacher, a truck driver, a janitor, and so on. (I will say cynically that if a person tries to minister as a doctor or lawyer or banker, he or she will go broke in a hurry.)  One can minister TO or IN SPITE OF an institution like a school, a stand-and-fight strategy, change-making.

Or if you have real “balls” as we genderly render courage, you can start a new institution or invent a new role or just be yourself in the world with no title at all.  Eating could get to be a problem.  You might need sponsors.  You might need to learn how to raise funds.  (That’s a big part of what the minister in a church does.)

This construction of the ministerial role has nothing to do with privilege or “chosenness” or being the “beloved leader.”  It’s about obligation and risk.  I learned this from Blackfeet.  When whites come in with their everlasting Victorian class convictions, they see “chiefs” as the most important people, the people everyone must obey.  Big male warriors with impressive regalia.  But the key person, the one who has the fate of the entire tribe on their backs, is the little bent-over ancient woman who has stayed pure of heart and whose choices control the fate of all the people.  The key instrument is not the war spear but the digging stick.

You won’t believe this, of course.  Doesn’t matter.  It just “is.”

If you contact me, you can expect to be written about, one way or another, unless you ask me not to.  I’m not unsympathetic to this young man, but his problem looks to me like a life that’s too easy:  nice big historic home church that can afford THREE ministers; good job, well paid; lovely wife, gainfully employed; and so on.  He’s not in Pakistan carrying a gun.  He’s not in surgery with a life depending on him.  He doesn’t even have to write his own curriculum.  Just keep up the lock step.  But he has a good mind and, I presume, an itchy heart. 

When I was in the ministry, I used to do a little workshop about “being where you are.”  I never perfected it; no one thought much of it.  A man came to my talk and said he was baffled how to participate in this discussion about the meaning of place, because he lived in a house in a development that was “no place.”  He said there was nothing under his house.  Nothing had ever happened there.  But the problem was not in the place -- it was in his relationship to it.  He wasn’t digging deep enough.

So this young man is wondering which seminary to attend, how to get the best credentials.  And I’m wondering how to throw him end-over-end into where he is right now.  Volunteer someplace?  Get deeper into the lives of his students?  Teach English to prison inmates?  Guard Planned Parenthood from attackers?  Ridealongs with cops?  Because I don’t think the world needs one more civilized, handsome, charming institutional minister.  I think the world needs more people holding digging sticks.


Not long ago I watched a video about “tight” societies versus “loose” societies that didn’t just describe them but tried to explain why they were that way.  The spokesperson was female in this presentation.
The concept is that various forces interact to create the general norming of nations, with those under threat or recovering from disasters or struggling with shortages, etc., tending to be the most tight, that is, most conservative and intolerant of deviation.  This is Razib at Gene Expression making some observations.  I’ve been reading this guy for years and he’s pretty sharp.  Specifically, he’s good at analyzing research studies.

The unspoken assumption is that looseness is good and the US is very loose and that’s a reflection of our virtue, but that we need to understand “tight” countries so we can deal with them.  There’s a little hint of “well, we must be patient because they’ve had hard times.” 

One of the relevant variables considered was population density, about which the researchers were a little conflicted.  They feel that the denser the population, the more there are niches and bubbles, which amount to looseness, but Iceland has very low density and a loose population, so maybe the less space competition, the less one has to conform?  But strangely, the population density of a country in 1500 was highly relevant to their attitudes now. 

Is the relative tightness of Asian countries due to their population density or something cultural or even something genetic?  Are religions that are focused on conformity the result or the cause of the tightness of a country?  There doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to the influence of the environment -- some places are tougher to live in and require more group cooperation.  There was mention of ag-based lives versus industrial or corporate or bureaucratic -- however you define it.  Urban.  They took no account of undercultures, particularly criminals which can be stabilizing to the point of paralysis or totally destabilizing in a situation like drug cartel Mexico.

I also think about enclaves of people who prefer looseness but live in a tight society, like Unitarians in the Bible Belt.  In my experience, they like looseness only in certain dimensions and require conformity to the norms of the in-group.  As an individual who is a free-thinker and a free-styler in personal habits, I’m happy to live in a relatively “tight” town because the things they want conformity to are things I already do anyway: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t drive around fast, sleep around, etc.  The only problem is they want my house and yard to be nicer than I can afford, but they understand poverty and old age.

It’s harder to understand enclaves of people who prefer tightness in a loose society.  Convents, I suppose, but also cults and -- to some degree -- schools.  The real reason I’m reading this stuff is to try to solve the on-going struggles in Heart Butte where what seems to be a loose society demands tightness from their school, but not really.

Last night on “All Things Considered,” the latest college athletics scandal was discussed and once again it was proposed that education and sports competition should be separated.  It strikes me that sports goals are best pursued as “tight” communities, indeed, filtered for skill and determination.   But education goals can be developed either as “tight” (meeting all those Bushy testing goals) or as “loose,” supporting every student in his or her style and interests.  But only a private school can be “tight” in the way an athletic team is, discarding anyone who doesn’t fit.  And “loose” can become aimless wandering.  Or just disruptive.

Today’s NYTimes has an article about the distress of “loose” teachers (specifically,loose-lipped on Facebook) trying to enforce tight standards, though they don’t set up the discussion that way.  The precipitating incidents were teachers complaining about how much they despised their students.  I sympathize.  Students who dislike their teachers, who hear their parents mocking and berating them, who hate being regimented in any way, can be monsters of balking, sabotaging, attacking. 

They always make me remember a movie from the Fifties in which Annie Oakley was substituting in a frontier one-room school house.  The “big boys” smarted off.  She pulled her six-gun, forced them to put their inkpots on their heads and then shot the inkpots so they ended up with ink running down their smart aleck faces.

A contrasting incident is when I was briefly teaching in an adjacent town and had a class that had deliberately run off their previous teacher, a young man.  They did what they pleased throughout the school and it was fairly transgressive, though not as much as they thought.  They were unhappy, mostly, because they were skilled athletes and being exploited for the prestige of the coaches and administration.  They sort-of knew it, but couldn’t get outside the conformity of small-town team adulation.  I was shaking my head over them when I went to eat my lunch sandwich and sat down with some veteran teachers.  “What would you do with these boys?”  I asked.  The answer was immediate:  “Kill them.”  And they meant it.  Annie Oakley, aiming low.

The irony was that some of these boys will kill themselves, one way or another.

The people doing the study were particularly concerned with immigration, where persons of one style move into another society with quite a different set of unspoken “rules.”  Such people understandably express much isolation and bafflement.  Sometimes they throw themselves into being “more American than Americans” and other times they define themselves as outliers and stay in a tight little defensive band like buffalo facing wolves. 

A school that has teachers from “outside” as Heart Butte did in the two years I was there is going to have trouble.  The grade school teachers had over the years assimilated to the village or maybe had come from the local scene anyway.  But high school teachers came from outside -- sometimes quite different places.  They were a shock and since they came as a group, they reinforced each other.

Structural considerations, matters of style, nearly unconscious standards and definitions, are all on the table these days -- partly because of our internal differences which have grown to the level of legislative gridlock and partly because of the difficulty in resolving international problems without simply bombing hell out of them with predator drones.  Bin Laden managed to seriously dislocate our assumptions, justifying a LOT of tightening.  Whether we can find looseness that isn’t simply, well, “floppy,” will be a long task, maybe more than the economic crash.  Anyway, how much does the commodification of everything promote “tightness” (gotta have a certain lifetyle) or “looseness” (deregulation in order to make money).

It’s interesting that bin Laden’s prestige and power were not much affected by demonizing him.  In fact, that possibly made him more powerful.  What has deflated him in a commodified world was discovering that he lived so “poorly” in a “bare room” with “old furniture” and a blanket over his shoulders, watching vids on a monitor that wasn’t even flat screen.