Friday, November 30, 2012


The following was written by Alvina Krause, the legendary acting teacher, as an end-of-season evaluation of the productions at Eagles Mere Summer Playhouse in 1963.  I’m transcribing and accumulating these plus AK’s Master’s Thesis from 1933.  (  The name of this play was “All the Way Home”, better known as “A Death in the Family.”  It began as a novel, was a play and then a film.

Acting is creating -- acting is a creative art.  Imagination is the actor’s Creative Capacity.  Creative imagination and capacity can work only with and from realities, from tangibles, from things.  Tangibles: things, sounds, a necktie, a train whistle, a whiskey bottle, a jar of ginger snaps, a scuff on the floor, a brown coat, a blue dress, a teapot, etc. . . . ad infinitum.  These are the tangibles with which imagination works, creates; these are the tangibles which start off associations, from associations, linked associations stem the subtext of our inner lives.  These and our choices -- and you need to think a lot about this if you want to be great actors!  What is character?  The sum total of the choices we have made.  To paint a picture or go to market square; to take a drink or go for a swim, to buy a Chalmers or an ice box for Sally; to go to the movies or read “War and Peace,” to visit Great Great Gran-maw -- think how that event determined Rufus’ life, not to mention Jay’s and everyone’s!  We are the sum total of our choices -- the people you create are the sum total of their choices.  The author -- a playwright -- cannot put these on paper;  he can only give you the words which are the results of choices and associations with the environment which has posed the alternatives.  To marry a Catholic or not -- To live in Knoxville or the Canal Zone -- To stay a mail clerk or go into law -- to be an undertaker (they get rich) or to pay the mortgage or take a little trip. (Great Grandmaw’s) farm is not clear of debt -- did any of you make associations relating to that fact?)

Never again set out on the process of character creation without asking questions such as these, and without setting up the facts of environment which touch off the choices and which forever after are associated with that choice and the results of that choice.  Emotional, mental and physical patterns of expression and the words we say and the things we do are the results of this process of associations.  When I walked into rehearsals that Thursday morning the situation was alarming: you were saying words, doing things you had been directed to do, and playing at emotions which you thought belonged to these words and acts.  In short, you were headed straight for the boring performance of a Broadway flop -- and naturally you disliked the play.  (The people who dislike are following your procedure, believing the lines are the play).  The lines and the stage directions are keys to character, they provide a framework, they set up the situation -- But actually they are the skeleton which the actor, through the creative process, turns into a flesh and blood living human being with a past, present and future.  

I’ve mentioned before how the transcription of AK’s notes, plus the neurotheories of Damasio, are so useful to me in creating “The Bone Chalice” as a theory of liturgy or ritual.  Both are about the “thingness” of things, how they acquire meaning.  The exercise AK invented to get her actors activated was for them to spend an hour on the set “explaining” the objects that were either there as props or imagined to be there.  They told each other about the big chair where the father sat or a particular vase or a photo of the family, until their own minds, interacting with each other and with the things, had woven them together to some degree.  Then this imaginary onstage “family” came to life.  In the end the production was one of the most moving and successful of the season.

Gene Reeves, who was Dean of Meadville/Lombard Theological School for the later years I was there, decided to do the Vespers service traditional for Friday night.  Using the same technique, he asked us each to bring an object that had meaning for us and, during the service, to explain the object to the group.  I brought a bronze casting of my old “learning” horse’s head that Bob Scriver had made.  But I should have brought something with LESS meaning, because I burst into tears.  "Thingness" is not about emotion.

Ronald Grimes, a “ritologist”, has also experimented with asking people to explain objects to each other after giving the objects close attention, but he used simple things like a leaf or a stone.  Likewise at PNWD Leadership School we were asked to find a stone (we met at a beach) and explain it to a partner -- how the markings were, what the smoothness felt like, what color it was dry as opposed to wet -- and then give it to the partner.  We were surprised that after the exercise people quietly asked for "their" stone back.  I was given a little white quartz very smooth stone.  I think I still have it.

“Attachment” theory is that emotion forms around what we know well and intimately, whether it is a person or a object or a behavior.  What you sense becomes you.  In fact, the next step is that the IDEA of it becomes an object in the brain -- even an abstract concept becomes built-in to the molecular structure of cells.  I need to read much more about this.  But I know that it takes effort to either de-activate or transform a meaningful complex intimate idea, particularly when there are many significant and rewarding sensory cues: color, lights, aromas, sounds, and so on.  But particularly human relationships.

Many will be reflecting on these phenomena in this Christmas season.  For the lucky ones there will be the satisfaction of fulfilling expectations and perhaps exceeding them or adding new layers of meaning.  For the unlucky ones there will be broken attachments or maybe not even meaningful things to remember.  The resourceful will make new events, using the material culture around them, the thingness around them.  Like those many stories about poverty in which someone managed to, say, find enough tinfoil in a waste can to make an ornament and hang it on a shrub in the park.  Even a story can be a thing.  If you can think it, you can attach to it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"GET 'EM ALL! KILL 'EM!" by Bruce Wilshire

In the first book by Bruce Wilshire that I read, “Wild Hunger,” I left him sprawled in a hammock, zonked on ayahuasca.  Sheesh.  But I’d already ordered other books of his and now I’m reading  Get ‘em All!  Kill ‘em!”  Sub-title:  “Genocide, Terrorism, Righteous Communities.”  Reduced to its bare bones argument, Wilshire is proposing that the horror of genocide comes directly from the horror felt by a righteous community when the bottom drops out of their world, whereupon they blame some expendable population and try to eliminate them as disease, corruption, and the source of trouble.   He is specific about “horror” -- he means that specific emotion.  Makes sense to me.

Wilshire keeps me reading in part because he can turn a phrase as few others can, approaching poetry even as he is analytical.  But also I know this body of references he uses and if I had had support for them in seminary, things might have turned out very differently.  (William James they would accept:  Suzanne Langer and Mary Douglas -- well, they were women, weren’t they?)  Emerson they were forced to accept, since he is celebrated in the UU community, but they did NOT read him the way Wilshire does.  Anyway, Wilshire in this book is tempering his knife to a sharp edge so that it can cut deeply into contemporary phenomena.

He is the first person I’ve heard identify “witch hunting” in the 15th through 17th centuries as a genocide of dangerously uncontrolled old ladies.  But also he is choosing some familiar examples:  the Fascists, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the California “digger” Indians, which is a story rather different from that of the Plains Indians.  I think that he would agree with an assessment that the treatment of HIV-AIDS patients is genocidal, particularly the young male ones, particularly the gay, the poor, the dark, the sex-workers, those separated from families and living in the streets.  The reasoning goes that they must be “bad” in some sense and therefore the relevant emotion THEY should have -- which onlookers would like them to admit so the onlookers won’t have to look in the mirror -- is shame and guilt.  But Wilshire is saying that’s NOT the key.  The key is specifially horror, the HORROR of treating them this way, the HORROR of Whoredom, if not sexual then as hospital fodder for the subsidy money going to the hospitals and clinics, when the government feels interested in the project.  (Meaning whether the voting population will go for it.)

One doesn’t really get interested until the risk comes home.  Old people are also hospital fodder and a pharmaceutical bonanza.  I could so easily be defined as a witch, though it would be expressed as heretical, immoral, poor, unclean, a loser, a safe target, a challenge to local values like a nice lawn.  This is a motivating self-interest and another reason to throw in with outsider boys.  

The revulsion of the people convinced of their own worth -- because of the community to which they belong -- is compared by Wilshire to a “flood of diarrhea” that MUST be addressed by any means available, even deadly force.  But it goes beyond that.  In full-blown genocides, dead pregnant women are torn open in order to make sure the fetus is also dead, to have the certainty of actually killing it.   Get EVERYONE.  Even Ishi, the last of his tribe, was dismembered for autopsy against his wishes, although in the most scientific way.  And reciprocally, Little Dog made sure his white cavalry officer persecutor was really dead by de-boning him and throwing the bones in the river.  This stuff works both ways, which is part of the reason it goes on and on. 

It’s not that the offended community is promoting survival of the fittest by eliminating the worst sub-categories:  by the standards of the blonde healthy strong-minded Aryans he was supposed to be defending, Hitler -- little weenie with coprophilia -- should have been the first to go.  Rather, the Jews eliminated were those seen to be privileged, gifted, at the top -- but in some illegitimate way, as though they had stolen their wealth, their minds, their education from Aryans.  The irrational notion was that if the these undeserving people were eliminated, suddenly there would be Aryan millionaires, scientists, brilliant leaders.  It did not happen.  In fact, Pol Pot and the Chinese Red Revolutionaries eliminated all the people who had made their culture rich and valuable -- all the professors, the international figures, the artists.  To unjustly blame and destroy these people badly damaged the countries the leaders said they were protecting.  They can only catch up by sending their young people to study in America.

Wilshire is not bashful about claiming the 9/11 disaster is an example of a striking-out Arab world that feels their foundations slipping from under their feet, but a little less open about pointing out that this vulnerability had the same effect on Americans feeling thrown into disaster, disorder, and contamination.  Here’s a sample of his rhetoric:  “As the colossal World Trade Center towers sank down from the sky and into themselves, they spewed out their burned guts in an impossible fountain of horror.  Impossible and unthinkable, yet it was happening all right.”   It was easier to blame 9/11 on “North Atlantic secularism” provoking retribution than in the next catastrophic challenge: Hurricane Sandy.  I’m more enthusiastic about the target for blame in this flood and blackout:  corporations and profiteers.  We’re back to the equivalence of money with shit as we shovel the mud-diarrhea out of the art galleries of Chelsea and Tribeca, identify the bodies, and add up the insurance payout.

Wilshire says,  “Some deeply believe that any attempt to explain genocide is a tacit exoneration of it.  One thinks:  “To explain it is to adduce causes such that those caught up in them cannot do otherwise.  So they are not responsible.  So they cannot be blamed.  No, genocide is absolute evil, the work of weird demonic forces beyond natural understanding.”  

“But I believe this is an inverted form of dogmatism, group mystification, a version of tacit supernaturalism.  It is to claim to know we cannot know evil, and without even trying to know it.  It cannot face the actual facts of our weird emotionality, our ephemeralness and vulnerability, our limited point of view, and the devious ways of denying these painful actualities.” 

“If we begin to explain evil acts it will not be to deny that they are evil.  It will deepen our sense of that evil, how wretched, pathetic, horrible, and deplorable it is.  Evil is an ever-present possibility of the human condition, I believe.  We must try to stop it. “

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THREE WESTERNS: Blackthorn, Rank, Buck


The aesthetic of Blackthorn, a sequel to the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is more Henry Farny than Charlie Russell.  Long pale vistas with a dark strand of far away travelers. Or possibly a man on horseback coming down a mountain trail full of shale.  It’s not as “pretty” but far more striking.  Figures struggling across a salt flat, silhouettes on the horizon.  And that’s kind of the story of the whole film.  Classic, but not what we’re used to -- renewed.

Sam Shepard, who plays Cassidy has an “earned” face and an easy seat in the saddle that come from being there, doing that.  Nicolaj Coster-Waldau looks so much like the young Shepard that they must have gone out with a genome card to look for him.  Instead of the distraction of someone “being” the young version who is only vaguely reminiscent, we have the first jolt of “how did they DO that?” and then it was fine.  Every actor in this film, including all the indigenous people going about their business, are really fine.

The plot is the usual Western one: survival.  And for the last few decades the specific problem of survival in old age.  These are not the geezers of the early Westerns, kind of eccentric and laughable with funny voices.  These are the erect and dignified men they always were, just a little tired.  They make us distrust this handsome younger Spanish fellow with the mustache.  He thinks too much.

The second film I want to bring up is about young men with maybe a ten year -- if that -- career as bull riders:  “Rank.”  The title is a double-meaning.  It’s a documentary about a hyped version of something that was once real.  First, rodeo made wine from the grape juice of ranch life; then came the brandy of national competitions, professionalized and glitzy.  And finally this kind of rocket fuel made by skimming off only the bull-riding competition.  These men are all young, they enter walking among literal fireworks playing around their feet (no horses), patriotic displays (SEALS rappelling down from choppers), and brass bands.  

In crisp new pearl-snap shirts, body-armor vests, and fringy chaps with Christian symbols on them, this is a whole different thing than veteran Freckles Brown taking one last turn on ol’ unridden Tornado.  This is not Robert Mitchum in “The Lusty Men.”  This is out of the extreme sports world with guys who take as much care with their rosin-soaked glove attachment to the bull harness as a ballerina twisting her carefully broken-in pink satin toe in the rosin box:  everything depends upon that one connection to a whirling world.  Except that no one ever gave a ballerina a million dollars and a massive gold belt buckle for being the best dancer in the world.  The final irony is that the World’s Best Professional Bull Rider turns out to be from Brazil.  Repeatedly.

The third movie is also documentary:  “Buck” which is about Buck Branaman, the real “horse-whisperer” who coached Robert Redford for the movie of that name.  This one is about the two sides of the American West: men so twisted by the drive to survive and their own failure to understand anything but raw force, that they beat their own children nearly to death -- opposed to the small-town Montana coach, sheriff, and ranch couple who stepped in to rescue Buck and his brother when they were still young enough to turn in a different direction.  Their mother had died before she could find a way to take the boys and get out.  Even after the boys had gone to the foster family that raised two dozen boys from similar situations, Buck’s dad lay on his belly up in the hills, watching him through the scope on his rifle.  He declared that when they were eighteen, he would kill them.  I don’t know why he would wait.

Rescued together, the two boys turned out differently.  Not THAT differently.  They are peaceful men and both are horse-whisperers.  There are a LOT of whisperers in the West and they are often survivors.  I expect that Sam Shepard himself is more of a whisperer than a bull-rider.  On purpose.  Check out his writing.

“Buck” is also a documentary, but something happened that couldn’t have been planned.  The concept was to film Buck doing one of his innumerable horse clinics at which he addresses horses with problems and shows the owners how to figure them out and solve them.  This time a young woman brought a horse that had been oxygen-deprived at birth.  The mare died and the colt was not breathing at first but was revived.  It was never quite right.

So Buck began to work with the animal, an unaltered stallion.  It seemed spoiled and a little erratic.  Then suddenly it went into a rage and attacked the man who normally worked with it.  The tape nearly showed a man being killed.  Buck finally eased the horse into its trailer, using two long limber sticks with flags on the end -- slowly and carefully hazing him along.  Before that, held in a corral, the crazed studhorse would lunge over the man-high rails in an attempt to bite anyone who walked near.  

The young woman then confessed about the damage she had sustained, the eighteen other uncut stallions she had on her ranch, and other things Buck should have known about beforehand.  He addressed her in no uncertain terms, saying she was endangering herself and others, that she was irresponsible, that it was no kindness to the animals, reminding her again and again that it was HERSELF she was punishing.  He did not say what was perfectly obvious and what she sort of knew before showing up with her killer horse: it would have to be put down.  No human miracle could save a horse like that.  She was near being a murderer with her fantasies.

This is not a safe world.  People who work with big animals know that, both in the old days when horses were still cowboy transportation or now in the rodeo ring where the these bull riders have FOUR clowns -- who don’t even bother to be funny, because their job is saving lives.  We romanticize the danger so we can enjoy the adrenaline rush.  Admit it:  this was a MUCH more interesting documentary with a rank horse in it that Buck could not save.

Many of us hope to learn about animals (including people) who are uncontrollable and dangerous, even to their own families.  But some of us get off on it.  The more shooting, the more fist-fights, the better.  It is the survivors -- and there are lots of them in the West -- who must teach the sensationalists how to tell when the line is crossed.  Marked by scars, usually.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


One of my parishioners told me about lying in the hospital after giving birth and feeling something that at first she interpreted as the baby moving around, until she remembered that the baby was out.  Then she realized it was her displaced organs, now that the baby wasn’t taking up space, moving back where they were supposed to be.  Maybe because of this sort of thing, women are aware of their visceral feelings.  Menstruation, the sluffing of the uterus wall, and the cramping strain on the ligaments that hold the uterus in place, is clearly felt -- more by some and less by others.  Why?  Some can feel ovulation, or so they claim.  And orgasmic pulsing is far more internal in a woman that in a man.  (Do the penis and scrotum count as viscera?)

These sensations must enter the brain for processing but there is little I’ve seen so far about how things the autonomic nerve system is monitoring actually get into the brain.  Mostly it seems the signals have to be translated into something mechanical (heart beat, panting, hiccups, bubbles of gas moving through the intestines) before we are conscious of them.  One of the tasks of a person with diabetes is to recognize when their blood sugar is high or low WITHOUT the little monitor.  But these things, like hypothermia, are whole-body states, almost like moods.  They may be a general diminishment of awareness or failure of logic, but people “outside” can see the change in behavior and remark on it.   If you’re hiking in chilly rain, you’re supposed to monitor each other for incoherence or stumbling.  Of course, we know that a dog is useful because it can perceive and respond to clues, becoming in essence a canine part of the person’s autonomic system.

Counselors who constantly ask “how are you feeling?” are a pain in the butt (sorry) until you realize they are trying to teach you to mark and interpret things that normally pass by “unseen.”  That particular evidence is missing from one’s conscious thought, though not from one’s unconscious responses.  Writing or recording oneself in a state of free association are ways to realize things going on but not “felt.”  Some people can remember images from the hypnogogic state before sleeping -- but all of this begs the question of just how this information gets into the brain and what the brain does with it before sending the messages of adjustment back to the insides.  And what does it send, aside from “fight, flight, freeze” -- the big preoccupations of most pop science writing about the autonomic responses?

I considered for a while, since I was reading about acting theory, whether “primary thinking” (thinking in images) versus “secondary thinking” (thinking analytically) had something to do with autonomic reactions, but I think that’s a different kind of analysis from what I’m trying to get at.  I want to know about things like blood solutions -- cortisol levels and testosterone levels and so on.  Can one feel the molecules enter the blood flow and affect the operation of the brain?  Clearly they DO affect the brain because all those molecules are feedback loops.  Twenty years ago a zealot of a gynecologist put me on strong birth control pills and, though I was ending menopause, the cycles of my adolescent years returned with a vengeance.  I bled, I raged, I wept.  I could SEE where I was in the cycle by looking at the packet of pills.  But I didn’t feel it.  Could I have if I’d had training?

Can a bipolar person feel their inner rollercoaster -- often perfectly apparent to an onlooker?  Is there a way to modulate the waves without pills?  Are words a way to reach into the functioning of the brain?  What about art?  Powerful music?  We can feel our heart rhythm change, our breath speed up or relax.  Can we feel our livers and spleens?  

The intestines are not just drug responders -- using the same chemicals as the brain tissue -- but also powerful drug makers as well as muscle responders.  Can one voluntarily clench one’s guts?  How does unconscious relate to involuntary?  Can anything that is “raised” (why raised? because the brain is on top?) to consciousness, does it then become voluntary?  As I age, I can feel the moment when anger that is controllable turns to a state that is reckless -- I know it is reckless, out of control, and I could probably stop it (maybe) or someone else could stop it by appealing to me, except that part of the recklessness is not caring whether I do.  I’m not out of control -- I’m out of concern.

Is there a line or distinction in the brain between structures where subconscious thought happens as opposed to conscious, voluntary thought?  Does unconscious thought accumulate in some older part, like the limbic system that is associated with emotion, and then become intense enough to become conscious?  Cats are famous for their strong autonomic nervous systems and the subject of many experiments, but it’s hard to find the data because experimenters are afraid of public reaction.  (Oh, KITTY!!)  So I watch my own two fat cats.  I see them sit there with their little jelly walnut-brains revolving behind their eyes, considering options until they finally snag on an idea and do something about it.  (It usually has something to do with cat food or going in or out the cat flap.)  I also see them sitting there, all relaxed, and suddenly explode with leaping lightning reflexes if a whiff of dog comes through the screen door.  Stimulus-response with no time at all for processing, or so it seems.  All I get out of it is that I don’t know enough, but that’s generally what I get out of everything.

The main thing, rather useful actually, that I get out of these reflections is that meaning that comes up out of the subconscious is “emergent.”  That is, it cannot be logically plotted or analyzed or imposed from outside, but simply must be triggered by interacting forces that are unseen.  They must be “called out.”  What can be provided is stimuli, images, concepts that are evocative according to what is stored in the brain of the person.  In a congregation, there needs to be enough consensus shared experience to be able to predict what that evocative image might be:   mountain vista?  lovers?  A common passage of prayer or hymn?  Cradling a baby?

Monday, November 26, 2012



What I’m interested in -- and occasionally good at -- is looking at assumptions with new eyes.  This is because I want to.  What has made it an even more desirable practice is that with a search engine I can guide myself through FAR more material more quickly than I could in a library, even a big university library.  So here goes.  

I want to look at the “inner realm” of code signals sent to the brain for sorting and translating into action, even though the actions might be so small as the release of a few molecules from a small organ or the dilation of fluids in the tissues between the nose and the mouth.  Sometimes these small “actions” on the part of the brain are signals of something much bigger or something that is in process, soon to appear, like an arousal of some sort.  And they can trigger memory or outright re-experiencing.  The “trigger” input may be so small as a puff of wind or the slight twist of an ankle when walking on an uneven surface.

Sympathetic/parasympathetic --  Autonomic
This is the nerve system entirely separate from the nerve systems serving the voluntary muscles that move arms and legs.  It is a complex system that works as a give/take, compensating, complementing, constraining tension like so many systems in the body.  Reading about it and figuring out what I’m reading will take a while because I’ll have to learn a new vocabulary:  like  “mesenteric splanchnic vasodilation” which means the wrappings around the internal organs that hold them in place against the inside of the back (mesentery are the sheets of tissue and splanchnic means organs) can vary in blood engorgement according to prompts from the autonomic nerve system.  One can imagine that this is crucial to gut function, if only to keep them from getting displaced or twisted.  It’s unclear what it has to do with things like whole-body blood pressure or food digestion.

Malfunction and  infection in these materials could be deadly and painful.  The wife of my former Unitarian minister died of cancer of this mesenteric splanchnic tissue.  We hear about peritonitis, how hard it is to control and how deadly its consequences.  This is only ONE of several functions of the autonomic nervous system, almost all of which are subconscious, hard to measure, subtle when detectable in outside phenomena.

Hitchhikers within
Only recently have we learned how many small biota flourish inside of us, much of the population quite helpful.  Little creatures live in our eyelashes, our belly buttons, the nail beds of our toes.  Normally the body’s own systems accommodate or eliminate them, sometimes with genetically supported systems -- that is, adaptive mutations.  But a change in environment can bring sudden awareness of hostile bacteria, fungus, and rickettsia -- to say nothing of the wild code of viruses.  Then there are worms.

On the other hand, healthy fecal populations are so important that after the constant barrage of antibiotics modern medicine is so fond of, restoration may be in order -- even fecal transplants from someone else’s healthy guts, though most people prefer to eat a lot of yoghurt and there are pills that theoretically re-implant new immigrant populations.

It’s clear to me that emotion is the perceived consequences of autonomic responses.  I’ll have to come back to this when I learn more about the autonomic system.

Empathy allows us to experience other people’s emotions, at least as we fancy them.  We don’t approach the sonar-powered sharing of dolphins, but we do respond to people in grave danger or high on excitement or madly in love.  Just how this works is mysterious, but it is clear that actors can do it.  Even writers can paint a “word picture” that will do it.  Learning the techniques of mimesis or narrative or image means working with this phenomenon.  It is what distinguishes art as “expression” from art as “communication.”  But it should be said that genuine and intense expression can hardly keep from triggering vicarious mirroring.

Management of fluids
Though we are aware that blood and lymph move around the body both inside and outside of the “tubing” and though one way we detect what the brain is doing is by using instruments to “see” vasodilation in various parts and systems, we still don’t know a lot about how fluids go in and out of cells, mostly a matter of plasmolysis -- movement across membranes -- I assume, but don’t know.  Since my own body (esp. since I’m female) manages fluids in a rather faulty moon-ridden way (which I seem -- strangely -- to have inherited from my father), I’m very much aware of stress or fatigue making me turgid or deflated.  On long retreat workshop nights I wondered about women whose faces became more defined when the hour was late and caffeine intake went up.  Sometimes alcohol intake.  Then dehydration revealed their facial bones.  I have no idea what “we” know about all this stuff.

The anus
Are there other periods in history when people were so interested in the anus?  Is it a product of our obsession with cleanliness (high retention enemas) or is it the eternal search for ecstasy?  Is it about breaking taboos about shit or is it about penetration into someone else’s viscera?  Is “fisting” just a recent invention, a method of torture, or an historical practice?  What does it do to peristalsis if the rhythm is reversed?  What happens to the biota when foreign objects push into their midst without going through the acid bath of the stomach that normally sterilizes food?

The mouth
Lately there has been research about teeth and how their infection can affect the heart, soaking through tissues, I assume.  The brain is even closer to teeth, of course.

The ear
Sound is an object -- a reality that previously has not struck our tympani through earbuds in such quantity, such strangeness, such unspoken meaning and pattern.  What does it do to brain waves?  

The nose
I suppose I could bring up the nasal membranes as access for drugs, but what about our highly suspect atmospheres, esp. in cities or around manufacturing or mineral resource extraction?  At the same time, noses are the most exquisitely sensitive points on the body -- do nose rings create erotic twinges?  We are so ambivalent about perfumes.  For a while in the patchouli days the more aromas the better -- incense everywhere!  Now all of a sudden there are people who are so allergic that church congregations ask their members not to wear perfume to worship services.

I’m almost to my self-imposed 1,000 word limit, but this is another vast subject.  I’ll come back.

The skeleton
My friend with avascular necrosis has given me a new awareness of the ACTIVE role bones can play, more than simply structural, or factories of essential cells, or sources of sensation.  One doesn’t think about “blissful” bones, but bone pain is among the worst.  We don’t think about bones as constantly in process, recreating themselves according to the demands made on them.  We think of HIV-AIDS as a blood disease, but it has been bone marrow transplants that have supplied what appears to be a cure.

I’m a person who lives in my head -- maybe too much.  Maybe I should pay more attention to my guts.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


From a website called
The modern Paleo-machines do not recognize borders; do not concern themselves with values and morality and do not philosophize about the meaning of it all, not yet that is. As in our own Paleo past the needs of the machines do not yet contain passions for individuation, desire for emotional recognition or indeed feelings of dismay or despair, uncontrollable urges or dreams of far worlds. 
I'm not sure "machine" is the right word, but "paleo" seems right to me.  We are at the dawn of something, but I think it is that we are paleo-humans.  I know I refer to computers as "machines" but I probably shouldn't.  They are really code managers which has nothing to do with cogs and wheels, just electromagnetic flickers.  They have not achieved the “emergent” mind quality of self-consciousness or a feeling of identity, much less a sense of how they feel emotionally.

I suggest there are two realms that a human body/brain knows:  one is the realm that is outside the body and only accessed through sensory information: five senses plus some more that don’t work through obvious organs.  The other is the realm INSIDE the body -- the autonomic nerve system plus circulating hormones plus brain and heart waves.  I haven't seen anything that really considered those three forces and how the brain knows about them, but it seems to me this is where the passion, individuation, desire for emotional recognition, feelings, urges and dreams exist.  This is where structures and patterns and assumptions dwell and sing to each other.

So I think there are two moralities, one in each of these two realms: that of the world outside our bodies, the one the cultures agree on because they are rules that seem to eliminate trouble in the ecology where they form and promote group survival.  Don’t eat this, don’t act that way, don’t hurt each other.  But then the situation changes and these rules become irrelevant in the way that Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigms describes.  The paradigm just doesn't work anymore -- the terms have changed.  Then the larger cultural morality shifts -- it can't help but shift since it’s function-based and the fundies and Talabanists can rage all they want.  As was pointed out in this election, there aren't enough angry old white men to form a majority anymore.

If as Roy Rappaport says the index to morality is survival, then the culture that has the most fitting morality will survive.  (It has nothing to do with power or ruthlessness, though in a specific situation they MIGHT mean survival.)  More and more of us are seeing that responsible sexuality, nonjudgmental values, support when times are bad, protection of all children, opportunities for all people -- these things are moral values that work towards the survival of the whole.  They are not the same as the values and rules that used to work in a more tribal, boundaried world where things didn’t change very quickly.

The other morality is that inside the realm of the body.  It is the one that indigenous people, maybe Buddhists or Taoists and people who have been forced into their own depths, recognize and consider.  It is a survival kind of morality and sometimes very generous towards others, because that helps us survive in ourselves -- to have people we love and protect, even if they are outside our skins.  We are connected to them through intimacy and empathy.  They have become part of us.  Sometimes we yearn to be inside them, to have them inside us -- maybe literally.

Our modern American world still values things like getting ahead, tolerating many boring and repetitious jobs, looking glamorous, accumulating prestige and so on.  These are all things that leave us numb inside, unable to feel what our inner morality tells us we need for personal survival.

When the morality of the outside realm conflicts or threatens the morality of the inside realm, it is terrifying.  One can be a horse who bucks and then runs, or one can be a bull who bucks so it can trample and gore. (I learned this from a rodeo cowboy.)  Or one can try to find strategic accommodations: seclusion, forming communities, working for change, pulling others into empathy with us through art or story.

There ARE stories about “machines” that become human:  Pinocchio, the Velveteen Rabbit.  Mostly they hinge on accepting human values and being loved by humans.  This is what we wish to impose on outcaste and lost humans in order to redeem them.  It does not reflect what they want for themselves, which may be -- painfully -- to distance and even reject us.  They say,  “You only care about me as a way of comforting yourself!”  Are they right?  Sometimes.

The brain research people speculate that the next development in evolution will be more empathy and care for each other, so that our personal and social moralities will take these realities into consideration.  There has been recent research on empathy in rats, which seems to develop with the familiarity of being cage mates.  A clear plastic tube confines one rat while the other rat must experiment until it figures out how to hit the release catch.  The motivation is ONLY that the confined rat wants out.  But the free mate-rat persists.  When it succeeds, and the release swings open, it jumps on the newly released rat and licks it, evidently with joy.  If there is a second plastic tube containing chocolate treats, the rat ignores them until it has released the mate, then -- now being an experienced catch-opener -- it will not only get the chocolate out but offer some of it to the released mate.

This means that empathy and helping each other is PREVIOUS to human development, probably rooted in child-bearing and rearing as mammals do, functions that depend upon physical intimacy.  It’s easy to understand that it is a moral given that helps the survival of both the individual and the larger species.  But sometimes I think that we have created a society that forces us to make choices between the two, and that what may evolve is the kind of uncaring we associate with machines.  That may be the price of survival.

Some people want there to be a third realm that is above both outside and inside any human being: a kind of magic.  I don't, but I would not say there isn't any such thing.  Clearly there are a lot of things past human perception -- and morality.  We are only now realizing some of the damage we have done to the planet and begun forging a new morality to deal with it.  At its heart there is a tremor of fear that we have already surrendered our survival.  But it is hopeful that the realm outside our bodies has now reached into us, our internal realm of emotion, so that we “feel” it.  Now maybe we can dream, not of far worlds but of a new one here.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"COUSIN CLARE" by Anita Leslie

If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you’re going to love this story.  It begins with Winston Churchill and my version ends on the Blackfeet Reservation.  Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, was one of the Jerome sisters who were so American that they had Native American -- or as they put it, “Red Indian” -- blood in them.   The grand-daughter of another of the Jerome sisters was Clare Sheridan, whose natural energy was freed and driven by the early death of a beloved husband, an officer in WWI, and developed by a lifetime of devotion to art and writing.  Her niece, Anita Leslie (1914-1984), wrote a book about her:  “Cousin Clare, The Tempestuous Career of Clare Sheridan,” which was recently sent to me by Joyce Thomas, whose aunt was a close friend of Anita Leslie.  Joyce’s aunt was Norma Smith, who grew up on a homestead near Great Falls, graduated from the University of Great Falls, and became an early Blackfeet reservation teacher in the Two Medicine area.  Among other things she taught the locals how to go on picnics, driving a team and wagon to some picturesque spot.  They must have thought it a curious practice, but anything involving food was welcome.  Later she trained to be an occupational therapist and in late life was an artist.  At her death in 2011, she was 98 and living in Green Valley, CA.

In the early days of Glacier National Park many Europeans and Brits saw its potential as the “American Switzerland,” luring a steady trickle of visitors with fancy titles.  One attraction was Winold Reiss’ school of art on the east shore of St. Mary.  He and his brother came from Manhattan for the summers.  In 1937 one of the residents in the school was Clare.  If you have visited the “Big Hotel” in East Glacier and walked past the tall carved Indian figure, you have seen the work of Winold’s brother and undoubtedly the inspiration for Clare’s work in her late years: wood carvings hewn from single logs.  Her iconography was religious, Catholic.  Her life was anything but.  She had done busts of the Russian monsters Lenin and Trotsky, which did her no political good but became the foundation of a journalism career.  A bust of Charlie Chaplin touched off wild rumors. She portrayed both Gandhi and Churchill, who were enemies but both certainly friends of hers.  “Winston” had to save her more than once, but he could not save her son who died of appendicitis leading to peritonitis.  This was the motive for coming to Montana to grieve.

Clare wrote:  “How strange that through losing one child [a very young one] I discovered myself as a modeller, through losing another I found myself a carver.  It seemed to me I hadn’t been a sculptor until now, for modelling is not sculpting.  To tackle wood is a great sensation.  Wood lives, comes to life under one’s hand, one wrestles with it, humours it, coaxes it, argues with it.  The grain gives fight.”  

I’d bet money that she knew John Clarke, the Blackfeet wood carver.   Probably also Bob Scriver, Charlie Beil and Adrian Voisin, other sculptors in the area at the time.  But it was another Blackfeet whom she added to her life of intimacies with men:  Levi Burd, descendant of Jemmy Jock Burd, who a century earlier had lived a life not unlike her own, moving among nations and making narrow escapes.  [I never found a documented account of Levi’s descent.  I’m going by the name.]  In fact, Burd -- described in Paul C. Rosier’s “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954” as “the patrician half-blood who profited handsomely from Blackfeet oil leases throughout the 1940’s,” was deeply involved in state and reservation politics.  He was quite a bit older than Clare, married, had held offices from judge to tribal chair, and knew the world well.  Just Clare’s type!  She wrote a book about that summer:  “Redskin Interlude,” which I found on the used book dealer websites and will review when it comes from England.  (Estimated to arrive before December 13.)  I suspect that a magpie’s eye view of the relationship would be about lively conversation rather than physical intimacy.  In any case Anita Leslie knew all about it and named her own son “Tarka Dick” possibly after Winold Reiss’ son Tjark and certainly after Clare’s lost son, Richard.  Tactfully, she claimed Tarka merely meant “otter” and the boy was like an otter.

Clare Sheridan was one of those women liberated by the social shifts that war imposes, partly by killing a generation of the best men and partly by pressing women into new roles.  Anita Leslie drove an ambulance for France in WWII.  “Once you’ve seen Paree . . .”  But, rather oddly, this wandering woman’s greatest affection was for the Sahara desert and she loved nothing better than to consort with Bedouin chiefs.  The only truly brutish top leader Clare confronted in the course of her career was Mussolini.

The sense of entitlement these women felt, alongside an acute awareness of being “other” and therefore outside the rules, gave them common cause with Communists, Indians, rebels, and other oppressed and suffering peoples.  But also they felt themselves equal to the biggest names and risked going into dicey situations all the time, partly because of having friends and relatives (Winston) who could and would save them.  Their currency is not money -- they spend it as fast as they get it -- but skill and reputation, the same as it was for Jemmy Jock Burd among the fur traders or the early Kipps and Browns or the other middle-class mixed-bloods of the Blackfeet.

Montana life is not so different.  We are confronting another oil boom, wondering whether this time it will take out the diminishing reservation pure water supply that comes from shrinking glaciers.  Levi Burd wanted to cut off enrollment at the half-blood point, but now some are arguing for a  quarter-quantum cut off.  This time around, the Blackfeet politicians are sometimes women and they are keenly aware that reservations can help to swing national elections, as just happened.  The books that trace the genealogies and forces have only just begun to follow the trail cut by Paul C. Rosier (no relation to the DesRosier family, I think.)

On top of everything else, Clare Sheridan was beautiful.  The last words of the book about her describe the simple funeral in the presence of a sad but serene madonna she had carved as a memorial to her son.  It stood in the fourteenth-century church of Brede village where she had often lived.  Anita Leslie tells us:  “I began to grasp a reality which the passionate exuberant Clare had always sought to express -- beauty outlasts pain -- beauty does not age.”   Surely an artist’s sentiment.  There are other realities.  Beauty was not Clare Sheridan’s only value.  Or maybe there are many kinds of beauty.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Diabetes II is pretty much like any other chronic disease that can be maintained with proper meds and protocols.  In other words, it’s a drag.  At first, powered by the horror of diagnosis, you do finger-stick blood glucose tests practically on the hour and fill out big worksheets noting times of pill consumption, amount of exercise, food eaten, etc. etc.  Every time you pick up the newspaper you scan for “death due to complications of diabetes” and you find it.  Probably more than is really accurate.  I mean, pull on diabetes and you discover it’s attached to everything else in your body.  It was just the handiest way to look at the demise.

In fact, now the med people have kind of stopped calling it diabetes and started saying,  “metabolic syndrome”.  That’s not what they mean.  What they REALLY mean is that your life is going to be different now -- either shorter or entirely foreign -- but not in any way you can see with your eyes.  First the diet.  Okay.  Then you discover that your diet is connected to every social relationship you have, including neighbors you hardly know and cafe waitresses.  You aren’t going to just manage what you fix and eat in your kitchen, but also you must participate in an international and political food movement.

In the Sixties John Kyle, Browning school system dietician, used to tell us that eating white flour or white sugar was just like eating white lead:  addictive and destructive.  I’ve learned to put corn syrup, white potatoes, white rice, alcohol, and Twinkie-like substances on that list.  Over the years when I ran across really healthy looking granolas (which is what Montana folks tend to call hippies), I listen to hear what they eat and they have the same taboos.  It took a while to figure out what I can eat that I WILL eat.  I make muffins with fruit and nuts.  I mix black beans with cottage cheese.  Lots of bagged greens.   Olives and green beans for snacking.  It wasn’t too tough to convert my diet, except that I do best with a lot of meat and I mean expensive RED meat.  I’m glad they say eggs are okay again.

Back to the subject of meds.  Here’s a sharp edge on this diabetes movement: all the complex and computerized stuff that is done mostly because it CAN be done.

One pharmacist takes my prescription with no question, the next one makes me fill out a worksheet.  A few simply won’t accept Medicare.  Policies are all over the map.  My pharmacist, whom I do not want to lose, works for a Big Box Store that manages purely for profit.  They keep just enough pills on hand for the normal pill flow so they won’t have money tied up in meds on shelves, but that means that if a lot of people fill prescriptions at once, there aren’t enough pills.  I have to be “owed” and the balance of them follow by mail.  With luck.

This pharmacy is thirty miles away.  In a hard winter it is inaccessible in a little old pickup like mine.  At one time neighbors with big drift-busting pickups who were in that town on business would swing by the pharmacy and pick up everyone’s little white sacks, but now that’s illegal.  They said people stole pills, but I think it’s more like sales fell because people weren’t going into the store.  But their “good-will” pledge is that they will mail for free.  Sometimes things get confused.

Last summer I ran out of pills before I was entitled to renew, so I just didn’t take them for a week.  I tested daily and it looked to me as though the results weren’t much different from when I took them.  I showed that to my doc to ask her why I even had to take them.  She showed me how it says so on a schedule because statistically people taking them have better outcomes.  Next I get a scolding letter from the insurance company saying I’d better take my pills.  Who ratted me out?

From the beginning I have never been able to predict how much my co-pay will be.  The pharmacist can’t tell either.  I want to get a shingles-prevention shot but no one, not even the insurance claims manager for the hospital, can tell me how much my co-pay will be.  (The shots cost over a hundred dollars.)  It all depends on what the computer says at Big Brother Central Command according to ever-changing regulatory algorithms.  My income is very small.  Even $5 makes a difference.  When I’m suddenly presented with a bill for $75, it’s a shock.

But the big shortfall on my side of the ledger is not money -- it’s exercise.  I write (you’ve probably noticed) and when I’m not writing, I’m reading. I have no dog to walk.  I have no interest in exercising on the floor, which is cold.  I know, I know, exercise works.  I used to take a bedtime saunter around the park, but that was before the Citizen’s Watch went out (armed) to find bad guys.  Their eyesight isn’t so good.  And grizz bears -- which go by their noses -- have realized that not all the structures in this town are houses:  some are grain bins.  With spillage.

I got bored, bored, bored with constantly taking blood stabs on little slippery bits of plastic that cost $1 each.  Medicare will only pay for one a day.  The companies who make the readers are capable of making readers that don’t need the little bits but they make their money from selling little bits.  It’s like those cheap printers that bankrupt you buying toner.  That means I’m politically opposed to this practice.  I don’t mind blood stabs, but I just don’t remember to do them.  I have a very defiant subconscious.

Anyway, it seemed as though I was on the path to salvation.  I haven’t eaten sugar for years.  I don’t attend community feasts where affectionate farm cooks try to force you to eat high calorie food.  I don’t eat out.  I don’t drink.  I eat in moderation.  I pursue a “high glycemic” diet which means dense, slow-digesting foods.  So I got careless and reckless.  For lunch I had a peanut butter sandwich with a banana in it.  It was on a new kind of bun.  An hour after lunch, just for the heckuvit, I took my blood sugar:  325!  Normal is 100.  One wants to return below 140 in an hour after the meal. 

Luckily it was a cool but clear and bright day.  I grabbed my hat, drove to the Lake Francis campground, and walked double the length as fast as I could.  On coming back my blood sugar was 165.  Whew!  The lake is low.  There are no geese.  And my metabolism is kicked up enough to make my brain roll again.  It suggests exercise and reminds me I'm about out of pills again.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


The early nineteenth century on the northern prairies was a shifting, rhizomatous territory with only a premise as a border between what were not yet the provinces of Canada and the states of America.  Life depended on alliances sometimes created and sometimes destroyed by commerce, marriage, friendships, rivalries, occasional massacres, and ecology.  There were plenty of subsistence resources but only two animal resources of commercial value: beaver for their fur fibre and buffalo, first for meat and then for hides.  The beaver were cleaned out first in a strange mingling of commercial bookkeeping and adventuring.  Then the buffalo were taken in a more brutal and political slaughter, meant to kill the Indians as collateral damage.  Jemmy Jock Bird (born c. 1798 –  died December 1892) was shaped by the forces that swept the land -- nothing at all like subsistence nomadism on one hand or homesteading and ranching on the other.  One way or another, he lived through the century, springing up as grass in the morning and finally cut down as hay at nightfall.

Following the story as presented here requires the memory skills of an inside baseball statistician.  The original research, heavily dependent on the archived books of the Hudson’s Bay Company which have now been opened, means learning the implications of profit, debt, and indenture as recorded daily by the Orkney factors and clerks able to do figures but little more, except survive.  So record they did!  We know exactly how many beaver pelts were bought, how many men of which tribes brought them in, how many of what kind were killed in battles, how many horses stolen and that the little brown cart horse (broken to harness so “value added”) was worth getting back.  

Here’s a description of Jemmy Jock written by Andrew D. Pamburn whose family name had become Pambrun by the time I taught John Pambrun and was befriended by his mother Audra, an award-winning nurse.  “On those plains roamed, the most notorious treacherous, cruel and therefore the most dreaded man.  His name was James Bird alias Jimmie Joke, was educated in England, and a large finely built man, very fair for a half breed and his beautiful raven hair, hung down in ringlets from his shoulders.  He was undoubtedly the finest specimen of a man I ever saw.”  It was hard to figure out just which side he was on at any given time, which is part of the treachery accusation.  Most of his working life had to do with trading -- enticing trappers to forts for commerce -- and interpreting since he understood several languages as well as the webwork of political crosscurrents.

The surges of power and sentiment began with the tribes:  Blackfeet (which were divided into sub-tribes), Cree (same story), plus a lot of smaller or larger groups -- Sioux, Crow, and others -- plus splinters and spin-offs of renegades and left overs.  Though his father was half-English and his mother was Cree, Jemmy Jock was voluntarily identified with Blackfeet, particularly the smaller band Jackson calls “Inuksick”, better known as Small Robes or even Scabby Robes.  This band, sticking close to the Rockies, was more open to “different” people, which may be why they were vulnerable to the small pox that ended the band.  The few remnants joined other bands and Darrell Kipp preserves the memory of the group in his middle name, “Robes.

Over the top of all this came the Hudson’s Bay Company, fur-trading capital venturists in England.  Few of them had any sense of what the land was like, universally they obsessed over profit, and naturally they were riddled with their own brand of Euro-politics.  But that giant steam-powered engine was opposed on the US side by the Northwest Company, the Pacific Fur Company, and a lot of smaller shifting splinters and entrepreneurs from back east.  Not only stealing trade from each other, the loose coalitions captured the allegiance of employees back and forth.  The HBCo also brought in outside demographic groups:  Mohawk trappers from the east where the beaver was already trapped out (it took a while for the local indigenous tribes to kill them all), and Irish toughs in numbers enough that one of the worries about the Red River Rebellion was that the Metis might make common cause with the Fenians.

The next set of conflict-makers was religious: primarily Catholic Jesuits and Protestant Methodists who both filled everyone’s heads with totally irrelevant but inflammatory concepts like Hell.  In this context, Jemmy Jock seemed not averse to Catholics because of early experience with the Church of England, and his wife Sally was much interested, even to the point of wanting baptism, but since Jemmy Jock would not turn out his second wife (for who would support her and her children then?) the priest was faced with knotty problems over which Bird children could be baptized.  And one suspects the motives of Sally.  Eventually, after the children had grown, Sally got her wish.

It was hard to sort out the spontaneous murders from the raiding parties or from the vengeance killings.  Somehow, with strength and guile, Jemmy Jock managed to survive.  The community of aficionados of frontier derring-do must cherish this book.  John C. Jackson has been researching this world so long and so deeply that he inhabits it to the point of sometimes leaving the rest of us behind.  Crucially valuable as this book is, since it ties together so much documented research and presents it coherently, there are little skips and jokes that can cause the reader to reread several times before getting a grip on the real meaning.  After absorbing so many 19th century letters, Jackson can’t help slipping into their rhetoric but in the long run the turns of phrase become part of the meaning of the book.  In short, he takes sides about as much as Jemmy Jock did, but it’s subtle and Jackson doesn’t shift around, tacking into the wind, as much as Jemmy did, maybe because that was Metis temperament or maybe because it meant survival.  Most of the time he managed to accrue a pretty good pile of money on the HBCo books.  But no one can control the world at large and the continental conditions kept changing.  At some point the scales tip.

When he died 1898, his life had spanned the 19th century.  He’s buried at Holy Family Mission, not far from here.  His relatives remain, some of them in the St. Mary’s Valley, where his name is kept alive.  Not long ago I had an email contact from a young Canadian in BC. saying he was a descendant of a Blackfeet.  I’m not even Indian, much less Blackfeet, but from my library I was able to dope out enough to realize -- since confirmed by others -- that he was Metis, a mix of Cree, Blackfeet and white of various sorts: in short, a descendant of Jemmy Jock.  He sent me a photo of he and his dad: big splendid broad-shouldered men, much like Jemmy Jock must have been.  

John C. Jackson is still writing and lives in Olympia, Wa.  He blogs at

I have a little spin-off thought here.  If this much good can come from opening up the Hudson’s Bay Company archives, what wonders could be revealed by the opening of the archives of the Catholic Church or even the Jesuit Order?  Much of it will be in Italian or French, but no doubt the Pope would want to pick up the cost of translation as reparation for the abuses of children in mission schools.  It would mean more and be more lasting than money.  He could send copies of relevant reports to every tribal headquarters and community college.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


After the intriguing and seductive chapter on smoking, the “Wild Hunger” book begins to unravel into binaries typical of the Nineties:  male/female, art/science, and so on.  Wilshire admits a hunger for achievement so strong that it caused him to neglect his family.  Perhaps he reveals himself more than he intends when he describes climbing a mountain in grueling detail, full of domination and summiting, and finds up there a guy with an easel and oils painting the view.  He says,  “Why try to reduce it to a square foot of canvas daubed with pigments, lumps of colored mud smeared into shapes?  It was redundant, or worse than that, an insult somehow.  As the painter worked, my fascination alternated with contempt.”  Wilshire is a philosopher, a head-tripper.  In this book he ends up with Michael Harner, shaman-teacher, in Ecuador, spacing out on ayahuaska,  like any New Age seeker, full of the false conviction that “primal peoples” are happy, never suffering.  Is this not an addiction?

He should have stuck with Emerson, who says:  “A painter told me that nobody could draw a tree without in some sort becoming a tree; or draw a child by studying the outlines of its form merely, -- but by watching for a time his motions and plays, the painter enters into his nature and can then draw him at will in every attitude.”  Same goes for photography or sculpture.  He used it for a chapter epigraph but then ignored it.  

He NEVER comes to the conclusion that on some level there is NO contradiction between art and technology, it’s just that there’s no WORD for the blend, even among those who combine them in their life’s work, like Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest.”  (  The strandbeest is a machine/animal that walks the beach with wind power.  It is literally marginal, technology and art interwoven.

Likewise with Wilshire’s male/female split.  He asserts a zygote must be either XX or XY, so I guess he just didn’t know that they can also be XXY, XYY, or XXX but never YY because the X is the part that has the primal plans for the cell.  I guess he didn’t know that pieces of chromosomes can break off and attach where they shouldn’t be or just stay missing.   He didn’t know people can be both gendersatonce, or awkwardly one psychologically and the other physically.  According to his bibliography, he’s read the books about these molecular marvels and about how the brain works and that the “brain” is really the whole body, so maybe he just hasn’t integrated it all yet.  Because his kernel for addiction theory is his own addiction to smoking, it doesn’t expand except to object to these splits that he imagines.  His most powerful thinking dissipates like smoke in a breeze.

So I’ll go to a new source -- actually, a guy whose blog I’ve been reading for years:  Ricky Raw at  He’s a dude who’s into vernacular and practical reality, no limits, and he is generally addressing young men, 1552 of them subscribed.  They don’t hesitate to ask questions.  They appear to be mostly urban and race inclusive.  Mostly het.

So what does make someone an addict as opposed to, say, an avid enthusiast? There are three main components that warp an interest into an addiction.
  1. Compulsion. This means that the person’s use or indulgence in the object has a compulsive nature. It’s an urge that feels irresistible, often irrational and contrary to one’s conscious will, defies reason, and displays an extreme disregard for risk and consequences. For example I may like food and occasionally overeat, but if I am regularly binging to the point where I am almost vomiting or can’t move for hours afterward and have developed diabetes, that’s compulsive behavior. Another example: many men may like sex, but if a specific opportunity to engage in a quickie is so risky that it may destroy his family and career, he may pass up that opportunity. This ability to properly assess risk and responsibly decide to resist the impulse is a sign that his love of sex isn’t compulsive.
  2. Tolerance. This is when you have used and abused an object so much that you now need much stronger and more frequent doses of the object in order to feel relief. Instead of just needing the desired object to feel grandiose and high, you start needing the object just to feel normal. It becomes less about chasing a larger than life feeling and more about keeping emotional sensations of worthlessness at bay in order to just get through the day.
  3. Withdrawal. This is when you feel extreme emotional distress and intense cravings whenever deprived of the object. The longer one fails to procure the desired object, the more the feelings of worthlessness creep in and the more desperate one gets in what they’ll do to get their fix. To return to the sex addiction example, the reason most men aren’t sex addicts is because even though most men really like sex, they don’t feel despondent and wracked with self-loathing if they go out partying one night without getting laid.

The Internet means that a person can consult others of every kind, but it is still difficult to get down to the primal layers of human life.  Wilshire may climb mountains and go to Ecuador, but he might do better to go to the Senior Citizens Center or the Sallie Ann and just listen to stories from those who have been there -- or rather been here -- and suffered for it.  I saw very little in this book about compassion or how to reach out to others on the level that Ricky T. does.

And yet I appreciate the places Wilshire DID manage to break through the terrible ice that maintains separations.  It just wasn’t the book I expected from the cover.

Once I visited a zoo in Seattle that specialized in sea mammals.  There were two beluga whales, those smallish white whales with bulging foreheads that some say can sing human songs.  They were in separate pools with a closed gate between.  As soon as I appeared, one beluga rushed over to me and made it clear that he wanted me to do something -- the way a dog tries to get you to do something.  He expressed a lot of noisy distress.  I was concerned and went to the keeper.  “Oh, don’t worry,” said the keeper.  “The female is in season and he wants to get to her but we’re keeping the gate closed.  Just ignore him.”   I swear that when I walked away the whale looked bleak.  I wanted to come back at night and open the gate.  Why stop there?  Dismantle the zoo.  I used to love them.
Was this an addiction?  It was certainly and eloquently body/mind as the lover dashed back and forth between the gate and me.  But the deeper addiction here, the real cause of the distress, was the unnatural management of something natural, OUR addiction to capturing, confining and observing, leaving a yearning mammal desperate with desire.  How much of human addiction is also the result of unnatural barriers to happiness?  Empathy is the key to the gates of perception that allow the imposed boundaries of the culture to be breached.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


This post is about smoking, but first we need to talk about snakes.  Not the little syringe-fanged vipers in the grass, but the big boa constrictors that drape over tree limbs.  In my animal control days I handled maybe a dozen of them and they always surprised me, because they don’t feel at all like a garden hose in chain mail -- rather more like a sequined stocking with the leg still in it.  One can feel their ribs and organs inside, moving, pulsing, breathing.

Wilshire uses “serpentine” to describe the winding, implacable force of addiction, but also as a kind of synonym for “visceral,” the limbless body that contains the organs: the heart, guts, and lungs.  He describes addiction as “the failure to stand trustingly open to circular power returning periodically and regeneratively into itself through ourselves -- body both suffused by the environment yet able normally to contrast itself to it.”  And then he defines ritual thus: “the deliberate intensification and clarification of ourselves.”  I watch the vids of Tim’s boys doing that French thing of emitting smoke through their mouths and then taking it back in through their noses.  Intense, clear, and deliberate.  To them.

Once I was in the laundromat with a Blackfeet woman who stopped folding her clothes to light a cigarette.  “My husband hates me to smoke,” she confided.  “He thinks I’ll die of cancer.”  She was near weeping, feeling  patronized and controlled, like a child.  Almost owned.

I asked, “Is he enrolled?”

“No, he’s white.”

“Then he doesn’t understand that Indians have a special relationship with tobacco.  They’ve used it in rituals for thousands of years and tobacco protects them.”

She smiled.  I was fantasizing, of course, but I thought it would give her a feeling of being special instead of wicked.   It seemed to me the real danger was not the nicotine but the husband.  Wilshire says, “Body-self’s course is ecstatic, serpentine, vulnerable, and so can be thrown off-balance.”  I wasn’t lying about the ritual part.  The Blackfeet way was not “three cups of tea” but rather three bowls of tobacco -- not so much to declare peace as to mark a space in which to settle and feel safe.

Wilshire again:  “We buy or roll the cigarette, place it in our mouth, destroy its substance as it is transmuted by fire and the smoke is inhaled.  The smoke emerges again with the reality and mysterious message -- even with a hint of the volume -- of one’s private bodily self as it crosses into public reality.  The self creates and recreates itself in the world’s interfusion and excitement.”

When my mother had retired from teaching, she went back to smoking, but it was a very private not-quite-secret ritual for her, though my brother -- who lived with her -- chain-smoked in front of the TV, the serpentine curl of smoke rising from the ashtray beside his perpetual coffee cup.  He built a little deck for her in the backyard and rigged a tarp so that it both kept off the rain and hid her from the neighbors.  The ‘hood had gone bad by that time.  They found brass shells in the street every morning and had to watch for used syringes in the compost.  When she came to visit me, she made sure to smoke outdoors and to shred the evidence, which didn’t work entirely because of the filters.  I hadn’t criticized her, though I don’t smoke -- never have.  My addiction is books.

Wilshire says, “Smoking involves destruction, and this figures in who we are.  Typically the supreme divinity is conceived to be the supreme Destroyer as well as creator.  In smoking the fire is birthed and dies then birthed-again, a faint echo of the most ancient of all cultural-biological-religious themes -- birth, death, rebirth.

“In the immensity of space and time and the all too frequent spiritual distance that divides us from other body-selves, there is nevertheless this little light and fire to call our own in the midst of this immensity.”  

Wilshire was a smoker, but he’s not personal on this subject except to describe a moment in a restaurant when he looked over his shoulder and glimpsed a young woman exhaling a cloud of smoke that caught the light and wreathed her face.  His grandiose impression was that she appeared as a “goddess of epiphany.”  Everyone used to love cigarettes in movies -- the slipping of the pale cylinder between moist lips, the narrowing of eyes and flaring of nostrils, the handing off of the little fire, once lit. One cold rainy day I walked on a city street behind a man smoking a cigar and it smelled so good that if he had turned and offered me to buy me coffee, I would have accepted. 

Wilshire likes that writhing smoke:  “. . .the serpentine curl of smoke exhaled from the inner cavities of one’s body negotiates the boundary between the private inner cavities of body-self and the public world.”  If two smoke together, the gauzy patterns mingle.  Evidence of the private viscera is made public.  But he cautions:  “Fragmented and shallowly rooted, riteless, contemporary secular and scientific culture presents itself naked, almost totally out of sync with the regenerative rhythms of Nature.”  “Sadly, tobacco smoking in urban cultures is not explicitly ritualized and easily degenerates into mindless mechanical addiction.”

In a way, the fact that smoking marijuana is illegal for the most part means that it is often covert and shared at the very verge of ritual.  Wilshire calls smoking “kundalini” which literally means coiled, an unconscious, instinctive sexual force that lies coiled at the base of the spine. It is envisioned either as a goddess or else as a sleeping serpent, hence renderings as “serpent power”.  I won’t mention Freud.

Smoking as unconscious habit is countered by smoking as conscious ritual. 

I was once introduced to a boa constrictor named “Fat Albert.”  He was reacting to something threatening -- possibly me, since I was wearing my AC uniform and smelled of dogs.   Albert had woven himself back and forth through the spindles of the bannister on the stairs.  The only way to get him out would have been either to saw through the spindles or dismember the snake.  But if he had begun to feel safe, he would simply have moved on.  I left so he could.