Wednesday, February 29, 2012


When I taught high school English in the Sixties, the “English” textbooks included a section on propaganda, which was a list of errors in logic that are often used to persuade people. Like “glittering generalities” that try to skip over the smaller facts that undercut a statement. For instance, all that raving about the pipeline that some people thought would provide jobs is ALREADY BUILT! It’s merely too small and the last part from Oklahoma to Houston was never built, so -- small or not -- it ends in a tank farm -- hundreds of them -- where years of too much oil has been stored waiting for refineries, which is where the real bottleneck is. So where’s the roadblock? Not in Canada or Montana or the Dakotas, etc. etc. but in the pro-oil state of TEXAS. Are they building new refineries? No, they are closing the old ones down. And (I'm guessing) trying to force relaxation of regulations or maybe subsidies.

Another lapse of logic often came up at seminary. It was “misplaced concreteness.” Elaine Pagels has a fascinating book out at the moment that’s an analysis of the Book of Revelation.

Not only is she able to distinguish among the several “Johns” (John of this and John of that), she is able to decode the whole book in terms of the politics when it was written and the actual events being described were happening. The exploding mountain was simply Vesuvius and “666” is the numerology code for Nero. You can read her book to find out the rest. As she says, this is not an intellectual New Testament book, but an emotional one. (I’m prompted to think of getting a dragon tattoo -- a small red one with one head. Seven head with horns seem excessive, but a crown might be a nice touch.)

Another major thinking error is called from “is” to “ought.” This is going to be a tough one through the approach to the presidential election because the wrestling between keeping everything the same (to the advantage of some people) and changing everything (to the advantage of a different set of people) is already ferocious and will get more so. Everyone is always wary of change. (Better the known enemy than the unknown good -- which might turn out to be even worse.)

More than that, what is familiar -- whether a lifestyle or a phenomenon -- always seems “right” while everything else strikes us as out of whack. I once read a brilliant essay about this in terms of environment. One always wants the landscape to be the way it was when first sighted. So to someone from elsewhere who came here when the spotted knapweed was in bloom might find the huge mists of purple very beautiful and worth preserving, not knowing about the plants this invasive weed has managed to strangle out, plants that were good food for animals, which spotted knapweed is not. (Goats might like it, but you know about goats -- they’ll eat the laundry off the clothesline and used to be pictured eating tin cans!)

Most propaganda against Obama is plainly straw man stuff, attacking him for being someone he’s factually not at all. They claim he’s not American, that he’s Islamic, that he’s a robot, and on and on and on. Every characteristic that would be seen as praiseworthy in any context -- patience, reflectiveness, poise, and intelligence -- are construed as either an evil plot of a character defect.

But I hardly know what to call the phenomenon among the Repub candidates where some exhibit behavior that is marginally criminal and certainly immoral but it just doesn’t stick. The phrase “the Teflon president” is not really about propaganda but about a willfulness on the part of the people listening. How is it that a man who abandons dying wives, lies about his sources of income, changes his position on political matters to the point of being erratic, and has a wife/former mistress (with hair no one likes) can come out of all that being considered brilliant and fit to run the United States?

I googled to look for lists of propaganda techniques and found them easily, but it surprised me that they were rather clearly from conservative, right-wing, “from is to ought” sources. All the examples of over-promising things that couldn’t be delivered, forcing issues into black and white polarities instead of leaving them the tangle of gray most real life is, urging people to stay with the crowd (get on the band wagon), changing policy to fit what will get a candidate elected and so on were examples from liberal ideas.

One of my little truth tests is reversal, turning the accusation back to test it against the accuser, because people’s ideas of what is painful and wicked are created by their own experience without any awareness that the same thing might not hurt their victim -- in fact, might not even come across as an attack. So old fat mean and vindictive people will accuse me of being old fat mean and vindictive because to THEM those are terrible offenses. They pride themselves on being young, thin, kind and forgiving -- or so they think.

There is a whole series of quips based on this reversal thing. Legend has it that a statement on the wall of a biffy at Reed College in Portland (notoriously brainy but unruly and liberal): “God is dead, signed Nietzsche.” Under it someone wrote “Nietzsche is dead, signed God.” And under that was a whole series of bold assertions turned on their heads: “Religion is the opiate of the people, signed Marx.” “Marxism is the opiate of the people, signed ?” (I forget who. Surely not the Pope, though he’s a bold Capitalist.) Particularly vulnerable are all the hoary bearded prophets of the Victorian era that produced so many patriarchs. (Some would like to have them back -- the return of Daddy.)

We are in a time of tumultuous change, which is not so unusual, but we can see it all day every day, even photograph it ourselves on our smart phones and send the snap to the media where it might or might not be presented out of context. Politicians trim their sails to suit the wind but then the media plays tape of them doing the opposite days earlier. And the greatest thinking error of all is that money counts. That money can save us. That the source of our troubles is not enough money. That money is any kind of indicator of value or virtue.

A recent study asserts that rich people are more greedy than poor people, suggesting that having a lot makes you want more. It seems obvious to me that the way some rich people get rich in the first place is by being greedy. It's a circle. We could call it the 666 effect.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


About a month ago around suppertime I got a phone call from my eye doctor. This was so disconcertingly unique that I couldn’t hear what he was saying for a few minutes. Even then, it seemed simply a call to see how I was doing because of having precursors to glaucoma: diabetes, a skewed visual disc where the optic nerve attaches to the eyeball, a mother with glaucoma, ocular migraines, and marked nearsightedness -- plus the fact that I developed holes in my retinas while I was in Saskatoon. Several years ago this was the doctor who could see I had diabetes because in the eye one can see a tiny sample of the circulatory system traced on the retina.

But I was alerted that something more was going on. I made an appointment which was yesterday. A week ago I got a phone call from office staff (which is not unusual) to confirm my appointment and also to tell me that the doctor had quit the Great Falls Clinic and would be found at a new address, a far more modest building than the GF Clinic’s architectural monstrosity. (You can see my bias already.) When I got to the office, it was in a state of chaos.

The doc had moved out sooner than he had expected, so he was in a small suite while waiting for a larger suite to be remodeled for him. The computers had not been delivered. A quick walk up and down the hall (looking for the ladies’ room) revealed suites in every state of deshabile -- newly vacated, half-rebuilt, and one or two actually occupied. The doc’s waiting room at that point (lunch time) was empty but the small space behind the check-in window was crowded with staff. I settled down to read magazines while the waiting room filled up with older rural guys, mostly overweight and full of quips at the expense of Democrats. This doc’s practice is crammed with people whose eyes have been damaged by constant outdoor exposure to intense sunlight with a high UV component. The best plant catalogues will list the UV resistance of the various plants because the high clear air lets so much of it through.

Again I had to INSIST that if they put lidocaine in my eye to put the glaucoma instrument against it, they must be prepared to wash the stuff right back out again or my eyes will swell shut. The allergy is on my file folder or should be, but most of my records are still back at GF Clinic. The tech again argued that I was wrong, I was being unreasonable, there was no record, etc. but in the end she did what I said. The exam was the fastest on record, done with handheld instruments, and showed that my eyes were unchanged. Perversely, I always feel as though I’ve wasted time and money when there’s no change!

BUT, in the past in other places, I’ve always asked for my prescription to carry in my wallet as a safeguard against smashed glasses. I also carry a spare, but I feel better if I have my prescription. Besides that, it is possible to order glasses through the Internet for a fraction of what oculists charge. As well, the selection of frames is much broader than any oculist could carry and what the oculists DO carry is always trendy, what will sell, so attuned to fashion-conscious young people. What I want next is “Harry Potter” glasses: round. I’ve been wearing an old pair of big-lensed glasses which is fine, since fashion is not a concern. The big lenses make enough area for “graduated” bi-focals so I can read and work onscreen without having to get a crick in my neck. The GF Clinic refused to give me my prescription. My doc, now making his own judgments, wrote it out for me on the spot.

This is all trivia. I am far more interested in what’s going on with these doctors and the Great Falls Clinic. Everything in Great Falls is driven by money and most of the money is concentrated in Malmstrom Air Force Base, education, and medical care. The aluminum and copper refineries are long gone as is the railroad. However, there’s a strong nexus of cultural centers: the Russell Museum, the History Museum, the Lewis & Clark Museum, the Children’s Museum, and many smaller groups. There is also a undertow of crime, though nothing like the major Canadian cities close to the border or, say, Butte, or increasingly Missoula. So far there is not the sudden influx of violent opportunists that are plaguing the northeastern oil patch, but there are way too many murders in the newspaper, too many child abuse cases, too much underground (sometimes literally) deal-making going on.

March is the month of ice breakup and often other shifts as well. Malmstrom is going from fighter planes to transport. That means the streets will be safer and the bars will not be quite so boisterous. (I always joke that Tenth Ave S is dangerous because half the drivers are jet pilots and the other half think they are.) The legal status of things like the big electricity generating dams is changing.

But medical is where there is always action, not least because of the McLaughlin Center for mouse research which does crucial work with knock-out genetics -- the protocols where mice are bred to be mutated and then tested to see what the knocked-out genes did.

At one point there were two major hospitals who competed against each other. Involvement in both the hospitals and local higher education was strongly based in religious orders which have shrunk over the years and finally found they had to sell out. In theory steps were taken to restrain monopoly, but the buyers soon found ways around that. A large pool of aging people with rich land-based estates, and absentee progeny who never came back after being sent to all the best schools, is a cash cow, as the lawyers have known for decades. Now, with mineral leases acting like cocaine, predators who can figure angles are thriving. Not so many are doctors as are medical administrators. I couldn’t prove it, I couldn’t point to individuals, but it’s just under the surface all the time. The newspaper is dependent on the huge advertising stream of the hospitals and clinics.

I interpret my eye doc as moving out of that context. He looks enormously stressed. His staff, operating practically out of each other’s laps and without the computers they need, was cheerful. They know something. They are looking at a bit of the economic circulatory stream.

Monday, February 27, 2012


On one of the listservs I follow, there was a brief flurry of discussion about paradigm shift. In the course of it I said something about religion, maybe referencing my education. Immediately several people reacted -- religion is a hot button issue, as they say. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is absolutely convinced that they know all about it and that it is POSSIBLE to know all about it. No one is allowed to argue or reason, either one. To put it in a fancy way, none of them were in the same religious paradigm as myself. Most of them were working with 1950 at the most recent.

To these people religion is about God and a physical local church. That’s it. Nothing about theodicy (the problem of how God can be good and all-powerful given the world as it is), nothing about Biblical translations (none were right wing people), nothing about world religions. I think to these people Islam is not a religion, not even a cult, just a delusion. Only Christian denominations count as anything. And these are folks who are pretty well-educated. But they don’t realize how much they assume. (Paradigms ride deep in the subconscious.)

If they had been of a slightly more recent era, they would have referenced what they fancied to be Native American or Buddhist ideas and completely discounted anything having to do with Christianity as corrupt, misleading, and old-fashioned. Just myths and curiosities. I think that most of the people born since 1990 or so simply don’t think about religion at all. It’s just “out there,” someone else’s problem. THEIR problem is finding a job.

I have a Blackfeet friend who is a ceremonial traditionalist and a Christian evangelist. Pretty much Pentecostal Christian. Ecstatic. Charity-based. Rule-driven. Assuming pervasive evil in the world. Dramatic.

I have a lot of Unitarian friends left over from when I was serving congregations of the UU kind. Their idea of “religion” is pretty much liberal culture, a way of eating (Thai), a certain kind of literature (edgy) and a strong overlap with Democrat political ideas. They are outraged by anything oppressive and make rhetoric about it, but no particular effort to read in depth or do anything. Local unchurched people here in small town Montana think in the same terms, but flipped -- to them it is Obama who is the devil impoverishing us all.

These are outrageous stereotypes, easily refuted, just making a point. They are paradigms, I guess, but maybe something else. I cannot explain my own assumptions very easily because they are ever-changing in the first place and in the second place assume acceptance of a lot of arcane science: cosmic, molecular, evolutionary, brain-exploring -- which is also changing fast these days and in my case is juxtaposed with the results of formal comparative religious study. I begin to leave the notion of “mind” as conscious thought and go to “mind” as simply physical brain function, much of it unconscious. And identity as well. My understanding of possibility is vast -- a little too vast. Sometimes I remember the schizophrenic lady I used to visit as an animal control officer in order to take away her excess cats. She’d come to the door and tell me, “I’m not myself today! I’m just not myself.”

People sometimes seem to think that I know something that they don’t and that if they found it out, that would somehow empower them. I guess it’s shaman stuff, the wish for a formula, a magic substance. If I tell them they wouldn’t understand something I’m working on, that enrages them. My mother used to get VERY angry. She thought that religious subjects were in a certain category (blind faith) and that I was implying that she didn’t know her Bible. But at the very end she changed her paradigm: “I hope the next planet is as much fun as this one was,” she said, as though it were a tour. Maybe she was right. But right or wrong is not the point.

So many things can’t be stated in a hundred words or less but must be more or less “lived” into, step-by-step. It’s not so much that the subject changes as that the way one looks at it changes. To see things differently is to become a different person and then you see even more. If their “paradigm” tells them that there is something hidden and powerful, that they are being excluded as though they were children and “too young to know,” no wonder they get angry. But there are many unknowable things and what I already know is plenty to digest. There is nothing to tell anyone else unless they think the way I do. I mean, I’m not holding anything back. It’s all in plain sight if a person has eyes to see.

So what hope is there for publishing or even conversation? Will my stuff be read and understood after I’m dead? What difference would it make, since the paradigms will just go on shifting and shifting, like sand dunes, the same but different.

There are a few people in my life whom I would like to save, to comfort, to go on loving if they would allow it. This is outside my powers. One or two have built their lives on opposition, secrecy, elusiveness, unknowability. Bob Scriver did. The only thing I can do for them is to go on not-knowing, persisting in opposition, continuing the same strategy that has been there in the past. Being no different. No conversions. No sudden revelations. No handing over the key to the cabinet with all the secret papers. Persisting -- acceptance of what has been.

To some degree this is strategy meant to continue after death, but that event can’t help but change everything. Whether it would be big enough to constitute a paradigm change, I don’t know. For all I know I myself might crash on the way to my routine eye checkup today. But there’s not enough time to go deeper, swear allegiance, break through to another paradigm. All lives are unfinished. We go forward on blind faith.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


In the eighties when I began doing the research and reflection necessary for this manuscript, I was in a seminary that was not exactly doctrinally Christian but at least a part of Christian culture. I had to come to terms with the quadrants produced by working with a Cross. The explanation I liked best was Paul Tillich’s because he spoke of the horizontal crossbar being extended experience on this earth surface (history and geography) versus the vertical timber as being aspiration to the transcendent and possibly rootedness in the deep interior of the person. I used to have a little riff about how the transcendent strikes through the ordinary again and again, not just once, so that the symbol ought to look like a whole lot of verticals and one horizontal.

But soon I went to the idea of a dot in a circle -- the dot being that which is most centered in the person and the circle as the most distant conceivable awareness that person has. I added the idea of the vertical at the middle of the dot: the person’s “axis mundi” or “umbilical attachment.” Then a life story seemed to be a matter of traveling on that schema from what is most central to what is most distant. But what starts out as the edge of the unknown can become the limits of what is allowed.

I had the assumption that a person is an instrument of mind/heart, the source of observation, the collection and integration point of experience. Thus the crucial importance of both sensory access (data) and brain function (theory), one informing the other in both directions. I thought about the many ways of extending one’s senses (microscopes, telescopes, various recording devices and intensifying strategies) to things that no human being alone could sense plus the strategies that make circumstantial evidence or testimony from others fairly reliable.

At that point neither I nor anyone else knew anything about “mirror cells” which allow one person to access the experience of another person, a phenomenon usually called “empathy.” When one sees a hand laid gently alongside the face of another, one feels it on one’s own face. I had done acting exercises in which one persuades someone else to copy one’s posture, expression, and -- ultimately -- emotion. So now I wonder how to make my little dot in a circle add some symbolism for empathy. Maybe a lot of circles with dots in the middle, with arrows going back and forth. Wireless. Bluetooth technology.

All along I’ve been quarreling with two common and stubborn Christian ideas. One is the concept of God. I do not believe there is a big humanoid in the sky and I do not think it is helpful to anthropomorphize the concepts of creation or love. The other is the pesky problem of the congregation, particularly when it becomes institutionalized, bureaucratized, and begins missionizing to capture others. So often this is a source of evil. Both of these problems are helped by considering empathetic sharing with others instead of the constant fortification of one’s own self-understanding. It is a way to escape both narcissism and anthropocentrism.

In fact, I think empathy was built into my liturgical structure (unawares) at the point of what I call “Dilation of the Spirit,” which is very much a matter of being conscious of others. (We say “raising one’s consciousness.”) To experience the Confession and the responding Assurance of Pardon “properly”, one doesn’t confess one’s own personal sins but acknowledges the tragedies of all people -- maybe all entities. To exist is to be limited, even broken. We all die. The Assurance of Pardon is really an Assurance that the greater whole continues, which can be a source of joy through belonging and participation. It can be powerful to sit with others and face these two extremes, sharing the experience.

V.S. Ramachandran is a brain researcher who is able to explain -- or begin to explain -- how the human brain, that three pound blob of jelly, works. Research shows that the brain is in a sense rhizomatic -- it is a network where cells (rhizomes) are connected by tendrils. At first it was thought that each cell contained the information for one function or thought or memory or sensation. Now we see that there are regions with specialized functions (face recognition, sense of time, attribution of importance) each with connections to other parts. In a living person the whole brain is engaged in a dynamic and constant dance of processing.

Something about this allows “recursive embedding” which I take to be the ability to think about ourselves thinking, so that I can not only invent a theological diagram, but go back later to see that it is too limited and to devise an addition. Then to reflect on the implications of this addition. Not only are we aware of other’s consciousness, but we are able to stand apart from ourselves, observing. We are our own guardian angels.

Over the years I’ve been criticized for being narcissistic (self-contained, uninterested in other people, more concerned with my own goals than theirs). This is reflected in my diagram of just ONE circle and ONE dot, so that it was about my own inner world and not about sharing with others. It might be suggested that my circle boundary is too hard to penetrate, that I’m isolating myself, don’t want to share. Or it might be that I’m keeping my boundaries high because otherwise I am too EASILY penetrated by other people and find myself dominated by their needs and ideas. I suspect that boundaries are situational: we string barbed wire to keep some people and ideas out, but quickly open doors for others and even find that some people can fly over our walls. (Sometimes we bond or even fuse with others, which is a different kind of problem.)

Boundary disorders can be either organic (the bit of brain that works with mirror neurons isn’t functioning) or psychological (you just don’t want to know -- maybe are afraid). If the resulting disorder is a problem, both possibilities need to be explored. Ramachandran does much work with people who have phantom limbs: an imagined limb that persists after the flesh has been cut off. He set up a screen to hide the amputated arm and a mirror so the amputee could see “both arms” -- one of them being the reflection. Then the amputee made movements with his good arm, “saw” the missing arm do the same things in the mirror, and his brain erased the phantom. (You can see videos of Ramachandran explaining on, TED, or Charlie Rose.) It is possible that autism is due to missing or malfunctioning mirror neurons, which would cut the person off from empathetic connection with other people. They are not ignoring, but emotionally blind.

Sharing minds, emotions, visions, in a group is at the heart of congregational liturgies. At its most transcendent, it seems a participation in the cosmos. Not control, not protection of oneself, but joining in the ongoing dance. But for many people the key to the boundary is lost and they are isolated, lonely, unconsoled. An ordinary church experience does not reach them.

What are the keys that will open up boundaries? What screens and mirrors? Singing and dancing? Words? Sex? Danger? Drugs? What if a person outside the boundary has an accurate understanding of what is inside some person's boundary and presents it through the arts, whether talk, painting, pantomime? Will the barricaded person feel the empathy and open the door? This may be the real effectiveness of psychotherapy. But it might also be a salvific use of liturgy, to embody a phantom life.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


This time of year I’m always a little confused. Like the weather. Like the long skeins of geese that have been sculling the skies, looking for open water. Today it’s here, tomorrow it’s there. It may be only folk legend, but it seems as though many old timers slide away about now, so that the obituaries are listing ranchers more than a hundred years old, which means they were born before World War I.

This year the farmers are checking their winter wheat without a lot of hope since there has been so little moisture, so little snow to cover it with insulation. Last year was so wet and now this year is so dry. The great scythe of weather swings back and forth, changing everything and confounding any sense of whether the global weather is warming or cooling or simply chaotic. We watch the sky for signs of the jet stream.

I have a cardboard box of sweetgrass I cut from the bed I grow in my back yard. Originally I brought it into the house to dry, putting it up high where the heat collects, but then I forgot it except for occasionally noticing the sachet effect. Then last week I had occasion to give a handful to a friend and send another handful to my cousin. I meant to make conventional braids, the way one buys sweetgrass in a shop, but I never got around to it so I just bound the clutch with yarn. There were a lot of things I never quite got around to this winter. I’m not domestic in the best of times and when distracted, I let things slide. Squibbie, the tortoiseshell cat, has taken to sleeping in the box of sweetgrass, maybe dreaming of summer. Crackers, the yellow cat, likes to chew what sticks out over the flaps. I pick up the strands the cats leave on the carpet and throw them onto the stove burners to make smudge when I boil water for coffee.

The librarian explains to me why people like to ice fish. She says you can see the fish down there. The little perch like to rest on the bottom on their fins but then you see a boil-up cloud of dust (underwater?) and they’re all gone. In a second the menacing shadow head of a really big fish (I don’t know the kind) comes along like a shark. This is the kind you catch by using a mouse for bait. The man who was once in Special Forces and who was writing a book this winter just for fun has stopped writing because, he says, he must get ready for fishing season. (He doesn’t fish for ice. Jokes.)

My friends are watching this season’s “Downton Abbey” but I don’t have television. When it’s on DVD, I’ll catch up. In the meantime, I forward them the many peripheral articles because they don’t subscribe to culture compendiums. A recent one of these said that in the huge house where they film, old things constantly turn up in drawers or at the backs of cupboards. They just now found an entire staircase. I suppose it had been walled up or the access door had been locked. This is supposed to be a classic woman’s dream: a hidden space revealed, especially the one the girl ascends to find the old woman spinning. The girl becomes the sleeping beauty. George Macdonald, writer of fairy tales, added the catacombs of ancient mines in the mountain under the castle. Down there the trolls jostle Curdy, the miner, who knows he can defeat trolls by stamping on their tender toes.

When I have this dream, I’m in a grist mill where flour is ground and the stairs are open, going up among the timbers, all laden with chaff. The sound of the mill is so vivid that I wake up. It is a diesel truck idling across the street, warming up for a day of hauling. It has snowed a few inches that will be gone by noon. One cat behind my knees, the other on my left arm. One snores, the other purrs.

The dregs of February. Do we leap this year? No Marching yet. The calves and lambs are coming. It’s a little past shearing season. In Portland, where I grew up, it’s spring with pussywillows and forsythia. In Chicago, where I was educated, the red cardinals have changed to their pairing-off songs. Here in Montana the ground squirrels are pregnant but rolled up sleeping in their burrows. The bear cubs have been nursing but maybe their eyes are still closed. Their mother shifts a little now and then.

I have a friend to educate. “What is a rhizome?” he asks. “What is a minotaur?” “How do you find sweetgrass?” He’s Rip Van Winkle, newly retired, his eyes wide.

Those are not the questions I’m asking. I’m wondering, “How does a person manage desire? How much of it is history?” “Why are people comforted by denial?” “Why do people in dire straits want to be alone?” (I would.) “What is gender really?” “When is spring? Not just the angle of the axis of the earth, but as a subjective experience, that realization of having made it through the winter?” My questions are complex and always lead to new questions.

I should do some housekeeping. Vacuum. Pay some bills. Wash the dishes. Straighten the pictures on the wall. Reshelve books. Wash the cat dishes. Sort and file the toppling stacks of paper.

This morning the sky was blue and the sun was bright gold. Now it’s back to gray and the mountains are shrouded again. Mardi Gras followed by Ash Wednesday. I did not want to wake from winter dreams, oblivion streaming desire and and elaboration. I grasp at the dreams to keep them but they are resentful, clinging to the knowledge that I still want them but nevertheless trying to cut the connections. Their knives are dull. I’m only bruised, though I sting with awakening. I just won’t open my eyes yet.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"TREME" and "TEMPEST": An Accidental Juxtaposition

Now I’ve finished “Homicide” and the “The Wire” and have begun “Treme,” which is pronounced Tree-May. It includes some of the actors from “The Wire”, Melissa Leo from “Homicide” and John Goodman because he lives in New Orleans and this is a movie about New Orleans -- more specifically about New Orleans music (this generation thinks with music more easily than with words) which is framed (loosely) with the Katrina disaster: the storm, the failures of the engineering, and the failures of the people. At least three plots wind along, in and out, like a parade in the street.

The central concept is the performance societies called “Indians” which have little to do with Indians and much to do with community that is so committed to its members that they speak of their songs as “sacred.” The model is what they think of as Native American tribes, but under that -- barely consciously -- are African tribes. The main plot line is that Clarke Peters is a “Big Chief” of one of these societies which dress up in outfits more extraordinary than real Native American competitive fancy dancing contestants and dance as a group during Mardi Gras. What makes this portrait of a Chief both possible and remarkable is that Peters, who was a revered character on “The Wire,” is actually and truly a stage song-and-dance man with moves like a leopard. His fight to gather and renew his “tribe” is the counterpoint to government empty talk.

Interrupting my “Treme” disc delivery was a movie I had ordered almost a year ago when I was watching a lot of Indies. It’s Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest”. Jarman is GBLT, unlike the “het” but edgy New Orleans mainstream, but that is no kind of indicator of his unique work. It’s just that his fantastical and visionary view of the world is totally unlike the gritty reality of the "Treme" crew. "The Tempest”, if you’ve forgotten, involves a terrible sea storm that lands a ship on an isolated island where a magician is surviving with his daughter and two spirits. In this version Ariel is a slender man in a white jumpsuit, white face makeup and white gloves like an art gallery curator. Caliban is a Beckett character as interpreted by Charles Adams. Miranda, the daughter, has a hairdo that is a cross between dreadlocks and dew drops, with jewels hanging from the tips of corkscrews of hair. She’s like a child who’s gotten into the dress-ups box. Prospero, the magician, is not so extraordinary, simply bushy-headed.

The cast and crew, with typical dedication, camped out in a huge Paladian ruined abbey with tall doors and massive fireplaces. “For exteriors, [Jarman] chose Bamburgh Castle, which for centuries has towered over the Northumberland Sea, rising above the barren sand flats in aloof splendor. Interiors were shot at the labyrinthine Stoneleigh Abbey, near Coventry, Warwickshire in England. It is a rambling, fire-gutted Paladian mansion with corridors which seem to stretch to infinity, and rooms opening out of rooms like Chinese puzzle boxes.” ( Everything indoors is gilt furniture with threadbare upholstery, piles of straw, and crystal chandeliers -- that mix of decayed luxury that strikes us as so romantic. The choices throughout seem aimed at portraying England as a failing nation. (This was filmed in 1979.)

The first episode of “Treme” ends with outdoor darkness. Something almost science fiction emerges from the night, unfolding into an extraordinary explosion of yellow maribou and rhinestones inhabited more than worn by Clarke Peters in his role as a “Chief.” Stately, startling, absolutely controlled, this vision barely gives us time to realize who he is before he speaks his piece to a member of the group reluctant to re-enter that Mardi Gras world, given the destruction and despair of Katrina, such a terrifying storm. He is persuasive. Then he fades back into the dark, as though returning to another planet.

So how does the movie “Tempest ” -- also about a storm connected to a criminal government (murderous kings) -- end? It breaks open to become a stage show! This time the black performer is a woman in an extraordinary yellow costume, Elizabeth Welch (she posted this to YouTube) sings “Stormy Weather” backed by a chorus line of sailors from the stranded ship who are all young, handsome and talented. She looks enough like Clarke Peters to be his sister. The grand and forgiving larger world is evoked as harmony is restored.

The smashed, fungal remnants of New Orleans illustrate the incompetence and corruption (once again) of our formally civilized world, which can only be redeemed by determination, organic connections of family and friends, and a strong sense of justice. The nudity that shocked some in “Tempest” is taken-for-granted in “Treme.” The innocent daughter figure who provides contrast is now much younger, taking piano lessons, and Prospero is John Goodman, vast and roaring English professor, speaking the speech on YouTube with Falstaffian force but language that is cursing.

Let’s see -- the DJ, Steve Zahn, as Ariel? Or is he Caliban? Depends on your point of view, I guess. We can take this stuff too far. But after the first five episodes I’m not spotting bad guys who are not politicians or lawmen. Clearly bad guys exist and we see the damage they’ve wrought, but they have no faces yet. Instead we’re being educated about a performance culture where parades are meant to be joined instead of watched and funerals are ornate, high-stepping events. Shakespeare would have loved it.

Many, but not all, show biz folks who make money will then risk it to do something close to their hearts. Derek Jarman managed his hat trick by falling back to Super 8 to reduce costs. (How he would have loved video!) Those who are constantly going on about the crash of full-scale culture, the good old days, are not taking into consideration that Jarman managed to stage a respectable Ziegfield Follies number in a ruin. Those who have insisted that sex and explosions are the only way to make a movie are having to admit “Treme,” more of a concert than a cop show, is no less absorbing.

Comparing these two, one a series and one a classic play, was an accident. The common message I get from thinking about them, both the content and the creation, is the human value of a group that works together as repertory, both the actors and the characters they portray. Society, miserable as it can be, is vital, but it is the tribal performance group that is the source of human expression and achievement. This has been true through time on every continent. Consider Mardi Gras!

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Tang looked around the dark. cluttered studio apartment of Vesta Clotilde. “No cat?”

She shook her head. “Feral cats move on.” She plugged in her electric kettle and got out two mugs.

Tang sat. “I’ve been thinking about the difference between feral cats and feral horses. Cats are solitary animals and are more likely to attach to place, they say, though this one didn’t seem to.”

“Every animal has its own personality. One can generalize about a species but it won’t always be true for the individuals.”

“Yes. Nevertheless a feral horse will seek other feral horses and try to be part of a group, a herd. Even if it is a male horse and the stud of the herd drives it off, it will try to join a peer herd of bachelor horses or maybe become a satellite that follows the main herd at a distance.”

“Are your feral boys horses or cats? Do they want to be solitary or in groups?” She offered the canister of teabags to Tang.

“Mostly they would like to be in groups, I think, which urban law enforcement people know. Boys run in the night streets like bands of horses.”

“Yes, I’ve heard them go by. Even though they don’t wear metal shoes, their sneakers thud on the pavement, especially when there are many. More silent than that are the ones on bicycles, but I hear them as well. Swishing.”

“There’s another difference.” Tang arranged his teabag so the string dangled its tag to suit him.

“What’s that difference?” She put the shortbread Tang had made on a blue and white plate.

“Cats are predators. Horses are prey.”

“So predators hunt alone, at least cats do. Horses group up to lessen the danger for any one animal. Both have great big eyes.” The kettle was steaming. Vesta poured. There was a moment of silence while they watched the tea steeping in their mugs and nibbled on shortbread.

“I’m named for my dynasty, you know. Tang Dynasty, the greatest in China.”

“I did NOT know!” She was genuinely surprised though, of course, she’d always known he wasn’t named for the orange drink.

“My people come from the great steppes of the China west, horse country. We were great riders and sometimes prowled in bandit gangs. You can see them in Chinese movies today. Very romantic.”

“Ah. My own family has a branch that was in the American West on the prairie where we knew mustangs, not such different horses from Mongol ponies. My grandfather used to tell me a story when I had a temper tantrum. It was about a horse that bucked all the time. One day the herd was in a place where there had been a forest fire and there were many fallen old dead trees, silvered and broken. This little horse jumped over a deadfall and its belly was ripped open by a sharp staub that stuck up. It began to buck because of the pain and its back foot got caught in a loop of intestine. It just bucked harder and basically tore its own guts out. The smell of the blood convinced the rest of the herd that there had been an attack and they galloped off, leaving this defiant and violent little horse to die in the tall grass. When I was so angry, my grandfather would say, “Don’t buck your guts out.”

“It’s a violent story -- like the American West!” Tang was smiling, but serious.

Vesta turned away. “Someone asked me once what it was like to ride a good horse. I told them it was like having wings, like having one’s powers magnified greatly, like being connected to something magnificently powerful. And a little like sex.”

“A horse does go between one’s legs.”

“They say for many girls it is the first lover. Probably for boys as well. I was so impressed by ‘Equus.’” They were quiet, each with memories of Equus. Then Vesta asked, “Do you think that for a boy with a man who is very close and loving -- I don’t mean a sexual lover -- is like a rider with a horse? Maybe the man is a father, or a teacher, or a mentor -- well, I guess one can’t exclude a gay lover if the boy is gay.”

“I hadn’t thought about it. I suppose it depends on the man, whether he’s a predator, whether the boy is prey.”

“What would be the safeguards against that?” Both thought and sipped, then brushed off crumbs from their fronts, and looked at each other.

Vesta said, “Genuine intimacy, meaning protection of the inner uniqueness of the other person. The grown man also making himself accessible to the younger one.”

Tang said, “No separation from the peer group, no isolation, no alienation from the proper pursuits of a boy, which are often sought in a group, like sports.”

“What about no violence?”

“Define violence.”

“I think it is situational. Provoking a little horse into bucking his guts out would be violent.”

“What if it were the man who bucked out his guts? Tore himself apart?”

“Is that possible?”

“Oh, yes. Boys are resourceful. They can find pulse points and threads of vulnerability in the strongest and most wary of adults. Especially boys who have been abused and have acquired sensitivity that way, as well as accumulating the motivation. In fact, I think some don’t learn compassion and forgiveness until they are adults, if then. ”

“What is the equivalent to a bridle with a bit, reins, a saddle? All meant to control a horse.”

“I think the law is those restraints. Social opinion. Maybe the church if it would stop being a horse’s ass.”

“And as long as I’m being fanciful, what about a centaur?”

“This is against tradition, but I think a boy who does not grow up remains half-horse, if not half-goat or maybe a half-goat is an old man!”

“An old goat! How do you account for Chiron, the teaching centaur?”

“An exception. At some cost to himself, since he devotes himself to the young but has no partner of his own who is like him.”

“And Pegasus? A horse with wings?”

“Ah. That is an artist, a poet, a dancer. There are no limits, there is no thought, there is only transcendence.”

Both laughed with delight. Then sobered. “What good is this kind of thinking?” asked Vesta.

“Maybe it’s a source of courage.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Working on my assigned chapter of “Landscape and Legacy,” the book that John Vollertson is editing, has me surveying writing and writers along this east slope of the Rockies. Partly I’m wondering whom to include. There are the usual suspects, of course, Guthrie, Walker, Howard -- but there are also a few I’d like to set fire to, like R.L. Lancaster, that reprobate whose book everyone loves in that unreasonable white-man [sic] way because it fulfills the stereotype they cherish. (If I say more, I might be sued for libel even though he’s dead and what I say is all true.) Then I look through my bookshelves and begin to realize how many small homemade local books there are, and I come up against the question of whether I myself should be in this chapter. If I put in Lancaster’s “Piegan,” don’t I need to put in “Bronze Inside and Out: a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver” who was very much an east slope person all his life?

In the book I tell the stories of Bob and I hunting up Blackleaf Canyon and on Two Moons, Guthrie’s ranch. Guthrie divorced about the time I met Bob and remarried about the time Bob divorced me, so there’s an inverse relationship of some kind. When we were hunting on his land (chaperoned by a lawman) Guthrie was in a very bad patch and might not have cared if he’d known. I once had the task of helping out some videographers who wanted to get Guthrie on tape -- this was in the mid-eighties -- and asked me to be the stooge who asked questions from off-camera. They gave me the questions. But Guthrie and I chatted a bit and when he realized who I was, he had some eye-brow wiggling about how Bob got any sculpture done when he was busy with so many women. I told him the truth: Bob put us all to work on the sculpture. Or sometimes a little writing. The first real lesson about writing, the hardest one I ever had, was composing the captions for the miniature wildlife dioramas in the museum. They had to be vivid, factual, simply said, and memorable. Not quite poetry. I don’t suppose they survive.

I always wanted to be a writer but never understood how a person went about it. Ivan Doig, who was in my class of ’57 at Northwestern, chose journalism and history but somehow that didn’t work for me. I went for theatre. I kept a journal for Alvina Krause, intense and effective acting coach, and wrote in it that I was never bored. She was outraged! She said that when she read that, she was so incensed that she threw my binder against the ceiling! Not being bored meant that I had nothing to DO !! Why didn’t I get BUSY?? I paid no attention to her. I’m not a doer. I watch. (I got a bad grade in acting class, but I really learned a lot.) Part of it is a matter of not revealing myself, but even more is about so much going on in my head that I didn’t want to be distracted.

When I bought this little shanty in Valier and moved here to write, I had very little notion what that meant, except that I’d saved boxes and boxes of material I thought might be useful. Tear-outs, manuscripts, scribbled notes on cafĂ© napkins, old albums, paper in many forms. What I thought would ensue eventually was “being published,” which I took to be some mysterious process that would leave me rich and honorable.

Forget it. In the next decade the Brit/European/Jewish Manhattan yoke was shattered. Suddenly no one knew what to do except make money. NOW who were the people who called the shots? Scramblers who lunched. The publishers, their attending agents, the newspapers that supported critics, the academics who tucked extra feathers into their nests by saying who was good and who was bad (which had a mysterious relationship to “naughty and nice”), the bookstores (the big chains that had just gotten through destroying all the local indie bookstores) -- and even the readers-- vanished without leaving so much as a pile of rubble.

Now that our eyes are beginning to adjust, we see a whole new world in which authors deal directly with readers -- if they can find each other -- and there are what claim to be publishers everywhere, but we’re all sort of feeling around in the dark with little ebook flashlights, except for those who long ago jumped ship for sophisticated videos with music and links. (There was a momentary period of time when we talked about “vooks,” which were supposed to be books with vids in them, but, whish, they zoomed on by.)

And we’re going crazy over content. What is “true?” What is “obscene?” What is privileged? What is good writing now? Talk to me, baby! You’re audible! Tell me some secrets! I want to be shocked!

There was another moment when people were writing extremely short stories, the equivalent of haiku. I’ve forgotten what we were calling the category. The Asian ones were very emotional. Mine were little juxtapositions of shifted consciousness. On the computer I printed up about a hundred quarter-page, yarn-bound sets of them. One cousin bought a dozen to give as Christmas presents. I made some other home-printed and bound booklets -- one about iniskum (buffalo stones) but they did NOT sell. It was an organic funky-looking little half-page buckskin-colored pamphlet that only an anthropologist could love. Those guys don’t come around anymore. Tourists want bright and slick.

I bought a $350 wire binding machine and made 400 copies of a computer-printed short bio of Bob Scriver with a slick photo cover. They occasionally show up on Amazon and so does the book of prairie sermons called “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke” published conventionally by the Moosemilk Press, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Unitarian Church of Edmonton. Then my binding machine broke and I discovered

THAT’s when I found out what publishing is about: money. is print-on-demand which solves both the problems of needing manufacturing money up front and the problem of storage. But is NOT a publisher, which is a selling endeavor: locating readers, pitching to them, distributing, building up a clientele and a platform as though selling Popeil universal fishing rods. expects the author to do that. Or contract with someone. Money up front. All my books show up on Amazon and Google, but that is not enough to make money from writing. So am I or am I not a published writer? The public thinks publication is like a college degree: a certificate of achievement of some kind. But they have no idea what publishing is. The writers’ associations always considered having published a book as the dividing line between professional and amateur. Not any more.

And no one can figure out blogging. Especially long-form blogging. You’re lookin’ at it, baby. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s “good” or not. Even what the proper context might be.