Tuesday, July 31, 2012


One would think that of all disciplines, the ones that address hurting humans would be the least inclined to bureaucracy.  Wrong.  They get totally locked up in certain terminology, then the alphabetical acronyms of the same, then getting the particular concept listed in the official DSM-V (which is revised annually, frankly subject to change in the culture).  Sometimes they can create a clever diagram and a few sayings, which allows them to market seminars for thousands of dollars.  
In the meantime, a person can’t search for resources unless you know the magic “open sesame” that applies to the issue or even are able to remember whether it officially exists or not.  Thankfully, working against all this impersonal paraphernalia is YouTube -- straightforward vids of people talking so you can get a feel for them as human beings.  I was particularly impressed by this woman, Dr. Christine Courtois.
I found the vids at first on PsychAlive, as quoted below:
PsychAlive, hosted by Dr. Lisa Firestone, posted this collection of short video clips featuring trauma and PTSD expert Dr. Christine Courtois discussing various aspects of trauma and recovery.

There is a very good introductory essay on complex PTSD (what has traditionally been known as Borderline Personality Disorder) at the Gift From Within site, Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches.

Courtois is clear, sensible, and sympathetic, a good role-model in a field full of half-healed wounded healers, wannabes and hoaxes.  In fact, I think part of the reason for all the bureaucracy is an effort to control this fungal proliferation.  I sometimes need reassurance that I’m not among them, Though I have no professional practice with psych clients -- I’m a writer -- I do have the bare bones ministerial training.  And I do share the world of Cinematheque where boys have suffered beyond what Courtois is used to dealing with and who are not exactly verbal, so that one must approach them with image. 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7F8Zf6eXAs   Here’s another man, Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D.  (If you go there, YouTube will likely offer a whole seminar.)  Suddenly Tim’s international work with kids via picture Skype becomes sensible.  He’s is breaking dissociation by supplying empathy and a consoling interpretive voice which they can carry with them from that time on.  A boy the other day needed to be told,  “You are not a monster!”  Now he will hear Tim’s voice saying that every time he self-accuses and thereby paralyzes himself.
Don’t you have a fund of mentally replayed voices (possibly with faces) from your childhood?  I sure do and some of them are not at all positive.  “Why don’t you ever finish what you start?”  “You are so selfish.”  Often they are about small things:  “Why do you make a fist with your thumb inside?” in an exasperated voice.  Many of the phrases in my head are questions.  Many of the more recent and more positive words come from Tim, either through video or through his writing which I “hear” in his voice.
Among the strange little clinicians’ phrases and terms that unlock access to ideas are “trauma bonds”, “attachment”, and “dissociation.”  When put into search engines they are “pot handles” for phenomena that most people don’t even know exist.  For example, the terms in these vids:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WV6d1nAgBNI&feature=related  This set is about “attachment disorders.”  They are trying to get at the problems created by early childhood neglect, parental undependability, over-attachment, abuse, abandonment, etc.  These are not just emotional, but physically determine the way neurons connect, how the little sorting centers form themselves, and what that does to thinking.  (Some are still resisting these demonstrable phenomena.)
During preparation for ministry in the early Eighties I was told I had a borderline personality disorder -- without explanation.  The real research didn’t happen until the Nineties, so there was little anyone could tell me about it.  Now I see it in my appreciation of solitude, my flares of temper, and what one counselor called my lack of emotional defenses.  (Which turns out to BE a defense -- a kind of surrender.)  I see the origins in impatient caregiving, because my parents were little overwhelmed and had an unjustified expectation that I would be just like them and want to be like them. a kind of rural family pride.  I don’t just have a short fuse, I have fusion issues.  They were not the reason I left ministry, but they didn’t help.
“Trauma bonds” is the most sensational of these ideas and developed to describe how captives feel about abusive captors.  It’s sometimes called “Stockholm Syndrome.  According to Wikipedia (whoever that really is), “the FBI’s  Hostage Barricade Database System shows that roughly 27% of victims show evidence of Stockholm Syndrome.”  It’s not inevitable.  Few of us are used to thinking of it in terms of family loyalty where a loved and admired parent is the abuser.  Obviously children are hostages to their families.  And whores are hostages to pimps.  Employees to bad bosses.  Air Force newly enlisted women to abusive trainers.
The logical hatred might be displaced onto outsiders or possibly onto the non-abusive but passive parent.  In the best of all possible worlds, that ability to bond with people in spite of negative treatment might later enable the person to help hostile victim children who resist help.  Not everyone can tolerate clients who spit, kick, hit, insult, and destroy, even if they are only kids.  A “nice” counselor might be totally ineffective, impatient.  
Among people who have explored the intimacy of punishment are the serious S/M practitioners.  I cannot remark because they are secret, far from what has become trendy exhibitionism.  But there are literary explorations of torture victims and their tormentors.  The modern world seems to offer a lot of examples to ponder.  Not all s/m is physically violent.
Attachment can be a kind of faithfulness, a loyalty that refuses to let one’s own family be blamed or punished, while at the same time displacing that judgment onto the whole category of family.  Or nation.  Or God.  Which does sort of explain and certainly describes how people can be so attached to a God who, if he existed, would have to be labeled a sadist.  Maybe it has something to say about sainthood, why we value people who suffer as better than others.  Think about the relationship between a separating tribal member and how he or she thinks about a quarreling, violent tribe.  (One branch of my family is actual Hatfields.)
This man is addressing “Avoidant Attachment” which he describes as parents who really don’t want to know their children and won’t listen to them, thereby  “blinding them to the sea inside.”  It sounds like Asberger’s syndrome. which makes emotional relationships invisible, inoperable.  I have vivid memories of coming to my mother when she was ironing, because she wouldn’t leave then, and chattering away about my life.  She was sunk in her own thoughts and became annoyed, tried to drive me away.  So I learned to tell her exciting things about the neighborhood.  Then she was interested -- and I had started being a writer.

Monday, July 30, 2012

"ALWAYS AN ADVENTURE" by Hugh A. Dempsey: A Review

Hugh Dempsey is one of those fortuitous interlocuters between cultures who does not conform to the conventional partisans, but uses both heart and head to soften collisions and gather information.  A self-taught historian, he married Pauline Gladstone, Blood Tribe Indian “royalty” who never made a big deal about being an Indian princess.  She was the daughter of James Gladstone, president of the Indian Association of Alberta, an influential leader among the Blackfoot tribes of which the Blood are a sub-group.  Pauline was a bi-cultural person who functioned as both a traditionalist who knew the old ways and also as a modern women active in many “white” political and business contexts.  A spectacular smile and endless energy claimed the love of Dempsey.  They raised five children together.  
I’m unclear how Jack Gladstone, the singer and ambassador on the Montana side, fits into this family in terms of begats but he may be the most famous Montana version of this family force for education and harmony.  Curley Bear Wagner was also related.
Those who study “boundary lands” will find this book fascinating.  It is particularly interesting to me because I spent a decade in this same time/place frame in the Sixties when the expansion and interweaving of white/Indian life paid little attention to the 49th parallel.  I was on the Montana side.  Dempsey was kept busy on the Alberta side as he struggled to maintain his main organizations including the tumultuous Glenbow Foundation, the Historical Society of Alberta, and the nascent tendrils of the University of Calgary plus a host of event-based committees and his own vital historical research and writing.  While others searched for mineral wealth, Dempsey recognized the enormous value of preserving the wealth of the old-timer memories and records just disappearing from the high prairie.  Often the research he did led to political reform and legal remedies.  Sometimes he had to literally snatch documents out of bonfires.
The most interesting chapter for me was the one about acquiring ceremonial objects, though he never mentions Bob Scriver.  He does talk about Phil Stepney who acquired the Scriver collection of Indian artifacts for the Royal Alberta Provincial Museum, and he mentions the names of three men who trafficked in Indian materials.  Still do, except for Richard Lancaster (deceased) whom he does not comment on, evidently not knowing his private behavior.  But he briefly notes two, Adolf Hungry Wolf and John Hellson.  There are probably a half-dozen others he either didn’t know about or chose not to comment upon.  They are like shadows of the scrupulous Dempsey, moving ceremonial or otherwise valuable artifacts back and forth across the border, which inevitably involves the unenlightened officials of the Ports of Entry who use the law on eagle feathers as a weapon.  
Protocols and principles were only just beginning to develop when the Indian Empowerment movement, mostly fronted by AIM, descended on the scene, taking everything to high levels of emotion without much enlightenment.  Dempsey does a pretty good job of noting factors that romantic outsiders can’t see: the influence of missionaries, the impact of alcohol, family fractures, NA political strategy, and so on.  His main guide was whether a ceremonial object were actually in use.  If it were, he would not buy it.  It was not a particularly useful guide when things went in and out of various hands.  Somebody is always in a position to buy and somebody is always willing to sell.
Though these political matters had deep, even life-threatening, impact on Bob Scriver, the Glenbow Foundation was the Big Break that every artist hopes for.  When they bought the entire spectacular rodeo series, Bob was catapulted into a new category.  Eric Harvie was one of those idealistic but capricious zillionaires who expressed much of his interest in Indians by collecting in the manner of a big vacuum machine.  I described much of what we saw in the mid-Sixties in my bio of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out,” also published by the University of Calgary.  Harvie was old and ailing, but Dempsey seemed able to negotiate the rough waters.  
More difficult were the sequence of directors of the Foundation, who had their own problems with Harvie’s interventionist whims.  Every art/culture-based institution I know, particularly the ones with museums, seems subject to the same tumult of reorganizing staff, reallocating funds, maintaining consistent goals.  Not all of them have to respond to a single man who provides the funding and therefore calls the tune (though many began with Big Man fortunes), but the ones who must answer to government irrationalities also suffer, and those who must raise funds privately are constantly endangered by the fickle public, esp. now that urban bicoastal culture seems not to realize that there IS anything on the high prairie, always portrayed as windswept and inhabited only by a couple of bison and maybe a grizz.  To them, cowboys and Indians are only in Hollywood.
Dempsey was a force for stability that Montana has lacked.  A sort of gypsy class of executives moves among institutions, a few years here and a few years there, always with an eye on status and power.  Their qualifications are negotiable.  Part of Dempsey’s survival was due to Eric Harvie’s fiat that Dempsey be allowed to publish outside the Glenbow and put his own name on what he wrote.  But much was also due to his warm and rewarding extended tribal family and his close bond with Pauline’s father.  He had good offers from other places, but always remained in Calgary.
As a good historian, Dempsey gives many names -- I was sometimes reminded of old movies of ancient local Blackfeet carefully naming everyone in a hunting or war party.  He is diplomatic in that English conservative sort of polite tradition that still clings in some corners of the world.  The Southern Piegan Blackfeet scholars have been more influenced by this dignity -- thank goodness -- than the cowboy historians of Montana who like to ponder the wicked and rowdy.  
Highly personal but carefully working towards the greater good, Dempsey is pictured on the cover of “Always an Adventure” sitting on an outcropping near the top of Chief Mountain.  He’s earned the right to be there -- after all, one of his honors is an honorary chief of the Kainai Blackfoot!  But he’s no triumphalist or conquerer planting a flag on the summit.  Instead he is part of a dynasty of respectable and contributing people without regard to racial stereotype.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


This past week’s postings had me bumping into some crucial issues.  Mostly they were about the nature of authority and their efficacy in protecting the vulnerable.  Our authority has been based on wealth and the wealth has come from victimizing the vulnerable.  When there are enough vulnerable individuals to create a critical mass, the correction for this is often violence.
I’ve been kidding around about Conan.   Dmitry Orlov’s takedown of the figure (see above url) was posted by someone anonymous as a comment.  It is strong enough to deserve a separate post.  Orlov is a known and respected survivalist, born the first year I taught in Browning (1962) which was both a time and a place that believed deeply in this pattern and has not really left it until recently when women were elected to the Tribal Council, one of them in a wheelchair.  This pattern is threefold.  
Below are quotes which I have edited to remove the pejorative, even contemptuous tone of Orlov’s comments.  (He seems to think vulnerables are simply weak.)  I agree with the concepts but not the contempt.  If we don’t honor our animal origins, we will tear ourselves apart.
1.  “. . . the spontaneous development of a warrior mentality—a cultural universal marked by a desire to prove oneself in battle, contempt for death, and a tendency toward what Emile Durkheim called “altruistic suicide.”

“The pattern is the same among Homeric heroes, Mongol conquerers, Japanese samurai, European knights of the age of chivalry or Moscow's bandits and racketeers during the violent 1990s. Meaning is created out of meaninglessness through heroic acts of violence performed in keeping with a code of honor.”

2.  “ . . . those who feel themselves to be weak and vulnerable.. . . find and cling to a strong . . . father figure. . . . [This] helps to reduce the anxiety that is born of helplessness and alienation.

3.”. . .[an idea] that predominantly affects women: the impulse to ingratiate oneself into an imaginary group of superior individuals as a beta-female . . . in order to gain a sense of belonging. It manifests itself in the expectation of the emergence of something wonderful yet unborn.”

Compare and contrast this with the story in the New Testament (use the Jefferson version so you won’t be distracted by miracles) or with Joe Campbell’s version of the hero cycle, in which the excluded person leaves, achieves, grows, and returns to benefit his community.   What’s missing from this 3 part account is compassion for the vulnerable, particularly those on the growing edge: children, artists, outliers, and the “Other.”  These are sources of renewal which over time will inevitably dismantle the status quo. 
Another part of the story that’s missing here, that Orlov would know if he were a hunter or rancher, is that young male animals go apart into their own society to strive against each other for worthiness.  THEN they can claim the right to reproduce and start a new order.  And for horses, at least, there is always a double leadership: the wise old mare who knows where the water is, who knows where to lead the herd while the stud horse is busy fighting.  But we are more than animals and our protection of the vulnerable is more than instinct. 
This morning I was vulnerable.  I went out, half-asleep, to water the tomatoes and while the sprinkler was working, I took shears to the invasive alfalfa, big tangling invasive stuff.  People use poison on it, but I find that ill-advised, so I cut the plants back by hand.  This time the tough stems tangled in my clumsy rubber shoes and pitched me on my face in the alley.  Now I look like a Cinematheque kid who’s taken a face-plant in a skateboard wipeout, except dirtier -- they tend to fall on cement but I went down in the dust.  Eat dirt, bitch!   Right.  Revenge of the Alfalfa.
Should we ban alfalfa?  Should we force me to spend my grub money on someone to get this yard in proper shape?  Should we make me leave this house and go back to living in an apartment where it’s “safe?”  Should I just ignore the alfalfa and let it do its thing?  Authority generally responds to vulnerability with restrictions or exclusion.
It was hardly a mass shooting.  It didn’t even break my glasses, thank -- um -- Fate.  I was already quite aware of my vulnerability.  I accept it.  I do all the mitigation I can, and then just take the lumps, as do the boy skateboarders.
Now media attention is shifting from James Holmes, the dangerous shooter, and moving to the authority that was supposed to protect the community:  Dr. Lynne Fenton, Holmes’ psychiatrist.  Her resumé is already under fire.  She was not just a therapist, but also the medical director of the Student Mental Health Services.    According to an AP report, in 2004 she was disciplined for prescribing Xanax for herself when her mother was dying, and again for prescribing Ambien and Claritin for her husband and pain killers for an employee with headaches.  She was an acupuncturist with the U.S. Air Force in Texas before changing jobs to Colorado.  
More damning, if true, is that an acupuncturist in Colorado in 1998 named Lynne Fenton in a Denver Post discussed how acupuncture could be used to “enhance women’s busts.”  She’s quite a pretty woman, which may or may not be relevant.
Given the reputation of the Air Force and the University of Colorado (ask Ward Churchill), the behind-the-scenes scenario I suspect is that the authorities were not too particular about the qualifications for running the Student Mental Health Services (serving vulnerable kids) and that she is one of those touchie-feelies who never sees catastrophe until a burning piano falls on their head.  Now who’s vulnerable?  Who’s going to pay the price when the University is sued?  Orlov might say this silly Beta cow should never have tried to be an Alpha shrink, which is a job for a man who can carry authority and make decisions.  Others will say Student Health Services are for people with bad colds and nutcases should automatically be thrown out.
Is it James Holmes who has schizophrenia, or is it US?  Was Fenton really seeing James as he was, or was she indulging in the fantasy of the Great Healer?  Is that a Catwoman mask under the desk?

Saturday, July 28, 2012


When I had money (I can barely remember it), I used to subscribe to Southwest Art, Art of the West and Art West, partly because I sent the occasional article.  Then for a while I’d pick up a random copy when I was in Great Falls.  The local library does not subscribe -- the claim is that people are not interested.  I used to sell my back copies to the Western bookstore in Choteau, but it left.  I see that Blackfeet Community College still keeps the mags on their shelves, so I’ll take up a box of back copies as a donation.
In the meantime, I am a beneficiary of American Art Review, which sent me the August issue in hopes that I would subscribe.  http://amartrevsecure.com/  I still have no money, but I can reciprocate by writing a review.  I used to do that now and then for the other “cowboy” art mags.  But this is NOT cowboy art -- rather it is American Impressionism, often in the West and even more in California.  The usual subjects are landscape and still life.  Often tugged towards the abstract, at the worst descending to kitsch.

The ones I like best are full of color, loosely painted, often seascapes or long SW vistas, but sometimes geometric compositions of houses or cliffs.  Russell Chatham, who spends much of his time in Montana, comes directly out of this tradition.  He occasionally operates a publishing house and if he puts one of his paintings on a book cover, it will sell regardless of the contents!  http://www.russellchatham.com/   My great-aunt Mabel Heitschmidt lived in Pasadena and painted flower still-lifes of high quality, but she had no reputation, probably in deference to her husband, Earl, who was a noted architect.
The most famous painters of this style are probably the Taos 7.  Here is the lone Indian painting in this issue, a model with a wry attitude toward this Sioux headdress.  I wonder how he felt about the floral wallpaper.  The artist is E. Martin Hennings.

When I was regularly reviewing these zines, I would look for certain recurring subjects.  One was doorways, one was birds, and one was cafes.  This time I only found cafes.  Here’s one by a contemporary artist named Tankersley.

Instead of the people lingering at tables, she picked up on the barrista or sous chef, and captured an almost meditative feel.  This is the desirable context of so many young people.  Call them slackers if you like, but I too enjoy these big hollow spaces, hung with banners, lined with pictures, full of hiss and chatter.
Art communities tend to be bicoastal so there are usually a lot of boats and ships.  I love sailboats with strange sails.  This one is by Edgar Payne and is called “Marco Polo Adriatic (Thus Did We Sail for the Doge)”, painted between 1922 and 1924.  

 The concept of American Art Review is to publish articles based on curated shows so the article is often written by the curator involved, giving some history and context of the work as well as justification for what is shown.  This is pretty helpful even though the works are figurative, realistic, not needing a lot of interpretation the way abstract art and “concept” art often must be explained.  I understand that abstraction is one way to push deeper into the work.  It’s often emotionally satisfying in a way that a simple portrayal might not be, because the viewer might attribute his or her reaction to the subject matter rather than the skill of the actual painting.
There IS an article about a sculptor, Cyrus Edwin Dallin, marking the 150th anniversary of his birth.  http://www.dallin.org  His life revolved around Boston and his community was that of the American monumental sculptors working in the French Beaux Arts tradition such as Daniel Chester French, St. Gaudens, Phimister Proctor, Malvina Hoffman and I would include Bob Scriver.  Their work is iconic, recognized and intended to be celebrations of America.  They tend to be part of the Noble Savage mythology which is sort of out-of-fashion.  Noble savages never go all the way out of fashion -- they just change savages.  We’ll see what Johnny Depp can do with savage Indians instead of savage Pirates !  Of course, American anything is pretty out-of-fashion at the moment.  This Dallin bronze might work:  it’s title is “Protest.”

Dallin had a career experience much like that Bob Scriver had with his portrait of Charlie Russell.  Dallin's portrait of Paul Revere, his first entry in a competition, was praised, then rejected, then resubmitted, accepted but postponed and on and on -- it was denounced, redeemed, completed, unpaid -- until he finally donated it to Springville, Utah.  Then Boston woke up and you can see the bronze version near the Old North Church.
If I had money today, I would not subscribe to this magazine first, but rather go to The National Sculpture Society’s http://www.nationalsculpture.org/nssN/index.cfm  magazine “National Sculpture Review” which is not usually found on newsstands.  It is also representational of “the natural world” but with a broad and inclusive attitude that reaches far into the past.  Their curation is by artists and for artists, so not focused on gallery sales.  This means, of course, that the magazine is not so fat and splendid as the mags supported by a lot of advertising.

This issue of  American Art Review does include this bronze entitled “Dreamer” by Richard Reccia.
Recchia (1885-1983) is another of those Bostonian Beaux Arts people, not very well known.  This bronze is 16”X36” and comes from an era when nude children could be portrayed innocently as Pan or as sprites in fountains.  It’s ironic (or something) that an elegant romantic sculpture like this one can be perfectly acceptable in a strait-laced formal society like “Edwardian” Massachusetts and yet be denounced today as pornographic in a culture that is beyond erotic into filmed shock and depravity.  There seems to be an inverse relationship.  All I know is that I think this is lovely.
Art tells us about ourselves.  Not just what we are willing to buy because of its investment value or the status of having it in our homes, but also what our hearts yearn for, what we can see in the world around us.  This is the great value of looking at a lot of any kind of art -- it trains our eyes to see deeply.  Thus, this is the reason for subscribing to art magazines.  After all, it’s not as expensive as buying the actual art.

Friday, July 27, 2012


The strange thing about this idea of doing what will keep one alive is that the first thing necessary is to get rid of the excessive fear of death.  Otherwise, one begins to pause, to worry, to put up safeguards until all that is left is constant patrolling of the dikes that keep the floods out.  At some point one has to learn to swim -- maybe even become aquatic.
And it’s necessary to do away with much advice from well-meaning advisors as well.  One way for people to make themselves feel safe and distanced from trouble is to tell others how to behave -- to become enforcers of the rules instead of examining the rules to see whether they are WORTH enforcing or who they really benefit and why.  Of course, there are always some people who feel they are above all rules, that their wealth signals virtue rather than raw power.
The human mind -- which includes far more than mere rationality -- gives us the ability to stand apart from the simple givens of who and where we are, but few people do it.  When they ARE able to separate from the status quo, it is often because of writing or other media, which boil down in the end to empathy, “feeling with” other people and even other animals.  (We’re not so good at reptiles or spiders.)  Empathy, esp. with someone in pain or danger, is frightening and can even be dangerous.  
When people get old, they can divide into two categories.  One is people who devote themselves to comfort, safety, and status.  The other is people who decide to make their death mean something by using their last years well in ways that young people don’t have the knowledge or wisdom to achieve.  it says something about our culture that only a few decades ago the admirable old women were “Gray Panthers” (after “Black Panthers” -- does anyone remember them??) but today they are “cougars,” preying on young men.  (The newest MAC OS was called Cougar,  but I notice that now it is Mountain Lion.)  In other words, the shift has gone from social action to sex.
It’s interesting that a number of my friends and relatives constantly inquire as to whether I’m in good health.  I sometimes get the impression that they hope I am doomed, an unruly old woman who makes trouble and embarrasses them.  Yet few of these people know my life or even read my blog.  I don’t have the same name and am in a remote place -- why don’t they just forget me?  I think they want to “help” me and hope I am weakening enough to allow them to dominate me, so they can prove they are right and I am wrong.  See -- unruly!
At the same time, when I look to find out who is reading the blog it’s not them.  They say it’s too hard: they can’t understand it.  I think it emotionally too hard. But on the other hand, I see that sometimes they are feeling fragile themselves and hope that in reassuring them about myself, they will also be reassured.  They think a cheerful response will cheer them up, too.  Not that much of this is conscious.  
And not that I forget that when my brother needed intervention, all of us failed.  The worst was probably the cousin who “helped” him by signing him out of the Veteran’s Hospital on the basis of a lie.  But my brother didn’t want to stay there.  The next most culpable was probably the Oregon welfare system that couldn’t understand defiance as the result of brain damage.  (The post about “Adult oppositional Defiance Disorder” still gets a LOT of hits.)  But I don’t let myself off the hook.  A “good woman” and “big sister” would have forgotten about writing, stayed in Oregon, and devoted herself to her brother.  So I’m not good.  Too bad.  It was a choice.
If there were ever a time when people should speak truth to power, it’s now, simply because of the new overwhelmingly international dimensions of human evil and its imperviousness to all religion or principles.  They don’t care about God -- they ARE God.  The dominating and power-sucking webworks of Industrial Everything (meds, war, ag, insurance, illegal activity, population shifts, environment, climate, media)  have only one criteria for success -- “profit”.  Beyond that, profit that goes to invisible people so that they subvert all intervention.  And beyond that, profit based on debt.  Debt enforced with fines and even inprisonment, an old stupidity returning again.  (Prisons are a money-making proposition.)  I discovered this week that interest on a credit card at KMart is at 25%, which is surely usury.
The impersonal forces traffic in one thing:  fear.  Make people afraid, very afraid.  Oh, where is that Conan the Barbarian -- I keep appreciating him more and more.  No penthouse (insert jokes) elegance for him.  He never had a Bat Boy.  His women would never settle for being mere cats.  Conan knows no fear.  Of course, he’s reckless, destructive, always on the move, suffers a lot, and all that.  He is derived by simply flipping over the characteristics of his creator: stuck in a small town, nursing a dying mother, unable to maintain a relationship, never really making money, the Great Depression ebbing everything away.
One thing Robert E. Howard never did: go to a movie theatre and shoot everyone he could.  Why not?  I think that people who do that fear death so much that they leap into it.  It’s a form of suicide, a way of breaking the tension, a counterphobia.  Alas, this young man Holmes is going to live a long time with regret.  As already do a lot of important people, mostly men, blinded by greed, who have been rapacious devourers of innocent people, albeit with only the intention of making money for their shareholders.  We’re beginning to hear public contrition, but it’s hard to believe.
The people who do brain research talk about the evolution of “spindle cells” or “mirror cells” which are the organic basis of empathy. They say ten percent of people do not have these cells and so are sociopaths who cannot react to anyone with empathy.  I could just about point out the thirty people in this village of three hundred who qualify for that category and some of them are pretty successful.  I could name doctors, writers, teachers -- I’ll bet you could name some priests and coaches.  The problem is what do about them.  Stigmatizing them only moves the problem to a different place.
I do think that if the population could be stirred with a spoon so that people had to face people entirely different from themselves, activating their spindle cells in new ways, it would be a plus.  The limits of empathy are far too often the outskirts of town, the limits of demographics.  It’s impossible to imagine the lives of people we aren’t even aware exist, much less what they are like.  They might be a lot like us, but maybe not.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


People ask me whether I believe in God.  I say no.  Then they try to talk me out of it.  Finally they talk themselves into my point of view.  Then they go back to asking me whether there is God.  They can neither accept that there is not nor that there is.  For them it is an unresolvable problem.  For me it is simple.
They think:  Minister = God.  Church = God.  Morality = God.  Love = God.  Since they don’t want to do away with any of those fine things, they do not -- CAN not -- do away with “God.”  Also, they believe that God protects them because if they didn’t believe that, they would be paralyzed.  They can’t think of an alternative.  Atheism is so stigmatized it is unthinkable.
I’m not really talking about God.  I’m talking about my manuscript about liturgy which was generously read by an expert in the field.  He decided not to publish it and pointed me back at the UU’s since most of my examples came from there because that was the denomination in which I was ordained and spent a decade.  He did not point me back at the Blackfeet ceremonies since to him what counts are denominations.  Denominations, academics, prestige, conferences, endorsement.  That’s what counts.  So I don’t.  Count.
In the past when I worked on this paper, I was following my own line of thought.  Now it is clear that my task is to go back and rewrite it in a way that others can assimilate.  It will be like trying to persuade people who don’t WANT to believe there is a God, that there is no God while all the time they can’t help thinking that there is.  That is, I’ve got to see it from their point of view and figure out where the blockages are.
The first one is the constant use of word etymology to define worship/liturgy/ritual/ceremony.  Over and over I read the roots of these words ("worth-ship", "to bind", "the work of the people"), and yet they are not that enlightening.  Not even entirely consistent since the roots are so old their meanings have worn and shifted.
There are two BIG problems with word etymology.  One is that what I’m trying to do is to escape words, to get away from the dominance of book, sermon, lesson, commandment because they are the methods of institutions.  In the West, religions are all by definition from a revelatory historical book, which are mostly accumulations stolen from each other.  Important as written laws and principles and stories might be, they are NOT what I’m trying to talk about.  I want to focus on the EXPERIENCE of the Holy which I believe is in the human brain, a phenomenon that can be a far more enlightening guide to reality.  If there is anything we can call reality.
The second thing is that our word etymology is always based on the Indo-European heritage.  I am trying to escape THAT.  I want to think about the raw up-against-it sensory experience of specific ecologies.  NOT one more rehash of historical interpretation and records of begats, that worship of genealogy, that justification by inheritance.
So, I’m repeating:  I’m against the word-etymology approach to liturgy because it is embedded in institutions and it is predominantly indo-European, which excludes all indigenous and most Asian thought-systems, to say nothing of spontaneous accidental events.  WORDS and their definitions and origins are a big part of what is keeping spiritual experience so pot-bound/root-bound.
There’s another force which is not that of the priestly scholars who own the Book but a competing understanding of what spiritual experience is about.  It is the conviction that there is a supernatural world or force and that liturgy/worship/ceremony IS access to it, direct experience (possibly control) with something beyond human beings.  This is directly opposite to my premise that the experience of the holy is in the human being and its relationship to the sensory world.  NOT access to some mystical source, though that’s what it feels like, like an empowerment.   I do not want to let magic into the conversation.   At this point some become worried that I will accidentally call down the Wrath on us.
This worry emerges especially in New Age discussions of religion among indigenous people.  They believe SO strongly that they are touching another world rather than experiencing a molecular phenomenon in their own brains, even when they have taken drugs they call “entheogens.”  Every mention of a shaman, sweat lodge, a Bundle Opening, and they go off in pursuit of this conviction of supernatural access, which they consider an indication of virtue and value.  If there is no evidence of this connection, no honoring of it, they are deeply hurt.  Even Grimes’ gentle nudging about “parashamans” devastates their sense of value.  
They are not slow to make healing old grandfathers, special guides who help them, out of sorcerers and charlatans in cultures no modern person can understand.  They have a little problem with Incan priests plunging obsidian knives into breasts and dragging out hearts, so they just don’t think about that part.  Although, there is a certain kind of person who likes fiddling along with Satan much better than singalong with Jesus.  The clothes are better, for one thing, and who wouldn’t rather have a black panther on a leash instead of having to lug around a lamb.  It’s also interesting that Lucifer welcomes women a lot more easily than the temple priests do.
Everyone agrees with the Turner/von Gennep idea of stepping over the limen into liminal time and then back out.  As a theory.  Some even have an idea how to do that.  But they CANNOT grasp that it is a shift of consciousness in the brain -- not a special building or terrain dedicated to religion.  You can’t OWN a consciousness, but you can own a church and insist that it not be taxed because it is special.  This is what religion IS to most people: an institution with a building.
Harder to explain and justify is the two-part piece that has been in the Christian Mass from the earliest days and that Von Ogden Vogt claimed he got from Isaiah:  the thing about dimension that I call the “dilation of the spirit” -- usually presented as confession followed by pardon.  Not personal absolution, but acknowledgment of the anguished tragedy of this world against the human evidence that life is sacred and ongoing.  Tillich is good on this, insisting on the Ultimate, to counter what Annie Dillard called “little bitty statues to little bitty gods.”  In short, golden calves.
In the end, then, in the end, it is a stream (a path, a way, a Tao) and if one stays in the stream of life doing what allows one to live and grow, doing what supports everyone else and the whole interwoven world in its ongoingness, then the chances are good of being struck by the holiness of simple existence.  As one person put it, each creature should do what they are good at, because that’s what their purpose must be, and so the purpose of humans is to enjoy creation.  
Wait a minute. someone just snuck God the Creator back into this.  Cut that out!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I said to someone, this Holmes guy may have some kind of organic defect, even a brain tumor.  The person said, “Or maybe just crazy.”  But isn’t a malfunctioning brain the same as crazy?  Where’s the line between some kind of fixation or misapprehension or failure to process consequences -- bad attitude -- as opposed to the malfunction of one of the little brain sorting centers or molecular feedback loops, an equipment problem?  One affects the other, one creates the other.   And our social iives, our cultures, shape both of them in terms of experience, compensation, nutrition, even trauma.  Where is the line between excusable madness and inexcusable narcissistic fantasy?  

Ty Burr, writing in the Boston Globe, was impressed by the extreme comments about the new Batman movie before anyone had even seen it except for the critics, a few of whom disliked it.
“There is something truly awful going on here: an entitled fanboy mentality, enabled by the anonymity of screen names, that moves and thinks as a mob and that reacts to any deviation from unanimous praise with the fury of a spoiled child. Of course there were plenty of level-headed responses on the Rotten Tomatoes boards and elsewhere; of course not all fanboys (and girls) are immature dolts. But enough of them are there to dominate the discourse, and their assumptions are frightening to contemplate: If someone does not like this movie, he or she deserves to die.”   Isn’t this thinking as Holmes must have?  Burr generalizes on the genre.
More pressingly, it needs to be asked, why does fantasy in general and this fantasy in particular mean so much to so many people? Why does a negative review for a movie strike some as an attack on their own identity? When the second film in Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, “The Dark Knight,” came out in 2008, it was remarkable to see so many members of a generation that had no cultural focal point discovering theirs in this, . . . a young man I met . . . likened the impact of “Dark Knight” to the Kennedy assassination and the Challenger disaster as events that unified young people and gave them their defining moment.
. . . I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that [Holmes] was responding, in his psychosis, to the tortured fantasy of power that this movie — and so much of the popular culture aimed at young men in particular — trades in. That fantasy is now everywhere..
. . . you’re still figuring out who you are and a beautiful, conflicted superhero (or supervillain) mirrors your self-image. Our entertainment culture’s dreams of power are a drug that keeps us rapt in a cloud of promises: that we can win and that winning is everything; that we’ll be seen and heard for who we are  . . . when we’re sold a fantasy that is so well made, that seems to tap so deeply into our very real sense of imminent catastrophe, and that seems so self-aware about the fantasy itself, certain people respond to it as if it’s the Truth. 
(Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.)
There is a precursor movie with many of these same qualities.  It’s called “The Crow” and uses the same ruined urban nighttime scenery.  I had a high school student who loved that movie -- he’s in a federal penitentiarry now.  The same dynamic goes back to Conan and back before that all the way to -- well, I suppose to pre-literacy.  Someone exceptional must save us.  (Elect Obama.)  If he’s not capable of making everything better right away, reversing the Great American Decline, kill him.  Well, at least vilify him.
IMHO the gun issue is a total distraction.  Guns magnify violence, people who can afford a lot of guns and a lot of ammo magnify it even more.  Some will say that if there had been someone in that theatre “packing heat” when Holmes began to shoot, he could have been prevented from killing so many.  Really?  He’s in the dark theatre, he’s lobbed two tear gas grenades so that people can hardly breathe, much less see.  Besides his gas mask, he’s wearing all SWAT bulletproof gear, so it was hard to distinguish him from actual SWAT team members.  Everyone is screaming, milling around, falling.  I don’t care how good a sniper is, this was an impossible situation, carefully thought out to be that way.
When I talk to people around here about the right to bear arms (this is a rural place where bears come into the yards), they do not talk about personal situations of danger.  They talk about danger from governmental oppression.  They speak of Russia.   Indians (if they feel very very safe) speak of the massacres not so long ago.  Yet they all hurry to be on the side of law enforcement and join the military at a higher rate of enlistment.  
Control is the hidden issue and guns are the illusionary source of control, both of one’s own safety and of the country’s preservation.  This is the talk from Cheney and the corporate funders of private “security” armies.  One cannot trust elected officials to prevent the obvious decline of the nation, so bunker-up and make sure you’ve got enough ammo to make it through the coming dystopia. But what use are these things against an armed Predator drone?  You could escalate all the way up to tanks and still not be in control.  You wouldn’t even know where your attackers were from or where they were when they triggered the drone.  
Many feel the only response is terrorism, either individuals or semi-organized groups intent on control, which they interpret as defense of themselves and their way of life.  In the process they destroy both, their goal turned back on them.
What terrorists and citizens both seem to want is a return to better times, maybe even childhood, when things were run by their parents -- if they were reliable which many are not.  There is a sense of entitlement to the way it is SUPPOSED to be, and a struggle to make it happen.  
In the case of James Holmes, he seems to have felt something was wrong in his own head and to have tried to find out what that was all by himself.  This is another strong marker among youngsters I’ve known -- never never trust adults or authorities to help you.  They will only punish, misunderstand, and confine you -- all the time saying it’s for your own good, even though it’s not.  Because adults don’t listen, they don’t get it, they aren’t grownups at all -- just pretending.  You’ve got to take it into your own hands.
Recently I saw the Tim Burton version of Batman.  I keep thinking about how much the phony city officials who stepped up to the microphone looked and sounded like Mitt Romney. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The way I understand AIDS touches on many of my ideas about what makes the world and how it operates.  First of all, HIV-AIDS is a zoonose that comes to us from animals, across species, which has been happening always but accelerated when we domesticated animals.  The plague that killed one third of the population of Europe was a zoonose.  The smallpox plague that wiped out most of the indigenous population of North America was a zoonose, as was the cowpox that supplied the first vaccine.
Second, HIV-AIDS is a retrovirus, which is to say it is a mirror of DNA, the template for the code of DNA.  We know enough to control HIV IF the person has the stamina and resources to take a complex schedule of drugs and IF the person is willing to undertake the close monitoring necessary to calibrate results.  Taking pills by the dozens at exactly the right intervals and in exactly the right amounts is not easy -- especially when manufacturers don’t make or distribute enough pills of the right kinds.  Presenting oneself at regular intervals, mere days apart, to have blood, urine, saliva and so on sampled for testing is wearing and depersonalizing.  Side effects of the pills mean nausea, byproducts of the needles and cut-downs are infections, and byproducts of being run through unpleasant repetitions is deep revulsion.  It also interferes with holding a job.  There is always the danger of a bad reaction to a drug, some near deadly.
Third, HIV-AIDS can select specific kinds of  human defense cells, enter them, and add its genetic code to the code already in the nucleus of that kind of cell.  (We can do that, too.)  At present, to be immune to HIV, a person needs two copies of a certain gene which we can identify.  Some people have only one copy so the early efforts are to add the second gene copy to people who already have one.  Also, at present the strategy that cured the first patient is underway both in cancer research and in HIV-AIDS research.  In fact, the patient had cancer and underwent a bone marrow transplant -- ALL his white cells were killed and then new ones that carried both protective genes were added back to his bone marrow.  This is a technique used in desperate situations but it is not impossible.  The doc thought that since he was adding back someone’s marrow, he would simply use that of a person who had natural immunity to HIV-AIDS.
There are cancers that are due to malfunctions in single or maybe two interacting genes.  Before curative genes can be inserted, their genomes are mapped thirty times to make sure they are exact maps.  So much data is involved that it cannot be sent on the Internet but rather in packaged hard drives via UPS.  Then the EXACT gene is changed.  In one person this worked; in another it did not.  The different results have an unknown cause.  This is MORE difficult that the bone marrow transplant that carries the immunity to HIV-AIDS.
Fourth, HIV-AIDS responds to cultural memes of sexual behavior, drug behavior (both illegal and prescription), the way we move around the planet, the way we allocate resources, and the dynamics of stigma.  This is where the real problem lies.  We’ve known for a long time how to cure the tuberculosis which decimated so many people in the 19th century, but we still haven’t managed to do it.  Starvation is not even a disease but we still haven’t mastered it.
Fifth, when we can manage HIV-AIDS, we will have made a huge jump to the management of all genetically based diseases.  This will include cancer, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, and so on.  It will also mean figuring out the genetic configurations that allow a drug to be deadly for one person and salvation for the next.
But the bottom line and the one that hurts the most is the yearning for emotional intimacy and authentic witnessing for the people who are struggling with HIV-AIDS.  No matter how they got it, no matter how well they cope with it, there are going to be moments of anguish.  Docs and moms may try to respond,  But what has been most deeply moving is men helping men.
There are battlefield photos of men helping their wounded buddies, cradling their heads, looking into their eyes.  We honor them and are very much moved by them.  But there are not many photos of men cradling their lovers and friends who are dying of AIDS, though it did happen.  There are not many mainstream photos of men bringing tunafish casseroles and and coaxing other men to eat as though they were sons.   
But the impact on the larger society has been felt.  A generation of men learned how to take care of each other without ceasing to be men.  Even the bearded, burly “bears” learned how to change sheets and give bed baths.  Because the shame of male-on-male sex was nothing compared to the shame of lying in one’s own excrement, too weak to do anything about it.   Those who had enjoyed each other’s hot resilient flesh now watched it turn gray and skeletal.  Men as limp-wristed fairies had to be revised to men strong enough to lift each other, even if it was in a coffin.
In some ways, where we are now is less dramatic and harder.  Taking dozens of pills daily in exactly the right order and amounts, then going to a clinic weekly to have overstressed people hurry through tests so as to serve as many clients as possible, requires a very strong grip on the life force.  It is combat, it is a frontier, and it cannot be reduced to statistics in a truly meaningful way that will draw necessary funding.  We’d rather pay for predator drones because the only lives risked are those of people we don’t much care about.  I mean, care about even less than AIDS patients.
If I had a camera and were there, I would show you Tim dealing with a boy in a state of revolt, refusing the pills that keep him alive.  Tim sat down alongside the boy, the marching rows of pill bottles before them on the table, and said,  “I will come to you and hand you your meds myself and be with you while you take them.”   It worked.  The boy is still alive, I think.  How can we do less than that for him and all the others?